Wednesday, January 28, 2009

En Guatemala

A few years ago, probably about three, I was on a flight from a ship to wherever home was at that time. In the seat back pocket was an American Airlines in flight magazine which had an article on the Spanish language courses offered in Guatemala and what a red hot deal they were. The next day I went to the Barnes and Noble and bought my latest Lonely Planet for Central America and now three years later I have reason to put the guide book and my limited handle on Spanish to use. If you´re interested in reading on about the trip see the postings on the above link, a co-blog I´ll be keeping along with my traveling compatriot, the most talented and wonderful Banjo Lass.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


The burnout factor was evident as I paid off the ship in Charleston. I was glad to have a flight but a little bummed that I'd be up a full 24 hours before I was able to get home and sleep off the last seventy five days at sea. This meant that I'd spend most of the ensuing weekend in a half awake state trying to figure out when I was supposed to be asleep and when I should be awake often jumping out of bed between two and three in the morning convinced that I was late for watch.

When I checked in for a US Airways flight I was disappointed to hear that all flights in the North East had been delayed at least two hours obliterating any chance at making my connection in Newark. A few minutes later I heard that a US Air flight had ditched in the Hudson River revealing what the hold up was and convincing me to give it a go the following day after a restful night in a hotel. It also meant that I could re acclimatize to existence on shore before interacting with my loved ones at home.

The first few days off the ship can be tenuous as you slowly strip off the layers of sardonic terseness replacing quick orders expecting quicker results with pleasantries and patience. This transition can be hard on those around you, especially companions who spend more time with you in a single weekend than anyone has spent near you in the last three months.

It's often hard to remember that not everything on shore has to be attended to with the expediency and diligence that matters at sea require. Shopping trips and errands don't require passage plans and job hazard analysis. Lines in stores and traffic jams cause great increases in blood pressure as I remind myself that a two minute commute at work is not the norm and that most people deal with these inconveniences everyday. Even walking to the laundromat seems like a monumental waste of time when I'm used to having industrial sized machines right down the hall 24 hours a day.

About a week or two into vacation I'm sufficiently relaxed that I can blend in with the locals and not get tweaked out by shortfalls in customer service. This vacation though I've foregone the usual week of lethargy that follows a hitch with a whirlwind tour of visiting friends and packing for a month long endeavor to Mayan country, specifically Guatemala.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The icing on top

The electric loom of Halifax at night was the first sign of civilization since leaving Bull Rock, Ireland. For the last five days there has been a constant blow out of the west. We have logged a force 9 or better each day and only this afternoon have the white horses subsided and an on time arrival at Ambrose pilot station seemed likely.

Most of the crew has had trouble sleeping with the incessant pounding we've experienced during this blow. I was only bothered on the first night when we took a gravity defying plunge into the trough of two enormous waves. I was woken when my head hit the pillow after being lifted bodily off my rack. Besides that I've had great sleep, retarding clocks always helps.

I had a microscopic moment of pure terror around three this morning. Having cleared Sable Island to the southeast I was coming back to the track line after a night hauled off course for a better ride. I was busily taking care of paperwork, all watch related of course, when the lookout spotted a flashing red light ahead. Nonchalantly I queried if it looked to be close or far away, a radio tower ashore perhaps? As I allowed my eyes to adjust from the dim lights of the chart table I checked the radars for any returns within twelve miles and didn't see anything readily apparent. When I looked up from the glowing screens a large red light was bearing down on the starboard bow. I quickly realized it was most definitely an aid to navigation bobbing up and down in the 5-meter swell, flashing red every four seconds to be precise.

For a split second I contemplated the possibility that the Global Positioning System had finally shit the bed and we were not fifty miles off the rock shores of Nova Scotia but five miles and about to discover the shoal that buoy was marking. Was it really possible that we had strayed that far off the planned route over the last few watches without anyone noticing?

It couldn't be, I reminded myself a moment later looking at the radar and seeing no land within 24 miles even after cranking up the gain. Maybe I had missed a chart correction placing a newly discovered hazard to navigation dead ahead? A quick check of the depth sounder showed a reassuring 140 meters of water under the keel. After putting down a fix I was confident that nothing had appeared in the open water that would pose a threat to us.

Reassuring myself that I wasn't completely lost and still had a grasp on situational awareness I turned on the halogen light to see if I could read a number or name off the buoy. Seeing the blur of a reflector I made the assumption that the buoy had broke it's mooring during the last storm causing it to drift away from the shoal it guarded towards Sable Island. Yes, this was a much better situation I thought changing course to rejoin the track line and avoid running it down.

One last unsettling thought crossed my mind. What if the buoy's light had been damaged and unlit? We would have potentially bought the buoy and perhaps a new propeller along with it. This prompted me to get on the SAT C and send a report to nearby Halifax Coast Guard alerting them of what we had discovered. Half an hour later I was reassured that my message had been received when we heard a safety to shipping broadcast on the VHF locating the buoy where we had left it and warning vessels to stay clear.

Having Thanksgiving, Christmas and the New Years timed so close together is a sure fire way to miss out on all three holidays at home which has been the case for me. Additionally, I have an early January birthday so today marks the fourth annual excuse for overeating and a party spent at sea this year. I can't complain about Thanksgiving though. At least then we had a steward onboard who did a bang up job putting out great food including an entire table filled with pastries, pies and a triple layer chocolate cake.

After crew changes last time in the states everything went down hill. I have to give credit to AB Mac for calling this one out. As soon as our current steward/baker joined the ship he was quick to get on her case and let me know the full depth of his displeasure each morning on watch.

I chastised Mac thinking it unfair to judge someone's food so quickly but experience counts. It wasn't two or three days into the trip when Mac looked up from his hardly cooked hash at the only other AB with as much time on the rolling main as himself. "Jimmy" Mac said, "Even the seagulls are going to starve on this one." Jimmy, an old sailor from Roatan who eats his own avocados for breakfast every day knew he was right.

When any single member of small merchant ship's crew fails to do their assigned job it's potentially felt by everyone else around them, whether it be a QMED taking reefer box temperatures or a third mate checking the EPIRBs. The steward's job affects everyone onboard three times a day and having one who is indifferent to the quality of her work stretches the crew's patience and kills morale.

Our new steward, a recent addition to the commercial, or working fleet, has spent the last eight years either anchored in Diego Garcia or comfortably tied up to a pier in Richmond where the crew always went ashore for meals. She has displeased the crew with more than just her runny eggs and hockey puck cheeseburgers. Caustically stating the she "Isn't paid enough to do icing" after putting out bunt cake with chocolate sprinkles on top was a real crowd pleaser. Her dislike of confectionary glaze hasn't had that much of an impact though as she has only twice in forty-five days baked anything, relying solely on Oreo's and Betty Crocker's pre made pies for dessert.

Her limited repertoire as a culinary professional isn't all to blame for earning the crews displeasure. Hoarding the chocolates from the cadet's mom given to her to put out at meals was another signature move as well as spending as much time in the smoking lounge during the work day as possible.

Today the Chief Mate, a renowned sweets hog, dropped a hint that maybe some birthday baking was in order as a few of us have birthdays this month but to no effect. I appreciated the gesture but was fully aware that he was the main culprit in devouring the two tins of "Chocolate Biscuits" I had bought in England for the bridge due to severe holiday cookie withdrawal.

Luckily for my birthday it's not all bad. Always having the fortune of working with a core of great shipmates, Mike the St. Lucian cook stepped up to the plate. Walking past the galley after lunch I could smell the forgotten scent of Sarah Lee in the oven. Mike, who I've spent several birthdays at sea with (His is the day before mine), was quick to let me know that on top of his other duties it was my own birthday cake he was baking and that he'd save me a piece before the crew finished it off. This one I'm sure will have icing on it.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Six Strand

The first day of 2009 was gray and quiet. Most of the crew stayed up until midnight to watch the Third Assistant's fire works display as the ball dropped in our particular time zone. Thanks to some oversized bottle rockets from the U.K. and a three-barreled launcher which took a few hours of overtime in the machine shop to make, they all had an excuse to lie in.

Unlike most ships out there plying the oceans this New Years we are void of liquor and beer and therefore any chemically forged camaraderie beyond coffee time and smoke breaks is absent. Once upon a time, when under a Swedish flag, the non watch standing crew would spend every Sunday in the ship's bar, now just an elaborate smoking lounge, shooting darts and getting snockered. This is a strictly verboten now as is the case on most, not all mind you, but most American flagged ships in what is proven to be the most litigious merchant marine in the world.

Despite the prohibition of spirits some of us were still determined to have a good time on New Years. Hence the fireworks, ample amount of Havana's finest cigars and frequent usage of the sauna to sweat off the pounds of turkey and king crab legs consumed later in the afternoon. The deck cadet also liberated the last of the chocolates his mother had given to the ship as a Christmas present. They had been stashed away by the steward in some secret cabinet for rationing at her own discretion. Something we all found tantamount to barratry.

Putting back out to sea was a great relief to everyone. We probably set a record for the most port time a Pure Car Truck Carrier can get in Northern Europe and a few crew members set their own records on using up every bit of non working 'rest' hours enjoying the shore life. The old adage that port rots ships and men is absolutely true. A lot of seafaring peoples just can't stay out of the bar when the opportunity is there and after three nights out no one turns to for overtime making it hard to get the work done that lay berths are perfect for.

The cargo volumes we saw were way down making the loading and discharge operations a boring affair. Without the normal pressure from ship's lining up for a berth the stevedores took their sweet time getting the cars and heavy equipment on and off. Even in England where the port had just laid off 45 of the 120 full time longshoremen they still took a laboriously long time to move what few pieces we had for discharge and then load back the even fewer pieces for the states.

The weather which started out fine on new years day has now deteriorated to a full on gale as we pass north of the Flemish Cap towards St. Johns Newfoundland. The pounding from the head swell became so frequent and intense we had to put the ship on a "Tack" keeping the southwesterly swell broad on the port bow and reduce the engine revolutions. On car carriers the large amount of wind area on the sides of the ship actually allows for a bit of motor sailing in rough weather. The wind stabilizes and dampens the rolls once ballasted into it and reducing the speed lengthens the period between slams into oncoming waves.

I've fallen ill with early onset channel fever this week as the end of my hitch is now visible on the calendar. It's been two months at sea and I'm realizing that my tolerance for isolation, monotony and limited social interaction is diminishing with each trip I make (Working eight hours in the dark isn't helping). That overwhelming feeling of impatience and longing for life ashore is a downward spiral I have to snap myself out of. This is best accomplished by finding something on overtime that actually engages my mind, i.e. not paperwork.

Today that came in the form of tagging along with a couple of the crew and putting a new eye in one of the ragged forward mooring hawsers. Something I've noticed about working on a newer ship, after spending the last three years on a rust bucket, is that there isn't the constant necessity of critical repair jobs that I had grown so accustomed to. This lack of dirty hands on work has been a cause for much of my boredom in recent weeks, the paper burden of ISO/ISM being a poor substitute. These rare occasions when I get to accomplish something salty and seafarer like are now memorable occasions.

Breathing in the damp air of the foc'sle, fid in hand, working six strand hard line into a splice is a job I could spend all day at. It only took a few minutes to get the ABs started on a proper tuck but being surrounded by the swaying coils of manila and piles of spare hawsers listening to the anchors rattle in their hawesepipes each time the deck dropped out from under our feet was great. The crew enjoyed the work too; the alternative being a needle gun and crate in the bow thruster space. There won't be any more work on deck until this gale blows itself out.