Saturday, March 28, 2009

NCL Undocking

This is the Norwegian Majesty maneuvering away from her berth today at
the port of Charleston. Winds are blowing over 30 kts. She has 2
bowthrusters up front and two propellers with a rudder each astern.

Leaving is the hardest part

I always find that the last night at home is the hardest part of going
to work at sea. You try and put on a brave face to show your
significant other that it isn't all bad, that your happy to be going
back to the ship or the tug or the rig because you've "Got to pay the
bills" but it's never very convincing. Sometimes you'll go out to
dinner to avoid the kitchen you'll be missed from for the next two,
three or four months. Other times you stay at home to avoid the public
and the chance that you'll have to explain to yet another acquaintance
once again the painful reality of your livelihood and why you'll be
disappearing from town for the next couple of months.

One way or another that lasts night sleep is never sufficient rest for
the crack of dawn when your flight is usually scheduled for. You
reluctantly hit the rain locker, wake your partner up and quickly
depart into the cold morning hoping you didn't forget some crucial
piece of paper.

Once at the airport you usually prefer to cast off from the curb
rather than prolonging the process of saying goodbye for longer than
most couples ever part from the awkwardness of the terminal. After
that last hug it quickly turns from another morning of self doubt and
questioning about why it is again you must go so far away for so damn
long to make a living to game time which always begins with a warm up
with the TSA and the always dissapointing domestic airlines.

Well that's how it is with me atleast. My most recent hitch began just
like this and I've been noticing how fortunate I am to one; be able to
adjust back to life in the industry so quickly and two; date someone
who can get on with her life as soon as I'm out the door. Not that
being independent spirits makes it any easier but atleast we can exist
in our own worlds, mine at sea and hers in town, with a semblance of
self satisfaction that can persevere the time apart.

That satisfaction I find at work is a big part of the job and one of
the few aspects that make the pros outweigh the cons of being a
mariner. Without that I doubt that I could exist for very long away
from all the little luxuries of life which sailors have always been
denied.

So the next two months of my life have started and I won't even think
about how many days I have left until it's down to a week. I've set a
few goals for myself onboard as I usually do to give me something
beyond overtime to focus on during our passages. I'm glad to be back
on a familiar ship where I know the systems, the procedures, and most
importantly the crew. AB Mac is still here after a brief sojurn to get
his TWIC so well have plenty of midwatches to peruse my Schooner Fare
albums while spitting and telling lies. Now to the holds where there
are lashings to be checked.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Lay Up

Here is an article I found on the "Cold" laying up of Roll On / Roll Off vessels operated by Wallenius Wilhelmsen Lines. It mentions a fleet reduction of 15-20% of their fleet. This is a pretty significant number of ships for a shipping line with a fleet of 60 ships (Plus many more under subsidiaries) and servicing such a niche market. Of course that's no big surprise when the company has contracts with Mercedes and BMW among others who as we know, aren't building much these days in the way of new cars.

WWL to lay-up vessels during economic downturn

To view a down loadable list of their fleet as well as pictures of PCTC & RORO vessels click here:

http://www.2wglobal.com

Monday, March 16, 2009

"It's time Americans went back to sea."

The American Merchant Marine has one hell of an ally on the West Coast. His name is Stas Magaronis and he is the president of Santa Maria Shipping, a subsidiary of Santa Maria Shipowning & Trading. Santa Maria has been a family owned business for generations and together with his cousin he has been trying to build a ship in the United States since 1998.

I heard Mr. Magaronis speak on one of my favorite maritime pod casts, Messing About In Ships this morning to discuss the need for revitalizing the United State's Marine Highway System.
Santa Maria Shipping has introduced a Marine Highway Bill to the House Transportation Committee to reauthorize money for the title 11 loan guarantee program. This bill, if passed, would provide $350 million dollars to back American shipyards in constructing a fleet of up to 66 purpose built Short Seas Shipping vessels.

According to Mr. Magaronis a fleet of this many low sulfur burning container ships would remove 20,000 trucks from the nations overcrowded coastal highway corridors while burning only 2/3 of the fuel necessary for each truck load of cargo. The construction and cargo handling operations for these vessels would create 20,000 jobs while the operation of the fleet would create jobs for 2,000 American Merchant Mariners.

He compared the importance of this initiative to rebuild America's coastal transportation to the need for building Liberty Ships during World War Two. The over reliance on foreign heavy industry has not only withered the United State's shipyard building capacities but discouraged banks from lending the capital necessary to begin a viable short seas shipping program here at home because of the long held risk associated with domestic maritime ventures.

Mr. Margonis addressed the difference between tug and barge transportation and the more efficient short seas ship used by all large maritime nations, especially in Europe and Asia. A ship specifically designed for mostly 53' containers would operate more efficiently and swiftly lending it's advantages to transporting containerized time sensitive cargoes. The tug and barge on the other hand is better suited for use on the vast inland waterways of the U.S. Designing these small ships specifically for 53 foot containers is important for encouraging large trucking companies to use the short seas routes to move freight quickly and at a lower cost while reducing CO2 emissions.

Most importantly this bill would create a heavy industry that has, with a few exceptions, been absent from the United States. Additionally for every manufacturing job created the multiplier effect creates four more jobs whereas a service industry job creates less than one. At a time when the world economy is in such a bad place the United States needs to take every step it can to create good paying, skilled labor jobs and to reduce our debt to foreign nations bringing heavy industries back to our shores. And of course most importantly to me, as Mr. Magaronis said "It's time Americans went back to sea" and this bill would definitely do just that.

The time has never been better to secure some of that stimulus money for building a true Short Seas Shipping system for the United States. The Obama administration has been friendly to the idea and we need it now more than ever before. Check out the Green Highway Initiative and sign the petition if you feel strongly about this. You can always write your representative in government as well.


From Deepwater Slideshow

While this photograph I took in Germany is not of a container vessel it is a picture of another vessel typical of Short Seas Shipping. The Roll On / Roll Off vessel handles cargoes like automobiles and other commodities better driven or pulled onto a ship than into a container, loaded onto a car trailer or onto a flat bed and trucked down I-95. Another piece in the Short Seas puzzle. Check out Coastal Connect for more information on this particular mode of transportation.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Snowmelt

It is beginning to look like spring, feel like spring and sound like spring. I naturally find this hard to believe since I've missed most of this white New England winter working during the months of November, December and half of January and then traveling for all of February. This sits fine with me but I do feel a little shorted on snowstorms (Which satisfy me greatly), though I never announce this publicly in the presence of bitter full time winter residents who want another foot of snow as badly as they want an icy spin out on I-95.

Being gone for most of the dark days of midwinter I've missed a lot of action here at home. The elections (For which I voted in absentee as usual), the inauguration, friends having babies, other friends coming and going, the economic meltdown, the normal stuff of life. Having a few weeks at the end of my vacation and adventures abroad provides just enough time to catch up on piles of mail, fixing whats broke around the house and meeting with the few friends that I have the time and energy to maintain relationships with.

I've also had some time to meander all the newest modes of Internet communication, some of which I would be better off ignoring. I love the ease of accessing information on the many things that interest me in modern life but the sheer volume of it all is somewhat overwhelming. The new spat of media publicity for Twitter encouraged me to sign up for the service but I have yet to understand how one rationally uses it to any benefit without becoming a cell phone addict, something my girlfriend frequently pins me for. Blogging has been enough of a rewarding challenge that tweeting about what I'm doing every single day seems utterly fruitless.

The lack of media stimulus we endure at sea is akin to the lack of major U.S. media observed while we were traveling in Central America. Sure there are television stations and Internet cafes galore when abroad but we were so busy that we rarely had the time to read all the day's news and there definitely wasn't any National Public Radio on the dial. Instead of feeling the usual twinge of being left out of the world when making a three week ocean passage I felt more lightened since there wasn't always that non stop stream of information coming out of the car radio or iPhone or television.

I realized that the typical Guatemalan could care less if Wall Street was in a crises or of Bernie Madoff's malfeasance since it had little affect on the price of goods at this weeks market. Instead of turning on and tuning in to endure statics about unemployment and home foreclosures I simply dropped out, something almost as memorable as liquified beans and star fruit juice. Probably one of the reasons travel is such a relief from the normal pace of life in wired America.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

From the Front

Below I have pasted an email received from my brother who is currently sailing aboard an American flagged vessel and recently transited the Gulf of Aden. I should mention here as a disclaimer that our mother was a merchant mariner, married a merchant mariner and now has two sons in the merchant marine so I do believe that she won't be too surprised about the dangers her children face when going to sea in this day and age.

Man we've been going back and forth in the Red Sea for 3 extra days now waiting for our turn to go through the Suez Canal. I'm writing this on the 3rd day and we should be going through tomorrow. The gulf of Aden was pretty gnarly every night, there were a few attempted boardings.

The day after the Straights of Hormuz at about 1500 when I was asleep (I would have loved to have been on watch when this happened) AB Willie, a toothless Vietnam vet who is hilarious, spotted two real small boats about a mile out dead ahead. They then split up and went down either side about a hundred yards out. Each boat had twin outboards and 5 guys wearing camouflage and head wraps with one guy standing on the bow holding the painter, you know, using it to stand up.Obviously not fishermen since we were about 40 miles off shore in broad daylight. I guess they started to come up close and then they noticed the fifty calibers mounted on the bridge wings and they took off real fast.

Being that we are so small a ship we were prime targets it would have been relatively easy for them to get over the side. Not to mention the fact we have like 10 or 11 Black Hawk helicopters and containers filled with grenades, missiles and bullets for the poor bastards in Georgia
(In the Caucasus that is, not in the lower 48). We would have probably been in real trouble if we didn’t have this EST (embarked security team) on board. They are a team of 12 kids, all real young, except two of the head guys who are like 30. I mean kids my age all walking around with M16’s and pistols all the time.

Like I said we have a fifty’s on the bridge wing and one on the stern. When were going through the gulf of Aden they also had two guys on the bow with 60’s so we are f****n strapped for sure. Every night after that until we got to the red sea there were reports of ships getting harassed buy these pirates. One night there was what turned out to be a fishing fleet of 12 small boats. It was pretty freaky seeing all these little contacts popping up just about dead ahead. Everybody was like "Holy f*****n shit, thank god for these kids".

If the pirates rolled out like that we would all be dead for sure. The two ships about 12 or 13 miles in front of us just about turned around when they first saw them. So needless to say the pirate threat ain't no joke down here even with all these coalition warships set up all over the place.

Tomorrow we are finally going to transit up to the Mediterranean where we will drop these Navy kids off in Souda bay. Then to Georgia then back to the states. (I cant wait to get to the U.S.. I'll get to swing some 20 million dollar helicopters around,Hehehe! 4 tons ain't nothing, its gonna be great!!

My brother is fortunate in this instance. His vessel is most likely under contract to the Department of Defense and therefore has a U.S.N. Embarked Security Team aboard which is undoubtedly armed to the gills. During my last transit through the Gulf of Aden the most force protection we had on board were four contract security guards with pepper spray and flashlights.

The company had previously ordered all the collapsing batons thrown over because they were too much of an "Offensive weapon" and we were only trained for "Defense". That was a year ago. Now I believe the same company is putting security guards on board but allowing them to come armed, which consequently means more $. If this is true I couldn't be happier.

Ships at sea need to be defended and given the amount of traffic in these waters and the legitimacy given to the pirate's business by companies paying the bribes and not doing much else the coalition vessels have a daunting task. Companies need to arm the vessels by providing professionally trained ex-military personnel on board. The crew has enough to do, learning to fire a 7.62mm SAW is a bit much.

In my opinion the embarked security team is the best solution, LRADs and fire hoses aside, until the IMO, NATO and the U.N., with or without the help of the Somali Transitional Government, decide on a final means of putting the pirates out of business. Afghanistan and Iraq are not the only front lines of the war on terrorism.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Guatemala

I've never registered with an American Consulate prior to traveling until this last trip south. Then again I had never read as many travel advisories on an Embassy's website as I did the week before we left for Guatemala. After browsing each of the unfortunate events involving Americans there in 2008 (Which are well cataloged but short on circumstantial facts) I felt compelled to inform the American Embassy in Guatemala City that two more citizens would be joining the ranks of backpackers invading this small nation at Mexico's southern end.

One of the first travel warnings I read reported that the most common time for being robbed in Guatemala City, where the international airport is, was between 7 and 10 am when departing the airport itself. This struck me as a red flag for our personal safety since to me airports have always been secure places sanitized of the criminal elements likely to stick a knife in your face and demand all your worldly possessions which are strapped to your back.

But the report was not joking around and gave instances of taxis being hijacked on the airport access roads at gun point in the wee hours of the morning just as a van load of groggy and disoriented travelers had arrived. For this reason as we began stuffing our packs full I felt compelled to tell my girlfriend "Don't pack anything you wouldn't be able to give to a mugger without hesitation."

I made sure that anything vitally important; passport, cash, credit cards, vaccination records etc., were stashed away in our money belts and that our cell phones were also tucked away on our person. Additionally I ensured that we would have a wad of small bills at the ready for handing over if the occasion arose. We then insured that we had a reliable pickup at the airport arranged with a recommended hotel at our first destination. Even after taking all the precautions we could, like bringing disposable cameras rather than both of our digital cameras, I still left Boston wondering if we should have chosen a country a little more accustomed to protecting tourists.

After touching down on the single run way at La Aurora International we breezed through customs and were impressed by the clean new look of the terminal. Once outside instead of finding a gathering of potential pickpockets and muggers we instead found a hoard of security officers maintaining an orderly boundary between the terminal doors and awaiting taxi drivers vying for our business. We easily picked out our diver who had a sign bearing my girlfriends unique name and were soon being whisked away onto Guatemala's daring roads.

As we wound our way in a tired tourismo van through the back streets of Guatemala City I noticed the prevalence of armed security guards in front of every car dealership, grocery or hardware store and even a florist. Each store had a Guatemalan standing guard with either a large sub machine gun or more commonly a cheap looking 12 gauge shotgun.

As we made our way out of the city passing dozens of these armed men replete with bullet proof jackets and side arms is struck me that if there is one business booming in Guatemala private security is it. Unfortunately all of these guns did not make me feel any safer.

Our first destination was the city of Antigua which is ringed in hills and two immense volcanoes, one named fire and the other water, which look down from the southern side of town. Once in the small hotel we quickly divested ourselves of two overloaded back packs and headed off for the parque central but due to our keen sense of direction instead wound up in the bustling market on the northwest edge of town.

A market in Guatemala is a constant adventure. They are noisy and chaotic and filled with endless streams of people coming and going, shopping and selling, haggling and gossiping. This is where Guatemala's easily identified indigenous population, the women wearing traditional blouses and dresses, the men in cowboy boots and hats, come to take care of their shopping. Anything and everything can be found at one of these markets. Produce, clothing, DVDs, small livestock, grains, pet food, machetes, breakfast lunch and dinner are for sale. There are even t-shirts and wooden souvenirs for the extranjeros or foreigners that frequent the markets toting easily plucked wristwatches and digital cameras.

My favorite thing about these markets, or any other gathering of indigenous Guatemalans, was the rainbow of colors in the dresses and shirts which are intricately woven according the the region or town from which the Mayan descendant hails from. Adding to the variety and color were the languages spoken in the markets which are anything but Spanish. They ranged from Kaqchikel to K'iche' to Tz'utujil and are over 30 in all. Some are so localized that heading to the next town over, such as on Lake Atitlan, would require an interpreter even for a Guatemalan, so instead they resort to a more common native tongue or just plain old Espanol. This is fortunate for me because my second favorite part about the markets was getting to haggle over the price of goods in my neglected Spanish.

As we made our way out of the market clutching a camera in one hand, my spending cash in the other, I started to get the feeling that Guatemala wasn't that sinister of a place. That everyone wasn't as interested in robbing or injuring foreigners which I had presumed to be a common occurrence. Of course in cities like Antigua the government has taken great steps to ensure the safety of travelers by hiring large amounts of tourist police to be present at often visited streets and sights. But this sentiment would hold as we made our way through the country over the next 4 weeks.
(I'll put my neck out here and say that this is one of the best beers I've ever had abroad! I believe when marketed outside Guate it's called Famosa. Give it a try.)

Our travels would take us to some of the most beautiful and interesting places I have ever visited abroad. Unfortunately there isn't a square inch of Guatemala that hasn't all ready been discovered by some adventurous visitor and there isn't a square mile of Guatemala that hasn't been littered on by the locals but the lack of real developed tourism, the kind we would later find in Costa Rica, meant that where ever we went it was very very authentic.

I can now look back at my apprehension before we left as a little too worst case scenario. Yes bad things happen to travelers but they happen all over the world and I'm sure plenty of visitors to the United States have fallen victim to crimes on some of our more unsavory streets. It seems that safety when traveling anywhere has more to do with being street smart and using your head rather than bracing for what's happened to less lucky and possibly more naive tourists in the past.

Going in groups, tucking away that wristwatch or digital camera and going where the crowds go (As long as they aren't angry ones) seemed like the best precautions we could take. Remembering that an easy target is more likely to become a victim and that not just the tourists have to live with Guatemala's epidemic of crime is important. In the end it was the very people that I was concerned about doing us harm, the Guatemalans, that ended up protecting us by offering advice, calling out scam artists and watching our backs.

It would appear that the most dangerous part of the entire trip was the three hours we spent in a chicken bus one foggy morning hammering down the mountain passes from Chichicastenango to Chemaltenango. While my girlfriend could sleep I could only clutch the seat in front of me white knuckled as I stared at the oncoming traffic cussing out the driver under my breath every time he laid on the horn and the gas at the same time.





Video: Eruption of Volcan Santiaguito

video

This volcanic eruption is one of the most incredible natural phenomena I've ever seen. The video was shot in Guatemala at 5:30 in the morning after an all night trek up the side of Santa Maria, a 12,375 foot high inactive volcano. The eruption of the very active Santiaguito, far below our vantage point, surprised everyone with how quickly it happened and how fast the ash plume rose. It will typically erupt every two hours or so so we did not have to wait long. Sorry for the shoddy camera handling.