Saturday, April 25, 2009

Tech Traps

Whenever I find myself in a teaching role, such as with a cadet at sea
or on a schooner full of students interested in learning navigation I
usually start the lectures off by recapping the 4 greatest advancements
in marine navigation according to myself. 

First and most importantly I discuss the marine chronometer and time
zones. A clock robust and accurate enough to be taken to sea and keep
track of time is something we easily take for granted but it was not
always so. This piece of navigational equipment is necessary to
determine where any celestial body should be at any given moment of the
day. Whether it was a J. Harrison original of yesterday or the oft tax
deducted Rolex of today, the marine chronometer and the ability to
determine longitude is a pillar of navigation.

No longer having to make an educated guess about how far one had
traversed an ocean in an easterly or westerly direction the second
advancement allowed navigators to make landfall in the middle of the
night without having to swing a lead line or wait for a cannon's echo
off some fog shrouded headland. Marine Radar provides a reflective
picture of our surroundings for dozens of miles. This not only aids the
navigator with very reliable position fixing ranges but also allows for
the assessment of collision risks with other vessels.

Third, and arguably the most extraordinary advancement was that of the
Global Positioning System made possible thanks to the 24 satellites sent
into orbit by the United States Department of Defense. This satellite
"constellation" now provides any aircraft, ship or person with a GPS
receiver to have very reliable, within a few meters, latitude, longitude
and altitude information. For the maritime user we are most concerned
with the course over ground and speed over ground our vessel is making
which the receiver gives in addition to our position. Furthermore, the
GPS also provides the universal time in hours, minutes and seconds
meaning that the lazy second mate never need worry again about
chronometer error.

The last and most recent revelation in marine navigation is that of the
Automated Identification System which now provides us with detailed
information for any vessel, shore station or buoy equipped with an AIS
transmitter. This new system gives the navigator much more information
about a target vessel than provided by navigational lights and day
shapes or radar. The true course, speed, position, call sign, cargo and
number of souls onboard are just a few things listed.

Before the advent of radar when assessing the Risk of Collision with a
nearby vessel the navigator relied on navigational lights at night and
bearing drift or visual relative motion. After the radar scope came into
the picture a ruler and grease pencil could be used to draw a plot to
determine the closest point of approach with danger targets. This
calculation performed by hand was time consuming and prone to
inaccuracy. If not done quickly and carefully, something I realized
firsthand when running the deck of a tall ship and trying to keep and
eye on students and off of the rocks, was eventually automated. The
development of ARPA or Automatic Radar Plotting Aids meant that with the
click of a button the target is tracked and the collision information of
the vessel is calculated and displayed on the radar screen.

By determining the closest point of approach and time of CPA the
navigator now can apply the International Collision Regulations early
and with accuracy. Unfortunately it was common that one vessel oblivious
to the risk of collision, such as a head on situation when both vessels
are required to alter course, would never answer the radio. Even after
repeatedly reading their true course, speed and your vessel's position
relative to theirs over the radio, or as the navy prefers, relative to
themselves (Something they have improved on)they would be inexplicably

A situation which required cooperation from an approaching vessel that
refused to pick up the VHF puts the observant navigator in a sticky
situation. With AIS the likely hood of not having bridge-to-bridge
communications has been greatly reduced. A ship is much less reluctant
to answer the radio when you are calling them by name; one of the many
pieces of information included in a Class A AIS target's expanded data.

With each development in navigational technology, and there are many
more than mentioned here, the risk of miscalculating a position or a CPA
is reduced. It makes seafaring a safer and more efficient business. But
with each advancement the convenience the equipment provides can
potentially reduce the vigilance always needed from a watch officer.

GPS is a prime example of this. Instead of having to use long trusted
methods to fix one's position in open ocean or confined waters the
navigator no longer needs to retain these skills. Instead a reliable fix
is attained by reading out the latitude and longitude from the GPS at
anytime anywhere in the world. Convenient? Sure. Accurate? Yes. But does
it generate a reluctance to identify different lighthouses as landfall
is made or locate buoys on the radar in search of a channel's entrance?

When it comes to over reliance on GPS I always think about a mate I
worked with a few years back. One very clear night when steaming
eastward in the Mediterranean he found himself in a panic after sighting
hundreds of lights popping up over the northern horizon as we were
headed for the Suez Canal. The radars were completely blank at the 24
mile range so he called the Captain after suffering much doubt. A few
minutes later the old man rushed up to the wheelhouse, cigarette in
hand, and had a look out the window and then slowly walked over to the
chart and confirmed what he already knew. He informed the third mate
that the lights he was seeing were those of Corsica and promptly retired
a little less confident in his officer's abilities.

Had the mate actually studied the chart and not just blindly put down
GPS fixes every hour than he might have realized that he was only thirty
miles off the island's coast and closing. The combined height of the
vessel's bridge and the hills of Corsica meant that the navigational
lights onshore followed by the lights of villages became increasingly
visible over the course of the watch. Ranging out on the radar would
have saved him considerable embarrassment the next morning at breakfast.
Unknowingly making landfall is one example of the complaisance
technology which does it all for you can breed.

AIS can also lead to this same issue. I recently came up to the bridge
for my watch as we were just passing through the last leg of the traffic
scheme separating England and France. The radar was full of targets as
expected but not a single target had been plotted with the ARPA. Instead
both radar, the 10 cm and the 3 cm, had the AIS target function enabled.
This provided information for ever vessel carrying AIS but no data for
the cluster of fishing just outside the scheme and intent on crossing
it. Rather than taking over the watch with a firm handle on the smaller
targets intentions I had to form my own opinion after waiting the two or
three minutes for the ARPA to calculate the target's data loosing time
to make an informed move in a crowded traffic lane.

In this case the third mate was depending on only one means of
determining risk of collision and it only applied to vessels equipped
with AIS. It also meant that the radars were completely out of tune
since he no longer needed to worry about a good picture to pick up the
smaller unequipped targets which he essentially ignored. I have yet to
see something in the standing orders where a mate is required to not
rely solely on the AIS for collision avoidance but it wouldn't hurt.

Now I'll be the first to admit that I've strayed into wonkishness yet
again but I feel compelled to relay my concerns of technology trumping
situational awareness. I hope this might serve to remind some of the
sailors out there, most importantly myself, to keep the other seldom
used tools of our profession sharp, even if you're lucky enough to have
electronic charts and a voyage management system to guide you along the

As Captain Bligh put it so long ago;

"As an officer and a Navigator I have ever looked with horror on neglect
and indolence, and have never yet crossed the Seas without that
foresight which is necessary to the well doing of the voyage..."
("Bligh", Gavin Kennedy, Duckworth 1978, p131.)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

From me at sea: Recapping the latest events

I believe I'm getting the five year itch. I'm amazed at some people's
tolerance for repetition. I think my lack of it is why I wanted to go to
sea in the first place. To avoid the nine to five and showing up to the
same building or factory or work shop day after day, the only variable
being where I park in the morning. Yet even now on the high seas,
crossing an ocean, I find the prospect of making my sixth trip to the
North Sea somewhat yawn inspiring.

Most of the officers onboard have made this passage countless times
calling on the same 4 foreign ports for a decade or more. The repetition
of a liner service lends to building a familiarity with specific waters
which makes for an efficient and safe operation but it doesn't hold the
same appeal that seeing new ports in new countries does for me.

The most contented I've been at sea was running around the Korean
Peninsula and the Islands of Japan loading and discharging and
transshipping automobiles and heavy industrial equipment in a multitude
of ports, the names of which I couldn't even spell. It kept me on my
toes much like a cargo watch on a tanker does and made for a feeling of
satisfaction once you left the coast.

There was always something to figure out, something to fix (She was an
old ship), and a new chart to pull out. Now the track lines are drawn in
pen, the longshoremen familiar faces and the schedule like clock work.
Enough complaining though, there are perks to a consistent schedule,
civilized work and new ship. Furthermore, just having a decent job right
now in this recession is an absolute blessing.

A few things of note about the recession in Europe, which I can't verify
as fact but do come from credible sources which will go unnamed. First
the Light tax in the United Kingdom has been increased from six easy
payments a year to seven. I have no idea what a payment is but it's
surely a significant number of Pounds. This tax funds the lighthouses
around the shores of England and Wales. Apparently those around Ireland
are in the worst shape and now the tax will also go towards repairing
the defunct navigational aids of the Emerald Isles.

Also, as someone who spends a great deal of time correcting charts, I
have noticed a lot of lights and buoys disappearing from the shores and
coastal waters of Europe. I can only surmise that redundant, frequently
run over and less than necessary navigational aids are being withdrawn
to save money.

In the German port of Bremerhaven I was told that unemployment was
reaching towards 30%. Bremerhaven has a reputation for high unemployment
but this is a lot of people going without jobs, if it's true, for such a
working class town. The port was noticeably quiet, the docks having
hardly the amount of cargo that is normally staged for the ships.

Still construction on Bremerhaven's own multi climate exhibition goes
on. This miniature world is being built inside a glass paneled structure
shaped just like Chicago's "Bean" sculpture but upside down. It's huge
and very out of place with so many modernistic lines contrasting with
the masts and spars of the ships at the maritime museum and brick
drawbridges and signal station right next door.

This attraction, which I'll be able to visit after the grand opening
this summer, is situated right next to Bremerhaven's newest addition to
the mall, a swanky "Mediterraneo" which hosts among other boutiques a
very popular status symbol of an outdoor clothing store where a fleece
zip up costs 150 euros! Yeah, Europe really can get away with being that
expensive. Despite the recession and comically high prices at all the
shops in the new section of the mall it was still thronged with chic
Germans out for an Easter Day ice cream.

In the British port of Southampton the port operator has decided to save
costs by having the pilots only operate a single pilot boat rather than
the normal two. This has already caused us delays when arriving and

When we arrived last week the pilot boat had one outbound pilot to take
off a ship and then another waiting on the dock in Portsmouth for us. If
there had been two pilot boats than one would have been at the dock
waiting for our pilot to come down the street and the two boats could
have passed in the Solent rather than the single boat doubling back
making us wait for an extra half hour as we bobbed around Nab Tower.

When departing the pilot was reluctant to get our ship in front of a
slower tanker undocking from the Esso terminal down river because he
didn't want to have to wait in the only launch for her to drop her pilot
as well before heading home. Thus instead of passing ahead of the 13
knot tanker with tug escort we puttered along astern of her making the
captain increasingly impatient to get out of dodge and put to sea.

Back on board we're in our fourth day of the crossing getting plenty of
inside work done on account of the rainy gray days we've been having.
Crew relations in the deck department have been a little strained thanks
to a temporary boson that is finishing a 60 day relief for our permanent
boson, a fiery but dependable guy with Viking tendencies to plunder and
pillage when ashore.

The temporary Boson has been found to be snitching to the unlicensed
union even from overseas. He's been dropping the dime on crew who have
overstayed their hitches onboard either because they like the ship and
want to keep coming back or they are trying to get their required sea
time for the year. That way they can go home and still receive health
benefits without having to go back to work for six months.

These extended tours are normal on my ship because the sailors don't
exactly clamor for these low paying Ro/Ro jobs. It's basically
overlooked by the hiring halls until a jealous unemployed "Recertified"
boson tries to leverage his A book status into a permanent job usurping
the permanent B book boson that was legally grandfathered onboard (This
is allowed on a new ship) because of his reputation and dedication to
the vessel and old man. Unfortunately this is to be expected as the
economy shrinks and shipping grows tighter.

Being a rat has garnered the temporary boson, who is refereed to as the
"marathon man" for so oft being sighted walking about the ship looking
for various items when he should be getting something done instead, much
ill will. He surely has it coming to him when the permanent man gets
back. He literally started off the trip on the wrong feet by wearing the
permanent's brand new boots which he left onboard, getting paint on them
and then putting them back in his locker without replacing them. This
affront in addition to trying to take his job underhandedly means I'll
put my money of the Viking if their paths ever cross while ashore. 

Saturday, April 18, 2009

From me at sea: Smoke

There's nothing I enjoy more than going out into the woods and starting
a campfire. I love the sound dry kindling makes as it starts to catch
fire and the feel of the heat growing as it is transferred to larger and
larger logs. Soon you're sitting back, watching the sky grow dark as
tendrils of smoke drift up to the trees.

Not a single one of these happy smoke induced feelings came to mind a
few days back when I answered a fire alarm on the detection panel and
saw a plume of white smoke coming out of the engine room ventilation.
There is nothing good about seeing smoke at sea unless its haze gray and
emanating from your engine's exhaust stack.

 It has just the opposite affect of a warm and bright wood fire; it
terrifies you and fills your veins with a rush of adrenaline that is
hard to find in what is normally such a safe and secure world. The
awareness that the vessel is alone, absolutely isolated from all
external help for hundreds of miles in every direction sharpens the
sense of urgency and the room for error shrinks with every second that
the fire is able to breathe and grow.

Being on watch I sounded the fire and emergency signal, ten seconds or
more on the general alarm bell, and was dispatched by the Captain to
assist. After a muster that revealed three missing crew (Whom all
ignored the signal assuming it was a false alarm!) we established
boundary cooling with fire hoses trained on the stack house in
anticipation of the worst. 

A few moments later two crewmembers in full bunker gear were donning
Self Contained Breathing Apparatus and going on air. After entering the
space the smoke was ventilated and we couldn't see flames anywhere on
the incinerator flat. Once the other hatch had been opened to the space,
allowing for a back up team with fire hose, it became obvious that the
fire was contained to the incinerator and not spreading.

Normally the incinerator burns over a period of six hours slowly
consuming paper and cardboard garbage. In this case it had been over
packed and the ensuing fire grew so hot it caused the exhaust fan to
trip out. This is why the space flooded with smoke.

Even though it was contained the Captain felt that if the temperature
continued to rise inside the incinerator than we should put it out
before the heat transferred somewhere a little less contained. The
initial attack was with CO2 fire extinguishers to replace the oxygen
supporting the fire with a blanket of inert gas. This might also cause
less damage to the incinerator itself.

While one person popped the door open the other would stick a nozzle
inside the oven. Our naivety was apparent after the fifth or sixth
bottle was discharged. Since the incinerator needed fresh air to burn
garbage the gas was just falling out the airports hidden from view doing
nothing to kill the fire.

Next a few dry chemical extinguishers were employed but the heat and
remaining cardboard was too much to have any affect. Dry chemical
extinguishes fire by cutting the chemical reaction (Rapid oxidation)
that forms the base of the "Fire tetrahedron" the three sides of which
are heat, fuel and air.

During these attempts which spanned over half an hour, it felt more like
ten minutes, there was ample confusion amongst the crew that had not
been assigned a specific task such as boundary cooling. It became
important to keep everyone not directly involved in the attack in one
place and be ready to go for more equipment. As we ran through
extinguishers I started sending out groups of crew to scavenge full ones
from the house as well as spare air bottles from the emergency stations.

After all the failed attempts with extinguishers a hose was led into the
space and in retrospect was the best agent to quickly extinguish the
fire. It only took a half strength stream of water to reduce the heat
and then flood the embers at the bottom of the incinerator. Instead of
generating huge clouds of smoke as the extinguishers had there was a
burst of steam and it was out.

There is nothing like a minor emergency to highlight the shortcomings of
a crew's preparedness for a full blown catastrophe which you pray will
never occur but must always be at the ready to mitigate. In this
instance everyone had a wake up call and there were some good
discussions after the fact. The captain held a debriefing the following
day (Instead of our ironically scheduled fire drill) and a near miss
report was written.

The big points were that the muster was incomplete until the tardy crew
sauntered out of the holds and realized that there was a reason the
bells had been blaring. I was livid over this. The offending guys felt
pretty ashamed afterwards and definitely looked like asses showing up so
late to the party.

With the urgency of getting into the space and the muster not being
complete some crew who are not assigned to fire teams ended up dressing
out. This is a problem because fire gear should be fitted to the
designated team members (Since there are only so many out fits) and non
assigned crew could wind up in gear too big or too small.

Additionally it was the fitter and more experienced crew that suited up
first, which was a good thing, but this exposed a weakness so common to
boiler plate station bills; that they designate standard duties to each
rating onboard rather than place people in roles they are either more
qualified or fit for. The fact that, in my opinion atleast, a physically
unfit QMED took twice as long as everyone else to suit up and needed me
to remind him that his flash hood goes on OVER the head straps of his
facemask showed that he probably wasn't the best candidate for a fire
team. Fighting a fire can involve very intense cardiovascular challenges
in hot, dark, smoke filled spaces.
We also noted that the crew, despite having just gone over this very
topic at our last drill, did not know how to switch out air bottles.
This is such an important skill for every "assist as directed" crew
member because they are responsible for exchanging bottles on the backs
of fire team members. I had to stop directing traffic to bleed the air
down from the hoses, and show them how to switch them out when we put
two more crew in the space for back up. Hands on skills like this need
to be practiced by the crew, not just demonstrated by an officer or

Despite our shortcomings everyone felt pretty good at the end of the
day. We all came away with a deepened respect for our isolation and
dependence on our abilities at sea. As a collective group we received an
education in how large a challenge an emergency is no matter how minor
it might turn out to be.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Easter Springs

Luck is with us this port call in Bremerhaven Germany. The weather is gorgeous, 25c every day and the grass is green. A very different place since the last time I was here in December. Also we were delayed due to the German Good Friday holiday and the Belgian observance of Easter Monday so instead of paying double the rates for labor the powers that be have allowed us to sit idle for two days so it's been a great weekend of bike riding and discovering yet more peculiar and suprising aspects of this rather unique North Sea sea port.

Above is the rhinocerous I met at the circus which was being erected in one of the cities parks. 3 euro and you could just walk around, right up to the elephants and camels and pet them and get probed by thier snouts. Wonders never cease when one travels.

Thursday, April 9, 2009


Our arrival in German waters was greeted by an offshore breeze drawing
the smell of fresh manure off of newly fertilized fields. Farmland
abounds along the flat and featureless shore of the German Bight and the
farmers obviously haven't been wasting the long hours of sunlight they
receive at fifty three degrees north latitude.

Yesterday the weather cleared allowing brilliant sunshine, tempered only
by the cold water of the Northern Sea, to burn off the clouds shrouding
Boulogne-Sur-Mer as we approached the strait. The green treeless hills
of France were a welcome sight after a typical gale and grey skies
initially greeted us at the mouth of the English Channel.

We heard the news late Wednesday night that an American ship had been
hijacked off the Horn of Africa. Thanks to a friend of the Captain's
ashore we have been kept abreast of the developing situation surrounding
the hijacking and subsequent recapture of the Maersk Alabama by her own
crew. This is the worst possible way I can imagine for the plight of
mariners transiting these waters to be given the full attention they
deserve from the media and government. This situation has been growing
worse and worse that it's no surprise that a sixth unarmed and
unescorted merchant vessel was taken this week, this one just happened
to be crewed by Americans.

Besides the danger of modern piracy this incident shows the character of
a crew unwilling to become captives on their own ship waiting out a
ransom or rescue while lying to the anchor for weeks on end. As for the
Alabama's Captain, who to the best of my fourth hand knowledge is still
being held by 4 pirates in his vessels own lifeboat, he has reportedly
exhibited selfless courage sacrificing his own safety for that of his

The New York Times does a much better job of summarizing the events so
I'll let them take over in case you haven't yet heard much of this story
(I have no idea how much coverage it is receiving at home beyond Cape
Cod). It is particularly of interest to me because one; any deck officer
who graduated from one of the two more northerly "MMA"s knows Joe Murphy
and probably owes their passing the Coast Guard exams to his study books
and last minute visit to the exam room telling you how not to screw up
multiple choice when under pressure. Secondly; the article also shows
Maersk's stance on the much touted LRAD which I wheeled out for the crew
just yesterday as part of our security drill onboard (And our only form
of self defense besides a fire hose and a prayer).


Navy Tracking Pirates and Their U.S. Hostage


A U.S. Navy destroyer kept close watch Thursday on a lifeboat holding
four Somali pirates and their hostage - an American ship captain - one
day after the pirates briefly seized a United States-flagged cargo ship
off the coast of Africa. As Washington awoke to a second day of the
crisis, the Navy summoned the FBI for advice on how to rescue the
hostage, Capt. Richard Phillips, of Underhill, Vermont.

An FBI spokeswoman, Denise Ballew, described the bureau's crisis
negotiators as "fully engaged" with the military in strategizing ways to
retrieve the ship's captain and secure the unarmed container ship, the
Maersk Alabama, and its American crew.

The FBI was summoned as the Pentagon substantially stepped up its
monitoring of the hostage standoff, sending in P-3 Orion surveillance
aircraft and other equipment and securing video footage of the scene,
The Associated Press said.

The pirates boarded and seized the Maersk Alabama on Wednesday, taking
20 American sailors hostage. Although the crew managed to retake the
ship within hours, the pirates were still holding the ship's captain as
they fled the ship in a lifeboat.

The Maersk Alabama is keeping "a safe distance from the lifeboat," at
the request of the U.S. Navy, a spokesman for Maersk Line Ltd., Kevin
Speers, said at a news conference Thursday morning. The crew is in
contact with the lifeboat via radio, he said.

"Our most recent contact indicates that the captain remains hostage but
is unharmed," Mr. Speers said. The rest of the crew, he said, is also
uninjured. A distress call from the ship Wednesday brought the
destroyer, the U.S.S. Bainbridge, to the scene, and other warships were
en route Thursday as well.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday that the lifeboat on
which Captain Phillips was being held hostage had apparently run out of
gas, Reuters reported. "We are watching this very closely," Mrs. Clinton
told reporters, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates at her side.

The Alabama was the first American vessel to be hijacked in the
pirate-infested waters off the Horn of Africa. More than 150 ships were
attacked off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden last year, according to the
International Maritime Bureau, and there have been six attacks in the
region in the past week. Sixteen ships are currently being held for
ransom by seagoing pirate gangs.

In this case, however, the crew of the Alabama managed to disable the
ship at about the time the pirates came on board, according to a senior
American military official. The four hijackers, apparently overrun by
the ship's crew, then loaded the captain into a lifeboat, shoved off
from the Alabama and began negotiating for his release.

American officials praised the crew's decision to disable the ship. The
Alabama's second in command, Capt. Shane Murphy, is the son of an
instructor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy who teaches a course on
how to repel pirate attacks.

The crew apparently put some of these lessons into practice. At one
point, they ambushed and managed to capture one of the pirates, holding
him "for 12 hours," Ken Quinn, the second mate on the ship, told CNN.
They eventually released the pirate in an attempted hostage exchange.
"We returned him but they didn't return the captain," he said.

The 508-foot-long Alabama had been bound for the Kenyan port of Mombasa
and was carrying food and other agricultural materials for the World
Food Program, a United Nations agency, and other clients, including the
United States Agency for International Development.

Andrew Mwangura, head of the East African Seafarers' Assistance Program
in Mombasa, an organization that tracks pirate attacks, said the
developing situation was unusual. Generally, the Somali pirates hold
entire ships and their crews for ransom, or are thwarted in their
initial attack and escape.

The situation, he said, may well become a waiting game - with the
pirates insisting on cash for the captain's release, and the American
authorities strengthening their hand as the pirates become increasingly
uncomfortable on the exposed lifeboat, which is carrying at least a few
days' supply of food and water. "What they are trying to achieve is
money," Mr. Mwangura said of the pirates' likely motivation.

At the White House, military and national security officials tracked the
developments from the Situation Room, and they provided several
briefings to President Obama and other administration officials.

Mr. Obama first learned of the hijacking early on Wednesday morning
after he returned to the White House from his overseas trip, and he
later convened an interagency group on maritime safety, aides said. The
White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said, "Our top priority is
the personal safety of the crew members on board."

In Vermont, friends and relatives gathered at the home of Captain
Phillips to await further news. His wife, Andrea, has not heard directly
from him, said Michael Willard, a family friend reached by telephone,
but she did receive a phone call Wednesday night from Captain Murphy,
who is now the highest ranking officer aboard the ship.

Captain Murphy told her that Captain Phillips, 55, had volunteered to
become the hostage to win the release of his ship.
"Knowing Richard as well as I do, that would be what he would do," Mr.
Willard said.

The Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest and most important shipping
lanes, is patrolled by an anti-piracy flotilla from the European Union
and a U.S.-led coalition of ships, plus warships from Iran, Russia,
India, China, Japan and other nations. But pirates using mother ships -
oceangoing trawlers that carry speedier attack vessels - have extended
their reach into the waters far off the East African coast. On Saturday,
for example, a German freighter was hijacked about 400 miles offshore,
between Kenya and the Seychelles.

At the time of the attack on the Alabama, the closest patrol vessel was
about 300 nautical miles away, a Navy spokesman said.
"It's that old saying: where the cops aren't, the criminals are going to
go," said Lt. Nathan Christensen, a Fifth Fleet spokesman. "We patrol an
area of more than one million square miles. The simple fact of the
matter is that we can't be everywhere at one time."
Maersk's senior director for security, Finn Brodersen, said in an
interview with the International Herald Tribune last month that three of
the company's ships had been attacked off Somalia - all unsuccessfully.

Mr. Brodersen said Maersk, like most major shippers, did not favor the
use of armed guards on its ships, largely for safety and liability
reasons. Fuel or fumes could be ignited by gunfire, for example, and
crew members would be put at further risk if a gun battle took place.

Some crews have sprayed fire-retardant foam at approaching pirates, and
the Alabama crew reportedly used water hoses to battle the pirates on
Wednesday. Some shipowners spray super-slippery goo on their decks to
trip up pirates; others have even strung electrified wires around the
hulls of their vessels.

Maersk also has tested LRADs, long-range acoustic devices. These sonic
cannons, which look like TV satellite dishes, shoot disabling sound
waves at approaching pirate ships. But these were found to be
ineffective, Mr. Brodersen said, and they "expose the crew to being shot

And now for yet another blogger's opinion:

It seems that the unwillingness of shipping companies to provide trained
and armed security personnel onboard merchant vessels has finally caught
up with us, the American Merchant Marine, and it distresses me. I know
several people who have worked onboard this particular ship and may very
well be aboard her now and I can only pray that their good captain is
released unharmed to return to his home in Vermont.

If we cannot put a stop to this illegal and disruptive threat now than
the mightiest Navy in the world will be left to watch as international
commerce pays tribute to armed gangs with speedboats. It is the Navy's
mission to keep sea-lanes open for free and innocent passage and I
really believe that it is the responsibility of shipping lines to
protect their crews regardless of the insurance premiums they may have
to incur. It's either hire a few "Xe" mercenaries or stem the bunkers to
round the Cape of Good Hope. Anything less is negligent and will leave
us with more of the same, innocent mariners risking their lives to pass
through Bab el Man dab. If these guys were hijacking airplanes in East
Africa don't you think we would have already dealt with it?

Friday, April 3, 2009

Size does matter

We're skirting the edge of an imaginary line hemming in all the "Known
ice" in the North Atlantic to the south and east of Cape Race
Newfoundland. The ice limit line is established by the International
Ice Patrol, a group tasked with keeping tabs on the type and amount of
ice spotted by ships and planes in the Canadian Maritimes. From the
satellite telexes it appears there is a heavy flow of ice making its way
down from Greenland this spring but we probably aren't within a hundred
miles of an ice cube. Still, it makes you peer at the radar in open
ocean with a little more scrutiny.

Our speed has been good in fair weather so we expect an on time arrival
in Northern Europe. It appears that despite the slowing of transoceanic
trade Germany is still experiencing a pre-Easter rush and berth space is
tight. I actually had forgotten that Easter was just around the corner;
no one is expecting an onboard Easter egg hunt. I may have been Santa
Claus this past Christmas leaving charitable gifts outside everyone's
cabins but candy filled eggs? That would just be weird.

The crew is a funny mix this trip. The deck officers are all thirty or
younger with the exception of our Captain who is not too far past forty.
The unlicensed on the other hand are teetering on the brink of ancient
with one exception. The engine and steward's departments are, and I
don't mean to speak ill of my shipmates, for the most part either well
beyond overweight or obese. This is troubling for a couple of reasons.

First I really do feel it presents a safety issue. I don't like the idea
that someone could be prohibited from doing a job because they don't fit
a certain physical mold but there are many potential instances where the
size of an extra large sailor could prohibit them or someone else from
performing a vital task at an inopportune time. Fighting fires comes to
mind but also boarding our free-fall lifeboat, evacuating an injured
person by winch or small boat transfer (This occurred last voyage but
the fellow was a feather) or escaping from a confined space for

Additionally, being at sea is a great place to loose weight if you can
keep to a diet and have the will to fit exercise in (And I don't
consider 6 hours of OT a day to be exercise). But for persons who are
already accustomed to a lifestyle which leads to being really heavy
there are no dietary supports out here or stewards who cater to special
dietary needs.

Worst of all there is no incentive to exercise onboard. Actually the act
of exercising onboard is commonly looked down upon. I don't know how
many times I've heard "You must not be working hard enough mate if you
have the time to run." That statement recently came from a chain
smoking, crap eating person who hasn't considered the hours upon hours
of company time he's spent smoking butts in the machine shop "Working".

Another time I was running off some stress from a shitty cargo watch in
Corpus Christi when the relief Captain pulled up in his truck wanting to
know what the hell I was doing running down a dirt road with
rattlesnakes and tumbleweed. I declined a ride back to the ship and
heard about it later.

You might be saying, "Why should it be the companies job to motivate the
crew to stay healthy and fit?" We'll maybe it's because I feel that the
old ideas of crew comfort, ice cream sandwiches, DVD's and cheap cartons
of cigarettes in the slop chest have gotten us to where we are now. It
took an act of god and a lot of arm-twisting by our Captains to get our
one single piece of cardio vascular workout equipment onboard the ship.
Do you think it's on the top of the companies priorities that we're
cooking in tran-saturated fats or consuming meat that's only served in
two places, at sea and in prisons?

Probably not.

For some contrast the former operators of this Scandinavian built ship
had a program set up where a tally was kept of every half hour a crewman
spent in the gym exercising. At the end of each month the points were
emailed to a crew welfare desk ashore and the names from the entire
60-ship fleet were entered into a lottery where the more you worked out
the more entries you got. Prizes were then drawn and sent to the
individual seaman. It probably wasn't much, maybe company sweatshirts
and tools but at least it may have created an atmosphere where working
out is something not just for loafers and pretty boys.

When one of our Captains proposed a fleet wide walk-a-thon for charity
where the company would match dollars earned by the crews for every mile
walked or run onboard and then donated to a charity in Baltimore the
responses from the ships were dismal. Yet the worst came from the home
office where I believe the response was something like "Captain, we do
not even know how to respond to that."

Unimaginative, shortsighted and regressive would be a few good
adjectives to describe that response. What's going to happen when all
these career mariner's get disqualified by the National Maritime Center
because their body mass index is too high and no matter how many Fit For
Duty letters the union doctor writes them they still won't be allowed to
set foot on a ship? Maybe then when the hiring halls are empty an idea
like a charity walk-a-thon will garner a better response.