Thursday, May 28, 2009


For the final crossing this hitch the Captain has decided to keep our route further south to avoid a potential low pressure system forecasted for the West Atlantic. Leaving Southampton and the English Channel we headed for the nine and a half mile passage in between the two most north westerly islands in the Azores Archipelago in hopes of hooking a tuna or two.

The two Islands, Corvo and Flores are remote Portuguese territories. The British Admiralty Sailing Directions describes Corvo as "A single extinct volcanic mountain the crater of which, Caldeirao, occupies all the NW portion of the island. The coastline is rugged and inaccessible falling vertically to the sea from a height of several hundred meters."
Flores, the larger of the two with three villas instead of just one is also "Mountainous with a summit over 900 meters in height...much cultivated and wooded. Inland the landscape is formed of deep valleys, small plateaus, lakes and many waterfalls."

Making landfall somewhere new, even on an island you'll never set foot on, always provides an amount of satisfaction. It gives me the feeling of actually traveling rather than just spending interminable days on a blue treadmill pointed towards some distant waypoint over the horizon. After pulling out the large scale chart I located the land on the radar,
in this case two islands a few miles long, confirming that the GPS haven't been lying about our position.

Then I peered into the sky finding the tufts of cumulus ascending with the warmer island air over the ocean as survivors are told to do from lifeboats in search of land. The clouds encasing the islands eventually gave way to two dark shapes on the horizon specked with little white farm houses and patches of farm land. The dull shapes became clearer
with each approaching mile and soon I was scouring the hill sides with binoculars studying every detail of these remote Portuguese outposts.

Both islands were far more lush than I had expected. The wet oceanic air blowing over them day in and day out condenses on their high peaks giving birth to multiple waterfalls which come down from the rocky heights irrigating the fields. The buildings were numerous showing that a fair amount of people made these two fringes of society their home
year round undoubtedly relying on fish and their own produce for the local economy.

There was no evidence of hotels or other tourism but there are small airstrips on both of the islands. The peaks were mostly clouded in but I caught glimpses of the craters a few times. In between the islands, where we slowed the engine to troll and keep the cell phone signal for as long as we could, a few boats were seen on the one off lying bank fishing certainly having more luck than us.

A zodiac sped up to us as it headed over to the smaller island, a family drive out to Corvo Azores style. The mom and dad were pointing out the huge green and white box of a car ship drifting past to their young child who waved to us.

On the radio a single station was broadcasting from Flores. At first a mix of religious, patriotic and popular music it turned into a Catholic Mass but I couldn't tell if it was live from the island or canned. It was Sunday after all.

The views of the massive cliffs draped in greenery, sliced with waterfalls immerging from the clouds was awesome after a few days of viewing only sea and sky. The pastures were numerous wherever the land wasn't too severely sloping and little white walled homes with red roofs dotted the hillsides. I had to fight the urge to launch myself in the
Fast Rescue Boat and just disappear amongst the valleys hiding out from societies woes for the rest of my days.

As we exited the small passage we found we were not the only ship with a penchant for fish and sight seeing. Passing abeam of us was an East bound merchant vessel, also a car carrier and surprisingly also American Flagged. Perhaps because our ships are in competition for the same cargoes or maybe because we're manned by differing officers unions neither officer on watch felt compelled to call the other to get the details on one another's vessel's, something I always find disappointing. There are only so many of us American Merchantman floating around these days I always enjoy chatting up the airwaves with likeminded mates.

A few hours later after my barbecue induced siesta I returned to the bridge for my early morning watch. The Captain and third mate were attempting to hail a sailboat who was not responding on the VHF radio. The Captain fired up the spot light and lit their mainsail which got the skipper to turn up the volume on his radio. We had just received an
Enhanced Group Calling notification of an overdue sailboat bound from Saint Martin to the Azores and asked the skipper if he had any information regarding the tardy solo French cruiser.

We had to strain our ears to make out his heavily Swedish accented English but managed to understand that they had departed Saint Martin in company with the missing vessel and had heard over the radio that she had been dismasted after they separated. We were soon passing this information on to the Rescue Coordination Center in Norfolk Virginia who was coordinating the search.

Due to our participation in the Automated Mutual-assistance Vessel Rescue system or AMVER the Coast Guard knew exactly where we were and where our route to Baltimore would take us. Seeing that we would be passing within a hundred miles of the missing sailboat's last known position they diverted us to the location in hopes we might come across the 13 meter white hulled sloop.

AMVER, an entity of the US Coast Guard, has been in existence for decades and is responsible for coordinating the rescue of hundreds of lives at sea every year. By tracking thousands of voluntarily participating vessels all over the world they are able to liaison with rescue organizations in diverting ships to distress situations. This means that it is often a merchant vessel who is first to arrive on scene and participate in searches and rescues.

I gave the captain an estimated time of arrival at the position, about a full day's steaming and he relayed that to the RCC. The information we had, besides the description of the boat was that there was only one person on board and that they had Radar, a Search and Rescue Radar Transponder or SART and a VHF radio with Digital Selective Calling
capability or DSC. This sounded fine and dandy for a vessel sailing up the coast of Brittany but seemed foolish for a solo sailor making an oceanic passage.

Every merchant vessel sailing in the open ocean is required to have an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon. These units while a little pricey are the only technology that will automatically send your vessel's name and location to one of the COPAS/SARSAT satellites constantly monitoring the 406mhz frequency. We have two of these
onboard, one mounted for quick release, the other stowed in our life boat. Without one on the sailboat the lone sailor stood little chance of notifying anyone about his situation if he was in distress.

Sadly what could have been a Search and Rescue event soon turned into a recovery event. Another vessel closer to the search area had discovered the sail boat but with no one onboard. From plotting the last known position and the current position of the sailboat it appeared that she had been drifting for the better part of the last week meaning that it
is very unlikely the owner will be recovered.

When the RCC gave us the news and released us from the Search and Rescue I wanted to ask about the details of the recovery but decided not to waste the lieutenant's time on the sat-phone. It's hard to say if an EPIRB could have saved this sailor's life or not, especially if he went overboard, but surely going offshore without one was a poor decision to start with. I'll be interested to see what Google can tell me about this event when we get back to the states.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Accident Packages

This morning during a routine fire and boat drill of one the crew took an ugly digger while stepping out of the emergency gear locker. The fall splayed him painfully out on the deck and cut a centimeter long gash on his shin. The accident required minor first aid; some irrigating, disinfecting, butterfly suturing and a sterile dressing. That was the easy part.

What was to follow as required by the International Safety Management code was a full accident report plus post accident drug and alcohol testing. A full investigation replete with witness statements, photographs and measurements of the offending threshold had to be gathered for submittal to the home office along with the results of a breathalyzer and two vials of urine for shipment to Quest Diagnostics. All over a little gash on a sailors shin!

It wasn't always like this, was it? How could have Magellan found Tiera Del Fuego if every time he disemboweled a mutinous crewmember his entire fleet had to sign a statement stating whether they had any personal knowledge of the alleged accident? How could Nelson have fought at Trafalgar or John Paul Jones harass the British if they had to fill out a ream of paper every time blood was spilt?

No, I think this is a recent phenomenon. It reminds me of when I had to sign the DOI on a tank vessel, initialing each line every time I relieved a cargo watch restating that I had took all the precautions I could to not make a mess of the environment and that I was solely liable and fineable. Or the time when one operations manager wanted a 2692
serious marine incident form filled out for any injury including a cut finger to which the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office replied they had better things to do.

I love covering my ass just as much as the next paranoid sailor but covering the company's ass is a real headache. I can understand their caution though. If I was the president of human resources for this company and had seen as many law suits come across my desk as I know he has than I'd probably want pictures of the bed where one Steward's
Assistant sprained her back tucking a hospital corner one trip last year and ended up being not fit for duty, a mariner's worst nightmare.

Nonetheless the process for a medical incident beyond what an ibuprofen can take care of is incredible. The entire crew actually has to attest on paper whether they have any knowledge of the accident. If you do, god forbid, than you must fill out a lengthy witness statement in case you end up having to testify that Joe Sailor actually wasn't wearing safety glasses when he put his eye out with a grape fruit seed.

Worse than having to make a statement is having to report an injury that results in lost time. If an accident causes any crew member to not be able to return to work for a single day than the entire ship's crew looses their daily safety incentive bonus for ninety days. Not only does it affect the crew onboard the ship but also the returning relief crew who take it very personally.

Indeed litigious sailors and their lawyers have made the American Merchant Marine a much more paranoid and paperwork ridden industry than it had to be, and is the main reason why foreign companies are so reluctant to hire lawsuit happy Americans. But somewhere amidst all those ISM manuals there is some good that comes from that accident packet besides making sure the company doesn't loose their shirt over a 12 inch high hatch coaming on one of their managed vessels.

Every quarter the pencil pushers get together and analyze each accident, incident and near miss reported by the fleet. The result is a lengthy report about the types, causes and recommendations concerning each accident. Not that anyone besides a few interested crew read this report but if one is curious than you can quickly see what the leading causes of accidents in your particular organization are. Also the safety incentive, though so easily repealed, is a good tool in making the crew aware of their obligation to perform jobs safely and think about the hazards involved in their daily routines.

Unfortunately an organization's answer to injuries is to create more policy. Checklists, hazard analysis and permits abound. Sometimes money is put into new or better equipment or repairs of safety critical devices but I suppose as long as we keep getting hit in the head with monkey's fists they'll have no choice but to make us wear another piece of Personal Protective Equipment.

Another twist to this little incident is that the crew member who took the tumble was one of our plus size sailors. Anyone can trip and fall but the physical limitations caused by obesity are a disability greatly increasing the potential for injuries and accidents. This also increases the liability of the company with more potential for medical evacuations, hospitalizations and lawsuits.  The company trusts the contracted union to provide qualified mariners who are FFD or Fit For Duty but as is so often the case, people who are obviously very overweight are still being employed regularly thanks to oblivious doctors.

Many private companies and some union contracted ones, i.e. tanker operators, already have their own physical standards that preclude individuals like this from working on their ships. Now it will be up to the Coast Guard to enforce medical standards that will hopefully prevent doctors ashore from certifying people who are obviously limited by their body size in being fit for duty at sea on ships like mine.

Meat Salad

I love food and I love to eat. When working at sea I love how incredibly hungry I become in a few hours, that the food is free and prepared
thrice a day without dishes or groceries or leftovers to worry about. Furthermore depending how one looks at it, the more you eat the more you
get paid. Lately though my love of food has extended to cold cereal and noodles in a cup far too often. That's because despite the Steward's
friendly personality and nearly thirty years of professional belly rubbing his skills at keeping the crew fat are limited.

Yesterday really astounded me when we not only had ham and bacon for breakfast but sausage patties, sausage links cut in half, sliced
kielbasa and the left over hot dogs from lunch the day before! Who the hell wants six choices of meat at breakfast? Add to this the same food
he's put out for the last forty days; pancakes, grits, scrambled eggs and a bowel of oatmeal he need not renew since he just keeps adding
water day after day after day and you see where I'm going with this.

I suppose I take it a little personally that he really thinks I or anyone else wants the same breakfast day in and day out and that we like
having a meat buffet to choose from. Unfortunately for me, my schedule means this is my lunch and what I wouldn't do for some French toast or a
quiche. Instead I get creative and peel hard-boiled eggs, remove the yolk and put it in between two pieces of rye bread and call it a chicken
burger or cut up a pepper and tomato, toss it in a bowel of grits with home fries and call it pot pie.

I can't tell you how great it is to have a good steward with real culinary skills. It keeps up morale and allows you to eat healthy.
Almost everything we've been served is fried and despite the impending new medical standards the company hasn't gotten the memo about trans
saturated fat fryer oil being bad for the arteries. How I miss the steward that did egg white omelets or cooked a new pot of oatmeal
everyday. The best food I ever had at sea was on a sailboat with a wood-burning stove where the cook was paid a tenth of what this fellow
makes and worked that many times as hard. If only the steward had to spend as much time in vacation based training as the rest of us.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

North Sea Spring

It’s been cold here on the European Continent, really cold. Each day the wind has pulled the fifty-degree chilliness right out of the North Sea and buffeted the ship with it. Even approaching the English Channel it was overcast, blowing an unexpected gale and in the high forties. I found this surprising since on our last go around to the European ports we call on monthly had been during a balmy Easter weekend.

The high winds, besides chilling you each time a navigation bulb burns out in the middle of the night have made bringing the ships into the locks here in Germany and Belgium a little dicey. Strong tugs and good pilots are the norm fortunately and the majority of the time spent in the locks is waiting for smaller short seas traffic to squeeze in next to us for the ride up or down a few meters.

The reluctance to use more expensive weekend labor, a general trend to save costs at every possible opportunity has reduced the occurrence of quick in and out port calls. Instead we spent the past Sunday idle at the dock along with four other car carriers waiting for a Monday morning cargo start at 0600. The docks have a surprising amount of cargo on them, both automobile and the larger better paying “high and heavy” which all the Ro/Ro companies are scrambling to fill their strength decks with. Excavators, crane trucks, cherry pickers and buses abound. The new automobiles though are collecting pollen on their shiny hoods having been sitting without a car market to go to as brake drums slowly rust. We haven’t had a new automobile loaded in Europe for months.

The idle day allowed us to start on the quarterly lashing gear inventory this morning which requires the accounting for every last car chock, lashing chain, binder bar and all of the 17,000 car straps. With a counter in my hand I spent the better part of the morning thumb clicking the yellow tension straps the longshoremen use to lash down the 6000 cars we could someday load again.

The Captain, always endeavoring in getting his crew enough rest and time to go ashore arranged a bus pickup from the Antwerp Seaman’s Center to take anyone interested into town at the end of the work day. Having an idle day without longshoremen to run me over with their forklifts I couldn’t resist and returned to the City I had visited as a cadet. I was immediately reminded that Belgians have not only love their beer, the best in the world, but are just as fond of their food. Mussels, chocolate, French fries and the Best Belgian waffle ever were soon bound for my mouth as I made my way to the city center. The architecture in Antwerp is also quite remarkable beating Bremerhaven hands down though just the tip of the iceberg for gothic European cities, the majority of which I haven’t yet visited.

Most of the crew took the return bus to the ship at midnight winding through Antwerp’s sprawling port and industrial plants. Grain silos, phenol refineries, container cranes, cracking towers and a nuclear power plant providing the juice for all of this industry lined the Westerschelde River.

Among those who stayed ashore longer, to undoubtedly patronize the experienced staff of Antwerp’s red light district was the engine cadet whom I had the pleasure of removing from the taxicab at six in the morning. Completely incapacitated by the staggers and jags I was forced to dig through his pockets thankfully pulling out a wad of crumpled 20 euro notes to pay off the cabbie. I didn’t feel like having to cover his 60 euro ride myself.

I couldn’t help but give the driver a sizable tip from the cadet’s unspent cash. Not only did he transport a drooling representative of an American service academy back to the ship but he also returned the 19 year old to the correct vessel after the small miracle of not being getting mugged in Antwerp.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Rule number nine

I'm not sure what it is about ships but small boats love to get close to us when were in a channel and have no room to avoid them. This was the case for each port we called at on the U.S. East Coast.

In Baltimore after undocking and heading out into the 150 mile long Chesapeake Bay a ketch decided that we had ample room to maneuver under the Francis Scott Key bridge. Instead of moving out of the channel the skipper kept his position in the "Narrow Channel" (More on that later) which we were restricted to navigating within. Only at the last minute did the sailing vessel move to the red side of the channel giving us enough water to line up with the center line of the bridge.

What the skipper failed to realize was that the perspective from the bridge of a 600 foot ship lining up to pass between the steel supports of a frail road bridge are quite narrow compared to the view from his open cockpit. A misunderstanding that almost drove us out of the channel to avoid spoiling his afternoon sail; a subset of mariner's I must secretively claim allegiance to when working on the big ships due to the frequency of near misses like this.

On the way into Charleston South Carolina a parade of sport fishers were getting a jump on the day heading out of the breakwater in the dark and in force. As we gingerly made our turn from the Fort Sumter range onto Mount Pleasant range one daring idiot felt he had to cross the channel so close ahead of us at the very last moment that he disappeared under the bow. Seeing how the bridge on my vessel is set only 40 meters abaft the bow its evident how close to our bulbous he came. If only one of our anchors would have let go...

The moment when you, the pilot and the captain loose sight of a speeding small craft can be a tense one. The horn was already sounding five short blasts signaling that we were in doubt as to his intentions, specifically why the heck he wanted to play chicken with 20,000 tons of high tensile steel. Chances are they never even heard the danger signal
from our very convincing horn above the roar of their XM radio and the twin 250 mercury's purring on the transom; one near miss for the power boaters.

The next example of poor seamanship and situational unawareness occurred as we backed off our berth in down town Charleston after a quick six hours of cargo operations. As a tug pulled the stern laterally off the dock and the bow thruster pushed with all its 2000 horses we encountered another WAFI much like the one in Baltimore. WAFI by the way stand for Wind Assisted Foolish Incompetent or any other derogatory words you can abbreviate with the letters F & I.

He was demonstrating his poor judgment in crew choice by leaving the helm to his inexperienced buddy who was zigzagging down wind while the slightly more experienced skipper chased the errant jib sheet finally
taking the slack out and putting on even more speed into our path.

When the captain and pilot lost sight of the forty foot sailboat dead astern they began calling him on the VHF and asking the mate on the stern for position updates fearing that we might chum him up in our slow astern bell. Needing all the room we could get to safely back down to the channel and then maneuver into it having a sail boat jibing back and forth close astern was unsettling. When the skipper finally responded on the VHF the pilot gave him a good tongue lashing that must have smarted with all the other weekend warriors listening in and told him to stay close to the docks leaving the ship ample room. A second near miss for the sail boaters.

The next day, down in the swamps of Georgia, we met a dozen antiquated commercial shrimp boats coming out of Saint Simons sound. We utilized the searchlight to express our doubt and dismay when one boat crossed
the channel close ahead and when another wouldn't give us enough room to make our initial turn past the hundred foot tall lighthouse just inside the jetties.

After the first near ninety degree turn onto Jekyll Island reach we passed an outbound bulk ship and thought we had cleared the majority of the stubborn fish farmers. Unfortunately a few minutes later the pilot spotted the outline of one more boat dead in the water and just inside the channel at the next bend we had to turn at. The lack of crew or lights on the boat was disconcerting, perhaps his engine had failed?

The captain had the halogen search light trained on the wheelhouse as the pilot began futilely hailing him on the radio. Once we had slowed the engine the pilot had me start sounding the danger signal and began contemplating how much damage would be done to the hull if we had to exit the channel and pile the ship up in water far too shallow for our 28 foot draft.

Instead of risking grounding, flooding and a potential oil spill blackening the bird reserve right next to us the pilot told the Captain he thought he could make the turn splitting the increasingly narrow space in between the shrimper and the blinking red buoy marking the starboard hand side of the 400 foot wide channel. This was a calculated risk for sure but with the unresponsive boat not moving it left us with little choice between smashing him to bits or shutting the port down until the grounded PCTC could be floated, inspected and repaired.

Just as I was switching from the autopilot, which up until this point had been engaged as is normal practice for pilots experienced in its use, to hand steering for the precarious turn the fishing boat came alive sputtering in a circle to head out of the channel. He had chosen wisely to get away from us and into the open water to the left but just as we thought he was clear of our turn to starboard he put on hard rudder and swung back into the channel right across our path! Whether he was completely disoriented, under the influence of narcotics or still asleep remains undetermined but this last moment maneuver reeked of a death wish and I'm sure everyone on the bridge was confident that we were about to buy a splintered shrimp boat.

After his outriggers had disappeared under the bow somehow he miraculously emerged on our starboard side hightailing it for the opposite side of the buoy and towards water shallow enough to ground out even a fishing boat. We had enough time while making the course change to train the search light on his transom to read his name. An incident report would be needed if we still grounded now that we were so close to the inside of the channel and ledge where another deep draft ship had grounded a year before. Luckily with a still ebbing tide we missed the bank and assumed the fish farmer had safely come out of his suicidal turn to net shrimp for another day.

The International Collision Regulations that govern vessels to prevent collision provide the same guidance for all three of these situations. In open water, unencumbered by our deep draft, we would have been obliged to give way to the sail boat and the fishing boat if he had been engaged in fishing. But there are several exceptions to this rule and had they been known by the operators of these three vessels than they may have paid more heed to our presence.

Rule number nine, which applies both in the United States and overseas grants a ship which can only safely navigate within a narrow channel the privilege of being unimpeded by vessels less than 20 meters in length and sailing vessels. In the case of the fishing vessel had we collided and the case was brought to court any defense that he had been fishing and there fore exempt of wrongdoing would have been futile. Rule number nine also applies to vessels engaged in fishing which must not impede any vessel operating in a narrow channel regardless of their size. In other words fishermen cannot fish in the middle of the road.

Having a working knowledge of the collision rules seems like a no-brainer but so many recreational and even commercial fishermen assume that they either have the right of way or are so small they can't possibly pose any issues to that ship coming down the channel. While I realize that the perspective from the console of a Boston Whaler is very different from the bridge of a ship but it still doesn't mean it's a good idea to play chicken with our bulbous bows. We might just get nervous and try and cover our asses by doing something like changing course if we feel collision is unavoidable at the last moment. In other words doubtful maneuvers with unpredictable and indistinct outcomes should always be avoided.

On our way out of Brunswick we saw the fishing boat which so narrowly missed us in the morning. I could tell we all felt a tinge of schadenfreude seeing how this errant fishing boat had ended up in the exact situation we all thought our ship and careers were going to end up in. Hard aground.