Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Outward Bound

It is a clear morning here on the coast of Maine. The Atlantic looks calm from the top of Munjoy Hill, the fog from yesterday has evaporated and with it my short vacation from work. I'm committing domestic suicide by leaving today, any hope for a normal June ashore pretending to be an unemployed mariner is gone. Instead I'll be back on the payroll today when I join the schooner Westward and begin working for the Ocean Classroom Foundation.

My first employer after graduating from college OCF has been running sail training for youth at sea for many, many years. In thier words; "Ocean Classroom Foundation is an educational organization that provides programs of sea education and adventure for the youth of America aboard the schooners Westward, Spirit of Massachusetts and Harvey Gamage. Ocean Classroom Foundation is a leader in experiential education, with award-winning programs sailing from the Canadian Maritimes to the Caribbean Sea. Programs vary from one-day, to one-week, to semester long adventures for middle school, high school and college students; custom programs for schools, youth and community organizations and continuing education for American history teachers."

I'm looking forward to the next three weeks as a break from my normal work routine which honestly isn't as fulfilling as it once was. Working with students, in this case Outward Bound participants, is a challenge unlike anything I've experienced in the Merchant Marine. Unlike cadets, most of whom seem like they've been forced to be at sea as an unfortunate requirement of a free four year education, these students (Or their parents) are paying to spend three weeks of their summer learning how to operate a traditional sailing vessel and will be eager to soak up everything the crew and instructors have to show them.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Scrapping an old home

A few weeks ago while crossing the Atlantic I passed the car carrier where I lived, worked and "Cut my teeth" for the better part of three years voyaging around the world. She was built in Japan in 1978 with all the bells and whistles imaginable for a ship of her day. These included some of the first hydraulically lifted decks for cargo versatility on a ship of her size, automated tension mooring winches and stern ramp and even an taffrail speed log with an electronic repeater on the bridge. By the time I worked on her all of this equipment was defunct or on the verge of inoperable requiring endless days of stemming leaking hydraulic oil. Her hull though was constructed of thick gauged mild steel and took a thousand poundings that would have cracked the brittle steel of any modern ship but left her undaunted.

She sailed under different flags, the first and last being Norwegian and in the middle under the stars and stripes for fourteen years. She was, as far as I know, one of the first foreign flagged vessels to be registered in the U.S. to carry cargo for the Department of Defense in addition to her normal commercial trade.

This government subsidy, now known as the Maritime Security Program is touted as essential to maintaining the American flagged deep sea merchant fleet needed to support the United States during times of crisis and conflict. It provides a subsidy for foreign built hulls to be flagged in the United States is kept available to the Department of Defense and is the reason many American's have seafaring jobs retaining a small and highly skilled labor pool.

It seemed very strange to see her on the Automatic Identification System (AIS) under her original name which had been repainted on the transom the day I walked off of her. Re-crewed with a mixed nationality compliment, Indian Captain and Engineers, Phillipino Mate and deck crew, she left Abu Dhabi to fill the projected void of tonnage in the owners vast logistics network when shipping was still good.

Unfortunately for her the recession has affected the roll on/roll off markets substantially necessitating the "Cold steel" lay up of 25% of the fleet. Being one of the oldest ships in the company she was being eyed for the chopping block. After spending a month at anchor off Annapolis Maryland she finally set sail for Jordan after one last load in Dundalk.

The same week that we passed in the night, when I called her on the radio to see where they were headed next, the owners in Oslo had all ready decided her fate. Sadly for the new crew they were sending her to the far east for one last discharge after which she would meet her demise at the end of a thousand cutting torches in Shanghai, just a Yellow Sea away from where she was born.

Even in her death the vessel will probably set a profit record. Commanding day rates near those of super tankers she gained the reputation of being a money maker in her hey day of government contracts and now with her thick hull and framing she'll fetch a very good price in the scrapyards of Asia.

I can relate to how her crew must feel paying off an old ship knowing it's the end of her days. Once a ship has delivered you and your ship mates safely through a harrowing storm or two you begin to feel an affection as if she was a living being. In scrapping her away you can't help but feel like your loosing something more than just a vessel. Above is the old ship just passing through the Kills in January of this year. A familiar sight for the last thirty years.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


What's almost harder than telling your girlfriend goodbye for two and a half months? Having to tell her you've missed your connection and won't be making it to dinner that night after waiting 75 days for an on time arrival at her doorstep. Traveling is rough and weather delays make it so much worse.

I felt a little embarrassed being taken completely unawares by the frontal system churning up hot air and releasing massive thunderstorms all along the Mid Atlantic coastline. My job includes staying on top of the weather and had I been paying attention maybe I would have worn more than flip flops and board shorts onto the airplane. At least I packed a toothbrush.

Lines seemed to be the only place where I made any progress during the 48 hours it took me to complete two 1 and a 1/2 hour flight segments from Charleston to Northern New England. Whether it was waiting for a cab out of the airport in Washington where I missed my connection or waiting to check in to the hotel the lack of sleep, which began at midnight the day I was paid off, compounded.

The airline did give me a discounted room at the Hyatt which I accepted over one of those airport benches with the armrests that inhibit weary travelers from sleeping. I hoped to pass out for the full six hours I had in the top floor Parlor Suite (The only room they had left) but found myself wide-awake after three because I had just dropped a time bomb on my biological clock.

Instead of fighting it I fooled myself into wakefulness and went down to the lobby for a great breakfast at Panera. Here I was greeted by a crowd of business suited inner beltway D.C. suburbanites hobnobbing over the wonders of geospatial intelligence and how it can be employed to empower the war fighter though information technology. It felt just like that scene from Fahrenheit 911 where the business guy admits war sucks for civilians but it’s damn good for business.

The 2009 United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation conference did look somewhat interesting; it included speakers from the government agency that develops navigational charts; the former Defense Mapping Agency renamed the National Imagery and Mapping Association. But topics such as Vapor Phase Synthesis of Upconverting Nanoparticles made me feel like just another dumb sailor so I decided to pass up a research chemist's presentation.

After this moment of culture shock, a result of the luxurious surroundings, roasting Starbucks, well dressed business elite and PhD's (A sharp contrast from the steel holds of my ship, Folgers coffee and boiler suit wearing co-workers) I stocked up on caffeine and set out to conquer the skies of Northern New England, weather pending.

My bags had ended up at their proper final destination but I had not. This necessitated a rental car to drive the tree lined roads of New Hampshire to fetch them 100 miles to the east but I was buzzing from the freedom that signing off a ship always entails. By the end of the ordeal I estimated that I had gotten about four hours of sleep in 48 hours and was feeling pretty loopy by the time we did get around to that welcome home dinner.

At least I was able to maintain a sufficient level of sobriety throughout. My younger brother, who recently began his seafaring career, was thrown off his first flight home after three months as a trainee for stumbling one too many times while boarding the airplane. I could not blame him though, airport bars are have always been there for homeward bound water weary sailors.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Photo's from my last hitch

The N.S. Savannah after her recent paint job thanks to the Maritime Administration moored in Baltimore Harbor. The vessel, the first and only nuclear powered commercial freighter, is a national historic landmark.
Baltimore inner harbor on a quiet Monday morning.
One of the lock entrances to Bremerhaven's old non tidal basins.
The awkward modern architecture of Bremerhaven's not so historic looking historic waterfront.
This is the remote controlled ship pool at the very impressive Bremerhaven Maritime Museum. I was really impressed by the love of boats and the North Sea Bremerhoovians express. There was a line of parents and kids waiting to tool around the Rotter Sans light with a model pilot cutter or fish processor. If I ever make it big I will have one of these in my basement!

The Eleonora Maersk bound for Bremerhaven Germany on the same day as we were. She is the sister ship to the Emma Maersk and the Estelle Maersk, the largest container ships ever built. The were constructed shortly before this global recession and the Eleonora can be seen with only half of her above deck capacity stacked.

She has a total teu capacity 11,000 and it is rumored that a capacity of 13,500 teu is possible. She is 397 meters long, 56 meters wide, has a draft of 30 meters with a dead weigth of 156,907 tons. Most suprisingly and thanks to vast amounts of automation she only carries a crew of 13. She is registered in Denmark.
Government building in Antwerp. Just like junoir cruise without all the midshipmen running amuck.
One of the best parts of Belgian culture. I particularly liked a beer brewed by former coal miners in the now defunct mining region of the country.
The entrance to the Antwerp maritime museum.
This Red Funnel Line ferry which services the Isle of Wight can be seen here headed back to Southampton. An Ikea just opened in town and paid for the hulls of two of the ferries to be painted with the familiar Swedish colored logo. Pretty good advertising stunt.

The cathedral at dusk.
Two car carriers laid up at the Southampton Ro/Ro berths. There were another four which had been at anchor off the approaches to the Solent for several months. A sign of the times.
The sun rises again. Mornings like this serve to remind me what it is I love about working at sea.

Apples to Oranges: A poor analogy :: By MAREX

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The Maritime Executive Magazine :: Apples to Oranges: A poor analogy ::

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