Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas at Sea - Robert Louis Stevenson

The sheets were frozen hard, and they cut the naked hand;

The decks were like a slide, where a seaman scarce could stand;

The wind was a nor'-wester, blowing squally off the sea;

And cliffs and spouting breakers were the only things a-lee.

They heard the surf a-roaring before the break of day;
But 'twas only with the peep of light we saw how ill we lay.
We tumbled every hand on deck instanter, with a shout,
And we gave her the maintops'l, and stood by to go about.

All day we tacked and tacked between the South Head and the North;
All day we hauled the frozen sheets, and got no further forth;
All day as cold as charity, in bitter pain and dread,
For very life and nature we tacked from head to head.

We gave the South a wider berth, for there the tide-race roared;
But every tack we made we brought the North Head close aboard.
So's we saw the cliff and houses and the breakers running high,
And the coastguard in his garden, with his glass against his eye.

The frost was on the village roofs as white as ocean foam;
The good red fires were burning bright in every longshore home;
The windows sparkled clear, and the chimneys volleyed out;
And I vow we sniffed the victuals as the vessel went about.

The bells upon the church were rung with a mighty jovial cheer;
For it's just that I should tell you how (of all days in the year)
This day of our adversity was blessèd Christmas morn,
And the house above the coastguard's was the house where I was born.

O well I saw the pleasant room, the pleasant faces there,
My mother's silver spectacles, my father's silver hair;
And well I saw the firelight, like a flight of homely elves,
Go dancing round the china plates that stand upon the shelves.

And well I knew the talk they had, the talk that was of me,
Of the shadow on the household and the son that went to sea;
And O the wicked fool I seemed, in every kind of way,
To be here and hauling frozen ropes on blessèd Christmas Day.

They lit the high sea-light, and the dark began to fall.
"All hands to loose topgallant sails," I heard the captain call.
"By the Lord, she'll never stand it," our first mate, Jackson, cried.
. . . ."It's the one way or the other, Mr. Jackson," he replied.

She staggered to her bearings, but the sails were new and good,
And the ship smelt up to windward just as though she understood;
As the winter's day was ending, in the entry of the night,
We cleared the weary headland, and passed below the light.

And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board but me,
As they saw her nose again pointing handsome out to sea;
But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold,
Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Void of all matter besides the liquid ocean and gaseous heavens the sea is an amazing place to call home. I adore living in the immensity of this natural world and have been to no other place on earth where so much of it can be seen at once. Granted it’s all blue, or in the middle of the night a purple grey, but the sheer scale of the ocean continues to awe and inspire me. On nights such as this when visibility is limited only by the horizon, the moon is full, the water rippled by a light wind and undulated by the swell from a forgotten storm, the majesty of seafaring is tangible.

Because of the moons effect on the sky the horizon appears as a sharp line delineating where a pale metallic blue meets the inky purple sea. Everything is circular. The horizon circumscribes a body of water in every direction beginning at eye level 14 miles distant giving the impression that you’re slightly depressed as if standing in the middle of a shallow bowl. Above the sky appears like a dome fitted perfectly onto this watery disc and with the moon shinning only the brightest stars are visible causing the winter constellations to stand out that much more.

The weather for the past three days has been exceptional. The sky has been clear and the air absolutely dry. Warm water and warm days at this southerly latitude normally means humidity but because the prevailing easterly breeze is blowing off Saharan Africa the air is completely dry. All night long I can feel the warm breeze as it blows through open bridge wing doors over my bare arms and legs. It feels like a fleece blanket just from the dryer is being wrapped around me.

On top of all these sublime conditions today is the winter solstice and to kick this celestial phenomena off a full lunar eclipse took place all morning long two points on the starboard bow. Through the entire watch the lookout and I viewed the full moon turn rusty red and the faintest stars become emboldened by the increasing dark. It’s enough sensory stimulation to give reason to doubt if this is really my job as if something besides the need to work calls me to live half the year in this place.

Our track has been laid well to the south of the major low pressure system that will be developing on the East Coast later this week. Because of this we will be entering the Caribbean south of Cuba through the Caicos passage and not the usual route through Hole in the Wall in the Bahamas just off Florida’s southern tip. Being closer to the Cape Verde Islands than the Canaries is why we’re having such a stellar run of weather.

It is drastic a contrast to the solstice I spent at work two years ago in the North Sea. We were on our way to Germany and the sun refused to rise until ten in the morning. The air was bitter cold and damp. This morning as the earth’s shadow recedes from the moon the sun is simultaneously warming the eastern horizon and it’s only five in the morning. Ideal weather at sea makes life much easier and I’ve noticed how it has also buoyed spirits. This is good because the holidays can be stressing for mariners stuck at sea.

Besides having awesome watches filled with stars and lunar eclipses I’m also elated because I’ve had a string of days with the crew doing nothing but chipping rust and painting without fear of rain and flash rust. It’s greatly increased both my own and the Boatswain’s sense of productivity though he continues complaining about how slow the guys paint. I agree that they are slow but as long as it gets done without drips, spills or holidays I’ll be satisfied.

I had an epiphany the other day while I was working overtime. A hydraulic cylinder had decided to start leaking and I was hurriedly trying to free a corroded block valve that would stem the leak if closed. Looking at my watch I grew frustrated that I was running out of time to get the job done before having to clean up for watch.

As I sat there wrenching and hammering away I couldn’t believe that there had been a day many years ago when all I could do at work was count down the hours until I would be released from my servitude. Back then I was mucking Alpaca stalls or stacking hay bales on the back of a trailer and spent as much time sneaking cigarette breaks as I did wheeling wheelbarrows of shit out of the paddocks.

It was such a different experience as a teenager needing money but really preferring to not work. Now all I want is more time in the work day to get things accomplished and always come up short. There is just too much to do on these big ships and neither enough people or time to get it all done. That’s the challenge though and probably the reason sailors make more now than the what the minimum wage paid in the nineties.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Heavy weather and the impending coffee crisis

You know it’s going to be a rough morning when the water in your toilet bowel has almost been emptied by the overnight rolling. That was my first thought a few mornings ago as the ship passed from the lee of Crete and into an area of the Mediterranean where the gale force winds had enough fetch to build up a 20 foot swell. Staggering from an almost sleepless night to the bridge for my morning watch I met a fatigued captain who had been up all night trying to reduce the wracking stresses our ship was experiencing.

Heavy weather sailing is an experiment in course and engine adjustments. Big seas exert immense forces on even the largest ships affecting the six degrees of freedom a vessel afloat experiences. Heave, sway, surge, roll, pitch and yaw each describe an axis of motion on witch a ship rotates when inclined by external forces (Not to be confused with list or trim which describe static conditions affected by the movement of internal weights such as fuel, ballast or cargo). When exacerbated by heavy weather these six ranges of motion can have detrimental effects. Not only are the vessels course and speed keeping abilities deteriorated but her stability, cargo and crew become endangered as well.

With the swell on the beam and plenty of sea room to leeward the Captain decided to put the seas slightly abaft the beam and reduce the RPMs to slow ahead. The reduction in speed eased the pounding action of the bow which was reverberating down the keel and into the house shaking the entire ship like an earthquake. The course change minimized the rolling to some extent except when a larger than average wave slammed into the transom.

Because of the rolling we soon found what was and was not adequately secured on shelves and desks and counter tops. A refrigerator decided to tear loose of the bulkhead nearly flinging all it’s contents across the galley deck. The coffee station on the bridge piled itself into the sink during one large roll to starboard, a lucky thing seeing how the coffee makers and nearly full pots could have easily gone the other way spilling onto the deck and down the ladder well.

As soon as the day working ABs and Boatswain were up I had them checking cargo lashings beginning at the uppermost deck. Vertical accelerations, the kind which loosen cargo lashings and send vehicles skidding are more severe the further from the center of gravity plus most of the cargo on the upper decks was secured by web lashings which will chafe and break more easily than chain. One parted lashing was discovered just as the piece was beginning down the destructive path of damaging the eight vehicles around it. We had it chocked and re-lashed before it caused any major issues.

On the lower decks the heavier cargo lashed by chain was literally jumping every time the transom would take a wave sending a vertical jolt to the stern of the ship. This was a little disturbing to watch. Timing the tightening of the chain is crucial when what may have been a sedentary 60 ton piece of machinery is now flexing it’s suspension with each roll. Fingers and faces have to be clear of the lashings when the deck heaves upwards and the chains come taught. When the ship falls into the trough of the next wave the binder bar is quickly reefed on as the cargo comes back down to the deck with maximum inertia. If you time it right the chain is tightened with less effort than usual.

Once the crew had the cargo holds under control I made a round to ensure our lifeboat and rescue boat, anchors, cranes and ramps were all secured. The jostling caused one small hydraulic leak on a ramp which we discovered the following day as well as loosening the foremast stays but all this was easily corrected once the weather abated. The storm dissipated after 36 hours but it lasted long enough to wear everyone out and make the muscles in my legs sore from the constant compensation standing on a moving ship.

A run to the middle east is a blessing in the winter. The weather we normally come across is nothing compared to weather typical of runs in the winter North Pacific or winter North Atlantic. It served as a reminder how quickly your seemingly stable home can turn into a roller coaster and reinforced why I always try to get the longshoremen to put more chain on the cargo. They’re not the ones who have to risk it when a piece breaks loose.

In other news my dependence on caffeine has taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Consuming a pot of coffee before sunrise plus frequent caffeine infusions during the day with Earl Grey tea and diet coke has coincided with the rationing of our last real whole bean coffee. I have personally made matters worse by giving in to the stewards request to share some of our remaining whole beans with him since he ran out of his own stash a few days ago. Feeling sympathy for another connoisseur I relinquished an entire bag of Star Bucks Kenya Roast, spicy with hints of sweet currant, an action which was met with the full wrath of the third mate. Apparently one who loathes Folgers more than I he felt my actions were a direct assault on his situational awareness.

I didn’t really need to justify my actions though because for one the steward does a really good job of feeding us and therefore I would do anything I can for the guy and two, he’s not the mate. If a littler hypertension over the sharing of our sacred coffee is the most disgruntled the crew gets I can live with that. It would have pissed me off too which might seem irrational to people with a Dunkin Donuts or better yet, an Early Bird cafe right around the corner but for us out here we have no such luxuries. If it’s not provisioned, bought in port, locked in the slop chest or packed in your suitcase than you will go without. When the apples are eaten there are no more and when the milk goes sour you eat your cereal dry.

As a Chief Mate I worked for once told me as he was putting down a bowl of ice cream after a robust meal “Out here we can’t have any booze and no ones getting laid so besides eating there’s not much else for distraction.” Well, at least we have coffee, for now.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Snakes, oil and the sea

When the hustle of arriving, departing and working cargo in port is left astern the monotony of seafaring can be quick to set in. Though the work list remains long and there is always more to be done than time allows the tantalizing thought of home waiting over the horizon lends to ever present feelings of expectation and impatience. I'm doing all I can this week to fight those sensations and remain focused on the task at hand but it's a challenge when the first snow is falling in New England and Christmas will, for the third year in a row, be another day spent at sea.

Departing the Arabian Gulf marked the half way hurdle of the trip, at least in a geographical sense. The coast was an easy one with lighter cargo volumes than hoped for and a sensible port schedule. Our last berth in Kuwait happened to be adjacent to a collier discharging her sooty cargo onto a conveyor belt. The windward cloud of coal dust did a fine job of coating the ship from bow to stern requiring that the first three days at sea be solely committed to washing the entire vessel down. I had the day men and watch standers on overtime use fire hoses to remove the soot and then power washers to rinse the corrosive salt water off.

While the deck department took care of washing the car the engineers pumped our gas. The only stop after passing through the Strait of Hormuz on the way to the Suez Canal was at what has to be one of the world's largest gas stations. On the Indian Ocean side of the U.A.E. the ports of Fujairah and Khwar Fakkan supply bunkers to thousands of ships every month. While there is a port the majority of vessels wait at anchor for the bunker barges, small tankers commonly seen in the waters of Europe and Asia, to tie up alongside and deliver the fuel. It's a popular spot for stemming your fleet as bunker prices are a better deal here so close to the source.
The anchorage here is packed.

Anchoring off the lofty, rugged, and brown coastline of the Arabian Peninsula in water 90 meters deep requires a substantial amount of anchor chain. A merchant ship typically carries 12 to 14 shots (A shot is 15 fathoms, a fathom 6 feet) of chain in each locker, port and starboard. Safely anchoring in 300 feet of water meant paying out ten shots of chain which still only provided an anchor chain to water depth ratio of 3:1 whereas a scope of 5:1 is preferable. Once the chain was laid out, the flukes set in the bottom and the ship tide rode headed into the current the bunker barge began her tedious approach.

This approach, which in flat calm seas and light airs should only take 15 to 25 minutes, takes twice that here due to the poor quality of the ship handlers working these barges. Routinely the Captain will hemm and haw his little vessel and controllable pitch propeller creeping up almost parallel to the hull from a hundred yards astern and then try to get just close enough for a heaving line to be thrown in the eastern fashion; by whirling the monkey fist in a massive circle over the side of the boat and then releasing it at our heads. On one occasion I watched the bunker barge take a full two hours to get close enough so that a messenger could be passed over. Once the yelling and screaming of the bunker barge's frantic captain subsides and they're finally made fast the engineers connect a fuel hose and the Second Assistant oversees the bunkering of several thousand metric tons of heavy fuel oil.

With our substantial thirst for hydrocarbons nearly satiated we began to make preparations for weighing the anchor early the next morning. While receiving the last of our fresh food and milk from a supply boat some of the crew were marveling at a dozen huge dolphin fish basking in the glow of our halogen floodlights. Among the fish circling about in search of food pale sea snakes, at least four feet long, slithered through the water. A few minutes later the eerie nocturnal scene was interrupted by a viscous brown cloud moving down the side of the ship. The presence of oil in the water to any mariner I've met is cause for grave concern and the sighting was diligently reported. Topping off was suspended and the Captain summoned.

A few minutes later my phone rang and a few more after that, hardly awake, I was peering into the darkness over the bow trying to see where the oil had originated. The Chief verified that the fuel tank levels were all around 80% and that no pressure fluctuations or burps through the tank vents had occurred. Feeling confident that the oil could not have come from us the captain on the bunker barge remarked that oil is routinely seen in the waters around Fujairah. The fuel surveyor attending the load said the shores were covered in oil and that it was probably just some ship pumping bilges or slop oil in the middle of the night at max current.

Just to be sure the captain ordered the rescue boat lowered for a hull survey. Appearing as if ready for a search and rescue mission adorned in safety harnesses, life vests and hardhats with headlamps the second mate and I un-griped the boat and had the boatswain lower us into the water. All around us the dolphin popped out of the water returning with a splash. The Chief Engineer was on the radio mischievously reminding us not to fall in and go swimming with the snakes. Though I knew he was just messing with us I was still careful not to put the sponsons down too far with a hard turn in case a coral snake did washed in.

With a strong flashlight we circled the ship and verified that there was definitely slop oil in the water but it wasn't coming from below our waterline. In the strong current it was all ready beginning to dissipate drifting down stream. This was not the first time I had seen oil pollution oil at sea, not even on this trip.

From the perspective of an American crew willfully pumping oil over the side just to save the cost of discharging it legally seems ridiculous. With so much liability in our home waters we wouldn't even contemplate such an act. Oil spills in the united states are not measured in barrels but gallons, a unit the media prefers because everyone knows what a gallon of milk looks like. Even a few table spoons of oil down the scupper from a leaking winch or a blown out hydraulic hose is a reportable quantity. Accidental discharges create a whirlwind of notifications, paperwork, questioning and statements. Intentional discharges, or even negligence brings out the handcuffs.

Yet in the middle of the night on the other side of the world with dozens of ships around who is to say you were the one that pumped the oil? And is anyone checking? Nope. I've never heard of one single port state inspection in the UAE to look over the oil record book pumping arrangement. No helicopters, no boats, no Coast Guard. Even if we had tried to report the spill there would have been no one to tell that would have done anything about it.

During out transit into Iraq we saw an even more blatant example of intentional marine pollution. With a pilot in the wheelhouse we passed by a small offshore supply vessel most likely headed for the Basra oil terminal. Just before our closest point of approach the derelict little boat began pumping it's bilge leaving a black slick of engine oil astern in broad daylight. The pilot didn't even bat and eye while the rest of us were amazed though I suppose if your former dictator lit off all the oil wells in the country causing the worst ecological disaster ever you wouldn't think much of it either.

Even in Kuwait with the coal ship spewing dust all over us there wasn't so much as a boom in the water to retain the dust that was turning the harbor completely black. I couldn't even begin to imagine what it must have been like for that crew to live on such a filthy ship.

Unfortunately for the oceans in this region of the world, and for the reputation of the industry, many ships still turn a blind eye on pollution. While as a whole the affect of shipping on the seas has improved drastically in the last quarter century due to massive international regulation and enforcement some unscrupulous operators will do anything to save a buck.

Relieved by the knowledge that we wouldn't be spending Christmas in a Middle Eastern shipyard having a hull fracture ground out and welded I turned the nimble outboard around at full throttle and stopped just under the bow to check the forward draft mark. As the wake subsided lapping against the bulbous bow the second mate, standing in the front of the fast rescue boat, read the marks.

When we both looked up and saw the starry night sky blocked out by the wineglass shaped aspect of a ship head on we were equally impressed. After years of living on these behemoths growing accustomed to their size the sight from the water line was still incredible. I wanted to take a picture but lacked a camera and the skills to capture such a low light photo. The piercing stars and loom from the hundreds of ships in the anchorage would have made it great.

Turning around the second mate smiled remarking, "So this is what we look like to little boats." Yup, I thought, little boats that get too close out of their own stupidity. By the time we returned beneath the davit and retrieved the hook for recovery the dolphin had stopped jumping and no more snakes were seen.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Sand Land

It begins with the sand. Even before the Suez Canal the proximity of the desert can be seen in the hazy sky. Sunsets are clouded by a veil of ultra fine dust light enough to float through the air and settle on the water after a shamal blows through. It covers every surface of the ship, irritates your eyes, fills your lungs and coats your teeth. It is not pleasant and I'm convinced I have an allergic reaction to all that particulate matter in my chest. I grow tired, have a hard time taking a full breath and can barely breath through my nose. After a few days I become accustomed to my symptoms but they're always there each time I sail to the Middle East.

The Suez Canal is the first stop on our way to the Arabian Gulf and any ports in between. The canal pilots have earned a reputation here, at least on American ships where baksheesh is taken for granted. Everyone wants cigarettes; the pilot boat, the security inspectors, the agent and the pilots. If they don't get enough there is the honking of horns, waving of hands and incredulous shouts of, "Why!? Why do you do this!!?" The health and quarantine inspectors usually leave the galley with a garbage bag full of instant coffee, syrup, honey, sugar and anything else they might have a harder time getting in Egypt. And you can forget buying them off with Newports or Camels, this here is Marlborough country.

The pilots, whom range from competent to outright negligent are a cast of characters. Most claim to be the "Senior Canal" or "Best" pilot which automatically entitles them to another four cartons of cigarettes. 9 out of 10 pilots take their nicotine ravenously and some will gorge on any sweets or fruit put in front of them. Some of the more shameless pilots will scan every unfastened object on the bridge and politely ask if they may have one "For the kids" or "My wife". Sunglasses, jackets, hats, anything edible, and even soap are up for grabs. These generalizations may sound negative but it's simply the truth from the perspective of our bridge team and not something we look forward to.

Interspersed with small military installations, guard shacks and parade grounds there are several conspicuous war memorials commemorating the hostilities with Israel in years past along the banks of the canal. These sometime spur interesting discussions about the fight for the Sinai Peninsula and politics but one thing remains absolute; Israel is not a welcomed neighbor.

The first time I heard the adhan, or the Muslim call to prayer, chanted on the loudspeakers of a mosque in Port Said the pilot asked for a room in which he could pray. Other pilots will simply prostrate themselves on the deck at the back of the bridge facing Mecca. This past transit the pilot asked for one of our signal flags to use as a prayer rug.

Once clear of the Suez Canal the weather usually gets hot. The seawater temps in the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf have been logged up to 90 degrees. With seawater temps like that the engineers are hard pressed to keep the main engine cool enough. When the shamal brings with it the dry desert air the humidity is low and the wet bulb thermometer needs constant refilling. When the air is light and the seas calm the ocean seems to vaporize and at night it can create a fog humid and hot like a steam bath. This time of year though we are lucky to have cool weather which compared to the norm actually feels chilly.

The ports are easy to get into and out of if it was left up to us, few rivers or long channels, but working with the local pilots can be a challenge. Jordan, Bahrain and the Oman have good pilots, some being expatriates from India or Asia. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia however can be a real pain. There seems to be little liability for pilots in this part of the world and therefore little regard for the safety of our ship. Pilots routinely disembark when the vessel is still within the confines of the harbor and raise holy hell if their command is questioned. But at times it must be questioned because at the end of a bad day it's the old man who would be wearing the bracelets, not a pilot belonging to the royal bloodline.

This is one of the reasons keeping it calm, cool and collected is such a necessary skill for interfacing with the locals whether it's on the bridge docking the ship with the Captain or getting cargo on and off. The typical Arabian, in my experience, loves a good argument. The more animated and audible the better. Tantrums are not only for toddlers in this part of the world and if you rebut with like force it will only escalate.

The funniest aspect of this charade is that the typical westerner will take it all personally and start cussing and using derogatory statements but the Middle Easterner will get over it in five minutes. I have taken many a pilots down to meet their boat who were infuriated when he stormed off the bridge but completely over it by the time they were climbing down the ladder. This has led me to believe that this is just their way of communicating and conducting business and has nothing to do with showing dislike for us as American seamen. It's unfortunate that not all Americans working in their waters understand this. Too many assume that freedom of speech and religion is something you pack in your seabag which it most certainly is not.

The abrasive yell talking used by Arabs in authority can also be constantly heard on the VHF radio. Exasperation is easily expressed in Arabic and again if you don't keep it cool things can get testy quick. I try to remain as polite and docile as I can no matter how ridiculous port control or the pilot boat are being. Politeness though won't make the barn yard noises, horrible singing or keying of the mic next to a Mosque at prayer time go away. When there is no more sanctity for channel 16 and you hear these things all night long you know you've entered the Arabian Gulf.

Because I work on a Roll On / Roll Off where the cargo is wheeled rather quickly up and down our stern ramp time in port is limited. Bahrain, Dubai, Aqaba and Salalah would probably be the best liberty ports if we had time to go ashore. The first two being hotspots for Muslims who live in the more culturally restrictive countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and appreciate cold beer and real nightclubs.

The first time I went to Dubai and saw the indoor ski resort, gold suk and luxury island residences in the shape of palm trees being dredged out of the sandy bottom of the gulf the economy was booming. A group of Irish businessmen had just bought the island shaped like their homeland in the "World" residence project and were busy investing their easily gotten money into scale replications of the emerald isle's iconic features. Today the project has slowed and Dubai no longer is growing as fast as it once was but the money is still here. The regions' mineral wealth continues to bring sufficient revenue for all the opulence money can buy in the Gulf States, most of them at least.

That massive wealth, the kind which ensures imported labor to take care of constructing cities and running ports, creates a sharp contrast between the oil rich countries and all the other nations in the middle east. Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iraq come to mind as places that provide the labor for building the mega malls and palaces of the Arabian Peninsula. They are also the source of some of the most interesting boats I have ever seen.

The common sight in port or in the shipping lanes of wooden cargo vessels big enough to carry a crew of ten but small enough to tuck into the marshes and rivers of Iran would be straight out of the bible had they sails instead of diesels. The hulls are shaped and most likely constructed as they have been for thousands of years. I drove by a fleet just waking up in the port of Salalah a few days ago and watched as the groggy crews brushed teeth and washed faces. On the quarter of one boat was a boxed in outcropping in which sat a sailor taking a dump right through the perforated seat and into the harbor. That is some medieval shit if you ask me.

These boats still call on ports all over the Arabian and Indian oceans carrying cargo from big ports to small. They also constitute the fishing fleet, though not so big but similarly shaped. The only fishing boats that don't look like traditional dhows are the fiberglass skiffs used by Somali fishermen but I hear fishing isn't the business of choice in Puntland these days.

Pilots, port state control inspectors and the shipping agents are the only local Muslims I meet and work with in the wealthier gulf states. Everyone else involved in the cargo operation is from another less wealthy country. Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan are prevalent. The differences between nationalities are obvious once you get to know the familiar faces in each port and they get to know you. Some things are common such as the need to meet and greet the higher ups every time the ramp goes down fostering a good relationship and air of cooperativeness. Hand holding is also important for Muslim stevedores with something important to say to you. I've held many a hands for minutes on end in front of large groups of men.

As with all wealth there is a massive contrast between places such as Kuwait City replete with modern skyscrapers and shoreside palaces and somewhere such as Umm Qasr only an hour away by car. Iraq's only deepwater port for dry cargoes, Umm Qasr is every part the opposite of the glitzy air conditioned cities to the south. 60 miles up the Shatt al Arab, a chocolate milk colored river full of silt and poorly buoyed, Umm Qasr is a dusty, trash strewn town with unsecured ports and lots of unemployed men milling about the dock yards.

See the New York Times Slideshow: At Iraqi Port, Chaos and Corruption reign supreme.

I have never been to a country torn by internal ethnic war. While the south of the country has been more or less stable for some time, the British withdrew from this Sunni majority region in 2007, it still is a risky spot for an American flagged vessel for obvious reasons. The 60 mile pilotage up the river was a sobering reminder that not all has been well in this country for many many years. In two spots of the river the sunken hulks of wartime casualties could be seen along the river banks. Much of the munitions, wrecks and mines that had filled the river have been removed by coalition forces but several of the ships were too large to bother. It was a ghostly sight to see the burnt out superstructures and buckled hulls, results of air to surface missiles no doubt and according to our river pilot, fired by the Kuwaitis.

Today the port is filled with stacks of haphazardly placed containers and hundreds of yellow dust covered taxis like a logisticians worst nightmare. Bagged grain was being hand loaded into nets and craned out of two vessel's holds into awaiting dump trucks. A small Iraqi flagged oil tanker was fueling the floating power station, the one and only source for electricity in town which shuts down at night. Despite the bustle it still didn't feel like a secure place and I was happy to have the stern ramp up at the end of the day.

Bagged grain cargoes require ships to remain in port for up to a week

Also unlike other middle eastern ports the labor here was 100% local. The longshoremen were better than expected and didn't steal or ask for anything besides water and a little diesel for the trailer tug. This was a comical event coming at the tail end of the cargo operation as their tug was pulling the last trailer of cargo up and out of the ship. It died from lack of fuel 20 meters from the down hill slope of the stern ramp. Inching it's way on fumes the driver managed to pull up to my fuel hose. I handed the nozzle over to the driver who took one look at the quality of red diesel going into his tank and squeezed the lever as hard as he could. The agent looked at me and in broken English said, "If you leave that with him he will fill the entire tank up. He knows this is good diesel."

I laughed and watched him gleefully top off his rig and jump back in knowing he had scored. He fired up and after a few sputters revved up the engine which promptly died. Scowling he looked down at me and asked "Bad diesel? No good!" He thought he had been tricked. Convinced that he now had a tank full of bad gas he stomped on the pedal and turned the ignition for almost a minute. The engine finally turned over and the pinging of his engine could heard as the old fuel cleared out and he roared off the ship, down the dock on what was the best fuel that tug would likely ever burn.
Iraqi Pilot Boat at the mouth of the Shatt al Arab

Unfortunately for the longshoremen and entire country the port is mired with corruption. A modern, well run port with professional stevedoring and good conditioned cargo handling equipment, such as Salalah or Bahrain, might charge up to $10,000 US dollars in port fees to dock a ship. Here in Iraq the fee was around $70,000 US dollars cash which had to be couriered over the border for payment. I guarantee that virtually none of this money was being reinvested in the Iraq's only two dry cargo terminals. Warehouses, gantry cranes, evacuators and the docks themselves had all seen better days, specifically the one after which they were built. It was told to me that everything in Iraq requires a bribe. Everyone is making something off everyone below them on the social ladder and at the bottom were the group of men with nothing better to do than sit around the bottom of the stern ramp looking up at the American ship.
Port of Umm Qasr

The Middle East is an extreme place. The sandstorms, 120 degree days, frigid desert nights, barren treeless landscapes, jagged towering mountains, wealth, poverty, corruption and religious conservatism. It is also where the cargo is booked for and therefore this ship will be calling here for the foreseeable future. Despite the differences between where my work takes me and where I choose to live my return visits bring with them a familiarity that surprises me.

The smell of curry stuck to the longshoremen's clothes, the sound of "Salaam Aleikum" repeated every time two Muslims meet, the feel of sand in the back of your throat or the parching sun on your neck are all familiar sensations. By choice I might have opted for somewhere with a little greenery or the availability of beer at the airport but for now its my job.

When we first docked our security team called me on the radio saying there was a mate from another ship asking to speak with the Chief Officer. I met the officer, a young man from Bangledesh not much older than myself, who was standing on the stern ramp with his watch partner, an AB from Ghana who I exchanged handshakes with for a solid three minutes while he gushed about the US vs. Ghana game. They were crew off one of the bulkers discharging bagged grain and had been docked for nearly a week. The ship was about to sail but had no antibiotics in their medicine chest. A crew member was very ill with a bacterial throat infection and he wanted to know if we could provided enough medicine to stave it off.

I asked the old man and he agreed to help them out. The second mate was appreciative and happy that he'd be signing off in a few days and seeing his family for the first time in 8 months. When I returned to the holds I felt happy to have lent a hand to another mariner, a sacred tradition exercised for millennia, and thankful to sail under an American flag where antibiotics were kept in sufficient quantity.

Iraqi Pilot Boat

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving in the Gulf

Thanksgiving is the best of holidays. Less commercialized and more principled than the rest. There is no pressure besides eating what you've cooked and, save for orphans and sailors, spending the day with family.

The deck department has it good today. I told the Boatswain to have the guys write in four hours of overtime. They're all good workers and turn to nearly everyday so only standing their eight hours of watch and getting paid for twelve is the next best thing to a weekend. The engine department though doesn't have it so good on this November 25th.

Diesel engines are difficult to work on when a ship is underway. Time in port for engineers, which has been in short order this trip, is packed with preventive maintenance and repairs. We're sitting on the hook (At anchor) for two days awaiting cargo so what is an easy anchor watch for the mates and A.B.s is a hectic couple of work days for the engineers.

Swinging around the anchor five miles off Kuwait isn't the ideal way to spend Thanksgiving but the Stewards Department took the edge off the homesickness this afternoon with a holiday feast. The Stewards Assistant set the tables with white linen and candles. The appetizer spread consisted of crab dip, shrimp cocktails, deviled eggs and bacon wrapped scallops. Hams, seafood casserole, and three stuffed turkeys were baked. Candied yams, twice baked potatoes, wild rice and cornbread stuffing filled the edge of my plate. For desert a tiramisu and napoleons were made fresh plus cheese and chocolate cakes. As I made my way past the steward after supper rubbing my stomach he jabbed me with "I see you had the Stow Plan all worked out for that one mate."

Afterwards crew could be seen stumbling down the passageways to their rooms in hopes that sleep would alleviate swollen abdomens and light headedness. It was bar none the finest meal I have had at sea and all hands were extremely grateful for the massive efforts of our smallest department. The only things missing were my grandmother's creamed onions and rum in the eggnog.

Even in the Arabian Gulf, a place I have long held as having no redeeming aspects, there is much to be thankful for. The health of my friends and family, employment in a profession I enjoy day after day and support from home when I'm away. Having now spent three of the last six years sailing to this part of the world I am also very thankful that there are no sand storms where I live, only snow storms, and that the hills are covered in trees and the valleys fertile. It's a long way from home but once that cargo is loaded and lashed in the holds the second mate can plug in the waypoints for our return voyage and we'll be back on the coast before New Years.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Strait is Clear

Movement has always mesmerized me. I adore the moment on an aircraft when the wheels leave the earth and the plane lifts into the air rapidly climbing from the end of the runway. I love the feeling of a sailboat heeled over, lee rail dragging in the water, as the tiller pulls at your hands straining to balance the unequal force of water over it's sides.

Shipping, unless you're holding station on a dynamically positioned vessel, is all about movement. Cargoes are booked months in advance for ports half way around the world. The ship is crewed, fueled and provisioned and then loaded all in anticipation of moving a long distance over the sea. We calculate our Estimated Times of Arrival for destinations thousands of miles away and know down to the minute when we expect to make the sea buoy if our speed stays the same.

And for me, two of my favorite aspects of seafaring are born of the need to constantly be on the move. Travel, the first, is a direct result of moving a ship over oceans. Second is piloting, or the control of a ship's "Conduct". This is the means by which mariners achieve the first. The entirety of yesterday served as a personal reminder that both of these facets to my work continue fascinating me as much as they did the first time I went to sea.

Travel has been a mainstay in my life since I was thirteen and ventured to the Mayan Ruins on the Yucatan in Mexico. The first time I participated in the navigation of a boat to an unknown destination was during the fall semester of my freshman year of college. That trip only took a Friday afternoon and a moderate breeze on Penobscot bay but I was hooked.

Unfortunately for my wanderlust the vessel on which I now toil is on a liner service which means regularly scheduled ports and non of the tramp shipping on account of which sailors have romanticized their professions for centuries. It is safe to say that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the U.A.E. have lost their appeal, if they ever had any.

Luckily every now and then a port off the beaten path is thrown into the mix and we get to order a new chart and see a new dock. This time around we called on Aqaba Jordan, the kingdom's solitary seaport located in the Gulf of the same name. Nestled in between Israel's Eilat and Saudi Arabia's more scenic coastline Aqaba is at the far northern end of an almost fjord like gulf. Several commercial terminals consisting of container, bulk ore and petroleum docks lie south of the city. The berth to which we were assigned was just a short drive from the palm lined beaches of downtown.

Finding Aqaba by way of water is simple. Leave the Suez Canal astern, transit the Gulf of Suez passing through the Strait of Gubal, turn to port passing the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik and then make another turn to port lining up for the Strait of Tiran. Once past the reef fringed channel and large shipwreck head north-northeast up the narrow Gulf of Aqaba until the radar looks something like this:
Once you see the the absolutely massive flag pole flying the Jordanian flag you're there but don't anchor off the beaches in Israel, one of their fast boats might take offense. It would have been nice to have had a chance to get off the ship, rummage around the Bazaar for a box of perfumes and some incense, maybe hit up a curry vendor and smoke the tobacco Hookah but with only four hours of cargo no one made it past the stern ramp.

A wise java pushing sandwich selling woman recently reminded me on the satellite phone that it's not about the destination but getting there and nothing could be more true on a day like yesterday. Two and a half weeks at sea and our first port call lasts less than five hours. A new country steeped in history with shops surely filled with all the Lebanese Coffee and silk carpets one could haggle for and no one even gets to walk up town.

For a crew of modern mariners it didn't really bother anyone as this is pretty standard for today's merchant marine. Just knowing that we could go ashore had we the time without much hassle was at least refreshing. Besides, for me it really was the lure of the journey that made my day. Transiting down one side and up the other of the Sinai Peninsula, watching brown barren mountains pass down both sides of the ship, seeing down 10 meters in some of the clearest water in the world, dissecting a historic city set in an ancient valley with binoculars. I'll take what I can get.

The second part of the day that again reminded me what an exceptional vocation I chose was when we passed through the southern end of the Gulf. As mentioned before, the Strait of Tiran separates the Gulf of Aqaba from the Red Sea. It is a narrow strip of water in between Egypt and Saudi Arabia fringed with reefs. In the middle of the strait there is another large and very shallow reef complete with a recently shipwrecked cargo vessel high and dry listed over to port 35 degrees. On either side of this treacherous reef there is an essentially pointless vessel traffic separation scheme, the reef does a much better job than magenta lines on the chart, and a Vessel Traffic Service system which monitors the movement of ships through the area.

On the west or Egyptian side of the strait lies a rather large city north of the resort at Sharm el Sheik with a busy airport and impressive nightlife evidenced by a shoreside concert and bustling streets. The southbound route leaves Egypt to starboard and Gordon reef to port. The lane is very narrow and over 200 meters deep but no more than 0.3 nautical miles on either side of the ship lies reef shallow enough to stand on.

The passage is marked with only two lighted beacons, something the Chief Engineer was incredulous about. He was on the bridge offering his opinion and advice on the maneuver since the Captain's attendance for the transit interrupted their nightly movie time. Normally when ships proceed through tight channels they do so at a slower "Maneuvering Speed" which would be half of the full sea speed we were making. Since the channel was short, only about six miles, and deep plus not nearly as narrow as a buoyed ship channel in port our speed was maintained throughout.

There was also only one insignificant course change to line up for and the cut as the VTS informed us was clear of traffic in the area. With a parallel electronic bearing line or EBL on the radar ranged out to the distance I wanted to stay off the marker light, I could watch the transit with comfort that we were staying in the middle of the channel. The passage itself was simple but knowing that if anything was to go wrong, such as an engine or steering failure, than the beaches of Al Fawz would have a new tourist attraction in about twenty seconds kept me on my toes.

Lining up and then watching the city lights zip by at twenty knots was impressive for everyone, Chief and Captain included. It's rare we pass so close to shore going that fast. The Chief couldn't believe that the still water just off the starboard beam was reef and was only marked by one light. I explained to him that the reef was too shallow and the channel too deep for an effective buoy.

The thrill of conning 70,000 deadweight tons of ship through a treacherous piece of water is unlike anything I have ever experienced. The tools are simple; paper chart and radar, rudder and single propeller, but the consequences of failure are severe. Despite the responsibility planning and then executing successful pilotages for me is one of the most rewarding parts of working at sea.

For more pictures from the Gulf of Aqaba visit my tumbler page at DeepWaterWriter

Friday, November 12, 2010


Among the parades and ceremonies marking veterans day there goes a group of veterans long unrecognized by the Department of Defense and forgotten for their sacrifices during World War II among all other armed conflicts in the History of the United States. Below is a reminder on this veterans day of the service merchant seamen provided then and now in national defense.

1 in 26 mariners serving aboard merchant ships in World WW II died in the line of duty, suffering a greater percentage of war-related deaths than all other U.S. services. Casualties were kept secret during the War to keep information about their success from the enemy and to attract and keep mariners at sea.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Checklist for the Suez Canal

There are several unique preparations that must take place before transiting the Suez Canal. Rigging the Suez Canal light would be one of them. The light is a very large singular headlight like device designed to emit a split beam of light from the ships bow. It is a requirement for any vessel transiting the canal though I have not once seen it used nor has anyone I have worked with.

What if the ship were not to have one? Then the Canal Authority would gladly rent a light with a team of electricians to accompany, rig and operate it if for once in a century the pilot needed to see the bank of the canal at night.

Other preparations include readying lines in case we have to moor in the canal, rigging the gangways to accommodate the canal pilots, they refuse to use the standard pilot ladders, filling a cabinet full of candy and marlborough reds and collecting the crew's stash of porn.

While the cartons of cigarettes are very necessary to ensure a smooth, successful and happy transit when dealing with inspectors, pilots and agents, the porn collection is the captain's precaution in case any of the port states we'll be visiting in the Mid East decide to go Sharia on us and inspect the crew quarters.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Through the Strait

The presence of land is easily belied by a stiff offshore breeze. This is normally the case when sailing through the Gulf of Cadiz, the outlying waters on the western approach to the Strait of Gibraltar. After twelve days of the odorless salt tang of mid ocean the scent of trees and pollen is remarkable. It almost leaves a taste on my tongue and has my imagination working out what Portugal looks like, a place I would love to visit.

We increased speed last last night from our "Economical" 89 main engine revolutions per minute to 91. An increase of only 3 RPM provides an additional 2 to 3 knots so instead of making 17 knots we're now up to 20. The Captain did this to avoid a low pressure system forecasted to move over the coast of Brittany walloping the Bay of Biscay. This is of concern to us because the northeastern quadrant of the low would be left offshore propelling a huge swell and wind wave down the coast of Portugal and into the waters we're passing through. Instead of chancing an encounter it seemed more prudent to speed up and tuck into the Mediterranean before the system moved any further to the south.

Unfortunately for our fuel consumption running a few RPM higher than economical means burning an additional 30 tons of fuel per day! Because this is such a large vessel with a massive engine the fuel consumption is dramatically higher than any ship I have worked on before. The increase in speed (RPM) vs. fuel consumption is an exponential curve not in global warming's favor. Still I'll stand my ground when anyone harangues me for working on a boat that burns over $50,000 dollars of fuel in one day at full sea speed because waterborne transportation is the most efficient means of transportation period. And for anyone who didn't know, the diesel engine is the most efficient internal combustion engine of all time.

Luckily for the Captain he won't have to justify the increased fuel consumption to the office because later in the morning he received an email ordering us to increase to full speed as a new port known for delays has been added onto the schedule and they want us there early. We were surprised that the office is now directing us to proceed at 91 RPM when the main theme of the last officers conference was how they would be slowing the fleet to study the decrease in fuel consumption to determine if it would be better to lengthen the schedule and save the fuel. So much for that, were now consuming 3.8 metric tons of heavy fuel oil an hour!
With the impending low pressure system the passage through Gibraltar Strait was shrouded in low clouds but a few glimpses of Morocco and Spain could be had. The ferry traffic was typical buzzing right by close astern. I have always enjoyed passing through this historic narrow, especially when homeward bound but that will have to wait a month.

Long ago seem the days when I would get off watch and turn my cell phone on to see if I had a signal. Many times I would find myself crouched in between the fan housings out of the wind trying to get enough reception to call home for the first time in three weeks. Those memories make me thankful for what I have today out here.
Once you've passed under the watchful eye of the Tarifa Vessel Traffic Service, through the narrows and beyond the rock of Gibraltar the Mediterranean slowly begins to open up on both sides. The traffic diverges, the current subsides and the wind usually continues to howl. As it was still cloudy when I got up to the bridge for my afternoon watch I was impressed to see snow capped mountains to our north in Spain.

It isn't the first snow I've seen this year (Mount Washington at home was socked in two and a half weeks ago the the last time I went hiking) but I was still excited to see something I wasn't expecting and knew there wouldn't be any more of that once we got through Egypt. The higher winds, overcast skies and intermittent rain have actually raised most everyone's spirits onboard, well, at least the New Englanders.

Even someone who appreciates blue bird days as much as I do where weeks pass by on an ocean as calm as a mill pond with fluffy white clouds littering the azure sky it does get old after awhile. A change in the monotony of work is welcomed as long as it isn't more than a beaufort force 9 or perhaps a 10 on here. As the Chief Engineer proclaimed at lunch "This is sailin' weather dammit!"

Friday, October 29, 2010

Returning to the Routine

Those late to rise easy going mornings on vacation, sipping coffee while listening to NPR, walking to the local bagel shop for breakfast, conversing with the fair proprietor while picking the fleas off her Corgi have given way to the horrendous ring of a telephone mere meters from my head at three twenty in the morning. When I was traveling in Guatemala I learned a word for this time of day; madrugada or early morning and on the four to eight watch every second of la madrugada can drag.

Each day at sea begins by mentally more than physically pulling myself out of bed, halfheartedly dragging a toothbrush across my teeth and then relying on the power of caffeine to keep me alert until the sun finally comes up sometime between six o'clock and breakfast. It's a tiring day starting so early and continuing until nine at night if I want to read or call home. My reluctance to nap doesn't help. Doing so would mean no time to write this blog or work off stress in the gym.

Gym time is going to have to be more of a priority this hitch than ever before. That's because the food our multi-talented steward and overqualified cook put out is unlike anything seen throughout the history of the American merchant marine. I would venture that these two men make better food than most privately owned restaurants ashore.

It is absolutely unbelievable fare, especially given the budget constraints the steward operates within and on top of pan seared scallops with rice pudding and bacon wrapped sirloin with asparagus the steward can bake like a son of a sea biscuit. Furthermore the numerous instances when a familiar face has asked me "Have a good vacation mate? Looking kinda pudgy aren't ya?" is lending me to believe I let myself go a little this last time home. I suppose a thousand bottles of Shipyard Ale and half a dozen bagels a week could do that.

On a side note the Steward told me that crew, namely the last Boatswain and another unlicensed individual of formidable beam, complained about the quality of the food. They were genuinely upset that hot dogs, grilled cheeses and fried chicken were not making a weekly appearance on the menu. After the Steward tried to explain that he uses a more expensive canola oil in the fryer rather than a blend of hydrogenated oils and that fried chicken ruins the oil he just gave up. Word is that the cook will be pulling out all the stops now that the grumblers have left and a truly supportive clientele has returned.

In addition to the incredible meals and a well appointed (And secured) gym for burning them off I'm extremely grateful for two other refreshing differences onboard. One, it's not my first trip which means all the systems my relief and I have put in place are well . . . in place. No need to organize the paint locker or corral loose lashing gear and tools, it's all ready been done. Nor do I need to create endless three ringed binders of documents, certificates and inspection records, that's all been done. Instead my time can be used more productively repairing, maintaining and improving on the systems and most importantly the ship.

The second aspect of this trip that I'm absolutely thrilled about is the fact that I have a crew. My last voyage there and back to the Middle East was greatly lacking in competent manpower. One of the watch standing "Able Bodied Seamen" refused to work overtime on account of his disdain to work for idiots, also known as mates, since he himself was about to become one and was keenly aware that he was of a seafaring caliber far above and beyond any of us officers (He claimed he was about to sit for the licensing exam and yet couldn't distinguish a pilot boat from a fishing boat day or night).

Another watch stander was certifiably nuts and earned the nickname wind talker for prolonged conversations on the bridge wing with no one else present. When he would turn to for overtime he liked to use his needle gun as a chipping hammer breaking off needles to the boatswain's dismay and was an absolute hazard with a paintbrush.

One of the dayworkers, and my best A.B., was so exhausted by a shipyard and six months onboard that he stopped working his two hours in the evening while the other watch stander was 71 and ran on a permanent slow ahead bell. Plus half way through the east bound trip the other dayman twisted his ankle and was sent home from the middle east leaving me down yet another man for at least a week.

Unlike last voyage this time around it seems that I have guys that want all the OT they can get and appear capable of the skill set expected of any seaman before the mast. Even my aforementioned elderly watch partner who has now had his 72nd birthday onboard and is still here is an incredible cleaner professing just this very morning his love of all things janitorial. He hasn't missed more than a week of overtime the whole five months he's been onboard and keeps the gym and bridge spotless.

Despite the heartache returning to sea conjures in one's personal life it would be a lie to say I wasn't a little inspired to be back at work returning to the routine of a seafaring existence. Every sense is stimulated by something here at sea which is completely unknown to land dwellers and absent from the last three months at home.

When I go to work in the morning the sky is filled with unimpeded starlight. The bridge is filled with the aroma of Folgers coffee, something that smells a million times better brewing than drinking and would never be found in my cupboards.

Everything inside the windows is dark save for the glow of two radar and a gyro repeater on the helm stand. The caterwaul of nine pin Sat-C printers screeching out the latest hurricane advisory can be heard every twenty minutes and the distant calls of a lonely Filipino bridge watch looking for someone to talk with in Tagalog comes over the VHF radio throughout the morning.

On deck the mellifluous metallic symphony of needle guns working the rust off steel blends with the constant thump thump emanating from the main engine's exhaust stack. The paint locker smells of epoxy resins and thinner where as the nearest fuel vent intoxicates the nostrils with the sweet sulphuric smell of mother earth's gunkiest oil.

During the day the smell of the next impending meal, the harbinger of rest on ship, fills the stomach with expectation. Clouds are reflected on a pristine ocean surface which hides a water column 16,000 feet deep. The bulbous bow pushes an endless bulge of clear liquid as bright blue flying fish dart for their lives across an ocean I forgot could be so easily admired. In it's seductiveness on a blue bird day the sea can almost make you feel welcomed.

Monday, October 25, 2010

On the Bus

It is inevitable, this bus ride down the sunless highways of New England. Southward to the airport where bags in hand the next three months of my life will begin. This is the dreaded commute filled with a numbness I’ve cultivated from a young age. A commute filled with acceptance of the unescapable reality that has shaped the lives of mariners for centuries. Filled with goodbye hugs and sad text messages. Filled by reluctance and anticipation.

At a young age I remember my dad disappearing into the sky over Maine. My mother would pull the van to the side of the road along the runway and there we would watch my dad’s plane lift off the ground. I remember the seabag he would pack, a massive black navy style seabag big enough to fit all four of the kids which he joked about doing so he could bring us to sea. There would be socks and underclothes, razors and shaving cream and a brown briefcase with his license. That was about all that filled the nearly empty bag that drifted down the conveyor and disappeared through the wall.

Those goodbyes were hard on my mom as were the next three or four or six months raising four boys in the woods. Knowledge of these goodbyes were the only reason for which I hesitated following in the same path to work at sea. Yet the education and then the job felt so right I forced myself to ignore how hard these mornings are and learned to deal with it numbing myself a little each time until I could at least get back on the boat and see the open ocean.

Change is inevitable. When it involves leaving all that is good in my life at least I have the time to prepare. I do this in two ways, one of which I realize is hard for some of my friends to understand. “Why aren’t you going surfing today?” A friend asked the other morning. I couldn’t blame him for not understanding why cleaning my apartment and wrapping up all the loose ends was more important than enjoying my last 72 hours of freedom on dry land or in the surf.

Yet this is how I deal with leaving an empty home. I clean it thoroughly, unplug all the appliances, lock the windows and secure the systems. I leave it like a mothballed ship ready for reactivation as soon as I return for the comfort of knowing my home is clean and waiting, my business completed and my life on hold, allows me to better keep moving forward and to tackle the impending voyage at sea.

The other way I deal with the change is to pack. Unlike my old man’s nearly empty sea bag I attempt to bring every comfort I might need with me to sea. With the luggage limitations, and the green impression a massively overpacked bag brings with it to a ship, I have gotten better about packing lighter and leaving as much gear on the ship as possible. Still, it would be a lie to say my duffel didn’t contain a bottle of Vermont maple syrup, a pound of Starbucks coffee and enough Tom’s of Maine toothpaste to last a year.

Packing in itself has become a chore I dislike as much as these predawn departures orchestrated by a penny pinching company reluctant to pay for direct daytime flights. Even after years of practice it is a stressful affair feeling as if I’ve missed something, some article without which I will not be as prepared as I should be. Even on the bus I feel like something must have been forgotten sitting on the kitchen table or the bureau. Perhaps it’s just the knowledge that once I’m hurling down the road towards the airport there’s no turning back and if I ever did forget something, like a passport or my eye glasses, I’d just be plain old screwed, blued and tattooed.

Cleaning, packing, commuting. They are a few of the challenges involved in seafaring but they hardly compare to saying goodbye. It’s leaving the people, the friends and the family, that make this commute so brutal. The mornings we watched my dad’s plane fly away, something which my mom would learn not to do with time, were heavy events. Nothing has changed from then to now except that I’m the one saying goodbye and there are no children involved (At least not my own).

No matter how many reassurances that cheap satellite phone calls and internet connectivity are a blessing to long distance relationships there is nothing to fill that physical void left when you leave someone (Very) unique and close to you behind. Just as this bus increases the distance between two people it also increases the time apart and this is a burden unlike any other I know in relationships. It has to be true that no other wife, husband or partner knows any greater sacrifice than that which is required to love a sailor. Not even soldiers will spend as much time away in isolated places doing dangerous work.

As the bus passes by the sleeping homes of Boston and I am furthered on my way to meet the ship there are two additional things which I carry with me that bring more comfort than all the maple syrup I could pack. One is having work to return to on a good vessel with excellent management and therefore a means to a living. The other is knowing that someone is waiting for my return. The two most important things I have.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Making the News

This past summer has been host to a number of notable events in maritime news. Too many as a matter of fact to keep up with. It amazes me how the world of maritime news, opinion and information has changed since I started sailing as a mariner on deep draft commercial ships.

Five or six years ago the only periodical I regularly paid any attention to was Professional Mariner which I was surprised to learn, was published very close to home in Portland Maine. For any mariner who has a subscription to this print magazine than you know that your chances of inclusion in one of their puff pieces on how special your niche of the industry might be is far less likely than your inclusion in the "Un-professional mariner" section which is what we all flip to. Reserved for the unlucky S.O.B.s involved in our worst nightmares,The Maritime Casualty pages are a catalogue of groundings, sinkings, collisions, injured or overboard crew, fires, spills and any other serious marine incident still under investigation.

As I spent more coffee breaks in the engine control room I began to notice more periodicals like Maritime Reporter and Engineering News and MarineLog both of which have an online presence. These periodicals focus more on business, technology and engineering and Marine Log has great editorials.

While these magazines have a lower to mid level management feel the Maritime Executive caters to top level management by interviewing CEOs of the largest maritime companies in the world. Each month the magazine features the achievements of industry executives, trends in politics and regulation and Op-Eds that are pro Merchant Marine. Maritime education and training is also a regular focus. MarEx also has a weekly emailing that stands out as a consistent source for current news and opinion which anyone with an interest in marine affairs should be subscribed to.

Of course these are only a few of the news sources for maritime content out there and are generally more broad in scope. Many other magazines and journals focus on narrower aspects of the industry such as ports, logistics, certain commodities and trades.

Unfortunately until a few months ago I really had to wait until I returned home from sea to empty out my post office box and catch up on several months worth of magazines that had piled up. Now that the world wide web has finally made it onto my ship the magazines can pile up all they want and I can still read the latest maritime news online.

Completely web based sites like gCaptain have begun to fill a new market where actual mariners with Internet access from sea can read content tailored to us, the operators, rather than articles tailored to those who can check their mail 365 days a year. Some of the best content out there right now is featured on gCaptain's weekly posting, Maritime Monday, which I discovered two years ago while visiting Guatemala. I couldn't help but gush a little in the comments section about how nothing else on the internet could fill a maritime news junkie in as quickly and entertainingly as this gCaptain feature.

Last and best of all are the blogs authored by people who live, work and play, or just have a genuine interest in the ocean. Only recently have I begun to make personal connections to some of their creators and it has opened my eyes to a community as inspired by the sea as they are dedicated to it's protection, enjoyment and usefulness to mankind as I am.