Monday, January 18, 2010

Homeward Bound

The fortnight that seemed it would never end is over and once again I am on a jet liner working against sun and sky towards cooler weather and familiar country. This last hitch ended on a positive note with a hefty payoff, an open invitation back to a permanent spot and an idle day before my flight to lounge around the pool at my friends flat on the Singapore River.

The last two weeks at work were wearyingly slow and filled with uncertainty. Initially the repair was supposed to be a quick one, four days, maybe six. With fire works over the fantail we left our convenient anchorage that had been home for two months an hour past midnight on New Years Day. The job was going swimmingly until the fault end had been brought onboard and tested from the splicer’s shop.

The test signal detected a secondary fault 12 kilometers further up the cable towards Hong Kong. All work came to a standstill as the company began contacting the Singapore Port Authority, Malaysian and Indonesian governments for additional work permits. After a full day of inactivity it was decided to continue with the current repair rather than picking up the cable to the next fault. The permits in these highly contested waters would just take too long.

The decision relieved my anxiety that a four-day job would be much longer as burying an additional 12 clicks of cable would have taken at least two weeks pushing my hitch over the four-month mark. So we resumed picking up the cable until the fault, evidenced by bird-caged wire armor, was onboard and replaced with new cable from our tanks.

Not 24 hours before we would have called it a day one of the two azimuthing stern thrusters suffered a mechanical failure. The likelihood of leaking lubricating oil from the propeller seals was good so we anchored the ship a few miles up the traffic scheme in the very unsanctioned anchorage that had been causing all the fiber optic damage we were there to fix.

A few days after my 28th birthday I passed the hundred-day mark at sea and realized I was ready for a relief. Unfortunately the prospect of dropping a cool million dollars for the thruster repair meant we would be in a holding pattern for the next ten days as the company decided how to repair a cable ship loaded down to her marks.

The thought of having to wait for a shipyard with bookings in the region so full was discouraging. On top of that the ship would have to be de-bunkered, de-ballasted and a significant amount of the cable offloaded first having enough of all three on board to cross the Atlantic. The only factor working for me was the extreme expense of dry-docking plus lost revenue from canceling the next repair.

Fortunately for the budget and my relief it was determined by port engineering that using a submersible habitat specialized divers could make the repair at anchor saving a significant amount of time and money. The time line, which we all found impressive, was a mere 48 hours start to finish once the divers and gear were on the ground in Singapore.

The process would involve a team of fifteen hardhat divers working 12 hour shifts to attach and inflate an air filled habitat around the thruster. The balloon was just big enough for divers to swim into from underneath removing their gear in the natural air lock. Once inside the habitat they would don headsets to communicate with the dive leader on deck and perform the repair work themselves.

This technique is a class approved industry norm for shaft and propeller repair on ships. It is so swift that it is normally scheduled during cargo operations in port so that sailings are not delayed. One diver told me about a cruise ship job where each time they docked his team would go over the side as passengers were going ashore to erect the habitat and perform maintenance on the thrusters. They had just enough time to do one thruster in each port on the itinerary and be back in the bar to mingle with the returning passengers by departure.

An anchorage west of Singapore was selected for the minimal currents; anything over two knots and the divers couldn’t work. After another week of waiting and wondering we weighed anchor and rounded Raffles Light. Named for the first colonial reformer in Singapore this island separates Malacca Strait from Singapore Strait. Once wind rode on two anchors the relieving officers were finally airborne and arrangements made for our repatriation. I asked the Captain to fly me out a day late so I could have some time in Singapore to bid newfound friends a fond farewell and pacify myself by the pool before two days of travel.

Naturally the Captain took this as a sign of my willingness to stay onboard for an additional day to cover the watch as other officers departed. Having my bag packed and shore going rig laid our for the night I was a little deflated to spend another 24 hours on the ship but it could have been much worse.

That very night as I slumbered prior to my mid watch the Port Engineer, onboard for the repair, tried to cancel all reliefs until after a sea trial to test the thruster. This would have meant I would’ve been delayed another couple of days missing all my social obligations ashore. Luckily the Captain shit canned the idea after convincing him that an engine test could be done at anchor and that with half the crew ashore and imbibing a hasty return to sea would not be the most prudent course of action.

Suffice to say that with just a shred of sanity remaining I was signed off in the nick of time and an hour later found myself by the edge of a pool, lime infused Corona in hand, reflecting on the ups and downs of the last four months.

Coming off long trips at sea is an absolute rush. It is a mix of emotions that include accomplishment, excitement, relief and reluctance to ever go back. All of the possibilities that the profession allows seem tangible while the knowledge of having to go back in two or three months time is staved off by an ambitious vacation agenda.

Like most things in life seafaring is a cycle that repeats itself and the sacrifice has become a familiar feeling. Longing for life ashore, at home amongst the world balances with the desire for unhindered movement over the ocean, under the open sky, towards unknown destinations. For me it is a love affair and a compromise between two worlds as far apart as my zenith and nadir.

I’ve been slowly building up my chord vocabulary on the guitar over the last year and have found this tune to be one of my favorites in that slow progression. The following two versus are two that for some could be as true today as they were two hundred years ago amongst the wharves of Liverpool. Cheers!

I spent a night with Angeline too drunk to roll in bed.

My watch was new and my money too and in the morning with them she fled.

And as I roamed the streets about the whores they all would roar:

Here comes jack rack the young sailing lad he must go to sea once more.

Come all you bold seafaring men and listen to my song.

If you come off of them long trips I’d haves you not go wrong.

Take my advice, drink no strong drink, don’t go sleeping with no whores.

Get married lads and have all night in, so you’ll go to sea no more.

Trad. English Song as sung by D. Grisman and J. Garcia.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Bath Iron Works Eyeing Offshore Energy Market

Here is a link from Maine Public Broadcasting covering BIW's move into offshore wind energy. I'm particularly fond of the remark about support vessel's which would certainly help ensure American mariners benefit from from offshore energy construction. The last thing we want is another exemption for offshore construction as we have for big oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

Bath Iron Works Eyeing Offshore Energy Market

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Safety First

One of the omnipotent catch phrases you hear at work in the maritime industry is the all-encompassing “Safety First”. This idiom of our industry is often repeated in training videos, on job hazard analysis paperwork, conspicuously posted mission statements, stenciled onto coveralls and painted across the face of a thousand ship’s superstructures.

As you know the key to running a safe operation is having skilled and attentive human beings doing their jobs properly 24 hours a day. And the most effective means of ensuring those humans are prepared to fulfill their job descriptions, besides excellent compensation and benefits, is training. While compensation and benefits are arguable there is no lack of training in this industry. Despite all that training I've been noticing how us mariners can become complacent over the one thing that should keep us on our toes the most.

For example, today after lunch the deck department was gathered in the lounge to view a safety training video on our humongous flat screen. The video was better than average starring a few mariners in the British Isles. They reminded us through their imprudent actions not to enter a confined space without proper testing, even if your mate happens to be sprawled out at the bottom of the ladder and looking any part of unconscious.

Right, right, right I thought. I’ve been hearing this message since I was 18 years old as a freshman on a training ship. It’s now ten years later and I have safely ventilated, tested and entered numerous void spaces, ballast tanks and cargo tanks. I have filled confined space entry permits and practiced confined space rescue drills but…what about the 18 other guys in the room?

They’re from different countries and went through different maritime training institutes. They may not have had a training ship. They may not have worked on chemical tankers. They may have just moved up from being a stewards assistant to an ordinary seaman and have never entered a confined space. How do I tell? Never mind, move on. Time for the Chief Mate to read the drug and alcohol policy less we forget that you can’t step foot on board with a BAC of .04.

And that’s what we do time and time again. Rely on the movie to impart that crucial nugget of information that 99 percent of us most likely all ready know but maybe that one guy way in the back has never heard or only seen in a movie and doesn’t know why an unopened fore peak tank can asphyxiate the unwary occupant.

It would have been better if after the film the boson or a mate were tasked with explaining the particular dangers of confined spaces and how we mitigate them at sea. Maybe someone had personal experience they would have liked to share? Perhaps we could have taken the afternoon and practiced a confined space rescue and discovered first hand how hard it is to pass someone through limber holes while wearing an SCBA to reinforce prevention as the best answer to a crisis. This month the video alone will have to suffice.

After ten years of learning about and working in this industry I am beginning to see some of the chinks in the armor of a robust and effective safety culture. I for one am not perfect. I have done some stupid things (At home and at work) that could have gotten myself and once or twice someone else hurt. Yet I learned and vow to never make those same mistakes twice.

There are a few commonalities in safety training that I have seen going from ship to sail boat and back to ship lately. I’m going to share them here in order to get them off my chest and will say that I don’t have all the answers to this issue, which could fill a book the more I think about it, but I do have some ideas.

First off safety training, in particular drills, is repetitive. According to SOLAS (Safety Of Life At Sea), and not the Code of Federal Regulations because of the ships I work on, a fire and an abandon ship drill are required to be held on board once a month with all hands in attendance.

On my ship right now we do both each week, which you would think is great. Four times the training right? Not really. Rather than taking our time throughout the month to do one or the other fire, boats and maybe a security drill get thrown into the same hour between coffee and lunch each Friday. The drills are unplanned and hurried. We lower the boats quickly and safely but we do it like robots which I don’t think is the best approach.

After the drill we all pile onto the weather deck to hear about flares or fire extinguishers for the thousandth time. How many times would a seafarer with twenty years of water under the fantail have heard about the classifications of fire and why not to use CO2 anywhere but an unventilated space? I think we could do better.

Safety training is also one way. In my experience it is almost always a deck officer telling an unlicensed crew member what to do; how to don an SCBA, how to approach the fire, how to signal man overboard. And it’s almost always the deck cadet or third mate giving the SOLAS mandated safety training in first aid, the line throwing apparatus or immersion suit donning. This instruction is usually void of feedback, albeit because the crew might only be present in body and not in mind, and since questions aren’t being asked I have a hard time believing everyone knows as much about using a SART as they need to.

Safety training is predictable. We all know the fire is going to be in the galley, the laundry room or the paint locker. We all know who is going to put the boat plug in and who will release the gripes. We all know that in another thirty minutes the crew will be back on their needle guns while the chief mate fills out the drill forms and the second mate fills out the log. That’s what we’re used to.

I can imagine how someone feels after twenty years out here doing drill after drill after drill, at least if they’ve never seen a crisis on board ship. One stack fire was enough to convince me that our whole emergency preparedness on that ship was way short of the mark. Every weakness was exposed in the first ten minutes and I thank my lucky stars that the fire was not of the serious variety.

I thought after that fire that we would revamp how we drilled, who suited up, who labeled the SOLAS approved bottles with no pressure gauges on them as empty after use. I was ready to get all training ship emergency squad gung ho over it but I didn’t. I was no longer the Cadet Chief Mate, just another second mate which meant spending the drills on the bridge with a Captain who wasn’t about to change a thing.

So what can we do as mariners if we are on a ship where training is being carried out in what I have come to view as the standard? On the personal level one can bring energy, enthusiasm, realism and personal experience. On a larger level it would take a major initiative by the company or an outside consultancy to provide better quality instruction for the crucial moments when fate hangs in the air at sea.

Why do I say a consultancy? Because we are up against some odds that are not the norm in shore based safety training. First the trainers, commonly the officers, though receiving months and months of shore based training for licensing purposes are not normally credentialed expert instructors as fire departments and rescue teams have onshore. We train a group of people who are constantly revolving between ship and shore and ship to ship. That same group of people is as varied in experience, education and skill level as you could ever find at work.

Furthermore there is very little tracking of individual skills beyond IMO mandated Basic Safety Training that is just as it sounds, basic. I haven’t been exposed to any advanced fire fighting or medical instruction since my initial certification five years ago. If you were to ask me to insert a catheter to relieve a swollen bladder I’d get it done but not without a practice run.

Being able to accurately assess and track personal knowledge about safety preparedness would be invaluable in tailoring safety training in the industry though actually doing this would be a massive feat.

Bringing a little creativity and critical thinking into the world of safety would be a good thing too. Breaking groups up to construct a fire response plan to have it critiqued by the rest of the group is a great method a co-worker here used when he was master. Giving the crew a chance to instruct in a profession where they normally do nothing but receive instruction is another innovation.

Lastly I must make the point that the last thing we mariner’s need is more shore based training. While it is an important component of maritime education today, especially in the initial stages of certification, I feel that having quality in depth training on board your own vessel is paramount. Industry will have a hard time finding people to do this job if we must spend even more of our time away from home to qualify for more certificates.

It’s high time that we get a little trickier than just ringing boats before we ring the fire drill to see if people are listening. If more can be taught than more can be expected and safety will come first instead of the alternative, which is panic.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Ocean Lark

In follow up to what I wrote about the sinking of an unidentified vessel very close to our work site I found a little information on line regarding this. It appears that a few more resources were thrown at the SAR than I had originally thought. Then again, not a single vessel from Indonesia's government assisted. They just left it up to Singapore to take care of this.

Singapore Searches for Tugboat Crew

Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA), the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF), the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) and commercial vessels continue to conduct the search and rescue (SAR) operation for the missing persons from the tugboat Ocean Lark.On 7 January 2010, until 1730hrs (Singapore time), divers from salvage company POSH SEMCO Pte Ltd recovered another two bodies from Ocean Lark, bringing the total number recovered to four.From the start of SAR operation on 6 January 2010 till 1730hrs (Singapore time) on 7 January 2010, the following assets had at various times assisted in the SAR operation: four RSN vessels, one RSAF Super Puma helicopter, two RSAF Fokker 50 maritime patrol aircraft, one Indonesian navy vessel and 14 commercial vessels.Search efforts for the remaining seven missing persons are still ongoing.

I'm still waiting to find out WHY the tug went down so fast with such a high loss of life in the middle of an anchorage.


Oh boy, nothing is simple, not even going home. I'm not crazy about long trips although the circumstances of my home life have lately lent to my ambivalence regarding extended amounts of time spent at sea working. None the less around a hundred days out I start to feel a little french fried and yearn for the ultimate release from the cramped interior of a jet liner as the gravity pulls you into your seat and you know that eventually you'll be stepping off a bus into the cold night air in Dover New Hampshire to walk into an empty home. Nothing could seem better right now.

The ship was supposed to do a short cable repair, four days is what the chief mate predicted. Then another fault, a few kilometers further up the system was discovered. We spent a day with one end of the cable aboard waiting to see if a speedy permit could be pushed through so as to knock out two repairs at once. The reply was no, it will take another week and to get this job done first. Well that's good I figured, it would have taken two weeks to bury all that cable after it had been picked up and stowed in our tanks. I should be home by next weekend right?

Wrong. We have suffered a slight mechanical malfunction in one of the stern thrusters and it appears that this very well could require the services of a dry dock which despite the economic climate are all filled up with customers. In the mean time we are sitting in Dynamic Position mode off Malaysia waiting for a decision from the company. The most I know is that tomorrow morning early we will rendezvous with a dive vessel so that photographs of the malfunction can be taken. Today's self inflicted ROV inspection didn't reveal the source of the problem though it was interesting to see the stern thruster up close and personal form the video display on the bridge. Not many ships have the capability to inspect themselves.

I must keep my mindset flexible despite a yearning to be away from work for the remainder of the winter. Anything could happen and I could get stuck though I know the captain is ready to head home so that should help my situation. Most noticeably I'm having a harder and harder time finding motivation to do anything above and beyond my normal responsibilities. I'm resigned to being relieved and don't feel the urge to reinvent the wheel as I normally do at work.

Joining the boson to attach floats to the ROV umbilical cable today was somewhat therapeutic. We cut two meter lengths of 3/4 inch manila, put a quick eye in one end and secured them around big yellow inflatable balloons. These were then made off to the control cable at intervals sufficient to keep it afloat and clear of the ship as the ROV dove under the hull for the inspection. The weather was cool and a stiff 15 knot breeze swept across the deck. For an hour I yearned to be a cadet again with no more worries than a chipping hammer and doing whatever the boson or mate told me to do. Then again I don't miss my days on chemical tankers all that much.

It has been interesting to observe the behavior of the short timers on board, myself included. We are prone to wandering thoughts, short attention spans and out of place remarks. I crack up at the least bit of wit such as when the chief mate responded to the a ringing phone on the bridge by saying "It sounds like a telephone". Really, I almost lost it but he's a funny bastard as it is. We also pay a lot of attention to the menu. Directly after dinner the other night one of the short timers came up to the bridge and asked out loud "What's for dinner tomorrow" as he sat down to check the menu on the computer. Again, I almost lost it.

So things have been getting a little squirrelly around here. I keep on picturing myself as a small rodent trapped in the glass enclosure of the bridge waiting to be let out but that's just fourteen fortnights at sea talking. I have my guitar and a gym and plenty more work I can do with the boson so I'll manage and just wait it out.

If you're still reading I have included a link to gCaptain where you can peruse the baddest boat to come out of Portland Maine in a long time. A 370 foot Jone Act Multi Purpose Supply Vessel. Awesome! It's good to know that were still building more than just Aegis Destroyers on the coast of Maine. I would often pull over to the side of the road on my way to Munjoy Hill to watch this ship being built by Cianbro corporation. I hope it won't be the last.


Something sad happened the other day. At some point during the night a few miles to the north and east of Horsburgh Lighthouse a small vessel sank. There was no reported EPIRB, no SART and no VHF radio distress call. Only the report from the SAT-C well after the incident that a vessel had sunk in such and such a position and that two of a 16 man crew had been rescued.

This occurred a mere 15 miles from us. Given our restricted in ability to maneuver status and the two cables lying in the splice shop we were helpless to assist. But that didn't really matter. That freighter sunk in the middle of one of the unofficial anchorages that now clutter the coasts of Malaysia and Indonesia.

Not only that but the location is only 30 miles east of Singapore. As soon as I read the SAT-C message from the Rescue Coordination Center I was sure a full scale rescue would follow yet the only responding vessels were an OSV acting as on scene commander as requested by VTIS and one Singaporean cruiser. Also the the third mate reported one helicopter in the early morning of the sinking. That's it. No coastguard, no C-130s which I see doing touch and gos in Singapore all the time, and no more than two Naval ships for a day.

VTIS is still requesting ships to divert on their way through the strait to look for survivors but at this point three day later it is only for recovery. We actually could hear the on scene commander arranging the transfer of bodies they had recovered to a naval ship last night on the radio.

All we know about the incident is that two survivors were recovered in a life raft and 11 are still missing. Also the wreck was located in about 30 meters of water and the bow is still sticking out of the water. Beyond that the name or nature of the vessel or sinking remain unpublicized.

This occurred in what I must presume are Indonesian waters and there was as far as I can tell no response from Indonesian authorities at all. Like the ferry that sunk a month ago in the strait it seems the emergency services in this very populated and wet nation are minimal. Something the prudent mariner so accustomed to the resources of the United States Coast Guard or Royal Navy Life Boat Institute should pay heed to. Sometimes, even in the busiest shipping lanes in the world, you may still find that you're all by yourself.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Jolly Roving Tar

Recently I added a link to the Jolly Roving Tar on the side bar of this blog. At every coffee break for the last few day's I have been catching up on this masterful journal of a young woman's experience crewing on the Spirit of South Carolina for the past four months.

Perhaps it's because Brittany was once a student on board a schooner I had crewed on or maybe because her personality traits as evidenced in "A Mariner's Tale" are way, way similar to my own (Read them if you know me!) but I have really enjoyed this blog. Then again maybe she's just an exeptionally good writer and reading about the ups and downs of sail training makes me so grateful for having experienced them all first hand.

If working under sail or sticking a child of your own on the decks of a sailing ship sounds like a good idea than definitely check this site out. The only drawback is that Britanny's hitch is over and days of blogging under sail may be as well. Not to worry though, she has other things in store and will keep on inspiring me the way I had hoped to inspire her entire watch as we made our way from Maine to Nova Scotia what now seems like a very long time ago.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

No Beer Here

After reading a blog I routinely follow I was reminded of a conversation I had on Christmas Day with the Captain of a Military Sealift Command ammo/stores/fuel supply vessel berthed in Singapore.

The blog which you can read at Hawespiper explained how after bunkering a Russian freighter in recognition of a quick and clean fuel transfer the engineer on the receiving vessel sent down three beers and a couple of cokes to the tankerman/blogger. Being a professional American Merchant Seaman he was obliged to deep six the frigid and rare bottled Russian brews he received in gratitude.

This vignette struck me as a poignant example of just what the Captain and I discussed on Christmas Day after I was invited to the crew Christmas party on the navy base. As the crew tossed horse shoes the Captain and I got to talking about the welfare of seafarers in today's merchant marine. We both agreed that professionalism and safety were highly valued and certainly bolstered by the constant and increasingly severe regulations that govern how much we sleep, drink and now eat at work.

There was plenty to eat and drink for the crew at the party. In addition to a pallet of buckets full of marinating chicken and ribs the crew had pitched in money for two trashcans full of beer and all the fixings for eggnog. Looking at the frosty beverages the Captain told me about an initiative at MSC to combine random breath alcohol or saliva testing with random urinalysis. This would mean that a tester could board the ship at any time, like after a Christmas Party ashore, in any port, to administer tests for illegal drugs and alcohol to the entire crew. The alcohol component is something that is normally reserved for post incident investigations.

This would in turn create an atmosphere on his ship akin to the oil terminals in Valdez Alaska where you don't go down the dock without blowing through a tube. While his ship is in part an oil tanker there was no transfer of oil going on at the dock during the party. Yet if the new rules went into affect the entire crew would be subject to breathalyzing after their holiday horseshoe tournament. A very discouraging trend for a crew that normally spends upwards of 8 months a year on their ship.

I'm sure as he threw those three brews overboard he was wondering how much one or two pops at work would really hurt. I wonder the same thing too. We don't drink on tankers or oil barges or Ro/Ros but escort tugs in Alaska still go aground.

If you don't drink than I suppose it's not an issue. And if you follow the rules as a merchant mariner working aboard U.S. flagged vessels should than you are aware of the very low BAC allowed by the USCG whenever you are on board a ship. I'm not going to argue against that. The rules are the rules and I would have tossed those beers over board too but I think it's worth taking a moment as the Captain of the MSC oiler and I did, to remember more is being taken away from mariner's than just our ability to go out and get a drink in port.

We are not air plane pilots. We do not go home at night but live and work on our vessels constantly with no more than a gym to blow the steam off. We already go without so many things that landwellers take for granted; regular sleep, companionship, our families. To make us feel on our vessels, in our homes, so regulated to the point where alcohol at a Christmas party might be too much of a risk next year than it becomes more than a lot of people would want to deal with to do my job. While there is no excuse for being intoxicated while on duty people, at least the people I work with, need the freedom to enjoy themselves when they get that rare chance to go ashore.

I've worked aboard ships that once flew Swedish and Norwegian flags. These ships all had bars once upon a time and it is still standard in most nations, and navies, to allow some amount of alcohol on board. In a way I'm jealous of that Russian engineer who is allowed to keep beer at work and give a couple to the tankerman who just fueled up his ship. Those little freedoms are what make us feel like normal humans and chipping away at them might end up seeming like a good idea for insurance companies but a bad idea for our mental well being. It's a delicate balance.

The legacy of NIMBY

Ranting isn't the best form of constructive dialogue between two opposing view points but the wording used in an Op-Ed piece in the Cape Cod Times describing the disastrous results of going ahead with the Cape Wind project spurred me to write this retort. Visit Casco Bay Boaters to read the editorial or the Cap Cod Times and read on to hear my rant...

I can only assume Mr. Beaty would agree that the socially inhumane legacies of offshore wind farms already foisted on the poor children and grandchildren of Spain, the U.K., Belgium, Denmark, Finland, and Holland have forever ruined the maritime heritage of the English Channel, North and Baltic Seas.

I would disagree. I have safely navigated these waters and wondered time and time again why the U.S. is so slow to pick up on what European, Mediterranean and Asian nations have already figured out. We will pay a pretty penny for foreign oil and gas but thanks to the guardians of real estate value and preposterous ideals regarding nautical legacy we will be left with no wind sites of our own.

What nautical heritage will our grandchildren speak of when diesel is too costly to fish and merchant mariners such as myself are left without the boom of constructing and maintaining these massive wind sites? What will your view be worth when your utility bills keep on going up? We'll I guess then we will just have to be thankful that the Canadians put up a few offshore wind farms of their own to offset America's dependence on Iraqi crude oil.

I'll admit that I'm generalizing by saying that NIMBY is a great acronym for those who have waterfront properties and sailing yachts. But the last thing I want my grandchildren to remember is that my generation robbed them of the chance to transition into a post peak oil era of renewable energy in their own back yards. That is a nautical legacy I could live without.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Sea Snow

This morning when I walked up to the bridge for coffee I was almost convinced we were out at sea. Except for Horsburgh light to the east and a strip of shore to the west the horizon was nearly unbroken in all directions. Still we are only 5 miles from Malaysia at the mouth to Singapore Strait. In the last six months since returning from Bermuda on a schooner this is the furthest I have been out to sea.

We are repairing another shallow water fiber optic cable that has been down for the better part of three months. The water is only 30 meters deep but the currents here roar and the full New Year’s moon hasn’t been helping. Fast currents mean that our Remotely Operated Vehicle has limited windows for working on the bottom and that when it is down the visibility stands a good chance of being completely clouded.

Swift currents also mean that when maneuvering the ship to recover or lay cable the three azipods and one bow thruster will load up the generators and try to shake the ship apart. To avoid this the Dynamic Positioning Operator, normally the Captain, Chief Mate or First Officer, will line the ship parallel with the tidal stream to reduce engine load.

After spending the last six years on commercial seagoing vessels I am endlessly fascinated to watch this ship maintain position in 3 or 4 knots of current to within sub meter accuracy. Even when a swell is running down the strait and the ships bobbing from side to side the engines instantaneously respond to every external force in a complex, diesel fueled, mechanical balancing act.

This of course is accomplished through the use of Global Positioning Satellites 24 of which are constantly circumnavigating the earth. Using a minimum of four satellites at a time still isn’t sufficient for our positioning needs. In addition to the satellite signal we subscribe to a paid differential correction propagated from a number of geostationary satellites over the equator. This differential corrects the majority of error within the GPS constellation providing an accuracy good enough to drill for oil or pick up cable in water that is miles and miles deep.

While there are free differential corrections available to any enabled GPS, or DGPS, the paid service is much more reliable than shore based radio beacons or the WAAS/EGNOS/MAAS satellite systems. That reliability allows the DP operator to focus almost exclusively on retrieving the cable and relaying it exactly where it is supposed to go.

Something else that has been fascinating me lately is watching the camera feed from the ROV as it surveys the cable before and after repairs as well as cutting and gripping the cable for retrieval if need be. I have always been intrigued by what lives and grows and drifts about under the surface of water and there is no place in the world I love more than under the ocean. Seeing a live view of what’s beneath our hull as we work up cables, which happen to encourage marine growth, is mesmerizing.

There hasn’t been anything too impressive lately, corals and fish, a ray or two and the always swirling sea snow, but I still know it’s better than television. Add to that the suspense generated when the ROV operator is working two manipulator arms to cut and grip a section of cable and I’m right entertained.

Tonight before the moon rises there will be a clear view of the stars. To the west where Singapore, Johor and hundreds of anchored ships are the clouds reflect an orange glow but at this range it’s not enough to smear the heavens. The wind has been steady day and night and the water never stops flowing one way or the other past the hull. The crew is working twelve’s until cable operations are complete and now it is time to sift through another chapter of Patrick Obrien’s Post Captain without imaging Russell Crowe in the lead role.