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.