Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Orange Haze

This evening the sun fell behind a range of jagged mountains far off to the west just as the full moon rose and small white seeds suspended from feathery stems surely blown off those slopes drifted past the ship. As the sand induced orange haze faded to a moon lit glow I thought about how easy it is to forget how much work you can do in one day at sea.

This morning began in a relatively quiet patch of the Arabian Gulf with Iran close on the port side and Oman to starboard. The Strait of Hormuz was also quiet, only a few passing ships before we entered the Indian Ocean. By four in the afternoon I had walked the length of the ship and the nine cargo decks several times looking at all the machinery, fan and winch breakers and major safety equipment with the Chief Mate I'll be relieving.

As the temperature climbed into the high eighties and the winds calmed the Captain and Second Mate made the approach to the outer anchorage of Kawhr Fakkan to rendezvous with 3000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil which would last us a little over a month at full steaming speed. The water off the desolate coast of Oman and the United Arab Emirates is crystalline clear and deep. We had to walk the anchor 300 feet down to the bottom before paying out an additional 500 feet of anchor chain for fear that the momentum would exceed the braking strength of the windlass.

Once the anchor was safely fetched up, that is with two flukes dug into the bottom, we received a supply boat worth of provisions using the port deck crane. Once the stores had been passed into the reefers and dry store room the deck gang broke into two to make up the tanker that was carrying the bunkers or fuel order. All of this transpired in between lunch and dinner and thanks to the most miserable ship handling skills any one had ever seen the bunker vessel wasn't made up alongside until half past eight.

A day like this is simply routine when it comes to running a seventy thousand gross ton cargo vessel but after whiling away my days at home it feels good, really good to work and sweat and swear alongside sailors in the heat of the Indian Ocean. My first week back at work has been exciting to say the least. I'll spare the details of my youthful exuberance but it centers on the fact that I'm employed on a very big, very fast, very good looking and the most functional vessel I've ever worked on.

This run isn't new to me though. I spent a little more than two years on the same Middle East liner service and it appears that as long as I want to remain on this ship than the sea lanes around the Arabian Peninsula will be my home. I think I'll be all right with that now that I've traveled more of the world and feel strongly about taking on new responsibilities, especially on a good ship. Besides I'm used to it over here, the heat, the desolate mountain ranges, and the fine sandy grit that permeates the air.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Back to Sea

A steady cold rain bid me farewell this afternoon. Two hours after receiving my travel arrangements, a British Airways flight to Kuwait City, I was in a taxicab giving a brief lecture to the driver about what the American Merchant Marine exactly does. I had to make one stop on the way through town to hug my new yoga teacher goodbye and that was it. Home was just a powerless, lowered thermostat storage space emptied of food and people for the next three months.

Spending the last week waiting for travel to meet a ship on the other side of world was a little more stressful than I would have hoped. Had it not been for a port closure due to a winter sandstorm than I might have all ready been aboard. But the delay did allow for a boiled dinner with three generations of my favorite family in New Hampshire and one last barbecue plus plenty of exercise to keep my mind off the impending hitch.

Just as I contemplate the upcoming challenge of joining a new vessel in the Persian Gulf my brother, also a seafarer is leaving his first tanker in the Gulf of Mexico. When he got me on the phone this evening he was about to, as he put it, “Get my room just the way I like it”, that is “With none of my shit in it.” I know that feeling so well and it’s one of the best for a sailor. Nothing quite akin to that sense of impending freedom when all your gear is packed save for one open briefcase to stuff your discharges and payoff into before you drag it all down the gangway.

For me that feeling lies several months and thousands of nautical miles ahead but I could still share his excitement. I also appreciated his advice from the perspective of a seaman and not an officer. Having spent three years observing mates onboard numerous ships he has seen some of the best and worst traits in leaders.

Experiencing both happy ships and angry ships, that is ones with good morale and ones with no morale, he reminded me that the biggest thing to remember when managing a department is not to loose your cool. “Even if someone is screwing something up yelling about it makes you the failure.” I’ve worked with hotheads more than once and will surely work with more so I can relate. Once a sailor has been verbally berated for anything less than endangering their own or someone else’s safety that person tends to shut down and no longer cares to engage their mind until the affronted ego is mended which is rare.

That doesn’t mean he hasn’t lost his cool once or twice. My favorite anecdote is when he was working on a heavy lift ship in Saudi Arabia and was knocked off after his 20-00 watch. One of his duties, besides beginning the day steering the ship into port, then mooring and then working a solid 8 hours of overtime, was to ensure the break room water jug was filled before knocking off. Though diligently fulfilling his other duties that day he had neglected to fill the jug and received a phone call from the 3rd mate relaying that the Chief Mate had ordered him to come back out on deck and fill it.

My brother in proper family fashion quickly reported to the break room and proceeded to hurl the empty jug out the hatchway passing several surprised longshoremen and the watch on it’s long decent to the dock. According to my brother no one could believe that he had taken his IMO mandated rest period so personally and from that day on when he was knocked off from a 16 hour day unless it was an emergency there were no more wake ups until the next watch.

Speaking of egos he also dropped this pearl of wisdom: “We’re just the little guys man. Even the Captain is a nobody out here. We’re only sailors,” which I knew he meant as a warning against getting a big head which is a leading factor for developing a propensity to scream on deck and acting like an ass in the maritime work place.

Thinking about his words and why not to scream at the bloke next to me on the flight who had just spilled his orange juice all over my bum has made me realize that in three years of going to sea my brother has learned a hundred times more about effective leadership than I garnered in 4 years at a maritime academy. It’s also why both he and I know that he’ll make one hell of an officer if he chooses to do so, provided that the United States Coast Guard hasn’t completely prohibited hawsepipers from working their way up.

All of this is good subject matter for thought as I fly to join a crew that I have never met on a ship I have never seen besides passing her once at the anchorage in Singapore over Christmas. With all luck this ship will become my second home. I have no idea how much time I’ll have to write while on board. It’s going to be a little more challenging than working as the navigation officer on a cable ship and I’m pretty sure there won’t be any Internet to make things easier so don’t hold your breath, not that you would.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Spring 2010

Spring has come early this year in New England. On a recent trip to Concord I snapped a few photographs of the swollen rivers that are notorious for flooding the low lying areas of south eastern New Hampshire.

Below can be seen evidence of one fire department's affection for Irish pubs as they painstakingly barricade the lowest floor of one popular and flood prone Dover watering hole.
Before the large brick mills of New England were converted to cubicle farms and call centers swift and narrow rivers like this one were used for power to operate textile machinery. This river actually flows underneath the largest mill in Dover and was raging from recent rains.
Another mill situated on the New Hampshire / Maine border still generates hydro power which is now used to offset the town's electrical bills.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Forty Eight Hours

Four days ago I was half way through another lengthy vacation from work. Contemplating the next month of freedom I was planning another expedition to the mountains to take advantage of the remaining snow and then a spring time camping trip after the melt but before the mosquitoes and their larger equivalents, the tourists, arrived.

I was six weeks into a steady yoga routine, catching up with old friends and making plans with new ones. I had even planned to go on a date or two taking advantage of my status as a single handed sailor on the seas of romance. On account of all the fun I was experiencing with life ashore my heart sank when I answered a call from the shipping company and heard the crewing coordinator say "We need you out there in two days".

"Out where?" I thought as my plans ground to a halt. Fixing the leaky roof, renting a room out, replacing kitchen lighting, painting the bathroom; it all would have to be done another time. The upcoming Punch Brother's concert, my dinner date, a ski trip and everything else would have to be missed. I would have to pack, find my steel toed boots, get a haircut, wash my car and get my head around spending the next four months at sea, all in 48 hours.

I remained calm on the phone and expressed my excitement to return to a job I had been assured 9 months ago but had never panned out. Once the conversation was over though I was in a daze. No one had told me I would be expected to join the ship overseas; I obviously hadn't been included in the planning process. Now my new job was being thrust at me in short time and I was feeling very unprepared to switch off the at home mode and turn on the "Every days a work day" mode.

Yet it had to be done. This was my new job, one I had been seeking for over two years and I wasn't going to let a little rain in the kitchen stand in my way so I began making preparations. Two days passed and I had frantically wrapped up every loose end I could think of when I received another email informing me that the ship had been delayed on account of a sandstorm and that I'd be flying out within the following two days. Now those two days have passed and I'm still waiting on the couch, hamstrung by the potential that I would need to be in Boston in a hurry, unable to venture far from home or my phone.

Situations like this remind seafarers of the sacrifices that have to be made for the profession. The ability to make plans with friends and family and maintain a social life during breaks from work can be erased when unexpected returns to work are necessary. Balancing between isolated and dangerous work with long periods at home is a tough mental task. Shipping is unlike any other profession I can think of in this regard. And the unpredictability of the business can wear on you, especially when larger life responsibilities like a spouse and children come into the picture.

I for one have little to tie me down at the moment and have the flexibility to pick up and go with two days notice. I'm wicked excited to join the largest ship of my career measuring in at 868 feet and I'm even more thankful for the friends I have in the area to bid me farewell with a New England boiled dinner. It would just be nice if for once the return to work wasn't such a damn unforeseen adventure.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Obscure maps of Internet phenomenon

Seeing how much I love maps, data and the fascinating, weird and original stuff the internet brings into our lives the three guys pictured below have hit a home run. According to them Floating Sheep is:

Dedicated to mapping and analyzing user generated Google Map placemarks. The results provide one glimpse of what internet users (in the aggregate) think about particular places. Where are people posting placemarks about swine flu? Which places are considered to be "fun" by the collective intelligence of the Internet users?

We view this new cloud of user generated data as cyberscape which provides an additional layer for human interaction. In addition to our five senses we can now access cyberscapes of information (see our visualization below) as a digital sixth sense. We can look around a physical corner and see what online information has been tied to that location.

Since a large amount of this information is created by users we are no longer limited to the stale monotony (or security) of business directories or phonebooks. People can document their memories, feelings, biases and reactions to places and share them with the world.

Dr. Matthew Zook (in the foreground)
Department of Geography
University of Kentucky, USA

Dr. Mark Graham
Oxford Internet Institute
University of Oxford, U.K.

Taylor Shelton
Department of Geography
University of Kentucky, USA

If mapping pizza versus guns interests, the Beer Belly of America or Babtists, bibliophiles and bibles sounds of interest check it out. Besides, what else is Kentucky known for? Fried chicken?

Sunday, March 7, 2010


It's the end of another weekend here in New England. The sound of a road sign blowing down the street echos off the brick buildings surrounding my home. The pelting rain, some of which is now dripping through my ceiling, is depleting my hope for one more winter sport sustaining snow storm.

At least with my wide open social agenda I have been able to fit in more snowboarding in the last couple of weeks than I've gotten in since I had a seasons pass in college. Below is a short photo essay of my recent forays into the wildernesses of northern Maine and New Hampshire in pursuit of all things wintry and wonderful. A reminder of why I do love living where it actually snows in the winter. My only regret is that with all this free time I haven't yet made it back out west where I know the snow is deeper, lighter and not far from some good friends and family.

For starters this is a waterfall I passed on my way up Mount Washington this past year in the full verdant lusciousness of summer. Compared with the picture of the same waterfall below it is a reminder of seasons and change, an aspect of the natural world of which I am extremely fond.
Below we can see Lola, a fierce Alaskan hunting hound and an unidentified snowboarder, ascending the final ridge before Hojo's.

The view of Tuckerman Ravine and Hillmans highway.

The same view on a much more humid and warm day.

The bowl of Tuckerman Ravine.

The avalanche board and rescue shed covered in snow. Having never attempted the bowl on snowboards we left it for another day.

Renowned Alaskan hunting dog Lola leading the charge down Shelburne trail.

Another day, here at Sugarloaf, shows the formation of a lenticular cloud as stable moist air flows over the ridge adiabatically cooling.

The view west from the summit of Sugarloaf.

Mount Washington as viewed from the top of Sunday River on a blue bird day.

It just doesn't get any better than this...

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Ship Spotting

One thing I love to do is spotting ships, boats and other means of aquatic conveyance . Just like a birdwatcher with a zoom lens focused on a nest of eagle chicks I've whiled away many a watch staring at some of the worlds largest man made structures. While you could fill pages arguing over the aesthetic merits of modern ship structure versus traditional I find a beauty in the utilitarianism of today's seagoing vessels.

Working on some of the arguably ugliest car carriers around may have played a role in my appreciation for ships with attributes other than raked stacks, a cutter bow and curvaceous fantails but still, if the industry interests you than you might enjoy the following pictures.

The entirety of my last job at sea was spent either on the hook in Singapore's sprawling anchorage or maintaining position in the Singapore Strait to repair sub sea fiber optic cables. This meant ample time with little more to do than watch concerning traffic and snap photographs of some of the more interesting vessels that passed us by. The above photograph is a typical sunrise over Indonesia and one of the worlds most crowded anchorages.

This boat would circle us every evening as curious Singaporeans looked on from their tacky dinner cruise experience. A steel hull with fake cannon ports and a dirty exhaust stained transom, this motorized replica of a Junk never inspired me to buy a ticket.
A deck cargo of rough cut lumber makes this Russian stick ship look a little tender. Chained athwartships the lumber could very likely be coming from Russia's Kamchatka peninsula. I would see at least four of these vessels pass by in a week.
Another Russian vessel, this naval ship was circling Singapore while Vladimir Putin was visiting last October. Those long barrels on her deck were designed to fire missiles at the American ship pictured below.
A floating helicopter base this U.S. Naval vessel was part of a large fleet that called on Singapore late in 2009.
Another American naval vessel, this Lewis & Clark T-AKE Class vessel is the newest installment in the Navy's underway replenishment Combat Logistics Force. A classmate and good friend serves as a cargo mate on board this very ship and was just returning from an eight month humanitarian and goodwill mission to the South Pacific.
This Q-Max LNG tanker passes by in the morning hours on a dedicated run from the loading port in Qatar (Hence the Q in Q-Max) and a discharge port in LNG hungry South Korea. The newest design in liquefied natural gas transportation, the Q-Max class vessels were built in anticipation of a boom in LNG consumption to carry 266,000 cubic meters each, enough gas to power 70,000 homes in the U.S. for a year. Yet as the economy has slowed and demand for imported natural gas fallen word on the street has it that some of these 7 brand new ships are being laid up as soon as they're launched.
Compared to the membrane tanks used in the Q-Max LNG carrier these spherical tanks are representative of the old technology in LNG transportation, though when I say old I mean since 1964 when the first LNG tanker, Methane Princess was launched.
Another modern LNG carrier this one sporting the distinctive Maersk paint job can be scene with fire hoses trailing a mist astern, obviously an anti-piracy precaution.
The dinner cruise sets out from Marina South Pier with the skyline of Singapore behind. The three towers to the right are currently under construction to become Asia's most spectacular entertainment destination, Marina Bay Sands. The tops of the three buildings are to be joined by a ship like structure complete with rooftop gardens. While it would be free for you or I to have a go at the roulette tables here in a year's time it will cost each Singaporean $100 to enter.
A FPSO or Floating Production Storage and Offloading unit is passed by in Johor on our way to Sembawang cable depot. This converted tanker will be moored offshore in an oil field to receive, refine and store oil.
This pipe laying vessel, one of the largest in the world, is also seen in a Malaysian shipyard. Ships like this will be necessary to install the sub sea pipelines to link oil wells, FPSOs and all the other components in the booming offshore oil and gas industry.
A heavy lift vessel loaded with four towering container cranes passes precariously by. Surely welded to her deck weather routing couldn't be more crucial for any other vessel. We saw a lot of east bound cargo cranes.
A "bum boat" comes alongside to deliver stores. These strangely shaped motor boats were busily plying the near shore waters of Singapore to deliver food and spares to the thousands of ships at anchor. A design that probably goes back a thousands years in these waters must prove seaworthy despite the ingress of water at the bow and simple welded pipe tiller at the stern.
A capesize bulk ore carrier passes by in ballast westbound. With a cargo capacity of at least 175,000 dead weight tonnes this ship is too large for the Panama canal and the Suez canal when loaded. She must therefore transit around the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn when passing from one ocean to another.
This zoom of her house shows just how massive each component is from the stack to bridge wings to the rudder. Capesize bulkers range from 150,000 DWT to 400,000 DWT.
This dredge can be seen bound for sea to dump spoils dredged from the bottom of Singapore's constantly evolving harbors. This dredge, owned by a Dutch company, the undoubted leader in dredging technology, was operating non stop passing by us at least twice a day on her way out and then back in to Singapore.

One of my favorite ship pictures is of this cattle ship. After inspection with binoculars it was obvious that she was void of all livestock and most likely destined for a ship yard in Malaysia for some maintenance and new deck paint. I couldn't imagine how many head of cow or sheep she is capable of carrying nor the stench with a following wind but really, how many people have even contemplated such a vessel much less seen one? Her crew must be size able as well to feed and clean so many pens though I imagine it is mostly an automated operation.

A new FPSO that appeared more like a city as we passed her close abeam while coming into anchor early one morning. The mass of piping looked like any other oil refinery in Texas City except it all is designed to operate offshore. I wonder how a ship like this is navigated to it's destination with absolutely no visibility from the still existent bridge.
Singapore's navy had a large presence throughout the duration of my hitch. What were the worst pirate waters in the world are now mostly tame within the Singapore and Malacca Straits due to a joint anti-piracy effort between Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.
Big is all I can think here. I snapped this picture on my way ashore after paying off. The western half of Singapore's southern shore sports the largest container terminal in the world. These absolutely massive gantry cranes service the worlds largest container ships.

Suing Regan

During the Hurricane Katrina relief effort I was employed on board a vessel in the Mississippi River housing workers from over 100 different local, state and federal authorities involved in the rebuilding process. Among these agencies using our vessel for shelter, showers, food and laundry was a detachment of 20 or so United States Public Health Service doctors and nurses.

During my night watches as they dragged themselves up the gangway after arduous days of providing medical care in the heat and stink of a submerged city I was educated in the history of the service. I was surprised to learn from these camouflaged army booted medical professionals that the PHS was the oldest uniformed service in the United States and that for 200 years merchant seaman could receive free medical treatment at any PHS hospital in the country. This government "handout" was ended by Ronald Reagan in 1982 leaving 5000 injured seaman to fend for themselves and shifted the burden of maintenance and cure squarely onto the Jones Act.

I was reminded by all of this when I ran across an article the other day by John Merriam, a lawyer in Seattle, entitled "Suing Ronald Regan: My first maritime case". If you've never heard of the PHS and what for 200 years was a standard of insurance for America's merchant seaman than certainly give it a read. It's even more relevant today given the debate over health care and our massive federal debt which Mr. Merriam reminds us how:

"During the first year of Reagan’s presidency, the national debt reached $1 trillion, the then-largest amount of indebtedness in American history. During Reagan’s eight years in office, the nation’s debt tripled. The poverty rate rose, even as the benefits of economic growth flowed to those in upper income brackets."

While suing the president was quite the start to a legal career for Mr. Merriam I'll never forget my first lesson in maritime law. A professor told my freshman class in Introduction to Marine Transportation as he had been doing for thirty years "Boys, even if you fall out the second story window of a brothel in Sicily the company still has to pay your doctor bills, until you can go back to work that is." This was duly noted by all.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Harnessing the power of coffee, I'm sitting in between two Pratt & Whitney PW 200 turbofan jet engines struggling but determined to get all my thoughts written down. Bloody exhausted; that’s how I feel after two weeks in south Florida. What I pictured as a relaxing series of training courses for work intermingled with a little scuba diving and beach barbecuing turned into an all out social extravaganza that left me lacking sleep, solitude and sobriety. No sense in complaining though, I was having such a swell time that I almost extended my mini vacation down south. A meter of new snow in the White Mountains dissuaded me however and so I'm headed home to get into my foul weather gear and spending a few days riding chair lifts.

As per usual it’s been a busy first six weeks of vacation. Perhaps my coping mechanism for feeling cut off from friends and family when I’m at work but I routinely over schedule my vacation in order to visit as many people as able by car, plane or any other conveyance necessary. Maintaining a social network of friends has always been something I have expelled a considerable amount of energy doing. It certainly has it’s rewards as I get to watch the children of friends grow and celebrate birthdays and keep track of what amazing stuff other mariners I know are up to.

The training courses, a constant theme for merchant mariners, were a mixed bag. I have spent months in union sponsored training since finishing my bachelor’s degree and receiving a third mates ticket. Under the International Maritime Organization’s licensing structure in order to have upgraded from Second Mate to Chief Mate I was required to take several months of upgrade courses. The cost of attending these courses is akin to a year’s tuition at a state university and luckily for me was inclusive with my union benefits.

For any aspiring officer outside of a union or without company sponsorship the courses are prohibitively expensive and represent another roadblock to advancing up the ladder, especially for hawespipers like my younger brother. At least the quality of instruction, most of which is review for anyone recently coming out of a maritime academy, has been good. Since I wrapped up my upgrade business two years ago I now mainly attend either renewals like radar and breath alcohol testing or company required training such as Fast Rescue Boat.

This time around I had the chance to spend five consecutive days in a 360-degree full mission bridge simulator. The course, designed for masters, is solely focused on ship handling and was both challenging and humbling. I was a little disappointed that my performance was far from flawless but having the chance to dock, undock, and maneuver multiple ship models in one of the worlds most sophisticated (And expensive) maritime simulators was incredible.

One of the benefits of simulator based training is the ability to spatially orientate oneself prior to commencing an exercise. Pictured above is the port of Freeport Texas where we were tasked with docking a 100,800 DWT LNG tanker. By shifting our vantage to a birds eye view it enabled us to see just how much room there was beyond the vessel for turning within the basin.

This model is also a great example of how a pilot organization can use simulator "Modeling" to improve the design of ports. The pilots from this particular locale recommended new depths and widths for the channel and turning basins to the Army Corp of Engineers based on their experiences with this simulator.

Providing pilots the ability to test different harbor arrangements with multiple ships in all kinds of weather conditions prior to beginning large and expensive dredging or construction project
is a huge benefit. It is also a revenue stream for the simulator where as providing two mariners five days of non stop simulation surely was not a big money maker.

Above is a view of the bridge console complete with all the instrumentation needed for ship handling. In this case we're bringing a 40,000 DWT tanker alongside the berth at Drift River using an offshore anchor to control the bow in a four knot ebb current. The use of the anchor in ship handling was a foreign concept for me but a tried and true method for our instructor, a retired ARCO Captain.

Since two of the students never showed up to the first day of class it was only myself and one other student, a classmate from college, receiving invaluable pearls of wisdom from a former master. No matter how sophisticated the simulator it would have done little good for us without the instruction, feedback and criticism of a mariner who spent his career handling the worlds largest crude oil tankers afloat. After handling a 150,000 DWT VLCC in Long Beach harbor docking an 11,000 foot Maersk Container Ship in the port of Miami didn't seem so difficult. Especially with the help of two very large tractor tugs and a 3000 horse power bow thruster.

The second week of courses began with a CPR/AED re-certification followed by a Medical Person In Charge refresher. Towards the end of the week a mind numbingly boring drug test collector and breath alcohol testing certification left me loathing power point presentations.

The medical refresher course was excellent and very necessary having received no additional advanced medical training since my initial PIC course in 2004. While I have had a little practice at suturing and at diagnosing the rare appendicitis the insertion of catheters, nasopharyngeals, gastric tubes and I.V.s are all skills in need of constant honing. I would never want to feel rusty at this stuff when a sailor is entrusting me with medical treatment prior to or in lieu of evacuation.

Now that I have a new stack of embossed certificates and a few more frequent flier miles I'm reluctant to spend any more of this particular vacation in the classroom. I'm pleased to be headed for home with no obligations or plans on the horizon. I'm doing my best to take a lengthy break from work to focus on some of the aspects of life I haven't paid enough attention to over the last couple of years. While it does feel strange to just lounge while several of my neighbors are unemployed or just scraping by it feels good to simplify the stuff of life that sustains me.