Thursday, April 29, 2010

Fish Fry

Traveling with no expectations is traveling at it's best. Spending two weeks of exhaustion in the shipyard has definitely limited my expectations. It's a rare occasion when I'm this busy at work to get off the ship and out of the yard so when I finally did make it to the beach last night every sight, smell, taste and Soca beat was better than I could have imagined.

The yard period began four days ago on a very windy morning in the Florida Straits. We maneuvered around the pilot station for six hours before the Bahamian pilots, obviously keeping strict island time, were ready to board us from a tossing tug. While we were waiting the a small container ship grounded on the beach as we watched and listened to the event unfold on the VHF radio.

The little ship had just left the shipyard the previous day with new paint and was at anchor in a perilous anchorage to windward of a lee shore near the harbor entrance. The heavy current must have caused the anchor to drag resulting in a beached ship and frantic sounding captain who was not the least bit reassured by port control's very laid back emergency response.

We docked in what could be confused for a vacant parking lot along the water and began making preparations for the following day's onslaught of yard superintendents and laborers. Shipyards are when ships get large repairs and maintenance accomplished plus undergo all pending regulatory inspections. It's where the ship gets all the things done to it that normally can not be done with cargo aboard and has therefore been extremely busy and exhausting.

Four day's into the yard I was in bad need of a few hours away from work, sleeping not included. I knew I would be even more tired the following day, and I am, but finding a place to vent stress can become a necessity and I have learned that when given the chance it should not be passed up.

After befriending several of the workers I started to get a sense of the Bahamian identity. There really is no rush on the islands. There is always another day tomorrow when something can be finished up, or if you never got around to it in the first place, it can be started. While this mindset was proving to be a little frustrating in the yard once comfortably zipping down the highway on the left side of the road I was immediately relaxed.

My cab driver, who went by the name of Uncle, Cow or Mikey, spent as much time telling me to be relaxed and that he could "Get you anything you need mon" as he did explaining his life on the island to me. While I wasn't interested in most of the things Uncle could provide me I was curious about the life of a Bahamian, a mere 90 miles from the similar climate but very different world of South Florida USA.

Uncle was the youngest of forty brothers and forty sisters, all of the same father. He therefore new each and every person on Grand Bahamas. "How many people on the island?" I asked. "Only sixty thousand mon", he replied in all seriousness.

Uncle took an immediate liking to me since my destination, the Wednesday night fish fry on Taino Beach, was his destination as well. Knowing that I had never set foot outside the shipyard gate he had to know how I had heard about the biggest local midweek scene on the Island. I explained how the first thing my friends at the shipyard had told me when I inquired about nightlife was the fish fry. So off we went, bombing down the road in a Toyota mini van, Uncle all the while trying to pick up as many sun burnt tourists on the way at three bucks a head.

We pulled up to the beach and not fifteen feet above the high tide line was a bar with thatched roof and rickety wood dance floor but not a door or window in sight. Next to the bar was a smoky kitchen also thatched in palm fronds occupied by the busiest Bahamians I had yet to see. Thirty people waited in a never easing line of hungry tourists and locals. The ladies frying chicken took my order and fried an entire red snapper right in front of me, piled the plate high with rice, black beans, potato bread and mac and cheese. With a Kalik beer I was a just another tourist until Uncle found me an began introducing me to everyone he knew.
We started with the police, a male and female officer in smart blue uniforms with red banded hats in the English style. Next we met numerous cousins who all had businesses or were some way involved in the island economy. He pointed to one well dressed Bahamian and said "He eats fish heads for breakfast."

"What the hell does that mean" I asked. "It's like if instead of eating grits and conch for breakfast you have boiled grouper instead. Like in the States you have eggs and pancakes mon but if you were very well to do than you could eat steak and salmon every morning."

By saying that this gentleman had something expensive and locally regarded as delicious for breakfast, fish heads, he was very well off. Boiled grouper was just about the most decadent thing one could have on the island for breakfast so I acted impressed by the guys status.

Once the sun retired and I had my swim off an abandoned dock down the beach the full moon rose. I went back to the bar and began mingling with the patrons. I was introduced to a coconut rum which when mixed with a little orange juice was far better than any Bahama Mama. The "Gollywash" though was my favorite drink; a simple blend of coconut water, my favorite liquid next to coffee and sleepy time tea, with cheap gin. This went down easily and being mindful of returning to work in a few hours I laid off the hard stuff and spent most of the night working up a sweat dancing to the DJs mix of local and American club tracks.

As the night went on the tourists and Conchi Joes, that is tourists who have become locals, began to wane as the islanders began to dominate the dance floor. The American tunes were fine, though I had gotten my fill of them in Asia this past winter, but when a local musician would come across the amplifiers the crowd would really get going. Uncle didn't dance too much given his prestigious fish head girth but he was always nearby to offer me advice on pick up lines and who to go dance with (Though a few nights later he would prove show up my sophomoric dance moves)

After a couple hours of dancing sore leg muscles loose I retired to the glassless windows and watched the full moon shimmer on a flat calm Bahamas channel. We had passed right by this beach four days earlier and I remembered several times before that when I had looked over at this thin strip of white and green that is the Bahamas and wondered what life was like on this often ignored and a little run down island. Now I was getting to see first hand amongst the locals and that circumferential feeling of getting to know someplace only after navigating around it floored me.

On the way back to the yard Uncle had to ask for ten bucks in addition to the cab fare I paid him for his services. His kids needed five bucks each for school lunches and as we pulled into their driveway it was obvious that he and his wife or girlfriend were no longer together. He slipped the colorful Bahamian bills into the mail slot and then got back in the van. Tired and hungry he drove me back to the gate. He offered to pick me up anytime and that we could go anywhere on the island. Aiming to stimulate the local economy while pleasing visitors was his main mission and he had not let me down.

False Alarm

What could be more exciting than a general alarm? How about a general alarm in the middle of the night when you are in a sleep so deep that once the blaring siren four feet above your bed wakes you up you're left wondering how long it's been going off. Seconds? Minutes? Longer? Hard to tell as you're jumping into a pair of crumpled jeans and slipping on steel toed boots while simultaneously reaching for a flashlight.

With the siren still ringing the urgency of the situation becomes clear even if your vision has not. "Please let this be a false alarm" is all I'm thinking as the stairs come rushing up to my feet three at a time. The damage control locker, where 4 sets of turnout gear, 4 self contained breathing apparatus and other emergency equipment is stowed, is only half full of the normal faces.

Rather than the alertness seen at drills everyone is pale, red eyed and confused. I tell the boson to take a muster, which I don't think he ever did, and then carry on down ten decks to the lowest hold on the ship straining to hear the radio until the siren is silenced by the captain on the bridge.

I arrive in the lower hold where the other two mates are and hear on the UHF that the fire panel was misread and that the activated detector is actually in the lower engine room. Now at a sprint I'm really hoping this isn't the real thing. My heart is pounding having been fully reclined two minutes ago and I'm pondering the chance of having a heart attack from such sudden exertion.

Entering the engine room I find the second assistant confusedly bouncing from detector head to detector head amongst lime green generators and purifiers looking for a little red L.E.D. This is a good sign; no smoke, no fire, no panic besides the captain's urgent request that the suspect detector is located.

Does this mean I don't have to race back up the ladder praying that the fire team has fitted themselves out in three minutes flat which is very unlikely? A few moments later the detector is located with no flame in sight. It's a false alarm and I'm a little older and exhausted for it. Five minutes later I'm back in bed sound asleep. How often do you get to go to work for ten minutes at a time in what could potentially be a life or death situation?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Becoming the dust

Allow me paint a picture for you. It's zero six hundred in the morning and the sun is slow to rise. I am dead tired from the last two days in port working my first cargo discharge on this ship. Despite six hours of STCW mandated rest the only brace I have against fatigue is the deliciously French pressed coffee I sip as the Gulf of Mexico slowly comes to life with supply vessels, fishing boats and birds.

As the sun rises and my weariness begins to give way to the caffeine I ask the new AB, a Yemeni from Dearborn Michigan, to take care of his sanitary duties on the bridge. With an emphatic "Yes Sir!" he takes up a push broom and in five minutes I'm almost doubled over from laughter in the corner where he can't see me. His sweeping methodology is akin to snow shoveling. His back heaves in the vertical plane in between horizontal thrusts after which he grinds the corn husk broom into the deck breaking straws and flinging dirt and dust bunnies haphazardly into the air.

I'm amazed that this Able Bodied Seaman, not much younger than myself, who has sailed on the Great Lakes since 2003, is completely incapable of effectively sweeping the bridge. I'm even more surprised because yesterday as a new crew member he stood out as a skilled quartermaster manning the helm for the narrowest and windiest parts of the Sabine River.

According to my new watch partner in his Great Lakes experience no one ever took the time to sweep the bridge well or much less paint the ship neatly, something else he confessed as not being able to do but was very interested in learning. "Deep Sea is so different" he told me as he explained that on the Great Lakes getting as much cargo on board and to the next port as quickly as possible, the longest run he ever had was 17 hours, were more important than all else, sanitary included.

Our conversation led into a half hour, one on one lesson about sweeping. I had never contemplated the possibility having to teach someone how to sweep. It had come naturally to me at a young age by a story my mother had told me about a skilled deck hand that would sweep her boat from stem to stern in the smallest successive sweeping motions imaginable. So I thought that if I could learn to sweep at the age of six than it would come naturally to most other seamen as well but here I was at sunrise, in the ocean, at work, instructing a seasoned Great Lakes mariner on how to do it.

We began on the port side behind the chart desk and and worked to the other end of the bridge brushing every square inch of shiny blue linoleum. In the gentle light I demonstrated half a dozen times how to make short small strokes without lifting the bristles too far and why using bulkheads is vital for corralling the dust. "You must think like the dust, you must become the dust" I waxed as we progressed finding each corner and nook in which the undo-er of electronics and clean freak mates resided.

Each time he would revert to his original method I would take the broom away and show him again. I explained how sweeping and painting were very similar and it was the paying of attention to detail that would make him great at both. His eagerness made me feel like I was doing an Outward Bound course all over again and for a moment I remembered that the thrill of seeing enlightenment in progress from your own instruction is one of the things that really sustains me in life.

The lesson also gave me cause to stop and ask myself, "Is this real? Am I actually teaching someone how to sweep the deck when steering a 70,000 dead weight tonne ship is part of their expected skill set. Yes, yes I am."

There will be a lot of learning with the 4 to 8 AB. Just yesterday I fielded two telling questions. The first was if we, as in mankind, could stop volcanoes from erupting. The second was asked after I had secured the mast head light early this morning to step out on the bridge wing and look at the night stars. I noticed basketball sized pulses of bio-luminescence in the wake and showed the AB. In amazement we then looked up at the night sky which was casting the palest of starlight on our faces unpolluted by land. I showed my new friend from Yemen the white cloud of stars that comprises the milky way and in all seriousness he asked me "Is that a rainbow?"

The sun was three hours from rising and as it turns out, Deep Sea sailing is a different place indeed. This week we'll be learning how to determine the direction from where the wind is blowing and how hard. It's Ocean Classroom all over again.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Sun rise aviary

The bosun and I were scratching our heads last night as we set the hook on the bottom and the Captain began churning up the Gulf of Mexico with an astern bell to dig her in. We had no idea exactly how much chain had been paid out when we let go the starboard anchor.

The paint marking each shot or 90 feet of chain had been completely rubbed off the detachable and surrounding links, if there ever was any. We thought we had seen the fourth shot run out amid the flying rust chips, sparks and red dust but whether we were looking at the fifth or six shot was indiscernible. The bosun remembered painting either one but not both before I had joined and he promised to bring his work journal to the bridge the next morning to decide.

If it was the fifth shot on deck in between the wild cat and riding pawl than we would paint the detachable link red and the five links above and below it white. If the sixth shot than the six links above and below would get white paint. A metal band would also be wrapped around the fifth or sixth links to reflect a flashlight beam at night.

This morning when he showed me his handwritten work journal spanning the last two years of every day spent at sea I felt a twinge of jealously and regretfullness. I had kept my own hand written log for the first two years of my seagoing career but eventually gave it up. I still cherish these weather beaten Moleskines describing each watch and workday on schooners and ships going to my first foreign ports of call in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Asia.

When my third journal was complete it was the most valuable possession I had stolen out of my car in a smash and grab one shitty day in Florida. Disheartened I gave it up for a while but about a year later began a work log on my computer justifying my overtime much like the bosun's. Unfortunately, once I started needing to record the crew's overtime, a departmental work log, STCW hours, NPDES inspections, a log book and this blog it turned into more of a chore than I like writing to be.

I still know how important journaling at sea is for myself so in lieu of keeping another written record of days at sea I'm going to attempt using my enhanced access to the world wide web to and this blog as more of a journal than I have in the past. If my writing begins to reflect the monotony one experiences at sea than I apologize but my home is that in writing less each posting I'll write more frequently. If I can find the time...

This morning the monotony of anchor watch was alleviated by an open air aviary on the foredeck. All morning long hundreds of small south Texan swallows or finches, or some manner of land bird, dodged, dove and swarmed around the bridge feasting on the prolific insects that clung to the deck lights. The cobalt blue and scarlet red were two of the smallest and most striking birds to have visited the ship in a while.

A Nauti Fantasy

Another voice from the world of nautical blogs has spoken up about Short Seas. In this posting Bowsprite provides an artfully illustrated microcosmic view of a future where Short Seas Shipping in NY Harbor is an essential part of everyday life:

"We currently have no little ports around our city, no working piers, limited usable docks, nowhere for
feederships and lighters to tie up, some stevedores, but, no cranes for longshoremen to operate, nor storage facilities or transit sheds to hold the break bulk. Notice, above, how many piers there were in 1933?

However, we have the water. NYC is richly blessed with waterways that can transport stuff into the hinterlands."

Go harbor shipping!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Casualty Analysis

It is another beautiful morning in the Atlantic. I can't get over how pleasant the open horizon looks after spending four months channel bound in between Malaysia and Indonesia. The perpetual movement of water down the hull and the lonely expanses of ocean rarely occupied by any vessel besides our own has made for two weeks of low key watches.

The clouds have been particularly spectacular passing through some unsettled weather before entering the Bermuda high. Rainbows, columns of localized rain and towering cumulonimbus have made for great sunrises and sunsets. Yesterday I steered for a pair of humpback whales. Keeping my distance I spent an hour watching them breach and curiously stick only their right fins out of the water to slap them onto the surface over and over again.

I received a preliminary ice bulletin on the Sat-C from the International Ice Patrol today which included a reminder that the 98th anniversary of the RMS Titanic is nearing. This and the more recent grounding of a collier on the Great Barrier Reef got me thinking about how mariners learn about and learn from misfortune at sea.

One of the required courses during my senior year of college was called Casualty Analysis. It consisted of reading National Transportation Safety Board case studies of classic marine disasters. Each episode involved a catastrophic loss of life, cargo, vessels or damage to the environment. Every week for a semester a different collision, grounding or fire was discussed by the class and it was expected that our opinions were to mirror the ageless conclusions of admiralty lawyers as written in the text book.

The class served it's purpose to illustrate why the event's happened and how we could avoid falling into the same traps but the conclusions always felt too black and white and didn't deal with the human factor sufficiently. One time I made the mistake of challenging the consensus and attempted to articulate my own causal factors in a case where a coast guard vessel collided with a tanker in Tampa Bay. This was not a good idea and the instructor informed me that the courts conclusion was the only good explanation as to why the error chain went unbroken.

The other aspect of the class I found disconcerting was the tone of the NTSB's accident investigations. Much like the Coast Guard's marine safety bulletins they reeked of a corner office in Washington where some clerk handled road, rail, aviation and marine accidents as one in the same. The Coast Guard's blend of military and law enforcement interpretation of a bad day in the Merchant Marine has much the same affect on incident reports.

The Australians on the other hand seem to have a master mariner working at their Transport Safety Bureau. The most recent marine casualty in the news being of course the Shen Neng 1 which destroyed a 3 km stretch of coral reef and likely much more due to the resulting fuel spill. The preliminary investigative report reads as if it was written while in the wheelhouse of the ill fated ship rather than a formulated government inquiry.

The investigative team must have had a background in commercial shipping and relayed the events so clearly it read like a journal. Not only that but this preliminary report was issued mere days after the incident rather than months after the fact when the full investigation was in which helps quiet misinformation in the media.

The U.K. does a similar service to marine incidents by publishing a quarterly magazine by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch full of glossy photos and recommended practices to avoid accidents at sea. I would really like to see the U.S. Coast Guard hire a few retired skippers and Chief Engineers to do the same for our marine industry. Right now the Coast Guard's one page bulletins, in house publication Proceedings and Professional Mariner's unprofessional mariner section are about the only printed venues for casualty analysis in the States.

Anyone who enjoys reading about marine accidents knows that there is always more than one contributing factor. Just look at the contemporary findings for the circumstances surrounding the Titanic (Steering compasses not being aligned, communication issues, binocular cabinets being locked).

Marine incidents need to be looked at deeper than which party is at fault for settling insurance and salvage claims. Real people were very tired on the Shen Nang 1 and arresting the Chief Mate and Captain might make the masses happy in Queensland but it's not going to prevent future accidents when cargo officers on undermanned ships end up working another 37 hour day.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Qanat as Suways

A water filled ditch in the middle of the desert is the best way to picture the Suez Canal. If you've never passed by its sandy banks it is not a scenic place. The desert here on the edge of the Sinai Peninsula is hot during the day, cold at night, and constantly blowing a fine grit covering everything, teeth included.

First a little history; Unlike the Panama Canal the Suez has no locks. The Red Sea and Mediterranean are both, surprise surprise, at sea level and therefore connecting them by a 20 meter deep ditch was more a feat of determination than one of engineering.

Construction by a French company began in 1859 and lasted 10 years. The project was heckled in Europe, especially for the use of slave labor but ironically the continent's exploitation of Africa only expanded upon its completion. Once opened the canal allowed for record circumnavigations eliminating the need to round the southern tip of the African continent bringing Europe and America even closer to the rest of the world.

From inception use of the canal was guaranteed for vessels of all nations in times of peace and war including warships. Even during conflict navies are theoretically allowed to use the canal though on a few occasions the United Kingdom, Egypt and Israel have made exceptions to this rule.

Twice during the Arab Israeli conflict Egypt closed the canal to Israeli shipping. The ensuing Suez Canal crisis spurred the creation of the super tanker to bring Middle Eastern oil profitably to market while avoiding the canal. After the Israeli blitzkrieg of the six day war control of the Sinai was taken from Egypt and not relinquished until the Camp David accords which permitted Israel use of the canal once again. Until recently wreckage from these conflicts still littered the nearby dunes.

Today an Egyptian military presence is noticeable in the canal. A few war memorials and dusty parade grounds lie along the banks as well as hundreds of tiny fortifications. These comical outposts consist of little more than tents, flags and watch towers usually manned by one or two lonely soldiers. The outposts are placed every kilometer or so.

Our north bound transit began with entering the Gulf of Suez at the Strait of Gubal, not too far from Sharm el Sheik, the European vacation destination known for it's clear waters and free diving competitions. Bordered on both sides by Egypt the Gulf of Suez is narrow and busy with shipping. The western shore is lined by a desolate range of jagged mountains which continue to the northern end of the Gulf at Port Suez.

Once within VHF range of the Port Authority each arriving ship is given an anchorage designator that routinely requires the captain to maneuver into the most crowded part of the port and drop the hook precariously close to other vessels. Each ship is also given a number in the line up for the convoy and just before dawn one by one each ship will weigh anchor and embark a Port Suez pilot for entering the access channel.

Prior to any of this happening though a large amount of money has been handed over by the shipowner to the Suez Canal Authority. A single transit can cost over two hundred thousand dollars depending on the ship's Suez Canal Gross Tonnage and her cargo. There are other costs as well. All ships transiting the canal must have on board a Suez Canal light, a line handling team and a lot of baksheesh.

Most vessels carry a Suez Canal light not because it's in any way useful but because if you didn't have one than the vessel would be required to embark a team of Egyptian "Electricians" to install and operate their own light during the transit. I have never once seen this light needed or much less used. Instead we just pull it out of the foc'sle, aim it at the oncoming traffic and leave it unplugged.

Unlike the light the line handlers might be of some use if the vessel was to make fast to the bank which is normal for the second of the two southbound convoys. But again this means boarding another group of Egyptians who inevitably will expect food, sodas and cigarettes and also have a reputation for making off with any unsecured sundries and brass fittings. Therefore my company cleverly hires a tug escort instead which may or may not have enough horsepower and line handlers on board to do much of anything except squeeze a few more dollars out of the ship.

Cigarettes, the other ingredient for a smooth transit, must be plentiful and preferably Marlboro. In the eastern half of the world coffin nails make business happen and the first dozen cartons or so in Egypt go to the port agent, health inspector, security team and launch drivers plus any friends they might bring along for the ride. Baksheesh is so commonplace that to not have the cartons conveniently waiting on the table when doing the paper work or at the gangway for the launches is an affront.

"You have present for me?" is a familiar query from the launch drivers and surely derives from the cultural expectation that you show your guest, no matter who they are, hospitality. Unfortunately in most places I have been, including Egypt, the gift giving goes one way. One time and one time only did an agent actually bring a gift of Baklava and figs for the Captain before asking for his cigarettes in return.

The rule of thumb is the more you can get out of the American ship the better and no amount of whistling, waving, gesturing or demanding is considered shameful. It doesn't stop with cigarettes either. Soda, soap, laundry detergent and candy are favorites and more than one health inspector has finished his inspection of the galley with a trash bag full of instant coffee, tea and condiments. If you have been through the canal than you can relate and you also know that the pilots help to uphold this unscrupulous reputation.

It takes four pilots to travel the length of the Suez Canal. The first pilot will be on board just long enough to get the vessel into the channel and past Newport rock when the second pilot boards at Port Suez. Steadied up at the canal entrance and with a hearty "As-Salām `Alayka" the first pilot is relieved, paper bag of at least six cigarette cartons in hand.

Each pilot is escorted to and from the bridge and safely seen down the boarding latter or gangway. The launch drivers will at times demand their own carton(s) of cigarettes but usually if you wait them out and the pilot becomes impatient enough they'll begrudgingly come alongside to pick him up. A third pilot is taken at Ismail, the half way point, and a fourth for the Mediterranean entrance at Port Said.

The pilots vary widely in their grasp of ship handling and English. Some are good, some all right and some absolutely hazardous. I have had pilots who appeared bent on running the ship aground when the captain wasn't looking. Though their ineptitude was probably unintentional had it not been for watch officers quietly countermanding rudder commands than we likely would have gone aground. Why not voice our removal of the conn from the canal pilot rather than secretly taking it away for a moment or two? Because it would likely have caused an escalation of voices and egos while greatly increasing the number of cartons needed to smooth things over before an international incident occurred.

The north bound convoy has right of way over the south bound convoy that is broken into two groups. The first south bound group is passed in Great Bitter Lake where they drop anchor and wait for the north bound ships to go by. The second south bound convoy is passed in Al Ballah by-pass where instead of anchoring the ship's are moored to bollards in the sand and when seen from the main channel appear to be afloat in the desert.

Since the passage takes the entire day the more devout pilots will observe at least one call to prayer during the passage. With the mate or Captain conning the pilot will remove himself to a corner of the bridge and pray while facing in the direction of Mecca. If we are passing by any of the Mosques along the canal than the Adhan or the call to prayer can be heard being broadcast from each minaret.
Once both south bound convoys are astern the northbound group has a straight shot out to sea passing Port Suez. The final pilot is sent off with a full belly and another brown paper bag of cigarettes and we're back out to sea.

It's ironic to think of how many times I've "been" to or rather through Egypt and not once stepped foot on land. It is not my intention to generalize Egyptians based on the behavior of pilots and other employees of the Suez Canal Authority. It's just that they're the only Egyptians I've ever met. Except of course the ubiquitous Charlie Brown.

Besides getting a sun burn and sand in your coffee Egypt is also a good place to find a camel skin jacket of questionable quality and a "Papyrus" painting on pressed banana leafs. It's also a great place to rid the ship of old mooring lines and scrap metal and one man can help you with all of these things, Charlie Brown. Charlie has been calling on ships in the canal for decades now. One captain I worked with would receive telexes before we left the U.S. inquiring what services he could provide. They had known each other for thirty years at the time.

Charlie is a rather rotund man, presumably nicknamed after the cartoon character. Along with two sons who do most of the heavy lifting he has been providing ships with Egyptian knickknacks for a long long time. All of my souvenirs from Egypt were acquired from Charlie while anchored in Port Suez. If there is something you want that he doesn't have on the boat then he'll have someone pick it up and meet the ship with it on the other end of the canal and he always has a present for the Captain for letting him sell his wares on board.

This last trip through the canal was a smooth one. In between bridge watches I spent the morning on the bow standing by the anchors. Traveling at 9 knots, the canal has a speed limit to prevent bank erosion, made me feel as if I was riding a bicycle through the sandy streets passing by simple houses, small farms and palm trees.

I passed a beach full of children jumping off docks into the canal, fishermen hauling nets from the canal and ferries moving tanker trucks and people from side to side. It became apparent just how central the Suez Canal is to life in this part of Egypt and the nation as a whole. Not only is the canal a necessity to the international shipping industry, it's a major source of income for the government and the Egyptians who work on it, bribes included.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Feds Announce Program to Expand America’s Marine Highway

The following release from the Department of Transportation sounds like a step in the right direction. Lets hope the momentum builds:

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today unveiled a new initiative to move more cargo on the water rather than on crowded U.S. highways. Under the “America’s Marine Highway” program, the Department’s Maritime Administration (MARAD) will help identify rivers and coastal routes that could carry cargo efficiently, bypassing congested roads around busy ports and reducing greenhouse gases.

“For too long, we’ve overlooked the economic and environmental benefits that our waterways and domestic seaports offer as a means of moving freight in this country,” said Secretary LaHood, speaking to transportation professionals at the 7th Annual North American Marine Highways and Logistics Conference in Baltimore, MD. “Moving goods on the water has many advantages: It reduces air pollution. It can help reduce gridlock by getting trucks off our busy surface corridors.”

Under the new regulation, regional transportation officials will be able to apply to have specific transportation corridors – and even individual projects—designated by the Department of Transportation as a marine highway if they meet certain criteria. Once designated, these projects will receive preferential treatment for any future federal assistance from the department or MARAD.

“There are many places in our country where expanded use of marine transportation just makes sense,” said David Matsuda, Acting Administrator of the Maritime Administration. “It has so much potential to help our nation in many ways: reduced gridlock and greenhouse gases and more jobs for skilled mariners and shipbuilders.”

The Marine Highway initiative stems from a 2007 law requiring the Secretary of Transportation to “establish a short sea transportation program and designate short sea transportation projects to mitigate surface congestion.”

Earlier this year, Secretary LaHood announced $58 million in grants for projects to support the start-up or expansion of Marine Highways services, awarded through the Department’s TIGER grants program. Congress has also set aside an additional $7 million in grants which MARAD will award later this year.

The final rule announced today can be found on the MARAD website at and is expected to be published in the federal register tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Lovin' it

What a week. I can honestly say that I haven't been this happy, or thankful, to be at sea in a long long while. My reasons are many but center around making some hard decisions, sticking with them and finding myself in a position which I have been laboring and waiting for for the better part of the last two years. Naturally not everything is as was hoped for but as one wise man said, "If you want to hear a good laugh go and tell god your plans."

I arrived at work a little more than two weeks ago, or rather; I arrived in a Muslim country with no sponsor for my visa which, meant I was not going to be allowed into the port. The immigration hick-up was an oversight by the crewing department that almost caused me to miss the ship.

Luckily a smooth talking Kuwaiti Port Captain, and graduate of California Maritime reasoned with a few slightly reasonable Kuwaiti army officials to have me admitted into the port with only a tourist visa. When we pulled up to the second of three military checkpoints on the way down a refinery lined road the guard, as was translated to me by my friend the Port Captain, wanted to search my bag.

"But he doesn't have any Alcohol" my friend said. I had all ready been through this at the airport with a bottle of maple syrup almost cracking it open and taking a swig to prove it wasn't rye whiskey.

"No, he is not a Muslim, he is different, we need to check his bag" was the reply from behind a pair of chromed aviator glasses, Uzi in hand.

After a few more reassuring sentences the guard reluctantly let us pull away, a lump leaving my throat. Not because I had any contraband but because any other issue keeping me from walking up the stern ramp would have just about killed me. It had been a long 8 months waiting for this particular job.

Once on board I was quickly overwhelmed by two presiding factors on the new boat. First the ship was absolutely massive. The decks were stronger, the ramps bigger and the engine faster than anything I had ever worked on. Secondly everything outside the engineering spaces were going to be my responsibility in a week including the holds and the cargo filling them, the deck machinery, the deck crew and all the paperwork that goes along with it.

Luckily the captain had swung a deal with the office to get me on well in advance of the mate being relieved. Therefore we had from the Persian Gulf to the Suez Canal to sift through as much on board as possible providing me with a running start to my new job. It also gave me time to settle in with the crew and appear a little less like the clean shaven academy grad only six years out of school and more like the bearded, bow legged, salt water pissing mate I'd someday like to be.

That crew, which as a matter of fact shall be the subject of another blog post, is just about all you could hope for from a union hall. The only person I knew on board much to my delight was the Steward. Renowned on board car carriers for Sunday morning crepes and never ever ordering the reviled and detestable oxen-tail, he and his equally talented cook are affectionately known on board ship as "Feeders". As in, "Boy, this one's a feeder for sure!"

Adding to my merriment my co-workers are about as socially normal as sailors can be. Top to bottom it's a great group of guys. I was apprehensive about walking into a frat club I wasn't a member of or a worse, a funeral procession, but everyone is upbeat, accountable and among the officers likes to make just enough fun of one another to keep things interesting. Even the Captain is the brunt of dinner table jokes and throws it right back at you with a thick South Portland accent...guy.

One of the biggest differences between this Ro/Ro and other car carriers I've worked on is the level of technology. No not for navigation or cargo handling or engine room automation. Not even for coffee making. The technology I speak of is something the average American family is now spending over a thousand dollars a year for; Internet. Yes that all too taken for granted modern day convenience has finally started making it's way into the budgets of reluctant American shipping companies and I have to say it is the best morale boosting event since the introduction of the foc'sle card.

From the comfort of my cabin I can now pay my bills, check bank accounts, update this blog, Skype friends and family, listen to Public Radio and send out links to annoying you tube videos about New Hampshire anytime I want. I only think that it costs the company a fixed rate of around $5000 a month which is just about what we pay for fuel for 12 hours of sea speed.

My schedule at work is something else for which I'm extremely thankful to have had changed. For the last five years I have predominantly worked the mid watch either waking up at midnight for a four hour watch breaking my 8 hours of sleep in two or working from midnight through noon and then some. I now stand the traditional four to eight which means I rise before the sun does and sleep after it has set. I love this watch because I'm finally back in sync with nature and find it so much easier to get adequate rest even if it's only six hours of sleep a night.

It also means that I am witness to the most stunning beginnings and endings to days there are. A few nights ago I was alone on the bridge watching a slow sun set and became absolutely awestruck by how lucky some are to be sailors. All the stress of new responsibility and future challenges melted away as I remembered that it was my own decision to take myself out of society and into a world where instead insisting the earth rotate around you, you purposefully rotate around the earth, encircling it day after day in the most elemental of places known to man.

That moment on the bridge wing in the eastern Mediterranean watching a Beaufort Force 8 tear at the glowing ocean reminded me of a song sung by Gordon Bok. As I dredged the words up from my memory I couldn't help but knowingly smile. How happy one can be with a long sea passage ahead when you're mind is in the right place.

Barney Buntline turned his quid and said to Billy Bowline, "God help how I pity all unhappy folks ashore now."

"Poor creatures how they envy us and wish as I've a notion, for our good luck in such a storm, to be out on the ocean."

"And very often have we heard how men are killed and undone, by the overturn of carriages, by thieves and fires in London."

"We know what risk all landsmen run from noblemen to tailors, then Bill let us thank providence, that you and I are sailors."