Monday, June 28, 2010

Slinging chain

It has taken a while to come to this conclusion but I'm convinced manual labor is one of the reasons I love my job. Office days have their place, charts need correcting and stores need ordering but the days when you work up a sweat and fall asleep with exhausted muscles give a satisfaction unattainable from excel spreadsheets.

Growing up in a town where many of my friend's fathers were carpenters, farmers, tilers and fishermen manual labor was a normal means to a living. Though it took years of landscaping and stall mucking to build up my own tolerance to hard work going to sea has refined my endurance when working towards the brink of exhaustion.

Every vessel afloat has it's own set of physical challenges inherent to the operation. Sailing was hardest in the early morning hours after being roused from a perfectly warm and semi dry bunk to stand soggy on a pitching deck peering into a cold bank of fog drinking tepid coffee and eating wet Granola. A tanker was always challenging but even more so heaving butterworth machines 50 feet up from the tank top while washing tanks under the Gulf of Mexico sun.

Working on deck here is like any other ship; maintenance and repair, lubrication schedules, chipping rust and painting steel, and lots of cleaning. The cargo though differs from ship to ship; container, bulk, petroleum and Ro/Ros have their own unique forms of corporal punishment.

Over the last two weeks along the shores of the Red Sea and Persian Gulf the ship has discharged and loaded cargo in five different ports. Loading is a longer event as each piece is positioned to minimize broken stowage and lashed according to its weight and construction. Cars receive four small tension straps, the same with SUVs. Larger pieces will get a web lashing rated to 5 metric tonnes. Anything over 10 tonnes requires chain.

When loading the longshoremen will lash the vehicles under the direction of stevedores with one of the three ship's officers giving it the thumbs up. As long as the lashings are properly led to the deck fittings, of proper material and number, it's a hands off operation. Any questions about the arranging or securing of the cargo as it is loaded default to me as Chief Mate and unless I'm happy the longshoremen will have to do it again.

When discharging the longshoremen break the lashings and tow, push, or drive the cargo off. The lashings though are left strewn all over the holds. In some ports I can get the longshoremen to at least organize the lashings if not pick them up placing them in bins I've strategically located all over the ship. In other ports they won't think of touching them once removed from the cargo.

As it always works out my department of 9 will end up stowing the majority of the lashings and then clean the holds. On a busy coast this becomes paramount to all other work as a new cargo will fill the holds before the day is through. Often I'll have to call all hands and wake up ABs who spent the entire morning steering, docking and then standing his or her watch. Now instead of sleeping they're back in the holds picking chain up off the dusty decks. They have a hard time complaining within earshot of me though since nobody has had less sleep than I.

Chain is plentiful on a Ro/Ro and is stored in metal bins that can be stacked in racks or on top of one another. We use a three and a half meter length of 11 millimeter chain rated for 7 tonnes working load to secure the cargo. It takes four of these to lash down a twelve tonne tractor and sixteen to lash a 60 tonne bucket loader. The chain is tightened with a binder bar which is tensioned by one to six longshoremen depending on their mass (A rough formula for this is three Bangladeshis laying into a chain equals the tightening power of one South Korean).

Slinging chain is a loud and forceful affair. Done haphazardly it creates a mess in the bins so I constantly instruct the crew to organize the lashings first on deck and then lay them in neatly one by one into the bins. A forklift or two is needed to shuffle empty bins around the hold while other crew remove dunnage and rubber matting.
The heat this month has added to the intensity of the job and along with a few sandstorms made working in the holds very unpleasant. Until the ramp is secured after cargo and the ventilation shut down a fine coating of brown dust typical of Kuwait or Saudi Arabia coats every inch on the inside and outside of the ship. Only large air filters keep most of it from making it's way into the accommodations.

One of the enjoyable aspects of working a cargo that requires longshoremen is interfacing with the local stevedores. Unlike a tanker where the only people you meet from shore are the gaugers and dockmen Ro/Ros require a lot of labor. While the crew doesn't have any direct sway over the longshoremen we can talk to their supervisors, the stevedores, if they're not doing the job correctly, a fact I learned the hard way working with West Coast unions.

I do all I can to form good relationships with the stevedores and in the Mid-East this means a lot of hand holding. Holding hands with other men is customary in this part of the world as a gesture of friendship or when you have something important to say . I've seen a stevedore hold the hand of a thieving longshoremen while chastising him but more commonly hands are held in a positive gesture.

Seeing the job the longshoremen were doing in the holds while in Kuwait I would have held the foreman's hand all day. A group of fifteen Pakistani longshoremen were clearing a hold of chain in half an hour and they didn't mind doing it. Thanks to the head stevedore, an Egyptian longing for American made Jeans, he was getting me way ahead of the ball for the next load. All I had to do was promise to bring a pair of size 8 American made shoes back for him which he'd buy off me.

After cargo was finished I took the utility truck down to the dock to read the drafts and noticed another American ship in port. I stopped by the gangway and inquired about a friend who worked for the same company. She wasn't on board but a moment later a familiar face I hadn't seen in six years walked around the corner. The last time we had talked was in college but ten minutes later we were caught up on the last six years I had an open invite to go skiing in Colorado. Maintaining friendships over vast distances and spans of time is a necessary skill for a mariner.

Once we were headed back through the Strait of Hormuz a stowaway was discovered on board living off the bread crumbs left scattered on the deck by sympathetic crew. Two banded legs, one holding a microchip gave him away as a homing pigeon who was soon named Larry Bird. Being so domesticated I was able to pick him up checking for a serial number so we could see where he came from. The only markings, on the microchip and stamped under his wing, is a globe with "PanAsian" written on it. At this point were unsure whether he's in a competition or really carrying a message.

After a little research we learned that homing pigeons will often ride ships for long stretches of time if they're headed in the right direction. I just can't figure out how he knew we were headed west towards the Mediterranean and not south around the cape or East towards the Pacific. Smart pigeon that Larry Bird is.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Two Gulfs

It was my third time on a ship in the Middle East that I remember thinking to myself "If there is one place in the world where I do not want to work I've found it." Between the heat, the sand, the barren landscape and the underlying hostility toward Americans there were very few if any redeeming qualities to make a 21-day sea passage feel worthwhile once the adventure had worn off.

Today I'm more willing to accept the Middle East as a necessary part of my occupation. If this is where the cargo needs to be shipped and my ship is bringing it then so be it. A job is not to be taken for granted and I’ve had a few good stints working in more exotic and romantic locales.

Still it isn't without some reservation that I sign on especially with the situation off Somalia. The following message, transmitted daily by the International Maritime Bureau in Kuala Lumpur is a good reminder of what mariners are up against in these dangerous waters:

21 0001 UTC JUN 2010



During our recent transit through the Gulf of Aden as we passed by Yemen, the UAE and Oman before entering the Persian Gulf, multiple ships reported being approached by pirates in skiffs. One was attacked 24 hours ahead of us and another 12 hours astern. Both of the attacks involved small arms fire and aluminum boarding ladders and took place in the Strait of Bab el Mandeb. Both ships increased speed and evaded the Somalis.

Referred to as the BAM, the Strait of Bab el Mandeb is a choke point in between Eritrea, Djibouti and Yemen where the Red Sea empties into the Gulf of Aden. Since coalition naval forces have somewhat subdued pirate activity in the Gulf of Aden the pirates operating north of Somalia have been pushed into this narrow and very busy body of water.

The Haycock Islands viewd from the south.

Reservations aside, working for a company that has taken a proactive security posture operating in high threat regions means that I can sleep soundly at night. The personnel and systems employed in protecting us from Somali hijackings ensure that pirates would meet with failure if they made any attempt to board us.

As continued hijackings prove, this is not the case for most ships. Whether it's the corporate philosophy or more likely the lack of capital for security, the pirates probe hundreds of ships outside the IRTC each week without adequate security to deter them giving the pirates a choice of the most appealing vessels. (The IRTC or Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor is used by escorted convoys and is patrolled by the coalition navy)

Having an uneventful transit we encountered another foe approaching the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz. The heat in the Middle East is a natural wonder better appreciated from the bridge of an air-conditioned ship than inside the cargo holds. Sometimes dry, sometimes humid, the force with which the Arabian Sun beats down on steel ships and weary sailors is without remorse. I keep telling my guys, most of who have decades on me, to drink less coffee and more water until were back in the Atlantic Ocean. The last thing we need is a heat related injury that can become life threatening before you can fill a bathtub with cold water.

The Persian Gulf is a place like no other. The water can be blue and clear or muddy and brown depending on when the last sandstorm rolled through. Visibility is normally limited which is unfortunate as the periphery of the gulf is lined by oil rigs and reefs. Sunsets are mired in a haze of humidity or a shroud of sand if kicked up from the desert by strong sudden bursts of wind.

There has to be some imaginary fence that keeps the crazies penned inside its shallow confined waters. The VHF radio serves as a cell phone, a soap box and a pulpit. As soon as you pass the Strait of Hormuz leaving Oman to port and Iran to starboard the radio becomes a nonstop audio assault on sanity. There’s constant Digital Selective Calling distress alerts, the omnipresent “Filipino Monkey” slurs, barnyard animal sounds, solo vocalists singing in Arabic, Brittany Spears fans holding the VHF next to a tape deck, and more devout Muslims at the dock who key their mic as the Imam ashore calls the people to prayer.

Nonstop action on the radio is mirrored by the amount of near shore traffic. In addition to the world’s navies and shipping traffic fishing boats, coastal traders, and smugglers rush back and forth over the hazy water showing dim lights and a reckless fearlessness of collision. The water is hot too, over 90 degrees Fahrenheit, which makes life ever so miserable for engineers trying to keep their cooling water cold enough to wick unwanted heat away from the engine and generators.

Last night as I watched the Moon, Saturn, Mars and Venus form a diagonal line in the western sky I thought about how many friends, classmates and people I have met work in this part of the world. Some sail on liner services similar to the one my ship is on. Others work on shuttle tankers and containerships that never leave the Gulf. I’m sure we all feel the same passing through the BAM or entering the Persian Gulf. We’d rather be at home having barbecues at the beach or spending the day on a lake but this is where the jobs that we chose bring us, at least it is for now.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Cabotage and the GOM

If there is one thing that merchant mariners will agree on it is that the Jones Act has helped preserve careers for tens of thousands of professional mariners on board ships flagged in the United States. This cabotage law has maintained generations of mariners while supporting the few remaining commercial ship yards in America.

A piece of legislation written into the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, it stipulates that any cargo carried between one U.S. port and another, including Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico, must be carried on board a vessel constructed and registered in the United States and crewed my American Merchant seaman. The companies, ships, tug boats, training institutions and skilled mariners needed to fulfill domestic commerce are often touted by proponents of the act as a valuable component for national security in time of conflict and crisis.

Often controversial, as any protectionist law with a union bias is, many of the legislation's loudest opponents are American shipping corporations who flag their fleets over seas. Other critics include smaller companies that might like to flag ships in the U.S. but could not afford to build them domestically and foreign shipping companies who would like a piece of the coastal tanker trade. And of course lets not forget the consumers of Hawaii and Puerto Rico who pay exorbitant prices at the grocery store for goods which could be carried for cheaper on a ship flagged in Monrovia with a crew of Indonesians than a Lykes or Matson Lines container ship.

Lately there has been a lot of talk about the Jone's Act affecting the pace of the clean up in the Gulf of Mexico. It has been asserted in some media outlets that the Jones Act may be to blame for the reluctance to employ foreign skimmers in the cleanup. While substantial resources have been offered from other maritime nations the use of these large oil spill response vessels has been much less than the situation seems to warrant frustrating many people including myself.

Today the National Incident Commander and former Commandant of the Coast Guard, Adm. Thad Allen issued the following statement: “While we have not seen any need to waive the Jones Act as part of this historic response, we continue to prepare for all possible scenarios,” said Admiral Allen. “Should any waivers be needed, we are prepared to process them as quickly as possible to allow vital spill response activities being undertaken by foreign-flagged vessels to continue without delay.”

When I first read about this new vilification of the Jones Act it seemed almost comical. To say that the Jones Act is preventing a quicker cleanup of a mess left by the offshore oil and gas industry, one of the biggest loop holes there is to the Jones Act, seemed ridiculous. All of the Transocean Drill Ships trying to stem the flow of oil ARE foreign flagged vessels so why would skimmers present a problem? (Formerly a company based in the US but now relocated to Switzerland, Transocean registers their vessels in the Marshal Islands, a nation in which I happen to be an STCW licensed officer)

Besides the entire oil and gas exploratory drill fleet the gulf is also home to several tankers that do nothing but lighter oil from bigger Ultra Large Crude Oil Tankers and take it to American refineries. This doesn't even require a loophole since the origin of the oil is from overseas. Still, it's a foreign flagged ship operating exclusively within the EEZ.

Additionally last September Customs and Border Protection declined to issue a revised ruling which could have positively affected hundreds of the now idle offshore support vessels in the Gulf of Mexico. The ruling, if it had been passed, would have prohibited foreign vessels operating in support roles in the gulf not involving the direct transport of goods from shore. American registered Seismic, repair and installation vessels would have seen an unprecedented demand for work. Not having enough boats available was one of the arguments against the revision.

With all of this going on it seems laughable that the Jones Act could substantially impede the clean up beyond the issuance of a waiver which Admiral Allen is ready to grant if deemed necessary. While utilizing whatever means necessary to deal with this disaster is fine with me it's the pace with which were using foreign assets that is troubling.

After hurricane Katrina I spent two months working as a third mate on a relief vessel operated by the Maritime Administration. During that time I saw dysfunction at every level of government. The entire system from the Parishes to the State to the Fed were failing to adequately address the severity of the situation.

Jones Act waivers were granted to several ships, the most conspicuous of which were two Carnival Cruise liners docked downtown and meant to house local emergency responders. Throughout the two months the word on the street was that neither ship was used at over 10 percent capacity and that as soon as the New Orleans Police found out that the swimming pools and 24 hour buffet weren't going to be open they boogied to better quarters, in mostly stolen cars.

That was a case where a Jones Act waiver was obviously unnecessary and unwise and maybe a little too good to be true for Carnival. As far as the Gulf of Mexico not having a fleet of Dutch skimmers enroute is a sign of dysfunction in this response. There may all ready be 15 foregin vessels involved but 150 might work a little better. Unfortunately for the poor folks down south last night's decisiveness is looking more and more like it's too little two months too late.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Hot Jelly Flies

Hot dry heat, jelly fish and flies were the first three things I noticed arriving at the Suez Canal. The anchorages north of Port Suez were just beginning to fill up with ships waiting to enter one of two south bound convoys. The air was no longer reminiscent of milder days spent crossing the mid Atlantic and the ketchup bottle at dinner was now attracting a persistent Egyptian housefly, the likes of which had been absent for the last 18 days.

Jelly fish surrounded the ship numbering in the thousands. A large white or blue bowling ball sized species, they drifted beneath the waves aimlessly pulsating, most likely an invasive jelly living off the saltier and warmer effluent coming out of the canal from the Red Sea which slowly flows into the Mediterranean. They were so thick you couldn't jump in the water without hitting one.

While we waited for the convoy to begin very early the next morning a stores boat pulled along side so we could receive fresh fruit and vegetables which included some of the best strawberries I've ever had. Whether they were from Egypt or Israel or Jordan I couldn't be sure but they were tiny and sweeter than the G.M. one's we get in the states.

The pilots came on one by one throughout the morning and afternoon. The first pilot amazed the bridge team by eating more cookies in one transit than had ever been seen before. One by one the pilot would take a cookie from the coffee station, return to the gyro repeater to enjoy while conning the vessel, and then for another slowly decimating the entire box . The last pilot came aboard in a white linen suit complete with a vintage Suez Canal cover with scrambled eggs and all declaring that it was he whom held the oft contested title of senior pilot.

Before entering the Great Bitter Lake to anchor and await the passage of the single north bound convoy we passed close by the third largest super yacht in the world. As informed by the pilot, the vessel is owned by the Sultan of Oman and was headed back to the Emirate. While the Sultan and his family were not likely to have been aboard the yacht was still impressive measuring in at over 500 feet. We followed her all the way out and into the Gulf of Suez later in the afternoon.

Anchoring for a few hours gave the Captain and Chief Engineer just enough time for a quick nap, both had been up all night and the previous day. To keep the helmsman fresh I put them on a rotating schedule spending only an hour at a time on the wheel. Even though it's a straight shot most of the way one misinterpreted or incorrect rudder movement and the ship could suck herself across the bank blocking a line of ships extending for miles through the desert from their destinations.

While passing through one of the larger towns along the canal we boarded one oncoming crew member, a new third assistant from my Alma Mater who had graduated only four weeks ago and who's luggage hadn't made the connecting flight. I felt sincere pity for him knowing that when you pack for sea for the first time you really do try and fit your life into a bag and showing up to work for the next three months without that duffel is truly a bummer.

Also boarding in the starlit brilliance of the desert night was our contracted security team who will ride the vessel for the duration of our time in the middle east. Due to the extreme piratical activity in the India Ocean the company made a proactive decision to deter hijackings. By making each vessels as hard of targets as possible the pirates would be insane not to choose a softer or more vulnerable target. And while there are a great number of coalition war ships now patrolling the Indian Ocean the hijackings continue with ships being probed, attacked and boarded daily by Somalians. Piracy has always been an inherent risk to marine commerce and unfortunately today it is no different.

We all feel confident that the presence of several very well trained, professional and experienced security personnel on board the ship will deter any attempts at taking the ship for a ransom. While it is not a solution to the piracy issue it does make everyone sleep better at night and from my perspective, not providing ships in this region with properly equipped security teams is a huge threat to the well being of the crew. The ICC's Piracy Report shows that the threat persists and just yesterday a chemical tanker was attacked ten miles north of the Strait of Bab El Mandeb. More on the BAM later.

While encounters with Somali thugs in the Gulf of Aden can be deterred the heat is inescapable on deck. I reminded the crew this afternoon under a paint peeling sun that drinking lots of water, not coffee and soda, but water and taking breaks when needed is imperative. Heat stress becomes life threatening much faster than most tough, macho and hard working sailors think. That last thing I need is to go short a man on an all ready tiny crew.

The third mate looked up the forecast for our next port of call and it didn't even bother stating the temperature centigrade. "Extremely Hot" was all it said. Today is the hottest day of my nearly three months on board and it's only going to get worse. With a sea water temp of 86 degrees not even filling the pool will do any good on a day like this. And while I whine about the sea temp the engineers are really concerned. A hotter ocean means a hotter engine and when the diesel engine gets too hot it's a big problem. Another thing we could do without is going Dead In the Water to replace an exhaust valve while in the Gulf of Aden. Security would definitely have their hands full then.

Sunday, June 6, 2010


One of my first Captains would always tell passengers "I never get religious or political when I'm on the water" when asked about her opinion on something regarding either religion or politics.

Sometimes the passengers would begrudge my wise, mysterious and beautiful boss having hoped to stoke the fires of contention instigating a debate with a strong and fearless schooner captain. The less confrontational passengers understood that a schooner is just too small of a place for one to expound their political or philosophical dogma.

But sometimes it just can't be helped, especially when every morning my Captain comes up on the bridge and changes National Public Radio to Fox and Friends on the XM radio. It's not that I am unwilling to listen to Glen Beck or Bill O'Reilly, I just can't take the old man's incessant categorizing of Fascist Obama Liberals.

I feel compelled to pipe up and remind him that the political landscape of America, despite what television networks would like us to believe, is not black and white. It's not just a bunch of freeloading liberal communists waiting for food stamps and one world government while hard working, gun loving, freedom fighting patriots who are sick and tired of big government try to right the political spectrum by chanting Sarah Palin's name at Tea Parties.

He would disagree but at this point it's a non issue, the XM radio signal fizzled out five days before Gibraltar. Unfortunately due to these early morning encounters I have now been pegged the ship's liberal and am often subjected to verbal ridicule.

Anyway, my whole point here is every time I mention something really good that I read in the New York Times it just reaffirms that I'm another Harvard educated Yankee liberal espousing the redistribution of wealth and big Federal government. While I do believe in a flat income tax, if you call that redistribution, and in increased autonomy for our united STATES to limit the Federal government's interference in our lives, the New York Times has been doing a really good job of covering the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill.

As highlighted by another Ro/Ro enthusiast, Kennebec Captain, the New York Times posted an article on June 5th entitled "In Gulf, It Was Unclear Who Was In Charge of Rig." This article, to my knowledge, has so far been the best reporting on the real issues that led to the worst environmental disaster in the history of the United States and will undoubtedly be the focus of the investigation for months to come.

Looking at it from a commercial perspective it seems unbelievable that the Deepwater Horizon's Vessel Response Plan for an oil leak explained how the pollution would be mitigated but didn't require the material necessary to stop a leak to be readily available. Nor did the response plan realistically estimate the impact a leak would have and the resources required to deal with it.

Procedures, equipment, safety tests and all sorts of other "regulated" aspects of deep water drilling were approved by regulatory bodies who were in the habit of granting exemptions to keep things manageable and the rig drilling in deeper and deeper water.

Furthermore, unlike a cargo ship, drilling platforms have multiple contractors on board in addition to the charterer, in this case BP. Each company is looking out for their best interests while the Captain is supposed to be looking out for the interests of the crew and vessel.

As explained in the article, "In testimony to government investigators, rig workers repeatedly described a “natural conflict” between BP, which can make more money by completing drilling jobs quickly, and Transocean, which receives a leasing fee from BP every day that it continues drilling."

It would be as if my ship carried a representative for each cargo on board. The cars would have a supercargo, the tractors, the project cargo, and each would surely weigh in on which port we should call first. Ultimately the primary concern would be the bottom line for their company, not the safety of the vessel and success of the voyage beyond their cargo's final destination.

As warning signs were ignored on board the Deepwater Horizon it illustrates that a breakdown in the management of a very sophisticated vessel had begun well before the actual explosion. The oil and gas industry is a very different animal from where I work in deep sea ocean transportation and I couldn't imagine the politics of dealing with multiple companies on board a production rig. Yet the Master's overall responsibility and command of a vessel does not change.

If there is any good that can come out of this disaster I hope it includes increased oversight on part of the master, who is ultimately responsible, in the critical decisions that affect the safety of the rig. A rig manager may have more expertise in aspects of drilling but that doesn't mean they should have the final say when it's pitting dollars against safety. This event could and should have long term ramifications in the O&G industry well beyond the 6 month moratorium on drilling.