Monday, November 15, 2010

The Strait is Clear

Movement has always mesmerized me. I adore the moment on an aircraft when the wheels leave the earth and the plane lifts into the air rapidly climbing from the end of the runway. I love the feeling of a sailboat heeled over, lee rail dragging in the water, as the tiller pulls at your hands straining to balance the unequal force of water over it's sides.

Shipping, unless you're holding station on a dynamically positioned vessel, is all about movement. Cargoes are booked months in advance for ports half way around the world. The ship is crewed, fueled and provisioned and then loaded all in anticipation of moving a long distance over the sea. We calculate our Estimated Times of Arrival for destinations thousands of miles away and know down to the minute when we expect to make the sea buoy if our speed stays the same.

And for me, two of my favorite aspects of seafaring are born of the need to constantly be on the move. Travel, the first, is a direct result of moving a ship over oceans. Second is piloting, or the control of a ship's "Conduct". This is the means by which mariners achieve the first. The entirety of yesterday served as a personal reminder that both of these facets to my work continue fascinating me as much as they did the first time I went to sea.

Travel has been a mainstay in my life since I was thirteen and ventured to the Mayan Ruins on the Yucatan in Mexico. The first time I participated in the navigation of a boat to an unknown destination was during the fall semester of my freshman year of college. That trip only took a Friday afternoon and a moderate breeze on Penobscot bay but I was hooked.

Unfortunately for my wanderlust the vessel on which I now toil is on a liner service which means regularly scheduled ports and non of the tramp shipping on account of which sailors have romanticized their professions for centuries. It is safe to say that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the U.A.E. have lost their appeal, if they ever had any.

Luckily every now and then a port off the beaten path is thrown into the mix and we get to order a new chart and see a new dock. This time around we called on Aqaba Jordan, the kingdom's solitary seaport located in the Gulf of the same name. Nestled in between Israel's Eilat and Saudi Arabia's more scenic coastline Aqaba is at the far northern end of an almost fjord like gulf. Several commercial terminals consisting of container, bulk ore and petroleum docks lie south of the city. The berth to which we were assigned was just a short drive from the palm lined beaches of downtown.

Finding Aqaba by way of water is simple. Leave the Suez Canal astern, transit the Gulf of Suez passing through the Strait of Gubal, turn to port passing the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik and then make another turn to port lining up for the Strait of Tiran. Once past the reef fringed channel and large shipwreck head north-northeast up the narrow Gulf of Aqaba until the radar looks something like this:
Once you see the the absolutely massive flag pole flying the Jordanian flag you're there but don't anchor off the beaches in Israel, one of their fast boats might take offense. It would have been nice to have had a chance to get off the ship, rummage around the Bazaar for a box of perfumes and some incense, maybe hit up a curry vendor and smoke the tobacco Hookah but with only four hours of cargo no one made it past the stern ramp.

A wise java pushing sandwich selling woman recently reminded me on the satellite phone that it's not about the destination but getting there and nothing could be more true on a day like yesterday. Two and a half weeks at sea and our first port call lasts less than five hours. A new country steeped in history with shops surely filled with all the Lebanese Coffee and silk carpets one could haggle for and no one even gets to walk up town.

For a crew of modern mariners it didn't really bother anyone as this is pretty standard for today's merchant marine. Just knowing that we could go ashore had we the time without much hassle was at least refreshing. Besides, for me it really was the lure of the journey that made my day. Transiting down one side and up the other of the Sinai Peninsula, watching brown barren mountains pass down both sides of the ship, seeing down 10 meters in some of the clearest water in the world, dissecting a historic city set in an ancient valley with binoculars. I'll take what I can get.

The second part of the day that again reminded me what an exceptional vocation I chose was when we passed through the southern end of the Gulf. As mentioned before, the Strait of Tiran separates the Gulf of Aqaba from the Red Sea. It is a narrow strip of water in between Egypt and Saudi Arabia fringed with reefs. In the middle of the strait there is another large and very shallow reef complete with a recently shipwrecked cargo vessel high and dry listed over to port 35 degrees. On either side of this treacherous reef there is an essentially pointless vessel traffic separation scheme, the reef does a much better job than magenta lines on the chart, and a Vessel Traffic Service system which monitors the movement of ships through the area.

On the west or Egyptian side of the strait lies a rather large city north of the resort at Sharm el Sheik with a busy airport and impressive nightlife evidenced by a shoreside concert and bustling streets. The southbound route leaves Egypt to starboard and Gordon reef to port. The lane is very narrow and over 200 meters deep but no more than 0.3 nautical miles on either side of the ship lies reef shallow enough to stand on.

The passage is marked with only two lighted beacons, something the Chief Engineer was incredulous about. He was on the bridge offering his opinion and advice on the maneuver since the Captain's attendance for the transit interrupted their nightly movie time. Normally when ships proceed through tight channels they do so at a slower "Maneuvering Speed" which would be half of the full sea speed we were making. Since the channel was short, only about six miles, and deep plus not nearly as narrow as a buoyed ship channel in port our speed was maintained throughout.

There was also only one insignificant course change to line up for and the cut as the VTS informed us was clear of traffic in the area. With a parallel electronic bearing line or EBL on the radar ranged out to the distance I wanted to stay off the marker light, I could watch the transit with comfort that we were staying in the middle of the channel. The passage itself was simple but knowing that if anything was to go wrong, such as an engine or steering failure, than the beaches of Al Fawz would have a new tourist attraction in about twenty seconds kept me on my toes.

Lining up and then watching the city lights zip by at twenty knots was impressive for everyone, Chief and Captain included. It's rare we pass so close to shore going that fast. The Chief couldn't believe that the still water just off the starboard beam was reef and was only marked by one light. I explained to him that the reef was too shallow and the channel too deep for an effective buoy.

The thrill of conning 70,000 deadweight tons of ship through a treacherous piece of water is unlike anything I have ever experienced. The tools are simple; paper chart and radar, rudder and single propeller, but the consequences of failure are severe. Despite the responsibility planning and then executing successful pilotages for me is one of the most rewarding parts of working at sea.

For more pictures from the Gulf of Aqaba visit my tumbler page at DeepWaterWriter

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