Sunday, May 23, 2010


Growing up it was easy to tell when summer was just around the corner. Once the rustle of last fall's leaves had been softened by new grass and the sun diffused through budding branches the sound of peepers at sunset would officially begin what I always felt as summer's rightful start. The peepers meant fireflies and fireflies meant camping. The wood stove would turn cold as rocks dredged up from the lake grew hot around camp fires.

Even when playing in the woods or sailing a 19 foot O'day Sailor up and down the lake gave way to hitchhiking into town to meet friends and hiding out in the woods from the authorities the peepers still called out the beginning and the ending of my summer days.

Last night, just about as far as a pilot can take a ship up the Cooper River I heard those peepers, not in the lakes of Maine but the marshes of South Carolina, for the first time in a long while. The natural and constant harmony had my sentiments running high with expectations that lazy summer days were just around the corner.

And then my radio crackled, "Mate, how high for the pilot ladder?"

"2.5 meters Bos" I replied snapping out of my reverie remembering that I only had twenty minutes until Stand By Engines to warm up my hydraulic pumps, close the last water tight doors and then raise the massive stern ramp. The tugs and a three hour outbound pilotage weren't far away whereas my summer vacation still was.

This has, bar none, been the busiest month of my professional life. And even though there have been half a dozen vignettes each day I really wanted to blog about none of them have made it onto my keyboard. I've foregone exercise, healthy eating, any semblance of abstinence from caffeine and returning emails from my own grandmother to keep above water at work.

Why so busy? For starters over the last thirty-five days on board only five have been spent at sea. After an initial discharge to empty the holds we spent two weeks in the shipyard getting some essential repairs and a new paint job taken care of. After climbing every ballast tank on board I had two days at sea to catch up on all the useless paperwork I had been ignoring. Calling on our first east coast port meant receiving 75 days worth of stores, spares and provisions not to mention a full load of automobiles for the Arabian Peninsula and a new crew.

Then there was the christening ceremony, a necessity for a ship which until three months ago flew the blue cross of Scandinavia on a field of red. The event meant dress uniforms for the senior officers, something I hadn't worn since the maritime academy. Awkwardly walking around the ship with a Chief and Captain both from Maine wearing corophrams and high pressure covers reminded me a little too much of junior cruise. All that was missing were hundreds of Brazilian school children waving little flags on the dock and Arctic.

At least the party, my first exposure to corporate events, was worth getting dressed up for. The day kicked off with the officers giving ship tours to the 300 attendees including the CEOs of our biggest customers, representatives of the Department of Transportation, the Maritime Administration and of course the union leadership of the officers and crew.

The night before a production company set about transforming my meticulously organized and swept cargo hold into a banquet hall complete with twenty foot curtains and staging. Amongst trays of coffee and croissants the dignitaries mingled and were then seated for the ceremony. After speeches a bottle of confetti was smashed by the new ship's godmother onto the stem of a replica ship model.

A luncheon was served after an hour of socializing with hor d'oeuvres and an open bar. The ship's officers were seated together, in a corner far enough away to crack jokes throughout, with multiple forks and a tantalizing glass of champagne. The five of us only had a small sip for the vessel's namesake toast by the acting Maritime Administrator and then retired back to the ship exhausted after hours of interfacing with the public, a feeling long forgotten since my last tall ships festival.

As soon as we felt like we had the ship to ourselves once again loading recommenced with one of the more interesting cargoes I've ever stowed. Over the course of two ports we received the entirety of a power plant destined for the Middle East. Every component necessary, mostly American made, was loaded onto the ship ranging in size from small boxes of break bulk to massive generators brought on board by a specialized trailer. Lashing arrangements varied from 5 ton ratchet straps to 11,000 pound transport chain and welding rods.

Other noteworthy events as of late have been once again keeping a work log and ridding the ship of a useless Boson. Ironically the shipment of two rather nutty seaman compelled me to once again keep a work journal which doubles as a place to document crew issues. The relief Boson, whom at first I thought would work out fine, turned out to be a conniving drunkard who resented working for a mate half his age and sewed hate and discontent amongst the crew.

Dramatic accusations for someone who lasted less than a week, yes, but three days into it I knew that taking this man to Kuwait and back as Boson would spell disaster. Thankfully I was tipped off by a like minded crew member that he was hitting a bottle of Sky Vodka in his cabin nightly, and therefore I had a back up plan in case my more humane method didn't succeed. Worse than all other offenses, and only two days on the job, he tried to get my star AB fired for overstaying his tour as a lowly "C" book. The port agent, quite aware of his shenanigans called him out for it and turned a blind eye but I wouldn't hear about it until after his departure.

Fortunately for this jerks career he took my offer on the "Easy way out" and packed his bags after frothing at the mouth for ten minutes in my office while accusing me of every manner of disrespect short of discriminating Italians such as he who thought they were made men. My gait grew lighter as soon as I saw him pouting his way down to the dock sea bag in tow until the thought of once again casting the dice into the union halls across the nation crossed my mind.

Fortunately for the crew we've gotten a 15 year veteran Boson. Unlike the last guy this seafarer has a healthy dose of pride and joins in tasks alongside of his men rather than slinking back into his cabin. Intent on doing his job correctly the first time he has assured me that once I learn to trust him he'll do me no wrong which is exactly what I need. We may have a few loose cannons on board but all the personnel in leadership positions have turned out to be seasoned and knowledgeable, all those besides myself.

While I long for peepers and the early days of summer the thought of camping in August will have to hold me over. There is so much to look forward to that next vacation home but before that a lot of work will need to get done.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Thankyou New York Times

An article in today's New York Times had done a service to the merchant mariners of the Oil & Gas industry who survived the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico on April 2oth, 2010. I have several friends who work for the affected drilling company and know that this event, while not affecting any of them directly, has surely given cause for their families to contemplate the inherent risks of seafaring and the exploitation of natural resources. However unfortunate the ensuing spill is to the ecosystems and economies in the Gulf of Mexico the loss of eleven men who were doing their work in a world dependent on fossil fuel should not be eclipsed.

As more casual information comes to light, something that has been noticeably slow from BP and Transocean, we can only expect enhanced safeguards are developed to detect and prevent future catastrophic blowouts. Personally I hope that the risks rig workers, coal miners, mariners and their families live with day in and day out are remembered by those whose lives are far removed from the discovery, recovery and refinement of fossil fuels.

While it is easy to lay blame and shame on the oil companies and their employees it is our own use of these abundant and relatively affordable sources of energy that necessitate their existence and fund their profits. Until government and communities are willing to adapt to a world without oil, something we've been unable to do since the first whales lit the streets of Boston, we will continue to pay a heavy toll in lives and ecosystems altered.

Sunday, May 2, 2010


What does fuel oil, lube oil, slops, ballast, gray, black and potable water all have in common? All are stored on board ship in tanks. Tankage is an inherent structural necessity for large ships and represents a significant portion of overall vessel volume.

Tankers are almost entirely comprised of tanks since the cargo; refined oils, crude oils, chemicals or compressed gasses, are transported in liquid form within large cargo tanks. A container ship or Roll On / Roll Off carries her cargo in holds. These holds, as I am proving this week, are surrounded on both sides and below the lowest hold by tanks. Fuel oil and ballast water require the most space whereas the other aforementioned liquids occupy much smaller tanks within the engine room.

Since my ship is not a tanker, and as the Cosco Busan proved in San Francisco Bay, carrying fuel oil on the skin of the ship, (Unsegregated by a void from the ocean besides the shell plating of the hull) is a necessity. All along the length of the bottom of the vessel fuel oil tanks are staggered in between ballast tanks.

Ballast serves two purposes. The first and most important is to ensure positive transverse stability through the addition of weight below the ship's center of gravity. The second purpose is to allow myself to control the vessel's trim, heel and drafts.

Since ballast falls into my area of responsibility, and since the annual ballast and void/cofferdam inspections are due this month, I have been using our time in the yard to pump out, open up, inspect, reseal and refill each and every ballast tank on board. Due to the size of this beast this has meant spending hours each day within the dark, damp and at times rank confines of 27 steel mazes, usually by myself.

Inspections are necessary because coatings, or the specialized and very expensive paint that covers the tank's innards, must be maintained or the tank will oxidize from the inside out. Observing the condition of the coating on a regular basis ensures that during the next dry docking trouble tanks can be addressed before structural damage occurs. Additionally I'm looking for any signs of stress such as steel fractures, broken coatings and deformation. You'd be surprised how easy it is for an assist tug to put a dent in the side of a steel ship.

Tank time was an experience I became familiar with early in my career. As a cadet I mucked out chemical tanks in between differing products and spent two weeks on the same tanker blasting mud and scooping rust scale from the bottom of ballast tanks. Working in remote corners of double bottoms holding a flashlight and fully charged fire hose struck me at the time as a unique way to spend my nineteenth summer.

Now it's my bread and butter and I can't say I love working in confined spaces requiring testing for sufficient oxygen and the presence of noxious gasses but then again, it is interesting as hell. The structure of a ship is exposed in tanks and the more you get to know each one the more efficiently you are able to work the ballast system.

Every time I crawl through a manhole wearing rubber boots with a head lamp strapped on, a radio and an O2 meter dangling from my neck I can't help but think about mining coal. Where else on earth could it be this dark besides the bottom of a mine as it is in the double bottom of a ship?