Thursday, November 25, 2010

Sand Land

It begins with the sand. Even before the Suez Canal the proximity of the desert can be seen in the hazy sky. Sunsets are clouded by a veil of ultra fine dust light enough to float through the air and settle on the water after a shamal blows through. It covers every surface of the ship, irritates your eyes, fills your lungs and coats your teeth. It is not pleasant and I'm convinced I have an allergic reaction to all that particulate matter in my chest. I grow tired, have a hard time taking a full breath and can barely breath through my nose. After a few days I become accustomed to my symptoms but they're always there each time I sail to the Middle East.

The Suez Canal is the first stop on our way to the Arabian Gulf and any ports in between. The canal pilots have earned a reputation here, at least on American ships where baksheesh is taken for granted. Everyone wants cigarettes; the pilot boat, the security inspectors, the agent and the pilots. If they don't get enough there is the honking of horns, waving of hands and incredulous shouts of, "Why!? Why do you do this!!?" The health and quarantine inspectors usually leave the galley with a garbage bag full of instant coffee, syrup, honey, sugar and anything else they might have a harder time getting in Egypt. And you can forget buying them off with Newports or Camels, this here is Marlborough country.

The pilots, whom range from competent to outright negligent are a cast of characters. Most claim to be the "Senior Canal" or "Best" pilot which automatically entitles them to another four cartons of cigarettes. 9 out of 10 pilots take their nicotine ravenously and some will gorge on any sweets or fruit put in front of them. Some of the more shameless pilots will scan every unfastened object on the bridge and politely ask if they may have one "For the kids" or "My wife". Sunglasses, jackets, hats, anything edible, and even soap are up for grabs. These generalizations may sound negative but it's simply the truth from the perspective of our bridge team and not something we look forward to.

Interspersed with small military installations, guard shacks and parade grounds there are several conspicuous war memorials commemorating the hostilities with Israel in years past along the banks of the canal. These sometime spur interesting discussions about the fight for the Sinai Peninsula and politics but one thing remains absolute; Israel is not a welcomed neighbor.

The first time I heard the adhan, or the Muslim call to prayer, chanted on the loudspeakers of a mosque in Port Said the pilot asked for a room in which he could pray. Other pilots will simply prostrate themselves on the deck at the back of the bridge facing Mecca. This past transit the pilot asked for one of our signal flags to use as a prayer rug.

Once clear of the Suez Canal the weather usually gets hot. The seawater temps in the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf have been logged up to 90 degrees. With seawater temps like that the engineers are hard pressed to keep the main engine cool enough. When the shamal brings with it the dry desert air the humidity is low and the wet bulb thermometer needs constant refilling. When the air is light and the seas calm the ocean seems to vaporize and at night it can create a fog humid and hot like a steam bath. This time of year though we are lucky to have cool weather which compared to the norm actually feels chilly.

The ports are easy to get into and out of if it was left up to us, few rivers or long channels, but working with the local pilots can be a challenge. Jordan, Bahrain and the Oman have good pilots, some being expatriates from India or Asia. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia however can be a real pain. There seems to be little liability for pilots in this part of the world and therefore little regard for the safety of our ship. Pilots routinely disembark when the vessel is still within the confines of the harbor and raise holy hell if their command is questioned. But at times it must be questioned because at the end of a bad day it's the old man who would be wearing the bracelets, not a pilot belonging to the royal bloodline.

This is one of the reasons keeping it calm, cool and collected is such a necessary skill for interfacing with the locals whether it's on the bridge docking the ship with the Captain or getting cargo on and off. The typical Arabian, in my experience, loves a good argument. The more animated and audible the better. Tantrums are not only for toddlers in this part of the world and if you rebut with like force it will only escalate.

The funniest aspect of this charade is that the typical westerner will take it all personally and start cussing and using derogatory statements but the Middle Easterner will get over it in five minutes. I have taken many a pilots down to meet their boat who were infuriated when he stormed off the bridge but completely over it by the time they were climbing down the ladder. This has led me to believe that this is just their way of communicating and conducting business and has nothing to do with showing dislike for us as American seamen. It's unfortunate that not all Americans working in their waters understand this. Too many assume that freedom of speech and religion is something you pack in your seabag which it most certainly is not.

The abrasive yell talking used by Arabs in authority can also be constantly heard on the VHF radio. Exasperation is easily expressed in Arabic and again if you don't keep it cool things can get testy quick. I try to remain as polite and docile as I can no matter how ridiculous port control or the pilot boat are being. Politeness though won't make the barn yard noises, horrible singing or keying of the mic next to a Mosque at prayer time go away. When there is no more sanctity for channel 16 and you hear these things all night long you know you've entered the Arabian Gulf.

Because I work on a Roll On / Roll Off where the cargo is wheeled rather quickly up and down our stern ramp time in port is limited. Bahrain, Dubai, Aqaba and Salalah would probably be the best liberty ports if we had time to go ashore. The first two being hotspots for Muslims who live in the more culturally restrictive countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and appreciate cold beer and real nightclubs.

The first time I went to Dubai and saw the indoor ski resort, gold suk and luxury island residences in the shape of palm trees being dredged out of the sandy bottom of the gulf the economy was booming. A group of Irish businessmen had just bought the island shaped like their homeland in the "World" residence project and were busy investing their easily gotten money into scale replications of the emerald isle's iconic features. Today the project has slowed and Dubai no longer is growing as fast as it once was but the money is still here. The regions' mineral wealth continues to bring sufficient revenue for all the opulence money can buy in the Gulf States, most of them at least.

That massive wealth, the kind which ensures imported labor to take care of constructing cities and running ports, creates a sharp contrast between the oil rich countries and all the other nations in the middle east. Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iraq come to mind as places that provide the labor for building the mega malls and palaces of the Arabian Peninsula. They are also the source of some of the most interesting boats I have ever seen.

The common sight in port or in the shipping lanes of wooden cargo vessels big enough to carry a crew of ten but small enough to tuck into the marshes and rivers of Iran would be straight out of the bible had they sails instead of diesels. The hulls are shaped and most likely constructed as they have been for thousands of years. I drove by a fleet just waking up in the port of Salalah a few days ago and watched as the groggy crews brushed teeth and washed faces. On the quarter of one boat was a boxed in outcropping in which sat a sailor taking a dump right through the perforated seat and into the harbor. That is some medieval shit if you ask me.

These boats still call on ports all over the Arabian and Indian oceans carrying cargo from big ports to small. They also constitute the fishing fleet, though not so big but similarly shaped. The only fishing boats that don't look like traditional dhows are the fiberglass skiffs used by Somali fishermen but I hear fishing isn't the business of choice in Puntland these days.

Pilots, port state control inspectors and the shipping agents are the only local Muslims I meet and work with in the wealthier gulf states. Everyone else involved in the cargo operation is from another less wealthy country. Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan are prevalent. The differences between nationalities are obvious once you get to know the familiar faces in each port and they get to know you. Some things are common such as the need to meet and greet the higher ups every time the ramp goes down fostering a good relationship and air of cooperativeness. Hand holding is also important for Muslim stevedores with something important to say to you. I've held many a hands for minutes on end in front of large groups of men.

As with all wealth there is a massive contrast between places such as Kuwait City replete with modern skyscrapers and shoreside palaces and somewhere such as Umm Qasr only an hour away by car. Iraq's only deepwater port for dry cargoes, Umm Qasr is every part the opposite of the glitzy air conditioned cities to the south. 60 miles up the Shatt al Arab, a chocolate milk colored river full of silt and poorly buoyed, Umm Qasr is a dusty, trash strewn town with unsecured ports and lots of unemployed men milling about the dock yards.

See the New York Times Slideshow: At Iraqi Port, Chaos and Corruption reign supreme.

I have never been to a country torn by internal ethnic war. While the south of the country has been more or less stable for some time, the British withdrew from this Sunni majority region in 2007, it still is a risky spot for an American flagged vessel for obvious reasons. The 60 mile pilotage up the river was a sobering reminder that not all has been well in this country for many many years. In two spots of the river the sunken hulks of wartime casualties could be seen along the river banks. Much of the munitions, wrecks and mines that had filled the river have been removed by coalition forces but several of the ships were too large to bother. It was a ghostly sight to see the burnt out superstructures and buckled hulls, results of air to surface missiles no doubt and according to our river pilot, fired by the Kuwaitis.

Today the port is filled with stacks of haphazardly placed containers and hundreds of yellow dust covered taxis like a logisticians worst nightmare. Bagged grain was being hand loaded into nets and craned out of two vessel's holds into awaiting dump trucks. A small Iraqi flagged oil tanker was fueling the floating power station, the one and only source for electricity in town which shuts down at night. Despite the bustle it still didn't feel like a secure place and I was happy to have the stern ramp up at the end of the day.

Bagged grain cargoes require ships to remain in port for up to a week

Also unlike other middle eastern ports the labor here was 100% local. The longshoremen were better than expected and didn't steal or ask for anything besides water and a little diesel for the trailer tug. This was a comical event coming at the tail end of the cargo operation as their tug was pulling the last trailer of cargo up and out of the ship. It died from lack of fuel 20 meters from the down hill slope of the stern ramp. Inching it's way on fumes the driver managed to pull up to my fuel hose. I handed the nozzle over to the driver who took one look at the quality of red diesel going into his tank and squeezed the lever as hard as he could. The agent looked at me and in broken English said, "If you leave that with him he will fill the entire tank up. He knows this is good diesel."

I laughed and watched him gleefully top off his rig and jump back in knowing he had scored. He fired up and after a few sputters revved up the engine which promptly died. Scowling he looked down at me and asked "Bad diesel? No good!" He thought he had been tricked. Convinced that he now had a tank full of bad gas he stomped on the pedal and turned the ignition for almost a minute. The engine finally turned over and the pinging of his engine could heard as the old fuel cleared out and he roared off the ship, down the dock on what was the best fuel that tug would likely ever burn.
Iraqi Pilot Boat at the mouth of the Shatt al Arab

Unfortunately for the longshoremen and entire country the port is mired with corruption. A modern, well run port with professional stevedoring and good conditioned cargo handling equipment, such as Salalah or Bahrain, might charge up to $10,000 US dollars in port fees to dock a ship. Here in Iraq the fee was around $70,000 US dollars cash which had to be couriered over the border for payment. I guarantee that virtually none of this money was being reinvested in the Iraq's only two dry cargo terminals. Warehouses, gantry cranes, evacuators and the docks themselves had all seen better days, specifically the one after which they were built. It was told to me that everything in Iraq requires a bribe. Everyone is making something off everyone below them on the social ladder and at the bottom were the group of men with nothing better to do than sit around the bottom of the stern ramp looking up at the American ship.
Port of Umm Qasr

The Middle East is an extreme place. The sandstorms, 120 degree days, frigid desert nights, barren treeless landscapes, jagged towering mountains, wealth, poverty, corruption and religious conservatism. It is also where the cargo is booked for and therefore this ship will be calling here for the foreseeable future. Despite the differences between where my work takes me and where I choose to live my return visits bring with them a familiarity that surprises me.

The smell of curry stuck to the longshoremen's clothes, the sound of "Salaam Aleikum" repeated every time two Muslims meet, the feel of sand in the back of your throat or the parching sun on your neck are all familiar sensations. By choice I might have opted for somewhere with a little greenery or the availability of beer at the airport but for now its my job.

When we first docked our security team called me on the radio saying there was a mate from another ship asking to speak with the Chief Officer. I met the officer, a young man from Bangledesh not much older than myself, who was standing on the stern ramp with his watch partner, an AB from Ghana who I exchanged handshakes with for a solid three minutes while he gushed about the US vs. Ghana game. They were crew off one of the bulkers discharging bagged grain and had been docked for nearly a week. The ship was about to sail but had no antibiotics in their medicine chest. A crew member was very ill with a bacterial throat infection and he wanted to know if we could provided enough medicine to stave it off.

I asked the old man and he agreed to help them out. The second mate was appreciative and happy that he'd be signing off in a few days and seeing his family for the first time in 8 months. When I returned to the holds I felt happy to have lent a hand to another mariner, a sacred tradition exercised for millennia, and thankful to sail under an American flag where antibiotics were kept in sufficient quantity.

Iraqi Pilot Boat

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving in the Gulf

Thanksgiving is the best of holidays. Less commercialized and more principled than the rest. There is no pressure besides eating what you've cooked and, save for orphans and sailors, spending the day with family.

The deck department has it good today. I told the Boatswain to have the guys write in four hours of overtime. They're all good workers and turn to nearly everyday so only standing their eight hours of watch and getting paid for twelve is the next best thing to a weekend. The engine department though doesn't have it so good on this November 25th.

Diesel engines are difficult to work on when a ship is underway. Time in port for engineers, which has been in short order this trip, is packed with preventive maintenance and repairs. We're sitting on the hook (At anchor) for two days awaiting cargo so what is an easy anchor watch for the mates and A.B.s is a hectic couple of work days for the engineers.

Swinging around the anchor five miles off Kuwait isn't the ideal way to spend Thanksgiving but the Stewards Department took the edge off the homesickness this afternoon with a holiday feast. The Stewards Assistant set the tables with white linen and candles. The appetizer spread consisted of crab dip, shrimp cocktails, deviled eggs and bacon wrapped scallops. Hams, seafood casserole, and three stuffed turkeys were baked. Candied yams, twice baked potatoes, wild rice and cornbread stuffing filled the edge of my plate. For desert a tiramisu and napoleons were made fresh plus cheese and chocolate cakes. As I made my way past the steward after supper rubbing my stomach he jabbed me with "I see you had the Stow Plan all worked out for that one mate."

Afterwards crew could be seen stumbling down the passageways to their rooms in hopes that sleep would alleviate swollen abdomens and light headedness. It was bar none the finest meal I have had at sea and all hands were extremely grateful for the massive efforts of our smallest department. The only things missing were my grandmother's creamed onions and rum in the eggnog.

Even in the Arabian Gulf, a place I have long held as having no redeeming aspects, there is much to be thankful for. The health of my friends and family, employment in a profession I enjoy day after day and support from home when I'm away. Having now spent three of the last six years sailing to this part of the world I am also very thankful that there are no sand storms where I live, only snow storms, and that the hills are covered in trees and the valleys fertile. It's a long way from home but once that cargo is loaded and lashed in the holds the second mate can plug in the waypoints for our return voyage and we'll be back on the coast before New Years.

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

Friday, November 12, 2010


Among the parades and ceremonies marking veterans day there goes a group of veterans long unrecognized by the Department of Defense and forgotten for their sacrifices during World War II among all other armed conflicts in the History of the United States. Below is a reminder on this veterans day of the service merchant seamen provided then and now in national defense.

1 in 26 mariners serving aboard merchant ships in World WW II died in the line of duty, suffering a greater percentage of war-related deaths than all other U.S. services. Casualties were kept secret during the War to keep information about their success from the enemy and to attract and keep mariners at sea.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Checklist for the Suez Canal

There are several unique preparations that must take place before transiting the Suez Canal. Rigging the Suez Canal light would be one of them. The light is a very large singular headlight like device designed to emit a split beam of light from the ships bow. It is a requirement for any vessel transiting the canal though I have not once seen it used nor has anyone I have worked with.

What if the ship were not to have one? Then the Canal Authority would gladly rent a light with a team of electricians to accompany, rig and operate it if for once in a century the pilot needed to see the bank of the canal at night.

Other preparations include readying lines in case we have to moor in the canal, rigging the gangways to accommodate the canal pilots, they refuse to use the standard pilot ladders, filling a cabinet full of candy and marlborough reds and collecting the crew's stash of porn.

While the cartons of cigarettes are very necessary to ensure a smooth, successful and happy transit when dealing with inspectors, pilots and agents, the porn collection is the captain's precaution in case any of the port states we'll be visiting in the Mid East decide to go Sharia on us and inspect the crew quarters.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Through the Strait

The presence of land is easily belied by a stiff offshore breeze. This is normally the case when sailing through the Gulf of Cadiz, the outlying waters on the western approach to the Strait of Gibraltar. After twelve days of the odorless salt tang of mid ocean the scent of trees and pollen is remarkable. It almost leaves a taste on my tongue and has my imagination working out what Portugal looks like, a place I would love to visit.

We increased speed last last night from our "Economical" 89 main engine revolutions per minute to 91. An increase of only 3 RPM provides an additional 2 to 3 knots so instead of making 17 knots we're now up to 20. The Captain did this to avoid a low pressure system forecasted to move over the coast of Brittany walloping the Bay of Biscay. This is of concern to us because the northeastern quadrant of the low would be left offshore propelling a huge swell and wind wave down the coast of Portugal and into the waters we're passing through. Instead of chancing an encounter it seemed more prudent to speed up and tuck into the Mediterranean before the system moved any further to the south.

Unfortunately for our fuel consumption running a few RPM higher than economical means burning an additional 30 tons of fuel per day! Because this is such a large vessel with a massive engine the fuel consumption is dramatically higher than any ship I have worked on before. The increase in speed (RPM) vs. fuel consumption is an exponential curve not in global warming's favor. Still I'll stand my ground when anyone harangues me for working on a boat that burns over $50,000 dollars of fuel in one day at full sea speed because waterborne transportation is the most efficient means of transportation period. And for anyone who didn't know, the diesel engine is the most efficient internal combustion engine of all time.

Luckily for the Captain he won't have to justify the increased fuel consumption to the office because later in the morning he received an email ordering us to increase to full speed as a new port known for delays has been added onto the schedule and they want us there early. We were surprised that the office is now directing us to proceed at 91 RPM when the main theme of the last officers conference was how they would be slowing the fleet to study the decrease in fuel consumption to determine if it would be better to lengthen the schedule and save the fuel. So much for that, were now consuming 3.8 metric tons of heavy fuel oil an hour!
With the impending low pressure system the passage through Gibraltar Strait was shrouded in low clouds but a few glimpses of Morocco and Spain could be had. The ferry traffic was typical buzzing right by close astern. I have always enjoyed passing through this historic narrow, especially when homeward bound but that will have to wait a month.

Long ago seem the days when I would get off watch and turn my cell phone on to see if I had a signal. Many times I would find myself crouched in between the fan housings out of the wind trying to get enough reception to call home for the first time in three weeks. Those memories make me thankful for what I have today out here.
Once you've passed under the watchful eye of the Tarifa Vessel Traffic Service, through the narrows and beyond the rock of Gibraltar the Mediterranean slowly begins to open up on both sides. The traffic diverges, the current subsides and the wind usually continues to howl. As it was still cloudy when I got up to the bridge for my afternoon watch I was impressed to see snow capped mountains to our north in Spain.

It isn't the first snow I've seen this year (Mount Washington at home was socked in two and a half weeks ago the the last time I went hiking) but I was still excited to see something I wasn't expecting and knew there wouldn't be any more of that once we got through Egypt. The higher winds, overcast skies and intermittent rain have actually raised most everyone's spirits onboard, well, at least the New Englanders.

Even someone who appreciates blue bird days as much as I do where weeks pass by on an ocean as calm as a mill pond with fluffy white clouds littering the azure sky it does get old after awhile. A change in the monotony of work is welcomed as long as it isn't more than a beaufort force 9 or perhaps a 10 on here. As the Chief Engineer proclaimed at lunch "This is sailin' weather dammit!"