Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas at Sea - Robert Louis Stevenson

The sheets were frozen hard, and they cut the naked hand;

The decks were like a slide, where a seaman scarce could stand;

The wind was a nor'-wester, blowing squally off the sea;

And cliffs and spouting breakers were the only things a-lee.

They heard the surf a-roaring before the break of day;
But 'twas only with the peep of light we saw how ill we lay.
We tumbled every hand on deck instanter, with a shout,
And we gave her the maintops'l, and stood by to go about.

All day we tacked and tacked between the South Head and the North;
All day we hauled the frozen sheets, and got no further forth;
All day as cold as charity, in bitter pain and dread,
For very life and nature we tacked from head to head.

We gave the South a wider berth, for there the tide-race roared;
But every tack we made we brought the North Head close aboard.
So's we saw the cliff and houses and the breakers running high,
And the coastguard in his garden, with his glass against his eye.

The frost was on the village roofs as white as ocean foam;
The good red fires were burning bright in every longshore home;
The windows sparkled clear, and the chimneys volleyed out;
And I vow we sniffed the victuals as the vessel went about.

The bells upon the church were rung with a mighty jovial cheer;
For it's just that I should tell you how (of all days in the year)
This day of our adversity was blessèd Christmas morn,
And the house above the coastguard's was the house where I was born.

O well I saw the pleasant room, the pleasant faces there,
My mother's silver spectacles, my father's silver hair;
And well I saw the firelight, like a flight of homely elves,
Go dancing round the china plates that stand upon the shelves.

And well I knew the talk they had, the talk that was of me,
Of the shadow on the household and the son that went to sea;
And O the wicked fool I seemed, in every kind of way,
To be here and hauling frozen ropes on blessèd Christmas Day.

They lit the high sea-light, and the dark began to fall.
"All hands to loose topgallant sails," I heard the captain call.
"By the Lord, she'll never stand it," our first mate, Jackson, cried.
. . . ."It's the one way or the other, Mr. Jackson," he replied.

She staggered to her bearings, but the sails were new and good,
And the ship smelt up to windward just as though she understood;
As the winter's day was ending, in the entry of the night,
We cleared the weary headland, and passed below the light.

And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board but me,
As they saw her nose again pointing handsome out to sea;
But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold,
Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Void of all matter besides the liquid ocean and gaseous heavens the sea is an amazing place to call home. I adore living in the immensity of this natural world and have been to no other place on earth where so much of it can be seen at once. Granted it’s all blue, or in the middle of the night a purple grey, but the sheer scale of the ocean continues to awe and inspire me. On nights such as this when visibility is limited only by the horizon, the moon is full, the water rippled by a light wind and undulated by the swell from a forgotten storm, the majesty of seafaring is tangible.

Because of the moons effect on the sky the horizon appears as a sharp line delineating where a pale metallic blue meets the inky purple sea. Everything is circular. The horizon circumscribes a body of water in every direction beginning at eye level 14 miles distant giving the impression that you’re slightly depressed as if standing in the middle of a shallow bowl. Above the sky appears like a dome fitted perfectly onto this watery disc and with the moon shinning only the brightest stars are visible causing the winter constellations to stand out that much more.

The weather for the past three days has been exceptional. The sky has been clear and the air absolutely dry. Warm water and warm days at this southerly latitude normally means humidity but because the prevailing easterly breeze is blowing off Saharan Africa the air is completely dry. All night long I can feel the warm breeze as it blows through open bridge wing doors over my bare arms and legs. It feels like a fleece blanket just from the dryer is being wrapped around me.

On top of all these sublime conditions today is the winter solstice and to kick this celestial phenomena off a full lunar eclipse took place all morning long two points on the starboard bow. Through the entire watch the lookout and I viewed the full moon turn rusty red and the faintest stars become emboldened by the increasing dark. It’s enough sensory stimulation to give reason to doubt if this is really my job as if something besides the need to work calls me to live half the year in this place.

Our track has been laid well to the south of the major low pressure system that will be developing on the East Coast later this week. Because of this we will be entering the Caribbean south of Cuba through the Caicos passage and not the usual route through Hole in the Wall in the Bahamas just off Florida’s southern tip. Being closer to the Cape Verde Islands than the Canaries is why we’re having such a stellar run of weather.

It is drastic a contrast to the solstice I spent at work two years ago in the North Sea. We were on our way to Germany and the sun refused to rise until ten in the morning. The air was bitter cold and damp. This morning as the earth’s shadow recedes from the moon the sun is simultaneously warming the eastern horizon and it’s only five in the morning. Ideal weather at sea makes life much easier and I’ve noticed how it has also buoyed spirits. This is good because the holidays can be stressing for mariners stuck at sea.

Besides having awesome watches filled with stars and lunar eclipses I’m also elated because I’ve had a string of days with the crew doing nothing but chipping rust and painting without fear of rain and flash rust. It’s greatly increased both my own and the Boatswain’s sense of productivity though he continues complaining about how slow the guys paint. I agree that they are slow but as long as it gets done without drips, spills or holidays I’ll be satisfied.

I had an epiphany the other day while I was working overtime. A hydraulic cylinder had decided to start leaking and I was hurriedly trying to free a corroded block valve that would stem the leak if closed. Looking at my watch I grew frustrated that I was running out of time to get the job done before having to clean up for watch.

As I sat there wrenching and hammering away I couldn’t believe that there had been a day many years ago when all I could do at work was count down the hours until I would be released from my servitude. Back then I was mucking Alpaca stalls or stacking hay bales on the back of a trailer and spent as much time sneaking cigarette breaks as I did wheeling wheelbarrows of shit out of the paddocks.

It was such a different experience as a teenager needing money but really preferring to not work. Now all I want is more time in the work day to get things accomplished and always come up short. There is just too much to do on these big ships and neither enough people or time to get it all done. That’s the challenge though and probably the reason sailors make more now than the what the minimum wage paid in the nineties.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Heavy weather and the impending coffee crisis

You know it’s going to be a rough morning when the water in your toilet bowel has almost been emptied by the overnight rolling. That was my first thought a few mornings ago as the ship passed from the lee of Crete and into an area of the Mediterranean where the gale force winds had enough fetch to build up a 20 foot swell. Staggering from an almost sleepless night to the bridge for my morning watch I met a fatigued captain who had been up all night trying to reduce the wracking stresses our ship was experiencing.

Heavy weather sailing is an experiment in course and engine adjustments. Big seas exert immense forces on even the largest ships affecting the six degrees of freedom a vessel afloat experiences. Heave, sway, surge, roll, pitch and yaw each describe an axis of motion on witch a ship rotates when inclined by external forces (Not to be confused with list or trim which describe static conditions affected by the movement of internal weights such as fuel, ballast or cargo). When exacerbated by heavy weather these six ranges of motion can have detrimental effects. Not only are the vessels course and speed keeping abilities deteriorated but her stability, cargo and crew become endangered as well.

With the swell on the beam and plenty of sea room to leeward the Captain decided to put the seas slightly abaft the beam and reduce the RPMs to slow ahead. The reduction in speed eased the pounding action of the bow which was reverberating down the keel and into the house shaking the entire ship like an earthquake. The course change minimized the rolling to some extent except when a larger than average wave slammed into the transom.

Because of the rolling we soon found what was and was not adequately secured on shelves and desks and counter tops. A refrigerator decided to tear loose of the bulkhead nearly flinging all it’s contents across the galley deck. The coffee station on the bridge piled itself into the sink during one large roll to starboard, a lucky thing seeing how the coffee makers and nearly full pots could have easily gone the other way spilling onto the deck and down the ladder well.

As soon as the day working ABs and Boatswain were up I had them checking cargo lashings beginning at the uppermost deck. Vertical accelerations, the kind which loosen cargo lashings and send vehicles skidding are more severe the further from the center of gravity plus most of the cargo on the upper decks was secured by web lashings which will chafe and break more easily than chain. One parted lashing was discovered just as the piece was beginning down the destructive path of damaging the eight vehicles around it. We had it chocked and re-lashed before it caused any major issues.

On the lower decks the heavier cargo lashed by chain was literally jumping every time the transom would take a wave sending a vertical jolt to the stern of the ship. This was a little disturbing to watch. Timing the tightening of the chain is crucial when what may have been a sedentary 60 ton piece of machinery is now flexing it’s suspension with each roll. Fingers and faces have to be clear of the lashings when the deck heaves upwards and the chains come taught. When the ship falls into the trough of the next wave the binder bar is quickly reefed on as the cargo comes back down to the deck with maximum inertia. If you time it right the chain is tightened with less effort than usual.

Once the crew had the cargo holds under control I made a round to ensure our lifeboat and rescue boat, anchors, cranes and ramps were all secured. The jostling caused one small hydraulic leak on a ramp which we discovered the following day as well as loosening the foremast stays but all this was easily corrected once the weather abated. The storm dissipated after 36 hours but it lasted long enough to wear everyone out and make the muscles in my legs sore from the constant compensation standing on a moving ship.

A run to the middle east is a blessing in the winter. The weather we normally come across is nothing compared to weather typical of runs in the winter North Pacific or winter North Atlantic. It served as a reminder how quickly your seemingly stable home can turn into a roller coaster and reinforced why I always try to get the longshoremen to put more chain on the cargo. They’re not the ones who have to risk it when a piece breaks loose.

In other news my dependence on caffeine has taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Consuming a pot of coffee before sunrise plus frequent caffeine infusions during the day with Earl Grey tea and diet coke has coincided with the rationing of our last real whole bean coffee. I have personally made matters worse by giving in to the stewards request to share some of our remaining whole beans with him since he ran out of his own stash a few days ago. Feeling sympathy for another connoisseur I relinquished an entire bag of Star Bucks Kenya Roast, spicy with hints of sweet currant, an action which was met with the full wrath of the third mate. Apparently one who loathes Folgers more than I he felt my actions were a direct assault on his situational awareness.

I didn’t really need to justify my actions though because for one the steward does a really good job of feeding us and therefore I would do anything I can for the guy and two, he’s not the mate. If a littler hypertension over the sharing of our sacred coffee is the most disgruntled the crew gets I can live with that. It would have pissed me off too which might seem irrational to people with a Dunkin Donuts or better yet, an Early Bird cafe right around the corner but for us out here we have no such luxuries. If it’s not provisioned, bought in port, locked in the slop chest or packed in your suitcase than you will go without. When the apples are eaten there are no more and when the milk goes sour you eat your cereal dry.

As a Chief Mate I worked for once told me as he was putting down a bowl of ice cream after a robust meal “Out here we can’t have any booze and no ones getting laid so besides eating there’s not much else for distraction.” Well, at least we have coffee, for now.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Snakes, oil and the sea

When the hustle of arriving, departing and working cargo in port is left astern the monotony of seafaring can be quick to set in. Though the work list remains long and there is always more to be done than time allows the tantalizing thought of home waiting over the horizon lends to ever present feelings of expectation and impatience. I'm doing all I can this week to fight those sensations and remain focused on the task at hand but it's a challenge when the first snow is falling in New England and Christmas will, for the third year in a row, be another day spent at sea.

Departing the Arabian Gulf marked the half way hurdle of the trip, at least in a geographical sense. The coast was an easy one with lighter cargo volumes than hoped for and a sensible port schedule. Our last berth in Kuwait happened to be adjacent to a collier discharging her sooty cargo onto a conveyor belt. The windward cloud of coal dust did a fine job of coating the ship from bow to stern requiring that the first three days at sea be solely committed to washing the entire vessel down. I had the day men and watch standers on overtime use fire hoses to remove the soot and then power washers to rinse the corrosive salt water off.

While the deck department took care of washing the car the engineers pumped our gas. The only stop after passing through the Strait of Hormuz on the way to the Suez Canal was at what has to be one of the world's largest gas stations. On the Indian Ocean side of the U.A.E. the ports of Fujairah and Khwar Fakkan supply bunkers to thousands of ships every month. While there is a port the majority of vessels wait at anchor for the bunker barges, small tankers commonly seen in the waters of Europe and Asia, to tie up alongside and deliver the fuel. It's a popular spot for stemming your fleet as bunker prices are a better deal here so close to the source.
The anchorage here is packed.

Anchoring off the lofty, rugged, and brown coastline of the Arabian Peninsula in water 90 meters deep requires a substantial amount of anchor chain. A merchant ship typically carries 12 to 14 shots (A shot is 15 fathoms, a fathom 6 feet) of chain in each locker, port and starboard. Safely anchoring in 300 feet of water meant paying out ten shots of chain which still only provided an anchor chain to water depth ratio of 3:1 whereas a scope of 5:1 is preferable. Once the chain was laid out, the flukes set in the bottom and the ship tide rode headed into the current the bunker barge began her tedious approach.

This approach, which in flat calm seas and light airs should only take 15 to 25 minutes, takes twice that here due to the poor quality of the ship handlers working these barges. Routinely the Captain will hemm and haw his little vessel and controllable pitch propeller creeping up almost parallel to the hull from a hundred yards astern and then try to get just close enough for a heaving line to be thrown in the eastern fashion; by whirling the monkey fist in a massive circle over the side of the boat and then releasing it at our heads. On one occasion I watched the bunker barge take a full two hours to get close enough so that a messenger could be passed over. Once the yelling and screaming of the bunker barge's frantic captain subsides and they're finally made fast the engineers connect a fuel hose and the Second Assistant oversees the bunkering of several thousand metric tons of heavy fuel oil.

With our substantial thirst for hydrocarbons nearly satiated we began to make preparations for weighing the anchor early the next morning. While receiving the last of our fresh food and milk from a supply boat some of the crew were marveling at a dozen huge dolphin fish basking in the glow of our halogen floodlights. Among the fish circling about in search of food pale sea snakes, at least four feet long, slithered through the water. A few minutes later the eerie nocturnal scene was interrupted by a viscous brown cloud moving down the side of the ship. The presence of oil in the water to any mariner I've met is cause for grave concern and the sighting was diligently reported. Topping off was suspended and the Captain summoned.

A few minutes later my phone rang and a few more after that, hardly awake, I was peering into the darkness over the bow trying to see where the oil had originated. The Chief verified that the fuel tank levels were all around 80% and that no pressure fluctuations or burps through the tank vents had occurred. Feeling confident that the oil could not have come from us the captain on the bunker barge remarked that oil is routinely seen in the waters around Fujairah. The fuel surveyor attending the load said the shores were covered in oil and that it was probably just some ship pumping bilges or slop oil in the middle of the night at max current.

Just to be sure the captain ordered the rescue boat lowered for a hull survey. Appearing as if ready for a search and rescue mission adorned in safety harnesses, life vests and hardhats with headlamps the second mate and I un-griped the boat and had the boatswain lower us into the water. All around us the dolphin popped out of the water returning with a splash. The Chief Engineer was on the radio mischievously reminding us not to fall in and go swimming with the snakes. Though I knew he was just messing with us I was still careful not to put the sponsons down too far with a hard turn in case a coral snake did washed in.

With a strong flashlight we circled the ship and verified that there was definitely slop oil in the water but it wasn't coming from below our waterline. In the strong current it was all ready beginning to dissipate drifting down stream. This was not the first time I had seen oil pollution oil at sea, not even on this trip.

From the perspective of an American crew willfully pumping oil over the side just to save the cost of discharging it legally seems ridiculous. With so much liability in our home waters we wouldn't even contemplate such an act. Oil spills in the united states are not measured in barrels but gallons, a unit the media prefers because everyone knows what a gallon of milk looks like. Even a few table spoons of oil down the scupper from a leaking winch or a blown out hydraulic hose is a reportable quantity. Accidental discharges create a whirlwind of notifications, paperwork, questioning and statements. Intentional discharges, or even negligence brings out the handcuffs.

Yet in the middle of the night on the other side of the world with dozens of ships around who is to say you were the one that pumped the oil? And is anyone checking? Nope. I've never heard of one single port state inspection in the UAE to look over the oil record book pumping arrangement. No helicopters, no boats, no Coast Guard. Even if we had tried to report the spill there would have been no one to tell that would have done anything about it.

During out transit into Iraq we saw an even more blatant example of intentional marine pollution. With a pilot in the wheelhouse we passed by a small offshore supply vessel most likely headed for the Basra oil terminal. Just before our closest point of approach the derelict little boat began pumping it's bilge leaving a black slick of engine oil astern in broad daylight. The pilot didn't even bat and eye while the rest of us were amazed though I suppose if your former dictator lit off all the oil wells in the country causing the worst ecological disaster ever you wouldn't think much of it either.

Even in Kuwait with the coal ship spewing dust all over us there wasn't so much as a boom in the water to retain the dust that was turning the harbor completely black. I couldn't even begin to imagine what it must have been like for that crew to live on such a filthy ship.

Unfortunately for the oceans in this region of the world, and for the reputation of the industry, many ships still turn a blind eye on pollution. While as a whole the affect of shipping on the seas has improved drastically in the last quarter century due to massive international regulation and enforcement some unscrupulous operators will do anything to save a buck.

Relieved by the knowledge that we wouldn't be spending Christmas in a Middle Eastern shipyard having a hull fracture ground out and welded I turned the nimble outboard around at full throttle and stopped just under the bow to check the forward draft mark. As the wake subsided lapping against the bulbous bow the second mate, standing in the front of the fast rescue boat, read the marks.

When we both looked up and saw the starry night sky blocked out by the wineglass shaped aspect of a ship head on we were equally impressed. After years of living on these behemoths growing accustomed to their size the sight from the water line was still incredible. I wanted to take a picture but lacked a camera and the skills to capture such a low light photo. The piercing stars and loom from the hundreds of ships in the anchorage would have made it great.

Turning around the second mate smiled remarking, "So this is what we look like to little boats." Yup, I thought, little boats that get too close out of their own stupidity. By the time we returned beneath the davit and retrieved the hook for recovery the dolphin had stopped jumping and no more snakes were seen.