Sunday, August 28, 2011

Into the Ship Yard

Remaining anchored for an extended period of time is tedious at best. Bridge watches must still be maintained as the ship swings in concert with a hundred others to face the current. As long as no one drops their hook too close or, on account of a light draft and stiff wind, swings the opposite direction of your own ship, there is little to do. And if something does come up it's a challenge raising another ship on the VHF radio, especially the little bunker barges that scurry about passing under stems and sterns with uncomfortable intimacy.

For three weeks we waited for an open berth in the shipyard. When the Captain finally sent me forward to weigh the anchor the only available space in the shipyard was outboard of an FPSO or "double banked." In order to arrive at our congested berth we had to pass south of the island on which Singapore sprawls. Looping around Raffles Light I was witness to hundreds of hulking ships spread throughout the anchorages. Container ships, crude oil tankers, liquefied natural gas carriers and every manner of support vessel for the offshore oil and gas industry abounded. As the ship turned the corner towards Keppel shipyard the Boatswain relieved me on the bow and I went to the bridge for docking.

At the last minute the yard informed us that we'd be docking port side to when all our lines, messengers and gangway had been readied for a starboard side docking. We had our trusty shipping agent to thank for yet another inconveniencing miscommunication. I took one of the AB's down to the weather deck where we quickly raised the now inboard gangway and lowered the outboard so that the harbor pilot could disembark. The docking pilot, three radios strung around his neck, ambled up the ladder and brought us along side with a single bell and lots of tugging. Passing lines to a Floating Production, Storage and Offloading unit was a drawn out event but because the yard was so full we were lucky to even have a spot.

In the three weeks that followed I realized that ending my hitch with a shipyard was not a good move. I had a plan though and getting an extra months pay was part of it. This was my first bona fide dry docking of a large commercial ship and it was a very impressive endeavor. The only part I played in it was to give the go ahead for removing the docking plugs and ranging the anchor chains but most of that work I left for the third mate anyway. I had my hands full just showing each shop where the broken things were so they could fix them.

I sincerely hope I can find the time to relate my time in the shipyard and all that has transpired between then and now. Suffice to say I'm back on terra firma with a new set of hurdles in front of me and a future more hazy than ever before. But that's something I'm learning to be comfortable with and will try to include in this blog.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Eastern Special Purpose

It is a unique sensation to come half way around the world and feel as if you had just left the other day. My own familiarity with the Strait of Singapore, the shipping lanes in between Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, stems from four months spent on a cable repair vessel servicing breaks in fiber optic cables here. For weeks on end I stared at the same unmoving islands north of Horsburgh light when on a repair or the three towers of the Marina Bay Sands hotel in downtown Singapore when at anchor. These structures have now been completed since my time here in 2009 each erected independently and then bridged at the top by a soaring blimp like roof hosting trees, a pool, a nightclub and a photo shoot in the latest Sports Illustrated Swim Suit Edition.

The ship I work on is in the unenviable position of sitting empty and idle in the anchorage waiting for a spot in one of Singapore’s two shipyards. I say unenviable because from a financial perspective when any ship besides a cable repair vessel is in one spot for too long it means she isn’t making money for her owners. For the crew on the other hand it’s been a reprieve from the tedium of sea passages. With a daily launch to haul shore going crew anyone besides the 8 to 12 that needed a night off the ship has gotten their fill.

Like Orchard Towers at night the shipping lanes around Singapore are teeming with activity above, below and at street level. Just as taxis line up to escort hookers and their clientele to the closest hotel an endless train of ships arrive to pick up pilots at all hours. Anchored a thirty minute launch ride from the shore landing we're directly under the outbound flight path of Changi International. Every two minutes throughout the day and then again at night a jet takes off lifting above the tree lined shore ascending directly overhead. We’re also right in front of the high speed ferry terminal servicing Indonesia so a constant stream of high speed craft zip back and forth.

The day we arrived the Singaporean military was holding maneuvers near Raffles light house. A squadron of F-16s made circles around the anchorage while helicopters dropped off and retrieved frog men from the water. Naval patrols in the Strait are a daily occurrence and unlike the navies of another nation with which I’m familiar maintain a conspicuous radio silence.

The shipping traffic is just as I remembered; hundreds of ships pass daily, some swinging into Singapore’s myriad of terminals and others trucking right on past. Before we anchored in Singapore’s territorial waters we spent a week anchored off Indonesia in a no man’s land where every single ship save for us was a tanker waiting for a cargo. As far as the eyes could see Suez max tankers in ballast sat quietly, their crews spending what could be months trapped onboard. Every now and then an illegal sheen of oil would drift by but with so much current and so many ships finding the culprit would be impossible without aircraft. Something the Indonesians don’t seem too concerned about.

Just as when I was here before ships continued to sink right in the middle of the traffic lane a few miles away. When I explained the may-day relay on the Sat-C to one of the crew I attributed it to the law of probabilities. If there are a thousand ships in the Strait today there’s bound to be a serious collision or one junker hours from springing a leak and going down.

I’ve had the chance to get off the ship twice since arriving and neither time did Singapore disappoint. Before the sunset on my first jaunt ashore I had to return to the one and only Thai massage parlor I have ever been to. While massages in Asia are synonymous with happy endings this joint, shown to me by a sailor well versed in the ways of massage, includes nothing of the sort. Instead you are given a ridiculous looking set of loose fitting green pajamas to change into after locking your valuables away in the shower room. You ascend a staircase passing by a series of photographs featuring masseuses with awkward smiles contorting the bodies of supine victims in what appear to be painful poses. I could hardly contain my excitement.

At the top of the staircase women turn left and men turn right to meet your masseuse and enter a room filled wall to wall with thin mattresses. In the late afternoon after a stressful day in Singapore’s financial sector it isn’t unlikely that the place will be jammed packed with Asian men being pushed and pulled and kneaded like dough. My masseuse was small and when she began I was sure that her muscles weren’t fit for the job of relieving two months of accumulated stress.

The tempo, as I was to be reminded, picks up over the massage’s hour long duration and by the end, right around when she was using her elbows to push into the knot of muscle that is my hips did I remember how skilled the Thai are at this. When it was over I felt as if I had suffered a caning for spray painting graffiti on cars but soon realized that I was absolutely free of tension. Elated I joined the engineers I had gone ashore with and ordered the weirdest looking seafood we could find in celebration.

There is something about going ashore with sailors that is indescribable. The pent up restlessness of being at sea, the bittersweet shortness of our time ashore and the anticipation of the unknown in foreign lands lends to a traveling experience unlike any other. That common bond helps too, something which I believe transcends ethnicity, nationality, trade, department or company.

This I attribute to the character needed in each and every mariner to live the life we do. A character I notice even in people I've worked with on the shore end of shipping but who have spent a portion of their career at sea. There are those who've been to sea and those that haven't and for those that have the way they view, communicate and treat us sailors is vastly different than interacting with their colleagues. It is a level of character lost on some in this business, not all, but some who know ships only by fact, figure and name but will never know the sea.

Thus taking in the Asian air a million miles from home in a city where your two best friends are the guys you just spent the last two months sharing three meals a day can be quite exhilarating. Throw in a few hundred venues for entertainment, a few thousands taxis to get you here and there and a few million Singaporeans to converse with and for the night you've got it made.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Tropics

Weather is everything to a sailor. Fair winds and following seas have seen thousands of voyages through to safe conclusions while typhoons and winter gales have perilously prolonged or prematurely ended countless others. Weather at sea is the difference between the calm grace of slipping over the water towards the never ending horizon or clutching handrails at the wave's crest as the trough falls out from beneath the keel.

Save for when the wind howls the sea state is usually benign in the Middle East but the heat adds another hardship, one that I would happily trade for a few days of rolling in the North Sea. I lived on a ship where the only way to take a shower after a day’s work was to wash in the bucket you filled in your head that morning. The fresh water tanks adjacent to the hull would become so hot during the day that by evening the water was scalding. I stood bridge watches on the same ship with no AC in the wheelhouse and one little window unit to cool the 90 degree Red Sea air at midnight. Dripping sweat and charts don’t mix. The heat not only makes sleeping hard and work miserable but for a New Englander fond of changing seasons the persistence of Middle Eastern weather patterns is rather depressing.

This is why, after a month in these waters rounding the tip of India wasn’t just a physical relief but a mental lift. Still covered in a layer of brown dirt we left the Arabian Gulf and turned east for one last discharge port. From Pakistan we were ordered to the Far East which meant passing South of India and Sri Lanka and then direct to the Malacca Strait. One would think that getting closer to the equator (We’re now 90 miles north of it) would mean more heat but it’s been the opposite.

Meteorologically speaking the crossing from India to Indonesia was phenomenal. I had forgotten what the tropics were like when the weather is agreeable. The air is soft and light, the humidity comfortable and the ocean a mirror image of billowing clouds and indescribable sunsets. Just seeing clouds, endless vast arrays of them, was such a pleasant change from the daytime haze and evening murk of the Arabian Gulf.

But most delicious of all was the rain. Sweet water deluges that in two hours took care of the sand problem it would have taken the day men a week of constant pressure washing to rinse off. Every square inch of the ship was cleansed making for great painting conditions. I was thrilled not only to have saved the man hours but to see a cloudy day with no sun, cool winds and visibility inhibiting squalls. Changes in weather are so welcomed at sea where the monotony of a high pressure system, or worse, a rollicking low makes the body, eyes and mind grow weary.

The ship is in ballast which means there isn’t a single metric ton of cargo onboard and the salt water ballast tanks are full. This also means that the cargo holds, vast parking garage like chasms, are completely emptied which is the perfect state for one of my favorite pass times, organizing. Doing so in the cargo holds involves corralling the lashings, stowing them by type in metal bins and stacking those bins in strategic locations depending on what kind of cargo goes where.

Roro cargo is a beautifully efficient stowage system when it comes to anything that can be loaded onto a trailer, towed or driven onboard. Containers surely take the prize for speed of handling but there are certain things like out of gauge / over height vehicles and equipment, automobiles or very long pieces that do not fit well or weigh too much for the typically rigid limitations of a TEU; such as rail cars, yachts or heavy mining equipment.

When it comes to flexibility the roro is hard to beat but the variety of commodities mean different lashing equipment for each kind and it’s my responsibility to ensure it is inventoried, inspected and ready for use. While it’s not rocket science, nothing about sailing ever was, it is a feat in organization to have these lashings properly sorted and arranged.

There are thousands of lashing chains and binders or tensioning bars. These must be neatly stowed in lashing bins and cannot be mixed unless one wants to infuriate the longshoremen. There are web lashings, short and long, for vehicles and light cargoes including break bulk which we load quite a bit of. There are corner protectors or softeners to keep the web lashing from chaffing, web slings and chocks, both large for trailers and tractors and small ones for cars.

I have hundreds of twist locks for when we do load containers which are placed on trailers, pushed onboard by a tug, and then removed by specially designed low height forklifts to be placed on top of their designated lashing points. The twist locks secure each corner of the container to the deck or to one another as they are stacked. There are car lashings for automobiles which have their own decks higher in the ship. There's also piles and piles of rubber matting, wood dunnage, trailer jacks, trailer horses and traffic cones. Lashing bars need to be collected from the holds and stashed away for the next port, trash picked up, the holds swept and vacuumed.

My guys spent three days busting ass in the holds picking up lashings and sorting the bins. Tomorrow I'll let them know how much I appreciated their hard work by sending them back down to sweep and swab the areas our deck sweeping machine couldn't reach. And there are still light bulbs to change, bulkheads to sougee, hydraulic control stations to clean and trash to bag. It’s a ton of work but worth the effort when you have the rare chance to clean all the holds at once.

After crossing the Bay of Bengal we rounded the northern tip of Sumatra encountering the strong charted tidal rips. The Malacca Strait, a very narrow and shallow body of water, links the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea. Because of this it acts as a conduit for any tidal variations between these two large oceans and therefore strong currents surge back and forth mounding up in certain areas underwater sand waves that can reach 45 feet in height. Unlike the rips these are not charted.

Another anomoly, this one less interesting, was the amount of garbage my lookout and I saw as we entered the strait. Still out of sight of land in every direction we looked was floatsom and it's ugly relation, jetsom. Palm fronds, trunks and entire trees were plentiful but not nearly as plentiful as the plastic garbage. I truly believe plastics are the scourge of not just the ocean but the developing world. It appeared that all of this debris was yesterday's water bottle or lunch tray and no thought was given for the fact that once it was tossed into a culvert in Malaysia or off the porch in Indonesia it would spend the rest of it's days slowly deteriorating in the ocean's eco system.

There was oil too, testament that despite the international communities best efforts ship's continue to illegally pump bilges, slops and tank washings overboard. An easy thing to get away with in waters traveresed by thousands of ships each week with little to none in the way of coast guard patrols. As much as the industry has cleaned up it's act there will always be a pollution stream from shipping but I don't think it even holds a candle to what cities and run off are doing to the oceans.
The crew is excited for our next port where everyone is hoping for some much deserved time ashore, a rare occurence for our normal run. Asia is a wonderful place to be a sailor and we happen to be pulling into one of my favorite towns so there is that added sense of familiarity, something I don’t mind half way around the world with limited time to explore as I all ready know where the cheapest beer and best food can be had.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

American Feeder Lines gets to business in Portland!

"Early next month, American Feeder Lines plans to launch a container ship service linking Portland, Boston and Halifax, Nova Scotia, in a triangular route. Its feeder cargo ship — the AFL New England — is small by comparison to the behemoths that ply the global trade routes; it can only hold 700 20-foot containers, or their equivalent." - See the Bangor Daily News Article for more.

This article just popped up in my google alerts. While the M/V AFL New England is not herself a Jones Act compliant vessel this is the start of what may be a major shift in East Coast container traffic. If there's anyone in need of reduced shipping costs it's small businesses in Maine. Even the bigger ones such as Poland Springs (Nestle) would benefit. Who knew Poland Springs sends 400 tractor trailer trucks out of Maine each and every day! No wonder I hate driving as much as I do.

Visit American Feeder Lines here for more information on their business plan for the US East Coast including the port pictured below.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Brown Blizzard

It's not often at sea when I come across a sight that gives cause for a double take. Celestial, meteorological or biological phenomena are, if not always predictable, at least expected. A solar or lunar eclipse is a slow affair. A meteorite's fiery atmospheric entry is sudden but not surprising. A waterspout is a waterspout. Breaching whales or spinning dolphins are entertaining but not uncommon.

A school of 200 migrating sea rays was different. At first I thought they were flotsam, maybe plastic bags drifting aimlessly around the gulf perfectly arranged edge to edge just under the surface. Nope, look again. There were narrow tails, flapping wings, and small eyes moving towards shore in organic formation, definitely not trash. An absolutely incredible sight from the bow as we anchored; something I had never seen before. An encounter the kind of which should be taken as an omen.

One of the most frustrating aspects of working on a cargo ship in the Arabian Gulf is dealing with the pilots and port control. I do not pretend to be a sea pilot or a docking master but after participating in hundreds of dockings on the bow, the stern and the bridge a mariner fosters a certain feel for a vessel's natural progression under the direction of a pilot.

Pilotage is the carefully planned series of events needed to maneuver a vessel down a river or channel, stop and turn in where there’s sufficient room and then gently lay her along side the dock. This is an all hands evolution requiring the deck department to be split between the bow and stern with the second mate forward and third mate aft while the Master, Chief Mate, a helmsman and the pilot are on the bridge. The process involves tugboats, bow and stern thrusters, helm and engine orders and line-handlers on the dock to receive the ship's hawsers and place them on bollards.

A seasoned crew familiar with their ship and under the direction of a competent pilot or docking master can easily accomplish a docking or undocking safely and efficiently at any hour of the day. Each step is discussed by the bridge team and executed with the calm confidence that comes with any well practiced routine at sea. A cautious breed, pilots usually have years of experience either at sea or in one particular harbor or both. They tend to think ten steps ahead of time but do not hesitate to take quick and substantial action when the situation warrants.

The repetition of piloting ships into and out of a single port garners a level of specialized expertise that masters depend upon. The pilot in turn relies on the master to furnish all the necessary information about that particular ship and her capabilities. For the world around this is an industrial norm and lends to a sense of pride and professionalism for everyone involved. Unfortunately when in the Arabian Gulf it all comes to a stop.

It's hard for me to understand the lackadaisical approach the pilots in most Gulf States have. If there is one aspect of my job that I really enjoy it is being involved with handling the ship.

My role involves keeping the bell book and operating the thrusters but recently the Captain has been taking a step back and allowing me the conn when working with the pilots. Every single time he lets me do this I learn something new about the process. If I swing too wide making a turn into the channel or cant the stern too close to the dock when coming alongside I make a mental note and do everything I can to never repeat my mistake.

Being given responsibility and allowed to make mistakes under supervision is the best way to learn any job but the pilots here in the Arabian Gulf never seem to learn from their own. They perform the same ridiculous maneuvers over and over again oblivious that they're "Stop engines, hard right" command is counterproductive and a shoddy show of seamanship.

It's a miracle ships don't go bump more often with the bottom, the dock or one another here. I have seen pilots completely oblivious to current and wind botch simple turns in buoyed channels and get indignant when the Master, concerned about bank suction, asks if he's getting back to the channel center. I have seen pilots get on and off the ship inside the breakwater feeling that their duty ends once the ship is off the dock and headed in the general direction of the open ocean.

I have to give the Captain his credit here. When pilots do things completely counterintuitive to ship handling he calmly stands by balancing the absurd with the hazardous. It's a fine line to walk in-between instigating a cultural clash by taking the conn from the pilot and kicking him off the bridge or allowing him to put the ship in near jeopardy to get the ship docked without a fracas. Fortunately for us the ship always makes it along side despite the teeth clenching over reliance on start air draining engine commands, tugboat assistance and constantly asking "What's the course now" as the pilot stands over a gyro repeater.

Port control is no help either. Entrusted to direct ships like air traffic control the port towers are oblivious to the navigational hazards we contend with when drifting a half-mile off the port waiting for a pilot that's a half hour late. Pilot on arrival is an unheard of concept in many ports, unless they're waiting for you and then there will be all hell to pay. It makes the crew feel as if our purpose is to appease the port and the pilots taking every chance to make their lives as easy as possible.

In one recent port call after the pilot had taken us off the dock, when he should have been lining the ship up to pass between two reef markers, he allowed the wind to take over and push the bow to leeward. When the captain questioned if he was intending to steady the ship on a course the pilot said "It's ok Captain, you can take it now" to which the Captain replied "All right, why don't you just get on your pilot boat now". Doing so the pilot explained wasn't allowed. Watching from the tower we were just passing Port Control could levy a fine against him. He had to wait until after the first reef was astern before he could disembark.

What was even crazier was that this guy had two apprentice pilots in tow. They spent the transit dabbing form their faces what must have been the first sweat of their lives with handkerchiefs. All three grimaced when I told them sorry, but there were no white gloves for their delicate hands when climbing down our dusty pilot ladder. What kind of pilots will these guys turn out to be if this is whom they're learning from?

The afternoon I spotted the school of rays we were anchoring 6 miles off another port awaiting a berth. When the ship sailed from our slip we weighed the anchor and began steaming in as directed by port control. After the wind picked up to a blustery 12 knots the port informed us they would not be taking us in due to adverse weather; very typical.

I let go the anchor as the sun set and then went to my room for some sleep, weather delays can last days here. Ten minutes after laying down the bridge called ordering me back to the bow to begin heaving up the 7000 kg anchor under a flood of orange sodium deck lights. Port control had changed their mind as the wind had calmed a little. Unbeknownst to them an anvil cloud was rising to the west pouring bolts of lighting onto the refinery dotted shoreline.

Only once the anchor was aweigh did the port realize the calm airs they were experiencing were those ahead of a vicious cold front. With little concern for our troubles they called again to tell us that "All port operations are canceled” indefinitely. As the lighting increased stretching across the sky I laid the anchor chain back on the bottom. A cold draft of upper level air swept down from the encroaching front and rushed over the bow. After a month of 90-degree weather that cool breeze felt as foreign as if a snowball had hit me in the back of the head.

Sensing that all hell was about to break loose the Boatswain and I briskly secured the anchor and walked aft to the safety of the house just as a brown wall unseen moments before obliterated the lights on shore and raced towards the ship. By the time I made it up to the bridge to watch the show the entire ship was immersed in a swirling haze of sand.

It was an all out sandstorm that only the sea rays knew was coming. The shore authorities had no forecast for the event nor had we received anything from the GMDSS. The sand filled air was so thick with sand that there was nothing to see but a pool of brown light radiating from our deck lights. With 40 knots gusts the situation, had we not been at anchor could have been precarious. Had we been underway it's doubtful the engine would have ran for very long with sand filled air filters. Had the port called any sooner we would have been underway and turning around close in to shore with a handicapped engine, an unenviable situation.

At least we were able to wait at anchor for the next 24 hours until the sand subsided and visibility improved. When the pilot did finally board the following day he was dressed in a fine white uniform wearing a high pressure naval cover and aviator glasses. If only his ship handling were to turn out as smart as his appearance.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

An Arabian Gulf

When referring to the shallow, hazy, hot body of water surrounded by desert sand, monarchies and dictatorships be careful when choosing your words. If, for example, you're in Saudi Arabia using the term "Persian Gulf" is sure to piss off any Arabian Port State Control Inspector. This is not too surprising given the prevalence of surface to air missile batteries lining the entrance to ports here which happen to be aimed in the direction of Persians.

There is something unique about this body of water and unfortunately familiar. Six years ago after a hectic first transit through the Strait of Hormuz I remember stepping onto the bridge wing at two in the morning. The silent water through which we glided was, save for the wake, without a ripple. A steam of saturated air shrouded the after mast light and obscured the stars. It must have been 98 degrees outside, at night. The windbreak was hot to the touch and the single AC unit shoved through a bridge window was hardly keeping the bridge electronics dry.

That steam bath stuck with me and while I've returned to the gulf many times since then, often during more pleasant seasons, the heat is something I will never get used to. Sitting in the Captain's office yesterday waiting for our pilot and tugs to leave the U.A.E. we called the bridge and engine room to compare temperatures. The dry bulb on the bridge read 98 in the shade, the engine room 104 by the boiler. It sucks the life out of every one on board turning a twelve hour day into what feels in your muscles and parched throat like a 24 hour day. Constant hydration, cargo hold ventilation and keeping every accommodation door shut and curtain drawn is the modus operandi. But the heat is just one unique aspect of this hot and dusty place.

Getting in and out of the Gulf as I said means a passage through the Strait of Hormuz. Usually falling on a single watch one of the mates will get stuck with the three course changes needed to pass from the Gulf of Oman, around the north east tip of the Arabian Peninsula, into the Gulf. This time I was on the bridge and the fishing boats were thick.

As long as you zoom in on the radar and focus on the vessels close by the pace isn't too crazy until the sun comes up. Having all ready passed several dozen small skiffs getting an early start on the day casting single nets into the middle of the traffic lanes I saw an armada of small craft screaming towards us on the starboard beam. The sun was just up and they were all teenagers coming from Iranian side of the strait in light aluminum skiffs with big outboards.

Whether fishing or smuggling the lookout and I didn't really care as we diverted our attention from the ship we were overtaking to the approaching swarm. After appearing as if all 20 or 30 skiffs would pass astern a half dozen fell under the bridge wing where I no longer could see them. A few moments later, much to my surprise, they reappeared running almost perpendicular to the hull intent on, as they say in Asia, "Cutting the dragons tail."

To the fishermen flying towards us at 30 or 40 knots I'm sure all 200 meters of the ship looked as if she was standing still but from the bridge with the helm in hand steering and my finger on the horn there is little consolation in relative motion. When a vessel crosses into the blind spot ahead of any ship taking action could result in the opposite intended effect.

In such a situation of extremis when making twenty knots reversing the engine is impossible. Risk of collision hinges on whether the speed boat's motor will keep going. The urge for small boat operators to take chances befuddles me but for a ship in heavy traffic and operating within an IMO mandated traffic separation scheme the watch officer is limited because the fishermen are going so fast and making such abrupt course changes.

Why not call them on the radio as one might back in other regions? Even if they did have one, which none did, it is a special form of communication reserved for singing, chanting, howling, whistling and my favorite, Arabic scream talking. It's unlikely these young Iranians would neither speak English nor have it turned up loud enough to hear over their roaring outboard engines.

Communications, not so common in the traffic lanes, are essential in port once the ramp is landed and I'm trying to figure out exactly what the game plan is for getting our cargo off the ship. Most foremen speak English though I recently offended one in Jordan trying to communicate with English and hand gestures. "I don't speak English!" he shouted highly irritated that I might assume as much. At least he had four more words in his English vocabulary than I did in Arabic.
Arabic isn't the only language one would need to know to speak with the "local" labor. The longshoremen come from all over the East. Indians and Filipinos are the predominant stevedores. Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal supply most of the grunt labor. They all come to the Middle East for two or three years at a time and then return home for 4 or 5 months before beginning another stint in Oman or Saudi Arabia or the Arab Emirates.

Being foreigners in a Muslim land they are easily replaced and this prevents their ability to problem solve and think independently. Any small problem such as moving a container out of the stow if the forklift cant scoop it up straight on or jacking up a car to fix a bad tire is met with consternation. The mates here are often summoned as the first option to provide the laborers with the tools or solution to their trivial problems. The longshoremen are reluctant to make waves with their seniors and will only enact an unconventional approach once implicit permission has been granted.

They also are incapable of giving a straight forward answer. This is more of a cultural trait than anything else I think and it's shared across several south Asian cultures. Whether a question, a suggestion or an order the response is almost always the no problem head shake. Nodding up and down or back and forth is physiologically impossible. Instead the head is quickly rocked side to side two or three times with a beguiling smile. Whatever might have been the issue or question is thus quickly irrelevant. "No problem my friend" is a commonly heard phrase.

But there are so many problems in this part of the world and it amazes me how interconnected my own country is with this distant parched land, a place that has so little in common with where I call home. Still we Americans are here. Navy bases in Bahrain and the U.A.E., Air Force bases in Oman and Saudi Arabia. Massive hubs of material support for the ongoing operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Civilian contractors, expatriates, business people and mariners from all over the U.S. find work here. There is a massive amount of commerce taking place but why anyone would want to build a half dozen emerald cities in such a hot and unsustainable place is beyond me. Yet the more I come here the more familiar it becomes and I'm not surprised to find so many people living and working near so much mineral wealth, the only product of the region worth exporting in large quantities.

Nor am I surprised when pilots let you take the ship down the channel and right up to the breakwater before boarding or port control towers needlessly put ships in compromising situations. There's just a different almost haphazard way of doing things yet piles of paperwork and photocopies and signatures and ship stamps to get it all done. Every time a car is driven ashore in Jeddah I have to sign an exception list stating that it was discharged in a "dusty condition" and it always makes me laugh. "Dust?" I like to ask the foremen. "But this is the desert!" It only became covered in fine brown powder after turning the hold ventilators on. But that's just how it is.

An aircraft carrier and her escort caught up to us as we passed through Hormuz. A fitting reminder of how much is at stake here for so many. Her flight deck was crammed with warplanes bristling in the morning sun, a show of force surely directed at the homeland of those Iranian fishermen. In front of the the fortress like ship a destroyer ran interference and above three helicopters were constantly employed dusting off unwary skiffs. Beneath the strait a submarine was surely lurking as I turned over my watch and wondered how long America will be here.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Marlboro Reds

The presence of flies in the wheelhouse hearkened our arrival to Egyptian shores. Expecting the usual delegation of canal inspectors, security officers and agents to converge on us once anchored at the entrance to the Suez Canal the accommodation ladder was rigged and lowered to the water's edge. To every one's surprise the agent called the captain informing him that the authorities no longer made visits to the ships at anchor. Only he and a canal inspector would board us as we passed through Port Said greatly simplifying our transit.

Getting underway on the other hand was business as usual. Ships entering the Suez Canal are directed to cue according to a predetermined convoy arrangement. Naval vessels, LNG tankers and ships carrying hazardous cargoes transit first. Then tankers and lastly container and general cargo vessels. With orders to have our engines ready at 2330 the Captain called us out a little early. Standing by on the bow at 2300 with the Boatswain the line of ships stretching to the north told me it was going to be a long night. After an hour and a half we weighed the anchor, washed the mud off the chain, and approached the pilot station.

As is standard practice for the Mid East as soon as we were making way and pointed right at the beach Port Control told us to stand by. While airplanes can turn circles we on the other hand, with a jetty ahead and another ship astern, had to drift in one spot, a maneuver only possible in a beam sea with a 15 knots breeze thanks to a pair of two thousand horsepower tunnel thrusters. After nearly an hour of holding position the pilot boat was finally sighted coming out of the port.

By this point I was tired and ready to get the first pilot on, the ship cleared with the canal inspector, and then switch the pilots out. As is custom the pilot boat, keeping ten meters off the side began honking their little horn. "Hello my friend, call Captain and ask him for cigarettes! Cigarettes for pilot boat! Four cartons please!!" Invoking the Captains name in his first request, despite saying please, told me I was in trouble. I had never gotten back up to my office after weighing anchor to stock up on emphysema inducing presents and was therefore about to be denied a pilot. There was no way this guy was going to pull alongside and allow the canal pilot to board without his bribe.

"What the hells going on down there mate?" the equally exhausted captain testily asked. "They won't board the pilot until I give them cigarettes Cap" I replied as one of our security guards hustled up to the office to grab three cartons. As we waited and the Port drew closer on a half ahead bell, I attempted to reason with the launch crew by explaining that the cigarettes would be lowered to them shortly so could they please board the pilot before we entered the harbor.

Not surprisingly the crew took this as a ruse to get a pilot without handing over any cancer sticks and flat our refused to come along side. All the while our pilot just stood there, sheepishly holding onto a hand rail, fully aware that if we didn't hand over the cartons as requested he wouldn't be climbing the ladder until the second pilot was about to board.

The cigarettes arrived from my office in the nick of time and after lowering them by a heaving line to the now appreciative boat crew, the same ones who had just been yelling and screaming at me, the boat pulled along side. Our pilot, a younger than average canal pilot, waddled up the accommodation ladder and bid me good morning as if the conduct of the launch crew was just a funny game and demanding bribes for a pilot to be boarded is commonplace around the world.

The transit went smoothly for the duration of the 150 kilometer canal. All the container ships were jammed packed with boxes including the 170,974 gross ton Emma Maersk, the world title holder for largest container capacity at 15, 500 TEU. Soon though Maersk will even trump their own by constructing ten EEE class container ships between 2013 and 2015 which at a speed of 23 knots will carry up to 18,000 TEU between Asia and Europe exclusively. There is no current port in the United States that could unload the EEE class fast enough to justify the vessel calling in the United States. I wonder how many cartons of Marlboro Reds it will take to get one of these behemoths through Egypt?

Friday, April 29, 2011

Ship Envy

Ever since my first experience at sea I have listened to mariners lament how the number of ships sailing under a U.S. flag has dwindled for decades. In a world where there are now over 100,000 merchant vessels the United States Merchant Marine accounts for only 1.4% of the total gross tonnage; a number that has only fallen year after year from a high of 36% in World War Two. Of course WWII was an exceptional time when our sealift capacity ensured the allied nations of Europe were fed, fueled and armed but for the wealthiest nation on earth to reside so low on the list is concerning for seafaring Americans such as myself.

What troubles me more than the low number of American owned, operated, crewed and sometimes constructed ships is the average fleet age of the few remaining deep sea vessels. While American shipyards are busy pumping out tugs and barges the number of new build activity for long haul ocean transport is anaemic. Not counting the "grey hulls" or ships funded specifically for defense purposes the U.S. merchant fleet is antiquated and will eventually become obsolete as fleet age is a major factor in choosing a shipping line to haul one's cargo around the world.

Like farming and banking nearly all american ships in foreign trade are in one way or another subsidized by the American tax payer. The only reason I have a job sailing overseas is because congress has authorized funding through 2015 for the Maritime Security Program, a subsidy which encourages the re-flagging of foreign built ships into US registry. By offsetting the higher operating costs for US flagged vessels it ensures sufficient sealift capacity in time of war or national crisis. Since these ships are foreign built they are ineligible for Jones Act or domestic trade and therefore are only engaged in foreign commerce, hence why my job.

These thoughts were running through my mind the other week when I leveraged my rating as Chief Mate to take a quick tour of a Norwegian flagged vessel moored astern of us. Since only in America are there "Chief Mates" I introduced myself to the Filipino security watch as the "Chief Officer" of the American ship loading cargo at the next berth and inquired if his Chief Officer wasn't too busy to allow me onboard.

"Yes, he's on the bridge and would be happy to show you around" the crewman replied in a thick Tagalog accent as another of the ABs on watch came down from the upper holds to escort me to the elevator. On the bridge? That's about as far from the cargo operation as he could be I thought as we rode the elevator to the upper most deck.

The size of the ship was impressive from the dock and standing on top of this sky scraper was no different. The AB led me to the bridge, which he would not enter in working clothes and boots where the Captain, First Assistant, Radio Operator and Chief Officer were standing around wearing pressed salt and pepper uniforms. They greeted me with some curiosity unaccustomed to having visitors from neighboring ships. I was immediately curious why three of the top four officers were all on the bridge. I've never even seen the First Assistant Engineer on the bridge of a ship much less wearing a pressed uniform. "Don't you belong down in the hole?" I wanted to ask as we made small talk and I explained the trade route and number of crew on board my ship.

"Only 20 crew?" the Chief Officer asked. "We have 27 plus two British deck cadets." Oh that must be nice I thought as it explained why the management officers were all bullshitting on the bridge in port during cargo operations. The Chief Officer then explained that the Radio Officer, another rating now absent from the crew lists of American ships (Ever since GMDSS was implemented), was running some sort of IT test on their internet system to check for cyber terrorism weaknesses (Every ship in their fleet has internet), but he had a few minutes and could show me around.

I thanked the Captain for his time and made my way down the ladder well to the accommodation deck. The door opened into an atrium with a wide stair case that descended to the accommodations. I was blown away by the grandeur of such a space on a ship that really served no utilitarian purpose besides impressing visitors. At the bottom of the stairs were a set of glass book cases crammed with literature. To the left of the atrium was a small lounge for port officials and other important persons visiting the captain. A model of a Viking longboat crafted out of wood served as a centerpiece in the cozy room.

We walked past the ship's offices, one of several places including the bridge where the Chief Officer could remotely operate the ventilation and ballasting systems, and into the officers mess. The entire crew could have eaten in the room but the unlicensed had their own mess abaft the galley and closer to their own living quarters. A well appointed gym was across the hall complete with a glass faced squash / basketball court. All that was missing were the saunas commonplace on Swedish flagged ships.

If an after duty game of squash wasn't enough to wear you out than retiring to one of two lounges was always an option. The crew lounge was fitted with an entertainment and Karaoke system as well as a full drum kit, guitar, bass and amplifiers. Music is as culturally necessary for Filipino seafarers as white rice and fish at breakfast. The officers lounge was further forward and massive. Art work, a dart board, photographs of numerous barbecues onboard and plush settees lined the walls while a full bar and stools filled one corner. The spotless carpet professed that it was an off duty clean clothes only establishment and beer coasters sporting Beck's, Fosters and Heineken abounded. It was evident that Norwegians could not only be trusted to operate a multi million dollar ship but they could also be trusted to have a pop or two afterwards.

Moving further aft down the recently waxed deck, besides the cleanliness and modern fixtures of the interior, I was most impressed by pyramid sky lights placed in the overhead at each intersection of the passageway allowing natural light to fill the ship. It hearkened back to deck prisms and the master's cabin sky light on sailing ships. I peeked into the Chief Officer's stateroom at what looked like a showroom at Ikea. "The carpenter put in a new carpet this trip. Last trip he tiled all the officer's heads." I don't think an American ship has employed a carpenter since the 1970s.

Leaving the ship I couldn't help but feel a pang of envy. Not for the posh accommodations or large crew but for the overall impression the vessel and her crew gave off. They were employed by a powerhouse in the shipping world and everyone onboard and in the port knew it. The vessel was built for cargo and a lot of it but making an impression on visitors and the crew as comfortable as possible was also calculated in; sentiments that today seem lost in the Walmart mentality of most shipping companies.

Of course it would be hard to use this vessel as a comparison for American ships. First of all she was definitely not built in Norway. Doing so would be as cost prohibitive as building one in say, the United States. She was of South Korean ancestry and therefore much more affordable and timely in her construction. An American vessel, unless subsidized by MSP must be built in the United States if she is to carry cargo from one domestic port to another or in other words be Jones Act compliant. As it stands now without being constructed in the U.S. a ship couldn't carry a single TEU from Newark to Portland Maine legally.

Also, her crew was only partially Norwegian. The unlicensed, and quite possibly junior officers were all selected by a Filipino crewing agency from thousands of qualified mariners educated in Filipino maritime academies. American vessels on the other hand are almost always crewed by American citizens. (Unless you're working in the South Pacific fisheries where only the "Paper" captain must be American, an egregious loophole for U.S. registered fishing boats with Asian crews).

American crews are traditionally viewed by shipping companies as expensive not just on account of the higher standard of living in the U.S. but our litigious nature. While it's true we earn a higher wage than the majority of seafarers from other nations the reason American mariners may be so sue happy could be that the maintenance and cure offered by the Jones Act when injured was pegged in the early 20th centure at seven dollars a day. That won't even get you an aspirin in hospitals today.

Furthermore an entire Norwegian vessel, though flying a red and white flag, can be entirely manned by non citizens benefiting the company with reduced crewing costs making the Norwegian flag comparable to any other "Flag of Convenience." In the U.S. this too is prohibited by the Jones Act, yet another reason almost all shipping companies based in the United States flag their fleets in Liberia, Monrovia, the Marshal Islands or Panama.

While the shipping industry remains to be big business in the United States the companies do not support American shipbuilders and seamen as it once did. The industry has been outsourced to foreign fleets for the very same reasons we no longer make television sets and automobiles like we once did. While large shipping companies reap the rewards of cheaper labor, looser regulations and lower construction and maintenance costs I fear that we may loose the capability to maintain a true ready reserve capability as a maritime nation.

I'm no war hawk but with the reduced size of not only our merchant fleet but also our navy we may look big in GDP but our presence on the high seas may be relegated to the lowest bidder. Loosing the work force to build, maintain and operate deep sea tonnage will prevent the United States from regaining the autonomy we once held as a global economic force. The original purpose of the continental navy was not to project military might but to protect the merchant vessels that supplied the expanding colonies with everything they could not grow or produce on their own.

I do not mention these thing for want of alcohol onboard ship or dinning ware emblazoned with the stack insignia or the white glove role some officers on foreign ships with multiethnic crews enjoy. I mention it because I believe that when you loose something as integral to our maritime economy and heritage as a self sustaining commercial merchant marine free of government backed construction loans, subsidized operations and cargo preference laws the chances of recovering such a fleet are slim to none.

And I don't think the answer lies in the good intentions of investors dedicated to the furtherance of an American Merchant Marine despite the economic forces weighing against such an effort. The solution lies in the halls of congress and reworking the antiquated legislation that today protects the few remaining jobs for american seamen but will ultimately squash the ability to find backing for new maritime ventures. If there was ever a time to change these laws allowing for business plans that will actually work to grow the American flag it is now.

For more information on the U.S. merchant and naval fleets through history visit Tim Colton's website His daily blog includes the latest in ship building and operational news.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Cargo is King

"Cargo is King" was something I remember my dad saying when I was young. At the time I had no idea what it meant as he related tales from his latest trip as Chief Mate on a product or chemical tanker to his buddies. As I grew older and decided a maritime college was the best way to liberate myself from the drudgery of a nine to five (And the financial indebtedness a bachelors degree incurs) the thought of spending a career moving one commodity or another across the ocean was not at the top of my list o' reasons for joining the merchant marine.

Nor when I sat through my first introduction to dry cargo class did cargo mean any more to me than memorizing the aged professor's maxims such as "Bung up and bilge down" or "Cold to hot, ventilate not, hot to cold, ventilate bold!" The first cargo I actually ever dealt with was a small lift of medical equipment loaded into the lower deck of the maritime academy's training ship. A humanitarian cargo destined for Natal Brazil and gladly transported by the two hundred cadets on board eager to drink Arctic beer and cavort with the local inhabitants on the white sand beaches.

It was in the summer of 2002 that I had my first smell of a real shipborne cargo. Verified gas oil or VGO was about the nastiest sulphuric gunk the chemical tanker I had the luck to be assigned to would carry. Ketones and glycol smelled much sweeter but would send your head spinning after too much time spent needle gunning down wind. Even in my cabin at night I would get stomach aches when the crew washed naphthalene tanks, the one time of day I didn't participate in the evolution, and caustic soda left a huge, purple, hickey like burn on the side of my neck which the Captain personally told me would never go away or as he put it "Oh s%$t cadet, now you're f$%&ked, that's never coming off."

The caustic burn did peel off but my interest in liquid cargoes remained. After spending my first summer out of school on a schooner sailing to Newfoundland with a cargo of adolescents I did found work on my third mate's ticket aboard a tanker but it wasn't one of the big money jobs everyone who had sat through the advanced liquid cargo class had hoped for.

Just like my cadet shipping she was another rundown American chemical tanker. This one though was a "pharmacy" tanker with 52 segregated tanks, four separate headers, two single tiers forward and two double tiers aft and enough piping to require hundreds of low point drains. Each tank had an efficient stripping system for when the Framo deep well hydraulic pump lost suction so you could get every last droplet of product out. Those Framo pumps made a whining noise I will never forget. The center line tanks were stainless steel for food grade products and caustic soda. Paraxylene, the stock chemical for plastics and a very tricky cargo as it will freeze solid at a mere 56 degrees Fahrenheit, plus lubrication oils were our most common products but we could carry anything else including phenol which at best would induce a coma if ingested.

My cadet shipping experience had prepared me well to stand my own cargo watch. The autonomy we had during cargo, even stripping out and topping off tanks, was great for building my confidence. I learned to communicate exactly what I needed to the pump man at the mix master or AB at the manifold.

It was a hard working ship and had a solid and very young crew but after two trips I could see the toll the complexity of the cargo system and demands of the spot market were taking on the Chief Mates. I also noticed that the world of tankers was a little lonely. There you were in the middle of some hot August night floating in a swamp in Texas loading enough product to fill an olympic pool but there were only two or three guys around. Job satisfaction yes but not much of a team effort with people ashore.

I gave up on the company early and became intrigued by a job I had heard about on a fleet of RoRos. Clean cargo holds, European ports, art in the corridors and rooms. This sounded like a nice change, especially if I was going to see less more of the world and less of the Houston ship channel.

I applied and was hired but found myself on the oldest of the old with smoke stained passageways, dirty cargo holds and leaking hydraulics all around. It didn't matter though, I was sailing foreign and loved it. Charts for the Mediterranean, Middle East, Asia and Pacific Northwest were needed plus we had long sea passages for celestial navigation practice and then lots of traffic to challenge my recently acquired bridge team skills.

Unfortunately unlike the tanker there wasn't that much for me to do at first. The cargo was rolled up the side or stern ramp and then secured by gangs of lashing bar wielding longshoremen. All I knew how to do was check the lashings for tightness and proper amount and try to impart my desire for secure cargo to the longshoremen. I used to say things like "Hey guys, you're not the one that has to sail into a hurricane with these lashings loose so could you redo this one?" but now I know better and go directly to the foreman to lodge my complaint about lazy lashing gangs. Despite their gruffness they are more than happy to get the job done correctly once you remind them how it should be done every single time.

It took me two years to really gain a footing as to how cargo on a RoRo should be stowed. There are so many variables involved that when I look back on my first couple of trips I realize how very little I knew. Probably the major reason I felt as if the Chief Mate at the time didn't really trust the junior officers to do more than watch vehicles for damage and check lashings.

The most satisfying aspect of my job today, a job that is about as far from a nine to five as one can get, is taking part in the sometimes simple and sometimes massive operation of getting a RoRo filled with cargo. And what fascinates me now isn't just the operations that take place inside the cargo holds but the bigger picture of getting the cargo from the manufacturer to the consumer.

A beautiful brand new ship and example of cargo versatility using the RoRo method plus a weather deck with ships gear for ondeck stowage of containers and heavy lift cargoes. If only we could build em like this...

The RoRos I work on can take such a variety of cargo that they hearken back to the days of stick ships carrying break bulk, the main difference being instead of taking weeks to unload with booms and runners and winches and guys our cargo is simply rolled, towed, pushed or driven on and off. Right now we have containers, automobiles, heavy machinery, loose pipe, diesel generators, motor yachts, motor homes, break bulk and even a few massive pieces of power plant equipment all stowed under deck. Most of the cargo requires either web-lashing or chain and tension binders but some of the project cargo has been welded in place and secured with massive chains.

The entirety of the past twenty days have been focused on getting the ship alongside 8 separate docks for the load we are now carrying towards the Mediterranean. With lubes, slops, bunkers, a Coast Guard inspection and loading all the stores, spares and provisions we'll need for the next three months it's been a busy spring. The cargo though as my dad would say is definitely king.

Without cargo the ship wouldn't go to sea and I would go unemployed. Without cargo tug boat outfits and pilot associations would be without jobs. Without cargo entire coastal economies built around large marine industries would shrivel. Without cargo globalization would come to a halt and all that Ikea furniture at home would still be in Sweden.

Even beyond the satisfaction of packing our ten decks full of differing commodities I find it rewarding to just stand as a witness to trade on a scale only shipping allows. I see firsthand what is sitting on the docks in Baltimore or Jacksonville or Japan waiting to be exported all over the world. I see the cargoes that are being imported from abroad, unless it's a container and then you just see those by the thousands.

I remember right after 9-11 when I was a cadet and the mates on the ship were all commenting about how empty the decks of the container ships were coming in and out of Newark. It was the economy nose diving after that event when trade volumes plummeted. You could see the same thing two years ago. The world's RoRo fleet went from a complete under tonnage necessitating our steaming to Korea to load hundreds of excavators for Long Beach to talk of car ships being used for parking garages in a matter of months.

It is incredible to think about a life in which one assumes there will always be gasoline coming out of the pump and the TV you need will always be in stock. Simply explaining my profession to people, even those who live in the ports I visit, is more often than not met with blank stares. The concept of ocean shipping is so foreign to the average American I chalk it up as another sign of our collective ignorance, a sad predicament for a nation so dependent on imports.

Perhaps it's that very same ignorance that I so often lament which keeps the masses from finding out about ships and flooding the job market making seafaring a more competitive and less lucrative occupation. Or perhaps it's being off the land for months on end. Like all things in the marine profession such as spending a watch surrounded by whales or seeing the mid oceanic horizon swallow the sun in a green flash, taking part in the world's commerce first hand has been a part of the trade since boatswains were wearing short pants and cargo was king.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Open Water

Looking out my office window today I could see the last pair of green and red buoys marking the channel to Fort Sumter range. For the next ten days these channel buoys will be the last vestiges of shallow water. The only other objects afloat such as ODAS buoys for weather forecasting or DART buoys for tsunami detection are found in deeper water on the edge of the continental shelf.

If you imagine what lies beneath the waves when going to sea then leaving the continental shelf gives the impression of taking off in flight. The bottom drastically recedes from the surface making room for abyssal plains and mid atlantic mountains. Miles of water fill the void between our tiny hull and the darkness of the unseen ocean floor.

With our speed reduced for the right whale seasonal management area off the Carolinas the buoys slowly fell astern lending to an overwhelming sense of relief. I've been onboard the ship for twenty days now and have had no more than 72 hours at sea in-between Texas and Florida, otherwise it's been in and out of ports on the east coast non stop. Three strait weeks of port calls makes time fly but it's tiring. Port means cargo and with the support of the third and second mates it is a lot of work facilitating the safe and efficient loading of our ship. Now with a sizable 12,000 metric tons of cargo onboard we are ready to begin the Atlantic crossing and head for the Strait of Gibraltar.

During pilotages in two different east coast ports I saw pilots using an Ipad as an electronic chart. Running NOAA charts through the iNavX application in conjunction with a wireless signal fed by our own AIS the pilots were receiving accurate GPS position, speed and course data for our vessel and surrounding vessels fitted with AIS. I thought that was a pretty novel use of the latest device from Apple.

It looks like I've lucked out on the crewing end for this trip. The boatswain, who arrived not with one or two seabags but an entire Uhaul truck stuffed with all his belongings including furniture is enthusiastic despite his apparent homelessness. He's the first Boatswain I've had that kept a work log tracking each crew member's hours and jobs on overtime.

He also is a bit of a nut when it comes to tactical police gear which he revealed one coffee break when showing off a pair of SWAT team goggles. "I got these on store credit" he bragged to one of the day men. "Why do you have those?" someone asked. "Because the guy who owns the store didn't have enough change when I bought my taser...and they're awesome" he boasted holding them up for all to see. Okay, but you're a boatswain, not a hostage negotiator I thought. "I'll drop a thousand bucks on this stuff when I'm at home" he continued. Possibly a contributing factor to why he's homeless? I guess we all have our vices.

When it comes to seafarers I have learned not to judge people by their actions ashore. If you choose on your own time to spend your money on women and booze, pick fights in bars or use it to dress up like you're in the special forces it's your business as long as you pull your own weight at sea and as the saying goes, hand, reef and steer then that's good enough for me. Just don't run out on a hooker as I was assured by an AB from Fall River that this brings the heaviest of weather.

The rest of the crew appears hard working and interested in overtime. Several of the unlicensed are return crew and most of the officers have now been onboard for an entire year so it should be a huge improvement from my first trip when I was burdened with one complete sociopath and a schizophrenic.

In other news the large upper deck lounge and reception area has been transformed from a disused venue for schmoozing port officials with Becks beer and Aquavit, which are no longer allowed on board, to the senior officers entertainment center, guests by invitation only. The Captain and Chief wall mounted a 52 inch flat screen TV with surround sound and DVD player plus an Xbox. There is a seating arrangement diagram taped to the bulkhead and ample room for all the officers onboard to partake in movie time which begins promptly at 2000 every night. Lunch and coffee breaks are reserved for Halo.

My girlfriend for one reason or another did not greet this improvement with as much enthusiasm as I had hoped. Apparently when I'm at sea she pictures me reading Herman Melville as I swing from my hammock, knocking together ditty bags and rope buckets and learning sea shanties on the guitar. While I certainly do all those things I also enjoy having some of the comforts of life on the beach at work such as rotting my mind with video games from time to time. Something I've gotten much better at with the help of her child.

Everyone on the ship is bracing for a long trip. There is talk about a stop on the eastern coast of India and there will most likely be a shipyard somewhere in the far east. I'm focused on getting home for a camping trip in July so as long as that happens all else will fall into it's right place.

Monday, April 4, 2011


It's hard to tell whether I'm busier when at home or at work. The notable difference being that when I'm at home my time is filled with things I mostly want to be doing whereas at sea my time is filled with things I have to do. Seafaring, if I've never mentioned it before, is a non stop affair. It is not infrequent that I feel a certain envy for the AB who works a worry free eight or twelve hour day and beyond that is free to do as he or she pleases whereas I am constantly trying to hedge my time so as to not fall behind in my duties.

The first week back is typically the most brutal in terms of adjustment to new sleep patterns, stress levels and physical exertion when compared to the leisurely pace of life I lead vacationing ashore. That said I couldn't be happier to have returned to the same job on the same ship with mostly the same crew; the systems and procedures we've all ready implemented in addition to the improvements we've made in the ship is paying off in a safer, simpler and more organized operation.

We've left the Gulf of Mexico and called on our first east coast port leaving four more to go. I'm also pleased that a nearly full load of automobiles, heavy machinery and containers awaits us on the docks of Savannah, Baltimore, Wilmington and Charleston. An underutilized cargo ship leaves more than just myself in a strange funk when steaming across an ocean.

Along with the engine and stewards departments the watch standing AB's still due to get off did an excellent job this past trip. I'm sorry to see them go especially since every time a new crew member signs on it's a roll of the dice. Save for watches will they stay in their room or come out for overtime? Are they the kind of people you'd like to spend a four hour bridge watch with or are they complete sociopaths? Are they "able bodied" seamen or are they a health hazard to themselves and potentially their shipmates? You never really can tell until the ship has sailed and any chance of replacement has faded over the transom.

There was a great sunset this evening. An expansive bank of cumulonimbus hid the sun until just before setting. The scene was beautiful but the inherent atmospheric instability of such a cloud formation is not. The marine forecast is for 20-25 knots out of the southwest by the early morning when I come back on watch. Picking up a pilot at four in the morning and making our way 25 miles up a winding river with more sail area than any clipper ship should make for a riveting start to a very busy day.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Full House

No other vacation of mine has been comprised of so many consecutive days at home. Save for two quick ski trips, one to Maine and one to Vermont, the number of nights I have slept in hotels, hostels or on friends couches has been dramatically reduced. And though I still yearn to spend my time off from sea traveling I've been content this time staying closer to home.

My living situation certainly plays a role in this new found contentedness. I have a small family living at my place now including a cat, a Pembroke Welsh Corgi and my girlfriends eight year old son. The transition from a strict bachelor's pad to that of a home with homework and dog walking has been a challenge to my well established sense of independence but the satisfaction garnered from cooking and eating with the same wonderful people day after day is an unparalleled experience.

The presence of a dog, albeit a small one and not the long haired husky I always pictured, is a perpetual source of entertainment. At one year old he is the archetypal Corgi; athletic, smart, obedient and affectionate. Whenever I move from a seated position at home or when we're hanging out at our favorite bagel shop I have to take care not to step on him. Though never fed from the table his favorite spot when not on the move is directly under my chair.

With more people, animals and furniture in my modest home than ever before I have been reflecting on the situation in Japan where in an instant thousands of homes were obliterated by the power of nature.

I have an image from the Internet trapped in my mind of the devastating tsunami. The image is reinforced by the time I spent on Honshu, most of which was with my brother, at the time an apprentice seaman on my ship. The scene showed a sidewalk, meticulously hand swept, along a narrow road lined by miniature automobiles parked in an orderly manner as if they were cargo on the roro. Across the road is a low levee separating the order of Japanese civilization from a wide river fringed in the distance by green conifer covered hills. Pouring over the levee is a black wall of water three meters high as full of flotsam as it is wet heaving the compact automobiles up and sweeping them towards the front of what moments ago must have been occupied store fronts.

Longshoremen loading break bulk cargo in Tokyo

It is a terrifying scene from a place that I have very fond memories of. I have never enjoyed working with stevedores and longshoremen as much as I did in Japan. The efficiency and work ethic that was carried onto the ship each time the stern ramp went down is unparalleled in my experience. The pilots were memorable for their advanced age and naval like formality. Many of the pilots were teenagers during World War Two, their age a reflection of how much trouble the associations in Japan have recruiting younger people into the marine profession. But despite their rigidness and extreme politeness they usually had a sense of humor and enjoyed talking on the bridge during long passages through the inland sea.

Prayer cards at a shrine in Kobe

World events are weighing heavily on my mind as I begin packing my bags for this next hitch. Almost every nation in the Middle East is experiencing some level of historical instability. Somalia, always the deep sea mariner's first and foremost concern, has shown no change in the pace with which piracy is being committed despite increased pressure from the coalition Navy.

The deaths of four Americans on the Sailing Vessel Quest has only reinforced my opinion that the only proven defense for merchant vessels is to have better weaponry and more of it in the hands of personnel with superior marksmanship than the pirates. Until the incentives of big paydays and all the khat you can chew is met with an equal disincentive of having your skiff sunk from under you in the shark infested Indian Ocean or a life sentence in Guantanamo Bay piracy will continue unabated.

My sense of self worth, something linked closely to my job performance and reputation at work, has been somewhat bolstered by reaching one of the mile stones I set for myself a decade ago. I'm the proud owner of my first Merchant Mariner's Credential, the unimpressive and disappointing 21st century version of a USCG paper license. My own is a little more memorable as it has printed, if you can find it in size nine font under the Medical Waiver requiring that I carry a spare set of corrective lenses on board, the word "Master".

Besides my GED the State of Florida Department of Education mailed to me when I was seventeen and my college diploma this passport sized booklet is the most valuable piece of paper I have ever received. Not so much because it represents my legal ability to operate any motor or steam vessel floating on any of the world's oceans but because it is proof that I have spent no less than three years, eight months and 20 days of my life working on board vessels of one type or another.

Because I take such satisfaction from knowing the numbers I did a quick tally of my total sea time and was surprised to find that in the last seven years I have spent 1,359 total days on documented vessels. Of these sea days 192 were spent on sailing vessels up to 115 tons, the rest on unlimited tonnage ships. In addition to sea time I have also spent nearly four months of my unpaid vacation time attending mostly required training.

Thanks to my affiliation with one of the United States three unions for seafaring officers my training has been completely subsidized through employer contributions and my payment of quarterly dues. Otherwise the 72 days spent in IMO required "upgrade" training would have cost me not just precious time at home but also $29,376 including room and board. Add on the other 45 days of training attending courses like Medical PIC refresher, Vessel Security Officer, and Fast Rescue Boat Operator and the bill would total over fifty thousands dollars!

While most management level officers belong to a union, or better yet a company that will pay for this onerous training, there are some out there that have had to pay out of pocket to climb the license ladder. As for the unlimited HP engineers who haven't yet tested for their First Assistant/Chief Engineers license the days of living without the burden of upgrade courses are numbered. Rumor has it that beginning in 2012 the IMO in it's infinite wisdom will begin requiring competencies that can only be documented in the classroom and not where you'll actually use them, on your ship.

As I sit in my kitchen on one of my remaining days at home watching the snow continue to fall on this, the fifth day of spring, I chuckle at the mental anguish I know it inflicts on all the New Englanders fed up with the winter of 2011. Personally I don't mind all that much. It's going to be a hot spring where I'm headed to in a few days and not just on account of the scorching sun. Autocracies, revolutions, no-fly zones and hijackings abound so it stands to be an interesting trip. I'll do my best to keep you posted.