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.