Friday, February 11, 2011

The Silence of Snow

The White Mountains were silent yesterday. The fifth storm to hit New England since returning from sea had coated every tree with a foot and a half of new snow. Stopping amongst the evergreens and young softwoods branches mounded with beautiful dry snow muffled every scrape and thud a snowboard makes in the back country. A holler from a skier looking for his partner further down the stream bed was hardly audible in the noise dampening forest.

These were perfect conditions for being out of bounds; ample snow to cover every rock face and fallen tree trunk along the trail and provide sufficient control to carve through the trees. A few skiers had all ready been down the stream we were following so it wouldn't be so easy to get lost on the back side of the mountain. I had been down this glade a few weeks before with a brother so I had a good idea where speed was needed to avoid unstrapping and walking to the top of the next rise and I knew where to slow down and duck in the tighter areas to avoid wayward tree branches.

My helmet and goggles were all ready scratched and my board had received a few gouges when there was less snow so the paranoia associated with ruining perfectly good equipment had subsided. A friend also on vacation from sea was following close behind so if one of us broke something we'd probably be able to extricate ourselves and not have to pay for our own evacuation (Rescue is not gratis when you're out of bounds).

After 78 days at sea just standing in the woods on the side of a mountain after a proper blizzard was almost as much of a thrill as snowboarding in the best conditions of the year. The sensation of freedom dry land and free time provides a sailor kept me pumped throughout the day as we made run after run on my favorite mountain in New England.

It's days like this that provide my greatest justification for spending at least half of my life away from the world and they become an important source of energy and confidence when I'm exhausted and fed up with life at work. My last hitch was no exception.

All in all it was a great trip. We had one of the best crews I have ever worked with. The steward department put out some of the most edible food I've had at work or at home. The Boatswain managed the deck gang as all Boatswains should; handling beefs before the mast whenever he could and giving the guys breaks when they needed them while completing my ceaseless to do lists. The cargo was delivered in the condition in which it was loaded and there were no major accidents or injuries. Despite all of our small victories, for one reason or another, this last trip had a draining effect on my energy level and interest in remaining at sea indefinitely for the rest of my life.

Ask anyone who sailed in the U.S. Merchant Marine prior to the grounding of the Exxon Valdez and they will tell you sailing isn't anything like it used to be. No more port time, no more fun time, more liability, more paperwork, more headaches. After working in the industry myself for the last seven years even I can see that change isn't relegated to the 1990s. The industry continues to change and the changes are coming fast and none of it seems to be improving my working conditions, benefits or professional liability.

2010 was a very interesting year for the merchant marine. There are a hundred topics I'd just love to give my opinion on ranging from the Oil Spills in the Gulf of Mexico to Piracy to shifting environmental regulations but I'll just stick to what really gets me pacing back and forth on the bridge wings.

The "Global Recession" has made the business of shipping even more competitive than it all ready was and every where I look companies are reducing costs. After two years of scrapping old tonnage and laying up new ships cargo volumes are slowly picking up but there is still an oversupply of vessels. Cost cutting measures such as slow steaming, voyage routing guidance focused on fuel efficiency more so than weather avoidance and enhanced fuel / lube oil consumption monitoring are being introduced at my company. The senior officers in my fleet are seeing an increase in oversight from the office via satellite based technologies that once upon a time would have been unimaginable to the skipper of any freighter.

For managing the condominium association in which I reside, my finances and socializing I adore having the internet aboard ship but being out of sight of land no longer provides the cloak of anonymity a ship at sea once received. Imagine an 18th century whaling ship. A Captain was employed, usually as a partial owner in the venture and fitted out with crew, stores and provisions to last months at sea. The vessel much like a warship of the time was meant to be self sufficient for years save for fire wood and water. The ship would sail from Nantucket and disappear around Cape Horn and not reappear in New England for one or two years.

The success of the entire voyage was entrusted to the Captain. He would hunt down whales filling the holds with blubber oil and not return to Nantucket until the ship was full and down providing a large enough profit to the owners and himself to justify his livelihood. Save for the occasional stop at a whaling station or encounter with another ship when letters, news and, among the literate, books could be traded the ship was completely out of touch with the rest of the world. Even when disaster struck not a soul would know until survivors were rescued or hundreds of years later an anchor is discovered on the top of Frigate Shoals as it was this week.

To compare the experience of a merchant sailor two or one or even a half century ago to seafaring today provides such a contrast that it's hard to believe anyone can still be romantic about the life of a 21st century mariner including myself. On a personal level the escape once afforded to the sailor who wanted to leave a troubled history over the fantail is no more. Running from the law, the IRS, family problems, the ills of society or simply the drudgery of a nine to five just isn't possible.

Seafarers are subject to thorough background checks at a minimum every 5 years. Any conviction besides a "Minor offense" is grounds for even more scrutiny requiring written statements and waivers. Driving records, criminal records, and now even your health records can prohibit the issuance of a merchant mariner's credentials. We are subject to enhanced physical screenings where conditions such as asthma, kidney stones, recurrent back pain, arthritis or restless legs require medical review by the Coast Guard and a waiver to work. Once upon a time American mariners received free health care thanks to the founding fathers knowledge that the fledgling nation required able bodied and fit sailors to keep commerce flowing and cannons thundering but today the health care provided by the major unlicensed union is a joke (Just ask my brother). Just before Reagan closed the USPHS hospital system, the first uniformed service in the United States, I was born at no cost because my mother held an MMD.

Today a sailor who never sets foot on U.S. soil but simply sails on a U.S. ship must pay the same tax as a citizen ashore on a wage that has stagnated in most industry sectors over the last quarter century. Unlike many European nations which historically have only taxed a portion of their mariner's wages the United States treats sailors no different than any one else, despite the best intentions of Martin Kapp.

With access to news, email and calling cards crews are now as up to date on global events and family happenings as anyone else. While this is usually good for morale it is now easier for the crew to become focused on things occurring at home or in the world providing more distraction for the crew, something Captains not long ago never contended with.

On an operational level shipping as mentioned before is under more scrutiny than ever before. Messages from the home office once relegated to packets of mail or the morse code of a signal station moved further offshore with the advent of radio stations. While satellites brought us cheap phone cards and eventually the Internet they have also introduced telephones in the Captain's and Chief Engineers office. 24 hours a day the Captain is accessible through phone and email. Any vessel can be tracked by any person on line through AMVER weather reports or AIS when in range of a participating port. Long Range Identification Tracking through SAT-C ensuring port states know which vessels are headed their way is light years apart from the observatory on Munjoy Hill that once hoisted the house flag of ships standing off Cape Elizabeth for a pilot to prepare the agents and merchants on the dock for a cargo's imminent arrival.

Even when the Master of my ship determines his route across an ocean the waypoints are reviewed by a routing agency who more often than not disagree and recommend a route through rougher seas in search of more favorable winds. In their eyes a reduction in fuel oil consumption outweighs a better ride and safer cargoes because in the short term the company saves money justifying their service. Who cares if it's too rough out to swing from a boatswains chair chipping rust or change gear oil on the bow? Who cares if we increase our lashing checks to every day because we're rolling ten degrees for days on end if it means a quartering wind to push us?

The science of saving money is becoming so precise that vessels are now being fitted with monitoring equipment to track fuel and lube oil consumption. While no one dares run an oily water separator because they are prone to malfunction and extremely burdensome in their testing, inspection and maintenance requirements (The operation of the OWS is also satellite tracked), the company will pay millions for slop removal in port.

Port time is also under more scrutiny and it seems that the trend is to spend no more time in port than is required for cargo. That would be fine if it meant that cargo was all my crew needed to focus on but as it turns out the only time for receiving stores, provisions, spares, lube oil, fuel oil, contractors, inspectors, regulatory agencies, company representatives, audits and on-signing crew is when the vessel herself is in port means which means that our STCW "Minimum" manned vessel is taxed to the limit. Combine this with the impending increase in STCW required rest hours and you can see how unrealistic adhering to each and every regulation becomes. Can you see me pacing now?

Thoughts like these and many more are why the mountain silence punctuated only by the sound of my snowboard is something I cherish so much. I really feel that in our quest for a safer, more efficient and secure world we humans have given up much in the way of personal liberty. When you get back a little piece of your life whether on a mountain or at a concert or in your home with family it must be held on to. Otherwise we wouldn't have any reason to climb back up that gangway.