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?