Thursday, December 14, 2017

An Island of Misfit Toys

I didn’t sleep well the night before my flight.

It was 12 hours from Honolulu to Incheon; then, another 2 hours to Busan, where an agent picked me and 5 other sailors up and drove us to a hotel, about 20 minutes away, where I finally got a solid 6 hours of sleep.  The shuttle was back at the hotel at 0700.  The ride to the ship took over an hour.

She is small - 500 feet.  The gangway is only about 30 feet, end to end.  As with all ships we in the neglected US Merchant Marines inherit, she was an old foreign-flagged and abused nag, tired long before we got her… it seems I’m always fixing ships before they are reflagged back out of the fleet or scrapped, altogether.

10 stories from tank top to bridge deck, she has no elevators and the ladder is only wide enough for one man.  The freeboard is so low that we’ll be restricted to the house in seas I’d otherwise ignore.  There are no tunnels fore and aft.  My quarters are positively tiny.

The Sea of Japan is usually a boring affair on the 1000-footers I’ve gotten used to, but we rolled our way along our first night out as if we were on the open ocean with weather… which is probably why the old man warned me when I signed articles that if I mind a bit of a roll that I’d be uncomfortable.

I feel eternally grateful I find the motion of a ship lulling and comforting, or else I’d truly be a miserable bastard at sea, what with the bland food, the poor excuse for company, and the asinine hours.  The view, however, is the finest a man could ever hope for.

The gang, for the most part, is OK, but they’re standoffish in a wholly familiar way... I am, yet again, the only white guy in the unlicensed deck department- a division of labor I find perpetually fascinating.  When my seatime permits me to advance to third mate, I will be yet one more statistical data point that says: “White Man In Charge.”

To say otherwise would be blindness.  The unlicensed gang in the US fleet is more and more Asian, less and less white.  We jokingly say “no rice, no work,” and all of us together (all skin tones) find the joke amusing, but it’s interesting to see it happening just as I watched construction turn more and more Mexican during the last decade.

Unlike my last two ships, there are no women aboard this one.  The old man is a surfer who spends as much time ashore in Saipan and Guam as schedule permits (and he influences much of the schedule), the engine department is full of gun-nutz, and the steward is 130 lbs of tall tales and a lifetime of frustration; anyone who understands human nature would fear the steward more than the gun-nutz in the black gang.

It is an island unto itself - an “Island Of Misfit Toys,” if you will.  And I will be here for another 118 days.

1600 pilot for Yokohama… time to get back to it.

After all- it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Here We Go Again

So here we go.

I picked up a 120 day job as a dayman on a shuttle loop that runs between Guam, Saipan, Yokohama, and Pusan.  Apparently the run takes two weeks, so I’ll do it 8 or 9 times before my contract is fulfilled… I suspect that sense of Groundhog Day (all over again) will be fairly intense by the end of it all.
Lashings for an Hawaiian canoe ama.

Bad news?  None, yet.  This won’t become apparent until I get there, sadly...

Good news?  Everyone seems to have good things to say about the crew and the run- including about the ship, which is a teeny, tiny, itsy, bitsy, 500’... which will certainly take some getting used to.

In two days I fly to Korea, where I’ll sign my Articles.  A sailor I know that was on there recently said there’s a “great health food store” in Saipan, which underscores that we’ve sailed together, but calls into question his definition of “great,” and “health food store;” I won’t get my hopes too high…

I just completed two days of standby work on an old 1973 steamship as the standby bosun- our job? Taking every single firehose on the ship and linking them together into one long hose and charging the system for ABS inspectors.
Waikiki, a shopper’s paradise, is pretty as a postcard but as dull as a root canal.

Bad hoses are cut in half there on the spot, and replacements have to be aboard before the inspector will sign off on the test.  There were about 120 hoses total… 60 of them we carried up through the maze of the fiddly (smoke stack) from the engine room to the top of the RO RO car deck - that’s about 12 stories of engine room heated stairs to the full Hawaiian sun- and the rest were laid out on either weather deck.

The photo Laura sent of my truck covered in Seattle ice clashed mightily with my Getting-Used-To-The-Tropics-Again reality.  It will prepare me for Guam and Saipan, while Japan and Korea will rely on my Seattle training.  And warm cloths.  Which I brought, not because I thought I’d need cold weather clothing, but for surviving the ship’s air conditioning, which is either on Full-Arctic, or not working at all.

And that’s the news from the the Honolulu Sailors’ Home, aka the Doghouse.
The Doghouse mimics the austerity of ships as an architectural statement. 

The rooms, likewise, mimic the quarters of a ship.  But less so...

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Aaaaaaaaand.... Back On The Beach.

San Pedro was a storm of activity. Crane lifts of stores and engine parts. Crew changes. A total swap of cargo. The noise of boxes slamming into other boxes, cell guides, or empty holds, hammering of lashing gear, and the variety of machinery claxons and engine/motor noises was welcome after the monotony of the transit.

As we hoisted the gangway during cast-off, the wire rope that supports the crew-rated ladder sheared almost all the way through. There are two pieces of equipment I most distrust on a ship: lifeboats and gangways… and that parted wire illustrates my distrust exactly. The potential for loss of life and the slow awareness of the implications of that dodged bullet lodge in the psyche and grow like a tumor- I saw no less than 10 longshoremen on that plank at one point…

The new bosun jumped right on it and we changed the wire first thing in the morning- an all-hands piece of vital work that went as smoothly as could be hoped for.

I had the joy of slushing the wire between where it came off the spool and where it made its way through the series of sheaves that allow for the raising and lowering or our ship’s only civilized exit. Slushing the wire consists of laying down cardboard, putting on layered nitrile and cotton gloves, and grabbing handfuls of grease and smearing the wire as it runs.

If you leave too much grease on the wire it makes an ungodly mess; too little and the rope’s core doesn’t get wetted. I like to think that if you’re not covered in grease you’ve done it wrong.

Yes, I was covered in grease.

My watch partner, the third mate, got off the ship and my new watch partner turned out to be a familiar face from my last ship… too bad we only had the opportunity to stand two watches together! I had gotten used to long stretches of silence broken only by a stream of bitter invectives so those last two watches flew by.

We slow-belled from San Pedro to Oakland through whale-infested waters, catching up on events from real life, and then I went down from my watch to the bow as we came into the San Francisco Bay at 1700.

Tie up was smooth, but I lost style points when I flubbed casting the heaving line to the dock- the modern equivalent of a monkey’s fist (a bean bag) hit the rail when I threw and didn’t make it to the dock on the first throw. The shame was all mine! Such a rookie move…

Getting paid-off involved a lot of running around… the delegate didn’t get us paid up through tie-up so I had to ferry paperwork from the chief mate’s office on A deck, the delegate's board on D deck, and the captain’s office on F deck through several iterations until we got it just right, because said delegate was stuck on crane duty.

Special Note: Always wear gloves when you go down the gangway- the rails are covered in grease.

I had a room and a flight booked. I don’t know how, but the same suitcase, filled with the exact same stuff, weighed 7 pounds more on the way back to Seattle than it did on the way down to San Francisco.

I carried my dirty overalls and boots onto the plane in a black trash bag for my flight back to Seattle.

And now I am on the beach.  

Friday, October 13, 2017

Inbound RoRo, Port Pusan

Pusan, Korea Sunset

Pilot Boat Alongside

Qingdao From The Bridge

Port China

Convoy Downbound On The Yangtze

Pusan Tug

It's Like Deja Vu - All Over Again

Every day is Groundhog Day.

Midnight watch. 0400 sleep. 0715 breakfast. 0800 turn-to for overtime. 1100 knock off for lunch. 1200 watch. 1600 sleep #2 (I skip dinner for that extra half hour of dream-time). Wake up at 2315. Midnight watch.


Each day clocks are advanced 20 minutes at 1800, 2200, and then 0200. The ship’s physical clocks are advanced at midnight. The net result is 40 minutes less sleep for my second sleep and a nagging anxiety about whether or not I have advanced my phone and my analogue wristwatch before falling asleep.

The Meridian Day was our only break from these advances- the old man bought a bunch of beer for the crew and the steward’s department made a sushi spread up in the officer’s lounge in lieu of a normal dinner (it was the only dinner I ate while crossing). The drinkers get hammered. The watch goes to bed as soon as can be politely done without offending the Steward.

Warning: Korean wasabi is the hottest, most inconsolable, breath-stealing, lung-searing pain imaginable. It is fantastic. End of Warning.

The actual “Meridian Day” is the repeat of the day that we cross the Prime Meridian… in this case, Wednesday the 4th. Because we don’t advance clocks on the meridian day, it means that Wednesday the 4th nets 47 hours of hump-day goodness.

The mood follows the great circle of the ship’s navigational track… it starts as a seeming flatline, due east at 090; but the course begins to drop down southward - first 091, then 2… 3… and soon we’re diving into the 100’s - until the circle (and the mood) are heading more southward than not. The further we go, the farther we fall.

The needle of this skipping record, repeating that awful note over and over again, suddenly pops over the hangup and we hear “turn to for port prep.”  I don’t know if it’s something different to the routine or the knowledge that tomorrow morning we are going to have cellular service that breaks the crews’ despondency, but broken it is, and a general mania takes over.

Almost half the crew will be going home, too… that might play some small part in the overall good mood.

Change!  Nothing feels better after a long, hard slog!

As if to underscore the shift, the stainless steel seas turned emerald and jade. The sun came out from behind fast moving cumuluous clouds- the stratus claustrophobia? Gone.  

Off the bow this morning as I did my OT were Pacific white-side dolphins, racing through the 8 meter swells, big grins on their faces proving that not only good, good dogs let off off their leashes to run and play know pure, unfettered joy.  

Then, on watch this afternoon, I saw dozens of Bryde’s whales, even among the endless white horses that usually make whales impossible to see. It is hard to tell a Bryde’s, a blue, a sei, or a fin whale apart- but this ship has the same identification book I mourned leaving at home in an earlier post, and a positive identification I did make: Bryde’s. You can tell by the pronounced hook to the dorsal.

Boobies, shearwater, and albatross skimmed the seas as we roll, roll, rolled along.

0400 I will leave the bridge after my watch and become the back-watch as we pick up the pilot and bring this lumbering and laden girl into LA. Crane lifts. Bunker barges. Lifeboat tests.  

Looking out instead of looking in.  

Moving onward. After this port - Oakland; and the beach, for this sailor.

Monday, October 2, 2017

A Transit Like No Other

Squid boats light the skies of the Sea of Japan like mini-suns. They loom 40 miles over the horizon, then pop over the curve of the earth like a punch in the eyeballs. There is no night when there are squid boats.

By dawn they are gone.

The following 5 knot emerald and cream seas of Japan’s Tsugaru Straits spit us out into the Pacific Ocean an hour ago, where we came around to 090 and began our great circle to Long Beach. The sea ahead looks much kinder than it was on the way over- a series of high pressure air masses squeezing the lone low pressure mass and forcing it north, and out of our way.

With luck.

Now we advance our clocks an hour each day and lose an hour of sleep a night. We will repeat Wednesday when we cross the dateline. The lack of traffic means the watches will drag on and thoughts will wander with little to anchor them against the swirling eddies and gusting zephyrs of the mind.

Long before I ever set sail, I used to watch the ships making their way up and down the Savannah River. At every stage of my life I have watched these ships I now sail--as a child, from Tybee Island; as a teenager, from the banks of the river or the Tybee road; as an adult, from the independent taxi service I operated driving the bar pilots, to the pages of G-Captain, or Maritime Executive, or one of the many other trade publications or vessel tracking webpages.

The first time I drove a ship up that river was epochal--there was the river before, and the river after, and they were not the same rivers to me. The time before was a time of observation and curiosity--where was she headed? Where had she been? What would it be like to sail away aboard a behemoth like that?

On of the most formative parts of my life watching those ships was spent at Old Fort Jackson, a brick battery originally built for the war of 1812. My official job title was “Fort Slave,” and I did all the jobs nobody else wanted to do for $3.15 an hour. Clean toilets, mop floors, rake gravel, sweep floors, wash windows, cook oysters, empty trash, fight insects…

I lived in a Sears & Roebuck Catalog building that was condemned by the state of Georgia, affectionately called “The Lab.” My roommates were rat snakes that chilled themselves in the electrolysis tanks housing the artifacts from the “CSS Georgia,” a confederate ironclad battleship that was scuttled by the fort during the civil war and dredged up, piecemeal, by historical scholars, starting in the 80s and continuing to this day.

Up in the caretaker’s house lived my direct supervisor--a man who defied any and all categorization. He was historian, blacksmith, movie-maker, weapon maker, marksman, music connoisseur, mechanic, drag-racer, reenactor, welder, rigger, carpenter, artifact preservation specialist, metallurgist, and a man with the most colorful array of expletives imaginable. 

Amongst other things.

Of course we became lifelong friends. We drank too much, smoked too much, made too much noise, and we “blew shit up” on a regular basis. He was 10 years my senior and as positive a mentor as anyone could hope for… there is a correct way to blow shit up, after all, and only a dumbass does it wrong.

He was remarkably attuned to helping others--for a man so heavily armed. His pragmatism and common sense held little room for religious or political sentiments.  

On many occasions, when we were out of beer, we’d take a bottle of whatever was left and “walk the wall,” which was what we called the drunken circuit of the top of the fort’s twenty-five foot brick walls. We’d sit on the powder magazine, next to the thirty-two pound cannon, and watch the ships go by as the sun rose.

It may have been 30 years ago as I write this, but I can still smell the river, the Kamera Chemical plant next door, the sponged black powder of the cannon.  

One ship- the “Alligator Independence” was about 275 meters long and one the largest that used to call into Savannah (it was about the size of the ships I’m sailing now)- and her bright baby-blue hull used to make us laugh even as we’d wonder aloud at the size of that boat.

It would fill the sky, covering the entirety of the South Carolina side of the river as effectively as a hand over the eyes. It turned the turbulent Savannah into a mere ditch. It would pass so close to the fort I could feel the breeze of it on my face.

First time I went upriver at the helm of a ship - one equal or greater in size than the “Alligator Independence,” I saw how small the fort actually is. How its place on the river is different than I ever imagined it to be. I wondered who was watching the ship go by… MY ship.

And now, as I cross the North Pacific Ocean, I have plenty of time to think about a new, and different, epoch that will define me--one without my former supervisor and lifelong friend in it: He let go from the dock, downbound on The River for places farther than I have ever been on any ship, bound for destinations I will not know in this lifetime.

His friends and family are at the fort as I write this, celebrating his life at a memorial I wish beyond measure I could attend. They’ll fire the cannon (I suspect the charge won’t be truly a “blank,” knowing him as I do), sending a fifty foot smoke-ring a half mile down the river on a rolling wave of thunder...

The memorial requested attendees to please not bring their own black powder. Seriously. But somebody will blow some shit up, I bet… later… after the casually-acquainted have gone home and those closest to him begin to mourn in earnest.

Someone hanging the devil’s 10 (riding a piece of plywood in a fire for as long as possible). Firing softballs out of the naval gun after the outer gate is locked. Walking the wall with a bottle of bourbon.

And I can imagine watching a tremendous ship headed out to sea, interrupting their conversations in mid-word as the steel blots out the state of South Carolina.  

“I wonder where that [thing] is headed?”

Out here, away from the river and the fort, my 90 thousand metric ton ship is a dot on an ocean that spans an entire hemisphere. We are huge, yet infinitesimal. We crossed the Kamil-Kamchatka trench - 9,800 meters deep. This ship is but a mote… a mere microbe skinning along the surface of a drop of water.

It is the entirety of the world as I know it right now.

And I stand my mid-watch in silence, letting the swirling eddies and gusting zephyrs of the mind carry me where they will.  And I think about my friend.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Yokohama? Hai!

Yokohama is a great little city - I had several meals of the finest sushi I've had in a very long time.  Strangely, a spinach and sesame salad laura and I are fond of (we call it "gomei," spelling notwithstanding) only drew puzzled looks when I asked for it.  Unagi, miso, sashimi, etc. were easily understood by the Japanese-only speaking wait staffs, but the salad was a strike-out.

I visited a 1930 steel ship museum, the training ship "Nippon Maru" - a 97 meter, 4-masted, 2,278 ton sailing ship boasting 29 sails - because of course I did.  It cost 600 yen (about $5).  And I rode a roller coaster that runs its circuitous route around the enormous ferris wheel in the center of the city, also because it was there.  And it was only 700 yen (about $6).  I had thousands of yen in my pocket and one day to spend them all!

My favorite part of Yokohama was Chinatown (surprise).  It was, by far, the world's cleanest Chinatown I've encountered to date!  Cleaner than even Singapore- and not a whiff of durian fruit anywhere.

Our next port of call after Yoko was Pusan, South Korea.  Due to Korean efficiency, we were there eight hours- we came in after dinner and cast off before breakfast.  Blink and you miss it.

We shoved off and crossed the fishing boat infested South China Sea for Qingdao- the port where we empty the ships dumpsters, by hand, into cargo nets which we offload by crane.  Unlike on my last ship, we did not unload onto the dock but onto a barge on the offshore side- the same bunker barge that was fueling the ship.  Bunker barges are usually pristine, well-loved boats that that make us big behemoths look shabby.  Not this one!  I'm sure someone, somewhere, was getting a deal...

I can't imagine who thought it was a good idea to swing crane loads next to a fuel manifold, particularly the one at the bottom of a hose-fall, except someone with a finger in the pie.

From there we drove south, skipping every exit and truck stop along the way, in bumper to bumper traffic until our exit - Interstate Shanghai.  I had first wheel (at midnight)... and this ship drives good... real good!  Two watches on the wheel and one on the bow brought this rig alongside in time for breakfast.

I was hoping for some overtime, but the Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchstanding (STCW in our shorthand) dictates I had worked enough and it was time for me to sleep... so I did.  I failed to put on an alarm, thinking I'd wake up in a few short hours... boy howdy!  Was I mistaken!  I woke up 16 hours later, just in time to depart!

So here I am, just after transiting the Yangtze twice in two days, awake and wired for sound after my normal 1st 4-hour sleep of the day should be almost finished.  Hopefully the post-lunch, dullness-of-company, and boredom of watchstanding will wear me down and my 2nd 4-hour sleep of the day will see me counting sheep... because if not then I'm going to be unhappy at midnight tonight when I spend 4 more hours with my watch partners.

We're on a two man watch until we shoot the Strait of Korea, after "Pusan! Take 2!" and that puts me on watch with both of the ship's septuagenarians- both of whom are contrarian by nature.  I find that I dislike a conversational menu that offers 10 flavors of "Nuh-uh..." I find it to be as frustrating as bargaining with a 2 year old.

So my mind wanders and I don't speak outside the bridgework except in monosyllables.

Which suits me just fine.  I'm only counting down in my head, anyway... everything I had to say was said before I half crossed the Pacific on the way over.