Friday, November 8, 2019

Back In The Saddle Again

After a year of recuperating from an injury on my last ship—a nightmare of mismanagement and dereliction named the Moku Pahu—I jumped at the chance to get back out on the ocean again as soon as the doctors declared me Fit For Duty.  

Spinal damage, nerve damage, and a shoulder pretty much shredded—with a case of frozen shoulder to boot—I unwillingly left my last ship with a Not Fit For Duty almost exactly a year ago. Ten days after I was sent home, one of my sailors fell down an unsecured hatch and had to learn to walk again.

There is jurisdiction on a ship for a reason—sometimes it feels stupid to call the electrician to change a light in my quarters, but it’s his work—it’s his for a reason. When the mate on the Moku Pahu had engineers do a crane lift they didn’t secure the hatch and it was almost manslaughter as a result.  

Doctor appointment after doctor appointment, physical therapy over and over again, MRIs, Xrays, EMGs, chiropractors, massage...and company private investigators “allegedly” following me and taking photos. As well as the nightmare of bureaucratic inertia to wade through attempting to get some sort of financial assistance, like walking against a running current (mariners do not get workers comp)…. all the while I was going through that this last year, I was able to tell myself, “At least I’m not THAT poor bastard!”

At least I didn’t have to learn to walk again.

So I happily flew to Hono and paid for 5 days in the Honolulu Sailor’s Home; I figured it was the first installment for an indeterminate stay of beachside boredom that would lead to a job roughly at about the time I grew sick of being bored on the beach.

Of course, I landed a job the next morning.

The job is a 90-day voyage aboard a two-crane auto-loading containership of 411 feet carrying 700 TEU’s named the Matson Kamokuiki, serving Kwajalein, Ebeye, and Majuro Islands of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Her last run stopped in Darwin, Australia, and Naha, Japan, besides.
I signed-on my third day in Hono at Pier 20 and found a tiny little thing crewed with an unlicensed department of Hawaiians and Filipinos from Washington state, and the typical officer corps of white guys.

As it turns out, the white-guys up on the monkey deck used to operate my last ship, “The Mokee Pokee,” before Matson sent it away to be scrapped. The company that bought that scrapped death-trap reanimated its corpse, and then mismanaged it up onto a Bangladeshi beach upon a wave of lawsuits and firings, have a very different management style lacking the Aloha spirit that greeted me on the Kamokuiki. I can imagine that at one point the “Pokee” had been pure Aloha before it started generating injured sailors and running out of fuel and water in the middle of the ocean.

Anyway, past grievances aside (but not forgiven) and back to my new ship: I was knocked off per the contract at 1500 and went ashore to stock up on groceries. It wasn’t long before I was burdened with several heavy and expensive bags of food, which I determined I’d drop back off at the ship before I continued provisioning.

I was halfway across the dock before I saw there was some sort of problem—had I known exactly what, I’d have turned around and not returned until the late hours of the evening.


The vessel normally ties up starboard side-to, but due to USCG inspections the port engineer requested they tie up port side-to. During bunkering operations (“filling the gas tank” for ships) the black-gang (unlicensed engine department) had moved the manifold hookup (think “gas tank fill pipe”) but didn’t blank off the usual manifold pipe (put the “gas cap” back on it).

The long and short of it?  An unknown quantity of heavy bunker oil sprayed out the manifold pipe with great force and onto everything in its path: main deck, dock, and everything in between.  

No one knows how long it sprayed everywhere, but the Bosun said it took them 30 seconds to stop the pumps after it was discovered.  

Note: This is all hearsay and should be considered such.

Oil spills are all-hands events. My expensive groceries and I were visible and exposed in the middle of the empty concrete pier with nowhere to hide from managing eyes… As I stood motionless, like a deer in the headlights, I was spotted, waved over, and put unceremoniously to work.

Less than 10 minutes later I was up to my elbows in benzene and bitumen. 

We didn’t finish securing what could be secured until midnight. Everyone on the ship and all shoreside personnel spent the night putting heavy bunker oil-soaked kitty litter, oil pads, shovels, rags, etc… into dozens of empty drums.

Today the ship was overrun with “suits.”  Insurance types, pale-faced corporate bean counters with virgin hardhats, USCG personnel, and—incongruously—a random gang of smiling Jehova’s Witnesses that not only somehow found themselves on my ship sharing the word of… well, whatever jibber-de-jabber Jehova’s Witnesses share… but they stood slack-jawed in the most amusing way as we craned stores aboard, so they didn’t elicit the same disdain they might have under normal circumstances.

When I was knocked off today, I got out of there posthaste; now I’m writing this in a coffee shop, avoiding the ship.

But I am fit for duty. I am excited to be underway. I am stoked to visit the Marshall Islands.  And I am hoping this ship gets called back to Australia and Japan again.

Today was my 1,032nd sea day... But who’s counting?

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Stupid Meter Is Buried

Well... the captain is a problem.  That much hasn't changed.

The transit of the Suez was relatively uneventful... we took on the line handlers' boat much in the same manner as I have in the past, back when I was an Ordinary Seaman, except in this case I put them on the hatch covers instead of lashing them to the rail and leaving them hooked up to the crane.  So funny how the last time I came through I was the lowly OS, and this time I'm the gang boss... and how little of a difference it truly seems to make to my experience.

When we let them go, it was fully dark.  I was being rushed by the howlers on the monkey deck (ie. the captain), but I refused to allow the operation to become hurried and unsafe, and everything was smooth and efficient, exactly as I like it... until the captain interrupted the operation at a critical moment.

While lowering the line handlers and their boat off the side of the ship with the large #2 crane, the rail of their skiff got hung on the rail of our ship.  Without immediate action at that precise moment, the skiff would begin to list dangerously (in less than a second), threatening to pitch the linemen out of their skiff and into the water, 40 feet below.

I do audible crane commands on the radio to accompany my hand signals as a general rule of thumb, and in this case - as it was night and flood lights would hamper the ability of the bridge to navigate - I assumed my hand signals in the dark of night were superfluous, but I did them out of habit, anyway.

When the line handlers' boat began to list, I gave the hand signal for "emergency stop," a horizontal slashing of the open hand much like a karate chop, but when I keyed the radio to say "stop," the captain walked on my transmission (talked over me, in effect, with a more powerful radio), telling us that we had to hurry and get them off the ship, NOW.  We were working on the radio channel dedicated for crane ops on #2, not the general ship's channel, so he had to physically go out of his way to interrupt a potentially dangerous operation.

Fortunately, my crane operator is really, really skilled.  And has damned good eyesight.  She stopped at my hand signal, and as a result, two linemen are still alive.

It prompted us (me and the gang) to designate the words "operational safety" as code to go to channel 14, a place nobody would think to go or listen, so if we feel a job requires focus and has a high hazard potential we can do it unmolested by a certain loose cannon.  It also reminded me of the last boat operation where captain crazy-pants tried to kill our security team by losing his mind on the radio and hurrying an already dangerous operation.

From the Suez we went to anchorage in Greece for a couple of days, and then headed in to a Grecian shipyard.

The Greek shipyard workers are fantastic.  They all say good-morning, every morning.  They smile.  They tell us when it's coffee.  They do good work.

Without engaging in hyperbole, my lone female-sailor couldn't pick up so much as a broom without one of them sweeping the spot she intended to clean... or being shamelessly ogled as she operated the stores crane.  At one point I sent her up into the crane to move one of the car-sized grabs and a Grecian worker was incredulous.  I let him know she was the best crane operator on the ship- he raised his eyebrows and said "don't tell my wife."

Regardless of certain 20th century attitudes, they were decent, hard-working (exclusively) men who were really good to this old tub of a boat.

And they did an incredible job.  They blasted and painted the entire house and stacks- working from a walkway suspended by a giant shore crane that swung them around to the impossible to reach places.  They replaced valves deep in the cofferdam tank spaces and the #5 ballast tank.  They welded new fresh water waterline, fire main, and handrails all over the barge and tug.  The crazy-haired Costa, a crane specialist, worked on all the cranes and rebuilt the #2 grab.

And we got some shore time!  I visited the Parthenon... and stumbled upon many of the Athenian relic sites where democracy was first practiced.  I ate Greek food.  But my visit to the grocery store, specifically to the yogurt isle, was the most astounding of all.... Greek Yogurt is not the crap they label "Greek Yogurt" in the US.  It's cheap.  It's sold in terracotta pots, the same pots they pour the cultured milk into to grow, not plastic.  I bought every variety I could find, and the goat and sheep yogurts don't have that gamy taste I detest... if anything, it is milder tasting and higher in fat than its bovine counterpart.

Take that, birthplace of democracy!  Yogurt!  In your face!

I swam, very briefly, in the seasonally cold water of the Mediterranean Sea, where I stepped on an anemone - but so lightly it was without consequence.  And I wandered aimlessly through neighborhoods I felt I could live in for a few months as I explored the rest of the country - in comfort and ease.  I found Greece to be inexpensive and casual, and it was nice to be somewhere so likable that that isn't Asian, for a change.

The last day was frenetic- it began at 0530 and the gang worked into lunch and straight through dinner to lower the lifeboats and test the new davit wires.  There were problems.  I and another sailor were retained to raise and lower the boats, over and over again, until 2200... on empty stomachs.  At one point, the captain had us lower the onshore lifeboat.

I have never lowered a lifeboat over anything but water.  I didn't know it was legal.  I was standing next to the port captain, a man of about 65, and we looked at each other.

I said, stunned, "I have never lowered a lifeboat over a dock, before."

He replied, "I have never, ever, seen this in my entire life."

So... maybe it isn't legal?  I honestly don't know.

We were called out at 0530 for a 0800 let-go the next morning, our scheduled day of departure.  The 2nd Mate, the only woman on board aside from one of my sailors, informed us the mate and the captain had not returned to the ship from the night before.  I mustered the gang, regardless of jokes of them being arrested for disorderly conduct and similar exaggerations, and we put all the cranes to bed, removing umbilical wires and throwing on the storm-chains.  The old man and mate showed up at 0630... and they disappeared very quickly and quietly.

There are NO secrets on a ship... the word was they were lit.

The old man called me into his office at 0930 to deliver some documentation to the agent so they could remove the gangway.  He was pleasant, clearly in a good mood, and slurring his words.

We let go to shift to anchor at 1000, the mood on the ship... incredulous.  I have never been so aware of liability on a ship as I was with a drunk captain on the bridge.

We had what we call in the maritime industry a "near miss" on the bow during let-go.  A "near miss" is when something goes wrong but nothing bad happens.  In this case, the officer on the bow didn't communicate with the tug operator that we weren't "all fast" while trying to secure the tugline eye onto the bit, but the tug operator began to heave in on the tug line, anyway.  The heavy line began to run, and our deck officer was in the bight of the heaving-line.  The "bight" is the part of the line that will snag you, and with a line like that, running out of control as it was, can kill you quickly and messily.

Under normal, fully-manned situations, the mate maintains situational awareness and doesn't get involved in the chores of the bow so much as directs and observes the overall picture of what's going on, communicating with the bridge where in the evolution we are, and makes sure line-handlers, tug deckhands, and crew are clear and safe before working loads are applied to winches, lines, etc..

Of course, on this beast, in order to skirt the requirements for 6 sailors on the ship, the manning dictates the wiper and q-med, unlicensed engine department hands, assist in tie-up and let-go.  They're worse than worthless, normally, because they aren't sailors, and I spend much of my time keeping them safe from the many things that can hurt you on the working deck.

This particular morning the chief engineer refused to let them come out on deck to do their USCG and contractually obligated job.  Because we didn't have the additional back to help heave on the tug line, the officer grabbed it and nobody was able to make sure the job was being done safely and maintaining communication between all involved parties.

I got the running line under control.  We weren't "breathalyzed," as we call it out here- a crude way of saying nobody got hurt and the investigations didn't get underway.  But my disgust, and the disgust of others, still remains.

I wish it stopped there, but the old man is nothing, if not energetic in his pursuit of pissing people off.

While eating dinner tonight after I did meal relief for the helmsman, the captain sat down next to the q-med with a giant tub of ice cream and informed me, between shoveling dessert into his noisy face-hole, that he and the only sailor I don't like on this ship had gone into my quarters and removed a bunch of my personal affects from above my desk so that they could "hook my TV back up."

I don't watch it, even though I am coerced into paying $20 a pay period for it.  I disconnected it.  I don't want it hooked up... my computer gear uses all the electrical spaces and I don't fucking watch it.  And I sure as shit don't want anyone going through my belongings without prior consent.  Did I mention that I don't watch the goddamned thing!?

It is customary, if not required, to get consent first.  Repairs?  You get consent.  Inspection?  You get consent.  It crossed a line with me.

So now I'm blogging while angry, probably not the best thing to be doing.  My options seem incredibly limited, and, therefore, drastic options seem quite plausible.  I called a union meeting for the morning with the gang- hopefully, we're going to use our collective bargaining strength, minus the sailor I don't like, presumably, to leverage some changes.  Or they'll talk me down.  We'll see how it all goes down.

It doesn't change the fact that I'm about to cross the Atlantic with an unfit madman in the wheelhouse.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Hitting the Market, Gannets! And One Great Big Powdered Man-Baby

I spent the time at the Omani anchorage working with the Mate hooking up the big buckets to the cranes.  In what must be one of the most consistent of maritime traditions, my job was complicated by the fact the last person to work on them screwed them up and left an unholy cluster for us to sort out.  The buckets, which we call "grabs," are the size of a VW van.  They hook up to the crane by a power cable called an umbilical.  Finally, there is a wire tensioner that serves to help control the swing of the grabs when it's being slung around loaded with five or so cubic meters of grain.

All three items, on all three cranes, were in utter disarray- each crane had it's own set of unique problems, and at one point I became so frustrated with the Mate (who became increasingly intransigent in response) that we stopped talking in a huff.  He's a bigger man than me- after coffee he fired up his diplomatic skills and mustered my cooperation, and soon we were back to wise-cracking as we worked.  We got all three cranes back in fighting order in two days, and I learned some good management attitudes and behaviors.

A wind carried grasshoppers, crickets, and locusts across the water from land and it was rather pleasant to hear them on deck at night.  During the day a type of bird, almost raptor-like, flew irradically through the smallest of spaces on deck, at high speed, turning frequently, assumingly gobbling up the grasshoppers, crickets, and locusts.  They have white circles on tops of the wings, and bodies that flatten out when the stop and land, but I have no worthy internets with which to hunt for what they might be.

We picked up the hook and went into Oman Saturday night, heaving at 2015.  By 0330 we'd tied up, swung out the #1 and #3 cranes, and opened hatches 1 and 5.  On a normal ship that would have been a day... we'd have slept in and turned to at 1300 while the longshoremen did their thing.  But this isn't a normal ship.  By 0900 we were taking on voyage stores, offloading garbage (including 2 months worth of non-jettison-able crap from my evening project - the forepeak, and 9 old mooring lines - about 6400 feet of 3.5" eight strand polyolefin), and cooking in the 98 degree middle eastern sun.

The payoff for the brutal schedule was a trip into Salalah.  I went by shuttle with the crew to a great, big, western style mall full of men shopping.  The women I saw were in full, black burkas, only their eyes visible, and they sat together drinking tea, apart from the shopping men.  I split off from the crew with two of my sailors (a man and a woman) and we all agreed a mall wasn't the Salalah we wanted to experience, so we took a taxi to a traditional Omani market.

The taxi driver, Muhammad, was very proud of Oman.  He worked for the government part time, and spent a great deal of time singing about her virtues.  When we bought foods in the market, he would intervene and haggle the prices down, much to the chagrin of the barkers.  When we requested a suggestion for traditional Omani food, he took us to a place I wouldn't have gone into for all the anti-diarrheal medicine in the world.

And it was utterly fantastic.  We hurt ourselves eating.  A local fish I particularly liked melted like butter in my mouth and reminded me of a type of tuna I had in Saipan that was all yellow and nothing but fat, but this Omani fish was dark and was fried in the local spices.  Oddly, nobody knew what its English name was- it seemed to have a name in every language, except.

I arrived back at the ship with two traditional hat-like pieces of Omani headdress, dates, grapes, apples, oranges, a specific local specie of banana, 4 kilos of coffee varieties that have turned out to be rather perfect, and a cheap knife with a camel on the sheath made in Pakistan, the blade of which is covered in Arabic writing.

A cyclone was headed directly for Salalah, so we knuckled down and after only three days of relentless work, offloaded all cargo, closed the hatches, and we threw off the mooring lines and headed through pirate waters, through Babel Mandeb, and up the Red Sea toward Suez.  Seems my wishes have been answered... we will continue west, retarding our clocks with the time changes and getting an extra hour of sleep (yay!) every 15 degrees of longitude, all the way to Houston. 

That is, if you believe everything you're told.

The other option I hear mentioned is a shipyard in Greece... a prospect so awesome it is clearly nothing more than an unobtainable carrot enticing us toward utter disappointment, like a mirage in the desert.

I was rather pleased to see one of my favorite seabirds, gannets, come alongside yesterday and dive into the wake on either side of the bow.  Unlike their lazy cousin, the booby, gannets have a yellow bill and they don't suffer on a diet of flying fish, alone... they'll dive and swim as far as 30 meters below the surface after fish... a pretty rad and bad bird, by any account.

I was not pleased to discover the new captain is a big, fat man-baby.  While dropping off the security team and their machine guns and other gear to a waiting boat last night at 2300, his lack of professionalism endangered myself, the security team, and the boat operators. 

He berated the 3rd mate on the radio the entire operation, at one point threatening him, at another delivering ultimatums, insisting the security team go down the ladder at the same time we were swinging the gear down.  He sounded like a schoolyard bully.  The skiff had an overhead that would crush the crew if it rolled, but the operators wanted to take the gear from the relative safety of that spot before positioning the skiff to take the crew on the bow (using retractable lanyards and other safety gear to compensate for the increased exposure up there). 

Instead, we stopped loading gear, they re-positioned the skiff and took on the crew, then took the last of the gear on the bow, which was dicey.  The operator was pissed.  I was disgusted and feeling like I had acquired a vendetta, in the same fashion one might acquire an STD.  My helmsman, who listened to all this while steering the ship, said she was "traumatized." 

I told the Mate today I am going to get fired; if this new captain puts me in another unsafe situation like that I'm gunning for him.  It'll cost me my job, but I'll go home with all my fingers and toes.  I think the crew is unanimously in agreement.  My gang threatened what we call "a suitcase party," which is where the whole crew quits as one- which finds its way in front of the Labor Relations Board pretty damned quickly and is seen as a catastrophic failure.  I have no fucks to give, whatsoever- the man is not fit to command, and I miss my woman and my bed and my boat and my truck and being clean and good food and days and days off... I'm feeling mad enough about the mistreatment this ship deals out regularly that this additional thumb in my eye is simply intolerable.

Next, the Suez Canal.  It's been a few years, and that was on a much more professionally run ship... I'm fairly certain this is gonna be a super, duper, especially special transit.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Far Side of the Indian Ocean

I got the grandest compliment I've had in a long time: "This is almost like a normal ship, now."

I wish I could say the Coral had been this bad, but it wasn't... it took me about 4 months (out of my 6 total) on that girl to set her to rights... I feel like I'm far ahead of schedule, comparatively, here on the Mokey Pokey.  Good captain, the new mate has been good, my sailors have been good... and we're always underway, never in port doing cargo...

I felt it too soon to leave Singapore when we did, but we'd done all we could work-wise so clearly it was a personal feeling.

Back into the routine of being underway: Start at 0530, knock off at 2000.  I take soundings before breakfast; I watch the sun come up while I send a glorified tape measure down each specialized hole that lets me know how much water is in the "rose boxes" (bilges) and ballast tanks.

I have my 4x8 and my 12x4 man to work from 0800 to 1200; at 1300 my 8x12 man (in this case, woman) is on deck until 1700.  I do meal relief for the helmsman at 1645 - 1715.  Nobody bothers me one iota between 1800 and 2000, as if they know my personality... I get more done in those two hours than I do all day.

We took on 4 security crew off the coast of Sri Lanka.  They are Greek.  Dark eyed, quick-to-smile killers who speak little English.  They hang out on deck with their shirts off.  The two women on board don't mind, as far as I can tell.

They brought on AK-47s, 1000 rounds of ammo, and stand 3 hour watches.

Bringing them on, however, was a challenge.  I had the pilot ladder set up to send the 4 temp crew off and take on the killers; I had the stores crane rigged with all the luggage in a net on the stern.  Switching the crews out was challenging because the boat operator sucked- it took almost a half hour, thanks to his incompetence.

Then the Sinhalese refused to let us use the crane to offload and take on gear because there was a raw-water exhaust on the stern (nowhere near the area of work, btw), so I got to hump all the luggage up the 2 narrow ladders on the stern of the tug and back down the front of the house to the tug's bow.

Have I mentioned there are only three other sailors (all watchstanders) and myself on this boat?

Needless to say, by the time I'd moved all that shit I was angry at that boat operator.

I moved all that gear, then instructed the 3rd Mate and the crew NOT to discharge or take on luggage over the water without a line.  That I was getting the line.  That they were to stand by until the Deck Boss (me, you sullen, shifty-eyed dogs) OK'ed the exchange of gear with the secured methods that I was setting up.

I got back with a suitable luggage line and the Sinhalese, in their impatience, had brow-beat the 3rd Mate and the waiting security guys into passing the gear over the rail, contrary to my instructions.

I called the Sri Lankans' names, berated anyone within hearing for disobeying my instructions, and out-angered the hostile crew of the launch.  I called their mothers names, I called the mate names, and I shouted them down... down to a one.  My way or highway.  It got so heated they sent a man on deck with a machine gun to glare at me.  The new Greek commandos, however, liked my style, and they all started yelling at the Sri Lankans "Do your fucking job!" and it struck me, at that moment, as the highest available comedy that life has to offer.

Once the gear was transferred, properly, while we awaited the ship stamp and payment, I exchanged "goddamn that was funny" looks with the Launch deckhand and their shooter; they agreed with a look and a smirk, and at that point I could have gone home with them, met their families, and tossed their infants into the air for all the animosity they carried after business was completed.

This is the first ship for this third mate and I'm certain that way of doing business was traumatizing.  I didn't realize it, but the same struggle always presents itself for every accommodating vessel and they'd all trained me how to interact appropriately.  I was completely correct to lay down the law, but in the real world (on shore) it would have been... a little bit over the top.  But seriously- who was gonna get blamed if they dropped a machine gun into the drink?  Yeah.  Me.  I was not going to be remembered as "that dumb-ass."

Unbeknownst to me, the old man and mate watched from the bridge wing.  The helmsman came down to help me haul gear aboard per their instruction.  They were all weirdly silent about the way I handled things, afterward, but it has felt like my deck, fair and square, ever since; and nobody has disputed that.  The old man has acted mildly amused and hasn't seen fit to venture out where I work... which I take as the highest praise I'll ever get from the monkey deck.

We transited the pirate waters of the Arabian Sea and we're now sitting at anchor (in an anchorage where ships have actually been taken by pirates), in Salalah, Oman.  At any second we could get the call to go to dock... so we've pretty much got port prep done.  We're prepping for cargo.  We're ready to tie up and hit the Arabian markets.