Saturday, April 25, 2020

Down, Down, Down Under

I brought in two good ahis—a 30-lb "big-eye" and a whopping 50-plus lb yellowfin that two other sailors had to help me bring aboard. I also caught a 3-foot long barracuda—but we were advised not to eat it due to a horrible parasite that can afflict you with initial food poisoning followed by months of joint pain, paresthesia, dizziness, headaches, and other such unpleasantness. And then, a gorgeous, blue aku "skipjack" the Hawaiians have been drying in the sun as time permits.

I would rather have been in the water, seeing them swim by, curiously eyeing me, than clubbing them and taking off their heads... but I have to admit, I was the man for the job, just as much as the Island boys are the men for making the sashimi, poke, and dried aku.

Our BBQs and fishing lines are a way to pretend that this isn't a joyless ride on a neglected ship while the rest of the world is locked down from the plague of Covid-19.

The fishing and the BBQs are all just bandaids over the wound of management that blights this ship, wounds that slowly fester. By the time we got to Australia, the BBQs had stopped, ruined by top-down inspired acrimony.

My time with this captain and mate aboard from November through January dissolved into my refusal of any and all overtime. I chose to withhold my labor and get paid 1/3rd of my daily wages rather than let them benefit from my work. The other sailors did likewise.

It was an embarrassment. The relieving captain and mate—who I like and respect very much—were appalled. It raised a lot of eyebrows at the company and in the union hall, alike.

With these two back aboard, and as a result of the return, their personal dislike of me has sharpened and I believe their actions have become personal vendettas that all the sailors suffer for.

They began by changing how my department operates. On this ship, with only 4 sailors, the only way to do sanitation on this ship AND maintain the deck equipment is to have the sailors do sanitation while "on watch," then turn to and do maintenance on overtime.

They refused to allow the sailors to do sanitation on watch. We're required to do sanitation by contract, so they have to do it on overtime. Which leaves no time to maintain the deck equipment.

All the preventative maintenance items were 3-9 months overdue. Equipment was failing during mooring operations. The manning requirements to have unlicensed engine department personnel on deck to assist in mooring operations are repeatedly violated, and my complaints fall on deaf ears.

The mate kept assigning sailor's contractual work to the engine department; violations of jurisdiction is specifically what led to the life-threatening injuries to my delegate on the Moku Pahu.

I wrote a grievance that spelled out how the unilateral changes to my department was rendering the ship unsafe, and took it to the captain to give him the opportunity to fix it, per our contract.

The delegate, the chief mate, and I spent an hour and a half in the captain's office. All my solutions were shot down. The management tried to "explain away" the issues... going so far as to tell me "we feel the sailors are taking advantage of us" and disparaging the work they do. One item that seemed to infuriate the chief mate was that the sailors "do the same thing every day!" and what drew his particular ire was that the sailor sweeping the stairs was sweeping the stairs. It literally enraged him.

The list of items sailors are to do is specific. His task is to "sweep the stairs every day. Mop every other."

In order to get an extra 3-hours of maintenance on deck, we agreed to reduce the amount of sanitation we were doing and they agreed to let the sailors do an hour of sanitary on watch.

Normally, when we turn in our overtime, the mate uses a red pen to mark items he objects to paying. They're usually quite petty and can be "papered over" by how the sheets are written. We turn them in and we get our redlines back the next day.

The entire time the delegate, the chief mate, and I were in the captain's office, I could see the sailor's hours, redlined, on the captain's table.

At that point, 2e hadn't been give our redlines back for almost 3-weeks.

Afterward, it fed the speculation that the extra hour of overtime they authorized was going to be removed on the backside of the agreement we hammered out.

And we didn't see redlines from March 24th until April 20th, the last day of voyage 28... and when we did, it looked like a child had had a tantrum with a red crayon.

Thousands of dollars each, erased out of spite. The remedy will now be months in the making, if we're lucky.

They act not in good faith to the contract we sail under, and they acted not in good faith to their word in our negotiations.

The gang is now openly hostile towards the officers. The chain of command has become what we refer to as an error chain—a situation that leads to other errors that can result in incidents.

The hits keep on coming.

At a Drill and Safety meeting on the bridge, the captain told us we'd be departing for either Oakland or the Philippines. Two hours later his night orders said: "Chief Mate, as per the email I BCC'd you on, I need to know how many 40' containers we can load in Shanghai. (____) gives a weight to use for calculation. We will load more than 3 high on deck. In fact, plan on loading 4 high everywhere except the wings, and see what we can load fwd of the house. The more we say we can load, the better the chance that the office goes for it."

There are no less than 3 liner ships that go to Shanghai—each one of them could fit the entire cargo capacity of this ship without even affecting their drafts. It's stupid and wasteful, and putting that in the night orders for sailors to see merely serves to yank the chain of dogs already confined to chains.

We are restricted to the vessel by the company, which means every hour we're off while in port we get paid overtime. If a government declares us restricted, we get nothing... but "it is incumbent upon the master" to provide this letter to us.

No letter. Just redlines. He told the entire crew the company would pay it the week prior.  Thousands more dollars moved from payable into limbo.  

The union and the company assure us there is an "ongoing investigation" into this misfeasance, but I've heard it all before.

The results of my last "investigation" from 2019 got buried in the union VP's inbox. When my rep and I called him, he didn't have the faintest idea what the contract says about the issues. The "investigation" before that, from November of 2018, was summarized as "if you hire an attorney, the union will do nothing to help you." 

The electrician keeps posting a "Morale-O-Meter" on the whiteboard on the poopdeck... it is erased within minutes. Someone wrote "Kiljoy" as the captain on the sailing board.  

The greatest deflation of morale, however, comes in the form of the response to Covid-19: there are no flights out of Australia to the United States.

No less than 7 people would have walked off this ship the day we arrived in Darwin... fed up enough to break articles and pay their own way home.

We depart in a few hours, to where we don't entirely know. The sailing board says San Francisco.  

We'll see.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

At Long Last - The Oz

When I flew home from my 115 days aboard the Kamokuiki, I needed 5 days on a class 1 ship to get a year's health insurance for me and mine.

Because I had my 1080 sea days enabling me to sit for my 3rd/2nd Mate Any Gross Tons, 500/1600 Master of Oceans license, I immediately enrolled in classes and filled out my USCG paperwork within 10 days of being home.

Don't waste time- strike while the iron is hot!

I figured at some point after sitting for the tests, a 30-day relief job would find me and I'd go out and get the insurance days I needed.

Well, I got called. Exactly two weeks after my 48 hour flight home from Malaysia, I spent another 72 hours flying back.

Within my two-and-a-half weeks away from the ship, the Malaysians had robbed all the rooms, used all the paper goods (or stolen them), and walked off with anything that wasn't bolted down. It was pathetic.

There was no food. There was no power. There was no air conditioning. There were no stores... no trash bags, no coffee, no gloves or hardhats, no paper cups.

Thank god there was toilet paper.

Worse yet, however, was the Malaysian government closed the border the midnight we arrived. I never had a chance to get coffee. I never bought that cheap guitar from one of the 3 music shops I'd researched. I couldn't even buy my own groceries.

It took two days to get stores aboard. We ate cold take-out that arrived on a launch boat with the Malaysian workers until voyage stores did arrive, and as I swung two pallets aboard I asked myself, "where's the rest of it?"

As I directed the gang to put the stores away, the steward and I looked at each other and shared a "holy shit" moment-- it wasn't enough food.

We departed the next day to an anchorage where we would take on fuel. Nine shots of barnacle- and mud-encrusted chain into the locker. Sail an hour. Drop 6 shots. Pull it all back up again two hours later.

We finally left for Japan after everyone was exhausted and fed up, a 6 angry-days of transit north. Breakfast was rationed. Stewie would give me updates on how tight we were and if we were going to make it. We ran out of eggs on day 3.

My sailors break down as one haolie with about 500 days of seatime, and two young island boys who just got their able seaman tickets. The big Hawaiian - we're talking a big smiling sumo wrestling islander - has just gotten his AB ticket and has only sailed as an ordinary seaman.

In short: They're fairly inexperienced. It is a small crew of 4 sailors (myself included) and I have more seadays than all of them combined. As the bosun I am the only day man- the three of them are watchstanders.

I immediately put them to work doing sanitary in the house. This is the landscape that COVID-19 has delivered me to deal with, so I put them to work using Lysol on all the doorknobs, handrails, common sink handles, toilets, and eating areas... in addition to their normal sweeping, mopping, and cleaning.

The planned voyage was a transfer of cargo from Guam to Manila (immediately nixed), and one from Japan to Australia, then take the ship back to Malaysia.

But there was a glaring issue: How were we going to get home if the ship was being laid up in a country we couldn't travel through? Malaysia had shut its borders to everyone--including us.

I asked the old man during a crew-wide meeting and he got flippant. "On an airplane!" he joked. He doubled down when I asked again. Then he admitted he had no idea when I tripled down and insisted on an answer.

He clearly hadn't thought about it and he didn't want to.

So I called the president of my union and asked him. He said he'd "look into it." Based on my previous experience with my union, "looking into it" was the equivalent to "never give it another thought for the rest of my goddamned life" and I seriously began to fret - their lack of forethought was going to strand us.

And the crew talked about it. Disgruntled from lack of food and stores, then enraged by the nickel and diming of our overtime, the mood was akin to a powderkeg.

When we arrived in Japan days later, I went to the old man and quit.

"You can't quit!" he screamed.

"Yet here I am quitting" I yelled back.

"You'll be thrown in jail!" he threatened me.

"On who's authority?" I asked.

Back and forth for 5 minutes, we shouted until he flatly denied me access to the military base where we were tied up.
I stormed out of his office as he was dialing the labor relations board of the company.
 
By the time I got down to the main deck he came on the radio, hailed the chief engineer, and said, "Hey Chief... change of plans. We're laying up in Oakland when we're done. I need you to revise our fuel."
 
Seconds later my favorite person in the union called, so I answered it, expecting some support.  
 
"You're being a spoiled cunt," he told me.
 
So the yelling began again, this time with people who I feel are supposed to have my back.  When you have no food, no gloves, no cleaning supplies, inadequate stores, are denied the overtime you need to run the ship safely... well, if you're not there to stand with me then what in the hell are you there for?
 
Stores came the next day- 7 pallets. More Lysol. Nitrile and jersey gloves.  Touch-free thermometers. A security watch protocol with 100% screening of shoreside crew, longshoremen included.
 
I paid off the International Seaman Center's guy to pick me up some supplies to keep my sailors happy: 10 cases of beer, 10 bottles of rum, 3 bags of BBQ briquettes, and about 50 lbs of pork and beef ribs, and chicken wings.
 
We departed for another dock 5 hours away, then departed again after cargo 3 hours later. The watchstanders were burned on STCW rest requirements instantly. Then we anchored the following morning, and departed again that afternoon...
 
Funny thing on this boat-- the last shot of anchor chain won't fit in the locker without "help," so I have to go down into the chain locker and wrestle the chain so it doesn't pile up.
 
By funny I mean- ain't right. Chain is heavy. It's hotter than burning phosphorus down in the chain locker, and more humid than a fish's sauna.  
 
All the barnacles we'd pulled out of the Malaysian anchorage had festered and an infestation of flies and maggots had taken over. The smell was almost 50% the stink of Karachi - and that's pretty foul, right there.
 
And then we were underway for real... the flies, maggots, stink and all.
 
First night out I fired up the BBQ and threw on some ribs. Only the third mate showed up. It was cold, the wind was about 50 knots, and squalls kept blowing through.  I burned the meat, but we ate it out of principle.
 
The next night I did the same. I threw out the fishing lines (even though we're going too fast to catch mahi), fired up the BBQ, and the gang showed up, the black gang showed up, and several officers.  The weather was agreeable.
 
Third night the same.  
 
So now we're in the groove of things and the rage has given way to tedium. The watchstanders are exhausted (it took me years to figure out how to get enough sleep as a watchstander), the tropical heat is bearing down for real, and all I do is work and drink water.
 
And right now we're crossing the equator, which makes me officially a Shellback. All these seadays and countless nautical miles and I'm just now a Shellback. But nobody aboard is particularly excited.
 
The second mate is putting together the voyage plan for our return to Oakland from Darwin, and the old man has set one waypoint in particular-- the point where the IDL (the international date line, or the Prime Meridian's anti-meridian) and the Equator meet.
 
When we cross that point we all become Golden Shellbacks - a very rare sea-going achievement. If that happens, I do believe the whole crew will be very stoked, indeed.
 
I might even have to get that tattoo.

Note:  Those that cross the Prime Meridian and Equator at the same time are "Emerald Shellbacks."
 

Saturday, February 29, 2020

That's How We Rogue

We departed Kwajalein for Guam- I guess my reckoning in my last post about what to do with a ship full of empty containers was right on that one. While China was removed from the possible list of places we could find ourselves, so was Darwin and Naha. A win and a loss, equalling zero.

The trip from Kwajalein to Guam was notable for the amount of alcohol and mayhem taking place as our ship full of empty containers rolled uncomfortably in low seas and moderate swells, her righting moment so high that we snapped from side to side without a tender moment. The amount of work that got done coincided with the sobriety of the mate and bosun, so for every busy day there was a slow day.

The two Hawaiian sport fishermen - the bosun and the oiler - pulled up Mahi Mahi (dorado) from the stern on hand lines and make-shift out-riggers as we slow-belled between islands; they BBQ'd the catch (that, or meat raided from the freezer) daily. The picnic table on the poop deck became the official scuttlebutt where everyone came to find out or share the latest info on what our possible schedule would be, like we’re a tramp.
The jury-rigged out-rigger for a fishing line
Mahi Mahi, aka dorado
The Port of Guam was busier than I’ve ever seen it, and when we tied up at that familiar pier we were alongside the APL Guam, the only ship I’ve sailed on more uncomfortable than this one. The Guam was uncomfortable for her small size and her tendency to roll mercilessly; my current ship, the Kamokuiki, looks positively tiny when seen alongside her, however.

I got one grocery run done and a quick swim in my snorkel spot before departing. No one was happy about the short stay. It was enough to dampen the mood a little, but the weather was nice and the chief mate restocked the dwindled grog supplies, so the dampened mood dried out quickly and soon the BBQ’s were fully manned while I was on my 4x8 watch. I would yell down to them from the bridge wing, and one night the mate broke out a hose and gave them some rain.

And then the flat seas decided to do what flat seas do: unflatten.

I went to bed one night after a watch spent on an ocean made of glass. I woke a little after 0100 when the bow was slapped by a sizable swell, causing the ship to pitch and roll noticeably. We didn’t stop rolling after that hit, and by morning everyone had lost any sleep gains they might have enjoyed from the previous nights’ smooth sailing.

After a morning watch spent rolling 25 degrees, I went below to secure my quarters and my work assignment. The tile for my head repair job was out on an upper deck in a bucket (the main deck and poop deck were secured for weather), and as I poured off the soapy water the flooring had been soaking in, the ship rolled so severely I began sliding across the deck. The 30 or so cases of bottled water stored on that deck soon followed.
Snap-rolling along.  This is approx. 12-15 degrees of roll.
The rogue wave that hit us caused us to take two complete 40-45 degree rolls. As I slid across deck all I saw was the inhospitable Philippine Sea where I normally see sky. After the first roll stopped and wound back up for the second, larger roll, I managed to get into a safe spot with a solid grip on steel, and when the cases of water slid past on the second roll I could see how poorly I might have fared had I not ducked behind a bulkhead and braced.

The bottles broke apart on the rail and many of them went immediately overboard.

The fridge in my secured quarters spilled it’s fresh stocks of yogurt and milk onto the deck and an avocado burst. The Bosun met me in the passageway with a pile of trash bags and while he went down to the mess hall, I went to the bridge - both places looked destroyed.

We lost all our plates down below, of course (I only saw paper plates and bowls after that). All the condiments hit the deck and went everywhere. Chairs and microwaves flew; one microwave didn’t survive.

Up on the bridge where I helped clean up, our bucket of used coffee grounds mixed with broken mugs, manuals, charts, pens, a blender, and more- all of which hit the deck on the first roll and then slid, mixed, and piled up against the bulkhead on the second.

Oddly, all the mess on the bridge seemed to pile up on the port side bridge wing door while I’d almost gone over on the starboard side.

One sailor face-planted into a bulkhead and complained for a week about pain. The store room was knee deep in fire extinguishers, mattresses, line, valves, safety gear, and fasteners. The dry stores was a pile of cans, bags, and bottles.

The deck gang responded en masse and within a couple hours it was impossible to tell anything untoward had happened… but it was my second encounter with a rogue wave and I will not forget it anytime soon. A 30 degree roll is what it takes to throw me out of bed; a 40 is enough to remember.

We arrived at the anchorage in LaBuan, Malaysia, without any further incident.

The last week was spent securing the ship for layup. We made canvas covers for vents; disposed of expiring food, stores, and medicine; cleaned and waxed decks; crane lifted generators and fuel aboard; and we accommodated the Malaysian crew now living aboard the ship in a house they constructed of mahogany studs and luan marine ply on the deck where our scuttlebutt BBQ had been.
Boats of LaBuan harbor
M/V Kamokuiki at anchor, as seen from the launch
What a sailor does with spare airplane parts, LaBuan harbor
Lamp post in an estuary of Malaysia
I'm pretty sure this boat is from Sumatera - Boats of LaBuan Harbor
Boats of Labuan Harbor
Supply vessels at anchor in the petroleum services harbor, LaBuan 
Those inclined toward drink, drank. A lot. The rest of us hid in our rooms or stuffed our faces with the last of our food, not wanting any of it to go to waste.

The flight back to Seattle involved a prop plane, three jets, 40 hours of airport travel, and having my papers inspected two dozen times by the immigration officials of every country I skipped and hopped through to get back to the USA.

I arrived home yesterday morning, but now trying to recount it all, it seems like a dream… a coma dream… something that all happened to someone else or not at all. It’s as if I went to sleep last night and had a vivid dream, then woke up this morning tired, sore, and distracted.

With a foul mouth.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

A Return To Normalcy

Things change. Rapidly.

The last captain and chief mate went down the gangway without saying goodbye or exchanging contact info with anyone. They left the ship a mess and morale in the gutter.  

Good riddance.

We sailors were refusing any and all non-mandatory overtime in retaliation for the refusal to pay for work performed. Trash cans were overflowing, an infestation of midges had taken hold, and--as if in solidarity with our collective actions against management--the two dozen boobies that spent the entire transit from Kwajalein to Hawaii repainting the deck forward with guano came aft and did something I’ve never seen before: they repainted the bridge and bridge windows a dull, guano-gray.

The ship’s refrigeration also failed 8 hours out of Hono.  By the time we made it to Kwajalein, everything had thawed.  By the time we left Kwajalein, there was no fresh produce, no dairy, and the cook was serving rancid meat.

The new captain and mate came on and looked like a couple of deer in headlights, visibly stunned by the mess that outgoing management left them.  

Unlike the last captain and mate, however, these new guys are competent. It didn’t take three days to have the ship’s house clean--wheelhouse windows included. It took another week to put some semblance of order to the ship’s stores and inventory - like throwing out the spoiled food and increasing the amount of fresh food brought aboard. And they finally finished uncovering the bulk of the paperwork nightmare.  

All of this just in time to lay the ship up. The shipping line’s Marshall Island run will be done at the end of this half of the voyage.

And that’s where things get more interesting.

We don’t know where we’re going. We’ve been told to be ready for China, the Philippines, Australia, Longbeach, Oakland, Japan, Guam, and even Honduras (I’m not buying that particular one at all).

And just as we got ready for Xiamen and Ningbo, a ship that went through there became infected with the latest disease dujour - SARS part 2, the Wuhan Coronavirus--and everyone is waving us off and captains are refusing to go there.  

My watch partner, the chief mate, has had me run the watch like I am the mate in charge. I don’t think I could have a better, more opportune go at this kind of on-the-job training; I have also now reached the sea time required to sit for my 3rd/2nd Mate Any Gross Ton Any Waters licensing.

I am plotting the DR (dead reckoning) points and positions on the paper charts, keeping up with the log book, logging our position/speed/rpm/weather, manoeuvering… all while he gleefully looks forward to making me sweat when I encounter traffic in any of the possible destinations floating around on the wind.

I am hoping for Guam, Darwin, Naha, then to Borneo to lay the ship up, personally.

Two things happened so far this voyage that haven’t ever happened on any ship I’ve been on: I steered out of Majuro’s atoll with a chilled coconut in one hand (thank you very much, CM) and the whole ship gathered for a BBQ and superbowl party on the main deck when we should have been working (thank you captain). Mind you, the CM was doing cargo, but the rest of the crew was free to have a real party (with beer provided by the ship’s fund).

And now we’re in Ebey. We shifted from Kwajalein this morning, and we’ll shift back in two days- collecting all the empty containers on the islands. If I were in the head office and looking for the cheapest way to get these boxes filled with valuable manifest cargo, I’d take them straight to Guam, where ALL my other ships on the China run already go.

But if they decide to lay us up in Oakland instead of Borneo….

What if… what if… what if.

I will know as soon as we depart Kwajalein Atoll… I suspect the HQ isn’t gonna tell us anything until we’re beyond the point of no return, but once we hit the high seas I’ll know exactly what the end of my voyage looks like. 

Fingers crossed it isn’t going to be China.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Kwajelein Atoll Snorkeling

I got a GoPro!

I Shake My Fist

Jarring.  Incoherent.  Unpredictable.  Abusive.


The adjectives to describe the way this ship handles the sea are numerous, but none of them are flattering.


Right now we are pounding into the waves.  Technically, we are “quartering” them, meaning approaching them at about 45 degrees to effectively increase the period of the swells, thereby reducing the pounding on the ship… instead, we are pounding through them like a hammer with an added bit of a roll.


Each time we ram into a swell, shock-waves run back and forth the length of the ship.  It forces a sailor to walk with legs wide, taking short, uncertain steps, because while the shockwave interval is known, the next swell on the bow is not; it hits randomly.  It could be the next swell, or the next 5 in a row.  


The swells aren’t in time with the shockwaves running up and down the ship.  The roll is similarly unpredictable. The whole motion is simply damnable and wearying.


So we are forced to walk like fat, drunken penguins; every few minutes or so, one of these random swells punches the ship’s nose and we get thrown into the nearest protrusion, and because this is a steel ship, that means the protrusion is steel.  I am covered with bruises and sore spots.


I call it “the shaken baby” syndrome.  


One particularly bad strike picked up my mug and shattered it on the deck.  Nothing else on the ship was damaged. Only the obliteration of my mug marked the passing of a rogue that seemingly gave my coffee addiction the middle finger, and nothing more.


Other times we’ll roll and every immovable object makes a break for it and starts across the deck and the sound of falling brooms, sliding cases of water, toilet lids falling, and other bedeviled objects animated to do harm or mischeif fills the ship.


I lay in my bunk, unable to sleep, and shake my fist at the sea, but the sea doesn’t care- it just shakes me back.  

Friday, January 3, 2020

New Year, Same Same

We're steaming into Majuro today at 1430.  7 days of ever increasing swells and up to 30 degree rolls... Sleep has been elusive and I am pretty tired.


Rumor is the ship will be laid up after next voyage until the company can figure out a better place for her.  The rumor is also that we'll be going to Australia. And that we won't.


I was telling the second mate a story a shipmate told me once as his explanation of why he quit drinking, when the chief mate exclaimed "Hey! That was my first ship!" both corroborating the story, and giving me further details.


I'll call the former shipmate George.  I wrote about him before in great detail, probably back in 2013- but not this story (there was so much else to tell this slipped by the wayside).


George was a relief bosun on a ship at anchor.


According to George, he had been out drinking and was so drunk that he'd somehow, um... for lack of a delicate way to put it, "defecated himself."


When he tried to get on the launch to go back to the ship, the launch driver refused him.  A vocal argument ensued, and soon the police were called to the scene.


When George's executive officer showed up to take the launch back to the ship, he stumbled upon the altercation and intervened, telling the police that he'd take George to a hotel, get him cleaned up, and get him back to the ship the next day.


The police, relieved at not having to arrest a belligerent drunk man covered in his own filth, or have him inside their police car, found this arrangement quite satisfactory, so off to a hotel George and his executive officer went.


George was on the first launch back to the ship the next morning.  He was wearing work boots, a sheet wrapped around him as a toga, and a backpack.  Standing next to him was the shipping companies auditor.


As the launch came alongside the ship, George hiked his toga up and flashed the crew - one and all - including my current chief mate, who was standing on the deck of what was then his first ship; he had been sent to the gangway to escort the company auditor to the captain's office.


The part of the story that best describes the entirety of the maritime industry, however, is that it doesn't end with the sentence "And then he was fired."  


He wasn't.  George was getting off at the next port and it was too much work to fire him.  When he went down the gangway at the next port it was as if the entire incident hadn't happened.


Speaking of characters... I'm trying to engineer getting Peter, the guy whose tourettes syndrome catch-phrase is "Hooters! Oink! Oink!" on this ship as an AB.  I've stressed to him how he should try for the 4x8 watch - the chief mate's watch - and through my engineering efforts I've learned a little more about him.


He's sailed with this chief mate before on the Moku Pahu (the ship that broke me) as the chief steward.  He has always said his catch-phrase, apparently- it's not a new thing in a string of things that comes and goes... he has always punctuated his sentences with "Hooters!"


As a chief steward he managed to serve stuffed pasta so often that the captain required him to get his menu ok'd every night before preparing for the next day.  When asked why he wasn't cooking steak he said he didn't have any... apparently he didn't know he had to pull the meat out of the freezer and cut it into steaks so he believed that he didn't have any.


He didn't know how to cook actual meat.


If it came in a box or a can, he served it; if it didn't, it was as if it simply didn't exist.  Day in and day out, meal after meal. Week after week. Month after month.


And no, surprisingly enough, he wasn't fired.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Marshall Islands

I’m not really sure I’ve visited the Marshall Islands, even though I just spent 9 days there.


Our first port was the Kwajalein military base on Kwajalein Atoll.  It has all the trappings of a slice of paradise - salt water olympic sized pool, library, coffee shop, grocery store, department store, beach bar, etc… all contained within WWII era concrete and delivered with the bureaucratic flair of the US military that renders to mediocrity everything it touches.  


And, also like all things military I have encountered since joining the supply train of the US military industrial complex that is the Merchant Marines - there is an undercurrent that gives me the shivers: Forced smiles, terse pleasantries, conversations that wander to nowhere, and a predominance of avoided eye-contact and impersonality… I suppose living there must be like being trapped at a workplace after-hours party every single day.


The locals arrive to service the US military and its contractors by ferry from the next island over in the atoll, Ebey.  The locals are poor, brown, and paid a fraction of what their white, non-indiginous part-time inhabitants receive. They drink a lot, chew betel nut, and have a remarkably high suicide rate.


When I wasn’t working I found myself quite often at the pool, swimming in the salt water, watching the thousands of hermit crabs and lizards, or using the wifi to do email and pay bills.  Next time I am going to go shark hunting or die of boredom.


I rented a golf cart ($7 an hour) a couple times to go exploring the island.  It’s small, about half the size of my native Tybee Island. Half of the island is taken up by the airfield.  To the south is the golf course. To the north are the family accomodations. The port, ferry terminal, and town is right in between the two.


Bicycles are everywhere.   People ride everywhere on the island- the only vehicles are golf carts or the rare utility gas-powered truck.  The bikes are all so different from one another that I found myself convinced of, and fascinated by, the inhabitants’ drive to assert individualization through the modifications to their rusted frankensteinian cycles.


The port after Kwajelein was Ebey, the impoverished town that supplies the base’s cheap labor, an hour underway to the north.  The dock was barely large enough to host us, and the heaving and surging of the water was disconcerting. The previous trip they parted 4 stern lines while doing cargo, and it had been calmer than this trip.  


Cargo was nearly disastrous at every move, between untrained longshoremen, a low value of human life, and the wild swinging of the cranes on the bucking ship.  I truly expected to see us lose a box, but miraculously, we did not.


It reminded me of the time I watched a crane drop a container on a truck in Egypt… the things that replay in the mind.


I walked through Ebey proper to get a phone card- I found it to be as poor as parts of Brazil or Sri Lanka I have visited.  In one of the two stores, the owner (“baqula,” my Filipino shipmate called him) told him how anxious the town had been, waiting for the cargo we brought.  At the other store they apologized for not having bottled water- it was being unloaded from our ship.


The next port was overnight to the north, Majuro.  I did not get ashore there, but the longshoremen were motivated and worked through the night and in the rain, both things the longshoremen of the previous ports will not do.  


In the middle of our cargo operations, the union delegate for our department got angry at the chief mate and abandoned the time sheets and contract at my door.  All the other guys are getting off in Hono, soon, and now I find myself ensnared as the unwilling delegate… a dubious task I am going to abandon when the new crew comes aboard.


It is thankless and time-consuming and I am already sick of it and sick of the position it puts me in- being ground between the irascibility of the gang and the miserliness of the mate.  I am counting down the days to when I will throw the entire stack of paperwork out into the passageway with a loud string of invectives and wash my hands of it and get back to sleeping at every spare moment to make up for the 4X8 watch schedule.


Which will be in 5 more days when we tie up back in Honolulu.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Making Way - Oink! Oink!

It took us over a week to escape the oil spill, the days of which were spent in the Oahu sun on my hands and knees cleaning impossible to reach spots.  Divers cleaned the ship’s waterline, the oil booms, and the underside of the dock. Shoreside personnel cleaned the dock with pressure washers, collected the oil-soaked absorbent from ship crew, divers in the harbor, and their own waste and put it all into drums.

It sounds like a total of 1,800 gallons spilled.  The company threw everything at it, and the entire operation included a tent on the dock where the shipping company big-wigs met with officials while making their presence known to contractors and employees, alike.

But once we were OK’ed to shift over to the cargo dock the proverbial winds changed and it wasn’t long until we were loaded with boxes.  We let go and have been steaming west by southwest ever since.




It’s the first time I’ve sailed as a watchstander in a few years… and I forgot how much I like it, which bodes well for my future at sea: Officers are watchstanders.

The greatest difficulty of standing a watch is getting enough sleep… and since a sailor named Blythe shared her melatonin with me 5 years ago I haven’t missed a day or night’s sleep since.

Watching the color of the sea change from day to day, taking photos of the sunrise and sunset, seeing the green flash and the rise of the planets on the horizon… these are things I went to sea to enjoy, and when you’re a dayman you don’t get to enjoy these things.  I have been soaking it all in. Relishing it.



Of course, this is a ship and half her cargo is the pure, undiluted dumb of the seamen aboard.  The petty infighting, the squabbles over overtime, the sheer dissatisfaction of being away from home all continue much as they have since the first boat large enough to float two people was made by our knuckle-dragging ancestors.  As I’m soaking it in and relishing it, I’m simultaneously amused and annoyed in equal parts by the maritime of it all.

While this crew is remarkably normal and professional, in spite of all the dumb, one sailor in the shore gang that helped us clean the oil spill stands out as one of the more memorable flavors I’ve encountered in years:  He is a union applicant named Pete.
  
Sporting a body style and manner of locomotion that can only be described as “penguin,” his perfectly spherical and hairless head sports a thick pair of glasses that magnify his already large eyes into gigantic proportions.

Pete punctuates every sentence with “Hooters!  Oink! Oink!” at which point his facial expressions cycle through three or four exaggerated states of surprise.  I am not certain, but I think he has a form of Tourette's and it’s probably a horrible thing to make fun of him.

Of course, we’re all still exclaiming “Hooters!” randomly throughout the day.

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.

Alas.  

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?

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Line Handler Skiffs Aboard

Egyptian line handlers come alongside while we're making way and we crane them aboard

Suez Canal Boats

Fishing in the canal...