Thursday, January 18, 2018

Of Works And Days

I have begun the countdown of my seatime until I can sit for my first useful license.

It’s the same game I play in my head when I’m counting down the days until I get off a voyage, but this one can be played in different ways: I can persevere doing exactly as I am doing (my only choice when counting down to the end of a voyage); I can get off this ship and do the last of the required time some other way in the maritime industry (my last attempt at that wasn’t what I’d hoped); or, I can stop playing this stupid counting game.

Yeah… Not gonna stop counting, sad to say.  I keep a spreadsheet of my seatime- If I sail 1 day longer than I need to I will consider that a failure on my part… I need 1,080 days of seatime, not 1,081, after all.  I will count.

As if to balance the short amount of time left to go, I am on a ship that repeats each run every 2 weeks.  I am already into my 3rd voyage but I wouldn’t know it if I didn’t put a mark on the bulkhead of my quarters and count them frequently.  Such lonesome looking crosshatches, needing so many more…

I snorkeled in both Guam and Saipan, this last voyage.  The spot in Guam was at a place I have snorkeled in the past, at a place known as the Family Beach.  It is at the end of the spit that separates the port from the sea and is almost always completely abandoned.  On the road out there are a few dive clubs and jet ski rental places, but the beach itself is a sad affair.

But the swimming is great.  I didn’t see as many fish as I recalled from my last swim there, 3 years ago; the color of the coral wasn’t as bright, either, and I don’t know if there is a “winter” for coral reefs in a place that is 90 degrees in January, or if the health of the reef is suffering somehow.


By contrast, I took a boat out to an outlying island in Saipan and the fish were profuse and abundant… although the reef colors were similarly muted.  All those fish you see in cartoons make their home there, and they do have the brightest colors in the natural world, without needing the exaggeration of HDTV saturation to make it so.  I swam with a black-finned shark… which I will now add to the leopard shark as “sharks I have knowingly swum with.”

Shipboard life remains dull and routine.  The steward is about 5 feet tall and looks like a skinny Popeye… and he can talk like nobody else, often cornering the unsuspecting sailor and launching into a story with no point, nor an end.  Unless, sadly, you compare him to the galley assistant, who wanders around lost, speaking entirely in non sequiturs, and rivaling the steward for tales that have no basis in the social norms of being topical or relevant.

Some days I can pull-free from one, only to become inescapably entangled with the other.  I am so happy the cook’s English is almost non-existent, and I know no Tagalog… a galley trifecta would be unbearable.

The galley assistant wears white rubber gloves and does everything in them: cleans dishes, takes out the trash, mops the floor, cuts food, cleans the head, wipes tables… he is never without a mop, nor a bucket of foul smelling gray water, which he dutifully hauls all over the ship, in all weather, sloshing just enough on the deck to pull all the grease off the boots of the crew walking through and transfering it it to the deck, but never its opposite- by removing the samesaid grease from the dirty linoleum.

Yesterday he was assailing everyone in a high falsetto voice with “You can’t go ashore unless you bring me your dishes.  Not you… nor you… none of you...”

I stood a bow watch going into Busan in high winds, 20 degree cold, with snow flurries and sea smoke rising off the water- the cold was fairly spectacular.  When we let go the salt water from our mooring lines flash-froze on the deck.

Two days later, I ate sushi in Yokohama’s Chinatown, again… but also some of the Chinese street food, as good as anything I get in the Singaporean Chinatown.  Luckily, it was up in the 40’s.


And now we head south towards Guam, and summer to me, even though it’s really winter.  And onward I go, each day adding a crosshatch to the tally of sea days, counting them up.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Goodbye 2017. And Good Riddance.

As I have said, this is a small ship.  The ocean is big.  And seas that I have grown used to consider as “inconsequential” aboard the 1000 footers will straightaway put her lithe and narrow hull into a 15 degree roll.

So we roll, roll, roll along.  Everywhere.

There is another motion on this ship, while we be rollin, that I haven’t encountered on any other vessel; I can only liken it to somebody shaking me awake, since it only happens when I am in a deep, fitful sleep.  This morning it happened at about 0430, and continued until about 0700, holding me hostage from REM sleep.  At 0530 it jostled the latch on my head door loose, which promptly slammed hard enough to knock all the clothing hanging on that bulkhead’s hooks to the deck.

And yet my carefully balanced bottle of Dr. Bronner’s Soap remained perched on the smooth, slick metal of the shower valves, unmoved.  In a word, it is inexplicable.

Looking forward while underway.

This is really my first North-South run, and not crossing a time zone a day is a wonderful thing.  To sail without that headache is to remove one of the rocks from my shoe as I walk across the globe from one container port to the next identical container port.  We do cross one zone (from Tokyo to Guam), but this old man advances in the day, so that the net result to the crew is a 7 hour work-day, as opposed to being robbed of an hour of sleep.  On the way back we retard at night, so we get an extra hour of sleep.

And while it was in the 20’s in Pusan when we left her shore, and in the 30’s in Yokohama when we left that city, it only takes 5 days to get to Guam.

Guam’s heat is ferocious even in winter… the humidity is such that stepping out on deck on a cloudless day is like stepping into the shower.  I was very glad for the time to adjust in Hawaii, though Honolulu is about 15 degrees cooler this time of year than Guam.


To hire a Guamanian taxi is to be legally robbed by a licensed agency… I am not sure if it is because we are a captive client without other options, or if Guam despises its American overlords and it’s merely a way of showing spite, but each direction to town (a 10 - 15 minute drive) is $50.  Each way.

So my organic yogurt, kombucha, maple syrup, and hydrogen peroxide set me back a pretty penny.

Saipan is 12 hours north, much smaller, and about 10 degrees cooler than Guam.  We had the latter half of the day to hit the beach, but by the time we finished taking on stores a heavy rain moved in and parked over the island.  I opted to forego exploring on my first visit, a rare event for me.


And then we steamed back north.  Back to Pusan and back to the cold.  And then South again, back to Yokohama.  1 ½ trips in and I am already acutely aware of early-onset Groundhog Day syndrome.

So here I sit, New Years Eve, tying a bell rope and listening to an audiobook at the early hour of 2100.  We sail at 0400, and many of the younger, hardier, and foolhardy aboard will be living it up in Tokyo, a short bullet-train ride away, and getting back to the ship an hour before sailing with a stagger to their swagger.

Not this one- a melatonin is dissolving under my tongue as I type.

I recall last year:  January 1, 2017, New Year’s morning, in between Sri Lanka and the Malacca Straits (in the Bengal Sea), waking up at 0030 and racing into my small head to spend the next 8 hours in a tiled room as dengue fever played hell with every inch of my internal plumbing.

The tension headache.  My bleeding gums.  The rash.  The loss of overtime pay that day.  2017 started nauseatingly crappy- 2018 can damned well start well-rested and serene.

5 days until Guam.  5 days until summer.

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 (now more commonly spelled Busan). 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 clothes. 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.