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.


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?