Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Surly is as surly does...

In an industry which uses euphamisms such as "drop a crane load on him,"
"take it to the aft deck," and "it would be a shame if nobody cried 'man
overboard' when he went over the rail," you'd think sailors were a bunch of
hard-eyed, cold-blooded... well... sailors. And you'd be right, for the
most part.

I'm not going to try and dispell those stereoypes, either. They are what
they are. What I can attest is to the accuracy of the description my
grandfather once gave of going to sea (and I paraphrase): "It is little more
than a prison where you can get violently sick or horribly killed, on
accident or purpose."

And some days in the North Atlantic are like that.

I quit taking the dramamine, by the way, for a time when I need it. I
didn't need it during the hurricane (not really), nor during a pirate drill
yesterday while up in the bow- the deck was falling out from under us,
leaving us pretty much weightless. A fellow sailor mentioned the time when he had to hold himself down when the deck was falling because it was total freefall
and he'd float up into the air... it sounds far-fetched until you're pretty
much there yourself.

No spell check on these dinosaurs, and time for my watch. It is midnight,
and all is well.

Monday, October 29, 2012

North Atlantic

We left Norfolk in 30 knot winds and hit 30 foot seas immediately outside
the harbor. That might be a problem if I wasn't in a 900 foot ship- sure,
it makes moving around with heavy crap in tow a bit of a chore, but the ride
up on the bow is exceptional! Winds hit a steady 45 - 50 knots with the
highest recorded gust of our encounter with Hurricane Sandra so far at 91
knots. I spent two days up on the catwalks between the containers with a
short piece of 3/4" rebar tightening turn-buckles and beating stopper-nuts
tight. Nothing says caveman like a club. Nothing says thrill-ride like
dropping 50 feet in 3 seconds, then watching a turquoise mountain turn into
white wings 200 feet across under the stem below you with an indescribable

We are currently 100 miles south of Labrador on a "great circle" around to
the north of the storm and we're in the upper right quarter of it. My
watches have begun in earnest and the sleep deprivation is slowly, slowly
being overcome now that I know When I'm supposed to be Where without being
explicitly being told to do so- my watch routine has been established for
hundreds of years (if not thousands) as "The Midnight Watch." I'm just the
piece that goes there, the cog in that machine. And I just need to know it.
Or suffer reproachful looks and open mockery.

Spent all morning doing "wash-down," which, as you may have already guessed,
involves washing stuff down. With fire hoses. It is a little bit wet, but
also enthralling in the same captivating way that subconsciously picking
lint from your bellybutton can be... I am much more aware of the spray from
the bow going up hundreds of feet into the air and cascading back over the
towering containers, carried on the 60 knot apparent winds (we're doing 20
knots), than I am the rust going over the side.

My watch partner, a 26 year old 2nd mate who knows everything about
everything, ever (I am embarrassed to have ever been 25, quite honestly),
heeded my advise last night to his benefit. We were in an overtaking
situation, a risk of collision existed, but he was relying on the radar
tracking to tell him what my eyes clearly saw without ever doing any math or
letting a navigational aid do the math for me- the guy ahead of us was
cutting across our bow. The overtaken vessel is always the stand on vessel.
We had to change our heading.

Finally and begrudgingly he altered course in time for the Captain to make
an unannounced visit to the bridge, where I had to refrain from laughing as
this kid explained what was going on, trying to make it an event that didn't
involve the Ordinary in any way, whatsoever. It is painful standing watch
with him, truth be told- his tastes in movies is the exact inverse of mine,
his taste in books exists not even in theory, on any timeline throughout
time and/or space, so our conversations are fleeting, exploratory things
which die slow, whimpering deaths, smothered under awkward silences... Sea
Time. That's why I'm here. I am the OS, and I don't know shit.

I get along great with the 2nd mate, though, who hawsepiped up from Deck to
the bridge... he's a damned fine navigator, too.

OK... this blog is being posted via satellite phone as a text-only email to
my address. No photos, no edits, and just in time to go to
sleep! Food and sleep are all consuming items to think about out here. I'm
just saying.

Saturday, October 27, 2012


This is a test of text only blogging via satellite phone.  Heading into the breach, back to the familiarity of sleep deprivation.  More later.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Into the "Stream"

There are colors of blue that exist nowhere but in the Atlantic ocean, far from land.  Each mile the color changes, and I find I can sit and stare at it for long periods of time- which is good, considering that is what watchkeeping, in large part, consists of: staring at vast expanses of water.

Sleep deprivation doesn't help, either.... when you work from 8 until 12, do a watch from 12 until 4, work an hour, grab a bite to eat... well, I'll have from 5:30 until 11:45 to shower and sleep, since I didn't last night... the combination leads to super-spaciouliciousness.

Steering a ship is kind of like a video game... keep it within the parameters and you won't get mercilessly mocked by everyone.  Seems simple enough, but there is no feedback from the helm.  It exists completely within an intellectual realm where subtle cue's from the physical world do not exist... so look away for one second and holy hell has broken loose.  And that's just going in a straight line.  "Checking the swing" is the art of stopping a turn without overshooting it.  "Chasing the helm" is the art of fouling-up "checking the swing," which leads to frantically steering to either side of your mark (think of a dog chasing it's tail and you'll be close) trying to recover. Either way, you're an artist, I suppose.

Most AB's hate steering.  From the perspective of the Deck Department, it breaks down like this:  It is boring if you've done it a lot, pilots and mates are "princesses" and "cry like spoilt brats" and try to blame the deck ABs when they mess up, rivers work you like an uphill donkey and give you nothing in return... but I haven't done it a lot, I haven't had a pilot breathing down my neck, the mate I'm working with is relaxed, and I have yet to go up a river.  I think it's cooler than shit to steer 60,000 tons of ship across the friggin' ocean and I can't imagine not thinking that.  So, as I've noted in previous posts- I'm the OS, I don't know shit... I'll get back to you on it in the coming months.

Another observation:  The horizon always looks like a smooth line that separates sea from sky, but when you stare at it long enough through some high-power binoculars from the top of a moving 12 story building, the horizon looks like a jagged tear, not unlike a paper towel ripped from the roll and then observed under a microscope.  Yes, that is the best I can do right now... what do you want, poetry?  It ain't smooth, it's lumpy with waves.  Ah.  I'm moving on.

Charleston, SC

Steered into Charleston Harbor, relieved at 0400 then went aft to tend dock lines.  Hit the sack at 0530, then got up at 0730 to run crane for "stores" (taking on ship's supplies).  Knocked off at 1030 to get some much needed sleep, but couldn't fall asleep.  Got up at 1200 and ate then tried again on a full stomach- it worked.  Turned out by 1500 to run the crane then pull in the dock lines.  Opened the Starboard side side-port hatch, lowered the boarding ladder, put the docking pilot off on a tug, then went forward to get schooled up in the forward watch and emergency anchor-dropping routine.  Back in my room, wired for sound, needing to sleep because at midnight I start my shift... on a side note- I think I saw my friend's father's three masted, gaff-rigged charter boat out extracting cash from wayward tourists... that gig looked really comfy from the bow where I stood, covered in rust and grease and stinking like a dumpster fish, looking down at the masts (he still hasn't put on the topmasts- pretty sure it's his boat).

I had no cell service while in Charleston.  The stink of it?  I just needed to go into my menu and reset it... so my list of shore-side catching up in Savannah just grew.  Had cell service long enough to hear Clay's message that he may not be able to meet me, get 10 sentences into a conversation with Laura, and get exactly one text message before all wireless phone service got swallowed by the the sea.
Today we cast off, finally.  I was on the needle-gun this morning, knocking the scaling off the steel, then operating the gantry crane until lunch.  After lunch we raised the gangway then tossed off the dock lines.  The newest part of the ship to me is the port side side-port hatch- which is where the pilot and other personnel board the vessel while underway.  There is a starboard side side-port hatch, too, just in case you were wondering- and yes, it is on the starboard side ;-)

I attempted to explain to Laura last night my observation that I have stepped back in time, into a timeless bubble encapsulated within the modern world, where the hierarchy, the commands, the written and the unspoken laws, etc. are identical to how a ship would have been run at almost any point in history.

The ship is divided into departments: The Deck (the domain of the bosun, where I am), the Bridge (the captain and his mates), Engine (ie. the chief engineer's dept), and the Stewards (the cook and his minions- think Long John Silver).  At any time there is friction between departments where they might touch or, god forbid, overlap.  Fellow able seamen tell me to not trust the mates, they manipulate the engineers wherever possible, and the only thing worse than the fighting between departments is the in-fighting within departments.  I mentioned the guy who was going to "burn out" a few days ago- well, he likes being hated, apparently, and has built up quite the tolerance to abuse.  For him, life is just hard no matter what... proof that we create our own reality.

Anyway- I think everyone has seen Pirates of the Caribbean- there was an able seaman on the Manoa (a ship I did some day work on) who looked exactly like some of the pirates from that movie... with one notable exception- he was wearing round sunglasses with big, bulging holograph eyeballs on the lenses... disconcerting, yes.  Anyway, the able seamen I'm working with also all look like they walked out of that movie.  When I signed on, I expected this was going to be much more like the industrial gigs I've worked, where under my hardhat I wear a "dew-rag" and so I brought a stack of them.  Well, we don't wear hardhats on this ship- just the dew-rags.  So literally, the one thing that we able seamen wear that sets us apart is the bandanna on our heads.  We ALL look like we walked off a ship from two centuries ago.  And I brought a stack of them.

So we're steaming down the eastern seaboard now- my watch begins at midnight and I'm going to try to sleep again.  I've been warned I might not get much of that in the next 72 hours...

Sunday, October 21, 2012


More chipping paint today.  We're shifting at 1500 so I get to run through the dock-line drill at the bow, again.

I haven't mentioned yet, that when shipping as an O.S. (ordinary seaman)- regardless of what you may or may not know, your life skills, what you've done on inland waters, or if you hold a masters license - you pretty much have to answer every question with "I'm the O.S., I don't know shit."  It doesn't matter if people like you or if you do know the answer, the only acceptable answer is "I'm the O.S., I don't know shit."  If you cry about it then life will get really hard, really quickly.  I happen to find it funny so besides sticking songs into peoples' ears I have taken to answering every question ("you hungry?"  "What time is it?") that way.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Weekend Overtime.

Side deck, bow looking aft.
 So.  Yesterday morning was spent in torrential rain with an industrial pressure-sprayer removing rust scale from the deck.  It's a lot like a pressure washer, but stronger.  The scuppers in the bulwarks are blocked while in port to contain potential oil spills, so a river was running down the deck toward the stern.  Needless to say my Sperry boots were not up for the task.  I scrounged around and found a pair of boots I will recommend to anyone who will listen- Boggs.  They're neoprene and rubber and unbelievably comfortable, warm, and dry!  Lightweight, too, so it really makes a difference when you're going up and down stairs all day.

After lunch I joined the bosun and two others from the deck department and went to Costco.  An extra knife and light for my personal away-kit, gum, cliff bars, alleve and antacid, hydrogen peroxide... you know, glamorous stuff in quantities that can only be described as gross.  What does a gallon of pepto bismol say about a man that can't be said in any other way?  I mean, really.
Aft deck ("fantail") gypsy-heads.

We then went to a Brazilian Steakhouse.  I was terrified when I looked at the menu- sushi?  Nothing foreshadows disappointment like the divergence between two culinary cultures which can best be described as "diametrically and magnetically opposed."  But I was stupidly surprised and I ate until I couldn't take anymore.  When we got back to the ship I have no real memory of anything other than putting things away and entering a full-on food coma.  I slept for the first time in about a week.

So today we set about to pressure-spraying the scale off the deck again, but no sooner had we set up than the chief mate came along and told us the water maker was offline and that we'd have to refrain from using water.  So we packed it all in, which seems simple, but isn't:  The pressure washer has a DC motor about the size of a 5 gallon bucket and weighs about 350 lbs.  To get it into the forecastle water-tight hatch requires a chain-fall and a couple extra hands.
Ship beyond the fantail, which is below the pictured level.

But we did.  So we grabbed a cartload of needle guns, pneumatic chisels, and "lawn mowers" and set about to taking scale down to bare metal on the hatch combings.  I wore earplugs in my ears under a second layer of over-ear protection and it was still an impressive din.  The whole deck department got in on the action and watching the engineers and mates scurry past with their fingers in theirs ears gave me a sick bit of pleasure.  Karma came back to me in the form of rust in every nook, cranny, crease, orifice, warp, weft, pore and microscopic cutaneous opening on my persons.  To break for lunch required 15 minutes at a utility sink before I could use the sink in my quarter.  It was the same after lunch, too.

So after dinner I discovered the movie library- thousands of dvd's and vhs tapes!  I grabbed all three Lord of The Ring dvd's and proceeded to eat an entire Theo chocolate bar that Laura sent along with me while feeling sorry for Frodo.

OH YEAH!  I finally made it down to the engine room.  Holy shit.  That's all I can say... holy shit.  We've been delayed because a bearing caught fire and they are building a new one, so we went down to check it out.  The shaft is about 3 feet across, and they're milling it smooth with a special lathe that runs around the outside of the shaft... pretty dull in comparison to a 4 story friggin' engine!  Holy shit!  There are doors into the actual crank case, then up a floor are doors into the actual valves, then up a floor are doors into the... well, you get the idea.  The engine is the size of a tugboat... don't let any tugboat guy tell you any different.  The vents, valves, pipes, cable trays, site windows, relays, etc. run in all different directions and confound the comprehension- just the water maker intake is a mess of pipes that open up into large flanges that... oh, nevermind.  I'll try to get photos.  Suffice it to say the scale of things on this boat can make you feel pretty damned insignificant to the overall function of the vessel, herself.

OK.  I'm done here.  I don't know when I greased the chainfall gears on the windlass (was that today or yesterday?) but the chain has a tendency to concoidially explode in clouds of rust and shift dangerously right next to your head while you apply with a brush (through a hole the size of your head) the nastiest, stickiest grease you can imagine onto gears that could cut a car in two...

Yep.  Too tired to try and edit this.  I will sleep well tonight, that's for sure!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The view from my quarters is fairly decent (NYC)... after working in the tunnel with the guy who is going to "burn out" all morning we got word we're "shifting at 1800" (moving the ship at 6:00).  Signed ships papers this afternoon with the captain and now trying to get some sleep.

Also, my watches will be 12 - 16, 0 - 4, plus overtime... which means my sleeps will be divided each day into 3 hours in the morning, and three in the evening...
Google map Test... click.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Imported cat.
So after the whirlwind of flights that mercifully bypass all those fly-over states, I am now aboard my ship and all my stuff stowed in my quarters.  I was given a comprehensive tour of the ship's areas of my limited concerns- gym, galley, pool, private quarters, lifeboat #1, emergency response, and the bridge coffee area and steering (apparently, making coffee rates as more important than steering the ship, so both menial jobs fall to me, with strict instructions on the coffee and "do what the Mate tells you" on steering).

There are 7 floors above the main deck (my quarters are on 3rd, starboard), and as my mate gave me the ropes of the mechanics of the ship, he also gave me the low-down of the politics and what I could expect to see.  Apparently this is a very competent, qualified, easy to work with bunch- something I could readily tell from my years in the trades.  Also, that there is one guy I met , a "weasel," who will probably "burn out" before we leave the eastern seaboard.  I have to say I am appreciative to know immediately where I stand here, and the message is overt- "Don't be a dick.  Dicks don't last."

I'm so glad I'm not a dick.  Interesting note- I feel like a dwarf... the people I am crewing with are 6'-0", 6'-2", and 6'-3"...

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


After more than two years of training, meeting UN and USCG regulations, paying fees, filing papers, exploring leads and backtracking from them, making new acquaintances, following schedules, adhering to plans, practicing drills, and the enormous amount of chaff that accumulates through life being thrown vigorously to the wind, I am now holding ships papers directing me to New York City where I will board the 275 meter U.S. flagged container ship "M/V President Polk" bound for Shanghai via all ports in between.

The flight is early tomorrow morning and I have cleaned my list of the remaining to-do detritus- new electric toothbrush heads from Fred Meyer, healthcare directive paperwork notarized, insurance paid on the boat, etc..  I have also remained pinned here by the cat long after the need to use the bathroom has become critical. A general sense of anticipation has built slowly, steadily, into a raging head of steam... very much like my current need to go to the bathroom, actually.

The blog is the last item... something I can use to fill in the spaces between the 12 hour work days split into 2 shifts of 6 on, 6 off... and a way to keep up with my own version of "Where's Waldo?" using a little bit of mobile phone gps and google map technology... so the next few posts are mostly me trying to figure out how to make this work in the simplest way possible.

The Blog Test

Laura and I loaded up Kennisis in September and headed north to Sucia Island, WA, in the Strait of Georgia.  This is the video I made of our trip.