Monday, February 25, 2013


Just saw the Bos'n and Delegate off... They were the best part of this ship for me.  Nothing stays the same on a ship...

Friday, February 22, 2013

North Atlantic

We're in the Labrador Current and the air is 1 degree celcius, the water is
3 degrees celcius, and as we pass over the Flemish Cap (an underwater
mountain due east of the Grand Banks, the peak of which is only 123 meters
deep) I am again breaking out the handwarmers that Clay found me and winning
points with frozen crew mates.

The seas are only 4 - 6 meters, bearing 242 degrees true, but their faces
are steep with a period of merely 4 seconds. The winds range from 30 to 50
knots, a peak gust at 85 knots recorded at 0345 this morning, and streaks of
blown foam are typical for Force 8 on the Beauford Scale. The color of the
day is gray.

And amidst it all was a 60 meter (190 ft) fishing boat, pitching, rolling,
yawing, heaving... the driver, a Slav of some flavor shipping out of Spain,
said it was miserable in his Slavic terminology (it "is not nice out").

And birds. Mocking us by making it look so effortless to transit the
wind-streaked swells. I am thinking about Laura and Singapore and that
helps dispell the gloom a bit. Well, and a bottle of 5-hour Engergy to wash
down that pot of coffee I just polished off...

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Yes, I Said "Wavebow."

The chaotic skies lately have been absolutely fantastic. Just south of
Greece I had what I have labeled "Maxfield Parish De Ja Vous," the sensation
that you're in a Maxfield Parish painting- minus the buxom, bare-breasted
Grecian women, of course. And there are no grapes. Nor fountains. But the
cumulous clouds- like so many puffer fish- skim low to the ocean and backlit
nimbus anvils surround us on all quarters, their anvils spilling sloppily
off into the upper atmosphere while their black bellies arc static
electricity against the skin of the earth. And above it all, mare's tails
and cirrus clouds (that look like a washboard of beach-sand on an out-going
tide) form a literal boundary between breathable air and near-space, more in
orbit around the planet than floating in the sky. And it all looks to me
exactly like a Maxfield Parish painting.

The seas have varied from deep blue to silver, its water consistently like
concoidally-fractured obsidian, sometimes with an indigo tint, at others
like emerald, and churning a color between the Tiffany's blue and the
Wedgewood pottery that typifies the Med. We've had steep 3 to 4.5 meter
swells and 30 - 40 knot winds, with the 50 to 60 knot apparent wind on the
bridge wings strong enough to suck the wind out of your lungs. The swells
often break and spray a fine mist into the air, each with its own rainbow
(or "wavebow"), and I saw spray-devils this morning when a squall hit.

And tonight I watched as the shimmering orange sun sank behind low bands of
clouds on the horizon and there were three - count 'em, THREE- green flashes
in a row, one each time the top of the sun fell below a cloud band. I did
not know that could happen but I saw it with my own eyes (through
binoculars) and I am now a veritable expert on the green flash, though the
green flash of the rising sun has still eluded me... but I haven't tried too
hard, lately, to catch one... 53 hours of overtime last week and 50 so far
this week have left me less than focused on the exact second of sunrise and
the sun's specific bearing at that exact moment. I'm usually drinking
coffee. Drinking it for dear life. It is my only saving grace at 0400, and
the only way I make it all the way to sunrise each morning, so if I never
see the rising green flash in my lifetime I will not feel that particular
regret on my deathbed. But it would be pretty rad.

At the last fire and boat drill I was the "missing person" and the response
team had to locate and rescue me. I was happy to act like a bag of potatoes
and not suit up for the drill in the full-on response gear, SCBA's (air
tanks) included... the gear is heavy and friggin' hot. Instead I got
dragged around from the laundry, over the step, and into the hallway while
the rest of the crew made smart-ass remarks.

The pool deck is above my room. The pool, itself, were it a room, would be
across the hall from me. The much-loathed Chief Engineer has 3 pet
projects: One, his mp3 collection; two, the elevator music (most ships do
not have elevator music, but ours does); and three, the filling-of, and
heating-of, the pool. Pulling out of Egypt, before the dock lines had even
stopped dripping, I encountered the engine cadet as he was exiting the 8th
floor exterior door at the end of the hall by my room- the door,
incidentally, that was leaking and flooding my room when the pool was being
flooded by the drunken engine department. The cadet had been ordered to
begin filling the pool, which is done by a valve outside that door. In this
case, with the foul water from Damietta harbor. I'll be skipping the pool
until next trip... I don't want that rash.

OK. We're retarding clocks and in four hours we'll be at UTC, formerly
known as "Greenwich Mean Time," or GMT, 5 hours later than Eastern, 8 later
than Pacific. And my bedtime.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

UFOs and Aliens

My watch partner, the Chief Mate, and I saw what can only be described as a
UFO. It was at the time of morning when the sky just begins to blue and I
thought it was Venus rising, until I realized I could visibly see it moving.
It wasn't a plane (no lights) and from the way it was lit it appeared to be
in low orbit and quite sizable. The Mate said it looked like exactly like
the International Space Station passing overhead, a rare event he witnessed
off the coast of Canada and what we initially thought we might be seeing,
until the object changed course by 45 degrees and went behind a cloud bank.
We are not alone.

The Great Dane, who I relieve at 0345 (he's on the 12x4 watch), told me he
saw a comet and he pointed at a place in the sky where clouds obscured any
visible confirmation. He's quite astronomically knowledgeable and has a
tracking telescope at home, so I have no reason to doubt him, but try as I
might I never located it before it was gone. Stupid clouds. And now I just
read about an asteroid that is to pass over the Indian Ocean at 0345 on the
13th while we're in Egypt- hopefully I can see the sky and look for it when
it passes nearby.

I saw the green flash again last night. And the sky was cloudless last
night, too, and clear, clear, clear... on the stern I enjoyed the vivid,
moonless skies I saw all last trip where the sea is lit by starlight alone,
aided only a little by the generic bioluminescence referred to simply as the
"green glow," the only, temporary, telltale of our ship's passing.

I watched the mountainous shores of Somalia and Yemen (or is it Saudi
Arabia- I forget) slide by on either side as we passed through the Bab el
Mandeb while I painted handrails, today. And this afternoon we passed a
group of islands in the middle of the Red Sea that are made of volcanic
vents, some old, some new, and that are listed on the chart as "Active
Volcanic Activity." Apparently a military base was nailed and many people
killed there by an eruption when the Old Man was still new to the sea... and
I have no name of the islands for you b/c I didn't write it down (again).

Today we are in dark jade colored seas composed of squid ink waters that
churn to a color and texture of green-smoked agate. We have 2 - 3 meter
following swells with whitehorses and light, puffy cumulous clouds clustered
off over the Somaliland's territorial waters. Visibility is about 18
nautical miles, the wind is light and following, it is simply gorgeous out
and 75 degrees F.

I have decided to purchase my own copies of Bowditch Volumes 1 and 2, as
well as Publication 9. And "Captain Joe's" study guides for a more advanced
license, as well... a referral from the Mate.

I was taking the elevator from the main deck up to the bridge two days ago.
The elevator, of course, went down all the way to the tanktop, first, to
pick up the First Engineer and the Reefer- a ride that creates a
simultaneous sick pleasure and irrational anger deep in my heart due to the
elevator games mentioned in earlier posts- when the First got his ponytail
caught in the elevator door. He tried to step forward but his head's motion
was checked, of course, by his captured hair so he just stood there, facing
me, while the Reefer mocked him.

This is the same guy who, several days ago, passed out on the pool deck
while we were in high risk waters and in full lock-down. The Mate and I
took turns going aft of the bridge and shining our flashlights down on him
to make sure he was still alive and sharing our incredulity at his
bone-headedness. Lock down means he got locked out. And there were rains
squalls on all sides. Unfortunately, he awoke and caught us shining our
lights down on him so we had to let him in, but it did NOT save him from a
public dressing-down by the Old Man at the next Fire & Boat Drill. I
desperately wanted him to get awakened by torrential rain only to find the
doors secured fast... alas, my primitive, monkey brain was denied such sick

Remember: Don't be a lightning rod.

And I have yet to find a single sailor aboard who believes the Egyptians
built the pyramids... it is more plausible to everyone that they were built
by aliens than Egyptians, a damning testament if there ever was one. In
fact, with no additional goading at all, by simply mentioning the pyramids
you will be hit by an angry, vehement tirade to this effect with NO irony
whatsoever. I have tested this odd bit of trivia several times and the
consensus is 100%... and I laugh, and I laugh... but the point is hard to
argue. Visit any port in Egypt, transit the ditch and deal with the port
officials and longshoremen, and you can't help but agree.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Things to be glad about

There is an old communications console next to an equally old public address
system on the bridge. Neither is used anymore since handheld radios have
become so inexpensive, so I was looking at them at 0500 this morning and
asked my watch partner, the Chief Mate, what he thought.

One console contains labeled buttons which say "forward starboard winch, aft
port winch, wing," etc. which is how the docking pilot used to tell the bow
and stern docking commands during tie-up. I thought it could be great fun,
however, to put the unused comm panel into use pranking the pirate watch
simply by pressing the button "aft port winch" and the "talk" button to say
random things, a point we were in total agreement on.

Where we disagreed was on which "talk" button to press in order to use the
old communications panel. I argued the one on the panel itself was the
correct button to use. He disagreed and believed the "talk" button on the
old PA was the correct button to use.

During our conspiratorial debate buttons were pressed and things were said,
including "good morning, America" and "donkey," amongst other things.
Laughingly, we amused ourselves with the what-if scenario of our prank
messages going across the public address system- which would have piped
"good morning, America" and "donkey" onto every floor of the ship.

About 5 seconds later the Old Man came on the bridge and asked us "What in
fuck are you doing?!" Apparently, it didn't pipe "good morning, America,"
"donkey," or the various other things onto each floor... it piped it into
every single ROOM of the ship. Heads, offices, sleeping quarters... the
Captain's quarters. He had a hard time not laughing at us as we squirmed
and became unbelievably contrite and embarrassed.

People keep giving me looks - some dirty, some incredulous, most with an
undercurrent of amusement. I can't even look at the Cheif Mate, though,
without snorting with laughter. Even the cadets are giving us looks that
say "dumbass." Mostly, I am just glad I wasn't pressing the PA button when
I imitated an Islamic pirate and parodied the jihadists' "Akbar Allah! La
la la la la!" into the mic.

Sunday, February 3, 2013


Silver seas of obsidian water that churns a Wedgewood blue... beneath
chaotic skies filled with many stories of high altitude clouds... sunrises
and sunsets galore, with lightning in the nimbocumulous clouds off on the
horizon and strangely remarkable visibility in spite of the complex moisture
in the air... the Sea of Bengal has been a gorgeous transit, and I have the
photos to prove it. But you have to wait until tomorrow (my time- 16 hours
in Seattle's future) when I buy a top-up card in Columbo, Sri Lanka-
technology notwithstanding, I should be able to upload some pretty cool

We always look at the names of other ships on the AIS and crack jokes about
some of them, but the vessel name that always comes up and is the stuff of
legend is one of the Titan lines. They name all their vessels with the name
"Titan" followed by something else, much as Maersk, Crowley, or any number
of other companies does, as well. Titan's motor-vessel "Titan Uranus" has
got to be the most famously named and most often referenced ship amongst

Looking at the AIS info I can see a 347 meter Maersk ship on our port
quarter right now. That is huge (we're 275 meters). The most common new
ship being built that I see out here is a split house, 366 meter container
ship built in Korea- all the major lines now have them. Last trip I saw a
398 meter ship... and Maersk actually has a 403 meter container ship. Do
the math... that is an astounding 1,309.75 feet! That's almost a quarter
mile! I'd hate to forget something stupid, like a screwdriver, at the
forecastle and have to walk the length of that deck to retrieve it... it's
bad enough on this little 275 meter ship.

The Old Man called the entire deck up to the bridge for a meeting. Some
people were nervous- captains don't do that very often- and some suspected a
random drug test- which would mean something went very wrong. It was to
tell us how happy he was with us. Seriously. No bitching, no fighting,
super productive, good work... neither the Delegate (25 years out here) nor
the Bosun (18 years out here) have ever heard of that happening. I think
"atta-boys" are silly, but it was nice of him- he's a class act in lots of
ways. But it was also a stark reminder that it isn't normally like this out
here. Which is a little nerve wracking to think about.

I like the Steiner 7x50 binoculars better than the Fujinon 7x50s.

OK. I gotta work.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

To Singapura and Back

The phytoplankton rich waters, green and glowing, gave way to the deepest
indigo seas that churned the palest of blues, as if the sea water was stingy
with its pigment and was holding back most of the precious blue from its
churned and oxygenated aspect. Flying fish skated off the bow bulb with a
smile. They soared impressive distances on their plastic wings, skimming
the tops of the 3 meter swells that crashed into the ship with a dull roar,
and then plinked out of my sight beneath the waves. And I was again sleep
deprived and walking through a dreamlike fugue-state, alternately amazed to
be out here and sick to death of it, as I trudged fore and aft with a bucket
filled with grease guns and rags, physically maintaining the gantry crane
while I mentally sailed away.

After the indigo seas gave way to cobalt plains where whitehorses roamed, we
entered the Straits of Malacca and the phytoplankton returned; the brilliant
blue hues were replaced with an olive drab reminiscent of World War II
military dress. I finished my 0400-0800 watch and slept while onward to
Singapore the ship steamed. We anchored in the Sinki and upon waking I was
told that we were promised a launch at 1500 to take us into Singapore. Of
course, it didn't show up until 1645, so we stood around in the equatorial
heat trying to hide from the sun until it arrived, some of us bitching, some
telling jokes, but all of us casting disgusted looks at our various time

As the launch pulled away from the ship I felt a sensation I can only
explain by likening it to the simultaneous unwinding of a spring, a deep
exhalation, and a cavalier acceptance of the third-world dirt and sweat at
the working periphery of first-world Singapura. The launch roared along and
kicked up a sizable wake and I sat on the stern bench, enjoying being in the
sun. My quest was for BBQ'ed bacon, the Chinese pastries whose name I don't
know but I know where to get them, top up cards for my phone, and a
chiropractor. I managed to get the pastries, a $6 haircut (Sing, not
dollars), and a top up card. The haircut looks like a $6 haircut, too, and
the Bosun has been laughing about it, saying I got a haircut from a blind
man... he was an old crippled Chinese man with a skinny-Elvis helmet of
hair, how was I to know he could butcher a buzz cut? I think I'll cut it
next time... I certainly can't fuck it up worse.

We caught a launch back at 2345 after missing the last sailing ($60) and
found that the gangway was up and the pilot ladder from where we'd
disembarked was now blocked by a giant bunker barge, which had a jacob's
ladder hanging down to the water. Up we went, and wandered upward through
the labyrinthian stairs and walks, until we came to the conclusion we had to
jump from one deck to the other. Good thing I had on my jumper's flip

Apparently, in our absence, there had been a small oil spill. From day one
on this boat I had to know how to respond to SOPEP regulations concerning an
oil spill, and on this ship, and for this company, any amount spilled gets
an immediate all-hands response. There is no dicking around- the procedure
is hammered home over and over again. But not for this crack-pot
engineering team- it got a few pounds of kitty litter and then got left
there for the port inspector to find (who could fine us US-50,000). The
almost uncontrollable rage by the deck department, licensed and unlicensed,
was - I think - appropriate. The only thing that can be said in the
engineering department's defense is they kept it from going overboard.

So the Bosun and I, assisted by the two cadets, the slightly-reformed
Reefer, and a wiper, cleaned the spill. Which meant the Bosun and I cleaned
it and taught the kids how to work (the oldest of the lot aside from us is
the Reefer, who is in his early 20's). A bunker pipe had burst down under a
walk in front of the house and filled 3 compartments with the heavy fuel oil
that is so thick and viscous it requires heating before it will flow through
pipes. We filled up two 55 gallon drums and when the sun rose we wrapped
things up, cleaning up the last of the mess with a citrus cleaner that made
it impossible to tell there had ever been a problem.

I threw away everything I was wearing, took a shower, and climbed in bed.
On the other side of the bulkhead next to my head the lashers (longshoremen)
were banging on lashing rods with wonderbars, and as I drifted in and out of
sleep I decided to go ashore and get a hotel room and a full night of sleep
as soon as possible.

So the next day I hopped the bus and made my way into town in search of a
chiropractor, a feat necessitating cab rides, phone calls, and miles of
confused walking. My new flip flops began to wear on my feet, and before
long I was virtually hobbled, but after 4 hours I found a guy who fixed my
outa-whack atlas and put me back together. I was laughing with relief when
I walked out of his office- the extent of the pain I'd been living with and
trying to ignore was exposed by its absence, and I am so glad I spent those
hours hunting. Plus, I found several places to show Laura if we can finagle
a way to get us both there at the same time that I never would have
discovered had I not been hunting for a chiropractor...

A note to future mariners who go ashore in hopes of a peaceful night of
sleep- save your money and don't bother. The silence and lack of vibration
and noise kept me wide awake. My experience was a cycle of
failed-attempt-to-sleep, tv, failed-attempt-to-sleep, read my book,
failed-attempt-to-sleep, more tv... I arrived back at the ship the following
morning as exhausted as when I'd left and $150US lighter.

We got underway around noon and made way through the dense and unyielding
Singaporean maritime traffic, which is very much like any summer day on Lake
Union- increased by a factor of 10 in size and scope, of course- a slalom
which required one full stop and yours truly steering us through some of the
Captain's mighty tight maneuvers (have I mentioned how much I like this
guy?). It felt like what I prefer... compared to days and nights of single
use vessel traffic maneuvering in predictable corridors or expanses of
shipless ocean, navigating congested harbors with all types of vessel
traffic entertains me and soothes my nerves (go figure).

Once out of the thick of it we found ourselves in jade seas and heavy
traffic and began making our way back out the Straits of Malacca toward the
Indian Ocean. The highlights of the last week were phone conversations with
both Laura and mom- but the results of which are that my top-up cards were
completely used up before my videos or photos could be uploaded. I'll
upload them in a few days from Sri Lanka.

Good night.