Monday, April 29, 2013


The Gender Equalizing Canoe

The Chief Cook (who looks remarkably like the Southpark character, Chef, and
is one of my peeps) and I saw what looked like 3 dolphins off the port
bridge wing, yesterday... except the largest of which was almost fifty feet
long! I don't know what kind of whale it is, but the general consensus is
they were some subspecies of pilot whale. Pilot whales are also known as
"blackfish-" because they're black, duh- but these super-dolphin were
typical dolphin gray, had the same bottle shaped nose, the exact same tail
and fins... they differed in only three visible ways- their incredible size,
longitudinal markings on their bellies similar to humpbacks, and their body
shape was almost barracuda-like... they lacked the beam at midships a
typical dolphin has.

I visibly crossed an ocean stream known as the "Equatorial Jet" which is
known for feeding warm water toward Sumatera. It looked similar to a Strait
of Georgia tide rip- it was a line of chop extending as far as the eye can
see amid a dead flat Sea of Bengal, but as we crossed it, our set (lateral
force on the bow by wind and water forces as determined by Doppler) shifted
from 1.8 degrees port to 1.9 degrees starboard. It was probably running at
about 4 - 6 knots.

We are back in blue waters, the water ranging in hue and color from electric
coolaid acid blue to scared-inkless squid-black, churning a pale powder
blue. A large number of flying fish have been skating off our bow and
leaving fine, perfectly straight lines in their wakes across the flat water,
the longest of which I witnessed fly a good quarter mile before kerplinking
out of sight.

But that was yesterday. Now the wind has built and a chop has fetched up as
we make ready the ship for me, the master helmsman, the extraordinary
ordinary, to steer us into Columbo City (cue the clap track). Actually,
this can be a tricky port with a foul current and it is difficult to pull
off nonchalance when you're working your ass off, but that's just a
disclaimer should I blow it... I'm actually going to kick its ass. Again.

Hundreds of out-rigger canoe fishing boats are out on the water, not as
colorful as the "Aladin's Slipper" fishing boats of Sumatera, but not dull,
either. I see outrigger canoes from Egypt to Singapore, and on from there
the famous proa's and canoes of the South Pacific continue to cover an area
from Sumatera all the way to the Marquesas, as far north as Hawaii... and
even if you want to be a quibbler and call the Aleutian Islanders open sea
outrigger canoes "kayaks" because they have a protective deck, the world is
covered with out-rigged canoes. They are the world's most common boat.

Just so you know- canoes are considered male boats by South Pacific
seafarers and boatwrights. This ship I'm on is definitely a "she," but when
I look at all these ocean going canoes they are clearly "he's." Don't ask
me why and what makes the distinction, but it is definitely so.

And that's what I got for now... time for me to go steer a ship into port.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

ZD cixelsyd a si DZ

Each time I steer and stand watch leaving and entering Singapore I am
astounded by the number of ships. In the Sinki, itself, there are hundreds-
at night, when the city is lit up and the downtown is beckoning like a
siren, another skyline faces it from across the water- a skyline of ships'
houses, lit up every bit as brightly as the shore and as equally dense.
Launches, pilot boats, divers' skiffs and numerous other workboats zip
through "Sinki City" like rush hour traffic. 24/7, 365.

When you leave the harbor you steam out of the channel heading almost dead
south, then round a prominent point into the Straits proper, then proceed up
the "Traffic Separation Scheme," or TSS, past numerous anchorages every bit
as large and congested as the Sinki. After a few hours of this I am left
dumbfounded at the amount of shipping traffic, but it stands to reason- the
Straits of Malacca are the route that connects all of SE Asia (1/3rd of the
world's population) to the nations surrounding the Indian Ocean (the next
1/3rd of the world's population). At the narrowest point the Straits are
only about 20 nautical miles wide. At the apex connecting the two
manufacturing and service colossals, China and India, sits tiny Singapore,
6th largest economy in the world (I'd verify that, personally, but I'm
denied the Library of Alexandria aka "Google"). Talk about location,
location, location.

We are currently underway, making way, on a heading meandering out of the
mouth of the Straits of Malacca. The jade hues of the Straits are giving
way to water the color of ink, the chaotic skies have morphed into gray
stratus and cumulonimbus clouds that spit heat lightning and spray the ship
down with just enough precipitation to increase the humidity drastically but
not to cool the temperature one iota. And the mood on the ship, in light of
the draconian refusal of any and all overtime, has torpedoed anyone's desire
to get along with one another.

Let the bitching commence!

I have been instructed (by a dubious source) that I should investigate the
architecture of Sumatera - apparently, the roofs are inspired by an old
custom of using decommissioned fishing boats to protect houses from the
rain. I'll investigate and with luck I'll be pleasantly surprised. I have
to say, and this I've seen with my own eyes each time I come through here so
can attest to its validity, the Sumatera fishing boats are gorgeous!
Sweeping bows, dramatic sheer, houses and hulls painted bright colors, net
outriggers made of simple bamboo- lovely to see!

I have been engaged in a silent and protracted battle of Wills with the
Great Dane. The battlefield is the board where our course, heading, and
magnetic compass info is written (amongst other bits of information) on the
bridge. Our drafts fore and aft, our air draft (highest elevation), ETA,
and clock, sun, and drills information all gets updated on this white board-
as described in another post back during my first trip.

The Great Dane is using the old convention of referencing GMT (Greenwich
Mean Time) and keeps putting the ETA (estimated time of arrival) in terms of
LT (local time)... which is incorrect- LT is our current time in the current
time zone, not the destination's time zone. I keep changing it to the
recognized conventions of UTC (the coordinated universal time), not GMT.
And instead of LT, I change the time to DZ (designated zone), which is the
time in the time zone of our arrival, as modified by ZD (zone description, a
numerical reference to UTC).

It might seem confusing, but it really isn't. UT is short for "universal
time," merely a phrase. UT0 is astronomically derived time. UT1 is time
adjusted for the relative movement of the geographical pole. UT2 is UT1
adjusted further for seasonal variations, and UTC (coordinated universal
time) is really the internationally agreed upon measure of UT2, at the Prime
Meridian (zero degrees longitude).

LT (local time) means "the time relative to right here in this time zone I'm
standing in."

DZ (designated zone) means "the time relative to that specific time zone."
Ie. Our arrival to Sri Lanka will be 2330 DZ (relative to Sri Lanka's time
zone), which will be 0100 LT (relative to where we are now).

ZD (zone description) is a numerical expression relative to UTC.
Singapore's ZD is expressed as "(-)8 ZD," or "eight hours before the UTC at
the Prime Meridian (zero degrees longitude)."

So when you see the phrase "ETA to ZD (-) 5.5 is 2330 DZ, or 0100 LT" there
is absolutely NO ambiguity or interpretation necessary. That tells you the
time UTC by a simple subtraction of 5.5, the time in the referenced time
zone, and the local time.

There are, however, two more time related terms that get used on the bridge.
"New Time," and "Old Time." When retarding or advancing clocks the time
change happens all at one moment- one O'clock magically becomes twelve
O'clock right at one O'clock. Being a ship on the watch system, with all
her hyper sensitive sailors ready to howl at the slightest provocation of
their collective hair-trigger sensitivities, however, it becomes necessary
to divide the time of clock changes into thirds so the change doesn't affect
just one watch, so even though the navigational calculations change all at
one moment, the ship's clock changes each 4 hours (in the case of a one hour
change) by only 20 minutes. I call my relief at 2300 each night, but is
that new time or old time? That happens at new time, even though when we're
heading east it is 2340 old time and 2220 heading west.

How is it that I come to know this? Nobody told me... I saw various bits of
it reference here and there. I asked about it and got incomplete and
incorrect answers, as is usual in life. I looked it up as soon as an
opportunity presented itself. The overall picture came not all at once, but
spread out over 4 hour periods, twice a day, day after day, week after week,
month after month...

In other words, I've had lots of time to ponder Time. And research it. And
lots of time to wage my silent, protracted war with the Great Dane. And one
day we might even mention it to one another- but I won't be the one to start
down that dead end road... because I knew I won this war even as it started,
way back when.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A Bridge Over Monkey Waters

Barracuda gather in slow turbulent schools in the wash of the deck lights
each night, some of them almost 4 feet long. I caught the Old Man out there
with a fishing pole at midnight, and I've heard others planning different
ways of catching them. The Wrestler asked me if I could make a cast net...
which, of course I can, but the amount of time it would take makes the
entire proposition absurd. A ring net, similar to a crab net, would be the
easiest and best way to catch them- in my humble opinion, and it is backed
up by the Fisherman. Well... actually, it was the Fisherman's idea- but it
is the best idea of the lot, and since no one is actually going to do
anything with these ideas I might as well own the good ones. Well... the
captain actually threw a hook in the water, so he's actually doing
something... but whatever. Interestingly, we've had divers cleaning the
bottom of the ship all day and not one of them have been devoured within
seconds by the bloodthirsty fish like they would have been in a bad movie.

There was a ship anchored near us, one of the Wisdom Lines, named "Genius
Star." Really?! Then I noticed the large container ship swinging in the
breeze right next to us is named "Humen Bridge," which should bring an image
to mind of people working together to help one another by... like... forming
a human bridge over troubled waters (or something), but instead conjures up
a barrel of hooting monkeys flinging... stuff - which actually says more
about this crew I'm at sea with than I care to dwell on.

We're supposed to finally go in and load cargo at 0900... by tomorrow
night/early morning we should be underway again. With 26 days to go. Back
up the strait and across the sea to Sri Lanka, then through the pirate
waters and up into Egypt again. After loading our cargo of flies in
Damietta we'll kill them all the way across the Med, hit the stormy Atlantic
(where I'll get rocked to sleep each night) and then booyah! G the F out of
D. In NYC. Fly this farmer's tan that has a human attached to it back to
sunny Seattle.

At the latest safety meeting the Wrestler publicly threw the Boatswain under
the bus, which prompted our entire department to spontaneously start singing
"The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round..." in the stairwell afterward.

Right now I am on anchor watch. Each hour I check the anchor chain and
report to the bridge its direction and the amount of its pressure. The
direction is done, not by points, but by simple clock positions. The
pressure is a little more subjective, but I consider everything from 1 to
22.5 degrees to be "light strain," and everything from 22.5 to 45 degrees to
be "moderate strain." More than that is "heavy strain." So on the hour I
might say "Bridge... Bow... Anchor chain is up-and-down," meaning no strain
at all. Or I might say "Bridge... Bow... Anchor chain is at 10 O'clock,
moderate strain." Additionally, I feel the chain between the hawsepipe and
the pawl and if there is vibration then we're either slipping (underway) or
the chain is laying out from where it piles up when dropped.

Also, I am on Gangway Watch, which is to say that I raise and lower the
gangway for launches. We have a gangway that telescopes in and out while it
rises and lowers- which makes some sense, but it is so unbearably slow that
no matter what the benefits the shorter length might give, they become
completely lost to the tedium that is holding the up or down button and
watching it creep up or down. It is so slow that the launch pilots get
pissed and their "down" hand signals become increasingly frantic as it moves
downward at a comparable speed to that of lichens accumulating on a rotten
stump. More often than not they hit their horns continually and shout what
must be Singaporean obscenities.

And that's all I got. A day in the life of. Gotta go make my rounds.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Retired In Her 30's

The word is final- my first ship is to be sold for scrap in July. Built in
1984 in a German shipyard and known as a C-10 (I think perhaps 8-10 in total
were built), she was the world's first "post PanAmex" ship- a ship too
large to go through the Panama Canal. And now her days are non-colloquially
numbered- a shame, too: the hull plating alone is twice the thickness of
that on similarly classed modern ships. She's stout and strong, but the
subsidies which allow her to run as a US flagged vessel mandate an age
restriction and she's simply too long in the tooth for Uncle Sam, and
therefore, too expensive to run for the parent company.

She was designed for the comfort of the crew, as well- not only are all
quarters large and private, with a built in desk, dresser, and wardrobe, a
personal head (w/sink and shower, of course), a couch, table, and end table,
but all rooms have plenty of natural light, a refrigerator, black-out
drapes, task lighting, and (what was novel back in the day) an antennae
hookup for your am/fm radio! All C-10's were built with a gym, pool, and
sauna... but apparently a few of them had the pools "closed-in," or, in
other words: Removed. Our ship still has her pool- and the engineers tend
to keep the heat up to "hot tub" when it's cold out, or unheated while in
the tropics. It is very much like a 12 story hotel.

She's stable in rough weather (my first trip saw some 16 meter swells,
recall, and she took them without too much complaint) and, when at the helm
in hand steering, she's remarkably responsive to even the subtlest of rudder
changes. I have been able to maintain a heading while steering to within
less than half a degree of sloppiness for a solid hour. When all 55,000+
horses are pushing her they cleave the seas and oceans she plies and move
her at a respectable clip... we spend more time negotiating overtaking
situations than being overtaken- by a healthy margin of about 25 to 1.

And now she'd done. It has taken the wind out of the sails of the deck
department. No more chipping and painting. No more vessel improvements.
Those wish-list projects (i.e.: adding internet, repainting the stern and
pool decks, adding a Bose noise-cancelling stereo to the wheelhouse)?
They've died on the vine. Now we're only worried about being compliant in
our ports-of-call for several more months. No clean-outs added to the
embarkation deck drains. No pad-eye repairs on the lashing bridges. No
safety paint on the ladders. No nuthin'.

I'm not given to nostalgia, but this ship has carried me more than half way
around the world five times, and will have done so 6 times when I disembark
in May, and it makes me a little bit sad. For many years she has been a
workhorse of the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean Sea, the Suez Canal, the
Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Bab el Mandeb, the Arabian Sea, the
Straits of Hormuz, the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, the Sea of Bengal,
the Malacca Straits... whether on a great circle or a rhumb line, she never
stops, 24/7, 365- the cargo must be delivered on time. Until it doesn't.

Sunday, April 14, 2013


Inside of a cargo hold... Note: that thing on the right is not a ladder.  The upper deck pictured is 18 feet above the lower one.

What to do when Not Underway

Anchorage. Not underway, not making way. On the hook. Swinging in the
wind. It sounds like a great time to do nothing, but when you're working on
a ship you're working on a ship. We just rebuilt our anchor windlasses (I
posted a video a couple of months ago of "let-go" if you want some
perspective of what I'm talking about). Why did we rebuild it? Because
last time we used it the brake failed and all 13 shots of chain ran out, out
of control, and slammed up against the sacrificial link with enough force to
scare the hell out of everyone aboard, particularly those on the bow
dropping it into the water.

Aside from the ungodly din and racket of the thing, the asbestos dust from
the brakes mixes with the rust and mud and you can't see your hand in front
of your face. If you're counting shots while paying the rode out - a shot
is 15 fathoms, or 90 feet, marked on the chain itself with paint or seizing
- it makes things challenging to see. If you're holding the servo switch
to let go the anchor you're standing right next to the windlass as the chain
gains speed and the failed brake spits out dust and fire, the proscribed
reaction to which is "run like hell." Not pleasant.

When the wind swings the ship around the hook and points us eastward I have
great cell service on my phone, but when we swing around to the west my
phone goes into roaming on a Malaysian service and my data disappears. Bye
bye internets. Add the wind and tide cycles (very consistent here) to the
time difference from home (-7 Z.D., or 14 hours in Seattle's future) and you
have a communications nightmare.

We're cleaning cargo holds- they're half a football field wide, 120 feet
long, and as tall as a 5 story building. "Cavernous" is a good description.
I like it when I find big chunks of metal (usually broken cones, which links
containers together at the corners) - I toss them to the foot of the ladder-
the sound is huge! But it is hot work, and it is so hot here that I had a
heat stroke on the stern, yesterday... the first and only heat stroke I've
ever had. Apparently, you don't get any minerals whatsoever from water made
with a water-maker, so 6 months of pure, uncontaminated h2o turns out to be
problematic when you're 1 degree north of the equator. I've been eating
salt tablets and drinking a special Chinese herbal tea ever since, and if I
could I'd load up on coconut water. My shirts are soaking wet within 5
minutes of being out of the AC, and I am reminded (by someone very special)
that it is still winter in Seattle and I can't bitch and expect any
sympathy. She didn't use those exact words, but I know what she meant... I
will, however, cry myself a river.

And the deck games continue. My latest game is to harass the bosun. I do
two things: First, a game I call "squelch." I stand near him with my radio
turned all the way up so that when he attempts to call anyone with his
radio, the feedback is so bad nothing comes through but a horrible squeal.
After two days of this my favorite deck-mate, the "Fisherman," figured out
what I'm doing and he started doing it, too... so now every time I hear the
radio squeal I cannot help but laugh. And it does, indeed, make the days go
by faster. The second thing I do is question everything he wants us to do,
and justify my line of reasoning with "...because that's the way it's done."
As it turns out, there is almost no verbal defense against the claim of
"because that's the way it's done," and he flounders around for a few
minutes until he gives in.

And another game is called "Throw _________ under the bus," where
___________ is the person who has most recently earned my ire. As it turns
out, this person is almost always the Wrestler- a man I genuinely like but
about whom I have no misconceptions. He is a shameless back-biter, renown
for his simultaneous laziness and skill at stirring up shit wherever he
goes. He creates a maelstrom of discontent in his wake as he plays people
against each other, and he proudly claims the ship could not function
without his hard work, even though he spends his days wandering around the
ship expending incredible amounts of energy avoiding work altogether. And
stirring up shit, of course. After being thrown under the bus a number of
times, I figured out the rules to his game and now I offer him the face of
reasonableness, jocularity, and conspiratorial brotherhood while I slander
him to anyone who will listen behind his back. Today, after slandering him
heinously, I then put on my headphones and pretended not to hear anything he
said. It was very satisfying.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Little India... The new Chinatown of my affections...

As I sit in "Little India" eating a surprisingly good dinner, "#134 Northern India" and drinking a coconut (which reminds me of being in Brazil with Laura, visiting Helen and Anthony), I realize how poorly a phone serves as a computer when you're trying to write a blog post. 

I am, for all intents and purposes, purposefully lost in India itself... This part of Singapore is nothing like the Singapore I am familiar with!  But I came here for toe socks (Mustafe's is dumbfoundingly gargantuan and organized by metrics and measures beyond comprehension)... Toe socks for myself (with which to freak out Tim, who has a strong aversion to my toe sock fetish), and for two other shipmates who saw mine and lost their friggin' minds with envy.  Really... Can you blame them?

I am nursing my resentment towards "the company," too, while I miss Laura- there is little that complements pity like rage, it turns out.  Like sweet and sour sauce.  Or something.  Best done with food... Food, it turns out, I could be sharing with Laura if it weren't for unfettered greed in the face of contractual agreements.  Did I mention rage already?

This is yet another face of sailoring... Milking every second of every minute ashore.  With food and toe socks, to boot. 


Just like in the movies...

Monday, April 8, 2013

No Scuttling Allowed.

Most people think about foreign ports, exotic lands, and ocean wildlife when they think about sailors and sailoring... and sometimes, that is what being a sailor actually is- a grand adventure.  But only sometimes.  Mostly it is hurry-up-and-wait, workplace politics, industrial practices, commercial liability aversions (fall arrest harnesses over life jackets?  WTF?), and downright bullshit.  Like this two-and-a-half week stay in Singapore just became- complete bullshit.

For months we have been promised shore leave and plenty of overtime during our layup in Singapore, and we have all made plans accordingly.  Laura bought a ticket to come out, and after 6 months apart, we were both excited to become reacquainted while I showed her one of the coolest cities in the world.  While offloading all cargo from the ship I was alerted to the fact that "the company" had decided to anchor out in international waters and there would be no launch service.  Meaning we cannot enter Sing under our foreign articles.  Meaning, we would not be able to go ashore for the entire duration of our stay in Sing.  Meaning that really, really expensive airline ticket Laura bought was for nothing (we're still waiting to hear if we can get any of the money back).

There really aren't words for how pissed off I am... pissed off and disappointed (and wishing I could allay Laura's disappointment, somehow).  The general mood on the ship isn't good... and my only recourse is to be a royal pain in the ass and fire off lots of letters to people who don't share the degree of my righteous indignation in protest, with no likely action to ever result.  There is a provision in the contract that allows for the Ordinary, extra or not, to be laid off to pursue additional training- and if I simply couldn't muster up the intestinal fortitude to take the abuse I would think seriously about using it- however, I am out here for sea time and assessments, not the money.  My primary goals dictate I grin and bear it.  So as Laura eloquently put it, I need to "put on my big-boy panties and suck it up."

Which, when shared with the guys on the fan-tail (stern) while docking, immediately became part of the unlicensed deck's lexicon.  Now everyone on the ship needs to put on their big-boy panties and STFU.  When and if Laura ever meets some of these guys she'll have some serious cred.

So right now I am in an internet cafe deep under Chinatown in Singapore surrounded by adolescent Asian's playing the latest video games... in the air conditioning.  I just finished a weird concoction of white plums, dried, with salt and licorice (I assume it is for video-gaming stamina, gangnam style) and getting ready to venture back out to find some gifts that weigh nothing, mean everything, and cost something reasonable for friends and family.  And people watch.  And not be on the ship, angry, distracted, and dangerous.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Great Southern Fake-out

For the first time since leaving the Mediterranean- bound for NYC, all the
way back in February- I have a night sky worth gazing at... storms, tropical
haze, and moonshine have all but eradicated any observable celestial
anything. There is little traffic to maneuver around once you're off the
coasts of the Arabian Sea so I've gawked at the sky at my leisure for the
past two nights. And I'm going to tell you about it whether you want me to
or not, so grab a drink and have a seat. Take a load off. Keep quiet.

Once the view was finally clear and dark, I was very happy to look out the
wheelhouse and see Corvus (the Crow) on the left, and what I thought was
Crux (the Southern Cross) on the right. It turns out not to have been Crux
at all, though. It took me a while of scratching my head and spinning the
chart around before I figured out why, as I've mentioned in previous posts,
I have found pinpointing such a recognizable constellation to be confounding
at this latitude: Where the two nearby constellations of Vela and Carina
meet is an identical looking grouping of stars.

It is at the exact same angle to the equator of the celestial sphere as
Crux. It is exactly asymmetrical, and to the same degree, as Crux. And it
is right next to the Greater and Lesser Megallanic Clouds (two
visible-to-the-naked-eye galaxies, like Andromeda), also exactly like Crux.
The only way that the union of Vela and Carina (I call it the "Pseudocrux")
differs in any way from the Southern Cross is that it is slightly larger and
the angle of the arm is opposite. So now I know- the Pseudocrux, Corvus,
and Crux all form a large, inverted isosceles triangle. The horizontal arm
of Pseudocrux points at the star Acrux, brightest star of the Southern
Cross, which is the base of the cross (incidentally, the topmost star is
"Gacrux," the happiest star in the southern sky).

Canopus is the brightest star in Carina and it has been to our right as my
watch starts. Carina extends even closer to the celestial pole than Crux,
so I am on watch for its southernmost star, Miaplacidus, to rise above the
horizon once we get far enough south. On our left is an equally cool star,
Arcturus, which is the brightest star in Bootes. Both Canopus and Arcturus
rival Sirius for brilliance and awesome colors when they're low in the sky.

So there you have it- the mystery of Crux and Pseudocrux... solved! And
now, like always, I am about to take what little time I have and use it to

6 days until Singapura! Hoping to hear all about Laura's flight information
soon... I've been saving up my "timeback" so I can spend as much time ashore
with her as possible. I am very excited!