Thursday, August 21, 2014
There is nothing out here but the ghosts in your head. For thousands of miles you cross endless shades of indigo, water water everywhere, four miles deep and bending around the curve of the earth in all directions to the point of incomprehensibility, and at the end of the day the only things in your mind are the well-organized projects that reality will most likely never see... Conversations you’ll never have... And all those dreams watched from behind the windows of a thousand yard stare, any intrusion by job-related distraction an unwelcome annoyance cast off as soon as practicable.
The things of note on the midwatch:
I saw a moon-bow, also known as a lunar rainbow, or- as Ronny James Dio would call it- a “rainbow in the dark.” I kept referring to it as “The rainbow of the dead,” or the “the unicorn’s grave.” Whatever you want to call it, the damned thing was eerie- at first looming in the darkness like a dome over a fog bank, it grew at an imperceptible rate into the unmistakable arc of a partial halo, the colors indistinct- as if they were nothing but the corpses of colors past. It only lasted long enough for me to cross it off my bucket list of phenomena to see- and now that I know what they look like I will probably be quicker to spot one in the future when it drifts toward me in the dark.
I have created a song playlist on the bridge's music system that all watches have adopted (for the moment, anyway). The previous playlists had grown so stale that I suspect anyone could have put any music into a new one and it would have been popular, but I was the first to blink.
I call the cadet, third, and second mates “the kids-” one is 21, the next 23, the last is 25. Since they are my mental age we get along fine. Through much finagling and back-slapping, I built up the required enthusiasm so that we have established a gym on the bridge wing. I use it to stay awake at night, they use it because they are young enough to be in thrall to their own testosterone. Yay Youth!
And now, Guam. Again. This time I forwent the rental car and took a ship’s bike to the end of the road, to a beach far removed from civilization, and swam out a quarter mile or so to where the reef drops off into the depths and gawked like a yokel at the neon fish, the tropical warmth, the ship wreck covered in life and lost to history, the anchor and chain that let its ship go in the storm, and I indulged in the strange isolation that comes from the loss to your ears of all sound but that of your own gasping breath. A bubble of magic within the sea of the mundane. A mile up, a mile down, and then back to shore- to the heat and humidity waiting especially for me on the beach.
I rode the bike back to the ship past wild jungle fowl (read: chickens), lizards, and feral cats- one tom was too disdainful to even stand from the luxury of the asphalt where he sprawled, his contemptuous mug covered in battle scars and some fresh wounds, pointedly ignoring me as I rode on by while talking on the phone with Laura. Other cats with spots lurked in the bush. I don't know if it was the heat of the day or the inclination of the sun, but I didn't hear much bird song or insect droning, but perhaps it was because I had the disembodied voice of Laura in my bluetoothed earhole and all else was lost to my attention.
And then back here, to the smell of heated bunker oil steaming from the tank vents and the feel of that thin patina of grease covering every square inch of this ship, back to the pronounced juxtaposition of my ideal and my reality. Ship sails at 0700, with or without me. How very surreal it all seems, at times! Next port of call is two clock retards and 30 degrees of longitude away- Xiamen, China. Between here and there is a point in time that will mark the half life of my indenturetude, the midpoint of my middlemost voyage, and at that point all other milestones are downhill ones, all those mathematical tricks I play in my head to lessen the tedium of being away from home are now working for me, like compound interest.
Posted by A Merchant Mariner at 5:31 AM
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
One of my shipmates- let’s call him “Bobo”- spent 10 years as bosun on my last ship (before my 5 month tenure). I had heard his name countless times while I was there, and so when I signed on to this ship it was with great amusement that I listened to him tell a tale I have heard told by different sailors, only this time, from a completely different, first-hand perspective.
I must explain that that particular ship, which I will not mention by name, is the poorest paying ship in the union and attracts a particular type of sailor. For example: During my 5 months, one sailor, the “Toothless Fantasy Novelist,” would wander the halls in the wee hours of the morning wailing her particular brand of witchcraft’s plaintive howl, her leopard print tights taped into her tube socks with blue tape, eating a mixture of cereal, fruit, coffee, and yogurt from a paper cup with a wooden stir-stick which she would inspect, bite by bite, by holding right up to her face before eating, birdlike- obviously the quarter-inch thick lenses of her glasses needed to be a little bit thicker. Not an ounce of meanness in her, but… odd. She is what is referred to out here as an “institutionalized sailor-” one who moves from ship to ship, is mostly homeless on shore, and is incapable of taking care of herself in either place.
So my current shipmate, Bobo, was in charge of the barbeque set up, firing, and disposal of the spent briquettes afterward at the weekly BBQ on the stern. He was also the bosun and in charge of three AB’s and two ordinaries. His instructions to them were “once the briquettes are cool, throw them away ashore,” which they interpreted as “put the briquettes into a paper bag and throw them in the dumpster on the dock,” and he went forward to do other work on the bow.
The dumpster is on the dock next to a port facilities building, about a tenth of a mile from the ship. Bobo came out onto the stern and saw smoke and flames coming out of the dumpster not long after giving them their marching orders. So he grabbed multiple lengths of firehose, a nozzle, and rigged up to a hydrant on the dock to fight the fire. The hydrant, he soon discovered, wasn’t actually connected to any plumbing.
So Bobo ran more hose to the ship, his “help” more in the way than anything else. Knowing Bobo, quite the impatient sailor at best, he probably told them to get the expletive out of his way, so they were more than likely standing there on the dock, dumb looks on their faces, watching him work. More than likely.
Meanwhile, someone in the port facilities building called the fire department and before Bobo could get the hose from the ship charged, the fire truck showed up, sirens and lights going. At about this time the captain came driving back to the ship- he was apparently on the phone with one of the mates- the one who told me the story in the first place- who was up on the bridge reporting everything, blow by blow, with pure glee…
Listening to Bobo tell the story, and knowing all the characters involved, leaves me to believe Bobo’s account to be the most accurate… he’s one of the good sailors, after all, and was on a navy ship that caught fire and wears the scars to prove he takes fire safety a little more seriously than the next guy. But every story he tells- and he can fire them off one after the other- is equally capable of inducing head shaking disbelief. In light of the one story I have loosely come into contact with, I cannot doubt the veracity of any of the others, and listen with great amusement when he tells them in the mess hall at coffee.
Posted by A Merchant Mariner at 10:04 AM
Things I have been (mostly) smart enough to figure out on my own; without any other preamble, here are ten random bits of advice for my brother and three nephews going to sea for the first time:
1. Do not make enemies in the Steward’s Department- particularly the chief cook. Just don’t do it. I go out of my way to thank them, every meal, no matter how inedible it might have been. If you’re going to throw a plate of food away, don’t be seen doing it, or when the ship runs out of milk 10 days into a crossing, for example, YOU are “that bastard who wastes food,” and you’ll be blamed (even if you don’t drink milk). Mantra: “I’d rather eat this garbage once, today, than food-too-salted-for-consumption, 3 times a day, for 75 days.”
2. It might be your personal head, but leave the toilet seat down- it will only be when you are at your most exhausted, and you’ve just fallen asleep, when the ship will roll and the seat will crash down and wake you up, and no matter how hard you try, you just can’t fall back asleep again. Come to think of it, there’s a hook on your refrigerator door for a good reason, too. Turn the fan on. Create white noise to drown out the stuff that will wake you. But put the seat down. Mantra: “Hey! It actually DOES make a difference!”
3. When they say there is “no stupid question,” they’re lying. There are good stupid questions, and bad stupid questions- learn the difference quickly, as your reputation will be made accordingly. Mantra: “I’d rather be an idiot than look like one.”
4. More than half the people out here will tell you what to do, even though only one or two should be doing so. Some of these jerkwads will even tell you what to think. Know who should be telling you what to do and who you can tell to perform anatomical-impossibilities to themselves. If they persist, ask them to show you what they mean and keep asking good stupid questions that will keep them engaged in doing what you shouldn’t be doing. If you can make them look like an outright idiot, more the better. Mantra: “I still don’t understand- can you show me one more time?”
5. Maintain your aloofness and distance from your watch partner until you are 100% certain of their relative harmlessness. People hide a rotten nature behind a good personality, and at sea that rotten nature IS going to come out, and once it does, it won’t be put away again. And there is nowhere you can go to get away from that bastard for 8 hours a day. Mantra: “A vampire can only come into my house if I invite it, first.”
6. If something doesn’t look safe, you MUST say “I’m not doing that- it isn’t safe.” If some power-tripping mate fires you for insisting on doing something you believe to be unsafe then they become, at minimum, liable for all the wages you would have made from the point of firing until the end of your contract. Your job isn’t worth your life or limb- and trust me, they know their job isn’t worth your lawsuit, either. Mantra: “Well, fire me then, asshole.”
7. If someone gets an emotional response from you then you’ve just become their target for the rest of the voyage. The comedy of every situation will percolate to the fore if you approach these idiots with detachment- if you can laugh in their face and genuinely find the humor in the absurd situations they create, then you have taken their best weapon from them completely and at no cost to yourself. My friend the Fisherman was once told to put a disagreeable mate’s suitcase down on the dock, so- with a dead-pan and bored demeanor, without so much as blinking an eye or pausing for thought, he picked up the mate’s bag and tossed it over the rail to the dock, 50 feet below.
OK… that’s not exactly to my point. Just don’t let anyone get you too excited. Know exactly how far you can go and then go no further: That disagreeable mate had just signed off his ship’s articles- the Fisherman bided his time and then acted with absolute and devastating impunity… he couldn’t be punished in any way. Mantra: “Whatever you say, bossman.”
8. Don’t keep easy to eat junk food, no matter how healthy, in your room. Just don’t do it. Mantra: “3 lbs. of cashew will make me sick every single time.”
9. Take your caffeine requirements into your own hands before ever leaving land- getting out to sea without real coffee just sucks. I carry a minimum of a hand grinder, a pound of beans, and an aeropress to sea. I wash the filters and reuse them, just in case- I’d hate to run out. My ship currently has a K-cup machine so I have a case of k-cups, but I take organic instant with me, too, just in the off-hand chance all other caffeine delivery systems fail. Mantra: “I really need something to obsess about.”
10. Every ship is different. One ship will stow the rat-guards in a lashing box, while the next, nearly-identical ship will leave them next to the chocks. Don’t fight it- learn the way it’s done on your current ship and do it that way. It doesn’t matter if there’s a better way. Nobody cares how clever you are. The old-timers have forgotten why they do it that way “on this ship,” but sure as day, if you mess with it you’ll probably figure out that, yeah… indeed… it is done the best way, already. Mantra: “Ooooooh! Well… hell. NOW I get it.”
Posted by A Merchant Mariner at 10:02 AM
Tuesday, August 5, 2014
Long Beach, CA- the place where we get to break our work fast. After two loooooong days of crane lifts, bunker barge tie-ups and let goes, ship's stores, engine stores, slop chest stores, ABS inspections, lifeboat tests, windlass repairs, anchor brake tests, et cetera and so on, ad infinitum, I am officially ready to get underway so I can get some rest.
I am on standby for vendor crane lifts and I can't really get too comfortable until after 2000, when they're required to give me a 30 minute call-out. I'm procrastinating filling out a lodging complaint (hammering on the house at midnight woke everyone up) and waiting for calls from family on the east coast. I'm quite tired... after being woken from the deepest of slumbers last night, I couldn't fall back asleep until around 0530.
We have an almost entirely new crew (not new as in inexperienced- new as in swapped out for the other guys that do this boat for a living) and I'm liking the new crew a lot. CM seems good, bosun seems good, engineers all seem good... despite the high turn-over I have a good feeling about this trip. The last one wasn't bad, but it felt... odd, somehow. Silent and polite, but underlaid with angst.
Last night I went to Whole Foods and picked up 24 bottles of kombucha- very stoked! And cereal and half-and-half. Then the cadet and I ate sushi to the point of refusal- really tasty stuff at a place called "Koi" south of Long Beach.
OK... too tired to elaborate. Here, look at pictures instead:
|Sunset over an empty ship.|
|Coming into port.|
|Underway making way.|
|More dog humor.|
|The water churned by her screw.|
|The perspective of scale.|
|New reefer van on a lashed box.|
|My travel companions with coral pieces I picked up for Laura in Guam.|
Posted by A Merchant Mariner at 6:06 PM
Sunday, August 3, 2014
From my removed and remote location on the ship, China appeared to me like a combination of Vancouver, British Columbia (jokingly referred to as “Hongcouver” for its sizable Chinese population) and the incomprehensibly huge container berths of Jebel Ali. Only bigger. Much, much bigger. Those people under the illusion that “Everything is bigger in America” and “China is the third world” might have a hard time jibing what they see with what they “know.”
Everything I saw on land was brand new: New buildings, new bridges, new infrastructure, new port facilities… with the exception of the container berths- everything on the docks IS new, but well-used to the point of abused. As far as the eye could see, on either shore, for mile after mile, in all three ports we visited and waterways we transited, China is brand new and bigger than Texas.
Unlike the Egyptians and some of the slaves of the United Arab Emirates, however, I quite like the Chinese. With few exceptions they’ve all been pleasant to work with- many of them smile a lot, one group of line handlers was laughing and playing mock tug-of-war with one of the AB’s on the stern of the ship, and the tugs (so far) haven’t been out to kill us (like they do in Egypt). Their quality of life, at an uninformed glance, seems to be pretty good.
The Mate keeps laying us in to comply with STCW sleep regulations… I have a good amount of time on my hands to try and sleep, but the schedule is such that I lay there and fail to actually sleep. As a result I’ve been bored AND tired… thanks International Maritime Organization… thanks a lot.
And this is not hypothetical: What happens when a contract says I am guaranteed a “minimum” of work and pay in a particular situation, say-for example- port prep, but the STCW sleep regulations demand that I have 6 hours off in one chunk of time in any random 24 hour period and the contract and the law can’t agree? I’ll tell you: I don’t actually work, but I get paid for it. Both “Yay! Free Money!” and “Oh My God I Am Even More Bored Out of My Mind.”
Boredom is something I rarely feel… at home I work too much, and out here, I have never said “no” to overtime. But now I am feeling it, and I was unprepared for this contingency.
My phone company has updated my phone plan since my first ship- I no longer have to buy a cheap phone, a SIM card, and a top-up card in every country I travel to from some shady groups of conspiring and shifty-eyed “vendors.” I can use my phone with unlimited, albeit throttled, data and reduced calling rates. I have only used it sparingly, so far- one too many surprises over the years with my phone company billing department prevents me from going hog-wild as of yet, but once I know what that bill is going to look like… I’ve had success in Guam (which is the US, I suppose) and China while at port, and the occasion signal from Korea and Japan while we transit up the Sea of China.
We’ve managed to thread the needle between two typhoons and avoid any weather… yay!
We advanced clocks on our voyage from China to Long Beach, CA. Where we retarded them one hour at night on the way over, we advance them 2 hours during the day (40 minutes at 10, 15, and 18 hundred hours) every other day on the way back. And when we cross the Prime Meridian, as I’ve said, that day repeats itself or disappears depending on which way you cross it… I avoided July 11th altogether- which is good, because there was this prophecy that foretold catastrophic doom on that day…. um… nevermind. No there wasn’t. But Monday the 28th was 46 hours long. True story.
The Yangtze's has dirty, mud-colored water, much like the Mississippi. The sea at the mouth of the river was the color of olives as we transited to the pilotage, but when we left, the entirety of the same area glowed at night with a vivid, green bioluminescence. The moon was new (black), yet we could see all the way to the horizon and the whitecaps were clearly visible. The water churned by the screw behind us glowed brightly for five miles before dissipating. Interestingly, the smell of algae was strong on the wind, a smell I associate with stagnant fresh water ponds, not the open, wind-swept sea.
Beyond Japan we began to see sea mammals. I saw several pods of humpback, their long square heads and forward spraying spouts a welcome sight. According to the identification guide, their blowholes are asymmetrically located on the left-hand side of their snouts. Dolphin leapt in the wake or ran from us on numerous occasions, but not playfully- they were very businesslike and had places to be, dolphins to see. And I saw thousands of ghost whales- which are the whales you think you see after seeing real whales.
Not to beat a dead horse (again), I should self flagellate in penance for forgetting my seabird identification book. An enormous albatross visited us south of Kamchatka and south west of the Bering Strait. Its body was white and its vast wings were plumed all black, and it flew back and forth across our bow hunting in the same way that boobys and gannets do. It is much larger than even frigate birds, which have a 7 foot wingspan, but until I get a proper guide in front of me (or internets) I will not know exactly what kind of albatross it was, nor what its wingspan actually might have been.
The sea colors have all been various shades of green- from olive and jade off the coasts of Japan and Korea, to the dark, colorless flint color that churned a brilliant emerald green in the fog that limited our visibility to 1/10th of a mile as we turned for 22 knots in the cold waters of the North Pacific. It seems I see more life in the colder waters north of the horse latitudes than I do in places where the water is blue and warm- clearly I am a specially adapted sea-mammal.
With 7 days left in the transit there was no overtime. People were getting squirrelly. Odd complaints, odd behavior. I hide… if I drank I’d probably stay drunk like the daymen, but personally, I think hiding is the better strategy. Every room has an x-box 360, and 8 of us played Halo 3 against one another most nights during the crossing. I made a lanyard out of ¼” line as a cat toy for Catain Scratchy. The old man’s son, 13, can seriously talk… but I’ve discovered a strategy for running him off when he gets too tedious- I begin teaching him the finer points of marlinspike seamanship. His eyes glaze in minutes, and within 5 he disapparates (yes, that is a Harry Potter reference- I have watched them all, back to back, in lieu of overtime- as well as the Lord of the Rings, Life on Mars, and other stuff).
My Chinese visa application is ready to hand in to the “woman in Long Beach who gets visas.”
And the fog. Lots and lots of fog. Foremast invisible fog, for day after day once we left the coast. Pacific Ocean engulfing fog, from one side to the other. When it cleared for a brief moment on the Tuesday following the 46 hour Monday (Meridian day) I saw a seal, 500 miles south of the Aleutian Islands, looking completely out of place. A pod of Dall’s Porpoises showed up and leapt from the glass-like and waveless mirk off our port bow, but the fog moved back in soon thereafter and the claustrophobia that held sway again ascended its throne.
And now here I sit, one day out from the coast. The fog cleared late yesterday and this morning, for the first time since leaving Hono on the 7th, I saw a sky worthy of star-gazing. Shooting stars and a moonless sky so bright with the backscatter of the milky way that even the most familiar constellations were lost amidst the confusion.
Today saw the first cobalt blue water I’ve seen since crossing the Atlantic. It also saw the first day where I’ve been ready to take off a head with the sharp side of my tongue- and not a minute too soon, either… I was just elected delegate. Third ship in a row… the contract is slightly different, but mostly it is “same same.” I have managed to remain civil, however, up to this point- despite the fact there are several people who just rub me the wrong way. Lucky for me they are out of here the day after tomorrow. A whole new crop of unknown assholes will take their place, and I’ll try to remain civil with them for another 82 days…
And that’s what I got.
Posted by A Merchant Mariner at 7:18 AM