Monday, September 29, 2014


The number of days until my incarceration ends is almost countable with all my fingers and toes.  I haven’t “gone sideways,” yet, but there are a few around me that certainly have.  Actually, there are a few sailors here that exist in that state and only attain lucidity on an irregular and infrequent basis, but I’ve insulated myself against exposure to them.

Or maybe I have gone sideways and I’m “that sailor who’s hiding in his room….”  I’ll only know it  with hindsight, when I am on the beach, again, decompressing and being retrained by Laura.

Autumn in the Marianas Islands means thunderheads, torrential downpours, and oppressive humidity… but it was cooler than during my first two trips.  The first night out of Guam saw 5 meter swells on our quarter.  Our load was light and we rolled like mad, and as a result, nearly half the crew was incapacitated by exhaustion the next day from failing to sleep through the action.  Some of them even got sick.  My schedule (on the midwatch) is so screwy I frequently fail to get enough sleep, but I was able to “throw a kickstand out” and sleep soundly.  Seasickness for me feels exactly like hunger- so I pig out.  It’s like puking in reverse.

The cat, Catain Scratchy, is no longer aboard.  He departed with the last captain.  There are four plants on the bridge I have been taking care of since I boarded, but with Scratchy’s absence, I have tended them with more detail and vigor.  They were withered, bruised, and stunted back in July- but no more.  They’ve sent out flowering runners in all directions, and they’ve taken over one corner of the bridge.  Of course I had to transplant one of them in the dark, as we took a swell and rolled far enough to send it to the deck, but it didn’t miss a beat.

Four days out of Guam we transited up the river to Xiamen, past the new city that stands where hovels used to be twenty years ago, past the 14,000 teu, 1302 foot Emma Maersk, past a ship dead in the water next to the channel choking all other ship traffic, and to our cargo operation involving only 360 moves in 8 hours.  We let-go during the middle of my “long sleep,” so my following watch, midnight to 0400, was just brutal.

The South China Sea was lit up by “squid boats,” which are small fishing boats with lights as bright as portable suns.  The light attracts the squid, which the fishermen catch with nets, but the lights also ruin mariners’ night vision and blot out the stars.  You can see a fleet of squid boats when they’re an hour over the horizon, looming like a city.  When they finally pop up over the rim of the world, they stab at your eyeballs.  Like ravens on a corpse.  Normal navigation lights disappear in their glare, which effectively makes the other little fishing boats- the ones that don’t get picked up by radar until they’re within 5 miles- utterly disappear from sight.

I drove us in and out of Ningbo, the currents working me like a dog.  She’d hold steady, on course, then run like hell either port or starboard and I’d have to throw the helm 20 degrees over to check her swing.  That is a lot on a ship- for those of you who are not quartermasters.  Actually, I’m relieved for another 34 minutes before I have to go back up to the bridge and continue driving us out of Ningbo.  Next stop: Shanghai.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Hawaii to Guam- Third Time's A Charm

Guam.  Again.  I like it more, this time.  Eating lunch right now at a place called the "Mermaid..." of course... and heading around to the windward side of the island, soon, which is in a rare leeward condition today, to snorkel in a protected bay at a places called "Jeff's Pirate Cove" which began its life as a canoe club.  Proas are just southern Uluas, right?  Um... no, but whatever.

Cargo Ops, yo.

Thunderstorms rolling in beneath thick, unbroken stratus clouds.  And my ship.
I'm here, ashore, for groceries, stainless steel thimbles for my bellropes, phone calls... all the things to get me through China and the looooong transit back to the US.  And an end to this incarceration.

The Chamorro People of the Marianas Islands look intimidatingly large, scowl a lot, and they're heavily tattooed with what 90's yuppies called "tribal art," but their rough looks belie their good humor- one lasher, in particular, makes me smile when I merely look at him.  He has an infectious laugh, a quick wit, and a devastatingly dry delivery that catches the unaware flat-footed... like it did me on my first trip through.

Long after you (read: I) begin to stammer and get confrontational with him, however- he hits you with high-pitched, almost girlish laughter, and all is instantly good.  I wouldn't tell him his laugh was girlish, though.  Not even- but I can only imagine how much fun it would be to roast a pig on the beach with some of these guys- or Samoans and Hawaiians, who I like equally.

Now, on my third trip through, he greeted me like an old friend when the lashers came aboard.

Minutes before crossing the dateline and leaping forward through time (there
is a pun there, if you're wondering- hint: degrees, hours...).

Spanish Ring Hitch, or "hogsbacking," for my newest bellrope.

New bellrope- layout.  This one is larger than the last, and I have built-up
the core since this was taken to give it a more pleasing shape.

Google Photos randomly filtered this photo of Hawaii falling away astern as we
left for Guam- and I like it.  

I photoed this oddity while talking with mom, and then Laura, on the phone in Hawaii.

Also photoed while on the phone with mom, and then Laura- the conversations
were "enhanced" by a bajillion little birds screeching in the foliage all about me.

Pacific Man-O-War, thankfully dead on the beaches of Hawaii.

See... this is my kind of crazy.  Kudos to her builder.  A sailing ama to his
starboard, a rowing ama as a "safety ama" to his port... and an A-symetrical,
S-shaped set of iokos.  I would LOVE to see what kind of rig he carries! 
Close up of a rowing ama.  A sailing ama would be "wave-piercing," lacking
the "banana-shaped" rocker you see here.

$15.00 brand-new at an ABC Store in Hono.
Sounds like shit, won't hold a tune, but it is
entertaining parts of my brain, nevertheless.

And that's all I gots for you.  I am paper thin and ready to be off this ship... ready to be home with Laura and my kitteh, and ready to reconstitute those parts of life that shrivel and mummify out here in the arid hardscape of floating steel amongst the social misfits that make up the unlicensed deck department.  Here playing with all the failures on the Island of Misfit Toys.  I have all the foodstuffs to incubate inside my quarters and hide from the other inmates.  I have movies, books, video games, projects, and audio books.  And I am crossing off the days with a red marker.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Random and Unidentifiable Detritus

My first day watch out of Long Beach was through gray waters where several blue whale plumes were visible on all quarters at any given time, some as far as 6 miles away.  There had to be dozens about not blowing, cruising the unseen highways beneath the placid surface, their respiratory cycles marked in minutes and hours, not in mere seconds.  The one whale that came down the side of the ship, however, had a considerably lower and wider plume (not the 50 foot geysers of the blue whales everywhere) and the skin coloration and dorsal of a fin whale.  

I am reading “The Devil’s Teeth,” a book about great white sharks that Laura recommended and it mentions the variety and numbers of whales in these cold Californian waters, grays and the great blues, in particular.  I didn’t see any humpbacks, but they’re apparently in these waters, too.  I can still see them in my mind, breaching off the coast of Sri Lanka two years ago, their great pectoral fins raised high as they came splashing down sideways in tens of tons of displaced and scattered seawater.  I was hoping to see some of them amidst this current profusion… but no such luck.  

I just learned that tuna, mako sharks, and great white sharks are warm-blooded… how did I not know that!?

On my first ship, it took 180 days to reach a point where I no longer felt constrained by societal niceties and I became free to say exactly what I was thinking while mired in coworker interactions.  All filters were stripped away, and my inner self- the one not marred by manners and politeness- was free to be confrontational with anyone and everyone whose personal narrative mistook my congeniality for timidity or weakness.  On my second ship, it took about 120 days to hit that mark.  I have reached that point in only 70 days here on my third ship.  Doing the math, that means this erosion will occur in only 30 days on my next ship, and after that I will start all my future voyages with no constraints.  
Fair weather sailing

2 Days Out of Hono

The amount of garbage floating in the indigo calm today was remarkable.  Much of it was fishing gear, but other stuff was incongruously mixed in- water bottles, food containers, tires- and I suspected it was, taken in its entirety, a raft of debris from Japan’s Fukushima-related tsunamis.  According to the general ocean current map in Bowdich, the currents are exactly right for a large debris field to have migrated to a gyre north of Hawaii and to be circulating still to this day.

As if to serve as a reminder that nature wastes no opportunity at life, dorado hung like shadows under every free-floating buoy, cooler, balled-up fishing net, and other random and unidentifiable detritus that came down our sides.  The submariners occasionally erupted from under the surface after the flying fish scattered by our bow wake.  Dorado are called Mahi Mahi in Hawaiian, which means "very strong." It reminds me of the George Carlin rant about humanity’s hubris, and how- once we get over our self-importance- we might simply be nothing more than nature’s way of injecting plastic into the world before we snuff ourselves out while the world keeps chugging along, oblivious to our absence.  

1 Day Out of Hono

Brown Boobies!  Red Footed Boobies!  Masked Boobies!  In Hawaiian they are all known as ‘A.  The Wedge-Tailed Shearwaters are known as Ua’u Kani, and I have probably called many of them “Brown Boobies” through misidentification (their coloration is similar- their faces are not).

Those albatross I keep seeing are Laysan Albatross, or Moli, and I mistakenly thought of them as being larger than the Great Frigate Bird, or ‘Iwa, but they have a wingspan of only 78 inches, compared to the Frigate Bird’s whopping 90 inches (that’s 7.5 feet, yo).

You guessed it- I found a bird book aboard.  Not as good as mine, but I’m happy to have it, nonetheless.  The Royal Terns I grew up with are absent here, but there is a Sooty Tern (‘Ewa’Ewa) that has the telltale deep-V tail like its cousin.  The Frigate bird has a very similar tail, but a noticeable size difference and jet-fighter wings prevent any confusion.

Anyway, flying fish and shearwaters (both the wedge-tailed and the christmas) here 500 miles from land as I make plans to go ashore and pretend I am human for a brief spell.  I’m going snorkelling at a haole-beach close to Diamondhead, then meeting a couple shipmates for sushi lunch, then going snorkelling again.  If I can, I’ll replenish my kombucha supply (I lost a glass gallon jug of it to type-A driving in my rental in Long Beach).  

And I will officially be 2/3rds of the way through my time aboard this, as her name translates, “Bird of the Oceans.”  

Southern North Pacific - Hawaiian

Southern North Pacific - Guamanian

South China Sea

Sea of Japan

North Pacific- Japan's Kuroshio "black current"

North Pacific - South of the Aleutians 

Day of Arrival

The Hawaiian Islands breached like sea turtles as we did port prep, but we’re still nowhere near cellphone range.  Port prep involves faking out the mooring lines on the decks fore and aft, taking their tag lines (on this ship they don’t use messenger lines, just really long tag lines) and leading them to the rail near the heaving line, and getting all the rat-guards in place.  When it’s time, we throw the heaving line to the line handlers on the dock below, who use it to bring the tag lines to them so they can pull the actual dock lines to the bollards.  

We also have a single “soft-line” on the bow and stern- a heavy, thick line that doesn’t go under tension that’s used as a backup should the winches fail.  It gets pulled up on the drum through a scuttle from below decks and then flaked out.  When we take it off, it gets three round turns around the bits, three figure-eights, and the rest is “stove-piped” on one of the bits.

We also rig the gangway.  It partially disassembles and folds up on the main deck while underway, so rigging it consists of pretty much the opposite: paying out the winch cables, putting on a harness and walking out onto the horizontal stairs and assembling the handrails, and then throwing a strap on the stringer so if the winch fails it doesn’t drop into the water.

The anchors get readied to drop should we lose propulsion.  Interestingly (to people who like words, anyway), “anchors aweigh” means the opposite of what most people assume it does, mistaking it for “anchors away:” It means it is no longer on the seafloor and the ship is “underway.”  Underway, not making way, actually… once the anchor is clear of the water the conning officer can put the ship under propulsion and we are then underway, making way.  We either drop anchor by letting the chain run, or we “walk them out” by paying out the windlass… there is a video of an anchor chain running in a 2012 post here on this blog.

Ha!  I have cell signal!  Emergency calls, only, but we’re that much closer!  That, and it’s time for me to drive this big ol' girl...  Meaning we’re done here.

Oahu broad to starboard
"Taking on" the tug

My first Bos'n's ship... we ALMOST got to hang out but they were sailing soon

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Mini-Photo Dump

0400 sailing... one more run to the store and return the car... and so begins voyage number 150 for this "Bird of the Oceans," m/v Manukai.
My Swedish fid got a face job! 
Cargo Ops in Long Beach, CA

Bellrope awaiting varnish and paint

A new tiki on the bridge... this one is to ward off sailboats

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Merlons and Cetaceans (Beneath the Guttersnipe Tree)

Guam to China

The cobalt seas have no wavelets and the gentle, following swells travel slightly slower than the ship, casting the illusion that we are moving in slow motion.  Chaotic skies surround us.  The cumulous on the horizon appear to sit right on the ocean’s surface, the towers of proto-anvil nimbuses that thrust upward like merlons on a medieval turret are ringed around us.  The heat and humidity doesn't feel immediately overbearing- it is the creeping stranglehold of a jilted lover rather than the efficient attack of the assassin, but come to bear it does- with all the force of sky behind it, leaning its full weight on the body rather than merely pushing down on it.

The ocean is an electric indigo, churning Wegeny Blue (™), and when I take her photo it looks like I've jacked the saturation way up, or used Instagram to “enhance” the image, but in at least one or two instances the camera “gets it right” and the colors are exactly as I see them on all quarters of the sea around me.  I read a printout of the news, drink coffee, and crack jokes while surrounded by the most amazing scenery, day in and day out.  Really… who does this?!
No filter- point and click with my phone.

There is still no overtime.  At some point (Hono- when I was late back to the ship after a day off) I pissed the chief mate off and there has been no recovery from it.  It is not the best position to be in if you’re the delegate.

On ships, the second mate directs docking maneuvers via radio with the bridge on the bow while the third mate directs them on the stern.  I call them “the kids” because they’re so young.  Unfortunately, the third mate overheard me tell the AB I call “Bobo” that he “lacked confidence” while docking in Guam.  Oops.  I wouldn't give a shit, except that he’s just about my favorite person aboard. My comment clearly caused him anxiety and distress.

The issue was this:  On some ships we use anaconda line, which is 3-½” to 4” line.  On this ship we use amsteel blue, which is only 1-⅝” in diameter, but stronger than wire rope of the same size.  The line comes off a “storage side” of a winch drum, but if you take tension on it while it is on that side of the drum it will “bury itself” in the line stored there.  So we “throw it over” to the working side of the drum, where there is no stored line and the dock line can bear on solid steel.  When to throw the line over changes with different diameters and line materials… and on only his second docking on this ship he flubbed it.

The working side of the drum is to the left, the storage side on the right.  The
capstan off the end of the winch is called a "gypsy head."

So this “kid,” instead of having a tantrum or becoming surly, came to me instead for advice on when to throw the line over.  Why, oh why, couldn't I have been more like that when I was his age?  Hell, why can’t I be more like that now?  It is the least kid-like response he could have chosen out of an infinite number of responses.

So in my mind I have been thinking of this voyage as “The Voyage of Humble Pie,” and not just for me and the third mate, either.  It was a lesson in humility for the captain of the s/v Walkabout, it was a lesson in humility for the old man who almost failed to secure that rescue, and I am sure there are others I am simply unaware of.


Not much to say, except take my watch times and add just as much work in between said watches and then subtract sleep...  Add the unpaid time required to track the gang’s overtime and a flock of irate gutter-snipes, decorating the time sheet with condescending post-it notes like brightly colored birdshit under a gutter-snipe tree, and you will have a picture of my second trip through China.  I failed to secure a visa due to the fact that, contrary to everything I was told last voyage, the “woman who gets visas” can not get visas for people who live in WA state because it is outside the LA consulate’s area of jurisdiction.  Life under the gutter-snipe tree.

China to Long Beach, CA

The weather has gone from unbearably hot and humid to wet and cold, the sunlight from directly overhead to autumnally inclined rays that originate low in the sky and cast long shadows- all since we left China a scant five days ago.  Dall’s porpoises make way briskly through green water ranging between jade to forest green, maybe kelly green, churning a paler version of the same hue, the cold, chlorophyllic soup full of jumping fish, the valleys between the swells filled with brown boobies swooping and diving, painted into the negative space between the rolling hills of water.  An inverse wave of birds.  Surfing.  Endless food as far as the eye can see.  Forever and ever, amen.

Of course I walk around the bridge saying “Brown Boobies!” every time I see one, which is often.  Last time we came through here, almost due south of the Bering Straight, I saw seals… which is contrary to everything I thought about the shore-hugging, land-loving sea dogs.  I am seeing the great ocean-going albatross of the white body/black wing variety.  Upon lamenting that I left my Seabird’s of the World identification guide, the chief mate showed me the Audubon app for his phone… which is, in a word, totally bad-ass.  Not only can you identify specific species, you can hear them, too… and it’s birds, mammals, trees, plants, fish… etc.  I think I just got One-Upped in epic fashion, and I am buying that app as soon as I hit cellphone territory.

I am second guessing my sea mammal identification of late.  I have slowly come to realize that the Dall’s Porpoises share a territory and characteristic speed, behavior, and tell-tale “rooster tail” spray while swimming with those of the Northern White Sided Dolphin, and to a lesser degree, with the Northern Rightwhale Dolphin.  Yeah, they look very different in the book, but from 130 feet up and a mile away… well… Not for the first time, nor for the last, will I decry my lack of interwebs, my key to the side door of the Library of Alexandria (that side door where all the pan-handlers congregate and ask for money or solicit you for porn when you walk though).

Four Days and a Wakeup

Today saw torrential rain, faint sunbreaks, or thick fog indecisively closing-in or moving-off, as if the weather gods debated the current conditions and each time a god scored a rhetorical point against their godly opponent a new weather condition was made manifest.  The forest green water of earlier this week morphed into a not-teal, not-aquamarine blue-green that I’d need a pantone index to describe accurately, but what struck me most about the coloration was the ever-changing hues and finishes that went from clear to drab, high-gloss to matte, and everything in between. And then, as if to second guess the changes, back again.  One moment the water appeared as thin and volatile as methyl-ethyl ketone, the next as dense and viscous as bunker oil.

And the sea mammal issue is solved- the most numerous cetaceous critter out here right now is definitely the Dall’s Porpoise.  And holy crap! But they are fast!  I mentioned the last time we came through here that they moved as if they had someplace important to be, but today I realized- after ample opportunity to sate my observatorial curiosity- they are simply suffering from exposure to methamphetamines.  Or cocaine.  Possibly both.

They are characterized as reaching speeds of 35 mph, but I’d swear they go faster than that- so fast, in fact, in order to observe them I was forced to “lead” my prey with the binoculars and look where I anticipated them to be, because when I looked where I saw their telltale roostertails it was too late- they had long moved out of the optical field of view of my long-eyes.  I wasn't always successful at seeing them, either, as they turn on a dime, but the “lobe” on the dorsal in conjunction with the stupendous speed and the unmistakable roostertail convinced me: Dall’s Porpoises- NOT the White Sided Dolphin, and certainly not the dorsal-less Rightwhale Dolphin, though both have made their appearances in recent weeks- only now I can tell the difference.

I have done three days of OT.  I’m not eating dinner because when you advance clocks between lunch and dinner there is only about three hours between meals.  I have a bowl of cereal before watch, instead.  I have finally finished my first “proper” bellrope and it is awaiting varnish and paint.  I never thought, not in a million years, I would be seeking solace in macrame... it’s goddamned embarrassing.  What next?  Quilting?  Basket weaving?  Ugh.

Having owned it, now I must move on to the next iteration of the disease- mastery of the turks head knot.  I can tie them- and do, don’t get me wrong- but they are still mysterious creatures.  And if you flip back to my first or second post after joining this ship you’ll see a photo of a bellrope with an elaborate, doubled 9 bite, 12 lead turks head on the bottom that has me itching to get my hands on a copy of the “Turk’s Head Cookbook.” A damnable and slippery slope.

This is what I made to tie a 12 bite turks head... 

Day of Arrival - Longbeach

Five 2-hour clock advances every other day has simply worn me out.  The days are two hours shorter, which- for me on the midwatch- means that each of my two sleeps per day is 40 minutes shorter but my work day is the same.  So I go to bed and can’t immediately sleep.  By every 4th rest period I am unable to sleep at all, so I end up sleep deprived for the long part of every second day.  Then I crash.  And repeat.  

Today saw a grey whale and some bottlenose dolphin, numerous sailboats enroute to and from Catalina, and the first sunlight since Xiamen, China.

But it is the morning of our arrival and I am gearing up to rent a car for my exciting trip to Costco and Whole Foods, either tonight or tomorrow night.  And my blue-tooth is ready to get my talk-on with Laura, who last heard  from me, intermittently, from China- the time-delayed, exhausted, and irritated me of three ports in four days, that is.  The me that should avoid the phone, at all costs, but can't because it's the last opportunity connect.

When we hit port (when the ship doesn't arrive and depart on the same day) we watchstanders revert to daymen, meaning we work 0800 until 1500, all other time worked becomes OT, or we can go ashore.  Unfortunately, while I have a civilized schedule in Long Beach, cargo operations will be going on.  Cranes will be running, picking up boxes and either depositing them with a crash onto awaiting trucks, or- once discharge is complete- depositing them on the ship with a resounding boom that travels through the steel of the ship and directly into my dental work.  Meaning sleep will be elusive (refer to the last 3 seconds of the following video).  

Phone calls, interwebs, resupplying my private foods and coffees, kombucha, and interrupted sleeps- here I come! And Oh Yeah- I called a meeting, as delegate, and forced the election of a new delegate... I am free from THAT tedium this trip!