Saturday, October 3, 2015

Five Days Too Long

I went into the union hall on a Tuesday to update my documentation; the Rep was waiting for me.  “I need you for five days,” he said.  “Can you do that?”

“Sure,” I replied, but when I heard which company I'd be working for, I had a bad feeling about it. I died a little inside but I hid it. My gut is usually right on.

That night I was on a red-eye for New Orleans to take a 1100' military RO-RO (roll on, roll off) vessel out into the Gulf of Mexico for “speed trials.”  I had never driven a ship down the Mississippi, so hell… why not, right?  

It has been a few years since my last U.S. Navy vessel experience... how bad could it be?  The processed food, horrible bedding, toxic stack-gas, and ever-present patina of grease aside, I mean. 

My ship on the right, her sistership to the left made-up to us.

Arriving fresh from my red-eye flight at 1120 on Wednesday, I was quickly run through the sign-on drills.  After filling out the exact 12 pages of sign-on forms I had filled out in the union hall the day before and giving copies of my passport, MMC, TWIC, Fit-For-Duty, Drug Screening, blank “STCW Rest Period Log Form HR-122” (to be filled out before pay will be issued by The Company), I was given the “Vessel Indoctrination And Familiarization Tour Form HR-121” and I was led around the ship and instructed to check all the right boxes. A little redundancy never hurt anyone.

Nor is any tedium left to chance.  The important stuff (like lifeboat muster and fire stations) was given the same level of importance as “Department Procedures,” and an inordinate amount of time was spent listening to those touched with brilliance ask questions that had just been answered while we wandered around the ship en masse.  Much was glossed over… for example, winch and windlass training.  

I swear they have only one room layout used on all ships.

The bosun was on the second week of his first bosun’s gig.  The only person with more experience in the unlicensed deck department than me had been at sea since the 70s and it mystified me that he was issued a fit-for-duty at all given how completely he was out of shape.  Typically, the chief mate serves as captain while the ship sits at the dock, but since we were headed out to sea, they brought on a captain. The captain was 8 years my junior and had never been on this ship before.  To say it's a miracle the ship left the dock at all would be an understatement.

So out we go, flushed into the Gulf on the tide of pesticides and fertilizers eroding from the poisonous and corrupted heartland of ‘Merica.  Call-outs were bungled.  People wandered around looking for where they were supposed to be.  Nobody seemed to know what was going on… it was exactly how I remembered my last Navy ship experience - and hence, the company I was working for.  

The steering station.

We steamed out into open water and once we cleared the headwaters of the Mississippi and the hundreds of oil drill platforms and drill ships, I breathed deeply and attempted to relax into my watch schedule.  Of course, that ain’t gonna happen on a 5 day voyage… and even if it were to be a longer run, it wasn’t going to happen with this company.  I relaxed into nothing.  There was no schedule to relax into, only frustration and anxiety-producing miscommunication.  

Well, that and a spider and wasp infestation.  We lowered all 4 lifeboats and with each drop of the gravity davits a cloud of pissed-off wasps would envelope us.  Those of us born in the South scattered like cockroaches on a kitchen floor when the lights are suddenly thrown on in the middle of the night; the rest of the crew were yankees and northwesterners who didn’t even see them.

Our “speed trials” were quickly scuttled when the engine room informed us during my first sea watch that we couldn’t slow down or the engine would blow up.  Really.  Those exact words.  “If we slow down, the engine will blow up.”  Like a bad movie starring Keanu Reeves.

The captain maintained an amused detachment, though his manners failed to hide his lack of incredulity.  The plan became that we’d come into the anchorage at the mouth of the Mississippi, skid to a halt in the "parking lot", and get towed upriver, the caveat being that they wouldn’t take us on in seas greater than 3 feet because the surge caused by heaving could part the lines. Three foot seas are also known as “dead calm” on a ship, BTW.

As we headed in, 5 tugboats greeted us and the pilot came aboard while we were still under full speed.  There was much hemming and hawing about the sea-state being too great, and I crossed my fingers that we wouldn’t be delayed. That I’d be heading home the next day.  That I would get off this boat before anything else of consequence happened.

I left the bridge and went to the foredeck to assist in taking on the tow line (the one that might not actually get sent up to us), a task so mind numbingly familiar and simple to do, and something so routine, that there was no way to fuck it up.  Done it hundreds of times.  Easy peasy.

Sigh.  We prepped the winch when I got there.  The mate asked us to prep the next winch as a backup.  A backup?  Yeah.  Better safe than sorry, right?  Yeah.  I have never done it before, but hey… why not?  If dropping the messenger down to the tug and hauling their tow line aboard somehow failed a second winch would be… well… kind of useless.  But whatever.

Two winches.  Sad to say I have no photos of the windlasses.

I’ll pause here to explain something about ships’ equipment.  Ships tend to have two anchors on the bow.  The windlasses that haul up the anchors and let them go are run on the same hydraulic power pumps as the winches for two of the bow’s mooring lines.  A central shaft runs through one windlass and one winch on one side, and another runs through the windlass and winch on the other side.

There is a gear that engages each shaft to its windlass, and another gear that engages each to their corresponding winches.  By moving each gear separately you can engage the windlass or winch and use them independently of one another.  The winch has its own hydraulic brake, and the windlass has its own hydraulic brake.  The only thing they share is the power and the shaft.

So I was tasked with prepping the next winch, the just-in-case-winch, but the shaft wasn’t engaged. So I tried to align it and realized the pump was off.  I relayed this vital information to the bosun, who immediately came over to the winch station, tried the power (exactly as I had), and then, inexplicably, reached over and threw the valve to the hydraulic brake for the windlass, which began to loosen; he turned and walked away.

The gear for the anchor is always left disengaged when coming into port should the ship need to drop anchor in an emergency, so as soon as the tension was released from the brake the wildcat was freed and the anchor started to run.  And it ran like hell.  

Did I mention we were doing 18.5 knots?  Through the oil fields of The Gulf of Mexico?  That if we slowed down the engine would “blow up?”  

Rust and brake dust immediately filled the air with the ungodly din of tens of thousands of pounds of anchor and chain running out through the hawsepipe, the wildcat gaining speed with each link that fell in the water flowing swiftly astern. And a cloud of pissed off wasps. My god I hate wasps!

In my three days aboard I hadn’t even looked at the windlass side of the shaft on this boat (it is the Bosun’s job), and I attempted to spin the hand brake for two seconds (my last 3 ships windlass brakes operated this way) but it was fixed as solid as stone.  Upon seeing that I wasn’t going to engage the brake I got out of the line of fire and let someone in who DID know the system (the chief mate).

By the time the brake actually stopped the wildcat there were over 6 shots in the water (more than 540 feet).  And, of course, we did what all ships do when the anchor is dropped- we stopped.  The tugs left.  The pilots left.  Recriminations formed but weren’t forthcoming as everyone weighed (pun intended) the situation in their minds.  

I guess the Old Man (who is younger than me) decided to look the other way, the pilot looked the other way, the tug operators looked the other way… hell, everyone looked the other way.  No harm, no foul.  We weighed anchor a few hours later and successfully took on a tow line and began the long slow upriver crawl.

My watch became a bow watch.  Just me, the mosquitos, five towboats, and the least interesting watch partner I’ve ever had to suffer through since that punk on the big old C-10.  I suffered through two full watches of tedium punctuated by breathtaking sunsets and insect bites before we arrived at the dock 24 hours after “dropping” anchor the day before.

The tie-up went as you’d expect- each line sent to the pier or the mooring buoys was an utter fiasco. The softlines were 6-inch “anaconda line” (nylon) that required 10 men to handle (we had 4), the main inshore line was on the winch occupied by the disabled port side anchor.  It was made monumental by an inexperienced crew.

As soon as we were finished, our sistership came alongside and we made her fast to us- which was twice the fun as the first tie-up because I got to watch the other crew go through the same process - all I had to do was throw heaving lines and “take on the eye” of their lines.  

Most ships have a “mooring plan,” a schematic of the current tie-up used to organize and streamline the process, often summed up simply in one brief description, for example, “two offshore, two inshore, one spring, and a softline breast.”  But this was clearly “docking by feel.”  There was a line on the deck?  Throw it out!  Where can we put the eye?  Hell, anywhere it’ll go!  The bow ended up being “softline anaconda spring, softline anaconda breast, two softline amsteel breasts, two inshore, two offshore.”  It was a mess.

Anyway.  I was discharged later that morning, 40 hours of overtime in 5 days.  The company screwed up the transportation plans to the airport so the entire crew spent a couple hours with our luggage sweating on the dock telling bad jokes, stories, and getting restless.  They also screwed up my pay.

The navy invented the term, SNAFU (Situation Normal All Fucked Up) for a reason… and I feel accurate in describing this entire experience as a classic SNAFU.  There are few things in life that are certain, but I’m pretty sure this was my VERY LAST grey-hull ship.  Pretty sure.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

It's Like Groundhog Day (All Over Again)

The schedule is written with ink, but it’s written on water.  When we were in Shanghai three weeks ago a rumor began percolating in this big steel pot- another China run was brewing.  The schedule at the time had us laying back up after reaching Long Beach, but upon arrival the rumor became fact and we began offloading garbage and taking on stores in preparation for Ningbo, Xiamen, and Shanghai.

Old photo of my ship (Diamond Head in the background) which hangs
in the Old Man's office.

I decided to get off in Honolulu this time and forego the rest of the voyage… 90 days of life have passed by and that’s enough time to be incarcerated on the island of misfit toys before the mind begins to go sideways.  So the requests were made.  I shipped a 45 lbs. suitcase home via UPS.  I stocked up on a mere 3 days of personal groceries.  T-minus and counting.

Humpbacks and Pacific Whitesided Dolphin escorted us past Catalina Island and out to open indigo water as we pulled out of cellphone range and into the almighty reaches of non-human Earth. Clearing decks was followed by washdown.  Fire and Boat Drills were as uninspired as ever, mandate or no.  I began packing in earnest.  Counting down the days and hours.  

Underway Making Way.

All my creature comfort items (blanket, bath mats, rug, kettle) I gave to the student cadets- they are only paid $30/day, pitiable by any standard; their lack of cynicism and pie-eyed innocence makes me simultaneously amused, wistful, and melancholy… I am the least sentimental person I know, so I am certain I’ve been out here too long.  

I left my watch partner, the C/M, two bags of fine coffee and the pour-over pot I brought on when I came aboard.  To my Filipino “brother-from-another-mother” I left my foul weather gear and my pillows.  The rest of the crew, with few exceptions (like the bird-watching 3rd Mate, the old man, and the cantankerous-but-harmless old cook) can bite my nethers.  I have to admit that I get a sick pleasure from this shipboard version of a Last Will and Testament and thoroughly enjoy parceling up my non-transportables- as much for gifting them to those I like as for giving the middle finger to those I don’t.

The BBQ was held in the rain my second to last day aboard.  Two steaks, some smoked salmon, a couple pieces of sushi… I will soon see if I managed to actually lose weight this voyage instead of packing on the fat like a Mexican under deadline loading his burro.  I didn’t eat a single lunch since boarding- we’ll see how that math works!

Sleep was elusive the last three days… but I rediscovered melatonin- a solution that has never worked before but now I find is akin to getting knocked unconscious by a hammer blow to the head.  One pill, instant sleep.  In fact, it is a pill form of narcolepsy.  The crazy dreams that come with it are welcome, but I’m glad I don’t have sleep issues under normal conditions- there is a bit of drowsiness the next day.

I woke up on the morning of the 26th and drove us into Hono.  The city is remarkably pretty from the water, day or night, and I got both views as the sun rose while the pilot gave steering commands and brought the ship into the harbor.  We stopped in the turning basin while the rest of the deck crew did a lifeboat test of the inshore boat, then we spun around and the tugs backed us into our slip a half mile further up the harbor.

In the harbor, Aloha Tower off the starboard bow... I could only get this photo
because we had to wait for the "inshore boat test" while in the turning basin.
Sunrise off the bridgewing.
My "secret surf spot," recently discovered on Sand Island.  The island forms
the breakwater for the harbor so the location isn't far from the ship at all.  And
best of all?  A sand bottom!

Within two hours I had my discharges signed, my bags down the gangway, and the taxi to the airport lined up… this run is over.  My sanity will return at the same rate that my earnings will depart.  If I’m lucky.  All that matters right now is this sailor’s indentured servitude is done and he is going home.  Until next voyage.

Seattle's port facility sitting empty but for the
highly-protested Shell arctic drill rig (the
yellow thing in the further slip) 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Homeward Bound

Let-go was uneventful.  I drove us down the Yangtze at 0400 in heavy traffic to begin our voyage back to the US.  The whole crew was exhausted by multiple anchorings, our short stay, and long transits in and out of Shanghai.  Unexpected call-outs for crane lifts of stores and a “shipboard oil incident response” meant many of us found ourselves in violation of the STCW rest period laws- not that they matter much outside of normal operations.  
Radar image of the anchorage at the mouth of the Yangtze.

Crazy forward house Chinese riverboat.

The East China Sea sees many different shades of murky green before the Strait of Korea dumps us into the Sea of Japan, which should rightly be called the “Green Sea,” because the water there has every shade of green represented by the China Sea and many more besides, both water laden with sediment, trash, and pollution, and that which is crystal clear.  The “squid-boats,” rigged with high powered lights, blinded us at night but the overall fishing traffic was much lighter than what we navigated through into port, down south.

The jade water gave way to that of olive, which next turned to a spinach green, deepening to a forest green, clarifying and darkening by shade and shadow until the strait between the Japanese islands of Nippon and Haikkado condensed the pure chlorophyll into a clarified kale so rich and dark it was like a stream of Indian ink that spit us out into that North Pacific Ocean current known as the Kuroshio Current (“Black River”) like an unwanted watermelon seed.
Sunrise over the Sea of Japan

Intermittent cell phone signal meant I could loan my phone to one of the cadets to call home for mother’s day- my own mother had been in bed a long time before the opportunity presented itself and that window closed as the coast of Japan fell off to port, sucking the cell signal with it.  Red-legged Kittiwakes accompanied us away from land.  Herds of white-sided Pacific dolphin sent rooster tails this way and that as they zigged and zagged to an unknown meter.  Several pods of humpbacks lobtailed and scattered as our rumbling steel drew near.

The next day broke clear and flat but cold- 40 degrees fahrenheit.  Out came the thermal gear I packed but hadn’t used, and away went the shorts.  Laysan albatross, a solitary black-footed boobie, and wave-valley-skimming Christmas shearwaters were everywhere south of Kamchatka, but further on they all disappeared as we moved into less favorable oceanography and climate further from the Russian peninsula.  I saw only a few pods of Dahl’s porpoise.

The crew began to show signs of fatigue from the daily clock advances, myself included- when I become content to stare into the empty through a window obscured by salt and resent people’s attempts at conversation I know I've been out here too long.  One guy is visibly avoiding me for reasons unfathomable- he ducks his head, doesn't say a word, or goes the other way altogether.  Another man casts sullen looks at me for chiding him about laundry etiquette ten days ago.  The deck cadet confided to me that several crewmates had mentioned that I was “antisocial” and that I “kept to myself.”  

From drunken sailors?

The old man and the cheif mate fatigued without becoming dreary, however.  Their face hair grew, they became quieter and a bit more unkempt, but they still smiled and managed to keep their humor about them even on the more difficult days.  I took my cues from them instead of the gang; I have felt very fortunate to be on their ship- they are the best officers I've encountered out here, to date.

A low pressure depression covering half the North Pacific broadsided us on the 11th, sending the wind into our teeth and piling up the water.  Fog set in so thick the foremast was barely visible, and torrential rain soon followed, flooding decks and making the 38 degree, 45 knot apparent wind cut through flesh.  My wool was warranted- while my unexposed portions roasted in the correct winter apparel, my crewmates mostly froze and complained bitterly.  I daydreamt longingly of snorkeling in Guam or plying the inland waters of the Georgia coast in some funky rig as eye-motes wandered across my sight while I stared into the marine layer like a dead thing.
The satellite radio antennae- a laughably
failure-prone and unsightly mess.

Then the fetch was boiled and the wind waves became swells and swung around to our beam, throwing the lazy sailors’ garbage all about their quarters as we began rolling 20 degrees to port, 20 degrees to starboard.  I spent my entire evening watch on the 12th throwing the helm hard-to to break the snap-rolling once the frequency of the ship’s natural righting moment became amplified by that of the 6 meter swells.  I resented being snatched away from my daydreams but the watch went by swiftly and I handed it off gladly to my relief.

We broke loose and ran before the weather, and while we successfully outran those dreadful swells, we didn’t quite break free from the occluded front until late on the 15th.  Fog ahead, astern, and to all sides.  Rain.  The gloom was Seattle-like and was thwarted off by 5000 international units of vitamin d3 per day, but I found no relief from the fog-induced claustrophobia until we finally crossed that moving front and saw real, live sun.

One day out of Long Beach I saw the most incredible display of baleen acrobatics I could ever hope to see- a pod of 30 ton whales, 45 - 50 feet in length, leaping completely out of the water. Instead of the typical humpback behavior, though, they did not land on their sides with their oversized pectorals pointed skyward: They breached like dolphin, arcing over the chop like charcoal flavored school buses, landing hard on their bellies and making angel wings out of water. It looked like they were imitating the Pacific Right Whale Dolphin I saw the day before.

This morning I drove my steamship into Long Beach at 0400. We were all fast by 0700, and by noon I was "cut loose." I am now in a coffee shop after failing to sleep- too exhausted to be sociable or coherent, but my circadian clock too mangled by ten 23 hour days in a row to sleep.
Seabird shadow art in Long Beach.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

To Guam, To China! Two Weeks (And Counting)...

I took my “homeport day off” in Honolulu to visit the chief mate from one of my earlier ships. He and his wife live aboard a Bruce Roberts-designed steel sailboat in a marina right off a good surf beach. They check the waves on the other side of the breakwater from atop their pilot house- if the surf is good they paddle out of the marina, ride for awhile, then paddle back to the boat. That day was good surf but we went to the market for take-away spicy ahi poke and coconut water instead, then lounged on deck gossiping about other sailors we know, looking at boat plans, or talking about their upcoming trip to the Marianas Islands. They've done the ICW, the Greater and Lesser Antilles, the Panama Canal, the Sea of Cortez, and all points in between.

My Hono shore time came to an abrupt end, of course… but a day before the actual day of departure. The schedule was filled by moving the ship between berths (a “shift”) at 0345 until 0730, turning-to at 0800 until 1000, tying up and letting go a bunker barge, another shift at 1600 until 1915, and departure at 2230 until 0130. My watch was at 0400. When did I sleep, you ask? Well, between 1000 and 1600 I tried and failed due to my damnable circadian rhythm, but between 0130 and my watch at 0400 I managed to get an hour-and-a-half nap. Thankfully, I wasn’t turned-to later that day; I slept soundly for two six-hour stretches- a luxury by any standard.

By day four of our transit I had seen a few far-off red-footed boobies (boobies!), but nothing else- no whales, dolphin, flying fish, sea turtles, or the numerous other seabirds that own these waters. But we did BBQ, we did wash-down, and we did do numerous drills… Drill, baby!  Drill!

And hours of Game of Thrones was watched… I have found myself in a race with one of the cadets and I am barely, barely ahead at this point. Only time will tell if my winning status prevails…

And then, as if someone had thrown a powerful switch (a “booby-switch,” if you will), all the red-footed boobies became brown boobies. They began glutting on flying fish chased up by our bow-bulb and then puking them onto the weather deck, much to the chagrin of the sailor I call “Muppet,” who was given the task of cleaning up the aforementioned puked fish. I saw no white or red tailed tropicbirds, though I was alert for them.

I went to the “Mermaid Tavern” after we docked in Guam. The meal wasn’t very good so I declined to buy a tee-shirt- take that, you bastards!  Now I regret not buying one, of course.  I had the two cadets with me and I taught them the hierarchical shore tradition of taking care of the impoverished, student-sailors by picking up the tab, as was done for me when I was The Extra-Ordinary Seaman… for the taxi, for the meal, etc.  “Your money is no good!” I was told, so I passed it on in similar fashion… with luck they will pass it on in their time, too.

My snorkel spot was better than I remembered. I saw a sea turtle grazing on reef grass; many instances of two types of giant slugs measuring up to two feet in length- one with leopard spots and another with black spines; countless angel fish, clown fish, reef fish, trillions of neons that fell in with me and followed my every move to wherever I led; a 3-foot pike of an unknown species; and at one point, two small terns took interest in my bobbing body and hovered in the wind, yelling at the back of my head as I hung face down in the water and fried under the tropical sun.  

We departed Guam bound for China and the heat became overbearing. I burned-through my minerals and water at a brisk rate, and moved slower and slower as time went on. On deck I am pretty much covered by work gear, but at one point I had to go full-Filipino and make a dew-rag from a surplus tee-shirt to cover the back of my already burnt neck.  

The big dipper set on our bow each morning during watch, the waxing moon sets to port while Cassiopea rose on our starboard. It all got scattered to nothing by the sun rising on our starboard quarter, and by 0645 of the first two days I turned all the lights on the bridge instrumentation up to full, opened the black-out curtains, changed the radar settings to daylight, and put on my sunglasses. It is my daily ritual.

Our course took us directly northwest and we retarded clocks several times, so by the third day out of Guam the sun was up by 0430, playing hell with my already malfunctioning circadian time-piece and destroying the flow of my daily ritual. The blazing cobalt and indigo seas morphed into a dark, olive seawater of chlorophyllic richness that churned a creamy jade and fed the bajillions of fish the untold thousands of fishing vessels actively sought… fishing vessels that seemed oblivious to us as they put themselves directly in our path.

“Only New Rods Catch Fish” is the shorthand used to remember the order of burden for vessels: Overtaken vessels “stand on” in any circumstance when encountering other traffic, followed by those “Not Under Command,” vessels “Restricted in their Maneuverability” or “Constrained by their draft,” and finally by vessels actively engaged in “Fishing,” which excludes sport fishermen but not the fleets that move about the East China Sea confounding merchant navigators.  

My watches became an endless changing of positions from hunched radar observer to that rigid posture required for stabilizing the long-eyes. I prefer the busy watches when I’m in the middle of the Pacific, my eyes glazed over by boredom, but- true to human nature- when I am busy from start to finish with heavy traffic conditions, I long for the luxury of boredom.  

We dropped anchor next to the shipping channel at the mouth of the Yangtze River and my sea watches became anchor watches: On the hour I report the chain’s strain (tension) and lead (direction) to the bridge by radio; on the half-hour I do a circuit of the ship’s decks and look for security risks, which also gets reported to the bridge. In practice it is the easiest watch possible- rivaled only by pirate watches, but superior because pirate watches don’t allow for watching movies in your quarters for the 50 minutes between “walks forward.”

At daybreak we called anchors aweigh at 0600 and I proceeded to drive us upriver through estuaries of marsh surprisingly similar to that of southeast Georgia. The haze and pollution was thick, however, so beyond the line of ships we followed (like rush hour traffic up I-5), there was little to look at. The river was dead set against me so my boat would run left or right without any warning and it required a surprising amount of helm to make her behave, but by noon we dropped anchor again in the middle of the river while Chinese Quarantine agents took their bribes and gave us the OK to make way to our berth a few miles distance.

Tie-up was followed by a gangway watch, and now I am sitting in my bed, exhausted, typing without proofing and calling this "done." Rereading, proofing, etc. is for someone with the luxury of time, I'm afraid, so this will find you as flawed as ever. In four hours we leave. Those are the four hours I get to sleep. I'm taking 'em and making 'em mine.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

She Ain't Pretty...

My Guam Snorkel Spot

Me and the fishies... Well, and the lone turtle.  And the birds that took a fascination with my bobbing self.

Monday, April 20, 2015

On Foreign Articles

I just erased several paragraphs of invective aimed at the greater Los Angeles area but decided I have too many people in my life in or from LA that might take such vitriol personally… suffice it to say I’d rather be eaten by gnats and poisonous vermin of all description (such as in Savannah), or given the shaken-baby treatment by violent and catastrophic seismic and/or volcanic activity (as in Seattle) than suffer the rampant rudeness, self-absorption, and utter contempt for civilization and civility that a vast majority of Los Angelenos unselfconsciously exhibit.  
Venice Beach.

Venice Beach home with a shed-on-a-stick.

An almost redeeming moment in a Redondo Beach sushi joint.

Redondo Beach pier.  The beach isn't actually accessible... very LA.

This steam ship departed- with me thankfully aboard- and won’t be back for 30-something days and that will be 30-something days too soon for my personal taste.  The only good news knowing I will return is that the next time I am there I will have less than three days before I will be home.

Anyway, watches were set and I gladly drove us out of the city at sunrise- Out through docks as far as the eye can see in any direction and out through the only part of LA I like; under vast bridges and past container ships, bulk ships, RO RO’s, tankers, barges, towboats, cranes of inconceivable proportions, a mayhem of criss-crossing power lines, smoking stacks and steaming concrete towers full of the witches brew from which all of California’s commerce pours forth; and out into the Pacific ocean where 9 meter swells greeted us with green water over our starboard bow.
Working on the cargo gear while the ship is empty.  I was hiding in the shade.

The wind howled, the swells came on, and the old man closed the decks to the crew so there wouldn’t be a repeat of what this ship is known for amongst sailors, and is referred to as the “incident on the bow,” that happened a couple years ago.  I first heard about it on my last ship- 6 men were securing the forward hatch when the ship took on green water like she was doing at this particular departure.

No one had heard from the gang for awhile and the mate wasn’t answering her radio so someone was dispatched forward to check on them- they found 6 unconscious crew members and, as it was described to me by one of the responders, “enough blood for a murder scene... ”  One person had been swept into a hawsepipe and lodged there, the force of the water stripping the clothing off their body, leaving them completely naked.  Another’s thigh had a compound fracture (one source for the blood).  All of them suffered broken bones, contusions, concussions, and all of them had to be stretchered  back to the ship’s house where a trauma center was set up in the crew mess hall because the hospital only accommodates one sick crew member.

It is the worst nightmare imaginable for the chief medical officer- the second mate; likewise, the worst-case scenario for the Captain.

So this old man shut down the deck and nobody whined or complained, not even the sailors.  As soon as we passed the weather we began clearing decks but it was a little more involved than usual due to the stores we took on in Long Beach- about 25 crane loads worth.  We stored them against the house and lashed them down at the time but as soon as we finished clearing decks, and before we could begin flooding the decks with hoses per the usual washdown routine, it all had to be stowed.

Spools and boxes of line, hoses, mops and brooms, paint and painting supplies, tools, cleaning gear and chemicals, what we call “PPE,” or “Personal Protective Equipment,” and all sorts of other deck paraphernalia had to be carted hither and yon and jammed into the unlikely places aboard ships that stuff like that gets stowed and forgotten until make-work is needed and the bosun or mate uncovers the material from which all work-lists are made.  In other words, it was pre-make-work and was something akin to actual work.

The good news about going to China is that this time I finally have a 5 year China visa!  The bad news is we’ll only be in port from 0600 until 1700 of the same day… the likelihood of going ashore for me is slim to none.  The visa will, however, enable me to take China shipyard jobs unavailable to sailors who don’t have one- which is most of them.

By the time washdown did commence the seawater temp had risen to 71 degrees fahrenheit- high enough to herald in the tropical air.  Sweat ran down my body beneath my black foul-weather gear as I roasted in the sun.  The winds were following, as well; they traveled over the sea at the same speed as the ship, so the relative wind was 0 knots… the stack gas went straight up, the ash from blowing tubes came straight down, and the cooling effect of a gentle breeze to this black-plastic wrapped sailor was conspicuously absent.  
An unspectacular sunset over the Pacific - pretty nonetheless. 

The day of arrival to Hono brought with it the STCW sleep regulations that said I couldn’t work from 0800 until 1400 so I copied four seasons of “Game of Thrones” (all of which I’ve seen) to my hard drive and started from season 1.  

I didn’t sleep much, so arrival at midnight was a killer- but here I am, back in the Fresh Cafe on Queen street… stuffing my piehole.  In a half an hour I head out to the union meeting: in attendance, the president of the union, who I met this morning when I hitched a ride from the Hono rep.

OK… enough!  Post it or don’t… time to go!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

On And On We Go...

I got groceries the day of departure, stopped by Chinatown on the way back to the ship to “run out the clock” on my time ashore, then got back aboard and drove us out of Honolulu harbor bound for LA.  Every now and then I am struck by the fact that I drive a ship… but mostly it has become routine in every sense of the word.  At this point still an enjoyable routine- not the drudgery “routine” usually conjures up.

Only in Chinatown.

Chinatown, Honolulu.

Chinatown, Honolulu.
The schedule on the trip over was the same as it was last week (the same as it is every week on the Pineapple Run, actually):  Clear and washdown decks and house after leaving port; BBQ on Sunday; emergency drills on Monday; advance clocks 3 times so I, and 21 of my closest friends, can all repeatedly enjoy jet lag together; have our overtime and projected overtime written and double-checked because it’s due by the end of the week… it’s like “Groundhog Day” all over again.

The shortest lunar eclipse on record, however, wasn't on the schedule last week, and just after midnight of the day of departure the full shadow of the earth fell on that big ‘ol cheese wheel in the sky. It reminded me of the one I happened across in the middle of the ocean a couple of years ago (I can’t remember which ocean), but unlike this eclipse, that one came unannounced.

For a couple of minutes I was forced to wonder what was wrong with my eyes as the most noticeable thing in sight faded from the sky. Like a frog in water brought to boil it- was so gradual I didn't even know it was happening until the moon was almost entirely darkened. Understanding crept into my head as slowly as the sun rises and sets, I’m afraid to admit, but I understood at last why the medieval serfs in “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court” were so easily fooled by its cousin, the solar eclipse- an unprepared for celestial event just might feed any number of bizarre superstitions.  Or I am simply dim.  Whatever.  Not too dim to pun, clearly.  

This eclipse was announced, however, and the fact we were so near to the zenith of the moon’s sun meant the moon was as bright as it could possibly get- there were no stars the entire trip over, just a floodlight in the face that burned into the rod and cone photoreceptors of my retinas and remained visible as an imprint on my sight even after I looked away.  It always makes me think of Wallace and Gromit, in “A Grand Day Out.”

"How 'bout some cheese, Gromit?"

And then we reached the waypoint that marked our slow-down.  We took on the Pilot soon thereafter and I drove us in to Long Beach’s container terminal, a port I became familiar with back on my last ship.  We turn around in Oakland to get us “head out to sea” for a “starboard-side-to” tie up, but here we back into the berth like we do in Honolulu- only for a much greater distance.  We're always starboard-side-to.

So I worked a full day as a dayman (8-5) yesterday and then was called out to shift (move the ship) at 2315.  We weren’t finished until 0400, and when the wakeup call came at 0700 I thought I’d weep.  I dressed and ate, instead, then loaded myself into a van (with about 10 of my closest friends) and was ferried to the Chinese Embassy by the International Seamen's Club to try for a Chinese visa.  Recall: I failed to secure one on my last ship.  Monday will tell whether or not I have been successful.

Freshly laundered work gloves... I dry them in my room- I go through about 1 a day. 
My sailoring desk- note my travel companions.
Pretty good stuff (scored in Oakland).

After encountering the efficiency of a Chinese bureaucracy perfected by thousands of years of relentless and incomprehensible hordes that need proper taxing and sorting, we raised the RO-RO ramp (roll on, roll off) and replaced tank-tops (manhole covers) with the exact opposite ethos- slow and steady, burn up the clock, and as-a-matter-of-fact-we-do-have-all-day.  Then we stowed the most heinous pilot ladder I have ever had the misfortune of wasting my life-force hoisting and lowering- it is like the world’s slowest and stupidest yo-yo that for each iteration comes at great cost to safety and of which the wear and tear on the vertebrae of my lower back cannot be understated. I hateses it... hateses it, I do!

And now here I sit, glaring at a sniveling, simpering and parentally unsupervised snot while swilling coffee in a cafe, forcing myself to think in complete (if somewhat disjointed) sentences. Sleep-deprivation is damnable.

Best quote of the day: “Stop calling me Roger.”

OK.  I got nuthin’ else.