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.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A Few Good Days

Friday, March 26:

We threw off the lines at noon today and got underway. I managed to get my personal sundries and a haircut while in Oakland this time, but the stay was short and I’m glad we’re moving again. Next time we hit the mainland we’ll be in Long Beach, CA, a town that reminds me of Oakland for its layout, its look, and its being filled to capacity with Californians- but first we have a pit-stop to make in Hono. Aloha, y’all.

We took a left at Alcatraz, went under the bridge, and headed out into the Pacific. The cold waters around the Farallon Islands were the color of flint that churned the green and white of key lime pie in a freezer, and because of a book - “The Devil’s Teeth” - recommended to me by Laura (by way of Fleetwood), I know these waters teem with one of the world’s greatest concentrations of notably large great white sharks.  

The author’s description of the Farallones is pretty much spot on- it looks like one seriously god-forsaken gulag if ever there was one, much like the teeth of the sharks who congregate beneath the 57 degree churning mirk, and probably equally as comfortable. Alcatraz was clearly misplaced- these rocks would be inescapable, no walls necessary.  

So maybe our wake churned less like key lime pie and more like the pale, sterile green and white of glacial runoff pooling at the foot of a jumbled moraine, freezing the barren till into bits sharp, hard, and brittle. Cold and inhospitable. Forlorn and forsaken. Farallon, the adjective. Et Cetera.
40 miles further out I began to see humpbacks blowing. I was pretty sure, based on the shape of the blow they were humpback, but when one began an impressive display of lobtailing (slapping the water with its fluke) there could be no mistaking that tail for anything else. I went from mammal-blasted geyser to mammal-blasted geyser with the long-eyes afterward hoping to see another display of some sort, but the rest of them were pretty laid back- no dorsals, no heads, no breaches.

Saturday, March 27th:

Today we cleared decks and began wash-down, per the Agreement.  On this ship there are boxes up forward of the house and 8 decks of cars abaft it; the “parking garage” catches the wind, swinging the stern to leeward and the bow to windward and makes steering her in a blow… interesting.  Thankfully, she isn’t the first ship I’ve driven that swings into the wind underway.

The lashing gear missed by the longshoremen gets stowed in the gear boxes, all trash gets taken to the trash-tainer (a container full of trash, if you must), the chain, chain-binders, ratchets, ratchet straps, pallets, dunnage, and other assorted cargo gear gets put away and stowed for sea.  Then we string the ship with cords and hoses and begin wash-down.

One crew starts on the bow and works their way aft washing down the main deck with salt-water from the fire mains while the other strings hoses up the house from a pressure washer and begins washing down the house with pressurized fresh water.  Forward Aft.  Top to Bottom.  Rain gear, rubber boots, safety glasses, All Hands Mandatory Overtime, Go!  

Instead of eating lunch I took an hour-and-a-half nap, as I do most days at sea while on the 4x8.  

Sunday, March 28 - BBQ Day

The morning sky was interrupted by partial cloud cover, cutting and dissecting the constellations into mostly unrecognizable starry pieces, morphing as our positions changed relative to one another- the dipper handle, a headless crow, the “z” part of the big “w” that is cassiopea… if it weren't for my active attempts to commit their locations to memory I’d have had no idea what sky I was looking at; if I find one I then know where the others are supposed to be… mostly.  Thank god for my star chart!

Washdown continued.  Rain gear, rubber boots, gloves, eye protection… I used the high setting to descale rust from the lower port ladder we’ll be painting in port.  Pretty interesting stuff; as a matter of fact, interesting enough to write home about.  It did quite the good job, come to think about it, but I’d have rather used a chipping hammer.

Curious point of note- putting an eye splice in 3 strand line and one in 4 strand line is NOT the same process.  How is it that I have never put an eye splice into 4 strand line?  And the Sampson splicing book I brought with me has 3 strand info, but no 4 strand… it skips straight to 8, 8x3, 12, and 16 strand line.  In the parlance of the kids, “wtf?”  I guess I brought the wrong splicing book with me (do I really need to bring 2?).

The BBQ is held on the officer’s deck every Sunday at sea, just below the bridge aft of the house.  The cook sets up in front of the grill to burn the meat as the kitchen utilities bring up the prepared sides.  At exactly 1645 (not one minute earlier) the watchstanders (myself, the chief mate, a junior, and one of the engineers) can begin loading our plates.  After we are loaded, the rest of the ship can begin loading their plates.

Some guys drink beer, the old man hangs out and mingles with the unlicensed crew and drinks beer, and we watchstanders eat as fast as possible, keeping a close eye on our time-pieces.  Even if I did drink beer I would/could not.  Those of us on watch get just far enough into conversations with crew members we never see that we are forced to peel ourselves away, begrudgingly and often mid-sentence, to return to our watch no later than 1715.

The sun sets on my watch.  Something about over-eating, sitting with the setting sun in my face, and the rhythmic rolling and pitching of a ship under a full head of steam just sucks the life force right out of my machinery; my eyes get heavy, my shoulders sag, and my daydreams become less a laundry list of to-do’s and more a bucket-list of want-to’s.  I think of things fantastical to the smallest minutia, and how to bring these things into being.  Any intrusion by my watch partner (my favorite to date) is usually resented for a brief moment until I regain my focus and job responsibility reasserts itself.  That’s when I start pacing.

Monday, March 29-

Fire and boat drill day.  At 1300 the ship’s bell rings for 10 seconds, followed by the same 10 second ring on the ship’s whistle.  All engineers muster below while we “deckies” muster in the DC locker (damage control) up above.  We are instructed that there is a fire in the galley and there will be two fire teams (ours and the engineers) to respond.  I am one of the firefighters so I suit up.

Step into my boots.  Pull my pants up over my work clothes and secure the suspenders over my shoulders.  Put the fire-sock over my head and pull it down to gather at my neck until needed.  Put on my jacket and fasten the front.  Turn around and put on my SCBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus) like a backpack, leaning forward to pop it out of its cradle.  Put my SCBA mask on and then pull the fire sock up from my neck and cover all my exposed face.  Put on the hat and gloves while my partner hooks my mask up to the regulator.  Draw air.

Time to go fight fire.

Thankfully, a simulated fire.  I strip back down, as does the rest of the fire team, and we all trundle down to the galley to continue our drill- thankfully we weren't required to deploy hoses and charge the system this time.  Instead, we go over where the fire blankets are located, how to deploy the “gaylord” system, how to secure electrical for the space, and where the vents to be closed are located.

The chief medical officer- our illustrious mascot the second mate- misinforms everyone about how to respond to burn casualties while the first officer tries to correct him without inducing embarrassment (he soon gives up and lets the show go on, heeding the screed “do no harm”).  From there we go down to the lower DC locker and review how to fill the SCBA tanks from the “cascading system,” a series of pressurized air bottles.

Three rings secures us from the fire drill, but then seven short blasts on the ship’s bell followed by one long one (abandon ship) and the same repeated on the ship’s whistle sends us into the boat drill.  I man the sea painter on lifeboat #1, possibly the job requiring the most skill and sailorly know-how but mostly ignored by crews who have never actually towed a boat underway.

The Egyptian linemen who come aboard ships in the Suez Canal make up their own sea painter before the crane hoists them aboard, and I can assure you they take it very seriously.  If it’s too loose they capsize.  If it’s too taught they get tossed out.  In either scenario someone is likely to die.  The lifeboat painter is exactly the same as the linemen’s; our contract says we treat every drill as if it’s real, so I do.  Some guys don’t think it will ever happen… but it’s a boat.  A very big boat, yes… but still a boat.  Things can go wrong.  

We drop the lifeboats to the embarkation deck, then hoist the gravity davits back up into place.  Everyone has a job.  An engineer puts in the boat plug and releases the man-ropes.  Two sailors release the fraps from the MacClooney hooks.  Two sailors loosen the turnbuckles on the gripes.  One man releases the brake to send the boat down.  One man hoists it back up while the gripe tenders test the limiter switches.  It is clockwork done by baboons.  Repetition makes us stronger.  We are only as safe as our dumbest monkey allows.

Wednesday, March 30

Indigo is a word that utterly fails to capture the depth and breadth of the ocean’s gemlike brilliance.  To say “indigo” is to ignore the radiance that seems to emanate from it and denies the sun’s rays captured in the liquid medium, clear shafts of light pointing to the center of the earth captured fleetingly, a dancing refractory of light across its gyrating skin, as beckoning as it is inhospitable.  It is the color of the calm between upheavals, and as I stare at it from the bridge wing a halo encircles my view of the coriolis of water rolling down the ship's hull as the wake’s mist bends light and overlays the unnumbered fathoms below with the faint spectrum of the prism.

A pod of Blackfish greeted us as the Hawai'ian Islands emerged from the humidity and tropical rain, and Christmas shearwaters, brown boobies (Boobies!), and a little bird I failed to identify all fell in with us as escorts toward land.  

I drove the ship in, the pilot singing his commands, me singing them back curtly as I shifted our rudder left and right in response, and soon all 800 feet were safely docked at pier 52.  It was determined I could have a “day off” (a euphemism that means I can use my accrued “time-back”) and so I called a taxi, showered, and made my way off the dock as fast as humanly possible- I have learned that once you’ve been cut loose you must disappear as fast and thoroughly as possible or work will find you, unwilling as you may be, and stick to you like the patina of soot and grease that sweats from the steel of the ship, herself.  

There are no idle hands on a ship.