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.