Wednesday, December 21, 2016

It's All About The Wake-Up

There is a cinematography trick where the camera zooms in on something in the foreground while the background zooms out- it’s called the “dolly zoom” or the “vertigo effect.”

The sensation created by this camera effect is also the exact same sensation I feel when figuring out when I will reach completion of my contract aboard this ship: The closer I get to the end of my incarceration the further out that date gets pushed by delays.

It was originally the 28th of December.  Then the 29th.  Then the 30th.  Now it’s the 3rd of January.  I have been saying “12 days and a wake up!” for a week, now.  It’s become a running joke.  On Sunday I overheard the 3/M say “We go in on Tuesday- that’s 5 days and a wake up.”

We anchored in Pakistani waters for four days before coming into the port of Karachi.  Now that we’re here, it looks like we’ll be here until late Friday night, at which point we’ll shift to another dock a mile downriver for an unknown duration.

Every morning the 4x8 sailor on security watch calls out his relief- the 8x12 sailor, the mate-on-watch’s relief, myself, and the daymen at 0700.  Similar to last time here, I get a wake up call at precisely the time my alarm goes off (this sailor is very good with his calls).

Unlike last time in this port, however, the outgoing A.M. tide is at maximum velocity at approximately 0700 (it was at approx. 0500 last time).  Coincidentally, this is the same time that my alarm clock goes off and the phone rings for my wake-up call, and when the City of Karachi opens the floodgates at the sewage “plant” and flushes the accumulate of 30 million toilets into the river.

This river.  The one the ship is in.  

At breakfast I announced to the crowded mess hall that every morning in Karachi is a shitty morning. Have I mentioned how wildly popular I am aboard this ship?

And, like last voyage, I have jammed a box of dryer sheets into my air conditioning vent so that my quarters smell like a laundry in a river of crap instead of just a sailor’s quarters in a river of crap.

When I mentioned this to the old man, he said he learned you can repel gnats by rubbing your clothes, hands, and face with Bounce™ dryer sheets… something I must try in lieu of drowning the little bastards in Skin So Soft™ next time I am in the South.

The project of the day has been chipping the cofferdam deck above the Old Man’s room and below the bridge wing.  I played the song of my people to all who would listen with three spud guns and a “lawnmower” on plate steel.  I have been given dirty looks by a few of my harshest critics- not everyone appreciates true talent.

I will play my song again tomorrow and listen to it played back to me in the echos from the ships on the other side of the river.

And that’s what I got.  Punch drunk, worn out, and unfazed by anything.  There is no world outside this bubble of grease, stack gas, bunker fumes, surly sailors, and the daily toxic soup of chemicals that make up this ship except the one at the other end of this keyboard.

I hit “enter” and it travels around the world in less than a second, to you.

More Cargo in Karachi

Advanced Tetris

Port of Karachi

Pakistani Fishing Boat

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Winter Has Found Me.

The red-footed booby is distinguished from it’s cousin, the brown booby, by the color of its feet, but the most remarkable coloration of the seabird isn’t its feet- it’s its bill.  They hang out by the fo’csle, hovering and waiting for flying fish to erupt from the bow wake, at which point they dive and skim the wave-troughs in pursuit.

As they hang there, waiting for calories, the blue of their bills appears so incongruous with the drab of their black and white work clothes.  It is a color of blue unique to the booby with the texture of fine-grained sand, and as I see it from deck against the backdrop of the sky, it clearly takes as much inspiration from the clear cobalt of the tropical ocean waves as it does from the soft hues of the low latitude sky.

They give me the studied examination of a reptile with dark and calculating eyes set into that blue, sanded face and then disregard me as not-food and never look at me again.  I prefer to be not-food.  I am glad they aren’t larger.

I have only seen a pair of pilot whales and one herd of acrobatic spinner dolphin from my lowly perch upon the rusted upper deck. I do steel work and rarely get to look out my office window and marvel, but I always see the boobies when they are there fouling my deck.

I decided to read everything my Union Agreement has to say about who does the sanitary work aboard our vessel and when they do it.  Suffice it to say, it didn’t make anything clearer.

It says: on one-man watch vessels bridge sanitary is done from 0800 - 1000 by daymen and the gang’s deck is done from 1000 - 1200 by daymen.  That’s how we’ve been doing it and how it’s always been done on ships I’ve sailed.  Simple.

It goes on to say in Section 56 that on two man vessels bridge sanitary is done by a member of the 4x8 Watch between 0800 - 1000, and in section 17 that bridge sanitary is done by the Quartermaster between 0600 - 0800, (and that it isn’t to be payable as overtime), while the windows aft of the doors of the wheelhouse and the sweeping are to be done by a man of the 8x12 Watch between 0800 - 1000.

With that in mind, Watchmen and Quartermasters are forbidden to do anything but their specific duties while on watch, so sanitary or maintenance has to be done by their relief, whether that is on overtime or not.  If it is the 8x12 Watch’s relief, that means me- The Bosun, and I don’t do it if it interrupts my ability to run the gang (per the Agreement) but send someone up to do it in my stead.

And that doesn’t even touch on the sanitary for the Gang’s deck.

So why bother getting clear on it?  Because the C/M said the Old Man (a dues-paying member of my union) said we should do sanitary for a 2 man watch, per the contract.  There was a challenge there… and in this case, a bit of a smile.

To take this challenge is to lose.

So why issue the challenge in the first place?  Dunno.  Probably a test.  If I take the challenge then I fail the test.  The prudent man will smile indulgently and continue on as per past practice and make the officer push the matter.  At that hypothetical point, the prudent man would then explain the multiple proscribed methods and then say “but per past practice you’ve paid us to do it this way” and point out how wise it is to not fix what ain’t broke.

“I think we should do it exactly how you’ve always had us do it” or “I think you’ve been right all along.”  A little bit pander, a little bit accusation.  A win/win....

Or I’ve been out here too long and this is one of those trains-of-thought a man can board and ride for as long as he is left alone to follow the tracks.  Add those trains of thought to the conversations that have been re-lived, reimagined, and re-had and you see how some men get lost out here… some of the old-timers sail and live a punishingly hard life until they’re in their 70’s, retire, and immediately die.  Some keep sailing, afraid that will be them.

Like being not-food, I prefer to be not-lost.

We just left the anchorage for Qingdao.  When I boarded in July the heat was so unbearable I thought I’d never find relief.  Acclimatization is a hell of a thing, tho- soon it didn’t bother me too much and I stopped sweating at heat below 85.

Four days ago it was still hot and the days long as we steamed north.  It is now cold and bitter, the sun falling behind the horizon at 1700.  I have taken to wearing every sleeved thing I’ve got over my sleeveless tropical gear.  That 30 dollar “North Fake” jacket I bought in Shanghai last trip is now being put to use over a hooded sweatshirt.  I’m wearing sweatpants under my carhardts.

I am cold.

So that’s what I gots- musings from Voyage 4.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Fun With Numbers

I carried an armload of gear from the forecastle back to the boatswain’s locker today and I tried to remember what, exactly, I was doing.

I passed the newly welded bracket where the fire hydrant spud was to mount, and it seemed distant, while the hue and quality of blue of a booby’s beak that flew alongside- over a hundred meters away- was so startlingly present and vivid that I jolted my shoulder on one of the brightly painted lashing bridges.

That’s when it became undeniable- I have entered that fugue state that afflicts sailors who have been at sea for too long where time means nothing, the inner dialogue seems as real as actual conversations, and all emotion flatlines- except your dominant emotional state.

Some guys get angry.  Some get depressed.  Some press for conflict while others retreat.  On my first ship I raged.  On my last ship I hibernated.  This time I am particularly fond of absurdity- even more so than usual.

I do the math a lot, too.  134 days at sea out of a projected total of 173 means I am 77% of the way there.  More than ¾.  Only 23% to go!  That’s 23/100ths!  Hell- that’s half-way between 1/4th and 1/5th!!!!  39 days to go!

I find myself on A deck when I want to be on the Upper Deck a lot, too.  Or standing in the passageway outside my quarters doing a version of my “keys, wallet, phone” mantra I do when at home that includes too many items I need while on ship:  Keys, radio, flashlight, knife, channel locks, electrical tape, notebook, pen, earplugs, gloves… wait… where was I?

Dammit!  Start over.

I forgot to go back to stand my anchor watch after securing the gangway leaving Singapore (not a small oversight).  The other bone-headed mistake I tried to remember… I can’t remember.  But it was not a small oversight.

We chipped and painted deck the next day.  The day after we payed out every mooring line on the ship for inspection, then spooled them back up on the winches.  Because these winches don’t have a “working side,” meaning a place to really heave on the line without burying it in the spooled line beneath, we have to take them up under tension.

Hell- have 3 days passed already?  Was it only 3 days!?

Hong Kong will kick-off the blur that is the China loop (yeah, yeah… Hong Kong ain’t China, blah, blah).  Today I roasted in the sun, but in less than a week we could allegedly hit freezing temperatures in Qingdao- the same place all the freshwater deck pipes got destroyed by freezing temperatures.

Then we start the advancing clocks.  Then the retarding clocks.  No wonder time doesn’t mean anything out here… just the unenviable ablitlity to withstand the punishment of one more voyage has any real meaning, and I just exceeded it.

________

When I awoke this morning visibility was at about a mile, stratus clouds hung heavily overhead and rain obscured my view as it ran down the dead lights.  Lively swells hammered us broadsides and shock waves ran back and forth between the bow and stern with each blow at a frequency of about .75 seconds.

We did port prep as best we could, which meant foregoing rigging the gangway out of safety concerns.  My god, though- those nicely wound mooring lines look good!  The temperature was 20 degrees less than yesterday and I was chilled by the rain on my bare arms.

Now I am standing-by in my quarters waiting for the call to rig the pilot ladder.  We are hove to.  I am all dressed up with nowhere to go!

And so my last voyage on this run kicks off.  It's now 38 days and a wake-up.
 

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Election 2016 - End Of The World As We Know It

I have been as fortunate as an American can be to have missed the U.S. election coverage since July. I haven’t avoided it all, unfortunately, even from a safe spot all the way across the globe (damn you, Facebook!), but the endless tit for tat portrayed by a media run amok hasn’t been on my radar much.

My countrymen and my Facebook “friends” alike have been wringing their hands and lamenting the end of the world if their candidate doesn’t win.  They’ve been very heartfelt as they’ve itemized every campaign slogan, assertion, and every half-assed slander pumped out by the party-sponsored gossip mills.

The world will survive.  Hell, the rest of the world doesn’t seem to notice, much less care… it’s only the narcissism of the apple pie American Way-of-Life that entitles Americans to think anybody else gives a damned about our election in the first place.

There is one thing, and one thing only, that unites the entire world.  It is the single thing that set Mankind apart from the Animalkind, and science has incontrovertibly shown it not to be opposable thumbs, language, or the use of tools.

Civilization did not rise up out of Mesopotamia because of animal husbandry or agriculture.  Puny but aggressive Man did not slowly claw to the top of the Most Dangerous Predators list because of math or cuneiforms or abstractions.

Man is the top of the resources pyramid because of his obsessive and compulsive need to trade.

Every single human advancement has come about as a way to enhance our ability to trade: The wheel (move more, faster); Astronomy (get it there); Time (before it spoils); Laws (settle disputes); Money (a near-universal exchange for commodities);  Bureaucracy (regulate and tax goods); Ships (move more, farther); Jets (move it faster); Infrastructure (free movement of goods)...

The list is inexhaustible.

The container ports I visit are all identical in every way.  Same cranes, same docks, same trucks, same longshoremen, same scenery…. Same same.  It doesn't matter if I’m in China, Pakistan, Longbeach, or Savannah- my world is the real world, and the cities that are built around the ports service it.

To work in shipping it to work for the man behind the curtain, backstage, where all the magic happens; the flavor of each city is merely pablum for the masses.  The world's infrastructure is uniform.  Efficient.  Reliable.  It is measured in Cubic Tonnes and TEU's, and it is moved with currency and displacement.

What isn’t the same, however, are the standards of living of the people in those cities that prop up the ports.  American labor is expensive- which is why we have built all those brand-new, high-rise, mega-cities in China with American dollars while much of the infrastructure in American cities resembles that of the third world.

The same items are shipped.  The same fuel is used.  The same shipping companies move the goods. The same Logistics firms handle the bills of lading.  The same insurers and reinsurers indemnify the whole apparatus.  Even the prices of the items being shipped are roughly the same after exchange. What makes the cost of shipping between two poor countries and two wealthy ones differ?

Nothing but wages.

It is impossible for me to buy into the megalomania of the American media shitstorm that our elections have become when I have Pakistani longshoremen digging through every garbage can on my ship.  Or when I watch the slaves of the walled city of Jebel Ali physically running to do their job. Or when I have to thread my way between the Sri Lankans sleeping on the deck because they earn $1.70 US a day if they are on the job for 24 hours in that day.

While Trump was grabbing pussies this election and Billy-boy turns out to still be an unapologetic, philandering man-hussy- the air quality over New Delhi is 87 times worse than regular, old “unhealthy” air.  The river my ship is in right now, in the 7th largest city in the world, is an incomprehensible cesspool of biological waste, garbage, and every conceivable petrochemical ever made.

I have heard is said that “America has lost its way.”  Gag me.  The stupid bastard who said that has no perspective… he needs to do the same job as another man for 1/1000th the pay, get beaten with impunity by his employer, and live in a river of shit before he gets to spout ignorant bile like that.

The world is a brutal, hostile place and America has a comfy place in the top 20.  We are not special. Our election is not a dramatic winner-will-preserve-The-Free-World-against-1000-years-of-darkness affair the carney barkers on the TV have sold for two solid years.

When the last vote is counted, the last advertising revenue received, and the proclamations are shouted from the rooftops, business will continue as usual.  The economy will be static for 3 months (as always following the US presidential election) while the gears and the palms are greased.  And the machine will run on.

No matter who becomes the chief baby-kisser at the end of the day, there will be Trade.

You can count on that.

The Margins

How The Rest Of The World Lives

Hold Everything!

Brake Band

Sunday, November 6, 2016

An Ode to The EPA (I Will Never Be The Same)

We took arrival in Karachi, Pakistan last night at 0100 and were all fast by 0400.  After climbing into my bunk I dreamed we were docked here in Pakistan- exactly where we are docked at the moment- and I was working on the inboard side of the ship, down on the upper deck just aft of the foc’sle head.

There were hundreds of Pakistani longshoreman working on the upper deck.  Somehow I became aware that the CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin was inbound on the river (400 meter, 20,000 TEU behemoth), but I couldn’t leave the spot where I was working to gawk like a yokel.

A major mishap involving the Benjamin Franklin became imminent, and the longshoremen began to howl and yap in consternation, running about in terror.  Since I couldn’t see the ship, I didn’t know the nature of the incident, but braced for it, nonetheless.

I looked aft down the deck just as all 1,000 feet of steel on my ship began to swing back and forth into the dock, flinging Pakistani longshoremen into the hatch coaming and over the rails to the dock below like rag dolls; trucks, containers, and the concrete of the dock flew about like autumn leaves on a November wind.

An upriver dam gave way as a result of the catastrophic dreamland physics, and a wall of water lifted the bow, parting the mooring lines.  I held on, knowing I had to trust the ship- that she could ride it out- but that I had to stay aboard and not get washed away by the surge coming over the breakwater.

Then I woke up, clawing at my face, gagging.  I thought someone was punching me in the nose.  Left hook, right jab… but no- it turned out nobody was punching me in the nose.  The smell of Karachi had been sucked into the ship’s air handlers, injected into my quarters, and then somehow distilled, condensed, and amplified before committing battery on my sleeping self.

The only way I could go back to sleep was to stick my face in my arm pit and cover my head with my sheets to keep a protective cocoon of my body odor around my face.  I am one good smelling man, let me tell you!

To describe the impact on my olfactory I must compare it to a time, back at the turn of the millennium, when Laura and I found ourselves in a favela in Rio, hopping from one stepping stone to the next in a river of effluence that ran down the hillside where the shanty town precariously sits overlooking the South Atlantic Ocean and the picturesque beach city.

The only major difference between the malodor of Rocinha (the favela) and the putrescence of Karachi being that I’m not in a shantytown of 100,000 people but a city of tens of millions.  In a culture that eats predominantly curry-spiced food.

Concisely- I have been assaulted by the smell of curry flavored effluence, and I don’t think I’ll ever be the same again.

Luckily, the dead donkey that was pinned between the ship and the dock wasn’t there this trip.  Nor the massive fish kill that filled the river with dead and rotting fish.  Just plastic and effluence and a writhing sheen of oil.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Rice. Ain't it Nice?

The new steward and cook came on in Singapore, 4 weeks ago, and found the previous steward had not purchased any food.  A food situation that was marginal soon became dire as the cook began serving egg sandwiches as one of our dinner entrees.

Nobody was happy with the situation, least of all the steward, who seemed to sweat a lot; he developed a twitch; he cast furtive glances around at all times.  He’s a short, roundish man, and it gave him a decidedly rodential appearance.

They made it through China, as did we all, and the “honeymoon” was officially over- we took on stores and any legitimate excuse for bad food evaporated.  Unfortunately for them, sailors want to operate like adults, but operate more like Lord of The Flies, instead.  The knives were sharpened and they had to find an unsuspecting back to be plunged into.

Because nothing is wasted at sea.

The wiper is a Filipino.  My age.  It’s his second ship.  He doesn’t really “get it,” yet.  While his compatriot countrymen (my entire department) were content to bitch and grumble, he made a scene of locking eyes with the cook while dumping a full plate of rice into the compost while loudly proclaiming the rice was “three day old shit.”

Sensing blood in the water, the Filipinos lined up to their delegates (engine and deck departments, alike) and filed a formal complaint immediately following that incident.  The delegates went to the captain and served the complaint.  The captain then came down on the steward and let him know that “all department delegates (there are 4) have filed complaints on the same day.”

The following day, the wiper came out of the galley with a plate of rice.  He was pissed off.

“This morning I said ‘good morning’ to the steward.  He didn’t say nothing,” he explained to me.  “Then I said ‘thank you’ for the food, but he didn’t say nothing.  He is angry at me!” he exclaimed, truly surprised.

It fell to me to explain to him that all the steward’s ire would be directed at him for the “three day old shit” comment.  And that all the other Filipinos were going to start calling him “Jesus” for sacrificing himself so willingly- because the only thing the Steward saw was him complaining… not the fins circling in the water.

While I found it funny, he did not.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The More Things Stay The Same

We’re currently skirting Taiwan to avoid a Catagory 4 typhoon.  I’ve been securing the deck for two days now.  I’ve been stowing lashing gear.  Securing large items.  Putting leashes on anything with wheels.

Tonight we’re hitting the worst of it.  We’re quartering the waves (not going directly into them, but keeping them off our beam) and there is a hurky-jerky to the rolly-poly motion that keeps swinging my office chair around while I’m trying to watch a horrible and pixilated b-grade movie.

In a couple of hours it’ll worsen, then start to slacken in the morning.  By the time we anchor tomorrow evening, outside of Chiwan, the seas will be flat.  That’s what the forecasting service is telling us, anyway.

The indirect path that information flows on a ship is remarkable.  For two months there has been rampant speculation about the fate of this ship.  While sitting at coffee this morning, one of my daymen said the mate had told him this was the last time we’re doing this run- the next voyage will see significant changes.

Then, two hours later, I come across the mate and he tells me the same- no more Pakistan.  No more Shanghai.  But we’re adding on two ports in India and another in Sri Lanka.

Avoiding the 5 hour transit up the Yangtze River is fine by me- we’re there so short a time that I have yet to touch that Chinese soil in almost a dozen visits, so my only real loss will be an anxious hope I’ve harbored that one day we’ll be delayed so I can go ashore.  And I have nothing good to say about Pakistan at all- I’m sure there are wonderful things about the place I am too ignorant to appreciate, but I will not miss the security risk, pollution, and hostility.

I am looking forward to riding in an Indian rickshaw, then tipping the old man the equivalent to a month’s salary… adhering to the unspoken code my first Bosun likened to “paying it forward” for the next sailor, no matter the flag of their vessel.  Not to mention it will be another country I will touch lightly on its fringes from the ubiquity of a container port, being exposed to it fully but retreating back to US sovereignty by the time I actually need an American toilet.

I am also excited to see another city in Sri Lanka- I have always really felt weirdly at home in Columbo, and it’ll be interesting to see if I will have the same feeling towards other parts of the country.  This change only supports my initial thoughts about the effects of shipping on the once war-torn Ceylon, land of tea and gemstones- her proximity to every single trade route between Europe, Australia, and China will see her become the next Singapore.  You heard it here first, years ago, and now it is becoming fact.

OK.  I need to secure the crap in my quarters against these damnable waves.

Today was a good day.  Now onward.

Friday, October 14, 2016

An Exchange Rate To Write Home About!

5 days at anchor in Hong Kong were a much needed respite for me and the gang.  Due to the clause in the Agreement, “(a) In port the hours of work shall be 40 hours per week, eight hours per day between 8:00 A.M. and 5:00 P.M., Monday through Friday. (b) 3:00 P.M. Knock Off,” we only worked 6 hours a day, leaving plenty of time to go ashore.

“The Agreement,” that governing contract between the sailors and the company that gets discussed and argued every time the needle-guns shut up long enough for the human voice to be detected by the human ear, is universally described by Chief Mates as the “most creative piece of literature in the English Language.”  I think of it as a list of catch-alls only sailors could dream up.

Speaking of marvels- it is almost impossible to describe a city like Hong Kong that has so many superlatives attributed to it; to single one out and draw attention to it only denigrates the whole place through its failure to give attention to all the others.  It is the densest, the largest, the most populous, etc… so much so that I was content to wander around, completely lost.

The Temple Night Market is possibly the most famous street in Hong Kong- more Kung fu scenes have taken place there than anywhere else.  I wandered past the endless stalls of cheap electronics, watches, tchotchke, down narrow, dank alleyways barely wide enough to allow two people to pass, past dark doorways where women plied their trade with calls of “Mah-sah! Mah-sah for you! I have strong hand!”

Dead pigs on carts, chickens hanging in the windows, luck cats, woks on propane burners balanced at the edge of curbs… like Chinatown in New York.  Or Chinatown in San Francisco.  Or in Singapore.  The Hong Kongese might distinguish themselves from the mainlanders a few miles away, but they are Chinese in every way that this foreign devil can tell.  Chinatown, as only a place in China, but technically not-China, could be.

For $1.75 US I took a subway from narrow lanes beneath a riot of criss-crossing prayer flags and the steady rain of window-unit a/c condensation in the older part of town to the downtown Hong Kong of laser-lit, projected imaged glass skyscrapers, high-fashion flagship stores of every concievable brand under the sun, neon-lit Ferris wheels, double-helix stairways made of solid glass… jaw dropping and bigger than Texas in every way… even in the volume of its self-aggrandizement.

Eat.  Shop.  Shop.  Eat.  If you want bargains, Hong Kong is the place.  Stomach the grisly aroma’s in the old city and get lost in a maze of electronics stalls that are endless.  Wander for hours and never see the sky, never see the same stall twice.  You’ll mostly see the same merchandise at the same price, and convince yourself that you’re seeing the same people over and over again, but you’re not.

Or walk, like I did, and try to get lost.  Due to Google Map’s ability to show you exactly where you were, when, I can go back and see that the first day I wandered I only walked 5.5 miles in the 4 hours I was ashore.  My last 4 hour stint was 7.7 miles.  I changed from my newer flip-flops to my older, and more worn pair to give my feet a break.

I bought $300 US worth of HK dollars ($2,500!) and 5 days later I still had over $500 of it left over… I think I was so overwhelmed that the glut sickened me to buying.  I ate.  I bought some necessities.  I bought nothing for “the fun” of buying it.

At the end of the day, though, Hong Kong is a fractal.  It is amazing on each level, and when you zoom in, you find there is a repeat of the overarching pattern of the city in the neighborhood; and the same pattern of the neighborhood as in the block; the same pattern in the shopping center; in the store; in the department; on the shelves; in the merchandise; in the circuit board of the merchandise….

I found the hive-like energy of Hong Kong endless.  I found its proportions and glitz stunningly alien and bizarre.  But, ultimately, I found the city of superlatives… boring.

We heaved anchor on the morning of the 6th day and I was finally rested from the 21 hour day in Singapore the week before.  I serviced my needle guns, changed out the cups on my grinders, and set about to putting 2-part epoxy lipstick on this big old rusty pig.

Underway, making way… bitches.  And they pay me to do it.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Sri Lanka to Hong Kong, via Singapore. Again.

I forgot how much I like Columbo, Sri Lanka.  As I predicted 4 years ago, the country has done very, very well now that the war is over.  I counted no less than 21 cranes and 15 new skyscrapers; Chinese money has flooded in and they’ve finished the new container port.  They’re building another new one further up the coast, too, and as I said then: They are the next Singapore.

Tuk Tuks, cars, motorcycles, pedestrians, bicycles, and the odd rickshaw still share the roads… and while the underlying grit still remains, the investment dollars are pouring in.  Several of the crew and I went to dinner at a place owned by the third mate’s friend in a courtyard lined with new, fancy restaurants catering to people like us- Westerners with dollars to spend.  It was good.  It was safe to eat.  It was… not very Sri Lankan.

The chief cook wore a hijab to dinner; she is not Muslim, but she refused to eat anything with pork in it because she was wearing the head covering.  The 2nd Engineer and Wiper drank too much.  The Third Mate ordered too much food.  For a brief minute, though, all the freaks that go to sea and lose their minds to monotony and stress seemed like normal people doing normal things out in the world, and we weren’t the institutionalized suffering from Stockholm Syndrome induced by the chain of command and the absurd- we were just people having dinner.

Two hours later, of course, we were hoisting the gangway and steaming back out to sea.

The Bay of Bengal crossing was uneventful, and when we landed in Singapore five days later we had two days in anchorage- so I went ashore two days in a row.  I bought a cheap electric kettle and a coffee mug so I can make coffee in my own quarters.  I ate frog with the third mate at a place in the heart of Chinatown filled with frog art, where the staff wore all green and had frog eye hats on.

All in all, it was a Singaporean minute away from the grease, the stack ash, the smell of heated bunker fuel and paint, and the same psychologically deteriorating personalities that - regardless of likability - wear like stones in the shoe.

At 0600 I was called out to take the ship from anchorage to the dock.  We were all fast by 0900, and I immediately started doing crane lifts.  I lost count… but I think we did 30 lifts and worked until it was time to let go at 2130.  I didn’t finish until 0030- 18.5 hours later.

The C/M, the C/E, the Electrician who walked through my paint, the Chief Steward, the Chief Cook, and the 2nd Mate all walked down the gangway before we departed and their replacements came up.  To my surprise, the Steward and Cook are familiar faces from my second ship- I spent 5 months with them!

In spite of the change of crew, however, we rolled out like we always do, the worn out cogs replaced with fresh cogs, the clockwork machinery moving this big old girl and all her little boxes.  We burned tons of bunker oil and moved from one port to the next.

Coming into Hong Kong tonight I realized it must be the prettiest city I’ve seen- from the water, or otherwise… it truly is breathtaking and I haven’t seen its like anywhere else in the world.  It is as if Seattle and San Francisco’s geology were merged, and then the Chinese moved all the tallest and brightest neon skyscrapers from Shanghai, Ningbo, Chiwan, and Qingdao to its hilly shores, then threw in two soaring suspension bridges to lord over it all.

Word is that we may spend the next 5 days in the inner anchorage, with a launch, while a shore gang of welders (our friends from Singapore) replaces some machinery on the bow and stern.  If that is the case then expect photos from in the city of Hong Kong, itself.

This is shipping, however, and I have learned not to get my hopes up.  The word is “if.”  When the captain can’t confirm it then it’s nothing more than a rumor.  Don’t count on it.  Never get your hopes up.  Skepticism is the most prudent action.  Expect the worst.  Prepare for disappointment.

I am all of these, and yet my fingers are crossed.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Ready in The Trenches

The Indian Ocean was blanketed by thick stratus clouds and fast moving showers, high winds and whitecaps, and seas that gave us a slow roll with quick slapping side-to-side modulations during our run around the point of Sri Lanka.  I worked overtime every evening and I would have worked it every morning, too, but my total hours were too high for the budget and they wouldn’t turn me to.

During the six day transit from Singapore to Karachi my completed work list (in no particular order) looks like this:  Painting every fire hydrant on the ship.  Chipping and painting the forward emergency life raft embarkation stations.  Chipping and painting the after winches.  Coordinating with the 1st Assistant Engineer to fabricate parts necessary for me to repair two of the after winches’ engaging arms, and actually replacing those parts.  Replacing all 150 meters of 80 mm 12 strand polyolefin mooring line on the after winch.  Cutting the new 250 meter, 72 mm, 8 strand polyolefin line in half and splicing in eyes to make new tug lines (used in Pakistan).  Replacing lines on the forward rat guards.  Cleaning and greasing every turnbuckle on the lashing gear used to secure the containers to the ship.  Making new taglines for the new tug lines.  Removing the old 80 mm nylon (bad!) mooring line by cutting it into pieces and lugging it up to the “dumpsters.”  Making curves stencils to repaint the name and flagged port on the forward life rings.  Sorting through the grease buckets, drums, and miscellaneous greasing implements to remove unknown/ unmarked chemicals and consolidate the petrosnots that are used by the deck department.  Replacing the door lock cylinder on a crew member’s quarters door. Painting repurposed first aid boxes to house my door parts.  Taking all the saved tin cans from the galley and making wire lanyards to use for paint pots.  Discarding all the buckets I’ve hoarded in the paint locker since coming aboard (Laura knows I’m a bucket hoarder- it’s a sickness).  Cleaning the former dumping grounds for the deck department, the forecastle (“Bosun’s Stores” on the ship drawings) and turning it into a proper line locker/ cargo gear stowage.  Repairing the two antennae blown off in the Indian Ocean monsoons.  And lastly, port prep, port side-to, for a 1000 arrival into Karachi.

Our first day into port I began the long anticipated starboard weather deck restoration.  It has deteriorated so much as to be embarrassing, so my daymen and I attacked it first thing with needle guns, three-fingers, and lawn mowers (all of which are specialized tools for making hellacious noise and stripping steel to bare metal).  Halfway through the day I got called to remove two fan motors from different cargo holds.

I did not know it when it was requested, but the person responsible for the motors (the reefer) said they’d need a crane.  The mate asked me to look at it, and after inspecting the larger of the two I said “sure, I’ll snatch that out for you,” and I assembled a block and tackle arrangement (gun tackle rove to advantage, to be exact) with steel blocks and 3 inch Manila line and then slung it all from an upper lashing bridge adjacent to the hold.

I figured something was up when the Chief Engineer and 1st Assistant Engineer came out and joined the Mate (with cameras) across the open cargo hold from our hoist to watch the evolution.  I suspect the Old Man was watching from the bridge, too (there are photos from the bridge on the ship’s computer).

When the last container was lifted out of the hold and into the sky from where I set up, we dropped the hook down and the reefer rigged the motor up.  It was pretty salty, actually- the smell of manila line as my Filipino daymen and myself counted out a cadence and “snatched” it out of there, hand over hand.

It wasn’t a straight lift, of course- the arrangement went sideways and through a lightening hole and the reefer tried with some success to control the 500 pound mass of tightly wound copper armature, but within 5 minutes it was liberated from the hold and manhandled onto the lashing bridge as I momentarily thwarted the very Force Of Gravity, itself- and Gravity is nothing, if not persistent.

I still don’t know exactly why it got so much attention from the officers, but I think: 1) It has been rotting down in that cargo hold awhile, a thorn in everyone's’ side- Deck and Engine Departments alike, 2) There hasn’t been a Bosun on here with the experience to take it on, and 3) The company really didn’t want to hire a crane to hoist it out.

I think my cache went up with that one, but for the life of me, I can’t see what the big deal was- I’ve always had to move unwieldy things to and from impossible places.  I think about flipping boat hulls over with Fleetwood, for example: It was never a question of whether or not we could do it, but how, and how fast did we need to run (very, it turned out).

Anyway, I am nearing the end of my 2nd voyage (less than two weeks) and at that point a new Chief Mate comes on.  His reputation is not so hot, so I am laying the groundwork for a protracted battle of wills and an endurance run of endless confrontation even as I hope for the best.

My buddy- and the first Bosun from my first posts on this here blog- had a way of running mates off the deck so he could have some peace and quiet during his work day:  Every time he saw the Mate on deck he pointed out a safety item that involved hot work (welding).  Because it is safety it cannot be ignored.  Because it is hot work it involves, at minimum, 3 men- one welder, one fire-watch on deck, and another fire-watch below the plate being welded.  Because it is so involved, it requires input from the port engineer, requisitions from the ship’s agent, and a final inspection by ABS (American Bureau of Shipping) or the USCG.

After three or four such encounters on deck the Mate would turn and run the other way when he saw the Bosun on deck.

I am mapping the ship, from stem to stern- as I said, laying the groundwork.  But hoping to be pleasantly surprised.  But not expecting to be.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Water, Water, Everywhere

The days have begun to blend together.  The first half of each voyage on the shuttle run I’m on is port after port in rapid succession- Singapore to Singapore with 5 Chinese ports in between.  The second half begins after the 5 hour transit from the second stop in Singapore to Indonesia - the long run across the Indian Ocean to Pakistan.

When the second half begins, so too begins the 2 hours of OT in the morning (0500 - 0700) and the 2 hours of OT in the evening (1800 - 2000).  The sleep deprivation and exhaustion only sets in if I screw up and watch a movie, missing a full night of sleep, kicking off a downward spiral of my own making.

The emerald green and olive drab of the Yellow Sea this transit have turned to obsidian as the chaotic skies of alto, stratus, and cumulus clouds pile up until the stratus layer gains dominance by attrition and obliterates any trace of blue that once painted the dome of the sky.  If this were Seattle it would be cold.  It is not cold.

My clothing gets soaked in the monsoon rains as I turn- a cog in the machine of this ship.  We are enslaved to a clock and we make her run in spite of the weather and the natural order of things.  My boots are wet.  My clothing is wet.  My dirty laundry would mildew if I left it too long unattended. The decks are awash and the greatest feeling is being dry after a hot shower at the end of the day.

The junior engineer walked off in Singapore.  Apparently, the First Engineer had to work on the frequently clogged sewer system which requires, after much revolting work, the flushing of every toilet on the ship.  The Junior’s room was trashed- beer cans everywhere.  I saw the photo the Engineer took- it was pretty heinous.

It is illegal in America for 20 year-olds to buy and drink beer.  When the Captain did a “surprise sanitary inspection” of the ship he pointed this out to the junior.  The junior claimed he was in “international waters,” which pissed the old man off.

Just for clarification: The junior was on US soil while aboard this US flagged vessel, and he did the equivalent of arguing with a judge while on trial under the jurisdiction of that very same judge when he took on the old man.  Clearly, being 20 makes a man-cub cockier than he has any right to be, but this wouldn’t be cockiness for the sake of cockiness… this would be plain old stupid.

So he “quit” and probably found himself on the company’s Do-Not-Hire list, to boot.

Right now we are slow-belling through Indonesian waters towards our next port… I’m not certain, but we probably have a pilot boarding time and the speed required has us turning somewhere between 50 and 60 RPMs (I can feel about a turn a second).

I went to sleep at 1600 but woke at 2315 from hunger.  We’re supposed to arrive at 0200 so I want to be rested, but not too rested- I might be too rested.  After arrival I’ll want to go back to sleep… thank god for melatonin!  Laura just shipped me more- I should get it next time we go through Singapore.

I have deduced that the single greatest determination of my attitude is sleep.  I can cope with anything, unflinchingly and with my humor intact, if I’ve had a full night sleep; denied of sleep I become negative, angry, and unnecessarily confrontational.  I find it amazing it has taken me to middle age to figure this simple thing out.

And that’s all I got.  No mermaids were sighted.  No whales.  No waterspouts.  But I did see some stunning lightning over Singapore while I did crane ops in the torrential rain this morning, and if that’s what I get then that’s what I’ll take.  And I’ll like it.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Shanghai Nights

Up we go!  Up the river and up to the bridge, that is...  I actually take the wheel and drive this big old girl up the Yangtze River- it’s the only time I take the wheel (as the deck boss, the Boatswain is always on deck- this transit is the exception).  The only other time I’ve seen the Bosun take the wheel is going through the Suez Canal… this particular instance is a five hour transit with tie up and crane ops at the end… I’ll be done at 0200.  Hopefully.  The crane ops involves hauling up a piston crown.

Despite the large quantity of latex and nitrile gloves I go through my hands are always filthy.  Nothing on a ship is clean.  I wash my hands so often I feel like an obsessive compulsive- and by washing my hands, I mean using fast orange up and over my elbows (waterless degreaser) followed by pumice soap and water.  I probably wash them twenty times a day, if not more.

I keep a gallon bucket of fast orange and a bar of pumice soap in my shower, too, incidentally.  I wear shorts as often as possible due to the tropical heat and my exposed legs collect grease and paint throughout the day.

As we were rigging the gangway for port today I saw a jellyfish beneath the olive skin of the sea whose dome had to have been 6 feet across.  It was gargantuan.  The gangway is right by the fidley fans so getting anyone’s attention was impossible for the noise, so I just watched it go by as the gang raised handrails, tied off the safety lines, and hooked up the chains.  A bubble of isolated wonder inside the roar of heavy industry.

In spite of my best efforts I am starting to get tired… I suppose it should be expected after almost 60 days of non-stop work and a schedule that is spelled out as hundreds of possible conditions in the Agreement, a book of sailorly legalese 64 pages thick with terminology that dates back to tall ships.  Which watchman is where and when while the ship is doing what in which particular condition.  When watches are set and when they are broken.  Who cleans what.  Who steers, who drops anchor, who rigs the pilot ladder, and at what rate of pay do we get for all of it.

This run is heavy on the front side: 5 ports in China and one in Malaysia, then back to Singapore all within the first 21 days- the Agreement gets debated heavily during this half of the trip.  The second 21 days is Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and then back to Singapore- mostly sea days spent doing deck projects and amassing overtime.  Because of the corruption in Pakistan this ship seems to get stuck for a week at a time when we go there- Americans are not permitted to go ashore per the State Department and company policy, so the first half of the trip is a sleepless and frantic blur while the second half is a long, hard slog.

Right now I am in the blur… and up to the wheel I go to relieve the helm.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Strange Fruit

So they don’t call me by my name.  I’ve had one name my entire life (except for a few years during my awkward youth when I went by my middle name) and nobody here uses it.  On every ship they’ve used my actual name- I have been “A Watchstander” or “A Dayman,” but I’ve been known by my given familiar-to-me-and-thee, fill-out-this-form, what-is-your-name? name.

Here and now, however, they call me “The Boatswain.”  Like “The Mate” or “The Chief” or “The Captain,” now I am a title that denotes my place in the chain of command; I am a description of a piece of machinery that serves a specific function that makes the ship go.  I am not really me.  The Filipinos also call me “Boss,” but it is either used affectionately or derisively (situation depending), whereas “Bosun” is a word with weight to it.  A physical thing bigger than the meatbag it describes.  

In every way it is the same job I did for many years in my last career- I tell people what to do.  This is the process we’re going to use.  This is why we’re using it.  It is better than the bullshit they did before because...  There is a big difference, however, between telling a foreman to build it per plans and telling a sailor to man a line- I am much closer to the bottom of the pecking order right now than I am to the top.  I am still a sailor in the truest sense of the word and not management.

As I took a launch to shore in Singapore I casually took a photo of the ship.  I saw the rust on the stack, how badly the house needs to be painted, the steepness of the gangway, how she squatted stern-heavy in the water… but it was when I returned later that night that I realized with a shock exactly how big my ship actually is- the dwarfed bunker barge offloading heavy fuel oil to her was a couple hundred feet long with a five story house above its deck!  

And I help make that big boat run.  I have, figuratively, lost my name to her.

While I was ashore I bought some fruit.  One type (I can’t remember the name of it) was infested with ants when I got back to the ship and it took me awhile to murder them all with crushing blows or suffocation, after which it was indescribably delicious and I saved their seeds for my sister.

The other, as I have subsequently come to know rather well, is called (please forgive my spelling if you know it to be otherwise) “durian.”  In appearance it resembles a much spinier pineapple, minus the cute little hat.  It is about the size of a cantaloupe and clearly built to ward off hungry animals- which any thinking person might assume means that what’s inside the protective shell must be remarkably desirable.  I did not know it was banned from busses or most public places at the time I spent 28 sing for it (about 20 bucks).

To get to the prized treasure you must battle spines that conceal a tough, fibrous pith and a hard shell that reduces the green, anemone imitation into a fleshy delight about the size of an apple.  Durian- the meat of the fruit itself- smells like a camel drank a bucket of goat urine and then pissed that into sun-baked portable toilet to let it ferment.  And then did it again for good measure.

It’s texture is like that of an avocado gone to mush, reinforced with mats of hair all wrapped around an unripe banana.  Worst of all, however, is the taste, which is so foul I can only describe it with the image of a dog licking its own butt.  That gag-inducing touch upon the tongue, sadly, lingers for hours afterward and I was repeatedly cursed by the shipmate I convinced to try it with me.  

One bite and 28 sing worth of durian went into the nearest garbage can.  I have since learned that all the Filipinos aboard like it but I’d be damned by the whole crew had I brought that malodorous custard aboard.  They laughed when I told them I tried it.

Currently I am headed toward Hong Kong with hints from the Mate that we might be there longer than anticipated and we could potentially get to go ashore for a few hours.  I won’t be holding my breath for that to happen, and I won’t buy any unrecognized fruit without a sample.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Up, Down, and Rolling Seas

The best part of Karachi, Pakistan was, indeed, “getting the fuck out of Karachi,” as so eloquently stated by the 3rd Engineer.  The smell of the city, the pollution in the waterways, the open dislike for Americans by the Paki longshoremen, and the slow extortion of the ship by a port that does business the same way a kidnapper does- holding the ship hostage until it has extracted as much as is possible- makes for a tedious stay.

The seas have been on our beam since leaving the coast and the roll, roll, rolling of the ship has taken its toll on my sleep- not so much for the motion (which is lulling) but for the odd banging door, the rolling of things in drawers, and the falling over of non-permanently affixed things… my sleep has been interrupted!

I have also started to run out of steam.  When motivation erodes you must rely on habit and doing-by-rote, and that’s where I am today.  Perhaps with a good night’s sleep I’ll be recharged, but today ain’t that day (a good night’s sleep fixed me up, after all).

We have been advancing clocks.  One hour last night, one hour today during the day, and tomorrow during the day- soon I will return to 15 hours later than Seattle time.  The only people aboard who dislike advancing clocks during the day are the steward’s department- their shorter day means they have to work much harder to be ready for mealtimes.

The flies we picked up in Pakistan are still with us.

I trained a man on the crane who was, by all accounts, unable to operate that kind of equipment.  He does fine… better than some, even.  Since he went ashore last time we were in Singapore, this next time he will remain aboard to do what I did last time - operate the crane.  Give a man a fish/ Teach a man to fish, and all that… but I’m gonna shore-hound my happy ass this next visit, come hell or come high water.  

The elevator was on the kaputz since I came aboard.  A day out of Karachi the electrician and reefer requested I build them staging on C deck (4th deck above the “ground floor” of the Upper Deck, 6.5 floors above the lowest stop down on one of the decks in the engine room) in the elevator shaft.  I had to have them request it of my head of department (chain of command, and all that) but soon I was requisitioned to build them staging.

As with all projects, I started by combing the ship for the best - usually only - available materials… which means digging in the forecastle and steering room, rummaging in the tunnels, and even going so far as to dismantle other non-vital, forgotten stuff if necessary.  Walk a mile in my shoes (in a moving convection oven) and you’ll feel me.

I found three old boards and two stamped walk-boards (certified to a maximum weights for staging).  Instead of cutting the expensive, regulated and stamped walk-boards, I figured I’d cut one of the old paint-covered planks.  Yeah.  It was teak.  I could have cried.  The last board of teak I bought was 100 dollars a board foot (my 1.25” x 10” x 10 foot board cost a thousand dollars)... it felt like burning money.

The four foot section of 2 inch by 12 inch iron-wood was also a good score.  I don’t know what I am gonna do with it… but I haven’t lost my wood hoarding skills while at sea, apparently.

Anyway- they spent a few days repairing the elevator and finally- after over a month aboard- I didn’t have to climb the 13 story ladder 200 times a day anymore.  My first ride up to the bridge was a luxury unlike anything I’ve experienced since the Polk- it seems the elevator on every ship I’ve been on since has been broken!  And then like That!  We had elevator.

Until we started rolling- which has been every single day since they repaired it.  Now, before I start the climb, I check to see if the light is back on, yet…

And that is how it is.

NOTE:  It is easier to climb the ladder when it’s rolling if you wait for the ship to roll in the “helping” direction.  You can also climb against the roll if you really want to suffer the additional G’s working against you.  Often times I’ll go into the ladder well and there will be someone standing at the landing, frozen, waiting until the ship rolls back around before they start their climb up.  I do it all the time, but it’s quite funny to witness.  An 8 second period between swells is the perfect amount of time to casually walk up the ship’s switch-backing ladder with the least amount of effort.  That is how sailors do.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Favorite Recent Quote

"I can't wait to get to Karachi... so I can hurry up and get the fuck out of Karachi."  ~2nd A/E

This is how we do...

Chinese Engineer removing the existing gangway sheaves. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Pakistani fishing boat

Similar to the fishing boats I described in an earlier post this week, but with a drastically different stern.  I hung a bag of soap and cigarettes from a line off the rail for them (complementary of the C/M)... The watch on deck said he had to move it to the lee side of the ship, but that they did eventually take possession of the American contraband.

Trash, Inequality, and the Chain of Command

I had an easy morning making lanyards connecting all the trash lids to their corresponding cans.  How did this come about?  Well let me tell you!

Our illustrious delegate had been getting annoyed that the sanitary guys kept taking out the trash in the bridge head, putting in a new bag, and then replacing the trash can lid- apparently, it was an unacceptable amount of work for the delegate to wash his hands while on watch and then lift the lid to throw away his paper towels.  I get it.  Small things at sea can chafe like ill-fitting underwear and soon grow intolerable.  It's happened to me on more than one occasion.

And I really shouldn't laugh.

But each day he'd pull the lid off and stow it in increasingly less accessible locations, hoping they'd be "smart enough" to understand it was an unwanted lid and to leave the goddamned thing off, already, but they'd diligently find it and doggedly replace it back on the can where it belonged.  This battle of wills had been escalating for weeks.  It annoyed him so much that when he reached a certain point of frustration, the escalation came to a head, and he took drastic measures to maintain his sanity:  He threw the lid away.

In the CFR's (Code of Federal Regulations), however, it specifies that be in compliance with international treaty- being the law of the land as soon as the US became a ratified signatory- as set forth by the IMO (the International Maritime Organization) that we must have trash cans with lids in specific places on the ship- And that head is one of them (as is the galley, mess hall, laundry, etc.).  When the Old Man couldn't find the lid and he found out that the Delegate threw it away, he ordered him to find it.  Or he was fired.

Being a white dude from San Francisco, oblivious of his privileged American Equality and, therefore, unknowingly holding the entire concept of the chain of command in contempt, he went back to the Captain and asked him to clarify what he meant.  All he'd tell me of this conversation in its aftermath was the Old Man reiterated "Find that lid or you're fired."  Lucky for him he found it.

So today the crew is rolling their eyes and grinning about the kerfuffle (all but one crew member, of course), relishing saying the words "garbage can" as often as possible.  Which is why I spent 4 hours this morning putting lanyards on all trash cans, marrying them forever to their lids.  I would have been whistling, contentedly- but you never whistle on a ship (you'll whistle up a storm).

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Observations

The elevator is still out (it hasn’t worked since before I got on).  There are 8.5 floors above the main deck, and another 5 below.  I probably climb the equivalent of a 100 story building every single day.  

The air conditioning hasn’t been able to cool the inside temperature of the house much below that of the air outside of it, thanks to the conjoining of the Reefer’s inexperience and the system’s complexity.  I mistakenly thought the Reefer was in charge of air conditioning when I first went to sea, but he’s actually aboard to handle the power, maintenance, and monitoring of the refrigerated containers.  We joke that the Reefer is only aboard to plug them in when they’re loaded and unplug them when they’re offloaded.

Once I am exhausted by the schedule out here I actually slow down, mellow out, and pace myself… too bad that takes so long in the first place.

The chimney effect created by the height of the ship and the many different ways air can flow from deep in the heart of the ship below to the bridge, many decks above, causes some doors to be vacuumed shut and others to swing wild when opened.  I’ve been chipping, grinding, and painting the tunnels from the sideport aft to the engine room water tight doors, and each time the engine water tight door is opened, the blast of furnace-like air cooks us.  Thank god it’s a dry heat.

There is absolutely no concievable way to use a grease gun without also bathing in grease.  It cannot be done.

I have finally sunk so low as to wear cut-off carhart overalls.  After work, when I kick off my work boots, the toe-socks with flip-flops doesn’t help.

It has rained every day since leaving China.  The heat and humidity are constant.  The gray is constant.  The salt on the decks is a quarter inch thick and has a greasy feel to it.  Everything is damp and salted.

The color of the ocean changes every time I look at it and there is no language, on the sea or off it, that can adequately describe it.  Its luminous nature, surface texture, aeration, biological content, interaction of current, wind, and wave, the inclination of the sun, all affect it with equal degrees of variation, and I can contentedly stare at it for hours.  

Pakistani fishermen are all around us and I find myself envious of their 50 foot fishing boats.  Their sterns look like Chinese san pans, but their bows are unique to these waters (in my experience), where the stem stands about 10 feet perfectly vertical and whose apex is a perfect semi-circle.  There is a horizontal plank bowsprit that is a mirror image of the stem in size and shape.  The bow is remarkably blunt.  I have seen only a few spritsails in the distance- these boats are mostly powered by unenclosed gas engines with straight exhausts, long shafts and props bolted directly to the flywheels, and to get thrust they lift the front of the engine which in turn pivots the prop down into the water.  Each boat has between 8 and 10 men, and they fish with lines directly in their hands- no poles or other gear.  The men who came down our starboard side landed a 4 foot tarpon (according to my Filipino brothers) and tried to sell it to us there on the spot.

Some days you are the hammer.  Some days you are the nail.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

A Day In The Life...

We’re anchored in “The Sing” when a launch comes alongside and 20 Chinese, Malaysian, Filipino, and Singaporean laborers and engineers come up the gangway.  Their launch has boxes of tools and one new gangway to replace the one destroyed in Hong Kong when it’s roller got stuck on the dock and the hoist bent it in half.

I stand in the blistering sun giving hand signals to my crane operator and we bring each toolbox aboard, one box at a time, as the motley sound of different incomprehensible languages compete with one another, each voice demanding one thing or another over the ever present roar of the fans in the stack.  

My radio is set on full volume to pierce the din and commotion and cut through the hearing protection in my ears.  It feeds back constantly as crewmen try to communicate with the bridge or the engine room while another radio carrying host is in near proximity, and comprehending anything in the cacophony is an art form.  It is second nature to cover the speaker of your radio when someone else moves to use theirs, and the reflexive, synchronized habit can be amusing when 5 or 6 radio hosts are in one place.

The local gang’s foreman is either Singaporean or Chinese, polite and quick to smile, and his number one man is a stocky, take-charge Chinaman who has the same poise and self assured competence as any of the highly-trained Westerners who crew my ship.  He, too, is quick to smile, and I can tell they like doing what they do.  They’re good at it.

Their gang operates as a hive, no one man expected to perform a single role, and I am astounded when I watch one man operate the trigger of a drill while another pushes on it.  The collaboration is wordless and automatic.  One man beats on a frozen nut while another rigs an oxygen and acetylene torch, taking his hammer in mid strike, and replacing it with the torch.  They don’t even look at one another; it just happens.  If someone tried that with any of the Westerners aboard they’d be verbally attacked- but these Asians just don’t roll like we do.

I have forsaken my square, printed bandana in favor of a large shop rag, tied like a bandana, but covering my neck and ears, Filipino style.  My rigger is a Filipino man with no front teeth and large ears who smiles a lot.  I call him “Wonka.”  He is a bit ADD and OCD combined, but if I keep him on a close leash he doesn’t wander off and start doing his own projects.

My crane operator is the only other American white man in my crew and he is up on the C Deck, which doesn’t extend out to the rail as A deck does, where I stand looking down- so he must watch my hands from his blind perch as I signal boom down, cable up, slew left, stop… and we drop the hook down to the launch below where some flavor of Asian rigs each load and we bring them on.

Three more of my men, two Filipinos- one with a bald pate and the other I rely on to do the things that require skills only he and I possess- and the Danish giant I call The Great Dane, take on barge lines, operate the bunker crane, and assist the massive operation in various ways.

During lulls in lifts I am call upon repeatedly to handle other shipboard issues.  The coast guard is aboard performing a certification of inspection (COI), requiring us to drop lifeboats to the embarkation decks, dress out in full firefighting gear, including SCBA’s (self contained breathing apparatuses), running two fire teams and simulating a laundry room fire.

We take 6 of the non-English speaking Asians and collect every firehose from every fire station on the main deck and string them together on the stern deck into one long hose flaked from rail to rail, fore to aft.  The fire mains are charged and the inspectors verify all our seals work.  Then we break it all down, drain the hoses, roll them up, and replace them into their stations.  Then we do the same to the fire stations in the tunnels.

I am asked to make a wire hasp for the voyage data recorder (VDR) cabinet- the “black box” on a ship.  I have to troubleshoot a frozen escape hatch- it turns out it is secured from the inside against intrusion and we send the cadet up the ladder in the non-functioning elevator shaft to open the hatch from the inside. I disable the mechanism with a few wraps of tape.

It is relentless work.  I have pliers in my pocket.  A knife.  A flashlight.  That roll of electrical tape I used to disable hatch locking mechanisms (I normally seize line with it).  A bottle of water.  Earplugs.  And my radio, its handset clipped to my collar as close to my ear as possible.  

The heat is all consuming- radiation from the tropical sun from above, waves of heat from the steel deck plating below, and a level of humidity that soaks through clothing in less than a minute of casual exposure.  We are not casually working, however… so as soon as one bottle of water is gone, we replace it with another.  The empty bottles litter the deck in all directions, bow to stern, as we frenetically push to get as much done as possible.

The ABS inspectors in red coveralls have us take on large, yellow water bags that are used for the weight test certification of the new gangway.  The three large bags are connected by hoses to a manifold and placed on the gangway.  I charge their manifold from the fire main.  After several minutes, when the bright yellow bags are almost full, their manifold fails catastrophically, sending a geyser of salt water in all directions.

The two ABS inspectors are soaked instantly.  They struggle against the failure, comically and without success, while balanced on the raised gangway 50 feet above the water, and everyone - crew and contractor alike - laughs uncontrollably

for the next 5 minutes.

Thunderheads roll by on all sides, teasingly set atop columns of cool, torrential water- but none come near enough to block the sun or blow the stale, heavy wet air away.  

We work from 0800 until 2300 with minimal breaks, and as we make several more lifts to and from launches below, the welding and fabricating crew begins making new pneumatic pipes for the gangway winch and a new manifold for heavy bunker oil.  They work through the the night.  Many of their gang sleep on the deck.  Some string up hammocks, like the Sri Lankan longshoremen do.

I have a gallon tub of fast-orange hand cleaner with a pump that lives in my shower and it’s my routine to scrub the oil and grease off before I even consider an actual shower with soap.  It feels like an extraordinary amount of work after such a day, but it’s mandatory for anyone who likes clean sheets.

I am called out at 0400.  I drop their gear to their launch at 0430.  We raise anchor at 0530.  We get underway by 0600 and I go back to bed and skip breakfast and lunch.  I turn to and work from 1300 to 1700.