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.