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.  

Sunday, July 24, 2016

It's Like Groundhog Day- All Over Again

So it goes like this:  

Port prep- an “all hands” evolution in which all the lines on the bow and stern are payed out to the chocks and extra line is faked out beside it so when it’s time to let go it can run, and all the messengers are led to where the AB throws the heaving line down to the line handlers.  My heaving line has been repaired several times (thank you, China) and looks awful, but it’s solid.

Once the lines and winches are ready, we go to the gangway and prep it.  In a perfect world we loosen the nuts holding it in place, push a lever, and out she goes.  It rarely goes like that.  Once she is “flying,” we raise the rails (requires pry bars) and I radio the bridge to let them know the gangway “is rigged and ready.”  They always reply with “thank you.”  

Once the gang is done we are finished with port prep… It usually takes about an hour.

Not long afterward I get called to clear the anchors; I go to the bow, pull the pins from the pawls and disengage the windlass gears.  I might stand a bow watch- the ultimate luxury, really- which requires that I be by the anchor brakes to let go either anchor for an emergency maneuver should the old man require it.  I look at it as the only down-time granted the Bosun and it’s quiet, gorgeous, and can be really quite lovely.  The wind and the sound of water being forced apart by 67,000 tons of steel make for a serene setting.

If we go to anchor, the mate and one of my men comes forward and we drop anchor.  If not, I stand watch until relieved or until we are ready to take on the pilot.

Which is why it stands to reason that the pilot ladder gets rigged next.  We go down into the engine room, out through one of the tunnels, and forward towards the side port.  I love asking permission of the bridge to enter the “port side side port…” It succinctly sums up everything amusing about maritime nomenclature.  

We remove the manual hydraulic strong-backs, turn on the hydraulic pumps, then open the side port door.  The rush of fresh air is always so nice after the hot, dank, stale air that festers in the uncirculated parts of the ship is swept out the door; soon the hot, dry air from the engine room reaches us and we continue, once more, to cook- this time in our own private little convection oven.

We lower the jacob’s ladder to the required height above water (it varies by pilot boat freeboard) and a mate comes down to witness taking on the pilot.  

“Pilot boat alongside.”  

“Pilot on the ladder.”  

“Pilot on board.”

The mate escorts the pilot to the bridge while we close it all back up.  

I might get a break for a bit if it’s a long transit, but if not, “all hands go fore and aft” to take on tug lines and get ready to dock.  I have a few tricks for handling the Chinese tug lines which markedly improves the safety of the crew… Tricks I’ve learned along the way.  Things I frequently say while on the bow: Stay out of the bite.  Don’t hurry- we have all day.  Keep your eye on the mate.  Keep your eye on the dock, mate.

The mate runs the operation and gives me hand signals as directed by the bridge.  I operate the winches, engaging and disengaging the gears, setting the brakes, and sending and retrieving lines per the mate’s direction.  My two AB’s send the heaving line, rig the messengers, and throw the eyes out the chocks per my direction.  

Mostly it is clockwork.  Often it is a total SNAFU.  If the line gets “buried” on the winch (jammed in the spool, basically) we have to beat on it with a sledge to free it- which takes time and lots of energy.  This morning we had two buried during let go- a total beast of a time.

Once we are all fast, we put out rat guards, set the brakes on the winches, turn off the pumps, then head aft to the gangway.  I lower it to the dock (the pilot is the first off) and I appoint two men to lower the gangway net by crane to the dock.  Three men pay the net out on the dock and I send down a messenger to haul up the net to the rail.  We systematically fasten the net to the ship from fore to aft, then fasten the other side of the net to the outboard side of the gangway rail.

“Bridge.  Bosun.  Gangway net is rigged.”

At this point, in a perfect world, we are done- but that never happens.  An army of longshoremen (“lashers”) board the ship up the gangway and a security watch is set.  The gang not on watch then send the crane over the side and begin taking on stores, making engine lifts, or offloading garbage per my direction.  Offloading garbage is pretty foul, at best.  It is gag-inducing by its very nature.

Oddly enough, while working at Fort Jackson in Savannah as a man-cub, my exposure to vast amounts of garbage in my daily routine made me pretty much immune to the stench of (as my buddy Big John called it) “garbage puke.”  Add a 20 knot wind, haul it up 100 feet into the air inside of a cargo net, and the merely unpleasant task of frolicking in rotten refuse becomes a proverbial “rain of terror” as everyone ducks and covers, trying to keep the garbage puke out of their upturned eyes or open, slackened sailorly maws.  

Work fast.  Work safe.  Shower often.

Let go is a reversal of the steps above:  Drop the gangway net.  Haul it aboard.  Raise the gangway and secure it for sea.  Go fore and aft to take on the tugs and cast off mooring lines.  Let go the tug when finished.  Rig the pilot ladder, then secure the side port once he’s away.  Secure the anchors after the bow watch.

Since we’ve been hitting a port every other day since I came aboard, this has been my reality.  Not enough sleep- work like a dog, then too much sleep- work like a dog.  Repeat.  Now that I’ve chronicled my time in China, I am going to sleep- last night was supposed to be “too much sleep” in the repeating cycle but we finished garbage at midnight 30, an alarm went off at 0300, I had to repair a winch at 0600, tend mooring lines with the mate at 0700, and we went fore and aft for tie-up at 1030.

Thankfully, my OT sheet looks like a novella.

Cargo Ops viewed from my quarters


Bow Watch

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Burning Men and Lifting Heavy Crap

Shanghai was frenetic - About 20 crane lifts of heavy engine parts out of the engine hatch (7 stories deep), over the deck, and down to the dock with a crane that has one, slow, mechanically dubious speed.  We arrived at noon and departed at midnight.  Nobody went ashore.

I will introduce a term: “Burned.”  It is when a man has exceeded the mandatory rest requirements as specified in the Interntaional Maritime Organization’s STCW (Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchstanding) requirements for any 24 hour period, regardless of where that period is started.  I.e. “Can we turn-to AB 3?  Or has he burned?”

The gang was pretty much all burned.  I got 16 hours of overtime.

So we “reset” by sleeping in and getting ready for Ningbo, which is quickly approaching.  I just rigged the pilot ladder, the pilot came aboard, and I resecured the side port.  We’re heading up the river.  All hands, fore and aft, in about 30 minutes.  Ready to do it all again.

Monday, July 18, 2016


Interwebs Creep and Interwebs Fail

This excuse for no post has taken me 30 minutes to actually upload.  That's all I got.  Life at sea.  Take it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

And I'm Off!

Nothing so far has surprised me.  After 20 hours of being on a jet next to an infant that screamed every hour, on the hour, I was taken by shuttle to a downtown Singapore hotel and was checked in by 0900.  The food was awful and I only managed to snag about 3 hours of sleep before I had to catch my next shuttle to the port at 1600 that same day... Seems anxiety trumps melatonin even after 48 hours of being awake.

I put my luggage in my quarters and fished out my work clothes, and from 1730 until midnight I made crane lifts of stores onto the ship.  The crane was, as could be expected, broken when I first tried to use it and I spent an hour waiting on it to get fixed by two electricians - one of which looked like one of the Allman Brothers and the other of which smelled like piss.

At midnight thirty we raised the gangway and by 0200 we were underway and secured for sea.  Needless to say, by this point I was pretty punchy.

The existing Bosun’s Quarters had been, upon my arrival, reassigned by the old man to be the new second Third Mate’s quarters and I had been relegated to a previously unused room reserved for “riders,” those people who aren’t crew who nevertheless find themselves working aboard in some capacity or another.  It hadn’t been used since its abandonment, which I place to be May of 2015 by the wall calendar; if it had been cleaned since the ship was built I would be surprised.

It didn't matter that all my stuff was still in suitcases and the room was filthy- I slept.  Until 0600.  Really!?  Three and a half hours just wasn't enough, but I got up and started cleaning my new home-away-from-home for the next foreseeable future, and when 1300 arrived I donned my gear and did "desktop" drills, then worked the rest of the day.

My gang consists of three Filipinos (one known as Willy Wonka), The Great Dane (that same Dutch sailor from my first ship), and one other white guy acting as The Delegate.  The Great Dane is pleasant but not all that bright and his grasp of English, I am discovering, isn’t as good as I recalled it was before I was the gang boss.  Still, it was good to see him and we had a few laughs about "old times."

The Filipinos understand exactly what they want to understand and not a word more.  They seem utterly confused by any direction, whether it be verbal or non verbal (i.e. Crane hand signals, which- if you don’t know- are universal).  I see how this is gonna go.  Yes indeedy, I do.

It didn’t take two days before the Mate and the Old Man realized I have skills and they turned the overtime on full blast - the last Boatswain only worked 8 hour days, apparently, and got few projects, if any, done.  My goal was 12 hour days, and we’re on.  I’m here to make money, honey, and who goes to sea to work 8 hours a day, anyway!?  They immediately dumped a mountain of work on me and I haven’t let up, since.

The heat is something I had forgotten, though.  It’s the hot season and I am frying in the sun.  It takes a few weeks to adjust, but I’m 3 seconds away from taking a straight razor to my head- I have minerals and I’m downing a few gallons a day, but the radiation from the sun and the steel deck plating are, in a word, remarkable.  We’re not even in Karachi, yet, either- and it is Guam-hot-plus, there.

I climbed down the ladders from the main deck down to the tank top, today, after a lost ladder- and if the direct sun is hot, then the inside of the hold is the inside of the sun, itself.  I slather my heat rash with coconut oil and that's about all I can do about it until I adjust.

Next port of call: Hong Kong.

Friday, July 1, 2016

On Foreign Articles

In one week I ship out on foreign articles, destinations in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, China, Singapore, and South Korea.

Here we go!!!