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


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.