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.