Saturday, December 30, 2017

Goodbye 2017. And Good Riddance.

As I have said, this is a small ship.  The ocean is big.  And seas that I have grown used to consider as “inconsequential” aboard the 1000 footers will straightaway put her lithe and narrow hull into a 15 degree roll.

So we roll, roll, roll along.  Everywhere.

There is another motion on this ship, while we be rollin, that I haven’t encountered on any other vessel; I can only liken it to somebody shaking me awake, since it only happens when I am in a deep, fitful sleep.  This morning it happened at about 0430, and continued until about 0700, holding me hostage from REM sleep.  At 0530 it jostled the latch on my head door loose, which promptly slammed hard enough to knock all the clothing hanging on that bulkhead’s hooks to the deck.

And yet my carefully balanced bottle of Dr. Bronner’s Soap remained perched on the smooth, slick metal of the shower valves, unmoved.  In a word, it is inexplicable.

Looking forward while underway.

This is really my first North-South run, and not crossing a time zone a day is a wonderful thing.  To sail without that headache is to remove one of the rocks from my shoe as I walk across the globe from one container port to the next identical container port.  We do cross one zone (from Tokyo to Guam), but this old man advances in the day, so that the net result to the crew is a 7 hour work-day, as opposed to being robbed of an hour of sleep.  On the way back we retard at night, so we get an extra hour of sleep.

And while it was in the 20’s in Pusan when we left her shore, and in the 30’s in Yokohama when we left that city, it only takes 5 days to get to Guam.

Guam’s heat is ferocious even in winter… the humidity is such that stepping out on deck on a cloudless day is like stepping into the shower.  I was very glad for the time to adjust in Hawaii, though Honolulu is about 15 degrees cooler this time of year than Guam.

To hire a Guamanian taxi is to be legally robbed by a licensed agency… I am not sure if it is because we are a captive client without other options, or if Guam despises its American overlords and it’s merely a way of showing spite, but each direction to town (a 10 - 15 minute drive) is $50.  Each way.

So my organic yogurt, kombucha, maple syrup, and hydrogen peroxide set me back a pretty penny.

Saipan is 12 hours north, much smaller, and about 10 degrees cooler than Guam.  We had the latter half of the day to hit the beach, but by the time we finished taking on stores a heavy rain moved in and parked over the island.  I opted to forego exploring on my first visit, a rare event for me.

And then we steamed back north.  Back to Pusan and back to the cold.  And then South again, back to Yokohama.  1 ½ trips in and I am already acutely aware of early-onset Groundhog Day syndrome.

So here I sit, New Years Eve, tying a bell rope and listening to an audiobook at the early hour of 2100.  We sail at 0400, and many of the younger, hardier, and foolhardy aboard will be living it up in Tokyo, a short bullet-train ride away, and getting back to the ship an hour before sailing with a stagger to their swagger.

Not this one- a melatonin is dissolving under my tongue as I type.

I recall last year:  January 1, 2017, New Year’s morning, in between Sri Lanka and the Malacca Straits (in the Bengal Sea), waking up at 0030 and racing into my small head to spend the next 8 hours in a tiled room as dengue fever played hell with every inch of my internal plumbing.

The tension headache.  My bleeding gums.  The rash.  The loss of overtime pay that day.  2017 started nauseatingly crappy- 2018 can damned well start well-rested and serene.

5 days until Guam.  5 days until summer.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

An Island of Misfit Toys

I didn’t sleep well the night before my flight.

It was 12 hours from Honolulu to Incheon; then, another 2 hours to Busan, where an agent picked me and 5 other sailors up and drove us to a hotel, about 20 minutes away, where I finally got a solid 6 hours of sleep.  The shuttle was back at the hotel at 0700.  The ride to the ship took over an hour.

She is small - 500 feet.  The gangway is only about 30 feet, end to end.  As with all ships we in the neglected US Merchant Marines inherit, she was an old foreign-flagged and abused nag, tired long before we got her… it seems I’m always fixing ships before they are reflagged back out of the fleet or scrapped, altogether.

10 stories from tank top to bridge deck, she has no elevators and the ladder is only wide enough for one man.  The freeboard is so low that we’ll be restricted to the house in seas I’d otherwise ignore.  There are no tunnels fore and aft.  My quarters are positively tiny.

The Sea of Japan is usually a boring affair on the 1000-footers I’ve gotten used to, but we rolled our way along our first night out as if we were on the open ocean with weather… which is probably why the old man warned me when I signed articles that if I mind a bit of a roll that I’d be uncomfortable.

I feel eternally grateful I find the motion of a ship lulling and comforting, or else I’d truly be a miserable bastard at sea, what with the bland food, the poor excuse for company, and the asinine hours.  The view, however, is the finest a man could ever hope for.

The gang, for the most part, is OK, but they’re standoffish in a wholly familiar way... I am, yet again, the only white guy in the unlicensed deck department- a division of labor I find perpetually fascinating.  When my seatime permits me to advance to third mate, I will be yet one more statistical data point that says: “White Man In Charge.”

To say otherwise would be blindness.  The unlicensed gang in the US fleet is more and more Asian, less and less white.  We jokingly say “no rice, no work,” and all of us together (all skin tones) find the joke amusing, but it’s interesting to see it happening just as I watched construction turn more and more Mexican during the last decade.

Unlike my last two ships, there are no women aboard this one.  The old man is a surfer who spends as much time ashore in Saipan and Guam as schedule permits (and he influences much of the schedule), the engine department is full of gun-nutz, and the steward is 130 lbs of tall tales and a lifetime of frustration; anyone who understands human nature would fear the steward more than the gun-nutz in the black gang.

It is an island unto itself - an “Island Of Misfit Toys,” if you will.  And I will be here for another 118 days.

1600 pilot for Yokohama… time to get back to it.

After all- it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Here We Go Again

So here we go.

I picked up a 120 day job as a dayman on a shuttle loop that runs between Guam, Saipan, Yokohama, and Pusan (now more commonly spelled Busan). Apparently the run takes two weeks, so I’ll do it 8 or 9 times before my contract is fulfilled… I suspect that sense of Groundhog Day (all over again) will be fairly intense by the end of it all.
Lashings for an Hawaiian canoe ama.

Bad news?  None, yet. This won’t become apparent until I get there, sadly...

Good news?  Everyone seems to have good things to say about the crew and the run- including about the ship, which is a teeny, tiny, itsy, bitsy, 500’... which will certainly take some getting used to.

In two days I fly to Korea, where I’ll sign my Articles. A sailor I know that was on there recently said there’s a “great health food store” in Saipan, which underscores that we’ve sailed together, but calls into question his definition of “great,” and “health food store;” I won’t get my hopes too high…

I just completed two days of standby work on an old 1973 steamship as the standby bosun- our job? Taking every single firehose on the ship and linking them together into one long hose and charging the system for ABS inspectors.
Waikiki, a shopper’s paradise, is pretty as a postcard but as dull as a root canal.

Bad hoses are cut in half there on the spot, and replacements have to be aboard before the inspector will sign off on the test.  There were about 120 hoses total… 60 of them we carried up through the maze of the fiddly (smoke stack) from the engine room to the top of the RO RO car deck - that’s about 12 stories of engine room heated stairs to the full Hawaiian sun- and the rest were laid out on either weather deck.

The photo Laura sent of my truck covered in Seattle ice clashed mightily with my Getting-Used-To-The-Tropics-Again reality.  It will prepare me for Guam and Saipan, while Japan and Korea will rely on my Seattle training. And warm clothes. Which I brought, not because I thought I’d need cold weather clothing, but for surviving the ship’s air conditioning, which is either on Full-Arctic, or not working at all.

And that’s the news from the the Honolulu Sailors’ Home, aka the Doghouse.
The Doghouse mimics the austerity of ships as an architectural statement. 

The rooms, likewise, mimic the quarters of a ship.  But less so...

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Aaaaaaaaand.... Back On The Beach.

San Pedro was a storm of activity. Crane lifts of stores and engine parts. Crew changes. A total swap of cargo. The noise of boxes slamming into other boxes, cell guides, or empty holds, hammering of lashing gear, and the variety of machinery claxons and engine/motor noises was welcome after the monotony of the transit.

As we hoisted the gangway during cast-off, the wire rope that supports the crew-rated ladder sheared almost all the way through. There are two pieces of equipment I most distrust on a ship: lifeboats and gangways… and that parted wire illustrates my distrust exactly. The potential for loss of life and the slow awareness of the implications of that dodged bullet lodge in the psyche and grow like a tumor- I saw no less than 10 longshoremen on that plank at one point…

The new bosun jumped right on it and we changed the wire first thing in the morning- an all-hands piece of vital work that went as smoothly as could be hoped for.

I had the joy of slushing the wire between where it came off the spool and where it made its way through the series of sheaves that allow for the raising and lowering or our ship’s only civilized exit. Slushing the wire consists of laying down cardboard, putting on layered nitrile and cotton gloves, and grabbing handfuls of grease and smearing the wire as it runs.

If you leave too much grease on the wire it makes an ungodly mess; too little and the rope’s core doesn’t get wetted. I like to think that if you’re not covered in grease you’ve done it wrong.

Yes, I was covered in grease.

My watch partner, the third mate, got off the ship and my new watch partner turned out to be a familiar face from my last ship… too bad we only had the opportunity to stand two watches together! I had gotten used to long stretches of silence broken only by a stream of bitter invectives so those last two watches flew by.

We slow-belled from San Pedro to Oakland through whale-infested waters, catching up on events from real life, and then I went down from my watch to the bow as we came into the San Francisco Bay at 1700.

Tie up was smooth, but I lost style points when I flubbed casting the heaving line to the dock- the modern equivalent of a monkey’s fist (a bean bag) hit the rail when I threw and didn’t make it to the dock on the first throw. The shame was all mine! Such a rookie move…

Getting paid-off involved a lot of running around… the delegate didn’t get us paid up through tie-up so I had to ferry paperwork from the chief mate’s office on A deck, the delegate's board on D deck, and the captain’s office on F deck through several iterations until we got it just right, because said delegate was stuck on crane duty.

Special Note: Always wear gloves when you go down the gangway- the rails are covered in grease.

I had a room and a flight booked. I don’t know how, but the same suitcase, filled with the exact same stuff, weighed 7 pounds more on the way back to Seattle than it did on the way down to San Francisco.

I carried my dirty overalls and boots onto the plane in a black trash bag for my flight back to Seattle.

And now I am on the beach.  

Friday, October 13, 2017

Inbound RoRo, Port Pusan

Pusan, Korea Sunset

Pilot Boat Alongside

Qingdao From The Bridge

Port China

Convoy Downbound On The Yangtze

Pusan Tug

It's Like Deja Vu - All Over Again

Every day is Groundhog Day.

Midnight watch. 0400 sleep. 0715 breakfast. 0800 turn-to for overtime. 1100 knock off for lunch. 1200 watch. 1600 sleep #2 (I skip dinner for that extra half hour of dream-time). Wake up at 2315. Midnight watch.


Each day clocks are advanced 20 minutes at 1800, 2200, and then 0200. The ship’s physical clocks are advanced at midnight. The net result is 40 minutes less sleep for my second sleep and a nagging anxiety about whether or not I have advanced my phone and my analogue wristwatch before falling asleep.

The Meridian Day was our only break from these advances- the old man bought a bunch of beer for the crew and the steward’s department made a sushi spread up in the officer’s lounge in lieu of a normal dinner (it was the only dinner I ate while crossing). The drinkers get hammered. The watch goes to bed as soon as can be politely done without offending the Steward.

Warning: Korean wasabi is the hottest, most inconsolable, breath-stealing, lung-searing pain imaginable. It is fantastic. End of Warning.

The actual “Meridian Day” is the repeat of the day that we cross the Prime Meridian… in this case, Wednesday the 4th. Because we don’t advance clocks on the meridian day, it means that Wednesday the 4th nets 47 hours of hump-day goodness.

The mood follows the great circle of the ship’s navigational track… it starts as a seeming flatline, due east at 090; but the course begins to drop down southward - first 091, then 2… 3… and soon we’re diving into the 100’s - until the circle (and the mood) are heading more southward than not. The further we go, the farther we fall.

The needle of this skipping record, repeating that awful note over and over again, suddenly pops over the hangup and we hear “turn to for port prep.”  I don’t know if it’s something different to the routine or the knowledge that tomorrow morning we are going to have cellular service that breaks the crews’ despondency, but broken it is, and a general mania takes over.

Almost half the crew will be going home, too… that might play some small part in the overall good mood.

Change!  Nothing feels better after a long, hard slog!

As if to underscore the shift, the stainless steel seas turned emerald and jade. The sun came out from behind fast moving cumuluous clouds- the stratus claustrophobia? Gone.  

Off the bow this morning as I did my OT were Pacific white-side dolphins, racing through the 8 meter swells, big grins on their faces proving that not only good, good dogs let off off their leashes to run and play know pure, unfettered joy.  

Then, on watch this afternoon, I saw dozens of Bryde’s whales, even among the endless white horses that usually make whales impossible to see. It is hard to tell a Bryde’s, a blue, a sei, or a fin whale apart- but this ship has the same identification book I mourned leaving at home in an earlier post, and a positive identification I did make: Bryde’s. You can tell by the pronounced hook to the dorsal.

Boobies, shearwater, and albatross skimmed the seas as we roll, roll, rolled along.

0400 I will leave the bridge after my watch and become the back-watch as we pick up the pilot and bring this lumbering and laden girl into LA. Crane lifts. Bunker barges. Lifeboat tests.  

Looking out instead of looking in.  

Moving onward. After this port - Oakland; and the beach, for this sailor.

Monday, October 2, 2017

A Transit Like No Other

Squid boats light the skies of the Sea of Japan like mini-suns. They loom 40 miles over the horizon, then pop over the curve of the earth like a punch in the eyeballs. There is no night when there are squid boats.

By dawn they are gone.

The following 5 knot emerald and cream seas of Japan’s Tsugaru Straits spit us out into the Pacific Ocean an hour ago, where we came around to 090 and began our great circle to Long Beach. The sea ahead looks much kinder than it was on the way over- a series of high pressure air masses squeezing the lone low pressure mass and forcing it north, and out of our way.

With luck.

Now we advance our clocks an hour each day and lose an hour of sleep a night. We will repeat Wednesday when we cross the dateline. The lack of traffic means the watches will drag on and thoughts will wander with little to anchor them against the swirling eddies and gusting zephyrs of the mind.

Long before I ever set sail, I used to watch the ships making their way up and down the Savannah River. At every stage of my life I have watched these ships I now sail--as a child, from Tybee Island; as a teenager, from the banks of the river or the Tybee road; as an adult, from the independent taxi service I operated driving the bar pilots, to the pages of G-Captain, or Maritime Executive, or one of the many other trade publications or vessel tracking webpages.

The first time I drove a ship up that river was epochal--there was the river before, and the river after, and they were not the same rivers to me. The time before was a time of observation and curiosity--where was she headed? Where had she been? What would it be like to sail away aboard a behemoth like that?

On of the most formative parts of my life watching those ships was spent at Old Fort Jackson, a brick battery originally built for the war of 1812. My official job title was “Fort Slave,” and I did all the jobs nobody else wanted to do for $3.15 an hour. Clean toilets, mop floors, rake gravel, sweep floors, wash windows, cook oysters, empty trash, fight insects…

I lived in a Sears & Roebuck Catalog building that was condemned by the state of Georgia, affectionately called “The Lab.” My roommates were rat snakes that chilled themselves in the electrolysis tanks housing the artifacts from the “CSS Georgia,” a confederate ironclad battleship that was scuttled by the fort during the civil war and dredged up, piecemeal, by historical scholars, starting in the 80s and continuing to this day.

Up in the caretaker’s house lived my direct supervisor--a man who defied any and all categorization. He was historian, blacksmith, movie-maker, weapon maker, marksman, music connoisseur, mechanic, drag-racer, reenactor, welder, rigger, carpenter, artifact preservation specialist, metallurgist, and a man with the most colorful array of expletives imaginable. 

Amongst other things.

Of course we became lifelong friends. We drank too much, smoked too much, made too much noise, and we “blew shit up” on a regular basis. He was 10 years my senior and as positive a mentor as anyone could hope for… there is a correct way to blow shit up, after all, and only a dumbass does it wrong.

He was remarkably attuned to helping others--for a man so heavily armed. His pragmatism and common sense held little room for religious or political sentiments.  

On many occasions, when we were out of beer, we’d take a bottle of whatever was left and “walk the wall,” which was what we called the drunken circuit of the top of the fort’s twenty-five foot brick walls. We’d sit on the powder magazine, next to the thirty-two pound cannon, and watch the ships go by as the sun rose.

It may have been 30 years ago as I write this, but I can still smell the river, the Kamera Chemical plant next door, the sponged black powder of the cannon.  

One ship- the “Alligator Independence” was about 275 meters long and one the largest that used to call into Savannah (it was about the size of the ships I’m sailing now)- and her bright baby-blue hull used to make us laugh even as we’d wonder aloud at the size of that boat.

It would fill the sky, covering the entirety of the South Carolina side of the river as effectively as a hand over the eyes. It turned the turbulent Savannah into a mere ditch. It would pass so close to the fort I could feel the breeze of it on my face.

First time I went upriver at the helm of a ship - one equal or greater in size than the “Alligator Independence,” I saw how small the fort actually is. How its place on the river is different than I ever imagined it to be. I wondered who was watching the ship go by… MY ship.

And now, as I cross the North Pacific Ocean, I have plenty of time to think about a new, and different, epoch that will define me--one without my former supervisor and lifelong friend in it: He let go from the dock, downbound on The River for places farther than I have ever been on any ship, bound for destinations I will not know in this lifetime.

His friends and family are at the fort as I write this, celebrating his life at a memorial I wish beyond measure I could attend. They’ll fire the cannon (I suspect the charge won’t be truly a “blank,” knowing him as I do), sending a fifty foot smoke-ring a half mile down the river on a rolling wave of thunder...

The memorial requested attendees to please not bring their own black powder. Seriously. But somebody will blow some shit up, I bet… later… after the casually-acquainted have gone home and those closest to him begin to mourn in earnest.

Someone hanging the devil’s 10 (riding a piece of plywood in a fire for as long as possible). Firing softballs out of the naval gun after the outer gate is locked. Walking the wall with a bottle of bourbon.

And I can imagine watching a tremendous ship headed out to sea, interrupting their conversations in mid-word as the steel blots out the state of South Carolina.  

“I wonder where that [thing] is headed?”

Out here, away from the river and the fort, my 90 thousand metric ton ship is a dot on an ocean that spans an entire hemisphere. We are huge, yet infinitesimal. We crossed the Kamil-Kamchatka trench - 9,800 meters deep. This ship is but a mote… a mere microbe skinning along the surface of a drop of water.

It is the entirety of the world as I know it right now.

And I stand my mid-watch in silence, letting the swirling eddies and gusting zephyrs of the mind carry me where they will.  And I think about my friend.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Yokohama? Hai!

Yokohama is a great little city - I had several meals of the finest sushi I've had in a very long time.  Strangely, a spinach and sesame salad laura and I are fond of (we call it "gomei," spelling notwithstanding) only drew puzzled looks when I asked for it.  Unagi, miso, sashimi, etc. were easily understood by the Japanese-only speaking wait staffs, but the salad was a strike-out.

I visited a 1930 steel ship museum, the training ship "Nippon Maru" - a 97 meter, 4-masted, 2,278 ton sailing ship boasting 29 sails - because of course I did.  It cost 600 yen (about $5).  And I rode a roller coaster that runs its circuitous route around the enormous ferris wheel in the center of the city, also because it was there.  And it was only 700 yen (about $6).  I had thousands of yen in my pocket and one day to spend them all!

My favorite part of Yokohama was Chinatown (surprise).  It was, by far, the world's cleanest Chinatown I've encountered to date!  Cleaner than even Singapore- and not a whiff of durian fruit anywhere.

Our next port of call after Yoko was Pusan, South Korea.  Due to Korean efficiency, we were there eight hours- we came in after dinner and cast off before breakfast.  Blink and you miss it.

We shoved off and crossed the fishing boat infested South China Sea for Qingdao- the port where we empty the ships dumpsters, by hand, into cargo nets which we offload by crane.  Unlike on my last ship, we did not unload onto the dock but onto a barge on the offshore side- the same bunker barge that was fueling the ship.  Bunker barges are usually pristine, well-loved boats that that make us big behemoths look shabby.  Not this one!  I'm sure someone, somewhere, was getting a deal...

I can't imagine who thought it was a good idea to swing crane loads next to a fuel manifold, particularly the one at the bottom of a hose-fall, except someone with a finger in the pie.

From there we drove south, skipping every exit and truck stop along the way, in bumper to bumper traffic until our exit - Interstate Shanghai.  I had first wheel (at midnight)... and this ship drives good... real good!  Two watches on the wheel and one on the bow brought this rig alongside in time for breakfast.

I was hoping for some overtime, but the Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchstanding (STCW in our shorthand) dictates I had worked enough and it was time for me to sleep... so I did.  I failed to put on an alarm, thinking I'd wake up in a few short hours... boy howdy!  Was I mistaken!  I woke up 16 hours later, just in time to depart!

So here I am, just after transiting the Yangtze twice in two days, awake and wired for sound after my normal 1st 4-hour sleep of the day should be almost finished.  Hopefully the post-lunch, dullness-of-company, and boredom of watchstanding will wear me down and my 2nd 4-hour sleep of the day will see me counting sheep... because if not then I'm going to be unhappy at midnight tonight when I spend 4 more hours with my watch partners.

We're on a two man watch until we shoot the Strait of Korea, after "Pusan! Take 2!" and that puts me on watch with both of the ship's septuagenarians- both of whom are contrarian by nature.  I find that I dislike a conversational menu that offers 10 flavors of "Nuh-uh..." I find it to be as frustrating as bargaining with a 2 year old.

So my mind wanders and I don't speak outside the bridgework except in monosyllables.

Which suits me just fine.  I'm only counting down in my head, anyway... everything I had to say was said before I half crossed the Pacific on the way over.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Crossed North Pacific

This transit has been through multiple low pressure storms with noteworthy, if not significant, characteristics- mainly those of a bad-tempered nature.

After my afternoon watch I went to sleep and was awakened into that territory of sleep where the conscious mind is aware of the world while dreams are eluded, even as the body is physically asleep; I was brought up from my dreams by a motion to the ship that was reminiscent of a train trip I took across America years ago, but with a twisting, heaving motion added to the side-to-side cycle.

It felt like the whole ship was being rhythmically slung to and fro, as if we were an unbalanced and heavy load of a washing machine on a slow spin, that was being bounced on a trampoline- just violent enough to throw my flashlight off the desk and to the floor and require a line thrown over the TV to stop the creaking of its worn-out pedestal base.

I have no idea what combination of cross swells and wind waves, nor which combination of swell directions and periods, would create such a motion, but it eventually subsided, or I slipped back into dream-sleep and became unaware of it.  By the time my watch began at midnight the motion had subsided and she was back to rolling her hips seductively in the following seas.

The North Pacific has been one thing, without exception, this trip: Gray.  Gray skies, gray water, gray energy levels.  The sheets of wind and rain have come and gone, the swells have built, been overrun by other swells, and subsided, but the gray has remained constant.  Wild, white horses and spin-drift painted with a two-color pallet of onyx and titanium dioxide.

One day in the transit it was calm enough to see a pod of indeterminate rorqual whales, several herds of Dahl's porpoises, and sightings of the red-footed boobies which I always greet with the exclamation, "Boobies!"  Of course, I always do this tedium - much to my own delight - but the cadet had never heard of a bird called a "booby," so she laughed uncontrollably for a solid minute.

Sadly, she'd never heard of a flying fish, either, and thought I was joking when I explained boobies eat the flying fish that get scared up by the bow bulb; she can determine our ETA to the minute, plot our fix to two decimal places, but has never heard of a flying fish... I made her promise to search for it on the google machine.

Tonight we arrive in Yokohama.  I am planning on eating sushi at a place a fellow cohort (from my brief stint as a ferryman) recommended named "The 105."  It's apparently cheap and good.

And that's what I gots.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Tales Not Told

Every sailor has a “worst watch partner” story.  This is the person you’re stuck with for two four-hour shifts a day, every day, that makes your shipboard life miserable.  Every noise they make becomes an irritant designed to afflict you, every sentence a veiled barb, every look a challenge, and every hour not on watch is spent dreading the next watch.

In my case, it was the third watch partner I ever had, when I sailed as an ordinary seaman.  It started out fine, of course.  He didn’t know a damned thing, and as we crossed the Atlantic I covered for him while I taught him his job and he got up to speed.  It was my third voyage (my fifth time across the Atlantic and the world) and I knew everything.

Well, I knew the unimportant stuff- how to move a ship in a way that doesn’t hit other ships or dirt, but the difficult stuff I had yet to learn.  Hell… am still learning...

This watch partner had an uncomfortable habit of disclosing all the details of his family's personal matters, and when I made it clear I didn’t really want to hear about it, he became surly and spiteful.  When I refused to have those long, drawn-out and tedious conversations, he then became vindictive and insufferable.

His nastiness became so untenable that I eventually told him “don’t talk to me unless it involves the safe navigation of this vessel.”  He protested, throwing his rank at me.  The chief mate told him to zip it.  For 35 days he had to keep his mouth shut, and the uncomfortable and pregnant stormcloud of silence that ensued was blissful after the treatment which almost inadvertently put my fist in his teeth.

One of the most memorable quotes from a superior officer came when the chief mate said “Look…” somewhat exasperatedly, “I understand.  I do.  But you can’t call the 3rd mate a ‘little bitch-’ he’s your boss.”

Well, a little mentioned part of the tale I leave out in the telling, which is the part not fun to tell, was me going to the old man and petitioning him to intervene- that I had simply had enough and I was going to take matters into my own hands if left to my own devices.

He looked me square in the eye and said, not gently, and more memorably than the chief mate telling me I can’t call the 3rd mate a bitch, “You’re too close.  You’re too fucking close.  YOU caused this problem, now YOU deal with it.”

He left no room to protest- just sent me on my way, unceremoniously, fuming and angry.  WTF did he mean by “too close!?”  I wasn’t close to that punk!  I wanted to smash his face!  I was pissed at the old man for a long time after I got off that ship for dressing me down instead of helping me deal with a difficult situation.

That captain on that first ship just so happens to be the very same captain on this ship I’m aboard now, crossing the grumpy North Pacific Ocean.  

And I have taken his scolding to every watch I’ve stood in the intervening years.  

And, begrudgingly, he was right, although I would have worded it differently; what he actually said to me was “he is the officer in charge of a navigational watch (OICNW), not your friend - you should have set better boundaries from the outset- these are the consequences.”

Because you can’t be nice at sea.  The chain of command is an accountability tool, and if he doesn’t know his job he needs to go before he runs the ship aground.

When there is weakness the knives must come out, and for good reason- all authority must be challenged in order to keep that authority cognizant of its limitations.  A healthy fear of reprimand and reprisal has a way of focusing the mind on the task at hand.  And that’s as true for the captain as it is for the ordinary seaman.

In my “Rules For Being At Sea” I’ve made for myself over time, near the top of the list is “don’t talk life with my watch partner.”  I discuss work-related items and retreat into silence.  I make it very clear to my superior officer that he isn’t my equal.  I enjoy an uncomfortable silence… hell, I strive for it.

Implied is that I won’t cover for him.  That he’d better know his job.  And when the bus of consequences goes roaring by I will push him under that fucker without hesitation.  For his good and for mine.  For the good of the ship.

It is only now, years afterward, that I think back and wonder- How awkward was that conversation for the captain?  Saying hard truths unflinchingly doesn’t win many points, and I guess that gets to the true heart of the matter- he didn’t win the easy points, but he did teach me a valuable lesson and make me a better mariner.  Everything but my ego was improved by it.

And I guess in so doing that he did earn my respect at a level that supersedes the rank of his office.  I hope it is behavior I can emulate.

At the moment- I am sitting in my quarters as the ship is being buffeted by 6 meter swells and sustained 40 knot winds as we steam into a nasty little low pressure gale.  The barometer dropped 10 millibars the last hour of my watch, alone, now we must atone for our trespasses!  It will get worse before it gets better.

There is a typhoon (a totally different storm) moving up through Japan and we are slated to hit that thing as we come into port.  It sounds like if that is the case then we’ll have to anchor out until it passes.

Whatever the case, whatever the outcome, the motion of the ocean makes me sleepy.  My quarters feel down-right cozy as the melatonin is kicking in and I am starting to nod.  

I promise to upload photos as soon as I have bandwidth… I am just grateful to have internets at all!!!

Monday, September 11, 2017

Around the North Pacific I Go

I landed a relief gig on an APL ship doing the west coast run to the Far East.  She’s a little bit smaller than my last real ship (I’ll pretend that weeklong mistake I just mentioned didn’t happen) but she’s a big ship, regardless, and better designed in a myriad of ways, not least of which is separate licensed and unlicensed mess halls.

I will appreciate that when I’m licensed, too, I bet.

I’ll only be on here for one voyage - about 42 days - which I’m rather pleased about… I will go home when it’s all said and done, reregister in the Seattle hall, and be home to avoid trick-or-treaters by leaving the lights off and hiding in the back room.  Bah Humbug.

I got here last night at 2000, unpacked, then gave myself a self-guided tour of the house, including my lifeboat and damage control locker.  I was asleep by 2330.

At 0400 I was called out to let go.  I am the 12x4 watchstander so I am on the stern, and let go was an uncomplicated affair.  We stowed the gangway, then I went to the bow and for the next hour I stared into the darkness and the fog, shivering in the wind-driven damp.

I made sure to have change in my pocket (a 1969 silver half-dollar and a dollar coin) when we went under the Golden Gate Bridge based on a tradition that probably predates the bridge itself.  I only knew when we went under that iconic span because the lights on the top of the bridge structure were above the fog and cast a red glow all about.

That marine layer was remarkably thick, too.  I could hear the bow bulb pushing through the water, but I couldn’t see it, when I first started my watch.  It thinned towards the end, as the sky lightened, and I got a nice good view of a pod of sperm whales from my perch up on the foc'sle head before they disappeared in the mist behind as we passed them on our port side.  

A good ship just feels right- a departure like that doesn’t hurt.

I forgot my cetacean and seabird identification books, however - a gross oversight on a voyage that circles the entire North Pacific.  Dahl’s porpoises, spinner dolphins, and the most common whales I know- but I’ve seen some oddballs out here that even my guide doesn’t have.  With any luck there’s a book on the bridge. I know there won't be a seabird book- ask any sailor what a gannet or booby might be and they invariably answer "seagull."

And now we are underway, making way.  We are steaming parallel to the 3.5 meter swells that are slapping this girl’s flanks, and every third of fourth one hits in such a way that it sends reverberations fore and aft in about a 1 second cycle.  There’s also a slow, lumbering roll, like I’m being rocked to sleep, and it feels good to be at sea.

Which, speaking of sleep, I should be.  We retard clocks 1 hour tonight in a game of spin the clock that will span 12 time zones, cross the international date line, and take 14 days to play.  Coincidentally, that’s the same amount of time it takes to transit to Yokohama.

And you'd better believe- it’s best done well rested.

*note: very slow interwebs- photos forthcoming.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Weathering Hurricane Harvey

I flew down to San Francisco to “hit the union hall” and bid on jobs at a port I believed to be more favorable to my current job hunt than my homeport of Seattle, when the president asked me to do the union a favor and take a job aboard a US navy Ro-Ro on the Mississippi for the duration of Hurricane Harvey.

Most of these ships are managed (I use that word generously) by a company I hold in very low regard.  I have yet to take a contract with them where they’ve acted in good faith- I’ve had wages withheld, reimbursables pointedly not reimbursed, airline tickets home not provided, and every dollar I’ve earned has been begrudgingly paid with a reluctance that would seem hostile even to a payday loan shark.

But I took it over my own protestations of all previous ill-treatment.  I boarded a red-eye a very short time later and by morning I had arrived in the heat and the humility of Louisiana to consort with wasps, spiders, and the motley gang that made up the crew.

What looks like a really big ship is really two identical ships, side by side.

For four days I stood a silent watch with a relaxed and likable third mate...  Walk to the bow and check the lines.  Walk to the stern and check the lines.  Drive the “mule” through all the cargo decks, A-E, and make sure all was well.  Investigate fire and bilge alarms, close watertight doors, admit new crew, make sure the house is secure, and monitor the vhf channel from where the tugs on standby were most likely to hail.  Read my kindle.

The Bridge.

Looking down the deck of cargo hold 3 E.

Macro of Louisiana wildlife.

Ships at anchor on the Mississippi swingin' in the wind.

For a brief period of time, the “voyage” was perfect.  Military Sealift Command had restricted crew to the ship, which meant every hour not working was OT.  The watch was low stress and pleasant.  We knew we were leaving at the beginning of the week- we even had our tickets.  We were being paid, and getting seatime for, a full-operational-status ship.

And then the storm hit.

The company claimed we weren’t due payment for being restricted to the vessel.  They claimed the ship was in reduced operational status and we were to be paid accordingly (less, of course).  They shredded our return flights and didn’t replace them with new flights back to our ports of departure. Rumors of protracted conscription began to circulate.

In short- they kicked a hornets nest.  The storm was unjust proclamations and paper hornets.  Stinging everyone.  Pissing us all off.  Indiscriminately.

There is no amount of reasonable explanation that can convince me their employment policy is not “Do Whatever It Takes To Piss Off The Crew.”  Nothing.  I believe my own lying eyes.  This is their modus operandi.

For the .001% of the budget they might save by shaving $50 off what they should be paying that one ordinary seaman on the crew, for example, they expend a grossly disproportionate amount of energy and ill will to do so.

No… not merely ill will… it begins that way, but through extended exposure to their bad faith and malicious intent, morphs into outright hatred and frothing at the mouth vitriol.  They are loathed and detested as an entity by one and all.  Their demise will be greeted with joy, should it ever arrive.

I believe Military Sealift Command is being ill-served by this unnamed company, and that makes this company a sandspur in the heel of national security.  A pustule and protuberance on the bottom-side of the fleet.  A polyp on the rectum of wise tax-dollar spending.  Nobody wins when you run part of the national security apparatus like this, not even them, but they persist in being detestable.

For an additional 3 days, I reverted to a day man and policed the cargo holds for trash and listened to my fellow sailors, officers and crew alike, kvetch about the mistreatment.  And I watched movies in my quarters.  And I slept.  A lot.

My quarters for the week.

Finally, the storm broke and new tickets were issued.  We were paid off and given our discharge papers- the company sticking to their word and screwing us all the way down the gangway.  But we were down the gangway, and at that moment that’s all that seemed important.

I stood on the dock and looked at the alligator that hangs out around there and realized it’s probably the same big ‘ol girl that was there last time the company screwed me in 2015.  That, and that it’s the last time I’ll be seeing that alligator, this time for certain.

Don't fall in.  She's about 8 feet long.

Just when I thought I’d escaped the last of their mistreatment, however, I had one more joyful surprise to cap off a frustrating week: The hour-long hired bus ride to the airport had no air conditioning.  In Louisiana.  In August.

I, and the crew, was soaked through with sweat by the time we arrived at the airport.

So now I am back in San Francisco, waiting until the long weekend is over and I get to file a grievance at the union hall on behalf of the crew.  Of all the bad experiences I’ve had since going to sea, the vast majority of them have come at the hands of this company.

And of all the storms I’ve encountered in the past, the storms that hit their ships - the ones they create - are the least agreeable of all.

Give me 45 foot waves and 90 knot winds, any day.  Please.  Just don't send me out with those bastards again.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Down the Gangway At Last

The Toe-Tickler is a singular Sri Lankan creature known for creeping up on the gangway security, unseen, and then exploiting any hole that may be present in the sailor’s shoes.  He is small and wiry, half his teeth are missing, and he spends a lot of time smiling obsequiously, asking for soap (typical Sri Lankan token) or cigarettes.  

At one point during our stay, he and one of my sailors got into an argument.  The sailor, a Filipino with big ears, a round face, and missing front teeth who shared many of the physical and behavioral features of the Toe-Tickler, felt he’d finally met his match.  They angrily shouted back and forth in unintelligible English flavored with Tagalog and Sinhalese.
Approaching the dock in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
After enjoying the spectacle I was forced to return my attention to the crane loads at hand.  When unencumbered by work again, a few minutes later, I found them settling their differences by comparing the color of their skin, their arms laid out side by side, debating intensely.  I don’t know which gained the higher ground in their battle, lighter or darker skin tone, but soon afterward they were laughing and carrying on like long-lost brothers.

The Toe-Tickler has a Sri Lankan brother who is one of the longshore lashing bosses.  We know him as Crazy-Eyes.  While the Toe-Tickler lurks about, no real discernable reason to be aboard, Crazy-Eyes is a man of importance.  He is the go-to guy for cargo ops and he makes things happen, his wandering eye and kinships notwithstanding.
Sri Lankan tuk-tuk.  Ride at your own risk!

There is no rhyme or reason to how traffic moves in Colombo- laws
are merely suggestions, if they exist at all; they run each other off, split
lanes, play chicken with everything on the road... 
I began to feel nauseous a couple days before we got to Colombo.  I have skipped dinner since coming aboard, but I found I had no appetite for lunches, either, and my bowl of oatmeal at breakfast was a struggle.  By bedtime on New Year's Eve, two days after departing Colombo, I felt downright ill.

Then at midnight I woke up to bring in the New Year with what I now know to be dengue fever, aka “breakbone fever.”  It is a singularly unpleasant mosquito-borne sickness I hope to never encounter again. It is very similar to a really bad case of food poisoning, but with a 1-12 day incubation period.  Some people get a rash, too, but I didn’t - my gums became really sore and the head and body ache was acute.

My greatest annoyance at getting sick so close to heading down the gangway for the last time this voyage was that I was sick during overtime.  Unlike most illnesses, however, once dengue has let go of your nethers, it let's go for good.  
The new terminal in Singapore.
As soon as I was recovered I went through the mad dash of washing everything in my quarters, digging out the suitcases, and piling all my belongings into them.  I laid out my final work clothes (that go in the garbage once my last workday is done), my airport clothes (post last-shower, last-workday clothes), and everything else got packed and the suitcases placed by the door.

When we hit the dock in Singapore last time- coming through the other way- I worked 21 straight hours, swinging over 30 crane lifts and stowing everything brought aboard.  This time, however, as soon as the relief crew’s luggage was aboard I hit the shower and bolted down the gangway to the shuttle waiting below.
Perhaps her last run- she's allegedly razor blades and rebar in Feb..
Hotel.  Shuttle.  Airport.  22 hours inside metal tubes hurtling through the skies and all the indignities associated with said luxury.

And now I sit on the beach, dumbfounded by my liberation, the things I most wanted to do while incarcerated at my fingertips.  From 12 hour days to 9 hour days.  90 degree weather to sub-freezing weather.  The impersonal hordes of Asia to the mass-neurosis of Northwestern white people.

Time to wash the salty off and blend back into the crowd.