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.