Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Stupid Meter Is Buried

Well... the captain is a problem.  That much hasn't changed.

The transit of the Suez was relatively uneventful... we took on the line handlers' boat much in the same manner as I have in the past, back when I was an Ordinary Seaman, except in this case I put them on the hatch covers instead of lashing them to the rail and leaving them hooked up to the crane.  So funny how the last time I came through I was the lowly OS, and this time I'm the gang boss... and how little of a difference it truly seems to make to my experience.

When we let them go, it was fully dark.  I was being rushed by the howlers on the monkey deck (ie. the captain), but I refused to allow the operation to become hurried and unsafe, and everything was smooth and efficient, exactly as I like it... until the captain interrupted the operation at a critical moment.

While lowering the line handlers and their boat off the side of the ship with the large #2 crane, the rail of their skiff got hung on the rail of our ship.  Without immediate action at that precise moment, the skiff would begin to list dangerously (in less than a second), threatening to pitch the linemen out of their skiff and into the water, 40 feet below.

I do audible crane commands on the radio to accompany my hand signals as a general rule of thumb, and in this case - as it was night and flood lights would hamper the ability of the bridge to navigate - I assumed my hand signals in the dark of night were superfluous, but I did them out of habit, anyway.

When the line handlers' boat began to list, I gave the hand signal for "emergency stop," a horizontal slashing of the open hand much like a karate chop, but when I keyed the radio to say "stop," the captain walked on my transmission (talked over me, in effect, with a more powerful radio), telling us that we had to hurry and get them off the ship, NOW.  We were working on the radio channel dedicated for crane ops on #2, not the general ship's channel, so he had to physically go out of his way to interrupt a potentially dangerous operation.

Fortunately, my crane operator is really, really skilled.  And has damned good eyesight.  She stopped at my hand signal, and as a result, two linemen are still alive.

It prompted us (me and the gang) to designate the words "operational safety" as code to go to channel 14, a place nobody would think to go or listen, so if we feel a job requires focus and has a high hazard potential we can do it unmolested by a certain loose cannon.  It also reminded me of the last boat operation where captain crazy-pants tried to kill our security team by losing his mind on the radio and hurrying an already dangerous operation.

From the Suez we went to anchorage in Greece for a couple of days, and then headed in to a Grecian shipyard.

The Greek shipyard workers are fantastic.  They all say good-morning, every morning.  They smile.  They tell us when it's coffee.  They do good work.

Without engaging in hyperbole, my lone female-sailor couldn't pick up so much as a broom without one of them sweeping the spot she intended to clean... or being shamelessly ogled as she operated the stores crane.  At one point I sent her up into the crane to move one of the car-sized grabs and a Grecian worker was incredulous.  I let him know she was the best crane operator on the ship- he raised his eyebrows and said "don't tell my wife."

Regardless of certain 20th century attitudes, they were decent, hard-working (exclusively) men who were really good to this old tub of a boat.

And they did an incredible job.  They blasted and painted the entire house and stacks- working from a walkway suspended by a giant shore crane that swung them around to the impossible to reach places.  They replaced valves deep in the cofferdam tank spaces and the #5 ballast tank.  They welded new fresh water waterline, fire main, and handrails all over the barge and tug.  The crazy-haired Costa, a crane specialist, worked on all the cranes and rebuilt the #2 grab.

And we got some shore time!  I visited the Parthenon... and stumbled upon many of the Athenian relic sites where democracy was first practiced.  I ate Greek food.  But my visit to the grocery store, specifically to the yogurt isle, was the most astounding of all.... Greek Yogurt is not the crap they label "Greek Yogurt" in the US.  It's cheap.  It's sold in terracotta pots, the same pots they pour the cultured milk into to grow, not plastic.  I bought every variety I could find, and the goat and sheep yogurts don't have that gamy taste I detest... if anything, it is milder tasting and higher in fat than its bovine counterpart.

Take that, birthplace of democracy!  Yogurt!  In your face!

I swam, very briefly, in the seasonally cold water of the Mediterranean Sea, where I stepped on an anemone - but so lightly it was without consequence.  And I wandered aimlessly through neighborhoods I felt I could live in for a few months as I explored the rest of the country - in comfort and ease.  I found Greece to be inexpensive and casual, and it was nice to be somewhere so likable that that isn't Asian, for a change.

The last day was frenetic- it began at 0530 and the gang worked into lunch and straight through dinner to lower the lifeboats and test the new davit wires.  There were problems.  I and another sailor were retained to raise and lower the boats, over and over again, until 2200... on empty stomachs.  At one point, the captain had us lower the onshore lifeboat.

I have never lowered a lifeboat over anything but water.  I didn't know it was legal.  I was standing next to the port captain, a man of about 65, and we looked at each other.

I said, stunned, "I have never lowered a lifeboat over a dock, before."

He replied, "I have never, ever, seen this in my entire life."

So... maybe it isn't legal?  I honestly don't know.

We were called out at 0530 for a 0800 let-go the next morning, our scheduled day of departure.  The 2nd Mate, the only woman on board aside from one of my sailors, informed us the mate and the captain had not returned to the ship from the night before.  I mustered the gang, regardless of jokes of them being arrested for disorderly conduct and similar exaggerations, and we put all the cranes to bed, removing umbilical wires and throwing on the storm-chains.  The old man and mate showed up at 0630... and they disappeared very quickly and quietly.

There are NO secrets on a ship... the word was they were lit.

The old man called me into his office at 0930 to deliver some documentation to the agent so they could remove the gangway.  He was pleasant, clearly in a good mood, and slurring his words.

We let go to shift to anchor at 1000, the mood on the ship... incredulous.  I have never been so aware of liability on a ship as I was with a drunk captain on the bridge.

We had what we call in the maritime industry a "near miss" on the bow during let-go.  A "near miss" is when something goes wrong but nothing bad happens.  In this case, the officer on the bow didn't communicate with the tug operator that we weren't "all fast" while trying to secure the tugline eye onto the bit, but the tug operator began to heave in on the tug line, anyway.  The heavy line began to run, and our deck officer was in the bight of the heaving-line.  The "bight" is the part of the line that will snag you, and with a line like that, running out of control as it was, can kill you quickly and messily.

Under normal, fully-manned situations, the mate maintains situational awareness and doesn't get involved in the chores of the bow so much as directs and observes the overall picture of what's going on, communicating with the bridge where in the evolution we are, and makes sure line-handlers, tug deckhands, and crew are clear and safe before working loads are applied to winches, lines, etc..

Of course, on this beast, in order to skirt the requirements for 6 sailors on the ship, the manning dictates the wiper and q-med, unlicensed engine department hands, assist in tie-up and let-go.  They're worse than worthless, normally, because they aren't sailors, and I spend much of my time keeping them safe from the many things that can hurt you on the working deck.

This particular morning the chief engineer refused to let them come out on deck to do their USCG and contractually obligated job.  Because we didn't have the additional back to help heave on the tug line, the officer grabbed it and nobody was able to make sure the job was being done safely and maintaining communication between all involved parties.

I got the running line under control.  We weren't "breathalyzed," as we call it out here- a crude way of saying nobody got hurt and the investigations didn't get underway.  But my disgust, and the disgust of others, still remains.

I wish it stopped there, but the old man is nothing, if not energetic in his pursuit of pissing people off.

While eating dinner tonight after I did meal relief for the helmsman, the captain sat down next to the q-med with a giant tub of ice cream and informed me, between shoveling dessert into his noisy face-hole, that he and the only sailor I don't like on this ship had gone into my quarters and removed a bunch of my personal affects from above my desk so that they could "hook my TV back up."

I don't watch it, even though I am coerced into paying $20 a pay period for it.  I disconnected it.  I don't want it hooked up... my computer gear uses all the electrical spaces and I don't fucking watch it.  And I sure as shit don't want anyone going through my belongings without prior consent.  Did I mention that I don't watch the goddamned thing!?

It is customary, if not required, to get consent first.  Repairs?  You get consent.  Inspection?  You get consent.  It crossed a line with me.

So now I'm blogging while angry, probably not the best thing to be doing.  My options seem incredibly limited, and, therefore, drastic options seem quite plausible.  I called a union meeting for the morning with the gang- hopefully, we're going to use our collective bargaining strength, minus the sailor I don't like, presumably, to leverage some changes.  Or they'll talk me down.  We'll see how it all goes down.

It doesn't change the fact that I'm about to cross the Atlantic with an unfit madman in the wheelhouse.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Hitting the Market, Gannets! And One Great Big Powdered Man-Baby

I spent the time at the Omani anchorage working with the Mate hooking up the big buckets to the cranes.  In what must be one of the most consistent of maritime traditions, my job was complicated by the fact the last person to work on them screwed them up and left an unholy cluster for us to sort out.  The buckets, which we call "grabs," are the size of a VW van.  They hook up to the crane by a power cable called an umbilical.  Finally, there is a wire tensioner that serves to help control the swing of the grabs when it's being slung around loaded with five or so cubic meters of grain.

All three items, on all three cranes, were in utter disarray- each crane had it's own set of unique problems, and at one point I became so frustrated with the Mate (who became increasingly intransigent in response) that we stopped talking in a huff.  He's a bigger man than me- after coffee he fired up his diplomatic skills and mustered my cooperation, and soon we were back to wise-cracking as we worked.  We got all three cranes back in fighting order in two days, and I learned some good management attitudes and behaviors.

A wind carried grasshoppers, crickets, and locusts across the water from land and it was rather pleasant to hear them on deck at night.  During the day a type of bird, almost raptor-like, flew irradically through the smallest of spaces on deck, at high speed, turning frequently, assumingly gobbling up the grasshoppers, crickets, and locusts.  They have white circles on tops of the wings, and bodies that flatten out when the stop and land, but I have no worthy internets with which to hunt for what they might be.

We picked up the hook and went into Oman Saturday night, heaving at 2015.  By 0330 we'd tied up, swung out the #1 and #3 cranes, and opened hatches 1 and 5.  On a normal ship that would have been a day... we'd have slept in and turned to at 1300 while the longshoremen did their thing.  But this isn't a normal ship.  By 0900 we were taking on voyage stores, offloading garbage (including 2 months worth of non-jettison-able crap from my evening project - the forepeak, and 9 old mooring lines - about 6400 feet of 3.5" eight strand polyolefin), and cooking in the 98 degree middle eastern sun.

The payoff for the brutal schedule was a trip into Salalah.  I went by shuttle with the crew to a great, big, western style mall full of men shopping.  The women I saw were in full, black burkas, only their eyes visible, and they sat together drinking tea, apart from the shopping men.  I split off from the crew with two of my sailors (a man and a woman) and we all agreed a mall wasn't the Salalah we wanted to experience, so we took a taxi to a traditional Omani market.

The taxi driver, Muhammad, was very proud of Oman.  He worked for the government part time, and spent a great deal of time singing about her virtues.  When we bought foods in the market, he would intervene and haggle the prices down, much to the chagrin of the barkers.  When we requested a suggestion for traditional Omani food, he took us to a place I wouldn't have gone into for all the anti-diarrheal medicine in the world.

And it was utterly fantastic.  We hurt ourselves eating.  A local fish I particularly liked melted like butter in my mouth and reminded me of a type of tuna I had in Saipan that was all yellow and nothing but fat, but this Omani fish was dark and was fried in the local spices.  Oddly, nobody knew what its English name was- it seemed to have a name in every language, except.

I arrived back at the ship with two traditional hat-like pieces of Omani headdress, dates, grapes, apples, oranges, a specific local specie of banana, 4 kilos of coffee varieties that have turned out to be rather perfect, and a cheap knife with a camel on the sheath made in Pakistan, the blade of which is covered in Arabic writing.

A cyclone was headed directly for Salalah, so we knuckled down and after only three days of relentless work, offloaded all cargo, closed the hatches, and we threw off the mooring lines and headed through pirate waters, through Babel Mandeb, and up the Red Sea toward Suez.  Seems my wishes have been answered... we will continue west, retarding our clocks with the time changes and getting an extra hour of sleep (yay!) every 15 degrees of longitude, all the way to Houston. 

That is, if you believe everything you're told.

The other option I hear mentioned is a shipyard in Greece... a prospect so awesome it is clearly nothing more than an unobtainable carrot enticing us toward utter disappointment, like a mirage in the desert.

I was rather pleased to see one of my favorite seabirds, gannets, come alongside yesterday and dive into the wake on either side of the bow.  Unlike their lazy cousin, the booby, gannets have a yellow bill and they don't suffer on a diet of flying fish, alone... they'll dive and swim as far as 30 meters below the surface after fish... a pretty rad and bad bird, by any account.

I was not pleased to discover the new captain is a big, fat man-baby.  While dropping off the security team and their machine guns and other gear to a waiting boat last night at 2300, his lack of professionalism endangered myself, the security team, and the boat operators. 

He berated the 3rd mate on the radio the entire operation, at one point threatening him, at another delivering ultimatums, insisting the security team go down the ladder at the same time we were swinging the gear down.  He sounded like a schoolyard bully.  The skiff had an overhead that would crush the crew if it rolled, but the operators wanted to take the gear from the relative safety of that spot before positioning the skiff to take the crew on the bow (using retractable lanyards and other safety gear to compensate for the increased exposure up there). 

Instead, we stopped loading gear, they re-positioned the skiff and took on the crew, then took the last of the gear on the bow, which was dicey.  The operator was pissed.  I was disgusted and feeling like I had acquired a vendetta, in the same fashion one might acquire an STD.  My helmsman, who listened to all this while steering the ship, said she was "traumatized." 

I told the Mate today I am going to get fired; if this new captain puts me in another unsafe situation like that I'm gunning for him.  It'll cost me my job, but I'll go home with all my fingers and toes.  I think the crew is unanimously in agreement.  My gang threatened what we call "a suitcase party," which is where the whole crew quits as one- which finds its way in front of the Labor Relations Board pretty damned quickly and is seen as a catastrophic failure.  I have no fucks to give, whatsoever- the man is not fit to command, and I miss my woman and my bed and my boat and my truck and being clean and good food and days and days off... I'm feeling mad enough about the mistreatment this ship deals out regularly that this additional thumb in my eye is simply intolerable.

Next, the Suez Canal.  It's been a few years, and that was on a much more professionally run ship... I'm fairly certain this is gonna be a super, duper, especially special transit.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Far Side of the Indian Ocean

I got the grandest compliment I've had in a long time: "This is almost like a normal ship, now."

I wish I could say the Coral had been this bad, but it wasn't... it took me about 4 months (out of my 6 total) on that girl to set her to rights... I feel like I'm far ahead of schedule, comparatively, here on the Mokey Pokey.  Good captain, the new mate has been good, my sailors have been good... and we're always underway, never in port doing cargo...

I felt it too soon to leave Singapore when we did, but we'd done all we could work-wise so clearly it was a personal feeling.

Back into the routine of being underway: Start at 0530, knock off at 2000.  I take soundings before breakfast; I watch the sun come up while I send a glorified tape measure down each specialized hole that lets me know how much water is in the "rose boxes" (bilges) and ballast tanks.

I have my 4x8 and my 12x4 man to work from 0800 to 1200; at 1300 my 8x12 man (in this case, woman) is on deck until 1700.  I do meal relief for the helmsman at 1645 - 1715.  Nobody bothers me one iota between 1800 and 2000, as if they know my personality... I get more done in those two hours than I do all day.

We took on 4 security crew off the coast of Sri Lanka.  They are Greek.  Dark eyed, quick-to-smile killers who speak little English.  They hang out on deck with their shirts off.  The two women on board don't mind, as far as I can tell.

They brought on AK-47s, 1000 rounds of ammo, and stand 3 hour watches.

Bringing them on, however, was a challenge.  I had the pilot ladder set up to send the 4 temp crew off and take on the killers; I had the stores crane rigged with all the luggage in a net on the stern.  Switching the crews out was challenging because the boat operator sucked- it took almost a half hour, thanks to his incompetence.

Then the Sinhalese refused to let us use the crane to offload and take on gear because there was a raw-water exhaust on the stern (nowhere near the area of work, btw), so I got to hump all the luggage up the 2 narrow ladders on the stern of the tug and back down the front of the house to the tug's bow.

Have I mentioned there are only three other sailors (all watchstanders) and myself on this boat?

Needless to say, by the time I'd moved all that shit I was angry at that boat operator.

I moved all that gear, then instructed the 3rd Mate and the crew NOT to discharge or take on luggage over the water without a line.  That I was getting the line.  That they were to stand by until the Deck Boss (me, you sullen, shifty-eyed dogs) OK'ed the exchange of gear with the secured methods that I was setting up.

I got back with a suitable luggage line and the Sinhalese, in their impatience, had brow-beat the 3rd Mate and the waiting security guys into passing the gear over the rail, contrary to my instructions.

I called the Sri Lankans' names, berated anyone within hearing for disobeying my instructions, and out-angered the hostile crew of the launch.  I called their mothers names, I called the mate names, and I shouted them down... down to a one.  My way or highway.  It got so heated they sent a man on deck with a machine gun to glare at me.  The new Greek commandos, however, liked my style, and they all started yelling at the Sri Lankans "Do your fucking job!" and it struck me, at that moment, as the highest available comedy that life has to offer.

Once the gear was transferred, properly, while we awaited the ship stamp and payment, I exchanged "goddamn that was funny" looks with the Launch deckhand and their shooter; they agreed with a look and a smirk, and at that point I could have gone home with them, met their families, and tossed their infants into the air for all the animosity they carried after business was completed.

This is the first ship for this third mate and I'm certain that way of doing business was traumatizing.  I didn't realize it, but the same struggle always presents itself for every accommodating vessel and they'd all trained me how to interact appropriately.  I was completely correct to lay down the law, but in the real world (on shore) it would have been... a little bit over the top.  But seriously- who was gonna get blamed if they dropped a machine gun into the drink?  Yeah.  Me.  I was not going to be remembered as "that dumb-ass."

Unbeknownst to me, the old man and mate watched from the bridge wing.  The helmsman came down to help me haul gear aboard per their instruction.  They were all weirdly silent about the way I handled things, afterward, but it has felt like my deck, fair and square, ever since; and nobody has disputed that.  The old man has acted mildly amused and hasn't seen fit to venture out where I work... which I take as the highest praise I'll ever get from the monkey deck.

We transited the pirate waters of the Arabian Sea and we're now sitting at anchor (in an anchorage where ships have actually been taken by pirates), in Salalah, Oman.  At any second we could get the call to go to dock... so we've pretty much got port prep done.  We're prepping for cargo.  We're ready to tie up and hit the Arabian markets.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Steaming Ever Westward

We anchored in Subic Bay of the Philippine Islands and took on water, fuel, and some fresh produce; we offloaded the oily waste byproduct known as "slops."

Sadly, I only had a brief stint on the beach, and it was spent primarily at a shopping mall, the single greatest contribution of American culture on a global scale since WWII.  There was Starbucks and Columbia and Apple and... and... all that shit.  BUT, right next to the ship was a beach where the fishing boats, all outrigger canoes- from the tiny one man boats to massive 70 footers- beach themselves each night, like seals on the shore of the Pacific Northwest... and if ever I come back to Subic Bay, THAT is where I'm going. 

We departed and rolled into Singapore 5 days later, dropping anchor in the inner harbor and then proceeding to tie up no less than 5 different fuel barges, a bevy of launch services bringing stores, taking off garbage, more oily waste barges, and yet more fresh water barges.  We had ship to shore launch services on the hour, and about 25 different contractors at any given time doing much needed repairs. It was, in a word, hectic.

The foreman from the gangway replacement when I was bosun on the APL Coral in 2016 was one of the subcontractors, a quiet Indian man named Mutytiara. I remembered him instantly- he was the man who got soaked with the full force of our fire main when the weight-test water-bag burst and he got sprayed, literally, with a fire-hose.

We laughed about it, me more so than he.

I recognized the day foreman, too- Veejay.  He was a lower-cast Indian who nonetheless was "the boss" and we got along well this time we met, too- cursing the bean-counters of this company with vehemence. 

And in the past I've also worked with the small, elderly Chinese bargeman with the huge smile and infectious laugh; whose chi is so healthy and his kung fu so strong he looks 25 from the gap-toothed old man's neck downward.  He ran all over his barge like a cat and there are few his equal, even though I'm sure he's in his 70's.  Just seeing how much he loved his work made me smile, even though I was in a protracted and misery-inducing war of attrition with the out-going chief mate that had me more frustrated than at any point of my maritime career to date.

Thank you, kung fu bargeman.

When I finally got ashore, Singapore was her old self.  Queries of "ma-sah-he" from pretty women in dark doorways.  The smell of durian in the markets.  1,000 different dumplings in the hawker stalls.  Chinatown was a little on the quiet side due to rain, but Clarke Quay was a hive of activity.  I discovered Marina Bay Park by accident walking back to the ship at night, and I walked alone for miles in the dark, next to large ponds, accompanied by the sounds of crickets, frogs, bats, and wind through the tropical canopy, above.

I got ashore twice, and each time came with a heavy price-tag: My Sleep.  My shortest work day in Singapore was 16 hours.  The day we hoisted anchor and steamed west into the Straits of Malacca was a whopping 21 hour day.

Next stop isn't much of a stop, really... we slow down, let off the Greek engineers the crew inexplicably call "the snipes" who've been riding with us since Subic Bay and take on the security detail with their armaments; mercenaries who will stand security watch against pirates of the Indian Ocean as we transit to Africa.

Onward.  Ever onward we go.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

A Gas Station On The Side Of The Road

For days we have been accompanied by a flock of swallows, a traditional good omen for seafarers.  There have been finches and sparrows, too, but the swallows seem to get everyone worked up, myself included.

When a red-footed boobie that was perched on the foremast crapped on me, the crew insisted that, too, was a good omen.  Clearly they were wrong, as the boobies proceeded to shat on me two more times... sounds like dubious luck, at best.

We finally ran out of fuel, prompting the company to accept the old man's proposal that we go get some.  The 1200 position report shows our new destination to be Subic Bay, Philippine Islands.  Interestingly enough, a company engineer will be joining us there.  I suspect he's more like an auditor... boy, won't HQ be surprised to find out we're not watching movies, drinking beer, and padding the clock with imaginarily-worked hours and that yes, this ship we're on needs the ceaseless ministrations of this miracle crew to keep her moving.

And more of the company's money.

Also planned to pick up at this service station are a wide variety of vegetables and fruits... I have had cauliflower (cooked as a side, and raw on my iceberg lettuce salad) at every single meal for two weeks.  I have officially become sick of cauliflower.

Let's not forget water.  We're taking on fresh, potable water.  Crazy, no?

I really like being underway, but I have to admit, three weeks (21d, 10h 23m as of this moment) and 5,972.6 nautical miles have finally gotten tedious... I have seen one fin whale, countless adult and juvenile red-footed boobies, a couple random brown boobies, some type of egret that came on with the swallows and other land birds (from where is anyone's guess- there is no land out here), a badjillion flying fish, a fat and scurrying rat, a silverfish (the insect), and one sundog birthed by the play of the sun on the thunderheads that roam about on the ocean at these latitudes like hulking, sky-high jellyfish.

I got another pair of dragon wings when we crossed the dateline... I have lost track of how many times I've crossed, but if I were to get all the traditional sailor tattoos I'd be covered.  Each swallow is only good for 5k miles... so there's a flock of ink, right there (15 from my first ship, alone).  "Hold Fast" on my knuckles; two anchors (one for sailing bosun, one for sailing on a military ship); a pig on one foot, a rooster on the other; a compass rose; hell, I forget all of them and their meanings... but should I ever get inked, I know how long I'll be in that chair.

Once we leave Subic Bay we head to the shipyard in Singapore.  Hell, with my phenomenal track record of walking down the gangway of ships that sailed only one more voyage before being scrapped, it's conceivable this engineer rider could be the death knell of this here inglorious integrated tug and barge.  Time will tell.  Stranger things have happened, that's for sure.

Friday, August 31, 2018

The Relentless Weight of Tonnage

One of my unofficial fields of study since coming to sea has been management.

How do the decisions the captains make affect the wipers or ordinary seamen?  How does pressure from shoreside affect the decision-making of shipboard crew?  What can I do, at the bottom end of the food chain, to effect change upward?

It's a slow, experience-based observational tour through both the best, and the worst, of management scenarios.

One captain I sailed with called the entire deck department to the bridge and lavished us with praise, declaring us "the best he'd sailed with!" in all his years.  I was still an ordinary... I thought he was great! That same captain, on another ship (years later when I was sailing as bosun), was reviled to such a degree that "Captain [his name] is a douche" was painted in 5-foot-tall letters on the forward face of a lashing bridge in safety yellow.  I saw the chief mate gazing at it during a rare moment where the deck was clear of containers, exposing the epithet for the world to see, and he confided to me that he could ask me to paint it, but that he wasn't going to.

He gave me all the dirt... it was entertainment on a grand scale... and my opinion of that captain changed.

One of my foundational conclusions, arrived at painstakingly over time (the meat of which I will not really touch on), is that management isn't merely a simple decision-tree that leads to the best decision-result, but a recipe of personalities interacting in particular ways that creates outcomes, intended or otherwise.

The outcome I came aboard?  The ship I'm on is a neglected POS.  It was to be scrapped, but the profitability of an undermanned vessel was too alluring and so they kept it, even in her obsolete state.

The molasses tanks are unused and the pumps, pipes, manifolds, and valves are rusted artifacts littering the entire ship.  The ballast system doesn't work b/c the valves and reaching rods are rusted into inoperability. If we took on water? We might be able to pump it off. That's "might." We know there's a hole in there, somewhere.

It gets better.

In order to burn heavy bunker oil, the engineers need to use clean water, lots of it, and so they have purifiers (water makers) to turn seawater into usable water.  What the engine doesn't use, the crew gets.  None of that gear reliably works. We left the dock with only 12 tons of potable water for a voyage of three weeks... we use 7 tons a day for crew alone... I'd say do the math, but none is required to know two days of water isn't enough for three weeks at sea, particularly in light of our dodgy purifiers.

Purifiers which promptly failed after crossing the Columbia River bar.

Then the port engine was inoperable for almost a week; so we used one engine burning our limited supply of diesel, and we couldn't make water to burn the heavy bunker oil... if we ran out of diesel before we got the purifier online then we'd be dead in the water.  So the Captain and Chief Mate requested we put in in Hawaii for repairs before this happened. We are, by the way, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We had enough diesel to get to Hawaii, but not enough to get to Singapore.

The company denied the request.

The engineers got the other engine working... but both were then burning diesel, consuming our limited supply even faster.  We couldn't make water to burn heavy oil.  The laundry was "secured" (I couldn't wash my clothes) due to a lack of water, but we pushed on turning our screw with limited usable fuel and carrying too little water.

The toilets wouldn't flush, and often air in the lines would cause them to detonate whatever was in the bowl into the surrounding atmosphere. We couldn't drink the water. The ice machine kept making bad ice.

I've been in the dark my entire career in regard to these situations. I have gained an experience level where I am aware of these operational "challenges" and now I am asking myself: "Has it always been this bad and I just didn't know?"  Am I being astounded by truths I should have seen?  Did I take the red pill, like Neo, in The Matrix?

I don't think so... I mean... I've never been on a ship that ran out of water before.  I've never been faced with a job description that can only be classified as "shipboard crisis management," because I'm not much of a bosun when I'm down in a tank with all hands rigging pumps to get fresh water - non-potable, but fresh - so we can take a shower when we're done.  Or working through my 5th meal in a row because we're simply under-manned and the amount of work required mathematically exceeds the hands available by any calculus except that of a company man adding up how much blood it takes to reach profitability.

Am I merely being a "negative Nancy" or is this as precarious as it feels?

And it comes back to management... how did it get this bad?  How long can operational dirt get swept under the rug of bean-counter scrutiny before someone says "hey... what's going on here?"

The port and starboard lifeboats have serious defects with their davits. There are only two life rafts (different than lifeboats) on this thing, one up forward (a small one) and a big 25 man on the starboard boat deck that's on a rolling cart, to be used on either boat deck; anyone who knows how these things operate will quickly determine the cradle that holds it will merely float safely with the life raft once in the water, and the raft will never deploy. The ship would go down, and that thing would sail away, rescuing the cart it sits on, but unable to save a single life.

So this almost became the first boat I quit before I got started.

The only way I am still here is because the Captain and the Chief Mate, both who are on here for the first time relieving the permanent officers who allowed it to get so bad in the first place, have insisted we go to the shipyard in Singapore when we get there in a couple of weeks (this thing is soooooo slow!) to have every, single "no-sail" item fixed. They've been logging it so there's a paper trail.  Emailing photos of deficiencies far and wide. Requisitioning every failed item as fast as we find them, and they're all being approved.

And each day we search out more. Today I opened up ballast tank 2, ventilated it, put rescue air (SCBA) by our ingress, and each person going in carried an EEBD (portable air).  It's the same process each time... the Mate uses a device to analyze the air in the tank for toxic gasses, one man stands by at the head of the manhole with a radio, and in we go. All the way down to the keel, where the ballast and bilge pipes run... looking for our elusive leak. Logging problems. Taking photos.

Same as in the fore-peak tank and in number 1 starboard earlier this week.

I caught the old man out staring at that damned starboard life raft, and we talked through scenarios of what would happen should we find ourselves in a situation where it was supposed to work as designed. Every possibility was a failure. He requisitioned a cradle to be welded onto the deck and the boat be installed correctly. Then a second one to be installed on the port side, too... no more cart.

The engineers have done wonders to hold the systems together.  As of this blogpost the one working purifier just failed, so we're 0 for 2, again.  It's after 2200 hours and they're still in all-hands mode, trying to get it back to making water.

But if we go to shipyard in Singapore and the company doesn't back out of doing what must be done, then I'll stay on... If they fix the "no-sail" items then on to Africa I go. I haven't been on a ship like this before. I haven't sailed with as dedicated a crew before, either... or with a Mate as experienced and easy-going in the face of being humiliated by inanimate objects on a daily basis.

And now I've lost my train of thought, if ever I had one.  I am 90 days tired inside of three weeks of setting sail and it's time to hit the bunk.  Tomorrow this lump of steel is going to kick my ass again and I need every second of rest I can get.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

But Not A Drop To Drink

We ran out of water.

At dinner, yesterday, the engineers casually informed the Captain "Hey Cap.... we're out of water."

Apparently the watermaker has been offline so the Chief Engineer has used the house water to fill up the boilers.  They didn't let anyone know until, well... it was all gone.

The barge has a tank of fresh water - not potable, but fresh - so the Mate and I rigged up a wilden pump and hoses and with his experience and my agility we got water supplied to the house. 

"You may flush your toilets between 1700 and 1900."

The captain gave us bottled water from the slop chest (ship's duty free store) to drink. 

Of the laundry/ shower/ toilet water?  We've used 7 tons of the 10 tons since yesterday.

Of course, the watermaker is still offline.

Monday, August 20, 2018


We spent a week doing cargo and making ready to go, our first port of call being Singapore, where we'll take on more voyage stores, fuel, and a security team.  The security team will establish defensive emplacements on the ship and harden her against pirate attack when we travel through those particular Indian Ocean waters around the Gulf of Aden.

The pace of things was so overwhelming and chaotic while getting ready to set sail that there were moments when I told myself "the gangway is still on the dock... Go Home.  Go Home Now."  Alas... I was too busy to listen that clarion call of sanity.

It was so relentless a pace that the chief mate simply quit.  He was a negative man with a condescending attitude and the tendency to abuse his rank's lofty place in the chain of command; He hung around for a few days after requesting a relief, like the smell of a dead possum in a crawlspace, and then he was gone... the only proof he'd ever been here was the caustic assessment of the sailors with whom he shared this ship.

The new mate who came on is a large man with an easy-going manner and enough experience and institutional knowledge that I want him to stay (I have all but begged him to stay), but he's planning on leaving in Singapore.  My loss- and this ship's loss.

Before getting underway, the garbage situation aboard was so bad that even the old man spent hours working with the chief mate and the gang, hauling it up two decks from the aft of the tug, throwing it into a cargo net, where I retrieved it and put it into a truck on the dock.  When the truck was full I'd ferry it all to a 30 yard dumpster and unload it.  The agent's man, a guy named Theodore with huge and exaggerated muttonchop sideburns and a safety vest over his bare chest, assisted me by telling me stories while I worked. I don't think he ever inhaled once... the man could lay it on thick!  The garbage ranged from cardboard to double-bagged food waste; the food waste was like hauling 80-120 lbs. bags of sun-ripened puke that felt wet and ready to burst at any second- and the smell was enough to make the old man literally gag.

My hat is off to this captain- I have never seen the old man of any ship do the lowliest, meanest, most base task in order to ready us to depart.  Never.  He is a gentleman, and not used to labor of this sort, yet he cooked in the heat along side us dogs in order to get underway on time.

The new chief mate is a hawsepiper (made officer by coming up through the ranks) and has spent most of his time on the deck trying to determine why there is an unaccounted for 8000 tons of displacement aboard, and where exactly it might be.  He might have said 800,000 tons, I can't exactly recall.  Only someone on a ship as mismanaged as this one can imagine misplacing enough material to drop a 600 foot ship 3 inches in the water without a trace.  He immediately tasked me with achieving watertight integrity of all deck vents and doors on deck- something that all ships must have - when we watched 1.5 meter swells sending spray over the bow.  8 meter swells would put the bow of this thing under green water and those open vents would progressively flood the forepeak, machine room, and bow-thruster space.

This is how the scoreboard reads for the Intigrated-Tug & Barge M/V Moku Pahu - she is a dangerous ship, the most dangerous I've been on, and I spent three months on the sister ship to the El Faro... a ship that amplified the worst storm conditions, her snap rolls building in angry seas.  In my opinion, the Moku Pahu has been undermanned and neglected by management to a criminal extent.  Should there ever be an "incident" with this ship... well... goddamn.  The first hand accounts of those who have kept her afloat will be enough to damn this company to bankruptcy-by-lawsuit.  May those bean-counters total their ill-gotten gains for all eternity as they rot in hell.

The lifeboats are garbage.  It took us 2 hours to release one, today, and the gravity davit is bent.  We never got to the other one... we'll see how it rates soon enough.  The firefighting/Damage Control locker is a closet-sized locker with all our firefighting gear in zippered bags crammed into so narrow a confine that only one person can access it.  It is across a constricted companionway from the laundry room - where the dryers are, which are the pieces of equipment which cause the most shipboard fires.  So, should we have a laundry fire... well... we can't fight it because we can't get to our firefighting gear.

The windlasses are crap- the starboard anchor is completely inoperable.  The mooring winches are crap- one up foreward failed and parted an amsteel line when we warped at the dock, which destroyed the emergency shut-off switch when it snapped back and missed the last mate's hand by an inch.

This ITB (integrated tug and barge) was built for one purpose, and one purpose only - to get around the manning requirements that a comparable ship would have.  We have a crew of 16, whereas a ship this size would be required to have 21.  The international laws that govern rest requirements - STCW (Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchstanding), are routinely ignored on this ship because it is impossible to operate with this few people.  I did 50 hours of overtime last week - a physical impossibility under the IMO laws to which the USA is a signatory.

One of the Able Seamen - an Englishman (a Cockney) - admitted he slept with his phone and papers in a watertight bag next to his bunk in case he needs to abandon ship in the night.  He was on a ship that went down (scuttled by the old man, if the story is true) and feels it necessary to be prepared for any eventuality aboard the MV Moku Pahu.

And if we can't get this thing safe, to standards that satisify me, I will quit my very first ship since I first went to sea in 2012... I will break Articles (which I have yet to sign), go down the gangway, buy my own ticket home, and never look back.

Monday, August 13, 2018

For Ports Known and Unknown

Once there was this company.  I hated it very much.  I said I'd never work for it, again... but then my union rep played me for a sucker.  Not really, but yeah... kinda.

So here I am, on a 209 meter ICB (Integrated Tug & Barge) loading wheat in Portland, Oregon.  I am the boatswain with a crew of 3 other sailors- two too few.  Her last bosun... well... just wasn't.  She's in sad, sad shape- neglected and full of self loathing.  The officers and shoreside officials have flat-out begged me to stay on and I've reassured them that I know I am up for an impossible project with too little pay and no personal reward, other than some bittersweet satisfaction down the line that I've maintained yet another ship to the point of rebar and razorblades a mere voyage or two after my painstaking ministrations. 

Their relief at that has been palpable.  They are like sports fishermen with a prize sucker-fish on the hook, fighting just enough to make it entertaining but not enough to be real work, and all they have to do is keep me on the line until we sail... once that happens there is no escape.  Meat for the meal.

She's a shit-heap.  She's neglected and the scorn of the industry.  She has no future.  But somehow... she feels good.  And weirdly, everyone who's been on her recalls their time fondly, often waxing near to poetry... except my buddy in San Francisco who reviled his time aboard and froths a bit at the mouth when he talks about it.  It'll be good, or it'll be really bad... I don't think there much room in between.

We'll soon find out... we depart the wheat silo docks for a lay-berth in an hour.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Almost A Free Man

So I’ve managed to let about six voyages go by without posting an account of my days, photos notwithstanding. I should feel guilty, or slovenly, but I don’t… when you’re trapped in a time warp, moving at relativistic speeds, six days feels pretty much the same as six voyages- the rest of the world moves on through accelerated time while seemingly mere days have passed within a ship-board warp bubble.

So oceans are not enough- I travel through time and space, too.

Last time through Yoko there was an elephant on the dock, the main diesel generator went out, and a human body drifted in and settled off the aft mooring deck. The elephant turned out to be stuffed and quite dead, the generator blew up and was quite dead, and the human remains were… well… a bit gruesome. The Japanese professionals recovered the body in an almost SWAT-style operation involving six rescue trucks, multiple aid cars, and an army of divers, police, photographers, coroners, etc...

One day south of that strange Port of Yokohama stay, I saw a pod of orcas. Their massive dorsals are unique in the blackfish family, and they can’t be mistaken for their larger cousins - the pilot whale - no matter how creative the imagination. Clearly they don’t know about the Japanese.

We all stared in amazement, but of course, there was the one naysayer who swore up and down they were pilot whales. He is Polish, and the Filipinos and Hawaiians refer to him merely as “the Polack.” Or “that goddamned Polack,” as the situation may warrant.  

A young Hawaiian asked me, “Is ‘polack’ a derogatory term?”

I had to break it to him that in this case, sadly, it is.

The orcas were harbingers of hardship, unfortunately: after seeing them, we began to roll like mad, at one point hitting 30-35 degrees, flinging detritus throughout the ship. Securing lines were parted, buckets and bottles and brooms and whatnot went everywhere, and everything I own worked its way to the deck, where it circulated as if in a gyre. Nobody slept. Many were sick.

The seas were only 10-12 meters, but in this little ship when she has a high “metacentric height,” or righting moment due to a light load, and we get in the trough or the swell is on our quarter, we snap roll like whiplash.

It didn’t let up until we were behind the breakwater in Guam.  

The c/m, same guy I spent three months with last year as bosun, decided we should lower the lifeboat there behind the breakwater instead of Yokohama, opting to sit in the sun in 95 degree heat and liquid humidity instead of the reasonable 65 degree Japanese springtime. Sure enough, the davit hydraulics failed and I was forced to sit in the full sun, out in the fast rescue boat, roasting in my own juices for 4.5 hours as the rest of the gang pulled the partially deployed lifeboat back aboard with chain hoists.

Why was I surprised? Because the voyage before, on the previous rotation through Guam, he had us do the exact same thing- so he knew the hydraulics were screwed. He knew, and he did it again anyway, as if they’d have fixed themselves in the two weeks since the last time we hauled the boat back up with chain hoists.

We left Saipan running before a typhoon. We headed due west though the Philippine Sea for three days before turning north toward the Sea of Japan. The typhoon was stalled, fortunately, and we were able to get around it, but I agreed with the captains on several other ships in the fleet that stayed put an extra day and didn’t take the chance on which direction the storm was going to break.

And now I am on my last run. I am short timing it- angry, tired, as unapproachable as a wet cat, and only here due to the fact that there are physical limitations to the power of wanting to be somewhere else.

Japanese Seagulls

Friday, March 9, 2018

A Snorkel Hole, Saipan

Defying Gravity

This was the lead up to 10 meter swells... Once they hit the snap rolls threw everything I own on the deck, mixed it all together, and then the toilet water, water bottles, and kettle soaked it all for good measure. So much for "secure for sea." Got thrown out of my bunk a few times and spent two days sleep deprived and sore from over-using stabilizer muscles. A big FU to the Philippean Sea.

Live Long And Prosper

Alone At The Dock

Departure, Guam


Thursday, January 18, 2018

Of Works And Days

I have begun the countdown of my seatime until I can sit for my first useful license.

It’s the same game I play in my head when I’m counting down the days until I get off a voyage, but this one can be played in different ways: I can persevere doing exactly as I am doing (my only choice when counting down to the end of a voyage); I can get off this ship and do the last of the required time some other way in the maritime industry (my last attempt at that wasn’t what I’d hoped); or, I can stop playing this stupid counting game.

Yeah… Not gonna stop counting, sad to say.  I keep a spreadsheet of my seatime- If I sail 1 day longer than I need to I will consider that a failure on my part… I need 1,080 days of seatime, not 1,081, after all.  I will count.

As if to balance the short amount of time left to go, I am on a ship that repeats each run every 2 weeks.  I am already into my 3rd voyage but I wouldn’t know it if I didn’t put a mark on the bulkhead of my quarters and count them frequently.  Such lonesome looking crosshatches, needing so many more…

I snorkeled in both Guam and Saipan, this last voyage.  The spot in Guam was at a place I have snorkeled in the past, at a place known as the Family Beach.  It is at the end of the spit that separates the port from the sea and is almost always completely abandoned.  On the road out there are a few dive clubs and jet ski rental places, but the beach itself is a sad affair.

But the swimming is great.  I didn’t see as many fish as I recalled from my last swim there, 3 years ago; the color of the coral wasn’t as bright, either, and I don’t know if there is a “winter” for coral reefs in a place that is 90 degrees in January, or if the health of the reef is suffering somehow.

By contrast, I took a boat out to an outlying island in Saipan and the fish were profuse and abundant… although the reef colors were similarly muted.  All those fish you see in cartoons make their home there, and they do have the brightest colors in the natural world, without needing the exaggeration of HDTV saturation to make it so.  I swam with a black-finned shark… which I will now add to the leopard shark as “sharks I have knowingly swum with.”

Shipboard life remains dull and routine.  The steward is about 5 feet tall and looks like a skinny Popeye… and he can talk like nobody else, often cornering the unsuspecting sailor and launching into a story with no point, nor an end.  Unless, sadly, you compare him to the galley assistant, who wanders around lost, speaking entirely in non sequiturs, and rivaling the steward for tales that have no basis in the social norms of being topical or relevant.

Some days I can pull-free from one, only to become inescapably entangled with the other.  I am so happy the cook’s English is almost non-existent, and I know no Tagalog… a galley trifecta would be unbearable.

The galley assistant wears white rubber gloves and does everything in them: cleans dishes, takes out the trash, mops the floor, cuts food, cleans the head, wipes tables… he is never without a mop, nor a bucket of foul smelling gray water, which he dutifully hauls all over the ship, in all weather, sloshing just enough on the deck to pull all the grease off the boots of the crew walking through and transfering it it to the deck, but never its opposite- by removing the samesaid grease from the dirty linoleum.

Yesterday he was assailing everyone in a high falsetto voice with “You can’t go ashore unless you bring me your dishes.  Not you… nor you… none of you...”

I stood a bow watch going into Busan in high winds, 20 degree cold, with snow flurries and sea smoke rising off the water- the cold was fairly spectacular.  When we let go the salt water from our mooring lines flash-froze on the deck.

Two days later, I ate sushi in Yokohama’s Chinatown, again… but also some of the Chinese street food, as good as anything I get in the Singaporean Chinatown.  Luckily, it was up in the 40’s.

And now we head south towards Guam, and summer to me, even though it’s really winter.  And onward I go, each day adding a crosshatch to the tally of sea days, counting them up.