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.