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.