For some reason, it seems like getting to the ship is always the most stressful part of each job I take. So far this job is no exception.
I arrived at 0620 and hoped the guy I was relieving would still be there. When I go to sea, I'm used to coming aboard to a cleared out stateroom and a turnover letter explaining any little nuances the ship might have as well as what state the charts and pubs were left in. Usually this is more than enough info to get things rolling, but seeing as how this was to be my first containership, I wanted to be on the safe side.
It turns out the morning was to be full of surprises. When I knocked on the 2/M stateroom door, I was surprised to find someone still in it. When he invited me in, I was surprised to find that his gear was still scattered all over the room. When we started to chat about how things work on the ship, I was surprised when he listed a whole day worth of things that he still needed to do before signing off.
In no time at all it became clear that, while he was a nice guy, he was also agonizingly methodical. We started a "quick" walkthrough of the pilothouse early that morning and it ended sometime around 1400. Then I ran through all of my paperwork with the Captain which took a scant few minutes. Then I caught up with the outgoing 2/M again and we walked through all of my duties during arrival and departure. I was sitting down to dinner when this guy finally came in and mentioned that he was leaving. At that point I made a mental note to be at least a little bit more prepared to get off the ship when my time's up.
Anyhow, just like the last ship I was on, my place during docking and undocking evolutions will be at the bow. I will be the ship's navigator and medical officer. Aside from the fact that the cargo is containerized, the route is predictable, the ship is clean, and the overall length is half-again as long as my last ship, there doesn't seem to be too many differences between this job and the last one.
The biggest, best difference I've noticed is that my stateroom is much bigger and better appointed. It even has what appears to be a cup holder in the head right above the toilet paper:
Day 2: Underway from Oakland, California bound for Dutch Harbor, Alaska
I got the callout at 0400. The Chief Mate said that the ship would be leaving the pier at 0500 and we needed to get gear checks done immediately. Since I'm entitled to 30-minutes on the clock after callout, this meant that my overtime technically started at 0330, half an hour before I woke up. Cool.
Gear tests were pretty standard. They were also a nice way to get a handle on where all of the controls and indicators were. Since I've never been on one of these ships before, the Captain came up to walk me through it all.
Once everything was up and running, I went up to the bow to set up all of the mooring winches. Then the cargo cranes stopped slinging containers onto the ship, the Bosun and one of the AB's caught up with me, we started slacking out and hauling in lines, and in no time at all we were underway. Somewhere in the Bay we lost propulsion for a moment, but the tide was slack and there was no wind, so once the problem was righted we were on our way.
While we're transiting in and out of port, I stay on the bow to act as lookout (because the up on the bridge, the Captain's view of the area directly ahead of the bow is blocked by containers) and to stand by in case someone needs to drop the anchor. While I was there, the fog seemed to get pretty thick. So thick in fact, that this is all I ever saw of the Golden Gate Bridge as we were headed out to sea:
Other than that, the day passed without any real incident. I took my first watch on board at noon in a thick fog. There was no significant traffic and I managed to avoid seriously embarrassing myself. Here was my view for four hours:
Oh, and happy Halloween. Dammit.
DAY 3: Rolling Along
Today started yesterday at 11:15 at night. As the Second Mate I'm saddled with the 12-4 watches, so I'm on the bridge from midnight to four in the morning and again from noon to four in the afternoon. I like it because it puts me almost completely out of sync with everything else on board, but we'll see how much I like it after a few months.
The big chore for today was figuring out this particular company's digital logbook program. They keep a typical paper ship's log like you'd expect to find anywhere. The problem is that the home office also expects us to transmit a ridiculously detailed logbook to them every couple of days. To that end we have on board a very complex Excel-based spreadsheet that prompts you to enter countless little details about every aspect of shipboard operations every time there's a change in status. It took a couple of hours before I was convinced I've got it down, but I've got it down.
DAY 4: Whales
Early this afternoon I spotted a pod of whales that was southbound as we headed northwest. Neat.
Other than that, there wasn't much to report today. I started to get a handle on the way they manage chart corrections on board and we had a meeting to discuss the Captain's standing orders so he could answer any questions we might have and clarify any points he needed to. So far I really like working for this guy.
At some point during the day I got a solid chuckle out of the volume knob for the public address system:
It goes to eleven!
Chart corrections have become the bane of my existence. I'm not sure why, but this ship uses all British Admiralty charts where available. I guess somewhere along the way someone decided it was a good idea, but no matter how hard I try I can't think of how. The especially irritating part is the computer program that they use to keep track of the corrections. The workflow is backwards and actually makes more work, the accountability is hard to understand, and the software is painfully slow. It's hard to explain all of the problems to the layman, so I'll sum it up as follows: this crap sucks.
Otherwise, the rest of the day went well enough. I was expecting it to be much worse. The weather's been getting increasingly unpleasant. Today there were gale force winds and the temperatures topped out in the mid-forties.
Interesting note: With container ships, the most important issue when planning operations on board is maintaining the schedule. The ship follows the same route over and over again and the company that owns it usually plans everything very tightly around that route. When I met the ship in Oakland, they were already something like sixteen hours behind schedule. I know that sixteen hours doesn't sound like a lot of time for a ship on a 35-day route, but just imagine what it costs when you're planning on having over thirteen hundred truckloads moved in one workday. At that rate, every minute counts.
Because of the delay already stacked up in the schedule, at this point it looks like we might skip the stop in Dutch Harbor altogether. There's a chance that the wind will prevent us from pulling in there anyway (there's a shallow bar at the harbor mouth that becomes too shallow if the swells are more than a few meters high), so if there's any chance we won't get out on time we won't go in at all. There's only a handful of cargo containers waiting for us there and they can wait for the next ship if need be.
DAY 6: Dutch Harbor for a Few Minutes
I woke up expecting a particularly hectic watch. I needed to bring the ship safely through Unimak Pass as well as make all the preparations I could for entering port, all while dodging traffic and keeping us on schedule. At a glance it looked a bit daunting, but as it turned out, Unimak Pass was ten miles wide at its narrowest point, there were no other ships to speak of in the area, and the Third Mate had knocked out most of the pre-arrival checklist before I even woke up. All I ended up having to do was make sure the autopilot followed our track as it was supposed to and listen to the radio. Nice.
Once the watch was over and the Chief Mate had the deck, we set Watch Condition Two. This basically means that the Captain was on the bridge and I stayed behind to watch for traffic on the radar. This way, the potentially busy job of the watch officer was split up into three neatly manageable pieces.
As we made our approach, a couple of the deck seamen opened up the side port to receive the pilot.* This is a large, steel, hydraulically-driven door that opens into the side of the ship to make it easier for the pilot to climb aboard. When it's open, the hole is wide enough for people to walk through four abreast. Once it was open and the pilot boat was in sight, I took the elevator** down to the second deck and walked over and climbed down to the sideport to await the pilot.
It looked like he was getting a bit of a bumpy ride on the tug as it came alongside:
Once I'd escorted the pilot to the bridge, the next stop was the bow. When it's time to tie up the ship, I'm in charge of the guys on the forward end. Usually there are three of us. While we're making our approach to the dock, I act as lookout and stand by in case we need to drop the anchor in an emergency.
So for the next hour or so, my job was to stand on the windy end of the ship and watch the hail and freezing rain go blowing by. The bad part is: like an idiot I forgot to grab my gloves on the way out. Oops.
The mooring evolution went smoothly enough. Once we were all fast alongside the pier, it was time for me to take a few minutes?rest. A couple of hours later, the Coast Guard came aboard to look around in the engine room. The engineers talked them through what happened when we lost power coming out of Oakland, as well as how they fixed it so it wouldn't go wrong again.
Other than that, I was learning how things work at this particularly sad-looking, little container terminal:
When I took the watch on deck at noon, we still hadn't moved any cargo. Apparently, whenever the high wind alarm goes off on the crane, they have to shut it down and wait for 30 minutes before resuming cargo operations. The fun part is that all morning the alarm was going non-stop.
It was somewhere around three in the afternoon when they finally decided to give up. The idea was that it was more important to get caught up with our schedule than it was to pick up the last few containers waiting for a ship. So now all we had to do was wait for the wind to calm down for a moment so the crane could put the last hatch cover back in place.
The water looked deceptively calm, but the wind was blowing hard enough that we had to keep a couple of tugboats pushing us onto the pier all day for fear of snapping our mooring lines:
When it came time to let go our mooring lines and head out, I was smart enough to actually wear all of my cold weather gear (including gloves and the top half of my rain gear). After freezing my hands off this morning, I didn't want to make the same mistake. Instead, I actually broke a sweat. I'm sure I'll figure it out sooner or later.
As we were making preps to get underway, I ran down to the pier to check the draft at each end of the ship. Then headed to the terminal office for a moment to pick up the spreadsheet with all of the numbers for what we loaded and unloaded while we were there. Those fifteen minutes were all the time I spent ashore, but I guess I can at least say I've been to Alaska.
At least the scenery was nice:
*A harbor pilot is an experienced mariner with specialized knowledge of local waters. Large ships hire them for guidance in and out of ports all over the world.
**Yes, the ship has an elevator. If not, I would뭭e had to rush down all eight decks in the stairtower, then make my way a few hundred feet forward, then climb down the trunk to the sideport.
DAY 7: A Nice Relaxing Day
Today nothing really interesting happened. The weather was pretty rough, but not rough enough to make for any really interesting photos. Aside from that, there's nothing really interesting to report. At some point tonight the ship will cross the International Date Line.
DAY 8: A Saturday for a Friday
It was Thursday night last night when we crossed the International Date Line, so this morning is Friday morning. So there's that.
DAY 9: My Tasking for this Hitch
I always set myself a few tasks for while Im at sea. This time around: get back into some sort of workout routine and catch up on my reading. The workout routine will start tomorrow (as it repeatedly will), but I'm doing a decent job of catching up on reading. Im now well into the second novel that I brought along and with a bit of luck I'll be completely out of things to read by the time I get back to California. There I'll pick up more reading.
Today's quote of the day from the book of the day:
"It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally
good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people."
-from Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Otherwise, there's not much to report. So here's a picture of the Bering Sea:
DAY 10: Whales Again
We cleared the errant whale (who happened to be heading away from us) with plenty of room to spare. That was the closest thing we've had to excitement in some time.
DAY 11: Yokohama
After all night with the engine cranking trying to get to Yokohama on time, I took the watch on deck this afternoon to find out that our arrival time had been delayed by order of the company office. Sooner or later I'll understand that.
When we did finally pull in, it was under cover of darkness. While I was standing lookout on the bow, the boatswain walked up and pointed out the phosphorescent critters glowing in the wake of the tug:
I had tried to sleep after my watch at 0400, but it didn't work. So when we pulled in at 2100 that night, I had already been awake and aware since 2315 the night before. Then, much to my delight, I heard that my friend Rich (who's stationed down the road in Yokosuka) was able to talk his way into the container terminal and onto the ship and was waiting for me in the cargo office.
He brought his whole family along and we headed out for a couple of quick hours with dinner thrown in. As always, it was a joy to hang out with his kids:
I got back to the ship with just enough time to put on my boots and coveralls and assume the watch on deck. This takes us on to...
DAY 12: Veteran's Day
I was hoping that after all of the being awake and running around I'd luck out and have an easy watch. I was to be disappointed.
First of all, it was raining. When the ship is unloading cargo, the longshoremen remove the hatch covers so they can get to all of the containers in the slots below decks. When they do this, rain gets into the holds. When enough rain gets into the holds, it sets off alarms. This particular night, I couldn't go as long as twenty minutes without a high level alarm somewhere. I spent most of my watch in the cargo control office opening and closing valves in the bilge pump system just trying to keep the levels down.
On the next watch the Chief Mate had one of the engineers go down and clean out the strainer for the bilge pump. Apparently this made all the difference. Oops.
Otherwise, my watch was just spent marvelling at the orchestrated chaos that is the container terminal. When he showed up at the ship, Rich had said that walking through the terminal was like a live-action version of the game Frogger. I can't help but agree with him:
At the end of my watch I crashed hard and enjoyed a very productive four hours of sleep.
In the morning (which is still the same day) we got underway in a slight drizzle, leaving Yokohama behind:
Not much of anything else interesting happened that day, so here's a picture of the anchor chain:
There is no rest for the weary.
After a long night of deep sleep and a fairly uncomplicated watch in the morning, the afternoon was a bit more interesting. I took the watch just as we were entering Japan's Inland Sea, a fairly busy little patch of water which required us to take a pilot aboard in order to transit. On the inland side of the Inland Sea, we were to take another pilot aboard for the passage through the narrow Kanmon Kaikyo pass.
While I was expecting it to be a complete nightmare, the whole evolution was actually pretty benign. We had good weather, minimal traffic, and the pilots spoke fairly good English. All that was really left for me to do was to lean back, keep the logs up to date, and watch the scenery go by. That, and take pictures.
Here's a couple pictures of parts of the town of Kanmon as we rolled by (please excuse the dirty window I was shooting through):
And finally, here's the view from the portside bridge wing as we were leaving the pass on the Northwest end:
It was a nice day.
DAY 14: Pusan
When I took the watch at midnight this morning, the plan had changed. Because of gale force winds at the approach to Pusan, the pilots were unable to come out to meet ships. The new plan was to go some twenty miles to the west, make the approach to the new port of Pusan, pick up the pilot in the more sheltered water there, then cruise back over to the old port and make our approach.
In the meantime, we were to drift. The Captain had picked a nice, open, empty patch of ocean in the middle of nothing at all where we could stop the engine and wait. Unfortunately, by the time I took the watch there were so many other ships sitting around waiting to get into Pusan that it had stopped being a nice, open, empty patch of ocean. Instead it had become an angry, cramped, congested patch of ocean.
When the pilots started answering questions on the radio, things got a bit more unpleasant. They told us to go ahead and proceed into the new port so that we could be at the pilot pickup point at 0600. No problem. Then they went on to tell the next ten ships that called to be at the pilot pickup point at 0600. Problem. Now the whole crowd was trying to go to the same point at the same time through a narrow channel in the wee hours of the morning.
When my watch ended, I got about twenty minutes to sit down and try to unwind before I was called back to the pilothouse to help the Captain and Chief Mate with all of the craziness coming up. At 0600 I was down at the sideport waiting for the pilot boat to come alongside, then it was back to the bridge to maintain our navigation plot for the transit from the new port to the old port in Pusan.
Sometime around 0700, the pilots decided it was calm enough for them to meet ships outside the old port as well. So in the end, all of the scrambling back and forth was for naught.
When they finally called everyone out to handle lines fore and aft, I was more than happy to leave the pilothouse and head up to the bow. I will admit that the Captain has a way of stressing himself out over every little detail that was almost beginning to damage my calm. It was nice to go up forward, play lookout, and stand by to drop the anchors if need be.
At this point, I'd been up and running since midnight and it was fast approaching the beginning of my next watch at noon. Still, I had to take time out to set up the track and write up the voyage plan for the next leg of the trip. Then I stood the watch from noon to four. I should've been tired, but I needed to go ashore and get online to check my emails and bank accounts.
It's moments like this that I really wish I could read the local language. Then I'd know exactly what they were saying about whatever-the-Hell this is:
It was almost 1900 that evening when I finally tried to go to bed.
At 2130 I got the call that it was time to be back out on deck to get underway. That kept me up for another hour or two before it was time to go back up to the bridge and start my next watch. Of course, by then it was tomorrow already.
DAY 15: Enroute Tianjin
When I got up to the bridge, things got a bit interesting.
On this ship we have what's referred to as an "Integrated bridge." This means that all of the electronics are tied into each other so that you can share information from one system to another. This way you can see radar contacts on your electronic navigation display, your planned track plotted on your radar screen, and so on. It's handy.
When I started my watch, there was a lot of traffic on the radar, we were still fairly close to a couple of little islands, and there was a lot of noise on the radios. The Captain was still on the bridge and clearly suffering from the worst effects of fatigue. When the VMS (Voyage Management System)* was running slowly, he decided to push the "reset" button on the front of it. If it was a normal computer system like you have sitting on your desk at home, this is no problem. It simply shuts off the system and starts it again. But when there's a label right next to the power button that reads "DO NOT TURN OFF," it should at least give you pause.
So when he pressed "reset," all sorts of things started to go wrong. The integrated bridge disintegrated. Every piece of gear that was using data from the VMS started going ape shit with alarms and warning lights all over the place. To put it in different terms, it would be like if you were driving your car the wrong way down a congested highway packed with cars, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrians who were all ignoring the rules of the road, and every single warning light and indicator went off at the same time as your speedometer, stereo, turn signals, and rear-view mirror stopped working and just started to beep or buzz angrily at you. It's potentially disconcerting.
The nice part is that I didn't need any of it to get where we were going. It was a perfectly clear night and we were close enough to land to be able to fix our position using lighthouses and whatnot. The problem was that the Captain was strung-out tired, frustrated, and continuing to try to fix things. My real challenge was to find a way to get everything up and running, get him to stop pushing buttons and go to sleep, and not piss anybody off.
It took most of an hour, but I finally got him to go away so I could focus all of my attention on weaving the ship through the massive fleet of squid boats that had spread themselves all over the place. It was pretty tight a few times, but I got it done safely.
There are some days when I think my pay comes pretty easy. In the last two days I've earned the entire week worth of whatever they give me.
As interesting as my morning watch was, the afternoon watch was pretty uneventful. The only part that was intriguing at all was just as I was turning over the watch. A squall came up and produced this rainbow:
On a more ominous note, when I sat down to dinner I overheard this little tidbit of conversation between the Captain and the Chief Engineer:
CAPTAIN: We'll be going through the Bohai Pass tonight at about 1a.m.
CHIEF ENGINEER: Is it usually rough there?
CAPTAIN: Not rough, just busy. Crowded with little fishing boats and big ships going every which way. If you want to see abject terror, come up to the pilothouse around that time tonight.
So I guess I'll be in for more fun during my next watch.
*The VMS is basically the computer that keeps track of where you are and tells you how to get where you're going.
DAY 16: High-Speed Visit to Tianjin
Despite the Captain's foreboding comment, the Bohai Pass wasn't the nightmare I expected. Sure there were a lot of ships and scattered fishing traffic, and there were plenty of times where I had to bring my collision avoidance skills to bear, but I managed to scoot through the whole mess without even a moment of excitement or agitation. By the time we were clear of it, all I was left to do was sit back and smile the self-satisfied grin of someone who'd just completed a tricky job well.
After watch I passed out for a couple of hours before it was time to go up to the bow to tie the ship up in Tianjin. Here's a shot of the port as we made our approach:
In fact, at this point all I know about Tianjin is that it was really cold. We were tied up at about noon and I was on watch until four in the afternoon. Somewhere along the way I took a few random pics inside the cargo holds:
With most of the containers removed from the deck, the ship actually manages to look a lot bigger:
DAY 17: Leaving Tianjin, Enroute Quingdao
This afternoon I took the watch going back through the Bohai Pass and all of the excitement that goes with it. There were a handful of hairy moments involving countless little fishing boats that decided it would be a good idea to get right in the middle of the shipping lanes and drift. It was not fun, but at least it was daylight.
Once we were through the pass, it was time to stop the engine and drift so that the engineering department could do some training. Unfortunately, even though I was told I might, I never got a chance to push the emergency stop button. It's the most tempting button in the entire pilothouse:
Just look at it. There it sits under its little protective cover, a gently glowing, shiny, red, candy-like button, just begging to be pushed. Indeed, it even gives that pristine, untouched impression that suggests that if I were deemed worthy, I may well be the first man to ever push that button. But no, I don't get to push it. I just have to sit there biding my time, looking for other buttons to push, knowing all the while that I'll never have a chance to push the only button I truly, deeply, madly want, nay, NEED to push.
It's past my bedtime. I need to stop typing now.
DAY 18: Qingdao
The days have now become completely blended together. Today's a Tuesday, but the only way I know that is because I've checked the calendar several times to be sure.
My day started like they all have lately with a midnight to 0400 watch in the pilothouse, where I got to pick out a way for the ship to travel through all sorts of crazy fishing traffic. In fact, when I took the watch, here's what the radar screen looked like:
This is how it started. Then it got worse. After a couple of big crowds of small fishing boats as we headed south, I made the westerly turn towards Qingdao. Just then we came within radar range of all the other big ships that were crossing North and South along the Chinese coast. With all of the dodging ships and fishing boats, I didn't manage to get within a mile of our planned track line for the entire watch.
Fortunately we ended up with plenty of time to spare.
When I got back up to the bridge at noon, it was just as the ship was entering the approach channel for Qingdao. Moments later we got what amounted to our third call telling us to postpone our arrival at the pilot pickup point.
Most of my watch was spent waiting to pull in. Unfortunately, we were all tied up alongside the pier before my watch would've ended, so I didn't get any overtime out of the deal. Once we secured from line handling, I just turned in and passed out.
DAY 19: Leaving Qingdao
On the plus side, the whole departure evolution started at about 0500 and I wasn't done with my part until almost 1000, so I made five hours worth of overtime pay off of the deal.
Later in the evening, because the Chief Mate had some projects he had to catch up on, the Third Mate and I ended up splitting his watch. So it ended up being another couple of hours of overtime for me up on the bridge.
Tomorrow we'll be back in Pusan and the circle will be complete.