Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 Sea Voyage Part IV: East Asia (Again)

Day 49: Back in Yokohama

So once again Rich met me down at the pier so we could hang out for a bit. We started by stopping at the Seaman's Center where I exchanged some dollars for yen and then picked up the cadets to give them a ride into town. Here's the lot of us just before we left:
Shawn, Rich, and cadets
We ended up downtown in Yokohama where we had a quick sushi dinner and then wandered around town telling sea stories and whatnot over a couple of large cups of coffee.
Along the way, we stumbled across an amazingly overdone singing Christmas tree at the Queen’s Square Shopping Center:

Then it was time to amble back to the pier in time for me to take the watch on deck again.

SIDE NOTE: For those of you wondering about the fate of the ten pound bag of pennies, you can rest assured knowing that they’re safely stowed under the passenger seat of Rich’s car in Japan. I can post it here because he doesn’t read my blog and it’ll still be weeks or possibly months before the bag is discovered. My only hope is that he finds them before he sells the car.

Days 50: Transit to Busan

Rather than take the Inland Sea to the Kanmon Kaikyo Passage, this time we made the full transit all the way around Kyushu (one of the Japanese home islands) to the South and then made our way up the East side of Japan to South Korea. All the while, the temperature was dropping steadily.

On the plus side, there haven’t been quite as many other ships and small boats as I was worried we’d see in this part of the world. In fact, the only thing that could be called interesting was a bunch of advection fog as we rounded Kyushu.

Advection fog is caused when moist air moves over a cool body of water, dropping its temperature below its dew point and making the water appear to steam. So that’s nice.

DAY 51: Arrival Busan

Today was a nice, calm, quiet day. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and it was bitterly, butt-numbingly cold. Then I had to go out and stand in it.

Aside from the cold, the tie-up went smoothly. Of course, by the time we were all fast it was too late to do anything but get inside, get warm, and get to bed. Just before I turned in, the Chief Mate told me that we were going to have a couple of contractors come aboard for the next two legs of the voyage. Since he was going to be busy, he asked me to go ahead and take them around on a familiarization tour and brief them on shipboard safety. Fun.

DAY 52: Shivering, Sunshine, Supper, and Salvation. All in One Day

After waiting all morning for the contractors to show up, it was time to take the watch on deck. When I got to the cargo office, the Chief Mate told me that I wasn’t going to be showing them around after all and that I’d been sitting waiting for the phone to ring for no reason. Bummer.

The cargo watch went smoothly enough. The only thing that could be called a challenge was the fact that the cranes refused to load the ship evenly and since they were all stacking containers up on the same side of the ship, I had to spend a lot of time screwing around with the ballast in order to keep the ship sitting level.
The ship was scheduled to depart at 1900, so after I got off watch at 1600 I ran out to the local Seamen’s Club to check my email and whatnot. I ended up not quite finishing half of the things I set out to do online because I was in a rush to get back to the ship by 1800 to run through my gear tests on the bridge in preparation for departure.

When I did get back to the ship it turned out that our departure had been delayed by two hours. With not quite enough time to do anything at all, I went to my stateroom to watch a movie. An hour later our departure was delayed again.

Since I was up and about anyway, I decided this should be one of the rare days where I actually showed up for dinner. When I got down to B-deck, where the mess is, I opened the door and was assaulted by a cacophonous blast of something barely resembling Christmas music. Peeking around the corner into the crew mess, I found half of the unlicensed folks and both of the cadets seated with a handful of Korean folks standing on the other side of the room wearing Santa hats and playing guitars and tambourines.

It turns out they were an Evangelical Christian charity group that was going from ship to ship along the waterfront handing out good cheer, warm socks, and a chance to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. I managed to avoid it (narrowly) by sneaking past the door and having dinner in the officers’ mess. I could still hear it though, so I still got to chuckle when they offered up a prayer and ended up speaking in tongues. Or maybe they were just speaking in Korean. Who knows.

While they were unable to win any of us over to their faith, what they did do for the crew was leave behind some gift bags under our Christmas tree. They contained warm socks, plenty of brochures with instructions for life ever after, and one box each of what can only be described as Korean Moon Pies. It such a nice gesture that I almost felt bad for laughing at their goofy superstitions.

When the God nuts had left, it was time for me to head up to the bridge and run through all of the gear tests, then move up to the bow so we could cast off and head out. It was miserably cold, but this time I was wearing my super cool Korean ninja facemask.*
*Bought for a mere $3.00US from a nice lady who comes aboard in Korea to peddle her wares outside the mess.

DAY 53: Cruising to Tsingtao Through the “Line of Death”

That’s what the Captain called it anyway. What it really was was a chokepoint where traffic along the Chinese coast is all funnelled into a couple of narrow lanes that we had to cross as we headed West.

DAY 54: What Happens in China…

When I took the watch at midnight, I was surprised to find the Chief Mate still up and active there. He then told me that he was going to need me to stand the first two hours of his watch (from 0400 to 0600) so that he could catch up on some much-needed rest. Then he went on to spend the next hour telling me all about how to stand my watch. Oh dear.

When I finally got off of watch at 0600, I headed up to the pilothouse to put the finishing touches on the voyage plan from Qingdao to Taiwan. It took a couple of hours to get everything lined up, and then I went down to the main deck where a handful of vendors were on board trying to sell us chintzy Chinese junk.

I’m occasionally amazed at some of the things that these folks decide we need while we’re at sea. There were knives and flashlights, Viagra and bootleg DVDs, and oodles and gobs of random other crap. While I was thumbing through the movie selection, one of the vendors asked in a conspiriatorial whisper if I wanted to buy “sexy movie.” Then thrust a handful of unpackaged discs into my hand. At a glance the artwork printed on the discs all had a common theme: modestly dressed young women seated next to medium or large dogs. Fortunately, my curiosity did not get the better of me.

While I was looking through some electronics of questionable quality, I bumped into the Captain. He told me that he’d changed his mind and we were going to go through the Taiwan Straits. So it was time to go back up to the pilothouse, undo a whole bunch of my tracklines, and start over. Oh well.

At noon I was headed down to A-Deck to meet the Third Mate and take over the watch. On the way down, I smelled smoke. Opening the door, I saw the deck cadet and asked him if he smelled something burning.

“Yeah,” says he, “but we took care of it.”

Right behind him came the Chief Mate in a flurry of worry. It turns out that one of the tallymen* had thrown a still-lit cigarette butt into one of the wastebaskets and it had started to smolder. The Mate smelled the smoke, ran in, grabbed the wastebasket, and then proceeded to run all over the place looking for a way to douse the fire. I kinda wish I’d seen it.

Aside from that, the day went well. It went so well in fact that we ended up leaving port roughly two hours early.

The best part about this visit to China was that while I was making my rounds, not once did I catch one of the longshoremen taking a shit on the deck. I’m not saying it didn’t happen. I’m just saying it didn’t happen on my watch.

On the way out I snapped this picture of the flame thing leftover from the last Olympics:
Qingdao Olympic Flame

Next stop: Singapore via the Taiwan Strait. I’m really glad to have China behind me for a while.
*Tallymen are the longshoremen who sit in the conference room on board the ship and supposedly keep track of how many boxes have come and gone during the loading and discharging of cargo. I really don’t know how they do that.

DAY 55: The Taiwan Strait

There were tons of little boats in the way, the visibility was crap, and none of the ships I needed to call on the radio to make passing arrangements (to avoid collisions) refused to answer my hails.

In short, it was not quite as bad as I’d expected.

DAY 56: Unremarkable

That's all I have to say about that.

DAY 57: Lesbian Vampire Killers

Today I was rifling through the ship’s movie library when I stumbled across the most intriguing film title I’ve heard in years; “Lesbian Vampire Killers.” I was drawn to it like nothing else. A title like this only comes with more questions. Is this the story of murderous lesbian vampires? Or could it be about lesbians who kill vampires? Or could it possibly be a tale of a rare sort of highly specialized vampire hunter who only kills lesbian vampires? I simply had to know.

These questions were to go unanswered though. When I tried to play the disc in my DVD player it ended up having incompatible regional coding. Blast! Now I’ll have to buy a copy of it online, just to know exactly who’s getting killed and who the lesbians are?

In other news, it’s Christmas Eve today.

DAY 58: Christmas

It’s really warm here.
Warm and sticky.
I don’t like it.

We’ll be in Singapore by tomorrow afternoon.

It’ll be really warm there too.

DAY 59: Arrival in Singapore

Singapore is one of the busiest ports in the entire world. The city-state itself is comprised of one main island with a huge number of smaller islands and land reclamation projects. With the current economic slowdown, more and more ships are sitting at anchor there while waiting for something to do. This adds up to a tremendous amount of ship traffic and navigational hazards.

By the time I finished my watch at 0400, things were just starting to get interesting. Fortunately there were no fishing boats to slalom through, but there were all sorts of big ships coming and going at the eastern extent of the Singapore Strait. Everything was going smoothly, but it was starting to get busy when I turned the watch over to the Chief Mate.

I spent the next few hours doing laundry, digging out my bags, and packing up in preparation for flying home.* Then I got the call that I was needed back on the bridge.

When I got up there, pandemonium was in full swing. The shipping traffic had picked up quite a bit, making a “big picture” appraisal of the situation impossible. There was a ship just a few hundred yards off the starboard beam, another even closer on the port bow, a tug towing a barge crossing the channel, and a chorus of local idiots arguing, singing, screaming, or just making farting noises on their ship’s VHF radios.


Over the next couple of hours, the Captain had the conn** and I was left to stand by at the radar to keep track of the other ships as best I could. Then it was time for the Chief Mate to watch the traffic while I went down to the sideport and greeted the harbor pilot as he came aboard. Once he was safely aboard, the deck cadet escorted the pilot up to the bridge while I went forward to make preparations to tie up at the pier.

It was a quick trip from the pilot boarding area to the container terminal, followed by a slow and painful mooring evolution. I'm not sure where they got the linehandlers that were down on the pier, but this must have been their first time tying up a ship.

Once that was over and done with, it was time to take the watch on deck and then go pass out.
*With the ship sitting on blocks in the shipyard, there will be no use for a navigator. Consequently, I’m going to spend a few weeks camped out in California while the ship gets overhauled.

** “Conn” is the term that describes the functional control of the ship’s engine and rudder. The announcement “I have the conn” eliminates any confusion the helmsman might have in the event that ship’s officers might give contrary orders in an emergency.

DAY 60: The Berth Shift to End All Berth Shifts

Today started with my usual 0000-0400 watch. The cranes finished offloading the last of the cargo around 0300, so it was a pretty easy watch.

Once the Chief Mate took the watch I headed up to the pilothouse to run through all of the checklist to make sure everything was running properly so we could leave the container terminal and scoot down the main shipping channel to the drydock.

We were underway at 0500. That's when I caught this rare photo of the deck with absolutely no cargo on board:
Empty Containership
About ninety minutes later it was time to drop the anchor. The problem with dropping the anchor is that none of the chain markings are readable anymore. While we needed five shots of chain at the water's edge, we ended up with ten. With the cloud of dust and chunks of rust that came up out of the spillpipe when we let it fall, I don't feel too bad about not being able to see the barely-painted marks as they flew by. Here's a shot of the mess that ended up on deck to give you an idea of the crap that was coming out. Bear in mind, this was only the stuff that was too heavy to blow away in the wind and the decks were nice and clean before we started:
Anchor mess

We payed out so much chain that I was a bit lucky I stopped it before we ran out of chain in the locker...

The only real problem borne out of putting out too much chain is the fact that it takes a long damned time to heave it all back in. That, and you look like an asshole when you tell the Captain there's not enough chain still out to reach the bottom anymore and he starts trying to maneuver the ship while the anchor's still holding strong. Oops.

Once we'd actually hauled in the chain, it was time to cruise over to the shipyard. Here's what it looked like as we made our approach:

Singapore Shipyard 2
The process of tying the ship up once we were inside the drydock was ridiculous. It started simply enough with us passing a couple of bow lines to a pair of sliding bitts on the sides of the dock. Once we'd tied them off it was up to the shipyard to pull the ship in. Once the stern lines were out, the shipyard used one of their cranes to lower a guy in a basket down onto the deck to explain where they wanted the rest of the lines to go. He started aft and spent over an hour with the guys on the stern before he came forward to tell me where he wanted us to pass more mooring lines.
Once again everything about dealing with linehandlers here made me think it was their first time tying up a ship. Wierd.

At the end of the whole evolution I was glad to finally get back to my air-conditioned room, take a cool shower, and pass the hell out. It was a long day:
Crazy Day
Stay tuned for the tale of an arduous voyage by land and air…

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