Wednesday, February 17, 2010

2009 Sea Voyage part 4a: Back to Work

Prelude: Flying Out

I’m a fan of parts of my job. My favorite part is when I get off of a ship at the end of a job, get my last paycheck, and never have to think about where the ship is going or when it’ll get there ever again. It’s nice to know that I’ve done my job and the next time there’s some sort of emergency in the early hours of the morning it’s going to be the next guy’s problem.

Unfortunately, when I paid off of the ship in Singapore I was going to go back. That meant that every bit of free time to come was tainted by the notion that, at any moment, I was about to get a phone call or an email giving me short notice to fly back to Singapore and pick up right where I left off. Everything I decided to start on had to be tempered with the notion that I may just have to abandon it for a month or so while it was halfway done.

After almost a month of getting things not quite done, it was almost a relief to get the email telling me it was time to go back to work. Then I got a series of additional emails telling me that my return to work was being stepped up by another day so I could turn to a day before the rest of the crew to catch up on all of the stuff that hasn’t been done for the past month. I was overwhelmingly ready to just get out and get done with the job.

After a long weekend in Long Beach with Ana, my last day in Petaluma was amazingly anticlimactic. I had a lot of errands to take care of, but it was all minor stuff. I double checked that I had all of my gear in my seabag and triple checked to be sure that all of my documentation was in order.

Since I never really unpacked any of it, there was very little to actually do. Somewhere along the way I actually ended up just camped out at a coffee shop watching the crowd go by and the rain come down for a few hours.

I was scheduled to fly out of SFO at five minutes after midnight, so I ditched the car at my folks house, played with the dogs for a bit, visited with my grandparents next door, talked shop with my father, and then rode down to the airport with my mother. I actually got to the airport at 8pm with over four hours to go through security and then wait for my flight.

The flight itself was completely uneventful. I had a layover in Hong Kong and ended up camped out in another business class lounge for about two hours before it was time to go board the next flight. While I was headed toward the gate, the last thing I ever thought would happen in Hong Kong happened: someone called my name. It turns out that the Bosun* was also flying to the ship a day before the rest of the crew and he and I were going to be on the same flight from Hong Kong to Singapore. We spent a few minutes catching up on the latest rumors and happenings from the ship and then got on the plane.

When we landed in Singapore, I stepped off the plane and into the oppressively hot, humid local climate. Finding the ship’s Bosun again, we headed to the immigration line where the ship’s agent caught up with us and took care of getting our paperwork sorted out. Once we’d collected our bags and gone through customs, we managed to lose track of the agent. Not a problem except for the fact that the agent was supposed to arrange for our transportation from the airport to the ship.

After almost an hour of lugging our bags around in the sweltering heat, we finally managed to find the agent again. Almost an hour later, he dropped us off at the pier in the shipyard so we could make the seven story climb up to the deck. At first glance, the ship looked great:
Shiny Hull

The only part that didn’t make sense was the blue rudder:
Blue Rudder

Still, she looked pretty sharp at first impression.

Climbing up to the deck, that impression was quickly undone. There was junk everywhere, everything was greasy or dirty, there were swarming hordes of shipyard workers in the way all over the place, and the air conditioning had been shut down in most of the spaces on board. Nothing says "welcome back" like the canned stale body odor of hundreds of unwashed Bangladeshi shipyard laborers, the odd sulfuric smell of welding slag, and the acrid funk of paint fumes.

Once we’d had a chance to drop our gear and get cleaned up, the Bos’n and I went out in town. I had only packed work clothes and cold weather stuff, so I decided I needed to go shirt shopping so I could have something to wear ashore for the next couple of days. I was also determined to stay awake despite my exhaustion, forcing myself to acclimate to the local time zone.

It turned out to be a nice, low-key evening out. I bought one respectable shirt and one completely ridiculous shirt at the UNIQLO** store in one of the shopping malls. After that we ended up at Clark Key, an upscale nightlife area with all sorts of things to see and do. Here’s one view of it at night:
Downtown Singapore
And here’s another showing the giant umbrellas that cover the open-air walkways:
Clark Key

When we stopped for dinner I had a Singapore Sling. It just seemed like the thing to do. Then we went back to the ship and I slept like a stone.

*In case I’ve never explained it before, the term “Bosun” or “Bos’n” is a somewhat bastardized version of the full term “Boatswain.” It comes from the base words “boat” (meaning small craft) and “swain” (meaning servant or boy). The Boatswain is responsible for the care and maintenance of the ship’s small boats, cordage, rigging, and deck gear. In modern usage they’re something like a foreman among the deck seamen.

**UNIQLO, for lack of a better analogy, is like an Asian version of Old Navy. I first came across them in Japan (where I think they originated) and would love to see them expand in the States. For now I think they only have one store in New York.

DAY 61: Welcome Back to Work

Despite my well-reasoned local time zone sleeping scheme I woke up tired. It was all I could do to drag myself out of bed and into my boots. A few minutes later I was on the bridge and I met the new Captain. At first impressions he seems like a nice, relaxed guy. The kind of relaxed that suggests to me that he’s on some heavy-duty psych meds.

Over the course of the morning I found out that when we leave Singapore we’ll be going somewhere called “Chiwan,” a small port near Hong Kong. Digging around I found that we were waiting to receive up-to-date charts for the area. I also found that everything had been misplaced or disassembled and that the power had been shut off for most of the navigational electronics on the bridge.

While I was trying to find a methodical approach to fixing everything, there were constant distractions. In talking to the Captain today I learned that the last guy didn’t tell him about all of the little problems we’d been having with the electronics. Consequently, none of them have been resolved. It’s going to be a long trip.

Today also came with more hot, sticky weather. Still, I decided to take advantage of the rare chance to go ashore and wander around town again. The cab ride from the shipyard to civilization costs around $20 Singapore dollars (around $14USD), but it was well worth it just to get away from the sundry smells and sounds of the shipyard.

Instead, the bos’n and I decided to check out the sundry smells and sounds of a Chinese drugstore:
Chinese Drugstore

No, I don’t know what they use the dried, flattened lizards on the top left shelf. I do know that the long, thin things to the right of the lizards (as well as the large one in the box on the bottom shelf with the ribbons tied to it) are dried deer penises. I don’t know what they use those for either.

While we were out this time, we ended up stopping to watch an amazing street musician playing a unique stringed instrument I’d never seen before. You can check him out at Other than that we were mostly just people watching.

During the cab ride back, our conversation turned to survival at sea. I don’t remember what brought up the topic, but when I mentioned reading a study about the health effects of drinking seawater, the cab driver launched into a pretty fascinating story. It turns out that he also happens to work as a commercial diver.

From what I could gather through his thick accent and broken English, he was working one particular job with a whole bunch of other divers and ended up surfacing later than the rest. By the time he’d come up, the support boat had left and he was alone at sea. This man spent over 40 hours adrift with nothing but his wetsuit before a passing fishing boat spotted him and hauled him aboard.

Amazing sometimes, the people you meet.

DAY 62: It’s So Damned Hot Here

I really can’t wait to leave this place behind. The temperature is virtually the same day or night and the only time it’s not hot and humid is when it’s suddenly hot and raining. At least the rain made the decks look kinda clean:
Clean Decks

The big push today was to finish digging up all of the charts and pubs and restart all of the electronics so we can safely navigate to Chiwan. If it were part of the normal routine, it shouldn’t take me more than an hour or two. Coming out of the shipyards, countless folks have been in and out of almost every space on board. The pilothouse is no exception. Since I was last on board, they’ve installed some new shelves and made the chart table surface a bit bigger. So the bulk of my first two days on board was mostly spent digging around finding things.

When I was satisfied that I’d laid out enough tracks to get us a couple days away from Singapore and that I had everything I needed to get us all the way to the next port, it was time to go out again.

The Bos’n and I ended up catching up with the new Third Mate and the Ordinary Seaman to share a cab. Once we were in town (back in the Clark Key area) we stopped for dinner before going our separate ways.

After that, it was time for me to find my way to a coffee shop and plug into the internet for a while. Since it was already getting late, I was just resigned to stay up through the night since the ship would return to watch-standing routine. That meant that I would once again be on deck starting at midnight.

DAY 63: Underway SNAFU

Today we left the shipyard. After standing watch from midnight to 0400, the Chief Mate called me up at 0630 to start turning things on and testing all of the navigation gear and control systems. We were supposed to get underway at 0800, but there were so many things up in the air that everyone seemed content with the notion that we were probably going to be late. This was made even clearer when the Mate told me that I was not even to ask the engineering department to do their part of the gear tests until after 0800. Then I wasn’t supposed to call them, they’d call me. Cool.

One of the items on the gear test checklist was turning on all of the communications equipment. One of those pieces of equipment is called a Navtex receiver. It’s a small box mounted on the aft bulkhead in the pilothouse that receives navigation warnings and prints them out on a strip of paper. As soon as I turned it on, it beeped to life and spat out the following message:


A little after eight I still hadn’t heard from the engineers. I also couldn’t get the ship’s whistle (or “horn” for shore types) to work. When I looked into it, I found a breaker in one of the electrical panels marked “aft whistle” that was turned off. Moreover, there was a tag attached to it which read “DANGER, Do Not Operate.”

At this point the Chief Engineer was on the bridge, so I asked him if he knew why the tag was there and if I could remove it. I’m not sure what was going on with that guy, but he reacted like I was a complete idiot and told me that obviously it was probably tagged out because there was someone working near the whistle on the deck above and they didn’t want to go deaf when someone pushed the button.

“So,” asked I, “can I pull the tag off?”

“You can tell just as easy as I can whether or not it still needs to be tagged out. Why don’t you climb up there and look to see if there’s anyone near it?”

The problem is this: I don’t have any reason to know what else gets power from that particular circuit, nor do I know why it was originally tagged out. For all I know, someone is elbow deep in the wiring somewhere else in the ship and turning this breaker back on would fry them.

Still, taking his blustery you-must-be-retarded-for-asking response as permission, I went ahead and pulled the tag. Afterward, the whistle still didn’t work. I still don’t know what the real problem was, but I told the Chief Engineer and the Captain that it wasn’t working (along with the starboard side running light) and then it was time to head to the bow to untie the ship.

In the weeks I was gone, the ship had been moved from being moored bow-in to the drydock to being bow-out at the next pier. I’m not sure who they got to run the mooring lines, but when I got up to the bow with the deck seamen to let go, we found a complete mess. The mooring lines had been run every which way back and forth on deck and were crisscrossed in strange ways that no self-respecting seaman would ever tolerate. Still, we managed to untie the ship and get everything in order in no time.

As we pulled out of the slip, I finally got a moment to stop and enjoy the view:
Keppel Shipyard

Once we were clear of the pier, we headed out into the main channel and then hooked around Sentosa Island to sit at anchor while we were waiting for space at the container terminal. I’m not sure why, but the harbor pilot directed us to a spot in the crowded anchorage within uncomfortably close range of other anchored ships, a buoy, and a charted wreck. When the Captain asked, the pilot made all sorts of assurances that there was plenty of space between the ship’s stern and the wreck. Fortunately with no cargo on board our draft is so shallow that we would be able to drift right over the top of the wreck (if its charted depth was correct) without ever bumping into it.

At that point, I was finally left alone on the bridge for a few hours. My sole responsibility while on watch at anchor is to make sure the ship isn’t moving. Other than that, I was free to catch up on my paperwork and watch all of the other ships coming and going. Some of them were a bit unusual, like this one, delivering cranes:
Crane Delivery
Around sunset we heaved in the anchor (along with about a quarter ton of clay and mud from the bottom) and steamed over to Brani Container Terminal. At this point I was running on 2 hours of sleep in the past 48 hours, so when the ship was all fast, I was ready for some much-needed rest.

Tired as I was, I decided to take the elevator instead of trekking up the five decks worth of stairs. While I was waiting, the Ordinary Seaman walked up and told me there was a barge coming alongside that kept blasting its whistle at him and its crew was yelling at him. When I walked out on the starboard side, this is what it looked like:
LUb OIL barge
I’d heard we were expecting to take on lube oil (as well as marine diesel oil and heavy fuel oil) so I told him to grab a heaving line* and get one of the other guys to help tie up the barge alongside.

While I was standing there, one of the AB’s showed up to help. At that point the barge was alongside the ship and all we had to do was drop a line down to them in order to pull up their mooring lines. Rather than wait for the OS to come back with the heaving line, the AB just grabbed the first line he could find, a lightweight coil of polypropylene, and lowered one end down to the barge.

This set off a series of comical events that could only happen with the level of incompetence you find among mariners in Southeast Asia. Even though our AB had passed a messenger line down to them, they decided to back away from the ship and change their lineup. On the second approach they didn’t come close enough to the ship to drop the line to them.

Trying to help, our AB threw the coil of line to them. But without the weighted end of a proper heaving line, the wind blew it away from the barge. This is when the Chief Engineer decided to show up.

“You guys can’t even throw a fucking heaving line?” yells he.

“That,” says I, “is not a heaving line. We’re still waiting for someone to come back with one.”

“Why the fuck don’t you have one already?”

“We don’t just leave them all over the deck,” I reply, “and we’re down to only one up forward since the rest went missing in the shipyard.”

“You’d think someone would’ve thought to lock them up.”

“They were locked up Chief, right along with a lot of other things in the foc’sle head that went missing.”

“You’d think someone would’ve locked them up where there wouldn’t be anybody from the shipyard working…”

I wasn’t paying enough attention to hear the rest of his rant. The barge was trying to make its fourth approach at this point and the OS had come back with the heaving line. Somewhere around there the Chief Engineer went away. This time we had no problem at all tossing the heaving line down to them. Then they tied up their bow lines to it and we started pulling them up by hand.

Moments later (for no reason I can think of) they pulled their lines back, untied the heaving line, and backed away again. Then they twisted their barge around out in the middle of the basin and started to make another approach. This time they managed to get the barge right alongside and all we had to do was drop the heaving line down to them.

When we tossed the heaving line down, the weighted end punched a hole in the green awning, right next to the “LUb.” Then they backed away again and started yelling to us in whatever language they were using. The whole thing was about to stop being funny.

Moments later someone started pumping out ballast on the ship. This meant that there was a stream of water being pumped out under the waterline right about where the barge was supposed to be tied up. This is when the Chief Engineer decided to come out and give me another ration of abuse.

“What the fuck are you doing now?”

“Just waiting for them to figure out what they’re doing.”

When he looked over the side, he saw the bubbles foaming up from the ballast discharge and called the Chief Mate on the radio to have him stop pumping. Then he turned back to me.

“Can’t you see what the obvious fucking problem is here?”

“I assure you it wasn’t a problem when they made any of their past five approaches, but thanks for your help all the same.”

It’s too bad we can’t all be as intelligent and competent as the Chief Engineer. I take comfort in the fact that even after he helped it still took the “lub oil” barge three more tries before they were able to get into position and get lines up to us.

Having witnessed much of this aggravation (as well as the danger tag bullshit this morning) the new Third Mate told me, “you must have the patience of a saint to take that from him.”

“Not a problem,” says I, “if he wants to be an asshole, it doesn’t cost me anything. There’s no reason for me to be an asshole too.”

At that point I was more than tired. It was only 2100, but I was spent. I don’t even remember making it back to my room, but that’s where I woke up when the 3/M called me to relieve the watch at 2315.

*A heaving line is a length of lightweight rope with a weight at the end of it so it can be thrown from one place to the other and then used to pull over heavier lines.

DAY 64: Finished With Singapore

The morning watch was pretty uninteresting. The only part that was anything like unusual was that the Chief Mate had me stay on until 0500. Other than that I had to be careful not to trip over any of the longshoremen sleeping on the decks while I was doing my rounds. The nice part was that most of them brought hammocks to sleep in, so they were bundled up and out of the way:
Lasher in Hammock

After the watch at 0500, I was all to glad to get to sleep so I could be back on watch at noon. Then we finally left the pier at 1530 and I ended my day by 1730.

I’m glad to leave Singapore behind. I’m sick and tired of hot and sticky.

Next stop: China. Again.


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