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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…

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2009 Sea Voyage Part III: High Speed West Coast Visits

DAY 33: Arrival San Pedro

The ship pulled into the Port of Los Angeles at some ridiculous time in the morning, well before sunrise. Then I had a full day of work to do before Ana could drive over and pick me up. Here’s a picture of her down at the dock, looking to pick up a sailor:

We ended up rushing back to the apartment for a few minutes before we headed out to the movie theater and saw 2012, starring John Cusack. It was good fun in the way that only an end-of-the-world drama can be.

When it was over, we went to the bookstore so I could stock up and make sure I wasn’t going to run out of reading material for the next month on board. It’s amazing how small a couple hundred dollars worth of books can be.
When we’d finished shopping, we drove back to the apartment, Ana cooked me up a nice steak dinner (complete with asparagus* and a nice bottle of wine), and then got hardly any sleep at all.

*to guarantee funny-smelling pee.

DAY 34: Pierside in San Pedro

Today we had a Coast Guard inspection team on board to renew the ship's certificate of inspection. The whole thing went smoothly enough, but the funny part was that half of the inspection team knew my wife. I guess the Coast Guard really is a small world.

The minor hiccup for me came when one of the inspectors started going through my charts and publications and started asking for a particular publication I couldn't find. Everything else was perfect except for this particular book which he insisted everyone had and I was certain I’d never heard of. It all worked out well in the end when I finally realized what he was after despite the fact that he didn’t know what it was called.*

Today we also got a couple of cadets on board. These are students from the US Merchant Marine Academy at King’s Point who are spending a year out at sea learning about the industry first-hand. There’s one assigned to the deck department and another assigned to engineering (in accordance with the license they’re studying for) where they’ll do intern-level work.

Once we were finished with the COI, Ana came down to the ship and picked me up again. We headed over to a shop called Safe Navigation so I could pick up a few charts to update the outfit I have on board the ship. We made a few other stops that day, then we caught up with Kitty Maer (our wedding photographer) for dinner.
*The inspector was asking for “the list of distress signals,” when in reality the book is called “International Code of Signals.” It got worse. “I know there’s not much sense in having a book like that,” says he, “since you guys have to memorize most of that stuff to get your license.” For a solid thirty minutes I thought I was completely retarded. Then I figured out it was him, not me.

DAY 35: Departure San Pedro

After the past couple of days, it was a bit tough to drag myself back to the ship at some ridiculous hour in the morning so we could shove off and head to Oakland. I reported on board at ten minutes to three in the morning in preparation for a 0400 departure. By the time I walked into my room, my phone was already ringing. The Chief Mate was calling to tell me that I was late and that we were going to be leaving as soon as we could.

In the scramble that followed, we managed to get everyone up and on station, let go all lines, and we let go our last line by 0353. Not bad for a planned 0400 departure.

It also happened to be my sister Sheryl's Birthday, so while we were still within cellular range of the beach, I got a chance to drop her a text message to say happy day.

DAY 36: Slow, Foggy Arrival in Oakland

Today started, like all of my days on board, in the middle of the night. The night was nice and calm and the weather was clear and bright. Everything went pretty smoothly and it was a pretty decent ride.

Then everything went wrong. As we approached the San Francisco Entrance sea buoy, visibility dropped down quite a bit. Then the sailors trying to open the sideport so the pilot could come aboard called to tell us that the doors wouldn’t open. As a result we had to turn the ship around, put the wind and waves on the other side, and open the other sideport.

Once the pilot was on the bridge I went back up to the bow and watched the fog get thicker and thicker as we passed under the Golden Gate Bridge. A few minutes later we were approaching the Bay Bridge and visibility had dropped down to almost nothing.

Ever since the Cosco Busan collided with the Bay Bridge, it’s been the policy of San Francisco’s Vessel Traffic Service to put a stop to all ships moving in the Bay whenever visibility drops below a mile. As a result, we got to drop the anchor just under a mile west of Treasure Island.

I called my cousin Desmond, who lives on the island and he went out and snapped a picture of me a few hours later. Here I am on the bridge wing (wearing a bright orange knit cap):

We spent the next few hours waiting for visibility to improve. The fun part about the waiting was listening to all of the bitching and moaning from all of the idiots who made plans, appointments, or air travel plans as early as noon on the same day the ship was due to pull into port. I’m not sure what they could’ve been thinking.

Shortly after noon the fog cleared up a bit and I went up forward to heave in the anchor. The view was pure San Francisco:
Coit Tower in Fog

Fun nautical tidbit: to give you an indication of how much chain there is between the anchor and the windlass, the end of each shot* of chain is marked. In theory, the detachable link which connects one shot to the next is painted red and a number of links on either side of it is painted white corresponding to the number of shots* that are out. In theory it should look like so:
Chain Markings
To keep you from letting all of the chain spill out into the ocean, the second to last shot is painted yellow and the last shot is painted red.

In practice, it actually looks like so:
Heaving Anchor2
Those flecks of white paint are on the third shot, which was just coming up out of the water as we were heaving in.

Meanwhile, a couple of the guys use a fire hose to wash the mud and gunk off of the chain as it comes in:
Heaving Anchor
Once we were moored, I still had a couple hours left to put together the voyage plan to take us to Dutch Harbor.

As luck would have it, as I was leaving Southern California bound for the San Francisco Bay Area by sea, Ana was going the same way by air. She had a presentation to give in Petaluma for work and managed to stretch the trip out for an extra day so we could spend some time together. So once I was done with my day’s work, she was waiting to pick me up on the pier.


We ended up stopping at a bookstore in Marin County to kill a bit of time with a nice cup of coffee and a chance for me to take care of a few chores online. In that time, Ana stole my festive gingerbread cookie and denied me the only taste of Christmas I would have this year.

Here is what a nefarious gingerbread cookie thief looks like mid-thievery:
Ana Steals a Cookie

Later that evening, we caught up with the Herman Clan to celebrate Matt and Chris’ birthdays. A good time was had by all, but for some reason much of my dinner ended up migrating to someone else’s plate. Weird.

Here's a mildly embarassing shot of (from right to left) Matt, Chris, and Rose's shoulder:
Herman Twins

Once we’d left the party, we headed over to my folks’ house to collect my dogs and visit for a few minutes. Then it was time to go back down to the Heart of Gold and pass out for a while.

*A “shot” of chain is a length equal to fifteen fathoms, or ninety feet if you can't handle a more navular conversion.

DAY 37: A Saturday That I Noticed

As I was leaving the ship yesterday, the 3/M pointed out to me that it was a Friday. Since we were stateside, that meant that there were Port Relief Officers* who would be taking the cargo watch on deck and we could take the time off if we wanted to, just so long as we were there before the ship was due to depart. Since the sailing board was posted for a 1700 departure, this gave me all sorts of time to waste before trekking back to Oakland.

After sleeping in for quite a while, it was time to harness up the dogs. They looked all too eager to get up and go somewhere:
Marina Dogs

Then we headed over to the folks’ house to drop off the puptards. As we were getting ready to leave, Mom and Rose showed up, and we ended up dragging Rose along for breakfast.

After all of that, it was time to drive back down to Oakland and drop me off at the ship. I got there with plenty of time to run through all of my pre-departure checklists, only to find that our departure had been delayed by a couple of hours.
When we did finally shove off, it was in the midst of a spectacularly clear night with a great view:
Leaving Oakland_7865

This time I was actually able to see the bridge as we were leaving the Bay:
Golden Gate

Next stop: Dutch Harbor.

*Port Relief Officers, also called “night mates” are one of the other benefits of being in the union. These are licensed deck officers who take night and weekend watches on union ships in US ports. It gives the ship’s officers a chance to go out and relax a bit. It also gives guys who are waiting for work a chance to pick up a few hours’ work and a few dollars’ pay while they’re waiting for ships. I like this deal.

Day 38-41: Northbound

The transit from the Golden Gate to Dutch Harbor, Alaska was pretty uneventful. I’m still standing the 12-4 watches as usual, but now I have the deck cadet coming up to learn how to stand the watch in the afternoons. If nothing else, trying to remember all of the finer points of celestial navigation so I can teach them to him has been helping the time go by faster.

In addition to the deck cadet, I’ve also got a new helmsman. This is his first trip as an AB, so he doesn’t have a heck of a lot of experience. Still, he seems to have everything pretty well figured out. If nothing else, he’s not as foul-smelling, ignorant, or obnoxious as the last guy I had to stand watches with.

While off watch, I have been doing my best to catch up on my reading. I’ve also started tinkering with a few paper models to help pass the time and pave the way for my next costume project when I get back to the workshop. This one is the title character from a Star Wars based video game called Republic Commando. I may have made the helmet a bit too big, but it’s a good start:
Commando WIP

Other than that, I spent most of the trip North catching up on some of my chart and publication corrections and trying to get a bit more sleep than I’d been getting along the California coast. I figured I’d need the rest. Among other things, we received word the night after leaving Oakland that winds at the Coast Guard station down the road from our pier in Dutch Harbor had gotten up to 180 knots. Then the next day, the captain got an email with this picture of the crane at our terminal:
APL Container Crane

So we weren’t going to be able to use our own terminal. Instead, the plan was to go to another container pier around the corner and offload there. Fun.

The only other thing worth mentioning was me getting used to the new Chief Mate. It’s always interesting when there’s a new boss and this one has been no exception. I didn’t really get a chance to interact with him until the first time I was turning over the watch on the bridge.

When he walked in I said “hi,” just like anyone might.

“Don’t talk to me.” He replied.

Oh dear.

After taking his time looking over everything on the bridge to make sure it was all just so, he came over to explain what I need to do in order to be ready for him to take over the watch. He went on to explain that he was probably going to be telling me a lot of things that I already know over the next few weeks.

“I don’t know you,” says he, “and I’d like it to stay that way.”

Wow. It’s going to be a long month.

Day 42: Return to Dutch Harbor

We arrived in Dutch Harbor dark and early and we were all fast alongside the pier by about six in the morning. The last time the ship pulled into Alaska I was under-dressed and ended up freezing cold and soaking wet. This time I overcompensated and ended up sweating while I was out in the weather. I’m sure I’ll get it right sooner or later.

Since I had half a notion that I should go out and see what the town had to offer, I decided not to take a nap. Instead I went ahead and ambled back into my room to kill a couple of hours before heading out. On the way I told the deck cadet to stop by and get me when he goes ashore. Then I went back to my room and started reading and tinkering with a few projects.

I lost track of time and when the cadet finally showed up it was just after 1030 in the morning. I was going to have to take the watch on deck in just over an hour, so I didn’t really have time to head out. Oh well. I’m sure there will be a next time sooner or later.

While I didn’t get a chance to go out into town, I did manage to snap a picture of one of the funny-looking local seagulls:
Dutch Harbor Seagull

At the end of the day we ended up leaving the pier just after dark. It was raining and chilly, but I overdressed again and I ended up nearly overheating while standing out in the weather.
Alaska Raining

Maybe I won’t get it right sooner or later…

Day 43-48: Another Roundabout Trip to Japan

From what I understand, between the high latitudes and the foul weather, the Bering Sea only gets visible sunshine fifty days per year. Even though it was December, we had sunshine almost every day as we were making our way across the top of the Aleutian Island chain to the Kamchatka Peninsula. Then we headed South and the weather continued to be unseasonably pleasant. I really can’t explain any of that, but here’s some nice pictures:
Enroute Yokohama
Bering Sea Sunshine

Of course, “unseasonably pleasant” still allows for snow, driving winds, and so on. The waves stayed small for the duration of our passage though, so it was at least easy to get some rest when the time was available.

While all of this is going on, I’ve been trying my damnedest to figure out a nice way to deal with the new Chief Mate. This is his first trip as a Chief Mate and he seems pretty thoroughly overwhelmed by all of the things he’s responsible for on board. Whenever I ask what’s wrong or offer to help, his worries manifest themselves in odd ways.

When he takes the watch on the bridge, he seems to be in “gotcha” mode all the time. It’s as though I’m going through an inspection twice a day every day. That would be fine, but the things he chooses to harp on me about are some of the most pointless, trivial details imaginable.

I think it would almost be funny watching him scramble and freak out about things. Then I think there’s always the chance we’ll have an actual emergency to deal with sooner or later. Then it stops being funny.

It’s still gonna be a long trip.

Somewhere along the way, the Chief Steward assembled the ship’s Christmas tree:
Shipboard XMAS Tree

Otherwise, the transit from Dutch Harbor to Yokohama was pretty uneventful.
Midwatch Self Portrait
Stay tuned for another whirlwind tour of East Asia...

Sunday, December 27, 2009

2009 Sea Voyage Part 2: Korea to California via Japan

DAY 20: Back in Pusan

The circle is now complete. This actually ended up being a pretty decent day all the way around.

We pulled in around 1000 in the morning. The wind was blowing gently, the sky was clear, and the sea was calm. I stood a fairly uneventful watch on deck, splitting my time between observing cargo operations and smoothing out the voyage plan for the next leg on our route.

While all that was going on, I snapped this winning self-portrait in the Cargo Control Room:
Cargo Control Room
I also spent some time watching this crane barge lift and drop this giant wedge into the water:
Odd Barge
I still don't know what that was about.

Then in the afternoon I went ashore to the Seaman’s Club to use the internet for a few minutes and post here in the blog.

I was in bed by about 2100, this gave me almost three hours of sleep before I had to be back on watch.

DAY 21: Kanmon Kaikyo Again

Today I took the watch just as we were waiting for the pilot to take us through the Kanmon Kaikyo again. The entire thing is a six-hour transit, so I spent my whole watch in a narrow passage with lots of traffic and the captain stressed out to no end. I’d really like this to stop happening on my watch.

Either way, it’s still a neat looking place:
Kanmon Ko
Despite all of the stress, the passage did go relatively smoothly, and when my watch was over at 1600 I was definitely due for some well-earned rest.

DAY 22: Back in Yokohama

This was a five-hour port call. We arrived at the pier at 1900, I rushed through setting up the charts for the next leg of our voyage (from Yokohama to San Pedro, CA) and then went out with Rich, BaBarbara, and one of Rich’s old shipmates for dinner and whatnot in downtown Yokohama.

When we ditched the car in Yokohama, we wandered our way into Chinatown. It looked like so:
Yokohama Chinatown
Then we found ourselves one of those Brazilian steak restaurants where the waitstaff makes regular rounds of the tables, slicing off bits of meat from huge hunks of flesh they carry around on skewers. There was also a salad bar with “mysterious vagetables:”
mysterious vagetable
We sat around gorging ourselves on every manner of meat that was offered to us and told old stories for a couple of hours. It was a good time and we even snapped a few pictures:
Dinner Out
Then it was time to rush me back to the ship so I could make a few more last-minute preparations before it was time to get underway.

DAY 23: The Long Road to Long Beach

After all of the constant strain of the past couple of weeks, I’ve been looking forward to a long, monotonous ocean crossing. After a few moments of poking around in the computer, I put together the fastest route to Southern California. It will look about like so:
Great Circle Route
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Why are you curving almost all the way up to the Bering Sea on the way from Japan to Southern California? Isn’t the shortest distance between two points supposed to be a straight line?” Well it is, yes, but you also have to remember that the Earth is not flat. So, since we can’t just sail down a tunnel from Yokohama to San Pedro, the shortest distance available to us is no longer a straight line. Instead, the shortest distance is actually a path along a circle that splits the Earth into two even halves.

When you draw that circle on a globe and then stretch the surface of the globe out flat*, you end up with what looks like a curved line from one place to another. This is partly why the map in the back of the in-flight magazine on airliners has those flight paths that seem to loop all over the place.** This type of route is called a Great Circle.

There are, of course, other ways to sail across the ocean. The simplest one to draw out and calculate distances for is called a “Parallel Sailing.” This basically involves picking a line of Latitude and sailing East or West along it. This is how Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. While it makes the math easy, the problem with this route is that it will take you a little bit out of your way, costing time and (more expensively) fuel.

There is also a “Plane Sailing,” which assumes that the Earth is flat and works fairly well over short distances. But as long as you’re making the flat Earth assumption, you may as well not bother with any of that crap and stick to what’s called a “Rhumb Line.” This is the route that appears as a straight line on a Mercator projection. It gives accurate enough measurements of distance travelled over short runs and has the advantage of a constant direction of travel according to the ship’s compass.

Thus endeth the lesson.

*There’s more than one way to skin a cat and there is more than one way to flatten a globe. To find out more about how they do the one you’re used to seeing, google “Mercator projection.” It’s fascinating stuff if you’re the kind of person who’s ever had a cartography fetish or a soft spot for Amerigo Vespucci.

**That, and some hard-drinking pilots in the pioneering days of aviation.

DAYS 24-31: Tedium

The week spent bound from Yokohama to San Pedro was pretty uneventful. The only thing that was even remotely interesting was the occasional minor change in our voyage plan to keep clear of rough weather that showed up on the satellite picture. Other than that, I had a lot of watches on the bridge where the hardest thing to do was stay awake. Somewhere in there we crossed the International Date Line again.

The only other thing that was entertaining was the birds that hitched a ride with us when we left Japan. At first there were many of them, but by the time we were nearing California, there was only one left:
Hitchhiking Seahawk
In fact, in that picture she can be seen eating one of the lesser birds.

DAY 32: Last Slow Day for a Bit

Today was the last day of open ocean transit time before we start the constant scramble that will be our time on the west coast. All I ended up doing was going over the last few little admin details and trying to catch up on sleep. I needed the sleep:
Crazy Shawn

Stay tuned for the story of a few busy days in and around California...

Friday, December 18, 2009

Overdue for an Update

Howdy all,

I apologize for not updating the blog while I was on the West Coast. I'll just say I was overtaken by events and leave it at that. I'm in Korea now and having a hard time formatting my latest entry using a computer that only speaks Korean. Since I can't read the little snowman drawings they call an alphabet here, you'll just have to go on waiting.

In the meantime, you can check out my flickr account to at least get a glance at all of the pictures I've been uploading. It can be found by clicking HERE. Some of the pics are interesting, some are pretty, and some of them are downright odd:

Teenage Mutant Jedi Turtles
Thank you for reading. I'll be catching it all up in a couple of weeks.


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Back at Sea 2009

Day 1: Turnover

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:
TP Cupholder

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:
GG Bridge in Fog

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:
Foggy watch

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:
Volume 11

It goes to eleven!

DAY 5:

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:
Tug Approaching

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:
APL Dutch Harbor 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:

Tugs in Dutch Harbor

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:
Dutch Harbor Scenery 001

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.

*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 wouldŽ≠≠e 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

Apart from the reading and fitness plans, I don't have anything significant lined up. The good thing is that, unlike the last job, this gig will pay enough that I shouldn't have to spend a ridiculous number of hours out on deck each week trying to pick up overtime.

Otherwise, there's not much to report. So here's a picture of the Bering Sea:
Bering Sea

DAY 10: Whales Again

Sometime this afternoon I almost ran over a whale.
There we were, cruising along the Northeast edge of Hokkaido, minding our own business, when all of a sudden this whale surfaced and blew its spout close aboard on the starboard bow. With nothing to go by except for one spout, I had no way to know whether it was going towards us or away from us, so I had the helmsman switch off the autopilot. Not wanting to frighten anyone, I started with five degrees of rudder and was amazed at how quickly the ship answered. Everyone told me these ships handle surprisingly well, but I could never have expected this kind of responsiveness.

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:
Glowing Tug Wake

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:
Servance 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:
Yokohama Container Terminal

Not much of anything else interesting happened that day, so here's a picture of the anchor chain:
Anchor Chain
DAY 13: Kanmon Kaikyo Passage, then Waiting for Pusan

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 shot of the Kanmon pilot coming up the boarding ladder:
Kanmon Pilot Boarding

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):
Kanmon Kaikyo

And finally, here's the view from the portside bridge wing as we were leaving the pass on the Northwest end:
Kanmon Ko Sunset

It was a nice day.

DAY 14: Pusan

The plan was to pick up the pilot for Pusan harbor at some point so early in the morning that it would actually be the night before. In fact, the whole reason for cranking the ship up to ridiculous speed, churning our way to the Inland Sea, and making the potentially dangerous transit through Kanmon Kaikyo and then zooming across the Korea Strait was just so we could make it in time to pick up the pilot at about 2300 yesterday. That was the plan.

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.

The sky was a little menacing as we made our approach:
Pusan Approach
Pusan Approach 2

But in the end we arrived alive and well:
Shawn in Pusan

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.

On the way out of the port terminal, I passed through customs and spotted this sign:
Busan Customs

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:
WTF Customs

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:
Yellow Sea 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

Cold day today.

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:
I'd like to say I got a chance to wander around out in town and experience a little bit of mainland China, that I met some of the local folks and tasted some of the local cuisine and saw some of the local sights. It didn't happen.

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:
Inside the Hold
Inside the Hold2

With most of the containers removed from the deck, the ship actually manages to look a lot bigger:
Almost Empty
Then I laid down for a few minutes before it was time to take the watch on deck again at midnight.

DAY 17: Leaving Tianjin, Enroute Quingdao

Today started with me on deck, staring into the wind. The local temperature was just a few degrees below freezing. There were about two hours of that before we were clear of the channel and I could secure the anchors and go back inside.

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:
Shiny Button

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:
Busy Radar

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

The departure from Qingdao was every bit as interesting as the arrival. There were countless delays and random little problems and I'm glad to at least be able to say that China will be behind me for the next month.

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.

Yay, money.

Tomorrow we'll be back in Pusan and the circle will be complete.

Stay tuned..