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I make toys for kids who don't want to grow up. I'm on the lookout for new projects. If you're interested in commissioning me to build something ridiculous, shoot me an email.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Interesting Things From the Internets

I've been away from the internets for a while, so it's taken a few minutes to catch up on all of the coolness I've missed. Here's a few notables in no particular order...

First up, in case you've didn't know, there's a remake of Nightmare on Elm Street about to hit theaters. Here's a shot of the teaser poster:

In a reboot-happy hollywood, it's not a huge surprise that this is being made. The huge surprise is that somehow they've managed to make Freddy Kruger uglier than ever and actually frightening. I grew up with Robert Englund as Freddy, but this time around they've cast Jackie Earle Haley for the reboot. If you saw his performance as Rorschach in "the Watchmen," or the pedophile in "Little Children" you know he can do creepy better than anyone else.

Click here to watch the trailer on Myspace

There's also an upcoming sequel to TRON.

While I've been poking around looking for project ideas, I stumbled across Flickr user DROP HPC-ANC who does some really impressive street art. My favorite is his LEGO Grim Reaper:

Whenever I move ashore again, I want this guy to paint my house.

Elsewhere online, I've found yet another reason to finish my tank project:


On the subject of random videos, I've also stumbled across this really great music video by OK Go, starring an impressive Rube Goldberg machine:

Suddenly I'd really like to set one of these things up.

Finally, I stumbled across some really amazing iPhone cases made out of billet aluminum or brass. The aluminum ones come in a variety of anodized finishes, but the brass ones really impressed me quite a bit more. The best of the best was brass with a wooden insert and an elaborate engraved design. I ordered one for Ana and she's been getting nothing but compliments on it wherever she goes:Engraved Brass iPhone Case

If you want one for yourself, go to www.exovault.com.

There's plenty of other amazing stuff I've stumbled across. These are the ones I most felt like sharing.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

On Your Bookshelf, Evil Cthulhu Waits Thinking

While I was home back in December/January, I decided I needed to make some little bookend statues. I finished the sculpt and the molds, but it wasn't until I got back to the workshop the other day that I finally managed to make castings.
I call him "the Cthinker." The French would call him "Le M├ęchant Penseur."

cthinker 4 cthinker 3
For those of you who've never heard of him, Cthulhu is one of the "Great Old Ones," fictional cosmic entities created by science fiction and horror author H. P. Lovecraft in 1926. The first appearance of Cthulhu was in the short story "The Call of Cthulhu" published in 1928. He is often cited for the extreme descriptions given of his hideous appearance, gargantuan size, and the abject terror that he evokes. Cthulhu is often referred to in science fiction and fantasy circles as a tongue-in-cheek shorthand for extreme evil.
This rendering stands approximately 8" tall. I'm casting them in urethane resin with a cold cast bronze finish, but I'm thinking I'd be just as well off painting it bronze with a bit of faux patina.

cthinker 2 cthinker

These pictures are of the first casting out of the mold. The rest of the castings will have a more even coloring.

"Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!"

I've got these statues listed in my Etsy shop. Order one and he'll sit on your shelf, thinking evil thoughts. Order two and use them as bookends for your Necronomicon.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

First Free Weekend After Getting Off the Ship

After another month at sea, I've been overdue for some down time. So what did I do the morning after I got off the ship? I got underway aboard the Sea Scout Ship Compass Rose:

The trip was just a quick overnight jaunt to Sausolito and back, so there really was nothing to it. I'm not exactly sure what the plan was supposed to be upon arrival. Mostly I think it was just an excuse to get underway with all of the new crewmembers on board. The roster has shrunk in recent years, so it was nice to have a grand total of five scouts aboard instead of the usual two or three we've had for the past few months.

Since I've been out of the picture for the past few months, this was my first opportunity to meet most of the new kids. So I grabbed a handful of gear and left my boat all buttoned up:
HofG Covered

Then we cast off and headed out. Matt Herman was on hand to help with mooring lines and wave goodbye:
Matt Herman waves goodbye

While he didn't make the trip with us, his wife Jen did:
Jen Herman Galley

Jen kindly volunteered to manage the galley for the trip. This gave us the dual benefit of hot cooked meals and plenty of opportunities to practice fire drills:
Galley Slave Jen

Heading down river was met with the usual allotment of intriguing scenery:
Petaluma River

Meanwhile, the skipper was at his usual station in the pilothouse:
Compass Rose Skipper
He claims that playing solitaire keeps the scout at the chart table from cheating by getting the position off of the electronic chart display. I'm sure.

The new guys seemed to enjoy themselves:
Scout Pilothouse

So did the not-so-new guys:
Scout Galley

There was one more crewmember aboard, but for some reason I didn't end up with any pictures of her:
Breakfast with the Sea Scouts

As we passed through Raccoon Strait, it looked like it would've been a gorgeous day to be under sail:
Sailing San Francisco
Oh well.

Sausolito itself was pretty inviting upon arrival:
Once we were all fast at Schoonmaker Point Marina, the scouts headed ashore to wander around downtown. The rest of us headed ashore to pick up a few things at the local West Marine and find a coffee shop.

The rest of the evening was pretty low key and I got to bed earlier than ever.

The following morning everyone headed out again to wander around downtown. There was some notion of visiting the Bay Model, but nobody thought to check in advance and it turned out they were closed Sundays. Oops. Instead, we ambled around downtown checking out the wide variety of shops and restaurants and taking advantage of the chance to be out and about despite the wet weather.

In the end the trip was a success, the ship returned to Petaluma safe and sound and a good time was had by all.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

2009 Sea Voyage Part 4E: The End

DAY 86: Arrival in Long Beach

Today's weather was a nice break after the past few days. Here's a winning snapshot taken off the starboard bridge wing as we passed through the Channel Islands:

Channel Islands

Unfortunately, it doesn't matter how nice the weather is once you get within range of the rusty brown miasma that makes up the local Los Angeles atmosphere:
LA Miasma

As we made our approach I headed up to the bow where I joined the Ordinary Seaman already standing by as lookout:Dave the Ordinary Seaman

We crossed through the breakwater and entered LA Harbor right around sunset:
San Pedro Lighthouse
Once we were moored, everything suddenly got crazy. I got pulled every which way and had all sorts of things distracting me along the way. I was hoping to be off of the ship sometime around 1800, but with all of the extra noise it ended up being closer to 2030. Damn.

Still, Ana was waiting for me by the gates to the container terminal. After a somewhat brief bout of complaining about my being late, we headed back to the apartment and I won't be discussing the rest of the day's proceedings.

Day 87: Easy Day sitting in Port

Today I was supposed to start my day by taking new crew members around and showing them the safety and lifesaving systems on the ship. It all sounded so simple.

I was supposed to have the new crew meet me in the cargo office at 0800. By 0840, I'd seen three of the nine folks I was expecting and figured nobody else was coming. The 3rd Mate was the same guy that was here when I'd started this job, so we were getting caught up on all of the things that had changed since he'd left. That's when the 1st Assistant Engineer popped up on the UHF radio:

"Anybody on the air," says he, "I've got a medical emergency in the main control room. We need the AED down here right away."

The AED is the Automated Electronic Defibrillator. It's the thing you plug into someone in order to zap their heart back into working properly. On this ship it lives up in the officer's mess.

I ran from the cargo office up to the mess to grab it. What I didn't realize was that they were shampooing the carpet in the mess. This wasn't a problem on the way in, but when I ran out into the tiled passageway I lost my footing and slid through three other guys as I tried to turn the corner.

"What the fuck!" one of them yelled, "why don't you watch where you're going?"

"Sorry," says I, "I don't have time to deal with you guys."

From there I scrambled down the four decks worth of stairs toward the main control room. On the way, folks started pointing me to the upper level of the main engine room. When I got there I found a small crowd standing around a man lying prone on the deck gratings.

What I found was a 65-year old male who was being treated for shock. The 1st Assistant was there and said that the man in question had been feeling dizzy and lightheaded and had to steady himself on the railing. Then he started to lose consciousness, folded up, and collapsed.

By the time I got there he was awake and aware. He had a strong pulse and steady respiration, so it was unlikely that I was dealing with a cardiac event of some kind. The paramedics were on the way, but I still had plenty of time to sort out as much as I could. I was able to learn that the patient takes medication for high blood pressure, hadn't had anything to eat all day, and regularly suffers from low blood sugar.

When the paramedics did show up (along with a whole platoon of firefighters) things got interesting. They rigged a stair chair to haul the man up to the main deck. At the same time, the Chief Mate had contacted the terminal and had them bring their "rescue basket" over to the ship.

Once the paramedics were confident that they'd stabilized the patient, they strapped him into a stair chair for extrication from the engine room. Somewhere in there I had a bit of conversation with one of the firefighters:

"I thought we were supposed to be going to the engine room," says he.

"You're in the engine room," says I.

"Where's the engines?" asks he.

"You see those things over there? Those are the cylinder heads. You're standing on the upper level and the engine is over four stories tall."

"Oh. Damn."

I guess it's easy to miss the forest for the trees in a place like this:

Engine Room

Anyway, I grabbed the patient's personal effects and headed up the ladder to make sure things were prepped to get everything off the ship. When I got up to the main deck I found complete pandemonium. The Chief Engineer was yelling at the top of his lungs telling the 3rd Mate to bring the terminal's basket inside the passageway on the main deck so the firemen could load the patient into it.

What he didn't seem to realize was that the rescue basket was essentially a skeletonized 20-foot container. There was absolutely no way to fit it inside any of the doors into the main deck passageway.

Moments later, the firemen had hauled the patient up to the main deck. At this point they'd been turned around six or eight times since they'd come aboard and had no idea where they were. Unfortunately, when they started looking for directions to figure out where they were headed, the loudest, most in-charge-seeming guy was the Chief Engineer.

With all of the yelling that was going on, I can understand why they would make that assumption. Still, all he was doing was creating distress and confusion. It took a bit of effort, but I managed to get everyone's attention, steer them toward the rescue basket, and get them safely off of the ship.

I really can't wait to be done dealing with the Chief.

Once that minor little emergency was taken care of it was all downhill. In fact, for most of the afternoon all I had to do was sit around and wait for one of our suppliers to deliver our charts and publications. They never showed.

A few minutes before 1600, I stopped by the cargo office to see if there was anything else for me to do. That's when the Chief Mate asked me to help him unbolt the manhole covers on some of the voids in the forepeak. If nothing else it was an opportunity to earn some overtime pay.

DAY 88: Delayed Delays

We were supposed to be leaving today at 1800. Instead, the terminal fell way behind on loading our cargo and it's going to be more like 0300 tomorrow before we actually get underway.

Sometime just before lunch, the navigation supplier finally showed up. I'd say he brought all of the charts and publications I was expecting, but he didn't. It was all stuff we needed, but not the stuff I ordered. Supposedly those are in the ship's warehouse somewhere, so I don't have to worry about it.

Once I was told not to worry about it, I went ahead and called Ana to come and pick me up. I met her at the pier just after 1600 with all kinds of plans for the afternoon and evening. Then, as we were driving away, her phone rang.

It turns out there was a minor problem at the Coast Guard Sector Command Center that she had to come in and fix. Oh well.

After a bit more running around, we ended up back at the apartment. Not long after that, Ana started nodding off. Then she offered to take me to the ship so I could get some rest. Nothing transparent about that I suppose.

I'd like to say I actually got some rest, but by the time I got back to the ship it was only a couple of hours until...

DAY 89: Enroute Oakland

We were underway at 0330. Casting off went quick and smooth. Then it was time to try to get sleep again. I didn't. Instead I did some laundry and some packing.

Oh well.

My afternoon watch went pretty smoothly as well. The sky was overcast, but there was very little shipping traffic to contend with and the sea was fairly calm.

Once again the plan after watch was to get some rest. Once again I failed.

DAY 90: Arrival Oakland

I was supposed to be paid off of the ship upon arrival in Oakland. As luck would have it, there was a VIP tour group scheduled to come down and visit the ship this afternoon. As a result, the Captain asked me to stay aboard for an extra day to help out because, "when you answer questions it sounds like you know what you're talking about."

I'll take that for a day's pay.

When the tour group finally got up to the pilothouse, I was asked to give a quick overview of the electronics and whatnot. Two minutes into my totally unprepared speech, the guy in charge of the group cut in and told me I had two minutes to finish up before they had to head out. Two minutes isn't much time, so I just opened the floor up to questions.

"Do you worry about icebergs?" one of them asked.

"I do not," says I, "Today's my last day."

That brought a bit of a chuckle from the crowd. The rest of the questions were pretty predictable, but I had fun with it all the same. Then it was time for them to leave. On the way out, one of the visitors stopped me and said that he works in "corporate communications," developing training material and presentations for executives, and he thought that my presentation style and material was very well thought out and effectively delivered.

Not bad for making it up on the spot. I guess I do sound like I know what I'm talking about.

For the next couple of hours I was tasked with following a group of engineers around while they poked around some of the modifications that were installed in the shipyard. They were a lot less entertaining, but I did get to trade sea stories with one of them who happened to be a retired US Coast Guard Warrant Officer. Cool.

With all of the tour guide work done, I stopped by the Captain's office and got paid off. So once again I am briefly flush with cash and overwhelmed with free time. This will all change very rapidly.

Now back to our regularly scheduled unemployment.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

2009 Sea Voyage Part 4D: ...and Back Again

DAY 77: Great Circle North

Today we’ve been headed North to get some distance between us and a low pressure system that’s rolling across the Pacific and causing all sorts of foul weather. Even though we’re on this course to avoid nasty weather, it’s been a bit unpleasant. The ship has been pitching and rolling in the perfect corkscrew motion to get over half the crew seasick.

I like seasickness. Not the actual being seasick, because I’d imagine it’s pretty uncomfortable. I like the fact that other folks get sick long long before I do. I take it as a sign that I’m a superior mariner; a symptom of belonging on the water.

DAY 78: Not Much to Talk About

The elevator has been inoperative since we were in Chiwan and a Chinese scrap metal dealer, thinking he was trapped inside when it stopped for a moment, beat the crap out of the inside of the elevator and destroyed the control panel before anyone could pry the doors open and drag his crying, screaming, little body out of it.

Now we’re stuck taking the stairs until we get to California where the spare parts are waiting. These are the stairs:
Fortunately, my room is only two decks from the pilothouse. Here’s a shot of my room:
2M Stateroom
It’s pretty cozy.

That reminds me: when I started this job I mentioned what looked like a cupholder above the toilet paper dispenser in my room as an illustration of how well appointed the space was. Here’s what it looked like:
TP Cupholder

I was wrong. It is not a cupholder. I didn’t figure it out until I used the head in the ship’s hospital and found one with all of its parts intact and in place:
Head Ashtray

It’s to hold the ashtray. I guess that makes some sort of sense.

DAY 79: Time Changes

This ship is kinda fast. Fast enough that you can almost get jet lag with all of the time zones we cross in not too much time. In order to keep up with local time, today we rolled the clocks ahead by three.

There’s no good way to do this that will make everyone happy. To make it a bit more equitable, we break it into three one-hour time changes. On this ship they happen at 1400, 1800, and 2200. That way each of the watchstanders gets to enjoy one shortened watch. The cook gets an hour less to prepare for dinner, and the day workers probably get an hour less sleep, but it’s the best option all around.

The only other bit of excitement for today was a fire and boat drill.

DAY 80: Still Going

The weather predictions have been getting pretty interesting lately. There’s a handful of low pressure systems that will be building up and crossing our path as we make our way across the Pacific. We’re following a great circle route, so most of them will pass well south of us as we near the Aleutian Islands. At some point though, our course will veer back to the south.

For now it looks like we’ll pass between two major weather systems. This seems to change every time we get a new updated weather report though. One report will have a couple of storms passing right across the top of us, then the next has us scooting comfortably between them.
It’s still far enough away that we can’t really do anything about it yet, but it’s going to be interesting.

DAY 81: A Duplicate of Day 80

Today we crossed the International Dateline. So while yesterday was Wednesday the 10th of February, today is too. So I’ve come back from the future. Still no jetpack...

By now we're way up in the northern latitudes and about to start bending around to the right and angling for Southern California. It's pretty up here:
Late Afternoon in the North Pacific

DAY 82: Will Navigate for Cash

The deck cadet has been having trouble with his celestial navigation homework. He’s going through the process just like his professors probably told him to do it, but somehow he’s just not quite able to fix the ship’s position using celestial observations.

To be fair, it’s not the easiest thing in the world. Celestial navigation isn’t exactly brain surgery, but it does require a bit of knowledge and tremendous attention to detail. You can teach someone the essentials in a couple of afternoons, but the only real way to become proficient at it is through repetition.

The other day we were talking about it and I decided to add some incentive to his plight. Here’s the plan:

1. Weather permitting, we’ll each make three observations of the sun during the afternoon watch.
2. Having made the observations, we’ll both go ahead and reduce them to lines of position (LOP) using the altitude-intercept method.
3. Whoever manages to establish the more accurate LOP (using the GPS as the reference) two out of three times, wins $5 for the day. We’ll tally this up when we get to San Pedro.
I like this plan because it gets me back into practice with the sextant. I used to be pretty good at this type of work, but by now it’s all rust and cobwebs. I’m overdue for clearing the dust off of that part of my professional qualifications.

Today was the first day we were competing. Here’s a winning shot of me taking an observation of the sun:
Sextant = Sexy

Navular, isn’t it?

By the time we each reduced our first observation, my LOP was about 7 miles off from the GPS position. The cadet was a little over 30 miles off. On the second round, I was just about 7 miles off again and he was still over 30 miles off. On the third round, my LOP was within 5 miles of the ship’s position, but I’d already won the day’s match.

Once I’d plotted my third LOP, I stopped to look over the cadet’s shoulder as he was working through the calculations to reduce his observation. I noticed one particular error (there’s about a thousand ways to get the math wrong) and, when he corrected it, his third LOP was also within about 5 miles of the ship’s position.

Then I made the mistake of the day. I told him to check his work on the other two to make sure he hadn’t made the same mistake. It turns out he had. Once he reworked them both, they were both just outside of 5 miles off from the ship’s position. With my little bit of assistance he beat me today, starting him off with a $5 lead.

Good for him. For now…

In other news, we advanced clocks another three hours today. The ship is now on California time. That, and the weather's starting to take a turn for the worse:
Heavy Weather Begins

DAY 83: A Touch of Weather

I’m not sure if I’ve remarked on it or not, but since I’ve started this job the weather has been surprisingly benign. At worst it’s been a bit cold in some of the places we’ve gone, but other than that there really hasn’t been anything to complain about.

Until now that is.

Ever since we left Yokohama we’ve been watching the satellite images and weather forecasts tracking a handful of low pressure systems rolling across the Pacific Ocean. For a while it looked like we were going to pass right between a couple of them, but in the late hours of last night one of them slowed down and we were stuck with the choice of stopping altogether or just slowing down a bit to cut across the tail end of it.

The ship’s schedule being as vital as it is, the decision was made to cut across. How bad could it be, right?

During my morning watch things were pretty comfortable. It wasn’t until sometime after breakfast that the seas started to really heap up. By the time I went up to take the afternoon watch, it was downright ugly. We had swells that were hitting us on one quarter and wind waves hitting us on the other quarter. They were taking turns grabbing the ship and knocking it off course to one side and then the other. The combination had the ship pitching, rolling, and yawing in an amazing sort of 3-axis corkscrew motion perfect for making a mess of everything. Just about the same time we start to settle out and ride smoothly, another heaping swell shoves us sideways and starts the whole thing all over again.

Here’s a quick video clip I took from the pilothouse:

I realize it doesn’t look all that rough in that clip, but bear in mind that the ship is over 900 feet long, the window the camera is looking through is about 100 feet above the water, and those waves are upwards of 30 feet high. The whole thing makes for a bit of a wild ride.
Heavy Weather Continues

The ship has been rolling as much as 30 degrees to either side. It’s bad enough that we’ve slowed down to a crawl and turned the ship so that the largest of the waves hits us square on the stern. This way the rolling is minimized and there’s less likelihood that any of the cargo containers will break free and fall overboard. During my watch we did end up with one briefly exciting moment where the ship started some synchronous rolling and we had to put the rudder hard over to break the cycle before something snapped.

I’m loving it.

While motion like this makes it nigh unto impossible to sleep, I haven’t gotten the slightest touch of motion sickness. Meanwhile, much of the crew is incapacitated. I took a moment before bed last night to put away the few things I had sitting out on my desk in my stateroom, so when my watch ended everything was pretty much where I’d left it. This strikes me as a hallmark of a capable and competent mariner.

With that in mind, walking past the Chief Engineer’s office brought and oddly smug sort of smile to my face:
Heavy Weather Chief Engineer Office

I can't get too smug though. While my stateroom remained largely intact, it turns out that the filing cabinet in the hospital wasn't bolted down. Why not? I couldn't tell you, but I'm responsible for the hospital, so this is my bad:
Ship's Hospital Mess

DAY 84: Channel Fever

I suppose I still haven’t quite adjusted to the time changes, because for no reason at all I can’t sleep. I should be able to sleep. I haven’t really had any sleep for the past two days, but somehow I’m still not feeling especially tired.


The weather’s started calming down a bit. Here's a winning shot of a squall line as it passed us by:
Squall Line
In other news, today I bested the cadet at celestial navigation. So we’re even now. With a bit of luck we’ll have clear enough skies to make observations tomorrow too. I’d hate to think we’d made a wager and no money got to change hands.

DAY 85: Last Day in Transit

I still can’t sleep for some reason. The weather was pretty crappy today, so the cadet and I are still tied on the whole celestial navigation thing. Other than that, today was mostly spent finishing up some paperwork, updating some of our navigation pubs, and making tiny bits of progress on a few projects in my stateroom.

On an unrelated note: this was supposed to be a 70-day job. With the shipyard side trip added in, a couple of weather delays, and the Captain asking me to stay aboard for one extra day to help out with some VIP tour group the day after I was supposed to pay off, it’s looking like I’ll be on board for a full 90 days.

Tomorrow we'll be in San Pedro. After that it'll hopefully be an easy week and I'm done with this job.

Stay tuned...

2009 Sea Voyage Part 4c: 2010 Stops in Pusan and Yokohama

DAY 73: Zooooom! Back in Pusan.

I’m sure it didn’t take long to get from Qingdao to Pusan the last time we made this lap, but for some reason it really seemed to be quick this time around. The best part though, was that we arrived at the end of a nice, clear afternoon, just as the sun was setting. It was bitterly cold, but I got some pretty pictures:
Pusan Lighthouse
I would like to live in a house like that one someday. If nothing else, it would mean almost never having religious zealots knocking on your door early mornings on the weekend. Or at least the few that do make it out to proselytize are probably worth listening to. If they can find a way to stop by a place like that without an invitation, they might actually be onto something.

But I digest...

I also managed to snap a couple of self portraits. One on the bridge:
Pilothouse Portrait
And another one a few minutes later on the bow:
Portrait in Pusan
Later in the evening I got a chance to run ashore and check my regular email account. On the way I snapped this shot of the ship at the pier:
Moored in Busan

DAY 74: Dropping the Boat

The later part of this morning started with a lifeboat drill. Since we haven’t had occasion to lower either of the lifeboats since the ship came out of the yard, this was the first chance to make sure they would actually work in the event of an emergency.

When we’re lowering boats for drills, it ends up being up to me to take charge of the sailors in the boat and serve as coxswain while it’s being lowered, released, and the hoisted back into the davits.

From the boats’ normal at-sea position in the davits, it’s about a 90-foot drop to the water.

Everything went smoothly on the way down. Here’s the view from the coxwain’s seat:
Lifeboat View

Once the boat was waterborne, I flipped the lever to release the hooks and bumped the engine ahead. We were underway under our own power for about 45 seconds before it was time to reattach the hooks and get hoisted back up to the davits.

On the way up, I got to asking the ordinary seaman a few questions about the boat just to make sure he knew his business. One of the things he didn’t seem to know about was the Rottmer releasing gear. This is the linkage that makes it possible to unhook both ends of the boat at the same time once the boat is in the water. The whole system is built around a big lever with a safety catch next to the coxswain’s seat plainly marked with a label which reads “DANGER! LEVER DROPS BOAT!”

As I was explaining this to the ordinary, I pointed out how to pull the pin (you have to twist it before you pull it out) and then explained that you have to pull the lever all the way down in order to unhook the falls. I told him that you had to wait until the boat was in the water before you did it or else risk a potentially deadly, catastrophic fall from the deck to the water some 90 feet below.

“The good part,” said I, “is that there’s enough steps involved in pulling the lever that you really can’t do it on accident.”

To illustrate, I grabbed the handle and yanked and then


That happened to be the exact same moment that the guys hoisting the boat up on deck reset the brake tension cable and dropped the boat a good two feet in the process. Nobody wet themselves, but we did all get strapped back into our seat harnesses in a hurry.

Aside from that touch of excitement, the day went pretty smoothly. We made our departure in the late afternoon. Despite the cold, the weather was nice. Here's a picture:
Leaving Pusan

Funny side note: Once we were done letting go all of the mooring lines, I cut the sailors loose and stayed on the bow with the OS (Ordinary Seaman) to act as lookout and to stand by in case we needed to drop the anchor for some reason. As we were nearing the breakwater on the way out of the harbor, a little black boat rounded the corner inbound.

At first glance, it looked like a submarine. Now you have to hesitate before calling the bridge to let them know there’s a submarine because if, God forbid, you’re wrong about it, you’ll get no end of harassment about it.* So once the OS agreed with me, I called it in.

“Bridge, Second Mate,” I radioed, “there’s a submarine coming in through the breakwater just about one point on the port bow.”

“Nope,” replies the Chief Mate on the bridge, “that’s the pilot boat.”

The OS and I looked at each other, then back at the vessel in question. Now that it was closer, it looked like so:
ROKN Submarine

“Maybe we’re not looking at the same thing, Mate,” I replied, “I’m talking about the small, low-profile, black vessel on the port bow.”

“Yeah, that’s the pilot boat,” replied the mate, “they’ve increased their security level here to MARSEC 37.**”

Suddenly I kinda like the Chief Mate.

*When I was in school, one of my classmates mistakenly sighted an aircraft carrier that turned out to be a containership. For this error he was haunted with mockery for the rest of our time at school. It’s also probably the reason nobody heard from him at all for six years after graduation.
**In the post 9-11 world, there is an international system of security levels for ships and port facilities. These are referred to as MARSEC (short for MARitime SECurity) levels. The lowest is MARSEC 1, meaning there is no specific threat of terrorist activity, and the highest is MARSEC 3, meaning a terrorist attack is currently taking place.

DAY 75: Transit to Yokohama

This was a nice little jaunt from one port to the next. With all of the excitement of the past few days, I actually slept through most of it. When I wasn't sleeping, I was doing my chores on the bridge:
Tinkering in the Chartroom

DAY 76: Yokohama

Today I managed to squeeze in eight full hours of work before breakfast. After lunch I put in seven more. In all it was a pretty good time.

The day started before midnight, like all my days on board. When I took the watch on the bridge there were surprisingly few contacts on the radar. The wind was coming from astern and there was a handful of small islands ahead.

Once we passed between the islands and turned into the wind, the ship started drifting all over the place. With the wind on the bow we were getting pushed around more than the autopilot could deal with, so I had one of the sailors steer by hand.
It took him some work, but he finally managed to steady up on our course and at last we were headed toward Tokyo Bay. I went back to the chart room to plot the ship’s position and when I came back I was surprised to see nobody at the wheel. Instead, my helmsman was sitting in a chair and staring out the window while the ship was drifting a good twenty degrees off course.

“Hey,” says I, “what’s going on?”
“I’m good, mate,” he replied.
“Sure,” says I, “but I still need you steering.”
“Oh. Shit!”

I guess he thought I said I’d turned the autopilot back on. Odd things pop into peoples’ heads at two in the morning I suppose.

After watch I had to stay on the bridge to help keep up the navigation and admin chores while things started to get busy on the approach to Tokyo Bay. Then at 0530 I went down to the pilot ladder.

In case I haven’t explained it before, a harbor pilot is a mariner with in-depth knowledge of a particular waterway. Most harbors require inbound ships to take a pilot aboard to guide them through to the pier. The pilot usually comes out to meet the ship on a small boat. The ship’s crew rigs a ladder over the side for the pilot to climb up from the boat onto the ship.

On a ship like this one it’s a long climb from the water up to the main deck. Rather than having a pilot heft himself up twenty to forty feet worth of ladder, the ship is fitted with a sideport on either side. This is a door that can be opened down by the waterline, making it easier for a pilot to get aboard.

Once the pilot was on board I had a few minutes of down time before it was time to go up to the bow and tie the ship up. This is when everything started going wrong. I’m not sure why, but once the ship was alongside the pier and we’d started passing lines across, the tugs and bow thruster stopped pushing us toward the pier.

We spent the better part of 45 minutes seesawing back and forth while the pilot couldn’t make up his mind about what to tell the tugs to do. While all of this was going on, we had all sorts of little problems with the winches as we had to take up and then pay out more and more line. I’m not sure what was going on up in the pilothouse, but it was frustrating as hell for us on deck.

When we were finally all fast I looked at my watch and found out that there was no way I’d have enough time to go ashore and get anything done. Bummer.

Instead I rushed back up to the pilothouse and got started in the chartroom. By the time I had to take the watch again at noon, I’d just barely managed to line up all the charts and pubs and lay out all of the tracks for our trip from Yokohama to southern California.

During my watch our departure was delayed due to a broken down container crane. Then, once we were all set to let go all lines, we found out that the harbor pilot was going to be delayed.* We ended up waiting for almost two hours past our scheduled departure time. While waiting, I had the deck cadet take this picture of me:
Portrait in Yokohama Container Terminal
You can just make out Mount Fuji in the distance behind my right shoulder.

When the pilot finally did show, I went up to the bow to find that two of the mooring winches weren’t working. Going below, I found that I couldn’t get the hydraulic pump that powered them to start. When the ship’s electrician and the First Assistant Engineer showed up, they did a bit of troubleshooting and found a burnt-out fuse.

So at the end of the day it was an uncharacteristically screwed up port call for Japan. To top it all off, while I was standing on the bow acting as lookout on the way out of Tokyo Bay, the Captain and Chief Mate forgot I was there. I ended up spending an extra two hours just standing around waiting to be told to turn in before I finally had to ask if they still needed me there.


Next stop: California

*I maintain that the delay was caused when the pilot we’d had in the morning, ashamed and dishonored by his dismal performance, committed seppuku** and the rest of the pilots had to rework their schedule to carry on without him.
**Seppuku is ritualistic suicide that called for in the Bushido code. Having brought himself shame, a man may regain some semblance of honor by disemboweling himself with his sword.

2009 Sea Voyage Part 4b, More of the 2010 Part

DAY 65: Rolling North in the South China Sea

Today I finally felt as though I’ve got enough sleep. I crashed right after I got off watch yesterday afternoon and then went right back to sleep just as soon as my watch was over at 0400. Then I didn’t wake up until nearly 1000. I woke up with a new lease on life.

The morning watch was nice and simple. It was nice and calm, with almost no traffic to speak of. If I had to pick a first watch to come back to work for, this would’ve been it.

The afternoon watch went less well. We had a fire & boat drill and I had to run through a whole host of administrative issues. In the midst of all of this, the Captain asked me to make some changes with the electronics and add about seven more levels of frustration.

The issue is: we’ve been having problems with the GPS* receivers installed on board. During the last couple of voyages we were getting all sorts of alarms suggesting that the receivers were occasionally sending the navigation system incorrect positions. It would only be wrong for a flash, but it was enough to set off alarms and make the system stop working 100% properly. It wasn’t impossible to deal with, but it was something that frequently demanded attention from the officer on watch (who has plenty of other things to pay attention to).

As a result, much of my watch this afternoon was consumed by unplugging and plugging in the GPS receivers in a rush while I was trying to get everything squared away. The Captain was there to offer all sorts of helpful suggestions as I climbed on top of the chart table and went back and forth changing settings and trying to make things work right. In the end, there was no real improvement. What we really need is to update our GPS receivers instead of just replacing them with more 1990 vintage electronics.

After watch, my last chore was to take everyone’s temperature to fill in some sort of form for the Chinese health or immigration or quarantine folks. I’m not sure why they have us go through all of this crap, but when they do it falls to me to get it done.

To make my life easier we have an infrared thermometer. To take a temperature, all I have to do is swipe the sensor across someone’s forehead and it comes up on a little LCD readout.

To make my life harder we have the Chief Engineer. I stood by the mess as everyone was coming and going at dinner and swiped foreheads to get temps for the better part of an hour. In that same time, the C/E passed by four times and every time I asked he went on a rant about how I didn’t need to take his temperature because he’s perfectly healthy. Clearly. It finally took an order from the Captain before I could write down the Chief Engineer's temperature.

I’m starting to get tired of that guy.

*GPS stands for “Global Positioning System,” in case you’re the last person in the world to hear of it.

DAY 66: Another Update From the Middle of Nowhere

The last couple of weeks I was on board the drain under my sink started acting up. Every time I ran the sink, the water would come up out of the drain and wash around on the deck. Today the First Assistant Engineer went around and cleared out all of the deck drains in the heads where there were problems. Now I can shave without getting my feet wet. So I've got that going for me, which is nice.

DAY 67: Chiwan

Today was a genuinely pleasant day. My watch at midnight was calm and smooth. Afterward I slept until breakfast, ate well, then did laundry. When I took the watch at noon, I was surprised to find that there weren’t a huge number of ships heading in and out of the approaches to Hong Kong. There were ships, make no mistake about it, but not the mad mob of vessels we’ve found at all of the other Chinese ports.

My favorite one was this one:
Ever Uranus

It’s nothing special, I know. But the name is fun (in a junior high kind of way):
Ever Uranus2
hee hee hee


The port town of Chiwan is located up a river which empties into the sea just to the West of Hong Kong. Because the river itself isn’t deep enough to navigate through, ships have to follow the channels that lead into Hong Kong, and then work their way around all of the islands and up the Lamma Channel to Urmston Road, which is deep enough to make the approach to Chiwan.

This should’ve been a bit of a nightmare. Instead, it was actually kinda nice. There was fog, sure, and there was a lot of traffic, yes, but somehow it was all very laid back and relaxed. The only thing I can think of that explains this tone is the new Captain. I swear the man must be under some kind of sedation to be as stress-free and relaxed as he is.

When I left the pilothouse to take my station on the bow, things got a tiny bit worse. The fog closed in and visibility dropped down to about half a mile. Then the fog turned to rain just long enough to get me soaked through. Still, things weren’t all that bad.

Soon after that, the ship was moored portside to the pier and my work was done. That’s when the Chief Mate mentioned that there were vendors on the pier with all sorts of things to sell. These usually range from pirated DVDs to black market electronics to generic Viagra. With suddenly nothing to do, the Third Mate and I decided to go and check it out.

As soon as we stepped off the foot of the gangway, we were nearly assaulted by Chinese dudes trying to lead us to their individual vans loaded with random and questionable merchandise. I ended up thumbing through one of their movie selections for a bit, but getting away from them without buying proved damned near impossible. What saved us was when the ordinary seaman* showed up. I turned to him and said, “Good evening, Captain,” and the vendors got so excited about the prospects of a customer with money that their attention was drawn away long enough to make our escape.

*An “ordinary seaman” is essentially an untrained member of the deck department. After a year of sea time, a couple of classes, and a set number of hours at the wheel, they can get their papers to become an AB, or Able-Bodied seaman. In essence, we’d gotten the Chinese to mistake the lowest-paid guy in the deck department for the Captain. Cool.

DAY 68: Craziness

Most days in this job are pretty boring. I spend eight hours a day staring out the window, watching the clock, and waiting for the world to go by. Then I’ll have a little bit of paperwork to do and wonder if the timing will work out so I can get some sleep.

Then there are days like today.

When I went to sleep, we were scheduled to depart at 1700. That mean that I’d have time to stand my watch from midnight to four, go back to sleep, wake up around 0900, plot out our track from Chiwan to Qingdao, stand my afternoon watch, then test the bridge equipment before heading to the bow to untie the ship.

When I woke up to take the watch at midnight, I found out our departure had been stepped up to 0830. This meant I’d have to get some of the plotting done while I was still in the middle of my watch on deck. Then I’d have to finish it up between 0400 and 0600. Gear tests would start by 0700. Then I’d be on the bow by 0800 to be underway by 0830. Then it would be time to make the transit through the foggy, congested waters of Hong Kong before starting my afternoon watch in the pilothouse.

Somewhere in the middle of my watch, around 0230 I suppose, the current started running pretty strong and the ship actually started pulling away from the pier. The ship has automatic tensioning winches on the mooring lines, so it was just a matter of increasing power to the winches. It also meant that I’d have to stay focused on them to prevent the ship from pulling off the pier again.

Moments after I turned up the tension, one of the longshoremen beckoned me out to the pier to show me where some vent louvers in our cargo hatch covers had fallen out. These were bulky, 80-pound, steel parts that the yard workers took out while we were in the shipyard. When their work was done they put them back in place but never bolted them in. Then when the cranes lifted the hatches off of the ship and set them on the pier, the impact was just enough to make them fall out.

It’s just plain lucky that they didn’t fall out and land on someone while they were being swung ashore. With the help of one of the Chinese longshoremen, it took the better part of half an hour to wedge two of them back into place. Then I dogged down the doors that covered them up and scrawled a warning over the door that they needed to be opened carefully.

This was just one of dozens of little problems that cropped up this morning. Of course, I still had to weave my way between sleeping Chinese longshoremen while I was running around:
Chinese Longshoremen
After waiting a bit longer than planned for the harbor pilot to arrive, we were underway from the pier around 0900. Taking in the mooring lines went quick, smooth, and safe. I even had time to pose for a portrait at one of the mooring winches:
Shawn Winches

Then, after an hour standing by as lookout on the bow, it was time to finally sit down for a few minutes before going back up to the bridge at noon.
Visibility wasn’t great, but at least it was better than we had on the way in yesterday. Along the way, I managed to snap a few pictures of this somewhat busy stretch of water:
Chiwan Departure
Chinese Workboat

Hong Kong Suspension Bridge
Passing Hong Kong

Then, just when everything seemed to be going well, the Voyage Management System (the computer that shares navigation data between all of the navigational sensors and shows us our position on the digital charts) decided to quit in a narrow choke point in the outbound channel. It took a bit of troubleshooting, so I just barely able to get the whole thing up and running again by about the same time as we were well clear of the channel and had nothing to worry about.

Once we were out in open water, the Captain went below and I finally got a chance to lean back and take a deep breath. It had been a long, long day, so I was glad to finally have a few moments to regroup.

Then the alarms started going off. Lots of them. The engine was shutting down, the steering system failed, an automated distress signal started coming in, and about a half dozen system faults were blinking and chirping. After a few minutes of deafening noise, I’d managed to silence everything. The crux of all of these problems was that the shaft generator had tripped offline and in the fraction of a second it took for the standby generators to take the load, there was enough of a hiccup to shut down everything else just long enough for the alarms to go off and start all sorts of noise.

Exhausted though I was at the end of my afternoon watch, I still had to come up an hour later and cover the watch so the Chief Mate could go below and have dinner. He was back fairly quick, and just as I was telling him there’s “nothing too exciting” coming up, we started to catch up with the entire fishing fleet of the Taiwan Straits and hundreds of little tiny boats started to pop up on the radar.

When I got back down to my deck, I stopped to BS with the 3rd Mate. We were in the middle of sharing war stories (he’s an Afghanistan veteran too) when the fire alarm went off.

Grabbing my radio I ran down to the Emergency Gear Locker to dress out and take charge of my firefighting squad. Just as I got to the door, the Chief Engineer called over the radio and said there was no fire. It turns out that a leaking steam pipe inside the superstructure on the main deck had set off the alarm.

It was a fitting end to the day.

DAY 69: Easy Day

That’s all. Nothing to it.

DAY 70: A Sunday

Today was weird. After my midnight to four watch, I woke up feeling rested and refreshed around 0800.* Then I went up to the bridge and laid out all of the tracks and updated all of the charts for the next two port calls* and filled out my overtime sheet and handed it to the Chief Mate well before noon.*

During my afternoon watch, I had a whole big mess of ships I had to weave my way through, and when I saw it coming I called up the Captain to give him a good half hour’s notice.* Then through deft skill and pre-planning, I managed to cross through extremely congested waters without ever even having to disengage the autopilot.

All the while the visibility was pretty good and there were no real surprises.
Like I said, weird.

Sometime tonight we’ll probably drop the anchor and hang out while we wait for space at the pier in Qingdao. The schedule says we’ll be there for 24 hours, but we’ll see.

*Instead of waiting to the last minute which is more my style.

DAY 71: Anchored Out

Today we’re sitting at anchor waiting for pier space in Qingdao. We weren’t early or anything, it just turns out that the folks that manage the container terminal are so completely disorganized that they’ve overbooked their piers and we’ll have to wait a full 24 hours before there’s space for us.

For me this isn’t really a problem. Anchor watch is a nice chance to sit alone in the pilothouse, listening to music, catching up on administrative chores, and even do a bit of reading. Sure, I still have to keep an eye out for anyone dumb enough to run into us while we’re sitting still and I’ve got to check our position regularly to make sure the ship isn’t dragging anchor and drifting away, but it’s all gravy compared to the underway or pierside watches.

Of course, the law of the sea dictates that every second of free time must be paid for later with interest. So after I got off watch at 1600 I tried in vain to sleep until around 2030. Then, at 2115, I got the call telling me to go up to the bow and take charge of the sailors heaving in the anchor. We were done by 2200, but after standing out in the freezing cold and staring into the wind watching the chain come up, it was a bit tough relaxing again.

It wasn’t even worth trying to go back to sleep before I had to get started on…

DAY 72: The Last Stop in Qingdao Again

With all of the craziness from last night and the early morning watch, I was up to 0630. I slept as good as I could, but I still woke up before my alarm went off at 0900. I spent the next couple of hours plugging away at my chores in the pilothouse before starting watch again at noon.

When I started the afternoon watch, there was only a few hours of cargo work left. During one of my rounds on deck, I snapped this shot of the cargo parade:
Qingdao Cargo Parade

It still amazes me to think that when we leave the pier we'll have over 2,000 truckloads of stuff on board.

Out on deck the temperature was just about freezing. Untying went quick and easy and then all I had to do was wait until we were clear of the harbor before I could turn in.

That’s when I found out I was almost too tired to sleep.

We’ll advance clocks tonight, so I’ll be short an hour worth of sleep when I get up tomorrow.

Next up: Pusan, South Korea and Yokohama, Japan. Stay tuned.