Wednesday, February 17, 2010

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.

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