Saturday, September 20, 2014

Things I Learned On Deck

As an apprentice, it is my lot to be switched between each of the three departments every thirty days. Tomorrow being my thirtieth, I will be moving over to the galley, an experience which promises to be not nearly as wretched as the Piney Point galley.

It doesn't seem like too much time has passed, and it has mostly passed through good weather and easy working conditions, but I have certainly learned some things.

  • The only knots you really need are the bowline, the clove hitch, and the slip knot. The other knots are apparently relics from the age of sail and clever party tricks. For anything these knots can't get done, there are always metal fixtures of various sorts and splices.
  • Never run on deck. Not even a little bit. Nope, don't do it. That little hop and skip right there, that was like running, and is dangerous.
  • Why are you walking so slow?
  • Anything comfortable gets sweaty and gross. Curiously, uncomfortable things usually don't get sweaty and gross. I would think, naively, that this is a function of how long I interact with comfortable vs uncomfortable objects, but the uncomfortable parts of the hard hat retain noticeably less sweat over the course of the day than the comfortable foam parts.
  • Nothing on the deck is particularly difficult, though doing it over and over again does start to wear a person down. The really hard part is the waiting. Waiting for loading to start, waiting for someone to get back with the right tool, waiting for permission from bosun or officers to do something everyone knows needs doing and everyone knows how to do. You would think that standing around for five hours in a nine hour day would be the easy part, and for some people I expect it is, but I don't like it much.
  • The most unexpectedly heavy thing is chain. Sure, you look at a thick iron chain and think, 'wow! I bet that is heavy', but it is even heavier than that. Even putting chain on a cart and rolling the cart up the deck is difficult.
  • The quickest way to piss someone off is to communicate poorly. The second quickest way is to do something unsafe with a system they are working with.
  • The main purpose of hard hats isn't to keep things from falling on your head, though they would help out in that situation, but for keeping you going after you bump your head on a low hanging piece of solid iron. The latter situation happens frequently, and there were very few times that the former was even possible.
  • Different people have radically different notions of what is and isn't safe, and it isn't a uniform scale. The guy who is very particular about line handling may be terrifyingly nonchalant around an obviously malfunctioning blowtorch (I told him that it didn't look safe and got myself the hell out of there).
  • I am really bad and judging expressions and emotions of people from non-American backgrounds. Particularly telling the difference between joking and angry.
  • Some people don't listen to themselves when they talk, and when you do what they said instead of what they were thinking, they get very upset and wonder why you weren't listening better.
  • This ship frequently doesn't know where it will be four days from now. Not just me, but even the first mate will tell me sometimes that we are just waiting for an order to come in, otherwise we might have to anchor at sea and just wait for something.
  • There is no real shipboard culture, because there are too few people rotating in and out too often for anything like that to form. What culture does exist is mostly working culture, and that is driven by the the captain, the three department heads, and two or three other important people.
  • As an apprentice, I am completely superfluous. They don't need me here, and are doing me a favor by letting me on, though of course no one would be so crass as to say it like that.
  • On deck, at least, it doesn't seem like anyone wants to be here. They don't mind the work or the co-workers any more than anyone does, but they really don't seem to enjoy living on a ship. Many people get off at every chance they can get, just to be off the ship, and in the galley some people count days (and the ones who don't usually have so many days left that it depresses them). Maybe I will get there some day, but today I like living here more than I like the job, and the job isn't all that bad.
  • People get very worked up about overtime and sleep. People also care about break time and lunch time. No one gives a shit about the eight hours of regular work per day, except in that they need to pass it (sometimes in as few as six hours) in order to get to the sweet, sweet overtime.
  • I learned that the company I am sailing for, American Steamship, is part of the transport conglomerate CSX. I don't see any practical effect from that, but I thought it was interesting.
  • I learned that people are serious about break time. They tell you about union mandated thirty minute breaks in Piney Point, but I had just assumed it was either a joke or a way the officers weed out the lazy people. But no, both crew and officers will get mad at you if you cut a break five minutes short in order to get back to work, even if you haven't been doing anything terribly taxing. More important in my mind are the rules that no one can work more than 16 hours in a day or 36 hours in three days (except in an emergency) that are, on this ship at least, strictly respected to prevent fatigue from causing unsafe working conditions.

Speaking of fatigue, I have galley at 6AM, so good night.


I have photos, but the internet is pretty weak, so maybe later.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Safety and Flowers

I feel like we got boarded by pirates or something. Not only did a safety guy come on to talk to us about new and improved company procedures, but also the coast guard was prancing about while we were docked for fuel. Fortunately, the safety guy was pretty nice and I was kept well away from the coast guard.
The bosun chair. Just a board and a metal rod. You tie the line through the eye at the end of the metal, sit on the board, and hold on tight. Or you fall off and prompt a company wide safety revamp.
The safety guy didn't say what incident in particular prompted his visit, but I feel like he would not have come out and shown us all the new equipment and procedures if some dumbass hadn't gotten himself hurt. The issue today was the use of the bosun's chair, a piece of equipment we use to get deckhands onto the dock while the ship is still moving or not quite stopped and close enough to use the ladder. Basically, it is a plank of wood tied a swing to a line that we sit on. Someone holds the line and lets it out slow(-ish) until we hit the ground all safe and alive. It seems risky, but the fact is that it is incredibly simple, so there are very few failure points and those failure points are reinforced more heavily than even a very fat man would require. It sounds like some damn fool fell off or got dropped on his ass, so now we have to go from that very simple system to a more complicated one with more failure points. Fortunately, it isn't being deployed yet, and some of the crew who saw the demonstration mumbled opposition once the safety guy was out of hearing range, so I expect not to have to deal with it on this ship, and only ever in a much more streamlined fashion anywhere else.

The building on the right sounds like it is crying. The dock as a whole crushes the limestone into powder, and one of the primary uses of the white powder from this plant is to dye toilet paper white.
The dock we stopped at for unloading, in Superior, Wisconsin, the south side of Duluth, had a bunch of wildflowers growing where we tied up. I said "Ooh! Look at all the pretty flowers!" And bosun laughed. Then he looked down. Then he looked back at me. Then he said, "Once we tie up, go down there and pick me a bunch of flowers." At first I thought he was joking, but went along with it, and continued to go along with the joke all the way down to the dock, looking back up at him to laugh and call me off, continuing with the joke as I pulled out the flowers, taking care to keep as much of the root as possible, continuing with the joke as I climbed the ladder, one hand full of yellow and a few thin white flowers, and presented them to bosun.
The dock, complete with flowers.

"What is all this?" He said, pointing at a few dead leaves and fruiting buds. "This doesn't look like the flowers you get at the store."

"Well, I haven't cleaned them up yet." I said.

The rec room table in the middle of clean up.
"Ok, do that."

My flowers. They look better in person
I almost said that I needed to help the other two deckhands with the loading prep work, but then I didn't say it and went into the rec room and cleaned off the flowers. One had enough root left to replant in a coffee can and leave in the rec room, one bundle went to bosun, I kept one bundle, and I suspect the last bundle will go to the captain or someone else important. One of the ABs came in and asked if we were doing flower arranging now and I said yes, this is precious cargo.

From a bit further out. That couch really is quite comfy, but decoration is otherwise sparse.
On another note, if anyone in my sister's family is still reading this, could you send me Sam's NFL picks next week? I entered the NFL pool this morning and called all but four games, one behind the Chief Engineer, picking mostly at random. I am the most poorly paid person on the ship, but hopefully Sam can help me remedy that situation.
The finished product. Bosun used skype to 'deliver' the flowers to his wife back home. We really do live in the future, using hyper advanced technology for such mundane and human purposes.

Earning my $3.25 an Hour

We were working at the bow of the ship, docked here at Port Inland, Michigan, and we needed two brooms from the very back of the ship. The two of us walk all the way down there (the better part of 500 feet) and roommate grabs two brooms.

"Let me look busy, too." I say, grabbing at one of the broom handles. He lets me carry it and says, "This job, working on deck is not very hard. Sweeping and clamping and even the mooring lines, it is all very easy" he says in his slightly patronizing 'I am explaining things' mode. "The reason they pay us all this money," (he will make around $5,000 this month, some guys will make closer to $10,000, and a few will make even more than that) "is not because the job is difficult, but because we are on ship for three months away from home, and the money is for all the things we miss."

"Shit," I say, "I don't miss shit." I don't know that this job has done wonders for my vocabulary.

"I mean things like family and good food and fun times at home." He explains as though this were the most obvious thing in the world.

"Really? The food here is fantastic," I say, though in his case he eats very little of the best stuff because of his religious vegitarianism, "and other than the scenery being better, I live just like I did at home."

And it is true. There are a few differences, which I shall endeavor to list below, but really my downtime consists of books, games, and TV shows, all of which are loaded onto my laptop and telephone. The hours are not always nine to five, but they rarely go much past eight hours, and I have only had two days in the month that went over nine and a half hours, which is bad for my overtime pay, but pretty relaxing all in all.

To set at the differences, the biggest one is food. On the whole, it is much better than what I eat at home or anything I would ever have the patience to cook myself. I have no fear that I will be unable to return to simple rice, ramen, and chips, but it really is something to be excited for mealtime not because I will no longer be hungry, but because the food itself has become a joy. The only downside is that I don't get to do the shopping, so when they run out of oranges or the better sorts of chips I just have to do without for a few days until we get more.

The next biggest is the fact that I am living with a roommate. He isn't bad, either as a person or as a roommate, but he is another person who is different from me and things that would normally be effortless must now be negotiated. Fortunately, newer ships and higher ratings will spare me from this inconvenience in due time.

After that is internet access. I don't feel the lack, but I used to spend two to three hours every day sorting through news and various educational material, and that part of the day is simply gone. It is strange that I haven't even thought about what had been a major part of every day since high school until writing it down here. Of course, I also can't stream TV or movies, so I will have to make sure to collect everything that came out during these six months when I get home and store it on a hard drive for the next ship.

The work itself is different from what I was doing previously, but that is sort of the point, and in any case I didn't sign on to be a deckhand for the rest of my life, so I should hope the job changes again soon enough.

The scenery is fantastic, both the utilitarian beauty of most of the ports (except Waukegan. I didn't post photos because that place was really dull and ugly) and the natural beauty of the sea. It certainly beats staring at a half wall above which was the poorly kept common lawn of my old apartment complex.

Also, there are no cats, which makes me sad, but my cats have passed away in any case, and the lifestyle as a whole will prevent me from keeping more. Fortunately, I have found a bit of a substitute in the digital cats that run around in The Sims, the game I mentioned in an earlier post. Not quite the same, but it is what I have.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Junior Prognosticators

We came into Port Tawas, a few hours north of Saginaw, at around 5AM. This dock, like every other dock, is different from the ones I have seen before. All along the waterfront are homes that look like vacation homes, though they could well be permenent residences, and the dock itself is a tiny conveyor coming out from behind the trees onto a spiffy looking concrete island holding the loader mechanism. Walking back after mooring the ship, I noted that the loader looked pretty cool.

"This is my favorite type of loader" replied Dave.

"Why? Because it is so clean?" I asked, meaning that the load would go mostly into the hatch and not need much cleanup from us afterwards.

"Well, that too," he said, "but I mean because it moves itself." And we don't have to move the ship under the loader, like Dave spent ten hours doing last night at Bay City near Saginaw and has slept only three hours between now and then.

"If all of them were clean and loaded themselves, what would they need us for?" I asked the slightly more experienced crewmate.

"Well, shit, they wouldn't. With the way the industry is going, they would just fire us if the ports ever modernized."

"But then who would paint and scrape off grease?"

"They would get some AB to do it during his off hours."

Then we reached the hatch crane, so the conversation ended and we got back to work.

Shipboard Humor

On deck the preferred humor is the running joke. There is a certain state of mind to which this sort of work attracts itself in which one is timelessly vigilant over a few specified tasks and hazards and the mind is largely blank otherwise. A thought which while daydreaming can be conceived, digested, and tired of in ten minutes can on deck last a whole shift, without substantially more cognitive power applied to the idea over the differing durations. A casual comment here may be built on there, where there is three hours later, and the riposte may come five hours hence, and yet the compression of time caused by the job leaves it as fresh and timely as the rousing routine of a stand up comic. Overall, the type of humor is quite a lot like my own personal style of humor
the not very funny style.

Here is an unnecessary picture of the sea at night.
After much confusion (amongst the whole ship, not just me this time), we ended up stopping at the port of Calcite, named for its ample limestone deposits, to take on some giant rocks. And by giant, I mean the average stone is somewhere between fist size and head size and the hard hats we wear on deck are mere affectations in light of the hazards presented.

The port of Calcite. To the left is a big pile of limestone. To the right is another big pile of a different sort of limestone. Not pictured; other big piles of limestone.
As we are on approach, we are having our usual tiny meeting about which side we would be docking on and what kind of loaders were in use, but I was up on the forecastle, with my head right above where the wind hits the bow, so I heard a whole lot of whoosh whoosh whoosh and not a lot of what was actually being said. Bosun said "This will be a whoosh whoosh port", and I shout "What?" and my roommate clarifies, "A shovelling port. That means they have no cranes and we have to fill the cargo holds by hand." I didn't expect that this was true, but whether is was or not there was only one correct response; "Ok, I will go get the shovels". A shovelling port, for those keeping score at home, is just a port with leaky loaders and we have to shovel the excess dust off the deck and into the hold.
I don't know what that building is, but it looked cool.

No one tells me anything (so it is just like being at home with family), so I was unaware that the town is very close by and a general favorite for the crew to get off and shop for necessities and maybe go clubbing or whatever for the six hours it takes to load up. I did not go on shore this time, but I was right by the accomidation ladder watching the two GUDEs get off to do mooring work when right behind them was our chief cook, whose talent I have praised multiple times both here and in his galley. I asked if he was leaving and he said in his sort of hurried fashion that he was. I took this to mean that he was leaving for good, that today was his last day and we were getting a new cook, so I wass bemoaning and eulogizing while everyone just sort of built it up on me, while assigning me to go quite quickly up to the bow where I wouldn't see that about a quarter of the crew was getting off here. Suffice to say I caught the Steward Assistant getting off as well, a man who is very vocal about the twenty three and counting days he has left on ship, so I figured it out eventually.


Speaking of guys who count their time, I was waiting while a hatch was being filled talking to Dave. I try not to identify people by name on this blog, partly as a stylistic choice and partly to add one thin layer of anonymity to the whole affair. Sure, if the bosun reads this blog he is going to know exactly who I am talking about every time, but for some random stranger, hopefully addressing people by title keeps a little bit of creepy away. And on a ship there is a real extent to which you are your job title. Still, calling him the American GUDE, or the GUDE who is not my roommate, is a bit lengthy, so I will stick with Dave in his case. I don't have anything bad to say about him, but now I can't have anything bad to say about him even if I wanted to. I refuse to count my days, preferring to lose track of time completely until it comes time to fill out overtime slips, and Dave agrees that this is a more healthy attitude while still being unable to lose track of time as I can. So he was saying that when he got off the ship, sixty nine days from now, he was going to spend a whole morning not doing anything, then he would get a whole bunch of buffalo wings and watch a movie. And I say to him, didn't you do exactly that today? And he says, slightly startled, "Damn, I guess I did." I probably ate thirty wings between dinner, second dinner, evening snack, and post-bed meal, watched Chronicle on TV (a very good movie from a year or two back) and wasn't called in to work until noon, knocked off at two, then did dock work at seven PM.

I watched the tie up from up on deck next to one of the arabic ABs. Dave and my roommate were down on dock and the AB called out instructions to the two of them. To my roommate he called out "Tie up the midship line a bit forward" and he went off to go do that. To Dave he shouted in Arabic and gesticulated meaninglessly. Without missing a beat, Dave said, "Right, tie off there and a round turn on this one".
Bottom left: Dave. Top right: The AB. They aren't actually talking to each other in this picture, just waiting around, but it sure looks like they are.

Calcite is a multi part dock, and we were taking on different loads of stone, meaning that we tied up to one dock then cast off and moved over to another dock in the same port. The two men on dock, the GUDEs, were told to cast off and then swim over to the other side. "You mean walk around to the other side?" "Did I say that? What did I say?" Asked the bosun in his well practiced manner that suggests he is a little bit disappointed in your work. "But I am a weak swimmer" "That is why you have the floaty thingies, the lifevests" "But," Dave protested weakly, holding up part of his life vest, "It is a bit faded" I suggested. "So?" asked bosun. "Well, he can't be swimming at night if the highly visible jacket isn't highly visible." "Oh, ok. You can walk around then."
Panorama of the dock. That is bosun waving for the camera to the far right.

As Dave unties the last line and we start to pull away, I shout to the AB, loud enough for Dave to hear, that we should just leave them and sail away. Dave shouts back that the chief cook can't make no more buffalo wings for me if he is stuck in Calcite making buffalo wings for him. I conceded the point. Once untied, the AB motioned for me to come a bit closer so that he could tell me what to do. I came up about three inches from his face (the distance necessary to hear over the noises) and he babbles in Arabic at me. I look down and start dragging the freed mooring lines over to port side, looking to him for any indication that I am doing the wrong thing. I say to him that I probably wouldn't have understood what he was saying over all the noise even if he had said something that I could understand, and the AB replied that what he had said didn't make sense in Arabic either, he had just been babbling nonsense.

Jerry Seinfeld does not sail upon the MV Sam Laud.

On another note, bats love ships. All the lights at night attract bugs, and they do us the courtesy of eating as many of the fuckers as they can. Unfortunately, bats do not wear hard hats, and I found my third bat casualty, another torn wing, suffering on the deck. I tried to get it on a shovel to throw it back on land (which is, apparently, the correct solution), but it was just squirmy enough to not stay on the shovel long enough to get it across the ship. I pushed it under a pipe where it wouldn't get stepped on, but when I checked back later it was gone. I like to think that it got suddenly all better, yay!, and flew away to eat more bugs and have a happy bat family, but probably it just fell in the water and drowned slowly. They sure are cute, though.
Here is our friend, the bat. He doesn't look like he is having much fun.
And here is a small bird on the deck. It wasn't crippled, and flew away to its happy bird family.


Chicago!

At American Steamship Company, good things happen to those who do good. Not even as a reward but just as a natural consequence of helping out the American Spirit, we took two holds worth of iron to Indiana Harbor, near Gary, IN at the south of Lake Michigan, at the southern end of the Chicago metroplex. Chicago is huge, which should not be news to anyone, but this ship has been travelling at full speed since leaving the port and the endless stream of tall buildings is still visible to starboard three hours later.
Sunset on Lake Michigan
As an added bonus, someone at the company decided that our heroism merited both a whole lot of pizza being delivered to the ship as well as buying all the NFL games on our satellite TV for the whole season. My roommate, and this seems to be a pattern with him, is unimpressed by Chicago, unable to eat most of the pizza for religious reasons (his sect is strictly vegitarian, not just halal), and has no interest in American football. He said they should have just paid us if they want to thank us, to which I muttered weakly that this just isn't the way you do it while thinking to myself that he made a good five or six hours of overtime at somewhere just under $30 an hour off the whole deal.

Sunset on a different day than the previous sunset.
In any case, I got to go over and help tie us off, taking lots of pictures (if you can't tell, I discovered firstly that my phone has a panoramic image function and secondly that it is hard to use when the boat is rolling and heaving even a little bit) all the while, but missed most of the fun. You see, the bosun decided yesterday that his room needed to be repainted, so he went down into the paint locker and repainted it himself in his free time.

Normal photo of the port
Just kidding, he tasked the apprentice and GUDEs with painting it, and is an extremely keen eye since it is his room we are painting (he works this ship as a regular post, so probably sleeps in that bunk more nights than his bed at home). Which means that after tieing off, I went back to spend the day inside the windowless bathroom while the GUDEs got to do an easy unloading and play around in the cargo hold. One of the ABs and I have a running joke that people pay money to do a lot of the things we get paid to do, and certainly spending a few hours huffing paint is something lots of other people do recreationally.
Panoramas of the port. Click to make them bigger.
I swear that a ship in rough waters can pitch and roll and heave, but when the door to a room full of fresh paint closes while your back is turned, the ship can start moving in a whole other direction real quick. Lesson learned: wear a damn filter mask next time.

Anyway, I have been taking more pictures, and I think the panoramas in the harbor (where the water was calmer) came out pretty nice, so I might try that some more.





Sunday, September 7, 2014

Grounded!

Around 2300 last night, the Sam Laud received notice that another vessel, the American Spirit, had run aground in the open water near Mackinac Isle. We sailed over to their location, not too far out of the way, to offer our assistance, arriving around midnight.

The ship was listing badly but not damaged, so the task of rescue was fairly straightforward, though requiring much caution. We keep on our ship tires attached to short lines held in reserve for just this circumstance, and these were cast over the side after securing the free end of the line to the deck. Then we heaved our mooring lines over to the Spirit and heaved ourselves hull to hull. The lines holding the tires are rarely used, and in the moment of first contact half of them sheared right off, eliciting mild swearing, but we still had enough bumper for the maneuver at hand.
Mackinac Island during a break in the rain. It really looks like a nice place, but the other sailors tell me it is unbelievably expensive.
 The two chief mates, being the officers in charge of load and balance, devised for the Spirit and unloading plan and for the Laud a loading plan. We were empty and they had a full load of iron ore, so the plan was to unload (carefully) from thier ship onto ours. The American Spirit is slightly larger, but of the same general construction as the Sam Laud, possessing a self-unloading boom capable of dropping iron into our holds. The two conveyormen (who operate the booms) danced the booms around each other carefully while the ABs and officers heaved and payed the mooring winches to put thier conveyor under the right hatch so as to neither tip over thier already listing vessel and to not unbalance the Laud.

For all the complexity of the operation, everyone (except me) knew what to do and the whole thing went as uneventfully as a normal shore loading. We slid back and forth, starboard hull touching starboard hull, while thier crane dumped into the right hatches. I shoveled up behind all the iron pellets, dust, and mud that missed the hatch.
We are the front ship, American Spirit is the one behind carefully unloading. The Sam Laud boom is raised right above my head.

Of course, the entire thing was performed under heavy intermittent rain, with droplets thick enough that you could feel them individually striking beneath raincoat and denim, since it would not have been dramatic enough in calm seas under sunny skies.

I, of course, missed most of it, only coming in for the last two hours, since the bosun seems determined to keep me from getting any overtime and he had some painting jobs for me to round out the rest of my eight (and no more) hours.

We were only an hour away from the Soo locks en route to Silver Bay, but our course has shifted now to carry half of the Spirit's cargo. I am back on Lake Michigan, which I hadn't seen since setting out from Muskegon, on our way to some port near Chicago. Since it is only a partial load, I doubt there will be any opportunity to get off, not that they are likely to let me off, since I am part of the unloading team.
Saved! Note that the Spirit didn't hit any obviously visible features. This is another reason why I want no part of being a navigator.

As for photos, it is very hard to take many good ones, since whenever there is something interesting happening they have me working on that interesting thing (or kept well out of the way), so I am often too busy to take any.

As for the comments; GUDE stands for General Utility, Deck and Engine. It is technically an engine department job, the first rating on the path to QMED (Qualified Man of the Engine Department), but on this ship they use them as deck hands.

People Pay Money to do the Things I got Paid Money to do

I really do have the best job. First of all, we didn't even start until 2 in the afternoon, so I slept in and watched TV all morning. When we did get called we pulled out a little aluminum rowboat, lowered it into the water, and then rowed onto shore. We waved at some recreational canoeists along the Detroit river, then made landfall on a rocky shore. I scrambled out first and climbed up to tie off the boat, then we tied off the ship. The coal dock had seen a lot of rain recently, so we were playing in mud, sinking in some steps up to the shins.

After all this fun it was nearly dinner time, so we we rowed back to ship for a plateful of chicken fried steak and rice, both smothered in gravy. After that, I quickly undid the hatch clamps and we began unloading coal. Unloading coal is not too different from any other cargo, except it is much stickier. In addition to spraying firehoses down into the holds, the engineers activated a huge and complex device down in the bilges whose whole purpose is to make an ungodly amount of noise. This noise reverberates along the bulkheads and through the hold to shake off coal dust, but it also shakes the deck like the sounding board of a guitar and expels noise out of the open hatches. It felt, more than anything, like one of those foot massage toys they sell at sharper image, and my feet continued to tingle pleasently even in bed after work. Hearing protection is mandatory (and necessary) when the Vibrator is active, which meant that everyone who tried to talk was extra loud and overenunciated, so communication was easier and better than it was under normal conditions.

My job through all this was to tend the fire hoses of the men spraying down into the cargo hatches. The nozzlemen have to wear safety harnesses and strap themselves to the ship in order to lean way down into the hold without falling in, and they don't want the apprentice doing that. The thing about tending hoses for people strapped to one place is that since the people don't move around much, the hoses don't need a whole lot of tending, so I had another few hours to peacefully watch the sun set over an industrial park south of Detroit. The lights came on, the burn-off chimneys were lit, and the whole scene was like stars upon the river.

Another fantastic day. Now back to Silver Bay at the far end of Lake Superior, and then probably a return to Cleveland.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Right Thought is pretty hard, but Right Speech is usually silence

"'He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me' - in those who harbor such thought hatred will never cease. 'He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me' - in those who do not harbor such thoughts, hatred will cease. For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time; hatred ceases by love, this is an old rule. The world does not know that we must all come to an end here, but those who know it, their quarrels cease at once." - Buddha

I don't know why it matters that Buddha said that, as opposed to some random schmuck, and given the age of these texts, it could well have been some random schmuck, not to say that Gautama himself was not essentially some random schmuck saying good things, but for some reason it does seem to matter.

An overview of the crewmen on deck, or, I wish I had worked harder in Arabic class

I took an Arabic class in college and, while I passed the class, failed miserably at the ultimate goal of achieving fluency in the Arabic language. I have since realized in my current studies of Japanese that it is all about motivation, but that is neither here nor there. I had thought that perhaps my limited Spanish would be of some assistance when I started shipping, and it may well be when I start shipping out of Houston, but here on the Sam Laud I have all five of the six crewmembers who work closest to me as Arabic speakers of some sort or another. I don't mind particularly that they have a different background and culture, and I turn the volume down during my roommate's prayer time, but the language barrier really makes it hard to sometimes even do simple things on the job. They all have enough fluency to pass a test, and when they sit down and really think about how they are going to say something they have very interesting things to say, but it is clearly tiring for some of them and in the hustle and bustle of a long work day language really does become a barrier.

With that preface, I have been meaning to write this for a while, and with some crew changes when we hit Detroit with a load of coal (which should most profitably be used burning the city down, but I digress), I reckon that I ought to introduce you to the structure of a deck department and brief sketches of the men I work with.

At the very bottom of the organizational chain is me. The Apprentice. I get paid substantially less than minimum wage unless I go into overtime, and bosun works very hard to make sure I specifically do not get much overtime (he doesn't do that with anyone else, because overtime is a substantial part of how people make a pile of money out at sea). My duties on the ship's Station Bill and in general are simply "Assist as directed". In practice that means I do the same things as the deckhands, except a bit less of it and more closely supervised.

I only today realized that there were three GUDEs on board. These are guys in phase four of Piney Point, and generally assist as what they used to call deck hands. Mopping, docking, cargo operations, painting, greasing, de-greasing, and other simple maintanance and physical jobs are the main tasks of a GUDE. One of these is my roommate, a Pakistani who has been an American for the last three years. He speaks four languages fluently (Urdu, Pashtu, Arabic, and English) and will pontificate at length in any of them about pretty much anything he forms an opinion on. He is very devout, to the point that he won't even bother to convert me because whether or not I go to hell is in Allah's hands. He works hard, though, and doesn't complain when the more important people are around. As a roommate, he is good at taking his noisy activities out to the stern, keeps his space clean, and washes five times a day for prayer. We are alike in our desire to know as much as we can about the world, though I get the impression that the philosophy and ideas he has been exposed to were carefully curated by an imam somewhere, judging by the gaps in his exposure.

The other GUDE is from Yemen and has the worst English on the ship. He actually leaves tomorrow, so he is the most experienced of the deckhands and frequently asked to show me how to do things. Except that he has a great deal of trouble verbalizing what I need to be doing. He seems like he isn't a bad person, but it is hard to work with someone you can't communicate with. He works quite well with the bosun and other Arabs, because they all would prefer to give direction in Arabic. I am not offended, but it does make my job a bit harder, or it would if any part of my job was knowing what the hell is going on (but it isn't). He does have an excellent sense of when he needs to be working hard and when he can get away with hiding from work.

The third GUDE is all American. I haven't spoken with him much because he was the one who got injured before I came on board and has spent the last three weeks on light duty down in the engine room. He finally came out on deck today and seems like a good guy, certainly a step up from someone with as severe of a language barrier as the departing GUDE.

Above the deckhands are three AB-watchmen. Out on deck most often, at least when I am around, is another Arab, though one with good English and a sharp wit. He is the sort of person who loves people. The other two are best described as crotchety old men, though I mean that in a good way. One doesn't come out on deck much, so I don't see him often, but the other has been quite helpful in showing more efficient ways of doing things. He has an unfortunate tendency to mumble, but aside from that seems like a decent sort of person.

Not really above, but up a level in specialization, are the two gatemen and two conveyormen. The gatemen I only see in the mess hall, because they operate the gates beneath each cargo hold that, when opened, allow the cargo to fall onto the lower conveyor belt, where it is carried up through a tunnel to the discharging boom. Said discharging boom is operated by the conveyormen, who I only see during unloading operations and is the giant crane arm you have seen in pictures. That boom swivels to either side to unload our cargo into a huge pile on the ground. These guys seem ok, though I haven't talked to them much.

At the top of my little world is the bosun, or boatswain in the old spelling, who is the top unlicensed man in the deck department. He also has a few ancillary functions like being union representative on the ship, but mostly what he does is get the plan of the day or few days from the officers and directs us peons to make it happen. Not that he just sits around and watches; I know he works more than I do and suspect he works more than anyone else in deck department. We actually had a different bosun the first week and a half, a man who wasn't very interested in explaining what needed to be done and always a little bit agitated, but the new bosun is much more in line with the captain's philosophy of working calmly, safely, and with a lot of communication. Differences in temperment aside, both were good guys, both Yemeni with good English, both shared a similar outloook on life.

Those are the guys I work with regularly. Above them are the deck officers. I don't see them as much because they eat in a separate mess and live and work mostly on third deck and above, whereas I am on main deck, galley is on the deck above (poop deck or second deck) and most of my work is on one of these two decks or out in the weather.

Third mate stands watch at times when I usually am not working, and when she does come outside it is usually to supervise or work with port agents and contractors, so I can't say much about her except that she exists. Second mate is similar, except he was the one who walked me through the paperwork, processes overtime and reimbursements, and checked me off the company training list. He seems like a good, professional man. Chief mate is a big man in every sense of the word and is the sort of person to remember everything. I don't know how serious he is, but he is engaged in a small campaign to get me to stay in deck department, frequently letting me know that deck has all the fun. I see him the most outside working due to when his shifts happen and his role as safety officer, but I also see him in the crew mess because our side has the best snacks. As for the captain, I have literally seen his face exactly once, during the monthly fire drill / ship's meeting where he gave a talk about safety. That said, he is felt all over the ship every time someone reminds someone else about safety protocols.

I knew in my head but didn't really realize just how much turnover there is on board a ship. I have one of the shortest terms here and have already seen a third of the people I work closest with turnover, just because contract expirations are not coordinated or timed in any way. This ensures a continuity of shipboard culture and knowledge, but it seems weird to me that people leave frequently without fanfare or farewells. I expect that this strangeness will receed in short order, since it is certainly more efficient the way we do it now.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Near Misses

Both the captain and the company are very big on safety. The captain says they don't pay us enough to be losing limbs, and at $3.25 an hour, I am inclined to agree. Most of that is going slowly, communicating frequently, and wearing protective gear, but they also have a near miss reporting program, where they report something that was almost an accident just as they would a full accident.

About three weeks ago, before I got on, a GUDE was putting a mooring cable on a bollard while holding the eye instead of the little safety beckett that you are supposed to be holding and got a finger stuck between the wire and the steel bollard with the weight of a ship pulling on it. He is damned lucky he still has all his fingers and had to get off for a few days to get the bits that had partially come off sewn back on. He is back and mostly recovered now, but every single time as we get into a new port they remind us never to hold a line by the eye.

A few days ago I was pulling out wire from the winch in preparation for mooring when instead of feeding out, the wire began feeding up. So, like a damn fool, instead of letting go and shutting down the operation, which every single officer would have said was the correct thing to do, I started tugging real hard at it. I am lucky that when I fell on my stupid ass I fell on a part of the deck without obstructions, when I could have fallen overboard, or fallen on the nasty edges of the cargo hatches, or on any of the small bits and doodads around the deck, or just lost the contest entirely and had the automatic winch dislocate or break my arm. Bosun was really nice and didn't call me a dumbass, but he does explain everything related to winches very slowly before having me work with them now.

This is a dangerous job even for careful people and positively lethal for careless morons. That is why we get paid big money.

Return of Cleveland; Now with More Cleveland!

So it turns out that the Cleveland route we did last time was some sort of abbreviated route due to technical difficulties. Usually what we do is what we did this time, called the shuttle route. We dump half our cargo off at a small dock near the lake so that our draft is high enough not to scrape the bottom of the river, then we go down the river and unload the other half, then we go back up the river (about a 1.5 hour trip each way, now that we have all our thrusters working), grab another half load and return to unload. The whole process takes twelve hours or so, and today the crew ran hard in long shifts for 24 hours, and it is not uncommon for this ship to do three or four shuttles.

But the work on deck isn't that hard, or at least the things I am allowed to do are not that hard, since I am not allowed to play with the heavy mooring cables once they go out on the dock. I probably spend more time sitting around on the deck being told to stay out of the way and wait for someone to tell me what to do that I do actually working. And I get paid commensurately, something like $3.25 an hour.

But I am being allowed to do more and more things. Two days ago I got trained on the hatch crane, and machine which straddles transversely across the deck with two hooks that come down and lift the cargo hatches (which probably weigh at least half a ton each, if not much more). The controls are pretty simple; forward, back, up, down, and off, but the forty year old machine is starting to get a bit squirrely (if it wasn't to begin with), and it takes a good bit of care to do anything precise.

Also, I got to go down into the cargo hold for the first time today, in what was the most fun job I have had so far. The cargo hold is slanted like a steep roof with chains coming down the side. When we switch cargo (in this case from iron to coal), we have to make sure not a single iron pellet remains in the hold, so we go down and wipe off the baffles and ladders and surfaces and bang on the long chains like monkeys while climbing across the sloped hold inside a giant cavern. My roommate has a very low opinion of the safety and enjoyability of the task, but we deal with much more dangerous things all day without him getting so excited about it.

Anyway, off to Sandusky now to fill up with coal, which should be exciting.

The Little Things

They say that the key to happiness is low expectations. They also say that the key to happiness is focusing on the little things. Now perhaps this is a door with two keys, like in a nuclear launch facility, but I like to think that these two ideas are secretly the same idea split apart.

American Zen Master Alan Watts has a story about actual Zen Master Suzuki. Suzuki was at a Zen retreat with a number of aspirants for a month, doing Zen things with them. After dinner on the first day, he goes up to wash his bowl and an American layman asks him why he, the great master Suzuki, was doing such a simple task. The master says that enlightenment can be found in such simple tasks, and the layman's eyes get wide. Would it be alright, asks the layman earnestly, if I washed the bowls after each meal? The master nods and hands the layman his bowl. Another Buddhist sees the layman later washing dishes so eagerly and asks the master what it is that he told the layman, and the master replies that the layman has found a meditative practice, and I have found someone to wash the dishes for me.

I could turn this whole blog into a food blog specifically about everything that our chief steward cooks everyday. But I won't, except to note here that the food is absolutely fantastic. I have eaten the best hot dogs of my life, jumbo all beef franks seared on the outside and juicy on the inside with chopped onions and crumbled bacon mashed between the dog and bun, all topped by a generous helping of Tabasco. He doesn't make steaks any different from how we make them at home, but somehow they always come off the grill perfectly heated. Even his rice is more exciting than normal rice. And when it isn't meal time, there is always a good selection of chips, fruits, cookies, and leftovers. I don't know how much weight I have already gained in the last ten days, but I do know that I no longer need to wear my belt to keep my pants up.

Not to harp on food, but about a year or so ago I became briefly excited by cooking and began an informal study of ingredients and spices. As part of this, I looked all over for what the exact combination of spices was that went into proper Buffalo chicken, but for some reason never could find it. Well, it seems they stock it here on the ship, Frank's Original RedHot Cayenne Pepper Sauce is the pot of gold at the end of a quest I had abandoned long ago. It is quite good on rice.

I still can't get over how pretty the water is up here. I stand by the railing watching the horizon for about an hour after dinner most days, and it has become a compulsion to check out the window to see how amazing the world outside is every time I enter the room or get up. We have yet to get anything strong enough to make the boat roll noticeably, but with the forecast early onset of winter, I expect it soon enough.

Our route right now is an exact repeat of our previous route. When we got to Cleveland last time, the factory we dropped off at said they would like three or four more shipments of the same, so we went right back to Silver Bay and are headed right back to Cleveland. That being the case, each place we have gone through the second time around is a little bit different just because the weather conditions change each time, and it has displayed a new facet of beauty in each location.

I have not found a job I didn't like doing onboard so far, from painting to scraping grease, except for those times I was asked to do the job with the wrong tool or a broken tool. I got the last available paintbrush yesterday, and it leaked out the bottom, so I was brushing on a job that really needed a roller and constantly moving my drip protections. A poor craftsman blames his tools, and I am a poor craftsman. Damn tools.

Before I left I really didn't know what to expect, so I loaded my laptop up with all kinds of books, movies, and games so that I wouldn't feel too bad even if this job turned out to be terrible (which, thank god, it isn't). What I have ended up wasting all my free time on, when not writing blog posts, is a game called the Sims, which is nothing more than a virtual dollhouse where you plop people down in a house and make them go to work and eat dinner and do normal family things, except for some reason it is absolutely addictive. Probably because, like life, there are no stopping points where you can put it down and call it break time, every time you quit it is in the middle of some part of someone's life.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Occupational Hazards

We had a standard 8 - 4 day today, and my roommate and I were sitting in the room watching TV (satellite provided by DirecTV). Specifically, we were watching Deep Impact, I with only one eye on the screen and one eye on my laptop, but roommate was getting really into it. We watch the first maybe two hours of a 2.5 hour movie when bosun comes in and says that we are going through the Soo locks tonight, and since the captain wasn't sure if the weather would permit or not (it did and was a beautiful night) we have no warning and have to get up right now to put the ship through. Now the locks are the lightest of light work for me and the other two GUDEs, but we still have to get up, leaving the TV on, and go put the ship through. We get up right when President Morgan Freeman announces that the plan to save the world has failed, and get back just as the credits are ending. I have forgotten how that movie ends and my roommate has never seen it, and it is eating him up.

Such are the hazards of life at sea.

Anyway, posting photos while I have a good connection. I keep thinking about the next post, but not writing it, so sorry about that.

Canadian side of the Soo locks. You can see a tour boat going into the lock to my left.

The tourist zoo. The stands are the glass structure.

Facing forward into Lake Superior. Everything really does look better when you can get pictures from the pilot house at the top of the ship.

Here is a sister ship, built identically to the Sam Laud, headed the opposite direction.

I saw the bouy while looking out my porthole one day and said to myself, "that would make a really artsy photo". My roommate asked me what in all of god's creation I was talking about and I just sort of mumbled nothing while taking this picture.

This evening it was so foggy you couldn't see the bow. I wish I had a picture from two mornings ago when I walked out to midship and could neither see the bow nor the house behind the fog.

I took a picture of the tourists taking pictures of me. The tourists seemed to enjoy it whenever the seamen engage with them and they shout all sorts of questions. Some day I will make the trip up here on my time off and heckle the ships as they go through.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Tiny Reminders

A few bits of housekeeping:


  1. I am capable of posting short text only posts from my phone, but would prefer both to write on a full keyboard and include more pictures, so posts will get backlogged until I get into a major city. Which pretty much means Detroit, because anywhere we actually dock I will probably be working until we pull back out of range.
  2. All the pictures I post can be enlarged by clicking on them. My phone has absurdly high resolution, and I don't respect Google's servers enough to compress them, so enjoy!
  3. My internet connection is spotty at best, so I will be reading all the comments but may not have time to respond to everything. Sorry about that.
Thanks for following along. I appreciate all the advice that has come in.

Refueling in Detroit

I expected something more exciting when bosun told me we were going to refuel this morning, but it really is just tieing off at a terminal, hooking a hose into a pipe, and then watching the meter, just like an old time gas pump. When they told us to take a break, we were at 21,000 gallons pumped with no signs of slowing down.

In any case, I got a picture of the setup and a picture of Detroit.

Detroit, from a safe distance away.

The refueling terminal. The pumpman is in the way of the ship to hose connection, and the pumping meter is visible on the upper catwalk if you zoom in.

A Long Day In Cleveland

The pictures are mad at me, so just use your imagination.

They say the worst kind of day in Cleveland is every day in Cleveland, and I can certainly attest to that. This has been the ugliest scenery on the trip, not merely because the rest of the lakes have been so charming (they have, though I slept through Detroit proper), but due to the particular faults of the "Mistake on the Lake" itself.

It has been such a long and active day, running right up on fourteen hours of novel activity, that I find myself rather hazy on what actually happened this morning. The general outline of it is that we stopped at a dock only one drawbridge and short channel away from the lake itself. We deckhands were roused half an hour prior to unlatch all the cargo hatches (twenty clamps on each of the twenty hatches to be wrenched free with a special spanner that looks like a tuning fork) and prepare the mooring lines, but then had a good chance to sit and watch the pretty side of the once prosperous town roll up.

At the dock we began unloading both cargo and trash, both burnable and non-burnable since our incinerator is unhappy at the moment, and took on a few more groceries. This resulted in my first step on dry land since Michigan in order to help cart the trash over to a dumpster, and the solid ground proved decidedly unsatisfactory lacking both roll and vibrations. The dockworker driving the pickup full of garbage and me (apologies for any redundancy) made up for as much of that as he could as we drove through a long field of gravel made up completely of half-inch diameter steel pellets of the sort we had loaded in the cargo hold. These pellets, designed to be melted back down into whatever shape necessary, really do fascinate me far more than they should. In any case, the garbage was sucessfully placed in the dumpster and half our cargo was unloaded. I was quite glad to get back onboard, since anything is better than staying in Cleveland and being on the Sam Laud more than qualifies as anything.

This leg of the journey wasn't actually that bad. What came next, though, was a river ride all the way down some thin river or another all the way to the end of the navigable part of the river (not just for us, two crews of recreational rowers came up and had to turn back at the same small railroad bridge that we docked in front of). This journey was made through what was surely the ugliest part of Cleveland (I cannot fathom any part of Mighty America having parts uglier than this) at slower than walking pace, with occasional slowdowns for sharp turns and drawbridges. The best part being that no one told me how long this was going to take, so I remained waiting, on alert to be called back into action, for three and a half hours.

Of course, even on deck most of my job is watching and waiting for someone to need my assistance, so I am sort of used to it by now.

In any case, I apologize for not getting a picture of the factory we stopped at while it had both burnoff stacks running and with lightning in the background from the brief squall that we worked through as the sun began to sink. I do not apologize for not getting a picture of the ugliest sunset I have seen on the lakes, with downtown Cleveland in the background.

For this second dock, when we finally got there, we had to wash down the entire cargo hold as it emptied out, serving the dual purpose of keeping the hold clean and encouraging the iron pellets to slip into the conveyor tunnel. This meant that what would otherwise be just sitting around, or perhaps break time, while the conveyorman watches the slow unloading, we all got to tend hoses for five hours. We got off slightly before 11PM with an early start tomorrow for fuel, and your idiot correspondent is sitting here writing instead of sleeping.

I would say that the best part of the day was leaving Cleveland, but it doesn't look like we will be back up this shithole of a river before midnight. Maybe the best part of the day was the morning, when I enjoyed some excellent pancakes and had never tained my life with the stain that is Cleveland.

Now we have three to four more days back to Silver Bay, and then mostly likely will be back in Cleveland next week. But that is the future, and the future doesn't exist, so now I am going to sleep.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Packing the Stands

I have never been a tourist attraction before.

This was actually the second time going through the Soo locks, the canal between Lake Superior and Lake Huron near Sault Saint Marie, but the first time was early in the morning, foggy, and we were raised up to the higher water level of Lake Superior.

No one warned me until people started staring that the locks were a tourist attraction, and apparently a popular one on a Sunday evening. As we pulled in I could see people watching us in a park behind a large fence and the older AB that I was working with told me that they were watching us like we are in a zoo. I pointed out that the tourists were the ones completely enclosed behind a fence, so really it is us watching them in a tourist zoo set up for our convenience.

By the time we came to a halt in the middle of the lock, the two story viewing stand was completely packed on both levels. The spectators called out questions like what we are hauling ("it is government secret cargo") and if we were getting seasick ("watch out, the new guy projectile vomits"). The forward line tender, an employee at the lock, grumbled that the tourists all think they are so clever, but they make the same jokes and ask the same questions every time (and I rather suspect that the line tender makes the same complaint about it every time as well). I barely noticed the attention while there were lines to tie and things to monitor, but once we tied off I had to walk from forward to aft, going right by the stands with nothing to do but keep my head forward and face straight. Please don't tell bosun that I was successful in neither of those tasks.

Going down is also a lot different from going up. In both directions the ship is literally only inches away from the sheer concrete wall, such that if I had pressed my hand to the side of the ship it would be ripped to tiny bits. But at the top of the wall is a metal rail, and when we go down the wires slide tightly, sparking and jumping along the rail. It was not the first operation with danger on the ship, but it was the first time I thought to myself 'shit! I need to back way far away from this'.

Then the wire snapped and I lost both my legs, but the bosun says I should still be able to get all my work done if I try a little bit harder. No one apart from crew will be watching me work tomorrow, and as little as the spectators matter, I think I prefer it that way.

Excitement and Adventure in Exotic Silver Bay

The captain has a letter that he gives out to everyone that comes on to the ship. It says a number of things, like where the laundry facilities are located and when meal times are. But it also says, explicitly, that safety is more important than efficiency, and this attitude is actively embraced by every single crewman that I have worked with. There is emphatically no running on the ship, ever, and people really do stop at the start of each new task to make sure that everyone knows the correct safety procedures.
The Silver Bay Steel Mill. Because no one wants to admit they just went to Duluth.
Routine at sea appears highly variable, with an emphasis on making sure no one goes into over time. Port routine, though, is much more exciting, though much more routine. We came out on deck about a half hour before arriving in Silver Bay. Me, the two GUDEs (General Utility Deck and Engine, both Piney Point fourth phasers) and another AB unclamped all twenty hatches, then watched as the ship slowly pull into dock next to a huge pile of iron pellets. The two GUDEs got off and I, the bosun, and the AB tossed mooring lines at them, and they tied us up and came on. Then we sat for the next four hours watching the giant conveyors dump iron into our hold, following behind as they moved and shoveling the iron dust that didn't make it in.

Silver Bay, on approach. The ship behind us is the MV St. Clair, where another of my classmates, the really hard working one, went to. I didn't see him this time, but we waved at each other the day before in the Soo locks.
In the midst of all this, we found a little bat, maybe a fruit bat but the only species I am really familiar with is Batman, that had gotten caught in the conveyor and dumped onto our deck. He wasn't quite dead, but with a torn wing and a generally unhappy demeanor he was clearly not long for the world. I didn't want to toss him into the hold, because while I am sure there are already other dead things in there, but I didn't want to deliberately contaminate the hold. I considered throwing it off the side, but we aren't supposed to be throwing anything at all off the side. So I tossed it in the incinerator to at least give it a quick end. Poor bat.
The loading process begins.

We took a short break from waiting and occasionally shovelling to unload the non-burnable garbage onto the shore where we traded it for groceries. A large winch did all the heavy lifting, so it was just pushing the raise/lower button and doing a little bit of manuevering and then back to waiting. After about six hours (a very quick loading) that felt much quicker the crane closed all the cargo hatches then we went around and clamped them back down. The ship got back underway about an hour before sunset and then we hosed off the deck.
Loading up close. The guy operating this conveyor spent most of his time playing with his cell phone, which we all agreed was dangerous before we went back to playing with our cell phones.

I started work at 1PM yesterday and finished at 1130PM, but it didn't feel like anything at all. None of my work so far has been hard, and all of it is just enough to do to keep from being boring. In fact, all my hours have been flying by, whether working or eating or sitting in my room reading. I don't think I want to do this for a living because the work isn't very fulfilling, but I have yet to be given any bullshit make work and everything I do has had a tangible, obvious purpose for the ship, so I certainly don't mind doing it for the next thirty days.
A hold full of Steel Pellets, little bullet sized spheres of metal.

Quality of Life is Perhaps the Most Important Part of Life

Whatever else you want to say about working in this industry, the quality of life onboard ship, or at least onboard this ship, is very high. The food is absolutely outstanding-- only once have I had a meal that was merely decent. When the cook was busy on grocery day he "took it easy" and made juicy steaks and baked some potatoes. Today he made chicken wings with his own soy and teriyaki sauce. And when meal time is done, there are often leftovers and always chips, oranges, cookies, pastries, and a whole assortment of goodies open for whoever wants them. And while our work is not strenuous, it is enough to build up an appetite, so I am spending quite a lot of time in the mess.

Downtime is pretty much ideal for me. I have my laptop, a phone that has all my books on it, and only one roommate who is fairly clean and quiet. Obviously, no regular internet, but I anticipated and prepared well for this. No one bothers me when there isn't work to be done, and the crew is cordial and mostly keeps to themselves or to small groups of three and four.

The starboard wake disturbs an amazingly flat lake.
On the subject of my roommate, he is a good guy. He is from Pakistan and got citizenship three years ago. The American part of his family runs a supermarket in Maine and the rest of his family lives near the Afghan border. He speaks fluent Urdu, Pashtu, Arabic and English and enjoys pontificating at length on a variety of subjects from religion to shipping to the state of modern society. He is pretty good natured and would probably not mind friendly pushback when he is talking out of his ass, but I have been in a quiet mood for the last few weeks. Perhaps later I will show him the error of his ways. And perhaps not; that deep impulse to correct people who are clearly wrong on things that don't really matter has receeded a lot in the last year or so.

But the real height of shipboard life is the little things, or perhaps I should say the scenery. The white noise of the ship drowns out most obnoxious noises, like people talking in the background or strange clickings and the like, and the constant vibration is quite soothing when mediated by a mattress or shoes (though walking on the deck of my room barefoot makes my feet feel all tingly). There is very little roll to the ship, but the tiny roll we do have when under way is a great feeling. So much so that the moment we come loose from the dock and start to power away I get a little excited all over again as the rumble and roll resumes.
The bow wake, always good for a little distraction if you don't mind getting up in the splash zone.

The lakes themselves are beautiful, both on clear days when you can see clear out to the horizon and on the foggy days when you can walk out to midship and not see either the bow or the superstructure. When there is scenery or other ships you can watch them work or roll by, and when there is nothing but water clear out to the sky I feel a sense of glorious isolation, like this ship is the only thing in the whole world, like I exist enveloped in nothingness. And yet even in that nothingness, in the space between our ship and the scenery, the texture of the water is hypnotic, endlessly fascinating. Each time I glance out a window while we are underway my heart catches again.
The water in the lake was calmer than the water in my glass. I never thought I would see a landscape flatter than the deserts in Arizona.

But of course, the real beauty of maritime life is the little things, the things that are each tiny stories without precedent or followup, each so insignificant that they aren't even stories. I talked about the poor bat that we didn't rescue at Silver Bay. At the Soo Locks between Lake Huron and Lake Superior we took on an extra cargo of maybe 15 small birds, three of which were these adorable yellow birds that were almost perfectly spherical with stubby legs and a head attached. Perhaps because we left in a bit of a fog, the birds didn't figure out that we had left until we were way out to sea. I watched them occasionally circle the ship, looking for land on the horizon, but we never came close enough for them to fly away. We carried those birds the full 18 hours from St. Marie to Silver Bay on the opposite side of Lake Superior, at which point they finally got off and went from being Michigan birds to being Minnesota birds.

A Tiny Lighthouse in the middle of the water. It probably indicates shallow water, but I thought it looked cool. Apparently, crewmates say it looks amazing at night, so here's hoping a catch another picture.
Every day there are these tiny stories. Today we were in deep fog and high wind and I was walking down an exterior ladder directly below the bridge a few decks down when the foghorn went off and I swear to you that this blog almost ended then and there because it startled the crap out of me right as a gust blew through from behind. I don't really know why I didn't fall down those stairs and break my damn fool neck, but I didn't.

In any case, I have three hours before we reach the next dock, so I am going to see if any of those fantastic chicken wings are left over (probably not) and then go back to my book until work time. I will probably be working until the small hours of the morning, but bosun keeps the schedule very flexible so that no one is sleep deprived for more than a day at a time.

UPDATE: There were more chicken wings! They were delicious. My roommate tells me I should be a muslim because of all the miracles that Allah performs for us every day, and the miracle of these chicken wings has me about 85% convinced.

I think I like this ship

These posts are all going to be coming a little delayed, since it seems like I can only get full internet in big cities like Detroit and Cleveland, and then only when I am off duty. I am writing them as they happen, but can only post when I get to post.

On my end, yesterday's fiasco ended far better than it should have. I spent twenty four hours panicking about missing my ship, then in Muskegon I sat for five hours at a dock that wasn't so much a dock as a small warehouse next to the lake that happened to have some bollards hiding in the weeds. Fortunately for me (unfortunately for the ship, because it sounds like their shipping schedule is screwed up now), the ship had problems with incliment weather on the way over and was also late as all hell. The two cancelled out and no one seems to know that I had a short brush with being less than punctual.

In any event, during the wait I had a good lesson in just how fantastically ignorant I am of the industry that has taken me in. At Piney Point we learn about mooring a ship to a dock or pier. They teach us what they call "standard" eight line mooring, as well as the six line variant, and those two show up on the test. We also get exposed to the a few Navy mooring practices, as well as some more exotic things like mediterranian mooring, but these are presented to us as outliers that we should be aware of, not know about.

Next to the industrial "dock" that I sat on was a much more professional dock which berthed a Milwuakee to Muskegon ferry. When the ferry pulled up I got sort of excited and, because I had nothing else to do, went over to watch it tie up. As the ferry got closer and closer I reviewed in my mind the "single standard best practices" for line handling during mooring and tried to observe the ferry crew carrying them out, but they didn't seem to be doing what the book said they should. Eventually I realized that nothing I learned about mooring applied to that vessel, because there was a special locking ramp mechanism that the ferry hooked onto to hold it in place.

Probably not the last word in modern docking facilities. I feel like I have seen pictures of better harbors in Nigeria.


195 Meters of Adventure! The MV Sam Laud!
Eventually, the Sam Laud pulls up. I excitedly lug my one duffel bag and one tattered backpack over to where, according to the standard mooring diagrams, the gangplank should come down. The one man who works the dock (and only part time, showing up only once the ship is visible in the small Muskegon bay) pulls up in his truck and asks me what I am doing. I say I am waiting to get on the ship, show him my documents, and he says I am all clear, but the ship wasn't going to pull into the berth. He drove me over to the water's edge, where the ship stopped and launched a small rowboat with two crewmen who carried over three mooring cables. These they placed without apparent reguard for the proper 90 degree angle of a breast line or thought to whether the spring lines should be attached first. They just put them on back to front.
This is how we get on and off the ship in backwards ports like Muskegon

It was during this mooring procedure that I got my very first order, one which has turned out to be my primary function aboard the ship. "Stay out of the way and watch while we take care of this". I was worried, thinking 'oh no! all those people on the ship can see me not working', but I didn't need to worry becuase these guys are of the opinion that guys coming out of first phase at Piney Point don't know shit. I got on the ship after they tied up by way of the tiny rowboat, and my belongings were hoisted up as I went up the accomidation ladder. They gave me my stuff, walked me into my room and said, "Stay out of the way. Don't go on deck. You can sign articles if we have time tomorrow." They unloaded half their cargo of crushed limestone in a big pile, then sailed up to another port an hour away and unloaded the rest of it. I participated in none of that, had time to sign a very few forms, and then went to sleep while they were still unloading.
Watching the unloading from my window.

The next day (this morning, but it really seems like it has already been longer than that), I realized that no one had told me when to report, or to whom I should report. I did remember that breakfast was at 7AM, so I went and ate, and then asked the chief steward what he thought I should do. He sent me up to the pilot house, where I filled out more forms and watched safety videos until 8:30. A moment on safety-- These guys really mean it. Everybody on this ship (that I have seen) talks the safety talk and walks the safety walk. Protective equipment is handed out like candy, and crewmen will stop operations to explain why I am about to lose a leg standing there. I have probably been reminded about being safe thirty times today, and the company safety policy of stop, talk, and proceed, is practiced on every job I have seen.

In any case, I eventually got directed to the bosun, who asked me if I wanted to start on the deck or in the galley. I thought about just how cold it is going to get in a few months, and decided I should try and get my outdoor shift done while the weather is still nice, so I am spending the next thirty days apprenticed to the deck department. My very first task was to hammer the mooring wire back in place as they heaved slowly onto the winch, a task which demonstrated what I had already started to notice by looking at my crewmates, that I am probably the physically weakest person on this ship right now. But I didn't complain and apparently hammered to the bosun's satisfaction, so we moved on to cutting off the frayed ends of the eye of another mooring wire with a blowtorch. He got to play with the blowtorch while I spun the wire around, just down wind of the sparks. I had my helmet and jacket, but iron sparks are still no fun at all. Then I got placed on a task that Piney Point really did train me for, organizing a storage locker, cleaning a head, then sweeping and mopping the poop deck (where the galley is).

I see now the great benefit of shipping on the lakes. As old as this ship is, there is very little rusting and no regular painting jobs. On an ocean vessel, I would be spending a part of every day painting, but here when they aren't in port and there are no emergencies, there really isn't too terribly much that has to get done. My roommate, and more on him later, has no regular hours, he just gets summoned whenever there is work to be done. Yesterday he worked from 6PM to 10PM, though he says he has had 20 hour days on occasion.

About the ship, we have five cargo holds that we fill up with rock-like objects; crushed limestone lately, but also coal and iron. We don't seem to have a set route, but instead take whatever is in demand, hitting port usually every day or every other day. The ship itself was built in 1975, but has been retrofitted with those two most important amenities, satelite TV and limited internet. The age shows, though, and I feel like everyone should be sporting thick 80's mustaches. Still, it is comfortable and the lake has been so calm that there isn't hardly any roll to the ship at all.

Everyone works, and everyone strives to always have a perfect product, but no one seems to work hard or very quickly. It isn't that they don't care, they just don't see a reason to kill themselves, since the normal course of a day will see all their work done in any case. It is a work ethic different from my own, which has always been to go as fast as I can and kill myself working and then get done super early, but I don't think it will be terribly difficult to conform to this gentler pace. And I get the distinct impression that they can do quite a lot very quickly should the need arise.

Anyway, I am still getting familiar with the ship and the crew, and apparently I can get enough internet to post updates whenever I have downtime (Update: I can only get internet when near the largest of US cities, like Detroit). But for now, I think it is time to sleep.
Sailing Away From The Sunset