Friday, June 26, 2015

The Eagle has Landed

A 120 day trip got cut down to 38 days because the company ran out of contracts to ship aboard the Liberty Eagle. There is a rumor they might be picking up a load in three weeks, but until that time I have been sent back home. I took a shuttle with nine other crewmates into Houston, where I caught the 2 AM greyhound into Austin and arrived at my parent's house at 6 AM this morning, just in time to be unable to get any sleep because the sun rose. Oh well.

Photos are below and a travelogue is below that. Don't expect anything more from this blog until I catch my next ship.

An Eagle in Photos

I took 1079 pictures with my fancy new camera, and stole the contents of the ship's shared camera. Obviously, anything I post will be only a selection of photos. Out of respect for the bandwidth limited, everything is after the jump. As always, click the photo to make it bigger.

Liberty Eagle Travelogue

So I wrote a bunch of posts while out at sea, but obviously couldn't actually post them. Since if I were to post them seperately, they would all show up in reverse order, I am posting them all here as one megapost. It gets sort of long, so I put it after the jump. Photos are incoming.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Every Day is a Good Day

This will be the last post for a while. We are loading soybeans from a crane on a barge in the middle of the Mississippi river, having taken on wheat after a long delay from a conventional port in Galveston, TX (sitting just barely south of the massive floods that hit the rest of the state). Tomorrow we head back out of the river and spend a week puttering south at about 12mph until we hit the Panama canal, and then to drop the two cargoes off in Nicaragua and El Salvador (Not Honduras or Costa Rica, as I had been previously informed). Because I have a terrible fear of roaming charges, the phone is going into airplane mode as soon as I post this and will remain that way until I get back to a US port.

People always ask what I do in a typical day and the answer was always that on my last ship I was just an apprentice and there was no typical day. As a GUDE (General Utility Deck and Engine, what they used to call a wiper) however, that has changed for the better. I am working with two other GUDEs and no higher ranked unlicensed engine men, though the other two I am working with are both qualified as mid-level QMEDs sailing below their rating because conditions in Puerto Rico are apparently rather poor. The rest of the engine room consists of the four engine officers, Chief, first, second, and third. The whole engine crew is made up of good people who are pretty easy to work with, and everyone is more than willing to take the time to help me learn the job and the machines.

This engine room is substantially bigger than the one I worked on in the lakes. Not only does it have a whole additional set of equipment for processing salt water into fresh water and for the additional purification requirements of Heavy Fuel Oil as compared to the Marine grade Diesel we used on the lakes, but the engines themselves are bigger, despite the ship itself being smaller and slower. The three electric generators are as tall as the main engines back on the lakes, though only ten piston instead of twenty, and the main engine is a three story tall, six massive cylinder, hunk of machine. The other GUDE (I say the other even though there are two because one of them talks a whole lot and the other barely speaks at all, language barrier, so I really only end up interacting much with one other GUDE) can't stop telling me just how small even this inflated engine room is.

Speaking of other GUDEs, the old name for the position, wiper, is fairly apt, because our primary job when nothing else is going on is sanitary work. And with three of us cleaning all the damn time, plus the fact that this ship was in layup for two months without a contract until we got this one, mean that the engine room is the cleanest engine room you will ever see. I went down into the bilges, the place at the very bottom where quite a lot of nasty stuff drains down, and didn't even get my white t-shirt smudged.

In any case, I was going to get to a description of an average day as a GUDE aboard the Liberty Eagle (Still can't get over what a fantastic name that is).

On a normal morning I wake up at 0550, put on clothes, get my things together, and take a multivitamin. Now, this last isn't because I lack faith in the food being provided, but rather because I lack faith in my own ability to maintain a healthy diet and would just rather not have to think about any sort of dietary things aside from calories and fibre (protein takes care of itself, since every meal is a giant slab of some sort of meat). And I have discovered since gaining fifteen pounds in three weeks at home and then losing pretty much none of it in the two weeks at sea that I have reached that age I have been warned about for so very long wherein I can no longer eat junk all day without getting fat. The only thing left for me is to decide whether I really do want to avoid getting fat or if I would rather just eat crap and accept the consequences. They say adulthood is all about choices, but I suppose little ten year old me wouldn't have believed that these are the sort of choices that take up most of my worrying. Fully clothed and equipped, I walk outside, wince at how bright the sun is, then walk down three flights of stairs to the main deck, appreciating the scenery all the while before walking back in and down another level of stairs to the main engine control room.

This first two hours is the best part of the day. We sit for a bit until the first or chief comes in and tells us that there are no emergencies, then we go back up and take over our House Sanitary duties. In the first place, being responsible for nothing more than general cleanup of a single deck (I have main deck) is a good way to slowly wake up each day and get some moving around in before breakfast. But beyond that, and this may sound silly, this is the first project at sea that I have been 100% responsible for. My job description includes keeping the main deck clean, but nothing and nobody but me is in charge of how I go about that. I decide if the walls need to get cleaned, or the bathroom needs to get done today, or if I can skip the fire pump room, and then I do it. No supervision, no one telling me what needs doing, no one else involved in the entire run of the ongoing project. Anyway, I sweep, mop, and wipe down a hallway for an hour and a half, all while getting paid for two hours of overtime at about $20 and hour, meaning I make $40 for not a whole lot of work before breakfast.

Speaking of which, after that comes breakfast, the best part of the day. Normally, I can't eat breakfast. If I try to eat while still sleepy and before I have moved around and made space in my stomach, it doesn't sit well and messes up my whole day. But finally I get to eat all the exciting breakfast foods I like, bacon and pancakes and waffles and hash browns and strawberries and sometimes a little bit of eggs, without it sitting too heavily.

After breakfast comes the first real chunk of work, and this first two hours in undoubtedly the best part of the day. We all meet in the office and find out what is happening, and usually this is where the interesting work (i.e., the real engineering work) gets passed out. If there is a job of any size, then typically one of the numbered engineers will take it on and grab one of the GUDEs to help out. These tasks have, in the last two weeks, included cleaning strainers the size of my torso and filled to the brim with mutilated fish parts, removing lengths of pipe for later inspection, replacing leaky valves, clearing clogged pipes, replacing gaskets, skimming oil off the top of a dirty water tank, moving giant hunks of machine parts that easily weighed a full ton across the engine room, replacing gauges, and standing safety watch as dangerous tasks are performed. When we are doing this sort of work the time goes by so much faster and I learn a whole lot more. The best part is that I get picked fairly often for these jobs, in part because the two other GUDEs have limited english proficiency, even though they are both more experienced than I.

And a brief note about that. There are about 21 people on the ship. Of the crew, two are white, me and one of the ABs. The rest include two Philipinoes, a Ghanian, two African-Americans, and the remainder are all hispanic. Of the officers, all but one is white, the exception being the very talented black second engineer. Of the crew, all of them except me and the AB speak heavily accented english of one kind or another that forms a language barrier with the people they are trying to talk to. I have spent just enough time around social justice types to feel like I should be doing something to integrate our community, but not enough to know what to do, and nowhere near enough to actually do anything.

After two hours of that is coffee break, the best part of the day. I don't drink coffee, but I do use this time to study my Japanese flashcards. I haven't fallen behind once in two weeks.

After this is another chunk of work, and this chunk right here is the best part of the day for sure. If there was a job, we finish the job. If the job is finished I have picked up a short daily round of small tasks that need to be done every day, and again actually having some sort of responsibility is novel enough to still feel kind of good, otherwise I go into cleanup mode. This chunk of work is nice because break ends around 1030, then lunch starts around 1130, meaning that I am finally working myself into getting hungry, and then only have to work a little bit before actually getting to eat.

Then comes lunch. I like lunch. First we eat, typically sandwiches but also sometimes hamburgers or today was fried chicken. Then I go back and take the rest of the hour to finish any studying that didn't get done and then take a nap for the rest of the hour. Definitely the best part of the day.

Of course, the best part of the day is the two hours right after lunch. After eating and a nap, we go down and have another short meeting about the status of things and report the successful completion or ongoing status of the morning project, then sometimes more jobs get handed out. Typically, though, things spend all five hours after lunch slowly winding down and I go off with a rag in my hand to find something else to clean. It is an engine room, so there are all sorts of places where small leaks and seepages need to be regularly cleaned up, and just the general movement of stuff kicks up dirt and carbon dust that needs to be kept off of things. Not only does wiping everything off keep the machinery clean, it also forces us to get up close and personal with the equipment and serves as a sort of monitoring whereby we can catch anything unusual or broken before it becomes a problem.

After this chunk of work comes second coffee break, probably the best time of the day and a fine advertisement in and of itself for union membership. Having taken care of all necessary things, the studying and the nap, I use this break to put on some music and relax.

After break is over and everyone feels refreshed, we go back for the best part of the day, the final stretch. An hour and a half to wrap up anything that needs finishing or to pretend to clean while all seven of us collectively run out the clock. Footsteps slow, pauses lengthen, and people just get harder to find as they realize they have some urgent business in a less trafficked and less visible section of the compartment.

After that comes the best part of the day, since after all the biggest meal must necessarily be the best. Dinner each day is a giant slab of meat with an assortment of sides, usually corn or potatoes or corn and potatoes, and also a bunch of icky vegetables. Then back to the room for a bit of light reading before going back down for the final hour.

This final hour is definitely the best part of the day. I call it the final hour, but only in union terms is it a full hour. First we have another little meeting, which if we bullshit can last 15-20 minutes, then we go down and make sure all the projects of the day have been cleaned up, then we pretend to work until about fifteen minutes before the hour is up, at which point we go up to wash our hands and quietly slip out to go mark this last "hour" as an additional $20 of overtime.

After that the official part of the day is pretty much over. I am still on call in case something comes up and they want to pay me more overtime to fix it, but usually the unofficial part of the day is the best part of the day. A shower starts it off, because I have been very strict about keeping all the dirt of the day out of the bed, then I pull out my laptop and play video games or watch movies until it is time to go to bed.

Then, of course, comes bedtime-- the best part of the day.

We are scheduled to sail back down the Mississippi tomorrow. The rest of the run is likely to take two weeks, with at least another week before we can possibly return to the US. As soon as this posts my phone is going off and I will be out of contact with everything for at least three weeks and maybe up to two months.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

View from a window

No one can doubt that we are tied up in Texas. That is an oil pilot light to the side and cattle in the field.

The Liberty Eagle

First day aboard my first saltwater vessel. There is something undeniably attractive about working on a ship named the Liberty Eagle. My Patriotism will be unquestionable for the next four months.

The very first thing said to me as I climbed aboard was the captain saying, "Weren't you supposed to show up tommorow?" but I arrived when the office told me to, so it all sorted out in the end.

I have only my single previous ship to compare it to, and it is in general function not wholly dissimilar to the Sam Laud. It is a bulker, meaning the whole of the front is given over to empty hold space, but the Eagle is a grain bulker, and the holds themselves are designed a bit differently to accomidate bulk foodstuffs. Specifically, capacity is some 60,000 cubic meters or 28,700 tons of cargo, and the ship itself is 190 meters long. This is, in industrial terms, kind of small, but still large enough to afford me my own room.

Since I was early, today is paperwork and a tour. The ship is of Japanese manufacture, and thus all the measurements are metric and the warning signs bilingual.

The eagle is preparing to leave in a few days after 2 months of layup. The word is that we will hop over to Galveston to pick up a partial load of grain, then sail up the mississippi to get a load of soybeans, then sail through the panama canal to drop off the grain on a pacific port of Nicaragua and then the soybeans in Honduras (Edit: not costa rica). The plan at that point depends on market conditions and could see the next update coming from any of the three American coastlines.

Updates will be infrequent, probably one each time I hit a US port.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Voyage Ends

I meant to write some sort of summary thing that discusses just how much Piney Point lied to me about nearly everything it discussed, but I don't feel like it, so I won't.

I got home on the 18th, flying out of Chicago without incident. The next day I made myself a cup of soup and sat down to watch the six months of TV backlog that has built up, and sitting in my familiar chair by my desktop computer, eating soup and watching the familiar intro sequences of familiar shows, it is like no time at all has passed. Everything is just how I left it. Little changes are evident, but only if I look for them.

I will definitely be continuing to ship, no question about that.

Don't expect much from this space while I am home. My writing energies are going to be directed towards another ambition. Consider this a conclusion, and anything that may perchance follow to be a sequel.

In any case, I have a folder full of pictures, so before I compress it and drop it in a backup hard drive, here are some neat looking ones. Apologies if I have posted any of these before.

Having gained a new appreciation for the bandwidth limited, the photos are beneath the jump

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Off the Ship

Returning to civilization for the first time in six months

Chicago in the Mist

This is why I intend to get a better camera- I can see Chicago peeking out of the mists on the horizon, but I suspect it doesn't show up in th_s picture.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Things I Learned in the Engine Room

Looking at leaving tomorrow night, unless something goes wrong, which makes this my second to last day of working in the engine room. Reflections, therefore, are in order.

  • I have learned that painting all day in an environment that permits no distractions can eventually get old. When on deck we could usually paint with earphones on, and while I could conceivably purchase wireless earbuds to wear under some over-ear mufflers, I haven't done so yet.
  • Apparently, and this must be a thing that was planned out, everything that you could possibly hit your shin on in the engine room is all placed at exactly the same height and at the same angle against the shin, such that once you hurt yourself walking around once, every subsequent injury will occur at exactly the same place. I have had a small red bump on my shin for most of this month, and just when I think it is about to go away, Bam!.
  • Painting just by standing around with a brush or roller is pretty dull, but painting that involves crawling, climbing, and fitting yourself on and into things that you don't quite fit in is much more exciting, like Bruce Willis crawling through the building in Die Hard, painting terrorists above the wire beds.
  • Fixing piping seems to be a large part of the engineer's job, and it isn't all that difficult if you know where the problem is. Just isolate the problem area, unscrew everything, replace parts as needed, then screw it all back together.
  • In fact, very little seemed all that difficult so long as one knows what they are looking at and what they are trying to accomplish. For those few tasks that did seem difficult we would call down the Chief, who would exclaim worriedly and then say, “well, guess we have to (leave that for layup / call a specialist)”
  • That said, you really do need to know what you are doing down here to an extent that you sort of don't anywhere else on the boat. Hence, I have spent most of the month painting.
  • There is a window in the engine room, but it isn't anywhere near where there is work to be done. I don't end up seeing nearly as much of the magnificent scenery as I did in galley, and far less than when I was working on deck. On the other hand, we have a repeater monitor from the navigation computer, so I know where we are more exactly than I did previously.
  • The bilges in general aren't as bad as they are made up to be, but the spot where it all gets washed down to and pumped out really is that bad. We went in yesterday to clean it out, not even a very thorough cleaning, just pulling a couple buckets of muck out of the bottom, and I wasn't the one doing most of the cleaning, but three showers and a day later and my hands still smell faintly of oily sewage.
  • I learned, contrary to what piney point insists, you don't have to go to Piney Point or other accredited school to upgrade or get endorsements. Anyone with sufficient appropriate sea time can call up the coast guard and sit for the test. There are advantages to going through the union school, most importantly that some of the hiring hall guys may hassle you for getting a ticket outside of the union.
  • I learned that there are fewer and fewer onboard unlicensed engineering jobs. They get replaced either by more duties for the watchstander and the remaining QMEDs or they get offloaded to specialist electricians/mechanics who live on shore and only get called out to fix particular problems.
  • I learned that the unhappiest person on any bulker is the conveyorman, because apparently his job sucks. That certainly seems to be the case on this ship.
  • I have learned that the real punishment for being an idiot is that people will tell stories about you when they go to other ships. Actually, the real punishment is being injured or killed, usually during your off hours from alcohol abuse, and then becoming nothing but a cautionary tale. I heard stories about the chief who would jump up and down throwing temper tantrums, the chief who would work and call people into his office while completely naked, the engineer who sweated booze (and died from taking his medication with alcohol), the time a famously short tempered chief shouted at a famously short tempered first until a boiler exploded, and other such tales of people who simply aren't in control of their thoughts and emotions.
  • The engine room is probably the only place where reasonable people will set up a portable heater unit right next to a fixed AC outlet and have both running full blast next to each other. It isn't even a bad idea, since that keeps the engine cool on one side while keeping the working space warm on the other, otherwise it would be way too cold outboard near the hull that sits in the cold water and way too warm in the middle of the room where the engines and machines sit.

Lighthouse Opposite Mackinac

Just a pretty picture

This is from yesterday, but I didn't have signal then and only now remembered it.

Mackinac in the snow

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Duluth Harbor Wall of Iron

Sorry I couldn't get a better picture, this thing is so big (both taller and longer than the ship) that I couldn't fit it all in a single image until we were pulling away.

Anyway, this thing is huge, dumping in eight cargo hatches at once. It still took all day, because they broke a loader and had to wait for trainloads of ore, but so it goes.

Today was a good day.

Icy Harbor

The wind has died down, so when they called me on deck to replace the DEU who went over his hours it wasnt bad at all.

A beautiful day today, and they are having mechanical problems with the loader, so score one point for theday and a half delay I am looking for to get off in Chicago. But now I am done on deck, so it is backto the windowless bottom of the engine room to huff paint for six more hours.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


The same veiw as sailing into Superior, but ever so slightjy different for heading to the north instead of the south shore.

Off the Grid in Batchawana Bay

So, I don't know what is saying about where we were, but judging from the pile of emails and texts that came in as soon as we made it back into American waters, it may have been wrong.

About five days ago we were coming up to the Sault Ste Marie locks, but the weather was bad so we dropped anchor in the Mackinaw straight between upper and lower Michigan for about a day. We raced through the locks hoping to beat the weather, and a few disgruntled crewmen say we could have if the captain hadn't hesitated, but didn't. I don't know why we couldn't anchor in American waters, I heard people say that the better anchorages had already been taken, but I don't really know how that works, but in any case we ended up in Batchawana Bay, a beautiful and calm natural harbor wholly enclosed by Canadian territory.

The area was absolutely breathtaking the morning I woke up and saw it, blanketed with a fresh coat of snow that peeked between the wintry tree-sticks that covered the majestic low mountains. I thought to myself that I absolutely have to get a good picture of the scenery, maybe a panorama of the entire bay, but would have to put it off until lunch time because there were engine things occuring. Needless to say, the storm blew in by lunch time, and while it didn't shake the ship in our nice little harbor, it did render everything 1000 feet from the ship completely invisible. The storm rose and fell, but I never saw land again in scenic Batchawana Bay.

After sitting there for two days, we took the north route along the Canadian shoreline to avoid more weather. In the meantime our orders got changed from a Silver Bay-Cleveland run to a Duluth-Indiana Harbor one. After four days without any sort of cell phone signal, parts of the crew were starting to get positively mutinous, threatening perhaps not murder, but at least a bit of whining.

The happy ending is that nobody died and we eventually got cell phone service back.

The other ending is that this phase of the blog is rapidly coming to a close. My 90th day is November 17th (yes, I have counted multiple times to be sure I didn't screw up), so I can get off on the 18th or any time after that. Indiana Harbor is basically Gary, Indiana, which is basically Chicago. The current plan is finally at a point where it isn't likely to change, so we get to Duluth tonight and load tomorrow morning (14th), then it is a day to the locks under good weather (15th) and a day and a half to Chicago (late on the 16th). If the weather stays bad and we go slow or anchor at all, then I will probably be getting off in Chicago, which is always fun. If the weather is perfect the whole way there, then I will still get off eventually.

Fat Jokes and Drug Posters

So it turns out that my prior prediction was incorrect. It has, in fact, snowed again. The weather is so bad, with 60MPH winds not half a mile away, that we took anchor in a marvelously shelter little natural harbor on the Canadian coast. The Chief Engineer said that the weather report goes all the way to Wednesday night, and so we know that we aren't moving from this spot until then. I get good signal, but it is Canadian, so it is nothing but a dirty trick.

I haven't asked if this is a formal system or not, but there seems to be three types of repair jobs on the ship. There are tasks that the QMED does on his own, then there are tasks that the QMED has to go get an engineer to supervise, though they don't really seem to contribute much, then there are tasks that the engineers do and they will call the QMED if he is and they need an extra hand. Repacking the four gaskets at the bottom of the bow thruster this morning was the second type of job.

At the front of the ship, the bow, the top (weather) deck rises up about half a story. The room created by this rise sits on the main deck, but is sheltered. This small structure is called the forecastle (on some ships, it is a whole extra superstructure, but it is just a small room that takes up the front of the ship here). The forecastle holds the forward anchors and windlass out of the elements, and acts as storage for assorted things (like really heavy lengths of chain that I got to haul up from all over the main deck by hand). Beneath the level with the anchor is another room with assorted things, but it also has an electric motor fed by the generators all the way at the back of the ship. This 1000 horsepower motor drives a long metal bar all the way down to beneath the bottom of the ship where it turns a propeller that is oriented sideways along the keel that allows us, in conjunction with the rudder, main propeller, and stern thruster, to move sideways or make sharp turns, mostly on the rivers.

It is two or three stories (about maybe 10-12 meters) from the top to the bottom of the long bar, so it gets its own little room stretching the entire distance. Now this room is only bg enough for two people and the bar assuming that one of those people just squeezes himself in the corner and holds the light while the other person works. Now, in a job that was full of dirty where nothing important could break, I would be the one working while the QMED held the light, but this job was both dirty and held the potential for a screw-up, the entire mechanism being only a few bolts and a thin piece of steel away from the hypothermic waters of Lake Superior and the job itself being ever so slightly technical. Now, both the QMED and I are of average build, I being right at the notional "average" of 5'9" 160lbs (probably a bit more since that month in the galley), and the QMED being slightly larger.

The engineer who came with us has to weigh in well over 250lbs. Explaining what we were going to do to the engineer on watch, he exclaimed, with the assisting engineer out of the room, "but he won't fit down that hatch". But it didn't turn out to be a big deal, since he wouldn't have fit down there with us if he were an anorexic midget, so he stood at the top of the hatch, chatting, supervising, and passing things up and down via rope. At some point the chief engineer came down to supervise, not that he contributed a whole lot. He is of average build, but no way in hell was he going to get his hands dirty down that hatch when three other people were perfectly capable of getting dirty for him.

As the QMED and I finished up, we climbed out of the hatch. I looked over at the Chief and saw him inspecting the thruster motor. He calls out to the engineer, "could you check the hydraulic lines for a crack?". A quick visual inspection of the hydraulic line in question by all three of us shows first that it is intact in the large room beneath the forecastle in which we all stand, and second that it continues down below in the confined space we had been working in.

Now, I didn't offer to go down and check the hydraulic line, on the general principal that I am not supposed to really do much of anything even vaguely technical unless instructed to. The QMED didn't offer to go down and check because A) he probably didn't feel like it, B) the chief had been talking to the engineer, and C) possibly this was above his pay grade, though I don't know for sure. In any case, the chief had asked as if this were a perfectly natural and reasonable thing to ask an engineer to do-- to go into a confined space to check a pipe for leakage.

The engineer didn't say anything, not that there was anything to say, turned and put his feet on the second rung from the top. As he slowly brought himself down through the 24" x 18" hatch his legs fit fine, and then his thighs, and then he got his bellybutton level with the edges of the hatch. Here, at the widest point, his flesh was pressed up flat against the edges with a small roll sitting on the deck spilling over. No one said anything, and the engineer didn't appear to struggle, hold his breath, or do anything in particular to indicate that he was stuck. But after a moment of pause he gave a visible extra exertion and the excess of his body was pulled through, scraping against the hatchway.

There was a leak in the hydraulic line, but it was very small and the chief said it could wait until we lay up for the winter.

Scattered around the ship are safety posters, each with a little safety message and a badly drawn cartoon illustrating it. Things like 'keep your finger off the trigger of power tools when not in use', 'wear steel toed boots', and 'machines can bite!'. These posters get replaced each month with a new poster, presumably because these aren't actually timeless messages of wisdom but instead only fleeting fashions that must be constantly updated to keep up with the rapidly changing 21st century. There is one down in the engineering control room that hasn't been changed since August 2011, probably because whichever mate changes them out has forgotten it was down there. But as a whole they rarely get noticed and never elicit comment.

Until the one posted this month in the crew mess that reads, 'It's clear, it's simple, it's policy, it's the law. Drug use is not permitted." This features a guy with what is probably supposed to be a joint between his fingers. During meal times, anything at all, even something as small as a glance at the poster can be the setup for which the punchline is a mock serious declaration that "Drug use is not permitted". From this I have discovered that 100% of unlicensed crewmen who eat at meal times believe A) Anyone who tries to do dangerous work while drunk or high should be thrown into the sea and left to drown, B) The American drug war is absolute bullshit, as are the company and union prohibitions against alcohol and drugs on ship during a man's off time, and C) Guys who show up to work merely hungover are hilarious and deserve whatever you do to deepen their misery.

In that sense, it is probably a good thing that they get changed out every month, because one month is enough time to wear the joke out, and if it stayed up after that point the poster would become nothing but a serious and sober reminder of a genuine threat to both the careers of seamen and safety aboard the vessel.

In the old days, ships used to have cats. They called them, drawing from the endless creativity characteristic of sailing men since the dawn of time, Ship's Cats. Mostly, they would eat rats, but also they would be adorable, because they were cats. Anyway, I am of the opinion that it is high time to reinstate the tradition of ship's cats aboard merchant vessels, not because we have a surplus rats, but because we have a dire shortage of cats. I have yet to go to the captain with this idea, because you just don't bother the captain with that sort of bullshit.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

First Snow of the Season

Just tiny little snow up near Sault Saint Marie, but the first such that I have seen in ten months.

And, if the weather holds for another week, quite possibly the last of the year for me.

Friday, November 7, 2014


Not that photo! This one!

Actually, I cant tell if i posted the right one or not from the phone.

Across the river from the Detroit stone dock

There is a particular brand of salsa I am fond of, La Costena, and a particular sort of tortilla chip that I like, El Milagro. It should go without saying that the two things are even better together.

In any case, my first pang of homesick has come after six months in the form of an intense craving and the taste of that salsa taunting ghostlike on my tongue.

I dont know if it is "life" or "happiness" that is all about the little things, but it is one of them for sure.

I remember a friend at Piney point asking if I would agree, hypothetically, to sail for two years straight without break or shore time if they paid a $100,000 bonus. I said yes then and would say yes now.

Less to Say, More to Do

It has occurred to me more than once that there is just less to blog about here on the Sam Laud than there was at Piney Point. I think the fundamental reason for that is twofold- first being that there is not as much change here as there was at the fast paced school, and second being that there are fewer rank assholes here than there were at Piney Point causing far less drama. Not that there aren't people with variously unpleasant personalities, but they keep themselves professional at all times, preventing their unpleasantness from getting in anyone's way.

Engine life hasn't changed much from last time I wrote about it. I paint all day except when they pull me off to act as a spare hand on various repair projects. One thing I have been hearing that has started to distress me is that the market for QMED specialists, Electricians, Refrigeration techs, and Pumpmen, is much smaller than I had been told at Piney Point, and even the lakes specialists, Conveyormen and Gatemen, are being reduced in the upcoming contract. That leaves a lot of ships with an oiler who also carries the weight of a wiper and a junior engineer (we don't even have a junior engineer), the rest of the department being officers, meaning that a lot of good money doesn't come out anymore until you have a license. The oiler on our ship has been sailing for nearly twenty years, is a certified conveyorman/gateman/junior engineer, but this was the open job. He doesn't see it as less money, since the option wasn't a higher paying job or this but rather no job or this, which is a good attitude, but one I am taking as instructive.

I have some thinking to do before I go back to Piney Point.

Speaking of which, I finally counted the days (and since then have remained unpleasantly conscious of it) and found that day number 90 is Nov 17th, so I will be looking to get off on the 18th or 19th. Of course, not even the captain knows where we will be ten days from now, so I can't even get a plane ticket until a day or two in advance. Fortunately, the company takes care of all that.

With departures and Piney Point in mind, I have a question for the audience the audience, some of whom seem more experienced than I. There are some pretty dumb people out at sea. Not on this ship, of course, everyone here is a gentleman scholar, retiring in the evenings to the lounge to sit by the fire and gently discuss existentialist philosophy and the works of the classical Greek historians. The deckhands are particularly fond of Kierkegaard, while the engineering officers hold themselves off to the side to play chess on a hand carved ivory and oak board while taking parts reciting Shakespeare together. The Steward softly plays Chopin on the grand piano, though he will do Mozart upon request. The captain watches over from his gilt and velvet chair with a warm glass of aged brandy and the hint of an indulgent smile upon his lips.

But I hear that other ships have stupid people. But for all that there are stupid people out here, there were so many more stupid people at Piney Point, and asking some of the other Piney Point people we can only remember one person who got kicked out while on a ship during second phase for being an idiot. Where, then, do all the stupid people go? Are they somehow convinced to quit of their own volition? Do they get fired quietly and quickly forgotten (given propensity of sailors to tell stories about the very human foibles of their former crewmates, this seems unlikely)? Do they somehow get less stupid? Is there something about the shipboard environment that suppresses idiocy while the Piney Point environment particularly fosters it? Or perhaps the quality of new sailors has dropped precipitously (or, more plausibly, that there were more stupid people, but they were fired in a big wave some years back and those who remain are more competent than the previous average)?

I suspect that if I can't find stupid people that the quickest place to look is in the mirror.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Sitting at Anchor

Last night after dinner, I looked out the window and saw the Mackinac bridge. Then I went to my room and watched Enemy at the Gate, a movie about the battle of Stalingrad. That inspired me to start playing Hearts of Iron, a WW2 game, and before I knew it it was almost 10PM. I pull out my headphones and notice that the engine isnt running, look out the window and see the same damn bridge.

Apparently the weather is bad further up, so the captain chose a spot with good cell reception to drop anchor.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

A Tour of the Engine Room

Yesterday I got to do real engineer things. In the morning I helped replace a four inch thick butterfly valve in the fire main system, unscrewing things, cleaning the bolts out with a wire grinder thingy, then showing them to the QMED who said that all of the cleaning he had told me to do was pointless because we have to replace them all anyway. So then we cut bolts straight from long stock bars, and that was cool. The valve worked.

Then we serviced the emergency generator, which involved replacing three filters and replace a bunch of oil, which really meant that my job was to catch oil pouring out of places that it shouldn't, then pour it into somewhere better. I made zero mess and broke nothing, which means I won the job.

Last night, while at sea, the deckhands were called out at 2AM. I thought that maybe something had gone wrong, or perhaps that we were tying up suddenly to avoid weather, but mostly I didn't think about it too much and went back to sleep. I heard him coming in a few more times and heard them washing the deck above me, but the full significance of that didn't really hit me at the time. Today we spent the entire day pretty far out in Lake Huron, easily in legal to rinse waters, it warmed up nicely, and the deckhands were given most of the day off. The question then is why on earth they were woken up at 2AM to do a job they could just as easily have done during normal working hours. That question seems to have no answer.

I have been meaning to take pictures of the engine room for you, but didn't get around to it until now. It being now, enjoy a brief tour of the engine room.

At the very bottom of the ship is the tunnel. The sloped ceiling to the left is the underside of the cargo hold, and beneath it is the conveyor belt system

The steering gear. The two wheels can move the rudder manually in the event of an emergency, though I expect it would be no fun. The middle bit is connected directly (more or less) to the rudder.

One of four machine shops. There are four more shelves of the same size to the left around the corner.

The nice machine shop. Smaller, but more complete and well organized.

Here is a cat. Behind it is another workbench, and to either side is another cat. These are our three electrical generators. Only one runs during normal operations, but we fire up another to run thrusters or winches, and all three are required to run the conveyor belt.

This is about a quarter of the valves and pipes that run water around the ship. Most of the maze of piping is under the grates. It took two hours for me to diagram the entire system for Piney Point, walking around a maybe 20'x20' zone following pipes back and forth.

The main event, two medium speed diesel engines. These are about eight feet tall.

This shaft, the width of my entire body, spins when we are moving to drive the propeller. 

Another view, this one of all three floors. The central chamber of the engineering room is really big.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Oil Spills and Fire Watch

I will spare y'all the play by play of engine life, because it would be a long list of "and then I painted, and then I painted some more, and then I painted in a different color." Of note in the painting department, we have boxes standing around full of oil with pumps on the top. The boxes are white, the pumps are yellow. I am told that the last time an apprentice came through the engine room, four or five months ago, he painted the pumps. He did a piss poor job of it, getting yellow paint all over the damn place. There it has sat for five months with yellow splatters on the box and floor, waiting for another slightly more competant apprentice to paint over it and make it look nice again. I don't have a job description (actually I do, it is "assist as directed"), but if I did, it would be "low priority deferred maintanance". Being a white box, there whole setup isn't interesting enough for such a thing as a good job to apply, but I certainly think I did an adequate job, since the flat surface that is supposed to be white is now white.

An engineer spilled a small bucket of oil while cleaning a compressor. I got assigned to clean it up, not because they are just making the apprentice do all the work, but because they had to call the chief engineer down and all three, the engineer, chief, and QMED, had to fill out paperwork and do reporting. After all the paperwork (or at least, after the urgent round of paperwork), even the chief, not exactly a hands-on sort of fellow, got out oil towels and helped clean up. This was a spill of less than a gallon in perhaps the most interior part of the ship, with no where for it to spill out, but any oil spill at all is a big deal that must be logged thoroughly because of an industry wide terror of oil spills.

I was painting yesterday when the QMED comes up behind me and taps me on the shoulder. "mmm-mmph mmmhh" he says. "What?" I shout. You would think that a guy who has been working engine for almost twenty years and currently wearing two layers of hearing protection would know to speak up, but clearly not. "Stand Fire watch" he shouted, just barely audibly. And you do need at least a really good pair of earplugs in the engine room, because it really starts to hurt when you are down on the bottom level unprotected. In any case, doing "fire watch" sounded completely awesome, because fire, so I followed him up. He pointed to a spot on the floor and mumbled something. "What?" I shouted. "Stand there," he repeated, louder, "don't let any fire happen". At which point he pulls out the blowtorch, lights it up, and proceeds to burn the tops of five metal oil drums off. Being (formerly) oil drums, the lid lights up around where he is working and the paper labels on the side burn impressively as sparks stream out, flying ten feet in any direction and staying lit for a good five or ten seconds at times. My job as fire watchman was to watch. And stand. And watch. And I did watch. As I watched I wondered what, exactly, I was supposed to do if there actually was a fire. Maybe grab the extinguisher? But you are supposed to inform someone first. Maybe inform someone? But shouldn't I put the fire out while it is small? Maybe close the venting window and hit the CO2 system? That seems too drastic for me to have the authority to do that. Maybe turn off the torch first or perhaps assist the injured QMED? But that isn't either Informing or Restricting, which are the first things I am supposed to do according to the coast guard. In practice, the QMED would have probably grabbed the extinguisher and I would have gone to notify the watchman, but I realized that for all the firefighting class that I took I really am very poorly trained to deal with an actual fire emergency.

I figure most boats aren't on fire most of the time, and there are twenty other people on the ship, so I will probably be fine to be ignorant. Because that is how emergencies work, right? If you are usually fine most of the time, that is probably good enough.

I went outside to help lubricate the chain on the engineer hoist. If I say that neither I nor the QMED went out wearing hard hats I would be giving the game away, but after finishing the second hoist the hook was almost up to the top when the QMED tells me to go ahead and start wiping the small bit of grease that had smeared on the deck. I pull out a rag and start wiping when chain hits the deck not a hand's width away from my hand. The chain, of which each link is slightly longer than a thumb and two thumbs wide, is supposed to pull up to the hoist engine and then fall into a suspended box, but as it filled this time it spilled out, each link pulling the next link pulling the whole chain out of the box onto the deck I was wiping up. Pushing on my one hand and two knees I leap backwards, going from hands and knees to laying on my back two feet away like a particularly inept ninja. From my butt I watch the entire chain fall out on the deck.

Nothing was damaged, particularly not me, and we got it all fixed up soon enough.

I finally got to play with power tools. The fleet engineer came on to check for leaks or cracks in a few suspicious bilges, and I was responsible for getting the pneumatic drill and pulling off all the bilge covers down at the bottom of the ship.

In any case, I told my roommate that I was working with a really important guy, the fleet engineer, and by working with the important person that meant I, too, was important. He pointed out that the important guy wouldn't be important unless he was surrounded by unimportant people doing all the small jobs, and that the fact that I was working with an important person meant I couldn't possibly be important. By virtue, therefore, of not working with anyone important, it remains quite possible that my roommate it an important person. I told him he was full of shit and he turned up the volume on the TV.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Rhythm of the Engine

It occurs to me that I never explained the rhythm of work at sea on the deck or in the engine. Dayworkers live by the clock, starting at 8AM every day. That means you don't show up later than 8, and you don't start working before 8. The amount of time between showing up and starting to work is not an important consideration in the life of a sailor. From there, nothing important happens, just whatever work needs doing, until 9:30 and which point comes the most important time of the day, coffee break, where everyone goes back to their rooms or the galley to relax for half an hour. Then we get back to the job at hand for another hour and a half until lunch break, 11:30 to 12:00. Then another hour and a half of strenuous labor and another coffee break for half an hour. Finally, at 14:00 we hit the home stretch where we work for two and a half full hours without a break, at which point we are so exhausted that we have to go to bed. Or dinner, then bed. Or dinner, then we don't go to bed and just bitch about how tired we are the next day.

In any case, on my first day I walked down at 8AM and was told to sweep and mop the entire engine room, all three levels. That took up the first part of the day. Then I followed the QMED around as he made his rounds to mark down all the gauge levels for things around the engine room. His mouth was moving as if he was explaining things, but between the screaming of the engine and the earplugs that are required to prevent deafness as a result of the aforementioned engine scream, I couldn't even hear if sound was actually coming out of his mouth or not. After that I was sent to clean the walls in the cat room.

We call it the cat room because there are three yellow cats. Not the fun cats that are fuzzy and adorable, but huge caterpillar electrical generators. Anyway, I like cats enough that I wont discriminate against the kind that are actually machines instead of animals.

The next morning we were in port, so the main engines were off and they wanted me to chip the paint off the cracking heat exchanges. I hooked the needle gun up, a device full of quarter inch thick steel needles attached to a pneumatic handle which, when attached to pressurized air, smack on metal like a jackhammer, knocking off loose paint. I didn't quite finish by lunchtime when they turned the engines back on, so I went back to cleaning the walls.

The next morning I had finished cleaning the walls, so they had me paint the walls. I painted for eight hours and finished the vertical spaces of the cat room. At the end of the day I went into the control room and asked the QMED who is informally in charge of me if he wanted to inspect the room before I put the paint up. He said no, implying that, unlike on deck, people in the engine room are expected to be at least marginally competent without someone else peering over their shoulder.

Today I came in and they told me to start cleaning the ceiling of the cat room. So I spent eight hours doing that. It actually only took seven, but it was strongly suggested around hour six that I make sure it took all eight, because apprentices, unlike everyone else in the engine department, don't get to sit around in the control room and shoot shit when they don't have enough to do.

In any case, I heard my first departmental joke: If you lock a deckhand in a closet with two bowling balls, when you come back later he will have managed to lose one of them and break the other. I can certainly relate to that observation, but in the interest of fairness, here is one about engineers: How many engineers does it take to change a lightbulb? One, because they usually know what they are doing and in any case have training in electrical systems.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Big Black Money

In about a month, that pile in front of the Cleveland ArcelorMittal steel plant has gone from nearly empty to what you see here. And, I am told, the want even more. The total order was for four million tons of iron, to be delivered to a factory that eats 15 - 20 thousand tons a day. Our gross tonnage, for comparison, is under twelve thousand.

See comments for much more reasonable sounding figures here.

Again, working from hearsay, but the thousand foot ships (no clue what the tonnage is on those) make one million dollars for each run from Silver Bay to the lakeside Cleveland dock, and river size ships like us make another 350,000 to run from lakeside dock to the plant up the river.
I make $3.25 an hour, and $8.00 an hour overtime.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Things I Learned in a Real Galley

Moving down to the engine room tomorrow (yesterday, now. yay for bad internet!), so today I reflect on a month working in a real galley.

First thing is that this place is nothing like working the Piney Point galley. First off, the hours are sane (9 to 11 hours for the SA, 12-13 for the steward) and more importantly the off time really is off time, not bullshit march around and continue doing bullshit work time. The job itself is pretty similar, with most of my time spent standing over a sink, but even then just the fact that those dishes didn't get stacked up by assholes who use their spare time to make my life more difficult is a massive plus.

In fact, the biggest thing I didn't expect about working here was the general absence of assholes. Actually, that isn't right, since there are some people I can clearly tell are terrible people, but they keep their colons in check and behave with a professionalism noticeably absent from any part of Piney Point. I had been told repeatedly at school that they threw a lot of bullshit at us to make sure that we could handle the bullshit on a ship, which seemed like a plausible reason, except that there hasn't hardly been any bullshit at all on the Sam Laud. Every rule here has a definite and articulable purpose, all the paperwork is as short as it can be, every job, fun or not, actually needs to be done, and the people around me treat me like they would like to be treated, with professionalism and respect.

I also learned that nothing gets me to eat vegetables quite like Chinese food.

In fact, I learned quite a bit about cooking just from asking questions and watching and had to keep myself from turning this into a food blog. I have never liked cooking much, but I may have been looking at it wrong this whole time. I tell myself now that I will try some serious cooking when I get home, though of course I am really lazy and may not actually get around to it.

I doubt I will be going down this path, but after spending a month in a quality kitchen for the first time in my life, I really feel like I could be a good cook if I put the time in. But time, of course, is expensive, and I will probably end up spending it on video games instead.

Also, I learned the best way to peel an orange. Start by knocking off the little button at the top where the stem gets cut off, then press down on that and pull to break through the skin. This not only opens the orange without damaging the slices, it gets right to the bottom of the skin, preventing too much of the white pith from sticking to the good part.

I had come in thinking that one of the things I wanted to get away from is getting too much routine, in fear that I would get stuck back in the rut I was in, but now I realize that might have been silly. After all, the on/off work schedule alone is enough to shake things up, as well as is the constant flow of people on and off the ship. The adventures of going places, even if those places suck, and the beauty of the sea, even if it is just a big lake, makes every day substantially better than the place I was living. Perhaps, with all this, a job with fixed routines could be a good thing?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Friday, October 17, 2014

Afterword to Silver Bay

While touring Silver Bay I went to a little grocery store, Zupps. They had signs all over saying "try our famous sausage". 'Famous Sausage?' I thought, 'I never heard of it, so it cant be that famous.

When I got back to the ship I asked the steward, "You know that little store in town, Zupps?"

He said "Yea"

"They got these signs up 'Try our famous sausage'. You ever heard of Zupps famous sausage?"

He said "Nope"

"Can't be too famous then, can it."

I didnt buy any, but I did think about buying some.

Further Adventures in Silver Bay

We are stuck in port at Silver Bay waiting out some bad weather. I have been here half a dozen times already, but this is the first time I have had a chance to get off. The town itself isn't too impressive, but it does have a nice scenic outlook.

It also had a little grocery store, that claims to be famous for its sausage. I have never heard of them, so they can't be that famous.

Having come back now with snacks from the store, I realize just how good it feels to have snacks by my computer again. Sure, there are snacks in the galley, and many of them are good, but nothing is quite the same as having my own little drawer of snacks just for me.

It is by appreciating the little things in life that we learn to appreciate the larger things.

Click on the pictures to make them bigger.

Also, I got pictures of the little informational signs just in case any of my readers are the sort of old men who stop to read historical markers.

Birds and Such

Thanks to the combination of people leaving doors open while painting and the sudden onset of cold weather as we sailed up to Superior, a number of birds have been flying into the house. I had one fly straight into the open porthole of my room. It landed on the arm of the chair by my bed and just sort of looked at me for a moment. It was brown and as round as it was long, but when I got up, both the notion of closing the window to trap it and of grabbing my phone to get a photo running through my mind, it flew right back out. They are more of a problem in the galley, since we have to chase them out.

Curiously enough, it is the sicker ones that are harder to get out, since you can get all the way up to them and sometimes even poke them without them flying off. One tired bird landed on a peice of spare equipment right by the captain's dinner chair (not actually any different from a normal chair, but reserved for a particular ass) and was sleeping on its side, legs pointing out, and breathing heavily. The captain didn't seem to notice his dining companion, but I did and spent the whole of dinner wondering if I should do something about the bird. I ended up leaving it alone until after dinner, when I picked it up and placed it outside. I don't expect that bird to be long for this world.

Pirate captains have parrots, but merchant captains have little round birds that are probably pretty close to death.
The steward told me a story in light of this of his time on a grain ship on Lake Ontario. He said that after loading, one or two hundred of those tiny round birds would come down onto deck to eat the little scraps of grain. They would come down all happy and eat their fill, then they would go for a drink of water in the lake. That water would cause the grain in thier bellies to expand and rupture their stomaches, and twenty four hours later there would be one or two hundred tiny adorable dead birds on the deck. The steward says that he was the only one who seemed bother by this, and that the deck hands would just casually rinse them off the deck like any other debris.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Halfway (or a bit more) Through

My halfway point passed a few days ago (more now, since it took so long to actually post), so I reckon some reflections are in order. I actually didn't notice the 45th day, only realizing that it was past the halfway point when my junior apprentice was moaning about how hard it is to work on deck, hoping I would sympathize. Nope, you lazy bastard, deck work wasn't bad at all, so quit bitching about it or get off the boat.

Working in galley is still good. It is, in fact, so good that it is starting a minor crisis in my mind. I went to Piney Point and came on this ship completely certain that I was going to be an engineer once I got out of the program. Of course, I went through most of high school and all of college (and quite a bit of time after that) completely certain that I would be an economist the rest of my life, so perhaps I should have been a bit more humble. Deck wasn't bad for a month, but the most educational thing I learned there was that I absolutely did not want to be a deck hand the rest of my life, officer jobs are way too much work, and I am bad enough at driving cars that no one in their right mind would put me behind the wheel of a $XXX million dollar vessel. Galley life, however, is a different story.

The work is all routine, but then again, most of the work in the engine is likely to be routine with only occasional excitement. The question that is troubling me, then, is how much less exciting is this work than engine work, and exactly how much more is the steward being paid (Supposedly he makes more than some officers, but I haven't figured out how to ask him directly)? Could I make the same amount of money with a month less working? And it is certainly a factor that a steward reaches the top of his career faster than a QMED. I have a certain attachment to the idea of myself as an engineer, but that is exactly the sort of attachment that Buddha would have be discard as a source of suffering.

Oh well, I don't have to decide today. I can safely defer this until January if not later..

Work aside, I am 100% certain that this is a fantastic lifestyle. These last few weeks have been just like a good day at home, except better. No commute, no living expenses, great scenery, lots of food, and even reaching new ports is fun even if they are all a bunch of rust belt shitholes. The few things that are worse than home, roommates, no cats, limited internet, are all things that can be either mitigated through preparation or endured. Since I am certain that I want to be here, the question of what I want to be doing here gains all the more salience.

In other news, the captain, who had been waiting a whole month for a relief, finally got a replacement. The new captain is very tall, easily 6'6 or more, covered in tattoos and looks like nothing quite so much as a drummer in a metal band, though with my general policy of staying well away from important people I don't know much more than that. The current steward has started talking about when he is leaving, though fortunately it will be after I rotate out of galley. In another bit of luck, the one guy I didn't like on the ship, one of the engineers who went out of his way to be hostile at me, is leaving before I get down into the engine room. People tell me not to be so critical of him because he is going through a nasty divorce, but I am pretty sure that the woman known only as "That Bitch" didn't take his charming personality in the settlement.

Not too much to write about, because not too much is going on. Every day in galley is pretty much the same. I thought about going on an adventure in Silver Bay, but we loaded too quickly for me to get off. Maybe there will be adventures in Cleveland.

The Pretty part of Cleveland.

One thing Cleveland has going for it is that it is decaying quite nicely. Botg the graffiti and weeds are nice this time of year.

Traffic jam on the river.

It only takes three ships moving vp and down the river in Cleveland to cause large delays.

There were literally only inches betwedn us when passing this ship, and this is a wider part of the river.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Ship in the Sunset

Not sure why, probably because of the storm to the north, but I saw an unusual number of ships pass by yesterday; maybe seven or eight.