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

Duluth

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 MarineTraffic.com 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

Oops

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.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The essence of Toledo

This building, the tallest in Toledo, really encapsulates the town in my mind. It isnt the third bank, it doesnt just own being the eighth bank, and it certainly wasnt the first or second bank. No, they insist on being the fifth third bank, and install it on the wall like it is some sort of accomplishment. Toledo is a shithole, but not even remarkable in the realm of shitholes.

Guys working on the stern thruster

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Doing Layups in Toledo

The stern thruster is all busted, so we have been at the Toledo drydock getting it all fixed up. Rumor is that we may leave as soon as tomorrow, but that has been floating around since the first day, so who knows? Answer: The captain and chief engineer, and probably a number of people, but not me.

On the first day, I get up at 6:20 and start my galley work, only to be pulled off right as I go into my break time as the chief tells me that I am an engine dayworker for today only. I go down into the engine room, which is unsettlingly cool and quiet, and spend the day pulling the acculumlated muck out of the now cooled engine. An up close and personal education into exactly how the engine works. There was so much carbon that it, in solid form, soaked through the overalls I was wearing onto the jeans I wore under them and through them onto my knees, which are still black a few days later.

After that, I decided to go exploring. Since we are docked for a few days at least, the captain put out the word that anyone can leave whenever, as long as they show up for work the next day. Off in the distance, I can see downtown Toledo, so I make that my target for the evening. Walking down the gangway, I walk past the 2AE and Chief, who ask me casually where I am going. "I want to see Toledo". "There isn't much to see" they respond, and boy were they right. I made it downtown and across a little bridge, but aside from some remarkably varied and now underutilized archetecture, this place is pretty much a shithole. Walking back, I realize that we are situated right next to a Nabisco factory, so I walk up to the gate guard and ask if I could go in to buy like oreos or something. He gives me a nasty look and tells me, straight out of a pulpy novel, to "beat it, kid". I giggle and leave with a little bounce.

Coming back into the shipyard, I see the roommate out on the bow making a phone call and wave. I enter the ship and walk towards the room, but I see that a door which never opens is open today. I takes me into the conveyor, a place which is usually mostly off limits for people that don't have business in there, so I go into to explore. Pretty soon I realize that I am down in the tunnel that runs under the cargo holds and walk the full length under the ship until I get to some stairs that look all rusted to hell heading up into a passage shrouded in darkness, so of course I go up them. The dark shroud is just a shadow obscuring a corner, and doesn't extend very far, but the stairway dumps me out into the forecastle and I think that this is a fantastic idea to jump out at roommate before he realized I am here. I creep around the stairs out onto the bow and leap over the last three steps with a great "Boo". No one is startled. The bow has emptied during my exploration. I go back to my room a little bit defeated and watch TV for the duration of the night.

The next morning I consider sleeping "in" until 7:30, figuring that they would pull me down into the engine, but I tell myself no, that the day I do that will be the day that they don't want me down there and get mad at me for not working in galley. So I get up early and set up breakfast only to discover, right as I am about to go on break, that it is time for me to go back down to the engine to clean and paint in places that are no fun at all when the engine is hot and screaming. After that is dinner, where I sit down only to have bosun burst in to tell me that I have an overtime project to do, some heavy lifting out on deck, at which point the cook comes in and tells me that he needs me in the galley for some overtime work. There is no epic staredown, because if there was cook would have won, but instead I lift a bunch of equipment for a while and get all buff and swole.

Afterwards, I spend about an hour debating whether or not to go out. Eventually I decide to go out and get some food, because today was fish for lunch and fish for dinner, and I don't like fish. I remember seeing a McDonald's on the prior day's walk, so I head out for that. The scenery is as miserable as the day before, but the fries taste just like every other McDonald's on the planet and are quite satisfying. I walk outside to discover that it has rained earlier than the internet had promised, and shows no signs of stopping either in the sky or on the internet. Two and a half miles in the rain isn't actually that bad, partly because it wasn't all that cold, but it was enough to convince me not to go out again the next day.

So for today, day three, I got confirmation that, yes, I would be working in the engine room and was not needed in galley. So I sleep in a bit, only to be awoken at 7AM by cook, who tells me that the SA never showed up for work today and he needed someone to back him up. So I do the SA's job for breakfast and lunch until he shows up at 2PM. I don't ask what the story was, but cook was pissed all morning and no less pissed after he showed up. Fortunately, he is not the sort of person to take that irritation out on anyone. Honestly, it wasn't a bad morning, if busier than normal. The previous SA was right that this job is absolutely easy money, to the extent that it has me questioning whether my goal here is to make easy money and have time the rest of the year to do my own things, or if it is to make the money while working an interesting job. Well, I don't have to think about it today, so I won't.

No adventure today, because there was no food shortage. Hamburgers for lunch, steak for dinner, baclava for dessert, and a bunch of rice krispy treats on the pastry shelf are more than enough to make me forgive cook for a day full of gross fish.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

An $80 Education

Checked my email this morning and found a dividend notice from etrade. The SA didnt know what dividends were, so I explained it and he seemed pretty excited. He seemed to think that the omly way to save money was in CDs or under the mattress, so I hope I have encoraged him to spend a bit less on strippers and booze and a bit more on saving.

In any case, the dividend was $80- not bad, but not a great yeild either. Still, it is going to be hard to get that 80 out of my head when I do overtime, because that was 10 hours I got right there for doing nothing.

Unrelated note: check out this photo. There is a cluster of pipelines in cleveland that run along the river, but one line has these little bows in it every 200 yards or so I guessed they were for isolation in an emergency, but no one knew for sure. Anyone out there know?

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Bonus photos

I was going through photos, and I don't remember if I have posted these or not, but they look pretty cool. Click to embiggen.

These were taken at the same time, but the lower one is a panoramic running from stern to forward on the port side.

Galley Erratum

The SA is leaving. His time is up. He is very excited about leaving. He has been dancing around, singing the "I am going away" rap, and talking about everything he was going to do once he gets home, mostly involving sex and alcohol. He was describing to me as I stood washing dishes (and he stood not working) all the sex he was going to have with his wife when he got home. Now the cook is pretty tolerant of a lot of things, but I guess this was just too rich for him. The cook turns away from the grill and looks at the SA and says this:
"Fifteen years from now you will be home with your wife on a slow day. You will turn to her and say, 'let's have sex', and she will say ok. You will climb up the stairs, go into the bedroom, crawl into bed, and get under the covers. Then you will both look at the ceiling. After about five minutes of this she will turn and say to you, 'I can't think of anyone', and you will say, 'me neither', and you will give up and take a nap instead."

I had just gotten used to the Chief Engineer, making sure to pay attention to how he operates on a personal level for when I get into the engine room. And now we have a new Chief. The old chief got knocked down to 1AE, the old 1AE, who was really cool, is now 2AE, and the old 2AE left (I think-- I didn't really know the 2 and 3AEs). Apparently, he isn't high ranking enough to run the football pool anymore, because instead of the old chief continuing to run it, or the new chief taking over, it has passed on to the second mate.

This is the second mate who called every single game last week, while the rest of the board was covered in Xs. I have one more ten dollar bill before I admit that gambling was a bad idea. Or until I go to an ATM when we hit Toledo

Speaking of leaving, a whole lot of people had thier time come up at the end of the month, or perhaps at the first of the next month. SA, 2AE, Watchman, QMED, and a Conveyorman are all getting off within a week of each other, and thanks to circumstance, most will be getting off when we hit Toledo tomorrow. Some departures are invisible, but when the wave is this big (and the SA is so loud about it) it does change the mood a bit. On the other hand, our poor captain has been waiting to get off for going on two weeks now, but first there were the mechanical issues, and now it sounds like they just can't find anyone willing to take over from him because they don't want all the river duty we are scheduled for. As the cook says, these captains all want the big bucks ($1000 per day and up! I made a $1001.47 last month), but they don't want to work for it. I told him that I, too, wanted big bucks without working for them, and he scowled at me.

The current plan is to hit drydock in Toledo as soon as we finish this run in Cleveland, so we should be in by tomorrow. They think it will take four days at a minimum even if the problem is trivial just to open everything and then close it all back up, and if the problem is bad we may be in for a week or a bit more. There was talk about sending the deck crew home, but I think they found some nasty sounding job for them to do. It is still up in the air as to whether I will be on the nasty job crew or stay in galley, but the nasty job sounds really interesting (cleaning out the guts of the engine while it is cool) and the galley job is nice and peaceful. Either way, they have been very emphatic that there will either be a whole lot of overtime for everyone, or else there will be strictly no overtime at all, and anyone who says different is just wrong. I make little enough that I can laugh about it.

I keep saying that I am not making shit, but I made a bit under half of what I was making monthly in my last job, and this is the very bottom of the payscale, so I feel pretty good about that. The fourth phasers each made about $5,000 with an average of two hours of overtime a day. The QMED who is on his first ship as a full union man from Piney Point made over $7,000. Apparently the Chief cook and Chief engineer made somewhere around $20,000-25,000, so that sounds like about the top of the payscale, except of course for captain who pulls in $1000 a day base rate. Obviously, everyone's but my own pay is hearsay, though it sounds like what I have been hearing elsewhere. It also sounds really good.

It is going on a year now since I had to cut my hair for the first time in years, and I still don't like it short. When I am having a nice shower, I will sometimes get way more shampoo than I need anymore. When I put on a shirt, I will sometimes forget and brush my phantom hair out of the way. Of course, now I am going bald for real, so I don't even know if I will ever be able to get it back to what it was.

Though isn't that the tale of aging? Not knowing if you can ever get back what you once were?

"Now the years are rolling by me
They are rocks beneath the waves
I am older than I once was
Younger than I'll be
That's not unusual
Nor is it strange
After changes upon changes
We are more or less the same"
-Paul Simon

Monday, September 29, 2014

Now with videos!

A photo didn't really capture the serenity of the sunset over the flat lake last night, so maybe a video will do the trick? I had to push the resolution way down to post, but I think it still looks alright.
video