Saturday, August 30, 2014

Occupational Hazards

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

Such are the hazards of life at sea.

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

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

The tourist zoo. The stands are the glass structure.

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Tiny Reminders

A few bits of housekeeping:

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

Refueling in Detroit

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

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

Detroit, from a safe distance away.

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

A Long Day In Cleveland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 25, 2014

Packing the Stands

I have never been a tourist attraction before.

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

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

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

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

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

Excitement and Adventure in Exotic Silver Bay

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

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

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

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

Quality of Life is Perhaps the Most Important Part of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think I like this ship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


August 20, 2014: I get on the ship and they tell me to go away until they have time for me :)

all is good.

late and uncertain

Late getting into Muskegon, on top of last night's excitement, and the town's only cab is MIA, and noone ever bothered to tell me the departure time for the ship.

This blog may be ending sooner than anticipated.

Update: I am late, but the ship is even later thanks to fog on the lake. Now I am sitting on the dock of a bay, waiting for my ship to come in. I cant see it, but I hear the foghorn, so it wont be long now.

Crisis Averted.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Airport employee hard at work

Usually lazy people irritate me, but this night shift worker has been putting more effort into avoiding work than most of his co workers have been putting into thier jobs. Here I sit, having had maybe 4 hours of sleep in the last 48, amused by a man who has demonstrated greater skill at sleeping than I.

I hope this doesnt go viral and get anyone fired. Though he might have it coming for sleeping on the job?

New Discovery: I should not consider ethicalissues whilesleep deprived because I think I mightbe really bad at it.

Also someone tell me if thepicture shows up because am blogging from phone.

Crashing and Burning.

My flight to Chicago, which I needed to get to Muskegan, which I needed to board the ship, is delayed pretty much indefinitely. The good news is that the American Steamship company has at least one really nice employee who got me sorted with no problem on a flight tomorrow morning. The bad news is that, for some unfathomable reason, I had to leave the secure area to deal with a checked bag, and may have to spend the night in the baggage claim instead of the more comfortable gate area.

Oh well. At least I have a flight lined up.

Learning something new every day

The Baltimore airport, in which I am spending the morning, is probably the best airport, of all those I have been in, to have the runs. Obviously, it would be best to avoid intestinal distress while travelling, or at any phase of life for that matter, but barring that, the Baltimore airport eschews the usual airport pattern of huge restrooms in favor of many smaller restrooms, some as close as one gate apart, meaning that there is always one in sight. All this means that someone with a lot of time and a lot of shit has plenty of options to find the cleanest and least busy facility.

I think, perhaps, Baltimore should consider making this their tourism slogan, in light of the general lack of merit otherwise. "BWI: The least bad place to experience diorrhea!"

BONUS: I think, perhaps, the worst part of any day is that time right between10AM and whenever mcdonalds starts serving lunch instead of breakfast.

I think the best indicator of how fantastically well off I am just to be an American is how trivial the things I have to complain about are. Though I still want a hamburger.

Monday, August 18, 2014

In Which I Come Out On Top Of Having Been Fucked Over By Piney Point

So it turns out that they were just fucking with me. I never lost my ship and was shipping out the exact day I was supposed to. Thanks, Piney Point. Coming back for third phase is going to be the hardest thing I do all year.

I leave tonight at 2AM for Baltimore Airport, where I fly to Chicago at 2PM, and then to some hellhole in Michigan, where I go to the docks and wait until 2AM for the MV Sam Laud, a Bulk Cargo carrier, to pull in and let me on. I have my documents and money and no idea what is going to happen next but secure (-ish) in the conviction that the people at the airport, dock, and ship are professionals who know what they are doing and capable of helping people far stupider and more ignorant than I.

Time to pack, then will come time to sleep. To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.

Friday, August 15, 2014


I was on my way to write a post about how my whole itinerary has changed twice in the last two days, but on my way over here I got pulled back into the fishbowl and told that my itinerary has changed again. I am, as of now, shipping on the SS Who The Hell Knows, leaving at I-Don't-Know-Check-Back-On-Tuesday o'clock.

Seneca would say that nothing should be grasped until it is held in the hand. Buddha would say that even once a thing is had, it will someday end, causing suffering to those who grow too attached.

In any case, yesterday a real, live navy man came into the library, all decked out in the blue camo, spine straight and voice barking. He was looking for a buddy, but using all the discipline of the USN to do it and I suddenly realized that, no matter how shitty the ship they end up sticking me on, my quality of life is going to be way better than it would have been if the Navy had let me join up.

This weekend I think I will finally watch all of the Count of Monte Cristo TV show from a few years back. Also, this gives me more time to enjoy the sandwich bar they recently installed in the galley.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Good News and Bad News from Piney Point

Just as the title says, I have good news and bad news.

  • Good News: I have a ship! Well, I don't actually have it, but I will be going to work on the ship! Sure, they guarantee employment somewhere, but actually having a place to go after August 15th sure feels a lot better than a vague promise made by people who visibly don't care about my welfare.
  • Good News: It is a good ship! Bulk Carrier Sam Laud on the Great Lakes carries iron, limestone, coal, and similar cargo in the US and Canada on the lakes. Update: Still no shipping orders, but my reporting date is next Monday, Aug 18th.
  • Good News: The person shipping with me to the Sam Laud is the single best person in class; personable, competent, hard working, and sharing similar interests. I really could not have hoped for better luck. Update: He got transferred to another ship. I will be the only one from my class on the Sam Laud. Oh well.
  • Good News: I have a test tomorrow, Thursday, and Friday, all of which I must pass to get on this ship, but I did just fine on all the practice exams and am not worried at all.
  • Good News: We had a fantastic rainstorm today, it just came straight down hard for a few hours.
  • Good News: Bulkers have long shore leave, so when we stop I will have (schedule permitting) time to enjoy myself in some quality cities. Also, it will be autumn, so the coastline will be all pretty. If we have an early winter, I may get to see the lakes freeze :)
  • Bad News: Morning inspection ran long on the other floors, so by the time I got downstairs all the pancakes had been eaten this morning.

Union Education at Piney Point

Union Indoctrination class ended today, test on Thursday. This is the first actually bad class I have had, partly because of the material designed to fool morons and leave everyone else no less ignorant than they walked in, but also because the instructor possesses a fantastic arrogance wholly unjustified by her demonstrated competency in the material. Today, she informed a student that he was "just wrong" about his ethnicity and told me to shut up because I was answering too many questions correctly.

On the first day we were asked to learn the names of the current union executive officers. None of us questioned this, because it seems like a reasonable topic for "Union Education" class. Today, however, we were informed that the reason we learned that is so that we can show these people "proper deference" if we happen to see them in a hiring hall, because "you wouldn't talk to an executive like you would a fellow seaman".

I considered tearing apart her history lecture, but the truth was that it was so content-less that there wasn't any point.

I don't really want to think about that class anymore, because it was terrible, frustrating, and bad for my blood pressure.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Oh no! Is he dead?

Not dead. I would have written something this week, but there hasn't been much to tell.

Started the last two classes last week, vessel ops and union education. Vessel ops is very interesting, but very practical as well, without much wisdom to impart on anyone. The first day we went over all the different types of hand tools, most of which I had seen before, but learned the proper names and intended functions of each wrench, hammer and screwdriver variation. Tuesday we learned knots and splicing. Wednesday we moored and cast off the decrepit tug boat the school keeps in harbor. Thursday we learned about the sea project we all have to do on our phase 2 vessel in order to make it to phase 3. Friday we studied valves.

So far, it is the most interesting and useful class, but not much to share with anyone.

The other class is union education, which I have divided in my head into two parts. Last week was the easy part, going over the structure of the union, the benefits of union membership, and what the union requires of us in order to fund those benefits. Next week is going to be the high blood pressure week, in which I will practice keeping my mouth shut as a fantastically arrogant administrator lectures us on the history of trade unionism in America with a focus on the SIU. The little taste we have already gotten suggests that the story is, "evil corporations exploit, oppress, and enslave workers, but our union leaders served as Jesus analogues to suffer for our 40 hour workweek". Not that sailors get a 40 hour workweek.

I can assure everyone who is, apparently, worried about it that as soon as I know what I am shipping I will post details. Nothing happened this week, but it all happens next week. The new class comes in on Monday, we should get our shipping information (or an idle notice) around Tuesday or midweek, then on Wednesday we have the physical fitness test and we all go to Walmart to buy whatever extras we may need for the journey and have our unofficial farewell dinner at a genuine fast food restaurant, Thursday we take the union ed final, Friday morning is the Final Final exam covering the whole last three months, and Friday afternoon we go around getting all our paperwork and settling any accounts.

As for where I will be shipping, I have no idea. We have a pair of pathological liars in the class who keep claiming that commandant said this or that, every one of which has been complete bunk. Some say that we will be going to the cruise ship because the last few classes have all gone to the cruise ship. Some say we will all get cargo ships because it is "shipping season", but as far as I am concerned, I worry about what needs to be done today and am perfectly content to deal with tomorrow tomorrow.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Bullshit of Piney Point, and How Little it Matters

Piney Point is just a place. A whole bunch of buildings carefully designed to be neither attractive nor ugly in which no one (or no one in the UA program) is allowed to form any connection with or personal affinity over. Even after all this time I have no sense of place in this utterly sterile facility. Most of the people are anonymous strangers cycling rapidly and irregularly through to keep any of the background faces from becoming anything more than background. I can only say that I know the ten people in my class, maybe a third of the class immediately behind mine, and a handful of "important" people, mostly administrators and instructors.

It is in this environment that we are given a whole lot of instructions and restrictions, but very little guidance. Trainees get the core function of Piney Point accomplished quite well as a general rule, we make it to class, study, and become certified in an assortment of things. But for everything else, from the institution of a boot camp lifestyle to the various work details around the base, we are expected first to simply know what is wanted of us, then to know how it should be accomplished, then to juggle it with all the competing expectations. Oversight is minimal, so if we do the wrong thing we are often completely unaware of it, causing problems both when the mistake is caught and in the interim when the mistaken solution crowds out other possible solutions and unrelated priorities. Rules are changed weekly, nothing is announced earlier than the day before it happens, there are no communication channels between us and the hands that move us from place to place, and the entire program reeks of patchwork upon patchwork with the original purposes and motivations for each patch obscuring the others and completely covering up what was once a well designed regimen.

What is worse is that the administrators, the people who have absolute power over my career, only intermittently care, and then only about the things directly visible to them in their administrative capacities. It is said that years and years ago when the program first began in the 1950's, it was run by a former Navy Marine drill instructor who firmly believed in a program that broke men down and then built them back up better than before. This fabled drill instructor was universally hailed as one of the best men that those who met him ever met, tough, fair, and competent. Those who replaced him are salarymen who may have once been fine seamen but are now out for nothing more than a steady income. The trainees are no one's priority, so the easy part of the boot camp program, the breaking down, remains in place while the much harder building back up has fallen by the wayside. And with a recent spate of lawsuit threats (or perhaps actual lawsuits-- we don't get much information down here in the trenches), even that breaking down section has started to be stripped away starting with class 789, though I am not qualified to say what Piney Point is left with in the absence of even that.

It is from this combination of distracted administrators desiring a micro level of control without the micro level of oversight necessary to understand what controls are necessary that makes this place a seething swamp of bullshit. It is a purposelessly unpleasant dystopia endured for vague promises of future riches delivered by distant others.

But none of that really matters. "Hell is other people", but those other people can't do anything to hurt you if you don't let them. Nothing they have made me do put me at any risk of losing a limb, and most of the tasks I have been asked to do were tasks that needed to be done in some form or fashion at some point. The notion of something being a waste of time exists only in my head, as does the concept of unfairness. None of the bullshit matters because none of it lasts. I have just traded three months of my life for the beginning of a career, and I think I am right to be offended by some of the crap they have used those three months for, but it doesn't actually matter if I am right or not, if I am offended or not, because they are going to uphold their end of the bargain and this phase of life will just end without consequence or lingering effects.

If you are looking at going to the UA program at Piney Point, the only thing you need to know is the thing they tell you over and over again in the first week; keep your head down, your nose clean, and your mouth shut. If you walk out of here and the administrators don't know your name, you win a fantastic new life. It isn't free because nothing is free, but the price is one that I have been able to afford, and maybe you can, too.

Morale Boosting

Life isn't always bad at Piney Point. In fact, there is a whole spectrum from terrible all the way up to merely unpleasant.

But seriously, for all my bitching, it could be a lot worse. I never have to worry about basic life needs, except sleep, and even then there isn't a worry that I will start having serious health complications just from the sleep deprivation they put us through here. And, also, every now and then (about once a month) the administration funds a moral boosting activity.

Two months ago we didn't get to participate because of first galley, but they bought a pay-per-view boxing match and a bunch of pizza. Last month they got the big UFC fight, including the women's division championship (very popular among the target demographic here) and pizza. This weekend, after manning the staff appreciation festival all day, we were allowed to run our own little dodgeball tournament, complete with pizza and chicken wings. Sailors are not complicated folk-- if intoxicants and hookers are off the table, recreational violence and comfort food are a strong second best.

I can never tell how much of what goes on here is the product of some plan or merely the emergent order of a system with a short institutional memory and frequently negligent administrators, but I almost hope that the curriculum symmetry is the product of design. The very first class, vessel familiarization, is during the most boot camp-like two weeks at Piney Point, where a trainee is brought in and is assumed to know absolutely nothing about the direct environment of Piney Point nor about shipping and sailing. It is, in a certain way, an overview from a thousand feet, covering the whole spectrum of the industry in very broad brushstrokes. After that is two weeks in galley, followed by a month of safety training (lifeboat/ water survival/ firefighting/ first aid), followed by two more weeks in galley that mirror the first, followed by vessel operations class which, in many ways, mirrors the original vessel familiarization class. Instead, however, of the thousand foot view, we look at the same topics in minute detail with particular applications for our phase two work. So today we covered painting and hand tools.

Returning to the exact same classroom to cover much of the same material serves to emphasize those things that have changed over the last two months. Most noticeably, the lifestyle has loosened up dramatically, though is still much tighter than it will be anywhere but on a Navy ship. Relationships among classmates has, of course, changed over two months. And I keep talking about the change over the last two months, but with that continuity of place it feels as if far more time has passed. I can barely remember the interminable months of unemployment from before I got here; that time is well and truly dead. And with all the unpleasantness of being here, nearly everyone is pushed to keep their gaze fixed on next week when the shipping orders arrive, and to the start of phase three when we get our specialized ratings.

And on the subject of changes, the most visible change in my mind is the geese. When I got here there were perhaps 250 geese, including just hatched goslings who would follow their mothers all in a row. Whenever I got stressed or bored I could watch the geese, the adults fighting and the children stumbling and growing up. They were all so pretty and animated that it brightened every day. For two months, the slow growth of these goslings was another marker of the passage of time.

Then, sometime while I was trapped in galley, during the week that I didn't set foot outdoors, they all left for wherever it is that geese fly off to around this time of year. Having walked back out of galley and into a gooseless facility, I feel quite strongly that the time has come for me, too, to fly off to wherever it is trainees go.

A silly metaphor, perhaps, but one that resonates within me with unexpected power.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Things I learned in Galley

I have finally started, after two and a half months of being in the bubble of Piney Point Penitentiary, to discover various forums where merchant mariners hang out. You would think this would have been the sort of thing I should have done before coming here, or even before applying, but I didn't. In any case, it is probably for the best, because the sort of people who write things on the internet tend to be angry people. I, for example, am not an angry person, but I think that might be hard to tell for someone who only read this blog.

But one of the things I found was that the people who didn't like Piney Point would always bring up the galley month. This is not completely unjustified, because galley objectively sucks. Eighteen hour days for two weeks straight (used to be done all at once instead of in two two week chunks, for twenty eight days of fun) in a highly regimented environment (can't even use headphones at work) doing a job you probably don't enjoy (unless you are going into the steward department or have a restaurant background) to the orders of five separate head chefs who don't get along very well is really hard, and a fair number of people quit because they can't handle it or think they are too good (which they aren't) for this bullshit (which it definitely is).

On the other hand, it isn't a completely purposeless exercise. It is certainly a process for weeding out the people enamored more of the idea of being merchant seaman than of the work involved in being merchant seamen, and fourteen hour days packed with work are not uncommon aboard a ship. But it is also a learning experience.

  • I learned about how to wash dishes. Obviously, I understood the idea of soap, scrub and rinse, but I certainly have much more experience with washing all manner of scum off all manner of pot. More importantly, I learned how to wash dishes for hour upon interminable hour which requires a different sort of patience than waiting for hours in a waiting room or doing hours of yard work and brush clearing. I can hardly claim to have mastered either the washing itself or the mental act of tolerating the job, but I feel like these basics will stick with me in the event that I must return to a similar position. Holy crap I hope I never do.
  • I learned about just how little sleep I can function on, and discovered how much of my function goes away when sleep deprived. In the real world, I am one of those people who needs about nine hours of sleep to feel good, and have been making do here with somewhere between seven and eight. At six hours I definitely start to feel sleep deprived, and those nights when it went all the way down to five hours really, really hurt. As I sit here at 1830 in my library job where I am not allowed to fall asleep I can feel the sleep debt behind my eyes and in my fingers. I am nominally off as of lunch shift, but it turns out that the special snowflakes in the new class need extra pampering (I haven't mentioned it much, but the newest class is operating under a new, much more lenient set of rules) so I still get to wake up at 0430 tomorrow morning, then work all weekend for the 500 person picnic we are hosting on the hotel side. Just like last time, the weekend of sleeping I so desperately need right now has been snatched away from me.
  • I learned that adding more people doesn't always make a job easier. We had twelve people the first go around, but two of them were so unbelievably lazy and unhelpful that we found that things went faster and smoother the second time around after they had been kicked out. For all my fear that we would hurt from being understaffed (and we did hurt), it really was better only having people who pulled their weight, as well as a few people who pulled far more than their weight.
  • Speaking of weight, I saw an example of how weight loss is all about motivation. One of the men in class came in at 5'9" and 280 lbs. He was so fat he could not do a sit up because his gut kept him from bending that far. He has been dieting severely and managed to lose just under 20 lbs a month and is now at 240 and falling. He is still big, but the transformation really is amazing, accomplished all through the willpower required to simply not eat so much. I, on the other hand, was 165 lbs five years ago, 165 lbs when I came in, and 165 lbs today, so it would seem that I keep the same weight no matter what exercise or food environment I find myself in.
  • I learned that it can be absolutely terrifying when your only source of information about what is going on is rumors. It has been a good month and a half of these arbitrary rule changes, but the worst part is that most of them are communicated not at morning colors, nor afternoon muster, nor evening colors, nor nighttime inspection, when the administration has all or nearly all trainees present to announce things to, but they usually get communicated through rumor. It has gotten to the point that I think I could make up my own rules change just by spreading a plausible sounding rumor to the right people, and if it spread quickly enough people might not even go asking for confirmation. In any case, the worst part of rule by rumor is that the rumors aren't terribly specific. I know there is some new rule about getting permission before going in to restock on toiletries, but I have no idea who to ask, why we now have to ask, or what restrictions there might be on that.
  • I learned that the faux boot camp environment of Piney Point is widely regarded by everyone except the three people in charge of perpetuating it as complete bullshit, wholly beside the point of the industry, and damaging to trainees insofar as it instills really negative habits that aren't tolerated on a ship. I heard a story about why we have it like this, but that will have to wait for a more comprehensive post reviewing the good and bad of Phase one.
  • I learned a joke. At King's Point (the academy for merchant marine officer cadets) they teach the cadets to wash their hands after using the restroom. At Piney Point they teach us not to piss on our hands.
  • I learned that being a whiner in an organization with someone powerful who responds to whining is basically a superpower, second only to having genuine connections in high places. I learned that being a whiner on a ship is a good way to have captains refuse to take you on board.
  • I learned that if you spill a lot of shrimp juice on your jeans and then have to wait a few days for your laundry day to come up, that smell is never, ever coming out of those jeans.
  • I learned that union members are encouraged to scam the unemployment insurance system, and in fact we had an hour of class time on Thursday set aside in the curriculum to teach us exactly how we go about it and how to scam the most money out of states.
  • I learned, or more specifically reinforced, that a day itself or an instant itself has no emotional component or moral value. The thing "a good day" exists only within the thousand cubic centimeters of the human brain, and can be completely controlled therein.
As before, there is plenty more I have learned, like when you have a shitty job every shift can feel like weeks, and that in a place with very hard water and thick cream slathered on every meal, being constipated all the time starts to feel less like a terrible ailment and more of just a divine curse that must be lived with.

Next week I have Union Education with the daughter of the union president, which should be a great way to practice keeping my idiot mouth shut. Then we have our final class, vessel operations, which is the only class in phase one where we are taught anything in the way of practical job skills.

So only about a week and a half until I get my shipping orders, and only two more weeks of putting up with Piney Point bullshit. But every day is its own day and every minute its own minute. What will come will come, and until then I will blog and read and watch TV and occasionally, when ordered, do work and study for Piney Point.