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.

Galley Life

There may not be as many posts this month because galley is all about routine. Same hours every day, same jobs at each hour. Overall, my job here is peaceful, quiet and calm and is really quite relaxing. Overall it feels not so much like I am working but more that I am helping out in the kitchen in my spare time. The one thing it definitely is not is the Piney Point galley; fewer assholes, easier hours, easier work, and no flat out bullshit. Everything I do has a purpose, and once that purpose is accomplished I don't have to do it any more.

It helps that the chief steward, Steve, is a fantastic person. I can attest that his cooking is fantastic and the more experienced sailors have more than once called him the best cook on the lakes. Aside from that, he is very personable, the sort of person who thrives around other people, and sitting in the galley between the officer and crew messes he enjoys talking to most everyone on the ship. He is very serious about sanitation, which is a good thing, but knows very clearly when something does and does not need to be cleaned. From my perspective as the apprentice, I particularly appreciate that he makes a point of telling me things and pointing out little details that he has picked up on over his almost three decades sailing both in the galley and in the industry as a whole.

Before I arrived, the SA (Steward's Assistant) performed all the sanitation while the steward performed all the cooking. Now that I am here he does about half the sanitation and I do the other half. The SA is a fourth phaser out of Piney Point hoping to make chief cook as quick as he can because he sees it as easy money. I certainly won't dispute that since the pay is as good as any other position on the ship, and if you like to cook and don't mind cleaning then it isn't a bad life at all. Not the life for me, but definitely respectable for a person whose interests move them in that direction.

I wake up in the morning about ten minutes before I have to start, and my commute is less than a minute, so remember that next time you are stuck in traffic on the way to work. Once there, I look through the snacks, condiments, milk, juices, and other nick-nacks to make sure that nothing has run out or expired. Then I wipe down all the surfaces with disposable wipes, because the steward believes strongly that using the same cloth to clean multiple surfaces just spreads contamination, but using a new disposable wipe for each surface keeps everything clean. Then sweep and mop the floors and start moving through the dishes that have piled up from overnight meals and the morning cooking. I usually finish up the dishes about fifteen minutes into breakfast, then get to eat. After that, more dishes have piled up, then I sweep, mop, and clean off the tables and counters. I usually have about thirty to fourty five minutes until the shift ends at this point, so I make a little progress on whatever ongoing project the steward has me doing (right now it is emptying out every cabinet and wiping it down then putting everything back in), and then he lets me go early.

That first break is an hour and a half, and this is when I get my studying in and take a nap. Even though I have been getting to bed on time, for some reason the galley work just seems way more tiring than working excessive hours on deck, probably because I am actually working for all eight hours instead of standing around, so nap time has become a staple of the day. After the morning nap, I am up for lunch.

Each meal is the same routine as breakfast: stocks, surfaces, floors, dishes, eat, dishes, surfaces, floors, projects. The steward will sometimes blast classic rock and roll (Aerosmith, Steve Miller Band, Clapton, and Boston are particular favorites), and other times I will put my headphones in to make the dishes go faster. But people are always in and out chatting about the progress of the ship, or the football pool, or other people who have been or might come to the ship, or about life on shore around the lakes.

After lunch is a two and a half hour break. The breaks are pretty long, but that is because we have to stretch out eight hours of working into twelve hours of being needed. I am told that it is different on deep sea, where you have three man galleys instead of two (I don't count, apparently), but on the lakes the steward cooks every meal and the SA cleans everything that needs cleaning. In any case, this is my TV break, where I make progress on the collection of shows and movies I brought with me.

Funny thing is, I expected to start gaining weight, because there is food all around me. But the truth is that I am moving for all eight hours of the day, and usually go to bed more tired than when I was just standing around as a deckhand for twelve hours at a time.

There is a lot of money to be made in the steward department and a lot of freedom and power to run your own little department. On the other hand, I really don't like cooking, and I am not a fan of being an SA for life, so the galley life is definitely not for me. A month of this won't be bad, but six months at a time? A whole career of food and cleanup? Not happening.

More Sunset

No matter how bad this job gets, not that it has gotten bad yet, nothing beats the scenery out here.


Flat lake

The lake is flatter today than the small creeks back home.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Return again to Silver Bay

I think this is my fourth or fifth trip to silver bay, and it looks beautiful every time. A lot of bats livein that factory, and we usually pick up one or two with the cargo.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Photo Dump

Images seem to be working again, so here are some photos that should have gone in the last few posts.

When we unload, there is always a designated dock agent there to meet us and to supervise unloading. They are always in an American made truck and when they just sit there in the middle of a rocky road surrounded by industrial mountains it looks like a living truck advertisement.

I already posted refueling from a station, so here is refueling from a truck. Two trucks is considered just topping up the tanks.

When we load, the boom has to be moved out of the way so the loaders can reach the aft cargo holds. Today the water was so still that it reflected perfectly on the water.

Deck crew doing what they do best.

A view of the ship as I go off on my first shore leave. It was a relief to see it still there when I got back. The trucks and trailers are the dive team that inspected the stern thruster.

A coal loader. Probably the coolest and most advanced loader I have seen.

Green Bay. It really is green.
The entrance to the river. If you keep going you can see Lambeau field. I didn't get to keep going.

One thing we have a surplus of is beautiful days.

Adventure in Green Bay

So here I was hoping for a view of Lambeau field, but we stopped at the wrong dock for that. Worked until 6PM, as usual for galley (actually cut out a little before 6, as usual for galley). During my Toledo shore leave, I had gone to walmart with the particular intention of getting another tube of toothpaste before I ran out. I bought a number of things, from snacks to halloween candy, but neglected to purchase the one thing I had gone there to get. Since we were in port and I had wanted to see Green Bay, I set out with the SA in search of toothpaste.

Like I said, there is apparently a dock right under Lambeau field, but we didn't go to that one, we went to one in the middle of an industrial district. I walked by various heavy industry terminals holding such fundamentals as stone, oil, coal, salt, and specialty cheeses. A set of railway tracks transitioned the area abruptly into a neighborhood, one that was clearly a nice little part of town at one point, and had not been a nice part of town for at least a decade or two. Stepping gingerly past the white trash I found myself in the historic downtown. I found historic to be a particularly apt description, since there was certainly no present here, only history. Half the buildings were completely empty and occupying the prestigious corner spot at Broadway and Main was a cremation supply company, because apparently this town is so dead that the only flourishing enterprise is burial.

In any case, there was a save-a-lot not too far away. I don't think I saved all that much getting toothpaste and some snacks, but it wasn't a bad deal all the same. On the way back the SA stopped at a bar for a drink (I don't drink, and getting on board ship drunk is strictly prohibited, but the SA was responsible). I watched the not terribly interesting Braves vs Pirates game and realized that it has been so long since I watched baseball that I didn't recognize a single player on the Braves lineup, not the face or the name. That made me sort of sad so I looked to the other TV where they were getting ready for monday night football and I got all excited to get back to the ship and watch the game.

We walked back to the ship, goodies in hand. The guy at the fence checked our IDs and was kind enough to drive us up to the ship through the mountains of stone, coal, and salt. The SA climbed up first, then I followed. At the top of the ladder I considered whether I should go aft to the galley to eat (there was some fantastic chicken in the refrigerator) or forward to put my stuff in my room. I made the wrong choice and went forward. This violated the first rule of deck department, "Don't be seen". First mate saw me coming down the stairs and called me over. He asked if I had been drinking and I said no, and I would have denied it for the SA if he had asked about that as well. But all he wanted to know was if I could get to work, and being sober I could. So I put my things away and went back out on deck for four more hours to help unloading. We didn't need six people out on deck, and hell we didn't really need the five they had before I came out. All I was really doing was allowing deckhands to stand around while I did thier share of the lifting. By the end of it I was exhausted and really, really wanted that chicken, but we had run out by then and I had to get up at 6AM the next day any way.

I don't mind working in any of the particular departments, but I do sort of mind working in two at once. I don't get paid enough to be working twelve hours (with generous breaks) and then get called out for deck work. Though apparently I do get paid enough for that, because bosun told me to be ready for it if they needed help again. Oh well, so it goes.

Photo Testing

I may have to separate text and image posts. Here is 9AM on lake Superior.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Shore Leave

Hmm... I will do a photo dump soon, once I figure out what the problem is.

We got off easy in Cleveland because we were having a problem with the stern thruster, so we had to hurry over to a shipyard in Toledo to get it fixed up. At first I was worried because something was broken, but then I was told that because we were docking for repairs, the deckhands would finally be able to get off the ship and get shore leave. Everyone else on the ship can get off and do minor shopping or go clubbing or whatever in any port they want after their working hours are up, but because unloading and loading is our specific job and we don't have watch rotations, we get stuck on the ship. Since I have only been on for just under a month, I am not bothered that much by shipboard life, but the other GUDEs were quite excited.

Obviously, it never goes that smoothly. Chief mate decided that this would be an excellent time to do a monotonous make work project that could just as easily have been done any other day and sent us an hour past our usual quitting time of 4PM. Then we had to go out and help the diving team by hoisting materials down to them. Then they wouldn't give us a sailing time (departure time) until the dive team diagnosed the problem. Finally, we had a chance to get off.

Four of us; me, a GUDE, the new apprentice who came on the day before, and the SA, split a cab out to the one place that everyone really wanted to go. Walmart. About five minutes after we left, the ship called the GUDE, who had left his number, and told us that the problem had been fixed and we were going to sail as soon as possible. Fortunately, as soon as possible still gave us an hour to get back, so we shopped quickly and returned.

We returned as the dive team was leaving and we could hear the engine room putting the thruster through the paces. I went for a snack expecting the call for departure at any time. As I waited I ate some, then waited some more, then ate a bit, then waited some more. At about 9PM, I learned that the thruster hadn't been fixed, that there had been some larger problem behind the one that had been corrected, so we were just sitting around figuring out what to do.

Eventually it was decided to take a load of coal from Toledo to Green Bay, where I am sailing right now, then stone from Port Inland to Superior, WI. At Superior, it sounds like we will be stopping into a more sophisticated shipyard for possibly five to seven days to get it fixed. Problem is, company policy says that that kind of lay-up for more than three days means they have to send all the deck crew and some of the engine room home, with no idea of what that will mean for my apprenticeship.

Fortunately, I am in galley now, and galley doesn't get sent home. Hopefully, my present galley status will exempt me from anything that might disrupt phase 2. But that is the future, and the future is nothing but imagination, so it may be different. Nothing bad ever happens.

Officer Humor

Working in galley has been my first chance to hear the officers off duty. Most of the time they discuss work, but they also have their little jokes as well. For instance:

Divorce is more expensive than marriage. You know why that is? Because divorce is worth it.

Why do married men live shorter lives than married women? Because they want to.

Here are some of the photos I failed to post last time:

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Things I Learned On Deck

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Safety and Flowers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earning my $3.25 an Hour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Junior Prognosticators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shipboard Humor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jerry Seinfeld does not sail upon the MV Sam Laud.

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


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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 7, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Near Misses

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

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

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

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

Return of Cleveland; Now with More Cleveland!

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

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

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

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

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

The Little Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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