Wednesday, September 3, 2014

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.


  1. Remind us what GUDE stands for. JJ

  2. Hi Jeb,
    Alden Schiller here. Hope you remember me.
    My wife and I were with JB and Missy at the house in Cashiers and were talking about your new adventure.
    JB showed me your blog and I said to him then, "Your son has real writing talent. He's an unusually strong writer."
    I said this because my profession was a "writing job" (management consulting). I had to edit/critique the work of hundreds of people over the years, and came to be dismayed by the gradual deterioration of young people's writing skills.
    So now, when ever I run into a young man or woman whose writing I admire, I like to tell them so.
    I wanted to share this with you and let you know I will be reading your blog, alternating between backward reading from the present and forward reading from times past.
    I find it very interesting from a number of perspectives.
    With your permission, I'm going to offer gratuitous comments, questions, critiques, suggestions from time to time.
    I'll do so by way of commenting on your most recent post, but I may (will probably) be referring back to a some post in the past.
    For now, I'd like to pick up on your recent comment that there's a lot of humor onboard ship. I can read it between your lines ... and sometime, IN the lines.
    Here's a challenge: Write the humor.
    Almost no one can do this well. If you can "get it", you can have a lot of fun and laugh while you make a living at it.
    More to come,

    1. I appreciate any feedback. I get little notifications if you leave comments on the posts that interest you, so feel free to do that, or email, or whatever works best for you. Thanks

      As for humor, I will certainly think about it and see what comes out, but there isn't 'a lot' of humor, simply because there isn't a whole lot of talking on the ship. The only people I hear going at it are usually talking in Arabic (and wildly gesticulating), and I would say two meals out of every three are eaten in near silence apart from the daily formalities of "Where are we headed", "Thanks for dinner", "This is good" and such. And because the parts of the ship I work on are so loud, communication is limited to functional tasks.

      Not meaning this as an excuse, and I had actually already written up the bits on the running joke about getting paid to do what other people pay money for, but just saying what I see. Thanks for the suggestions, and I hope you enjoy the blog.