Thursday, October 30, 2014

Oil Spills and Fire Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Rhythm of the Engine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Big Black Money

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

See comments for much more reasonable sounding figures here.

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

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Things I Learned in a Real Galley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 20, 2014

Friday, October 17, 2014

Afterword to Silver Bay

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

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

He said "Yea"

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

He said "Nope"

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

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

Further Adventures in Silver Bay

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

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

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

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

Click on the pictures to make them bigger.

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

Birds and Such

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

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

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

Monday, October 13, 2014

Halfway (or a bit more) Through

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pretty part of Cleveland.

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

Traffic jam on the river.

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

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

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Ship in the Sunset

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

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The essence of Toledo

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

Guys working on the stern thruster

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Doing Layups in Toledo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

An $80 Education

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

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

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