Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Voyage Ends

I meant to write some sort of summary thing that discusses just how much Piney Point lied to me about nearly everything it discussed, but I don't feel like it, so I won't.

I got home on the 18th, flying out of Chicago without incident. The next day I made myself a cup of soup and sat down to watch the six months of TV backlog that has built up, and sitting in my familiar chair by my desktop computer, eating soup and watching the familiar intro sequences of familiar shows, it is like no time at all has passed. Everything is just how I left it. Little changes are evident, but only if I look for them.

I will definitely be continuing to ship, no question about that.

Don't expect much from this space while I am home. My writing energies are going to be directed towards another ambition. Consider this a conclusion, and anything that may perchance follow to be a sequel.

In any case, I have a folder full of pictures, so before I compress it and drop it in a backup hard drive, here are some neat looking ones. Apologies if I have posted any of these before.

Having gained a new appreciation for the bandwidth limited, the photos are beneath the jump

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Off the Ship

Returning to civilization for the first time in six months

Chicago in the Mist

This is why I intend to get a better camera- I can see Chicago peeking out of the mists on the horizon, but I suspect it doesn't show up in th_s picture.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Things I Learned in the Engine Room

Looking at leaving tomorrow night, unless something goes wrong, which makes this my second to last day of working in the engine room. Reflections, therefore, are in order.

  • I have learned that painting all day in an environment that permits no distractions can eventually get old. When on deck we could usually paint with earphones on, and while I could conceivably purchase wireless earbuds to wear under some over-ear mufflers, I haven't done so yet.
  • Apparently, and this must be a thing that was planned out, everything that you could possibly hit your shin on in the engine room is all placed at exactly the same height and at the same angle against the shin, such that once you hurt yourself walking around once, every subsequent injury will occur at exactly the same place. I have had a small red bump on my shin for most of this month, and just when I think it is about to go away, Bam!.
  • Painting just by standing around with a brush or roller is pretty dull, but painting that involves crawling, climbing, and fitting yourself on and into things that you don't quite fit in is much more exciting, like Bruce Willis crawling through the building in Die Hard, painting terrorists above the wire beds.
  • Fixing piping seems to be a large part of the engineer's job, and it isn't all that difficult if you know where the problem is. Just isolate the problem area, unscrew everything, replace parts as needed, then screw it all back together.
  • In fact, very little seemed all that difficult so long as one knows what they are looking at and what they are trying to accomplish. For those few tasks that did seem difficult we would call down the Chief, who would exclaim worriedly and then say, “well, guess we have to (leave that for layup / call a specialist)”
  • That said, you really do need to know what you are doing down here to an extent that you sort of don't anywhere else on the boat. Hence, I have spent most of the month painting.
  • There is a window in the engine room, but it isn't anywhere near where there is work to be done. I don't end up seeing nearly as much of the magnificent scenery as I did in galley, and far less than when I was working on deck. On the other hand, we have a repeater monitor from the navigation computer, so I know where we are more exactly than I did previously.
  • The bilges in general aren't as bad as they are made up to be, but the spot where it all gets washed down to and pumped out really is that bad. We went in yesterday to clean it out, not even a very thorough cleaning, just pulling a couple buckets of muck out of the bottom, and I wasn't the one doing most of the cleaning, but three showers and a day later and my hands still smell faintly of oily sewage.
  • I learned, contrary to what piney point insists, you don't have to go to Piney Point or other accredited school to upgrade or get endorsements. Anyone with sufficient appropriate sea time can call up the coast guard and sit for the test. There are advantages to going through the union school, most importantly that some of the hiring hall guys may hassle you for getting a ticket outside of the union.
  • I learned that there are fewer and fewer onboard unlicensed engineering jobs. They get replaced either by more duties for the watchstander and the remaining QMEDs or they get offloaded to specialist electricians/mechanics who live on shore and only get called out to fix particular problems.
  • I learned that the unhappiest person on any bulker is the conveyorman, because apparently his job sucks. That certainly seems to be the case on this ship.
  • I have learned that the real punishment for being an idiot is that people will tell stories about you when they go to other ships. Actually, the real punishment is being injured or killed, usually during your off hours from alcohol abuse, and then becoming nothing but a cautionary tale. I heard stories about the chief who would jump up and down throwing temper tantrums, the chief who would work and call people into his office while completely naked, the engineer who sweated booze (and died from taking his medication with alcohol), the time a famously short tempered chief shouted at a famously short tempered first until a boiler exploded, and other such tales of people who simply aren't in control of their thoughts and emotions.
  • The engine room is probably the only place where reasonable people will set up a portable heater unit right next to a fixed AC outlet and have both running full blast next to each other. It isn't even a bad idea, since that keeps the engine cool on one side while keeping the working space warm on the other, otherwise it would be way too cold outboard near the hull that sits in the cold water and way too warm in the middle of the room where the engines and machines sit.

Lighthouse Opposite Mackinac

Just a pretty picture

This is from yesterday, but I didn't have signal then and only now remembered it.

Mackinac in the snow

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Duluth Harbor Wall of Iron

Sorry I couldn't get a better picture, this thing is so big (both taller and longer than the ship) that I couldn't fit it all in a single image until we were pulling away.

Anyway, this thing is huge, dumping in eight cargo hatches at once. It still took all day, because they broke a loader and had to wait for trainloads of ore, but so it goes.

Today was a good day.

Icy Harbor

The wind has died down, so when they called me on deck to replace the DEU who went over his hours it wasnt bad at all.

A beautiful day today, and they are having mechanical problems with the loader, so score one point for theday and a half delay I am looking for to get off in Chicago. But now I am done on deck, so it is backto the windowless bottom of the engine room to huff paint for six more hours.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


The same veiw as sailing into Superior, but ever so slightjy different for heading to the north instead of the south shore.

Off the Grid in Batchawana Bay

So, I don't know what is saying about where we were, but judging from the pile of emails and texts that came in as soon as we made it back into American waters, it may have been wrong.

About five days ago we were coming up to the Sault Ste Marie locks, but the weather was bad so we dropped anchor in the Mackinaw straight between upper and lower Michigan for about a day. We raced through the locks hoping to beat the weather, and a few disgruntled crewmen say we could have if the captain hadn't hesitated, but didn't. I don't know why we couldn't anchor in American waters, I heard people say that the better anchorages had already been taken, but I don't really know how that works, but in any case we ended up in Batchawana Bay, a beautiful and calm natural harbor wholly enclosed by Canadian territory.

The area was absolutely breathtaking the morning I woke up and saw it, blanketed with a fresh coat of snow that peeked between the wintry tree-sticks that covered the majestic low mountains. I thought to myself that I absolutely have to get a good picture of the scenery, maybe a panorama of the entire bay, but would have to put it off until lunch time because there were engine things occuring. Needless to say, the storm blew in by lunch time, and while it didn't shake the ship in our nice little harbor, it did render everything 1000 feet from the ship completely invisible. The storm rose and fell, but I never saw land again in scenic Batchawana Bay.

After sitting there for two days, we took the north route along the Canadian shoreline to avoid more weather. In the meantime our orders got changed from a Silver Bay-Cleveland run to a Duluth-Indiana Harbor one. After four days without any sort of cell phone signal, parts of the crew were starting to get positively mutinous, threatening perhaps not murder, but at least a bit of whining.

The happy ending is that nobody died and we eventually got cell phone service back.

The other ending is that this phase of the blog is rapidly coming to a close. My 90th day is November 17th (yes, I have counted multiple times to be sure I didn't screw up), so I can get off on the 18th or any time after that. Indiana Harbor is basically Gary, Indiana, which is basically Chicago. The current plan is finally at a point where it isn't likely to change, so we get to Duluth tonight and load tomorrow morning (14th), then it is a day to the locks under good weather (15th) and a day and a half to Chicago (late on the 16th). If the weather stays bad and we go slow or anchor at all, then I will probably be getting off in Chicago, which is always fun. If the weather is perfect the whole way there, then I will still get off eventually.

Fat Jokes and Drug Posters

So it turns out that my prior prediction was incorrect. It has, in fact, snowed again. The weather is so bad, with 60MPH winds not half a mile away, that we took anchor in a marvelously shelter little natural harbor on the Canadian coast. The Chief Engineer said that the weather report goes all the way to Wednesday night, and so we know that we aren't moving from this spot until then. I get good signal, but it is Canadian, so it is nothing but a dirty trick.

I haven't asked if this is a formal system or not, but there seems to be three types of repair jobs on the ship. There are tasks that the QMED does on his own, then there are tasks that the QMED has to go get an engineer to supervise, though they don't really seem to contribute much, then there are tasks that the engineers do and they will call the QMED if he is and they need an extra hand. Repacking the four gaskets at the bottom of the bow thruster this morning was the second type of job.

At the front of the ship, the bow, the top (weather) deck rises up about half a story. The room created by this rise sits on the main deck, but is sheltered. This small structure is called the forecastle (on some ships, it is a whole extra superstructure, but it is just a small room that takes up the front of the ship here). The forecastle holds the forward anchors and windlass out of the elements, and acts as storage for assorted things (like really heavy lengths of chain that I got to haul up from all over the main deck by hand). Beneath the level with the anchor is another room with assorted things, but it also has an electric motor fed by the generators all the way at the back of the ship. This 1000 horsepower motor drives a long metal bar all the way down to beneath the bottom of the ship where it turns a propeller that is oriented sideways along the keel that allows us, in conjunction with the rudder, main propeller, and stern thruster, to move sideways or make sharp turns, mostly on the rivers.

It is two or three stories (about maybe 10-12 meters) from the top to the bottom of the long bar, so it gets its own little room stretching the entire distance. Now this room is only bg enough for two people and the bar assuming that one of those people just squeezes himself in the corner and holds the light while the other person works. Now, in a job that was full of dirty where nothing important could break, I would be the one working while the QMED held the light, but this job was both dirty and held the potential for a screw-up, the entire mechanism being only a few bolts and a thin piece of steel away from the hypothermic waters of Lake Superior and the job itself being ever so slightly technical. Now, both the QMED and I are of average build, I being right at the notional "average" of 5'9" 160lbs (probably a bit more since that month in the galley), and the QMED being slightly larger.

The engineer who came with us has to weigh in well over 250lbs. Explaining what we were going to do to the engineer on watch, he exclaimed, with the assisting engineer out of the room, "but he won't fit down that hatch". But it didn't turn out to be a big deal, since he wouldn't have fit down there with us if he were an anorexic midget, so he stood at the top of the hatch, chatting, supervising, and passing things up and down via rope. At some point the chief engineer came down to supervise, not that he contributed a whole lot. He is of average build, but no way in hell was he going to get his hands dirty down that hatch when three other people were perfectly capable of getting dirty for him.

As the QMED and I finished up, we climbed out of the hatch. I looked over at the Chief and saw him inspecting the thruster motor. He calls out to the engineer, "could you check the hydraulic lines for a crack?". A quick visual inspection of the hydraulic line in question by all three of us shows first that it is intact in the large room beneath the forecastle in which we all stand, and second that it continues down below in the confined space we had been working in.

Now, I didn't offer to go down and check the hydraulic line, on the general principal that I am not supposed to really do much of anything even vaguely technical unless instructed to. The QMED didn't offer to go down and check because A) he probably didn't feel like it, B) the chief had been talking to the engineer, and C) possibly this was above his pay grade, though I don't know for sure. In any case, the chief had asked as if this were a perfectly natural and reasonable thing to ask an engineer to do-- to go into a confined space to check a pipe for leakage.

The engineer didn't say anything, not that there was anything to say, turned and put his feet on the second rung from the top. As he slowly brought himself down through the 24" x 18" hatch his legs fit fine, and then his thighs, and then he got his bellybutton level with the edges of the hatch. Here, at the widest point, his flesh was pressed up flat against the edges with a small roll sitting on the deck spilling over. No one said anything, and the engineer didn't appear to struggle, hold his breath, or do anything in particular to indicate that he was stuck. But after a moment of pause he gave a visible extra exertion and the excess of his body was pulled through, scraping against the hatchway.

There was a leak in the hydraulic line, but it was very small and the chief said it could wait until we lay up for the winter.

Scattered around the ship are safety posters, each with a little safety message and a badly drawn cartoon illustrating it. Things like 'keep your finger off the trigger of power tools when not in use', 'wear steel toed boots', and 'machines can bite!'. These posters get replaced each month with a new poster, presumably because these aren't actually timeless messages of wisdom but instead only fleeting fashions that must be constantly updated to keep up with the rapidly changing 21st century. There is one down in the engineering control room that hasn't been changed since August 2011, probably because whichever mate changes them out has forgotten it was down there. But as a whole they rarely get noticed and never elicit comment.

Until the one posted this month in the crew mess that reads, 'It's clear, it's simple, it's policy, it's the law. Drug use is not permitted." This features a guy with what is probably supposed to be a joint between his fingers. During meal times, anything at all, even something as small as a glance at the poster can be the setup for which the punchline is a mock serious declaration that "Drug use is not permitted". From this I have discovered that 100% of unlicensed crewmen who eat at meal times believe A) Anyone who tries to do dangerous work while drunk or high should be thrown into the sea and left to drown, B) The American drug war is absolute bullshit, as are the company and union prohibitions against alcohol and drugs on ship during a man's off time, and C) Guys who show up to work merely hungover are hilarious and deserve whatever you do to deepen their misery.

In that sense, it is probably a good thing that they get changed out every month, because one month is enough time to wear the joke out, and if it stayed up after that point the poster would become nothing but a serious and sober reminder of a genuine threat to both the careers of seamen and safety aboard the vessel.

In the old days, ships used to have cats. They called them, drawing from the endless creativity characteristic of sailing men since the dawn of time, Ship's Cats. Mostly, they would eat rats, but also they would be adorable, because they were cats. Anyway, I am of the opinion that it is high time to reinstate the tradition of ship's cats aboard merchant vessels, not because we have a surplus rats, but because we have a dire shortage of cats. I have yet to go to the captain with this idea, because you just don't bother the captain with that sort of bullshit.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

First Snow of the Season

Just tiny little snow up near Sault Saint Marie, but the first such that I have seen in ten months.

And, if the weather holds for another week, quite possibly the last of the year for me.

Friday, November 7, 2014


Not that photo! This one!

Actually, I cant tell if i posted the right one or not from the phone.

Across the river from the Detroit stone dock

There is a particular brand of salsa I am fond of, La Costena, and a particular sort of tortilla chip that I like, El Milagro. It should go without saying that the two things are even better together.

In any case, my first pang of homesick has come after six months in the form of an intense craving and the taste of that salsa taunting ghostlike on my tongue.

I dont know if it is "life" or "happiness" that is all about the little things, but it is one of them for sure.

I remember a friend at Piney point asking if I would agree, hypothetically, to sail for two years straight without break or shore time if they paid a $100,000 bonus. I said yes then and would say yes now.

Less to Say, More to Do

It has occurred to me more than once that there is just less to blog about here on the Sam Laud than there was at Piney Point. I think the fundamental reason for that is twofold- first being that there is not as much change here as there was at the fast paced school, and second being that there are fewer rank assholes here than there were at Piney Point causing far less drama. Not that there aren't people with variously unpleasant personalities, but they keep themselves professional at all times, preventing their unpleasantness from getting in anyone's way.

Engine life hasn't changed much from last time I wrote about it. I paint all day except when they pull me off to act as a spare hand on various repair projects. One thing I have been hearing that has started to distress me is that the market for QMED specialists, Electricians, Refrigeration techs, and Pumpmen, is much smaller than I had been told at Piney Point, and even the lakes specialists, Conveyormen and Gatemen, are being reduced in the upcoming contract. That leaves a lot of ships with an oiler who also carries the weight of a wiper and a junior engineer (we don't even have a junior engineer), the rest of the department being officers, meaning that a lot of good money doesn't come out anymore until you have a license. The oiler on our ship has been sailing for nearly twenty years, is a certified conveyorman/gateman/junior engineer, but this was the open job. He doesn't see it as less money, since the option wasn't a higher paying job or this but rather no job or this, which is a good attitude, but one I am taking as instructive.

I have some thinking to do before I go back to Piney Point.

Speaking of which, I finally counted the days (and since then have remained unpleasantly conscious of it) and found that day number 90 is Nov 17th, so I will be looking to get off on the 18th or 19th. Of course, not even the captain knows where we will be ten days from now, so I can't even get a plane ticket until a day or two in advance. Fortunately, the company takes care of all that.

With departures and Piney Point in mind, I have a question for the audience the audience, some of whom seem more experienced than I. There are some pretty dumb people out at sea. Not on this ship, of course, everyone here is a gentleman scholar, retiring in the evenings to the lounge to sit by the fire and gently discuss existentialist philosophy and the works of the classical Greek historians. The deckhands are particularly fond of Kierkegaard, while the engineering officers hold themselves off to the side to play chess on a hand carved ivory and oak board while taking parts reciting Shakespeare together. The Steward softly plays Chopin on the grand piano, though he will do Mozart upon request. The captain watches over from his gilt and velvet chair with a warm glass of aged brandy and the hint of an indulgent smile upon his lips.

But I hear that other ships have stupid people. But for all that there are stupid people out here, there were so many more stupid people at Piney Point, and asking some of the other Piney Point people we can only remember one person who got kicked out while on a ship during second phase for being an idiot. Where, then, do all the stupid people go? Are they somehow convinced to quit of their own volition? Do they get fired quietly and quickly forgotten (given propensity of sailors to tell stories about the very human foibles of their former crewmates, this seems unlikely)? Do they somehow get less stupid? Is there something about the shipboard environment that suppresses idiocy while the Piney Point environment particularly fosters it? Or perhaps the quality of new sailors has dropped precipitously (or, more plausibly, that there were more stupid people, but they were fired in a big wave some years back and those who remain are more competent than the previous average)?

I suspect that if I can't find stupid people that the quickest place to look is in the mirror.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Sitting at Anchor

Last night after dinner, I looked out the window and saw the Mackinac bridge. Then I went to my room and watched Enemy at the Gate, a movie about the battle of Stalingrad. That inspired me to start playing Hearts of Iron, a WW2 game, and before I knew it it was almost 10PM. I pull out my headphones and notice that the engine isnt running, look out the window and see the same damn bridge.

Apparently the weather is bad further up, so the captain chose a spot with good cell reception to drop anchor.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

A Tour of the Engine Room

Yesterday I got to do real engineer things. In the morning I helped replace a four inch thick butterfly valve in the fire main system, unscrewing things, cleaning the bolts out with a wire grinder thingy, then showing them to the QMED who said that all of the cleaning he had told me to do was pointless because we have to replace them all anyway. So then we cut bolts straight from long stock bars, and that was cool. The valve worked.

Then we serviced the emergency generator, which involved replacing three filters and replace a bunch of oil, which really meant that my job was to catch oil pouring out of places that it shouldn't, then pour it into somewhere better. I made zero mess and broke nothing, which means I won the job.

Last night, while at sea, the deckhands were called out at 2AM. I thought that maybe something had gone wrong, or perhaps that we were tying up suddenly to avoid weather, but mostly I didn't think about it too much and went back to sleep. I heard him coming in a few more times and heard them washing the deck above me, but the full significance of that didn't really hit me at the time. Today we spent the entire day pretty far out in Lake Huron, easily in legal to rinse waters, it warmed up nicely, and the deckhands were given most of the day off. The question then is why on earth they were woken up at 2AM to do a job they could just as easily have done during normal working hours. That question seems to have no answer.

I have been meaning to take pictures of the engine room for you, but didn't get around to it until now. It being now, enjoy a brief tour of the engine room.

At the very bottom of the ship is the tunnel. The sloped ceiling to the left is the underside of the cargo hold, and beneath it is the conveyor belt system

The steering gear. The two wheels can move the rudder manually in the event of an emergency, though I expect it would be no fun. The middle bit is connected directly (more or less) to the rudder.

One of four machine shops. There are four more shelves of the same size to the left around the corner.

The nice machine shop. Smaller, but more complete and well organized.

Here is a cat. Behind it is another workbench, and to either side is another cat. These are our three electrical generators. Only one runs during normal operations, but we fire up another to run thrusters or winches, and all three are required to run the conveyor belt.

This is about a quarter of the valves and pipes that run water around the ship. Most of the maze of piping is under the grates. It took two hours for me to diagram the entire system for Piney Point, walking around a maybe 20'x20' zone following pipes back and forth.

The main event, two medium speed diesel engines. These are about eight feet tall.

This shaft, the width of my entire body, spins when we are moving to drive the propeller. 

Another view, this one of all three floors. The central chamber of the engineering room is really big.