Thursday, November 13, 2014

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.


  1. That Bow Thruster "bar" is better known as "shaft" as in pump shaft or motor shaft. The correct nomenclature will come with experience or schooling but it is something a newbie like you needs to work on.

    Just my 2 cents.

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