Sunday, May 31, 2015

Every Day is a Good Day

This will be the last post for a while. We are loading soybeans from a crane on a barge in the middle of the Mississippi river, having taken on wheat after a long delay from a conventional port in Galveston, TX (sitting just barely south of the massive floods that hit the rest of the state). Tomorrow we head back out of the river and spend a week puttering south at about 12mph until we hit the Panama canal, and then to drop the two cargoes off in Nicaragua and El Salvador (Not Honduras or Costa Rica, as I had been previously informed). Because I have a terrible fear of roaming charges, the phone is going into airplane mode as soon as I post this and will remain that way until I get back to a US port.

People always ask what I do in a typical day and the answer was always that on my last ship I was just an apprentice and there was no typical day. As a GUDE (General Utility Deck and Engine, what they used to call a wiper) however, that has changed for the better. I am working with two other GUDEs and no higher ranked unlicensed engine men, though the other two I am working with are both qualified as mid-level QMEDs sailing below their rating because conditions in Puerto Rico are apparently rather poor. The rest of the engine room consists of the four engine officers, Chief, first, second, and third. The whole engine crew is made up of good people who are pretty easy to work with, and everyone is more than willing to take the time to help me learn the job and the machines.

This engine room is substantially bigger than the one I worked on in the lakes. Not only does it have a whole additional set of equipment for processing salt water into fresh water and for the additional purification requirements of Heavy Fuel Oil as compared to the Marine grade Diesel we used on the lakes, but the engines themselves are bigger, despite the ship itself being smaller and slower. The three electric generators are as tall as the main engines back on the lakes, though only ten piston instead of twenty, and the main engine is a three story tall, six massive cylinder, hunk of machine. The other GUDE (I say the other even though there are two because one of them talks a whole lot and the other barely speaks at all, language barrier, so I really only end up interacting much with one other GUDE) can't stop telling me just how small even this inflated engine room is.

Speaking of other GUDEs, the old name for the position, wiper, is fairly apt, because our primary job when nothing else is going on is sanitary work. And with three of us cleaning all the damn time, plus the fact that this ship was in layup for two months without a contract until we got this one, mean that the engine room is the cleanest engine room you will ever see. I went down into the bilges, the place at the very bottom where quite a lot of nasty stuff drains down, and didn't even get my white t-shirt smudged.

In any case, I was going to get to a description of an average day as a GUDE aboard the Liberty Eagle (Still can't get over what a fantastic name that is).

On a normal morning I wake up at 0550, put on clothes, get my things together, and take a multivitamin. Now, this last isn't because I lack faith in the food being provided, but rather because I lack faith in my own ability to maintain a healthy diet and would just rather not have to think about any sort of dietary things aside from calories and fibre (protein takes care of itself, since every meal is a giant slab of some sort of meat). And I have discovered since gaining fifteen pounds in three weeks at home and then losing pretty much none of it in the two weeks at sea that I have reached that age I have been warned about for so very long wherein I can no longer eat junk all day without getting fat. The only thing left for me is to decide whether I really do want to avoid getting fat or if I would rather just eat crap and accept the consequences. They say adulthood is all about choices, but I suppose little ten year old me wouldn't have believed that these are the sort of choices that take up most of my worrying. Fully clothed and equipped, I walk outside, wince at how bright the sun is, then walk down three flights of stairs to the main deck, appreciating the scenery all the while before walking back in and down another level of stairs to the main engine control room.

This first two hours is the best part of the day. We sit for a bit until the first or chief comes in and tells us that there are no emergencies, then we go back up and take over our House Sanitary duties. In the first place, being responsible for nothing more than general cleanup of a single deck (I have main deck) is a good way to slowly wake up each day and get some moving around in before breakfast. But beyond that, and this may sound silly, this is the first project at sea that I have been 100% responsible for. My job description includes keeping the main deck clean, but nothing and nobody but me is in charge of how I go about that. I decide if the walls need to get cleaned, or the bathroom needs to get done today, or if I can skip the fire pump room, and then I do it. No supervision, no one telling me what needs doing, no one else involved in the entire run of the ongoing project. Anyway, I sweep, mop, and wipe down a hallway for an hour and a half, all while getting paid for two hours of overtime at about $20 and hour, meaning I make $40 for not a whole lot of work before breakfast.

Speaking of which, after that comes breakfast, the best part of the day. Normally, I can't eat breakfast. If I try to eat while still sleepy and before I have moved around and made space in my stomach, it doesn't sit well and messes up my whole day. But finally I get to eat all the exciting breakfast foods I like, bacon and pancakes and waffles and hash browns and strawberries and sometimes a little bit of eggs, without it sitting too heavily.

After breakfast comes the first real chunk of work, and this first two hours in undoubtedly the best part of the day. We all meet in the office and find out what is happening, and usually this is where the interesting work (i.e., the real engineering work) gets passed out. If there is a job of any size, then typically one of the numbered engineers will take it on and grab one of the GUDEs to help out. These tasks have, in the last two weeks, included cleaning strainers the size of my torso and filled to the brim with mutilated fish parts, removing lengths of pipe for later inspection, replacing leaky valves, clearing clogged pipes, replacing gaskets, skimming oil off the top of a dirty water tank, moving giant hunks of machine parts that easily weighed a full ton across the engine room, replacing gauges, and standing safety watch as dangerous tasks are performed. When we are doing this sort of work the time goes by so much faster and I learn a whole lot more. The best part is that I get picked fairly often for these jobs, in part because the two other GUDEs have limited english proficiency, even though they are both more experienced than I.

And a brief note about that. There are about 21 people on the ship. Of the crew, two are white, me and one of the ABs. The rest include two Philipinoes, a Ghanian, two African-Americans, and the remainder are all hispanic. Of the officers, all but one is white, the exception being the very talented black second engineer. Of the crew, all of them except me and the AB speak heavily accented english of one kind or another that forms a language barrier with the people they are trying to talk to. I have spent just enough time around social justice types to feel like I should be doing something to integrate our community, but not enough to know what to do, and nowhere near enough to actually do anything.

After two hours of that is coffee break, the best part of the day. I don't drink coffee, but I do use this time to study my Japanese flashcards. I haven't fallen behind once in two weeks.

After this is another chunk of work, and this chunk right here is the best part of the day for sure. If there was a job, we finish the job. If the job is finished I have picked up a short daily round of small tasks that need to be done every day, and again actually having some sort of responsibility is novel enough to still feel kind of good, otherwise I go into cleanup mode. This chunk of work is nice because break ends around 1030, then lunch starts around 1130, meaning that I am finally working myself into getting hungry, and then only have to work a little bit before actually getting to eat.

Then comes lunch. I like lunch. First we eat, typically sandwiches but also sometimes hamburgers or today was fried chicken. Then I go back and take the rest of the hour to finish any studying that didn't get done and then take a nap for the rest of the hour. Definitely the best part of the day.

Of course, the best part of the day is the two hours right after lunch. After eating and a nap, we go down and have another short meeting about the status of things and report the successful completion or ongoing status of the morning project, then sometimes more jobs get handed out. Typically, though, things spend all five hours after lunch slowly winding down and I go off with a rag in my hand to find something else to clean. It is an engine room, so there are all sorts of places where small leaks and seepages need to be regularly cleaned up, and just the general movement of stuff kicks up dirt and carbon dust that needs to be kept off of things. Not only does wiping everything off keep the machinery clean, it also forces us to get up close and personal with the equipment and serves as a sort of monitoring whereby we can catch anything unusual or broken before it becomes a problem.

After this chunk of work comes second coffee break, probably the best time of the day and a fine advertisement in and of itself for union membership. Having taken care of all necessary things, the studying and the nap, I use this break to put on some music and relax.

After break is over and everyone feels refreshed, we go back for the best part of the day, the final stretch. An hour and a half to wrap up anything that needs finishing or to pretend to clean while all seven of us collectively run out the clock. Footsteps slow, pauses lengthen, and people just get harder to find as they realize they have some urgent business in a less trafficked and less visible section of the compartment.

After that comes the best part of the day, since after all the biggest meal must necessarily be the best. Dinner each day is a giant slab of meat with an assortment of sides, usually corn or potatoes or corn and potatoes, and also a bunch of icky vegetables. Then back to the room for a bit of light reading before going back down for the final hour.

This final hour is definitely the best part of the day. I call it the final hour, but only in union terms is it a full hour. First we have another little meeting, which if we bullshit can last 15-20 minutes, then we go down and make sure all the projects of the day have been cleaned up, then we pretend to work until about fifteen minutes before the hour is up, at which point we go up to wash our hands and quietly slip out to go mark this last "hour" as an additional $20 of overtime.

After that the official part of the day is pretty much over. I am still on call in case something comes up and they want to pay me more overtime to fix it, but usually the unofficial part of the day is the best part of the day. A shower starts it off, because I have been very strict about keeping all the dirt of the day out of the bed, then I pull out my laptop and play video games or watch movies until it is time to go to bed.

Then, of course, comes bedtime-- the best part of the day.

We are scheduled to sail back down the Mississippi tomorrow. The rest of the run is likely to take two weeks, with at least another week before we can possibly return to the US. As soon as this posts my phone is going off and I will be out of contact with everything for at least three weeks and maybe up to two months.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

View from a window

No one can doubt that we are tied up in Texas. That is an oil pilot light to the side and cattle in the field.

The Liberty Eagle

First day aboard my first saltwater vessel. There is something undeniably attractive about working on a ship named the Liberty Eagle. My Patriotism will be unquestionable for the next four months.

The very first thing said to me as I climbed aboard was the captain saying, "Weren't you supposed to show up tommorow?" but I arrived when the office told me to, so it all sorted out in the end.

I have only my single previous ship to compare it to, and it is in general function not wholly dissimilar to the Sam Laud. It is a bulker, meaning the whole of the front is given over to empty hold space, but the Eagle is a grain bulker, and the holds themselves are designed a bit differently to accomidate bulk foodstuffs. Specifically, capacity is some 60,000 cubic meters or 28,700 tons of cargo, and the ship itself is 190 meters long. This is, in industrial terms, kind of small, but still large enough to afford me my own room.

Since I was early, today is paperwork and a tour. The ship is of Japanese manufacture, and thus all the measurements are metric and the warning signs bilingual.

The eagle is preparing to leave in a few days after 2 months of layup. The word is that we will hop over to Galveston to pick up a partial load of grain, then sail up the mississippi to get a load of soybeans, then sail through the panama canal to drop off the grain on a pacific port of Nicaragua and then the soybeans in Honduras (Edit: not costa rica). The plan at that point depends on market conditions and could see the next update coming from any of the three American coastlines.

Updates will be infrequent, probably one each time I hit a US port.