Sail Training in the Time of Corona

I’ve been home for a month now and have enjoyed the luxury of time to reflect on the last few months. While I haven’t left the house more than 3 times in that time, that’s still 3 more times than I got off the ship in the previous month. Some ships are still at sea, making for home ports where they will finally be allowed to go alongside, and I can only imagine how gruelling it must be for them. The Sail Training and Tall Ship community has been greatly impacted by this virus. This was my experience:

I left the UK in mid-February, headed for the warm sunshine of Cuba where I joined my ship, TS Pelican of London, to embark on the next leg of the 2019/20 Ocean College Voyage – a 6 month long School-at-Sea adventure. We had started in Bordeaux back in October with 32 novice sailors aged 15-18, mostly from Germany, 3 teachers and 8 Permanent Crew. We sailed from there to Vigo, on to Essaouira in Morocco, the Canary Islands and the Cape Verde Islands, before we crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean, Curacao and Panama where I disembarked for some much needed leave. The news about Coronavirus was at that time something happening in far distant lands and I never imagined it would have much impact on us.

By the time we had sailed from Cuba and reached Bermuda things were changing but the news we saw still didn’t give us any impression that the world was about to implode. We left Bermuda on the 6th March and I didn’t set foot on land again until the 23rd April.

A sail training voyage is supposed to be challenging; through the medium of sailing – working, living and playing together in what is essentially a 35m long metal box (45m if you include the bowsprit) we teach our trainees not only about sail setting, knot tying, weather forecasting, navigation, cleaning, cooking and maintenance but also about resilience, patience, fortitude, kindness, empathy, teamwork and tenacity. We usually get to also see a bit of the world while we do all this. We got plenty of the sailing part over the next couple of months, but the seeing the world aspect was suddenly rather curtailed.

Our Atlantic crossing went relatively smoothly, a few days of strong winds had us belting along under canvas for a while, but a large high pressure system had other ideas and sat over us for the majority of the mid Atlantic, necessitating the use of the “iron topsail” kept down in the bowels of the ship instead of the quieter canvas version. News came through to the ship via our satellite email system but we had no access to actual news outlets. We knew before we arrived in Horta in the Azores that we would not be allowed ashore but still thought amongst ourselves that all of this was a massive over-reaction and that the voyage would continue pretty much as planned.

We anchored off Horta on the evening of the 19th March and finally had phone signal, we called our families for the first time in 2 weeks and it finally started to sink in; the world had changed. The next day that message was fully hammered home when we finally got alongside – we were to be the last ship allowed in, purely to pick up fuel and food and then leave immediately. No gangway was landed, the workers who brought us our stores all wore masks and kept their distance, despite the fact we had been isolated on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean for the last 14 days and had come from a country which, at the time of our departure, had had no cases – there was no way we could be carrying it, but no-one was willing to take the risk.

The plan had been to go from the Azores to a port or two on the northern coast of Spain and then back to Bordeaux, where the parents and families would be there to welcome our trainees back triumphantly with much pomp and circumstance, champagne and medals. With travel across Europe severely restricted and borders closed this was suddenly not going to be an option. All the ports were closed anyway and no matter where we landed them they then had to get home from there, with their vast quantities of luggage, so there was only one real option – we had to take them to Germany.

The next few days were the most challenging of all; we suddenly had a far greater distance to go to get to our final destination; the stores we had been able to pick up were all that the islanders had been able to supply, but were not a great quantity when you have 43 people to feed 3 times a day and need to keep it interesting; we were all now aware of the seriousness of the situation ashore and while we had spoken to our loved ones and knew that should anything happen to them we would hear of it via the satellite email, we couldn’t just pick up the phone and call home to check in. To add to that, the weather turned on us; slowly going from a ESE force 5 to a NE force 8 , driving our course further and further North until we were going North West in the direction of Iceland or even Greenland. We spent 72 hours beating up and down under engines and fore and aft sails trying to make headway to the North East, while mostly running back up and down parallel to our own track; and, it was getting colder by the day.

On top of these delights, when we left the Azores we mixed things up and put our trainees (who after 5 months, were very used to a fixed watch system consisting of 3 watches of 10 people doing the same watch-keeping hours every day) into 4 new watches of 8 people. Then, after 4 days of a 4 watch rotating system, we reverted to a 3 watch system with the 4th watch as the “Handover” team, with the watches rotating every 4 days to give everyone a “Handover” over the passage to Germany. [Figuring out how this all works is my job – hence my love of spreadsheets!] Each watch had a Captain, Mate, 2nd Mate, Engineer, Bosun, Bosun’s Mate, Cook and Doctor or Cook’s Assistant. For the 4 days of their “handover” they were acting as those roles, under the close supervision and guidance of the Permanent Crew in whose shoes they were walking. We might have done a lot of nudging and prodding, but we certainly gave them a taste of what it’s like to actually be the one in charge… I really didn’t think we could have made life much more challenging if we tried, so we threw some drills and emergency scenarios at them as well just to make sure, this is sail training after all. We were all getting very tired, physically and emotionally; frustrated at not getting to see the Azores, some were seasick, sleep was in short supply due to the lumpy seas, and the end was not quite in sight yet. But still, we all had 42 other people to talk to, hug, annoy, dance with, laugh and share food with. Your shipmates are your family, and that’s what gets you through the hard times.

We reached the English Channel eventually, and had one night of glorious respite tied up in Portland where we once again took on food and fuel as well as the charts for the previously unexpected next leg, and then set off once more for Cuxhaven, Germany. We took the scenic route along the Dorset coast, which is a piece of coast I am very familiar with as it is Pelican’s old stomping ground and magnificent to behold from the sea. (Many didn’t believe me that Durdle Door is in fact a dragon until they saw it for themselves!). We also had a Coastal Rescue helicopter fly by and practice some hovering over us – the trainee on the helm’s face as she realised there was a helicopter right over her head but she had to keep concentrating on keeping a steady course was a picture! The wind may not have been very useful, but it was mostly light and the sun shone brightly as we made our way up the rest of the Channel, through the Dover Straights and on up into the North Sea.

The end was now in sight and now people were starting to think about leaving. In the mess room, envelopes with everyone’s names lovingly drawn and illustrated were strung up along the bulkheads and when not busy with other duties, the trainees were all writing letters for each other to read after they got home. Despite not being able to show their parents around when they got there, they still wanted to the ship to look as good as she possibly could for our arrival, and many hours were spent sanding, oiling and polishing the helm and compass binnacle on top of our usual cleaning and maintenance routines. They practiced shanties and planned what to wear and drilled climbing in formation. Thoughts of home and families and real beds and pets and going to the fridge and eating whatever you like mixed with not wanting to leave; sadness at not seeing these crazy people every day, not being able to get a hug whenever you needed one, not seeing the sun rise over the sea in a million hues of pink or dolphins leaping at the bow. The prospect of returning to reality after a long trip at sea is daunting at the best of times, but we weren’t even sure what reality we were coming home to – not the one we left, that was for certain.

All things must end though, and so we arrived into Cuxhaven with the yards manned, the trainees aloft all resplendent in their red oilskin trousers and blue hoodies, belting out shanties that echoed around the port while their parents clapped and cheered at a socially acceptable distance from each other behind the port fence. It was glorious.

I cried a fair bit that day, I’ll not lie, but it was a happy sort of crying – tired, proud and knowing I was going to miss the lot of them despite their strops and eye rolling and huffing and generally requiring chasing around to get things done – but that’s the thing; in those 6 months we had become a family. In this line of work, as well as being sail trainers and teachers, we are stand in parents, and as such, our job is to teach them about life. It’s not an easy task, teaching “Life 101” is difficult to lesson plan for but I think we do a pretty good job of it nonetheless. The real impact of this or any sail training voyage is going to be seen by their parents, family and friends far more than us though, the life skills we have given them will take root and grow and I am quite certain that we will see great things in the future from many of them.

So what now in these weird times? Well, we had to get the ship home first of all; as soon as the last teacher had left we were off, with just the 7 of us Permanent Crew (having dropped the Doctor off in Portland). The weather was cold but fair and we even managed over 24 hrs under sail alone as we made our way along the south coast of England. We picked up a few extra hands at anchor in Penzance so we’d have enough people to moor her and then made our way to our home port of Sharpness where the ship has laid up for the moment. We have had to cancel at least the first part of our summer programme sadly and while this does mean we can achieve some maintenance, we are not even able to get large contingents of volunteers on-board to help due to social distancing. So, we are hunkering down, doing what we can, plodding along and keeping afloat (metaphorically as well as literally) and will be back as soon as we can, this may be as early as August, but nothing is certain yet, I am keeping my fingers crossed! The next Ocean College voyage is for certain though, and either way, I can’t wait to meet and welcome on board the next Pelican Family.

Tall Ship Pelican of London is operated by Adventure Under Sail, registered Charity No. 1124276. Please visit http://www.adventureundersail.com for more information

Adventures in the Caribbean

We are now on route to Curacao as I write this, the last week or so has been busy to say the least!

We arrived into Soufriere, St Lucia on the morning of the 10th; after 18 days at sea crossing the Atlantic some of the students had mixed feelings about this as they had settled into the routine of life at sea so well that they wanted to carry on going! One thing they were very happy about though was the opportunity to go swimming off the ship. Anchored in the shadow of Gros Piton, looking up at the jungle covered slopes of the island and out across the Caribbean seas makes for quite a deluxe swimming pool!

We had a full day at anchor the next day and the students spent the day exploring ashore, however we pulled some of Blue watch back to the ship in the afternoon as they needed to do some planning: The first set of watch handovers started the next day; for a short leg we put the students into our shoes and let them have a taste of what is involved in being the Permanent Crew! All three watches got a go, choosing amongst themselves who would be Captain, Mate, 2nd Mate, 3rd Mate, Engineer, Bosun, BM, Cook etc. Of course, we’re standing right beside them to nudge, guide and help but the aim is to get them running the ship. They all did really well and I think they now have learned that our jobs aren’t just all about drinking tea and asking the helmsperson “How’s your head?”.

Blue Watch took over for the first leg from Soufriere to Bequia, the overnight passage went smoothly and we arrived into Bequia bright and early on the morning of Friday 13th, only to make our approach to the anchorage in the in the absolute drenching, deluging rain. We put down both anchors just to be safe, getting absolutely soaked to the skin in the process, and then it was hands aloft to harbour stow the squares. Of course, in accordance with Murphy’s Law, as soon as we had finished all of that the rain stopped.Soon the sun was out and we started to get the students ashore by boat, as we were nearing the last load we got confirmation that we could shift to the berth for a night alongside. Those who were left onboard leapt into action to help us get mooring lines out ready before we dropped them ashore as well and shifted the ship with just the Permanent Crew. We were very grateful for the opportunity to do this as the locals put themselves out by moving some of the ferries to give us room for the night – thank you guys!

Bequia is an absolutely gorgeous island, and I will never tire of visiting it, and I’m certain the students enjoyed it as well, of course it rained buckets again that evening, but it’s warm rain and really rather pleasant after all the hot sweaty days of baking sunshine! Next day we had to shift off the berth again and go back to anchor, but it’s not exactly an arduous RIB run, and the view is pretty spectacular as you zoom across the bay.Sunday 15th was our next handover, this time White Watch were in charge. An 0500 start meant a long days sailing, taking us this time from Bequia back to St Lucia again, but a different anchorage – Vieux Fort this time, where we stayed for a couple of nights to allow for planning before Red Watch took over and we headed for Carriacou on the 17th.

Mizzen watch took the bridge at 0400 the next morning, (the watches got mixed up for the handover and so also got renamed to prevent confusion!). The wind overnight had been a fairly steady F5-6, with occasional small squalls, so we were running under the Topsail, Fore Gaff and Inner Jib, motorsailing to keep on track for Carriacou. As 0500 approached, yet another squally blob showed up on the radar and I watched the anemometer carefully as it came over us; as with all the other squalls we’d had, the wind picked up by a couple of knots and all appeared to be normal, when suddenly, BAM, 40 knots of wind, followed immediately by my least favourite sound – that of a sail tearing. “Starboard 20 to bear away, Call the Bosun, Call the Captain, standby to hand the Topsail! Midships and steer 255” The team leapt to action, the Bosuns and Captain were on deck in minutes and we handed the now rather sorry looking Topsail. It was the older one, which we knew was nearing the end of it’s useful life, and these things happen, but the sound of a sail tearing is like nails down a blackboard to me!

As we then then handed the inner jib to turn into the wind and make directly for Carriacou under engines alone, we noticed a bright light in the sky to the West, below the moon and definitely not a reflection, too bright and steady to be a plane and with a huge plume coming off it in one direction, almost like a comet. It lasted about 15 minutes, and unfortunately we were all too busy handing and stowing sails to be able to really drink it in. We think it must have been a rocket launch but it will always be a beautiful mystery moment, the morning as a whole is one I will never forget! On arrival in Carriacou the Bosunry department immediately started pulling out the spare topsail and derigging the damaged sail while I ran the students to Sandy Island for a day on the beach, by the time we had got them all ashore the sail was ready to be lowered to deck and the replacement ready to go up. By 1700 when the boat went to pick them up the sail was fully rigged and ready to go for the next day. Bosun Elie, BM Sam and 2/O Simon deserve medals for their stirling efforts that day, and probably a massage for their sore backs after leaning over a yard for several hours! Next morning we bid farewell to Carriacou, and having sailed off the anchor, once again set the squares with the wind on our backs, heading west for Curacao and Christmas.

The Canaries

La Graciosa

Greetings from a rather damp and grey Tenerife! We’ve had some cracking sailing over the last few days and the sunshine has been beating down on us so it’s actually a welcome change, as long as it’s gone soon. From Essaouira we sailed to the Canaries, stopping off at La Graciosa first of all where I had a wander around the village, had my first swim in the sea and had a delicious ice cream. On my return to the ship I sailed us off the anchor and we had a quiet peaceful sail down the coast of Lanzarote to Isla De Lobos, arriving in the very early morning. The water was so still and clear that when we turned the deck lights on after anchoring, we could see the bottom!

Once the day had finally dawned and a hearty Sunday breakfast had been devoured, we could see the anchor chain laid on the sea bed and when we took the seaboat in to investigate landing on the island I had an aquarium view of the fish – no need to snorkel! Isla de Lobos is a fairly barren volcanic island in it’s infancy, still strewn with volcanic rocks and only a few scrubby bushes. Naturally when faced with such an alien looking landscape, Captain Ben went into full Star Trek Captain mode, so I became Spock and Project Manager Miriam turned into Bones, we set phasers to stun and searched for signs of life – quickly realising that it was far too early and that no-one would be around for another few hours. We returned to the ship, once again admiring the view to the sea floor below, and with water like that, how could we not have a swim, so it was all hands to bathing stations, also a perfect opportunity to test out the small training liferaft we had inflated the day before in our abandon ship drill!

The students were dispatched to the island after lunch for exploration and I had my afternoon nap, a very important part of my day when you remember I start work at 4 am. I did get a lie in next morning though as we only started at 0500. We weighed anchor once again and set off in the dark for Tenerife, once he’d overseen the unparking bit the Captain buggered off to bed again, leaving me to it with my watch. By the time he returned at 0800 I had us flying along under sail alone, well, 5.5kts in 13 kts of wind ain’t bad, and we had a lovely day under canvas as we made our way to Tenerife. The wind dropped off sometime in the middle of the night so our morning watch today was motor-sailing, but we were treated to an impressive view of the island as the sun came up behind us. Rather than come straight in we took advantage of freshening winds to get in some tacking and wearing practice, followed by a Man Overboard drill, going from under full sail, we got all the sails handed and rescued the casualty in 11 minutes! We have a few days here now, a final chance to stock up on European goods before we head further south and west, to take stock of what we’ve achieved so far, and while the students climb a volcano we shall have a day or so for some maintenance. And perhaps a visit to a pub…

Vigo to Essaouira!

Blue Watch

The weather continues to be a fickle fiend; after coping with the strong Westerly winds we experienced in Biscay we left Vigo in light North West winds – perfect for sailing… Unfortunately they soon died off and turned South so we have had to continue motoring. Still, calm seas and blue skies are far nicer to be out in than short seas and grey skies.

Everone is starting to really settle in to life on-board and the deck department is able to crack on with some of the neverending maintenance that is so vital to the smooth running of a square rigger. We have also shaken up the watches and moved to a fixed watch system. This enables us to run lessons while making sure everyone gets enough sleep: the 3 watches (Red, White and Blue) are split in to A and B. A watches take the morning shifts on the bridge while the B watches have school lessons, and then A watches have school in the afternoon while the B watches take the bridge in the afternoon. (If you think it sounds complicated, pity me; I’m in charge of organising all of this for the next several months – everyone will do every watch shift at some point…..)

I get Blue watch, and this lot have proved themselves be utterly mad, wonderful and fantastic. We’ve already danced the Macarena at sunset, hit the 1000 mile mark, spotted many dolphins, set and handed sails at silly O’clock in the morning, or at dinner time (sorry Abbie!), met some friends who blew in on the winds far from land, successfully not crashed into several big ships and tiny fishing boats and have seen Orion’s Nebula and the Andromeda Galaxy! At some point soon the A and B teams will swap over so the people I spend my afternoons with will be with me at 4am until we reach the Cape Verdes, at which point we shake the watches up again and I will have a whole new Blue Watch team to share the night sky and the sunsets and sunrises with. Blue watch is always the best watch 😉

#StopMicroWaste

This morning I got to go for a walk on a beautiful white sandy beach, on a marine reserve island off Vigo. I was looking forward to exploring a little, finding some pretty shells and taking a little time to relax.

As I stepped onto the beach my eye was drawn, not by the colours of shells but by the bright greens, blues and reds of bits of plastic. Within 20 meters I found a plastic bottle and a little piece of my heart broke. I spent my hour ashore collecting the rubbish I found, and I only covered about 40 square meters. I filled that plastic bottle with scraps of plastic; lollipop sticks, bits of fishing net, bottle tops, cigarette butts, wrappers, bits of polystyrene and a myriad of other unidentifiable plastic bits, most no bigger than my little fingernail.

It made me happy to do something positive with my time, knowing full well that on the grand scale of things, my actions alone make no difference. But if we all did something small, regularly, it would make a difference. Take your rubbish home; pick up rubbish when you see it, wherever you are; don’t let plastics enter our oceans, our rivers, our canals and our streams. Do your bit and together we can help to make our amazing planet better.

Sailing – It’s a Rock n’ Roll lifestyle!

I write this from my bunk as I lie here waiting for the rolling to stop. The blood rushing to my head every time we roll to starboard and my feet hitting the bulkhead every time we roll to port is not conducive to sleep. After a week alongside on shore power I am now trying to sleep with our main engine chuntering directly below me while sliding up and down my thwartships bunk. Sleep has been elusive to say the least. At least I don’t have to contend with seasickness to boot.

Our intrepid bunch of students and teachers, most of whom have never sailed before, have suddenly been faced with the harsh reality of life at sea on a Tall Ship in the Bay of Biscay. It was a gentle river passage from Bordeaux on Monday morning, with cheering and singing as we passed under the lifting bridge, and then fitting harnesses in preparation for climbing and watchkeeping. We were midway through getting everyone Up and Over when we reached the sea around mid afternoon and were immediately introduced to life on the ocean wave by a squall. Oilies were donned and as the rolling started we ceased hands aloft training. 2 watches have done their first climb and the final watch will get their chance at anchor tomorrow. We taught them all how we brace instead as we needed to change the angle of the yards to give us the least windage and then started to settle in to the routine of life at sea.

When I came up on watch at 4am the swells were about 2 meters high, by 8am they were at 4 meters. It was an uncomfortable night for all, with the majority of the crew, including the permanent crew, feeling seasick to some degree or other. The Bosun, the Cook and I are lucky swine and seem to be the only three who are completely unaffected. Nevertheless, everyone on-board remains in good spirits, despite many of them regularly leaning over the side for a quick up-chuck. Better out than in!

I went up with the Bosun and Bosuns Mate to release the topsail from it’s gaskets after breakfast and it was soon set, making us a little more stable. After that I did some cleaning as our poor trainees really aren’t up to that yet as they find their sea legs, if we set them to cleaning stations while they’re seasick I fear they’d end up making more mess, and while I don’t get seasick, I do not cope well with vomit!! Tomorrow however, we will have reached an anchorage on the French/Spanish border and had a few hours of peaceful and still rest, so we should be able to get them working then without making anyone feel worse. Already though, some of them are starting to come through it and all of them are being absolute troopers.

In a few days I expect most of them will have become used to this strange way of life, rolling and bobbing about as we do. They have 6 months of this ahead of them and it does take a bit of getting used to, as well I know. Right now though, I just can’t wait for the engine below me to be turned off so I can get some sleep. I too am currently unused to sleeping while alternately landing on my head and then my feet every few seconds. I’d do pretty much anything for a fore and aft bunk in weather like this!

Changes.

This time 1 month ago, I had just returned home from my first trip on-board The Ferry. I was a wreck. 12 days of trying to remember list after list of steering marks, cargo categorisation and segregation, radio calls, procedures, timings, buttons, checklists… My head swam with lists of lists of lists. I’ll never get this, I thought. This is way out of my league, I’ve barely seen a traffic situation, let alone a difficult one, in the last 4 years! I’ve not looked at dangerous cargo categories and segregation since my Mates, and that was only to refresh what I last looked at when I did my OOW! This is all so fast and never stops, when do I get time to do all the non-bridge stuff?!? On both of my last ships, life was gentle and slow, at least compared to this. This is a maelstrom of frenetic routine. This is ferry life.

I have now done 3 trips, the first, epic 12 day stint was enough to put me off for life quite frankly, and were it not for the looming Cerberus of Mortgage, Christmas, and Tax Bill From Last Year, (and I thought there was the slightest chance of finding another job in the current economy), I might well have said thanks but no thanks. But I know which side my bread is buttered on, and so proverbially hitched up my skirts, girded my loins and went back for more. The first half of that second week was the hardest, I cried twice, because I was struggling to nail the finer details and flourishes, and any further criticisms, no matter how minor and well intentioned, just felt like the final nail in the coffin of “It’s just not working out”. So due to my shame and embarrassment of not having gotten it All Down-Pat yet, like someone who’s been there 5 years or who was a The Ferry cadet, I became angry at myself for being so dumb (Everyone else only needed a week,……. except that one from outside who took a bit longer,……. and that person who took much longer again, But lets be honest, I’d stopped listening, I always use the high achievers as my yardstick. [Y’know, just to give myself that extra sense of failure]), and godsdam it I wasn’t going to cry, not in front of co-workers, not in front of the people I wanted to call my peers, not in front of people I need to be taken seriously by. So I avoided eye contact and gave brusque, one word answers. And godsdammit both times they noticed and, worst of all, they were nice to me.

So of course, people being nice is lovely, and I like people who are nice, and I will always try to be kind and understanding, especially if I notice someone is distressed, and that’s exactly what the people who had to deal with me in this tearful state were. They did exactly what I would have done if the situation was reversed. Which is why I felt incredibly uncharitable and mean when I wished that they had just left me alone to hide my shame and frustration while I berated myself for my own (perceived) inadequacies. Of course about 3 days after that, They (the powers that be, not those particular individuals) told me that they thought I was good enough to do it all without a babysitter and I’d done bloody well to go from such a standing start as I had, which frankly threw me completely, as I’d been feeling like nothing was ever going to click. It has clicked though, I felt like I had broken through a curtain this last week, and now I am on the eve of my 4th trip, and while I’m not skipping and dancing, I’m no longer dreading the prospect of another week.

So it appears that I work on a ferry now, if you’re surprised by this news you still have nothing on how I felt about it when I first got the job. Within an hour it went from “There’s this temp job starting Monday (a whole weekend away), would you like to apply?” to “Can you get there tonight (Friday)?”. Of course I said yes, what idiot wouldn’t when you’ve been unemployed for 6 months out of the last 9?
When I made the decision to go for my mates, I had figured out the finances, based on a theory that I’d get a job within two months of getting my mates ticket. Looking back, this was incredibly naive and in today’s job market I’d want to ensure I had the finance to take a full year out before I left a job to study without sponsorship. Anyhoo, I had quit my perfectly good job, in an interesting part of the world, without too much pressure and no uniform requirements, without any idea who the hell was going to give me my next paycheque, and now I have this job. It Is What It Is….. however, this idea does not currently feature on the list entitled “Best Ideas I’ve Ever Had).

Rather ironically though, I did have the best job for a moment there, over the summer, I achieved a goal I’d set on this very blog 8 years ago: I became Chief Mate on the Pelican. I didn’t write anything here for fear of jinxing it, and it fell apart anyway, but I’m still so glad I got to be there, for a couple of glorious months at least, in the position I’d been aiming for since I first set foot on a Tall Ship 20 years ago. For a couple of months this year I genuinely and literally lived my dream, sadly, everything after that is a bit of a let down right now.

Chief Mates Orals report.

I’ve been very quiet recently, but things have been afoot! Last summer I decided that it was about time I went up for my Chief Mates, so worked out how much money I needed and how long it would take me to pull together and then booked myself on the Warsash Maritime Academy Chief Mates Orals prep course starting in January.

It’s been a hectic few weeks, as well as the Orals prep I had to do Proficiency in Medical Care, Navigation Aids and Equipment Simulator Training and Human Element, Leadership & Management courses. So much to learn and in so little time, I’ve had moments when I thought my brain was going to start dribbling out of my ears, but somehow I made it through and reached the day of reckoning….

Date: 10th March 2016
Time: 1400 start, exam lasted 1hr.
Examiner: S.Akthur – fill in examiner from Norwich

I had to have a chaperone, so once she had turned up he brought me into the room, made sure I was comfortable and went through all of the formalities. He asked me about my previous experience and said that for the purpose of the exam I will be a C/O on a RORO ferry. He didn’t give much away but did prompt for an answer when it was required. It all went really fast, while also feeling like it would never end, and I may have forgotten some things…

– You’ve been employed by a roro company and are joining a new ship as CO, what would you expect to receive before joining a ship? (SEA and information about the company, joining instructions)
– So what’s in your SEA? I talked about payment of wages, the MN Code of Conduct, Drug and alcohol policy and Onboard Complaints Procedure
– So if you have a complaint and it can’t be dealt with onboard, who do you escalate it to? I said the DPA and the company.
– What if the Company can’t deal with it? I said the MCA.
– Which part of the MCA? I didn’t know and he told me there is a MLC department in the MCA.
– What certification do you need under MLC? MLC cert and DMLC part 1 and 2.
– So you’ve joined the ship now, how will you know what your duties are? I said I would expect to get a full set of detailed handover notes and there to be a handover checklist in the SMS.
– Contents of the SMS
– Roll of C/O – Stability, safety, maintenance, PMS, crew hours..
– Passage planning – I mentioned the Bridge Proceedures Guide and APEM, loadline zones, weather/need to ballast, security…
– OK, so the 2nd officer has done the passage plan but doesn’t know how to put on the wheel over points, what advice will you give him? I’d advise him to look at the ships manoeuvring information which would have been put together during sea trials and get the advance, transfer and distance to wheel over point from that.
– Planning a Drill for a totally enclosed LB? Risk assessment, crew briefing, disengage power supply and put plug in, down to embarkation level, check hooks, FPDs, check over the side, lower to the water with no-one in it first…
– Ok so you’ve launched it safely, what about recovery? When the boats away from the ship’s side get the crew to reset and check the hooks.
– Would you launch the boat with crew in it or put the boat down without crew and get them to go down the embarkation ladder? No, if it was a normal drill I’d launch with the crew onboard.
– Put a piece of paper on the table and drew a box, weight 200 tonnes, 3m by 5m. Deck strength is 12t/m. He said that a shoreside crane is going to load this, can you load this weight? 200/(3×5)= 13.3t/m so no you can’t load it unless you spread the weight with dunnage, he asked if I’d done that on my previous ship, yes we did, not only to spread the weight, but to protect the deck surface as well.
– How I would find out about deck strength? Load Density Plan.
– Now you are loading it what do you need to take into consideration? I talked about it as if we were loading it with a ships crane, so angle of list, press up tanks, tend mooring lines, brief crew, risks assessment, secure loose items, inform everyone, take in gangway… Anything else? I drew a blank here
– What do you need to think about when loading your RORO? Security, stability – talked about when I was on a RoRo and when loading constantly checking the stability computer.
– What orders will you leave the 2nd officer when loading overnight? When to call me – if anything unexpected turns up, if anyone unauthorised tries to board, if the plan changes… Anything else? Errr….
– RoRos have their doors quite low down, what if waves started coming in? Ok, yes they should call me if the weather changes – if water gets on to the cars deck its very dangerous because there’s no internal subdivision and therefore lead to FSM.
– How do you know what you can load? IMDG DoC
– What other documentation would you carry ? IMDG Code, cargo manifests for all and for DG…
– How would you ensure everything was secure? I referred to the Cargo Securing Manual being the basis for lashing, but would add extra lashings if the weather was going to be bad.
– What’s the requirement for ships to carry the cargo securing manual? Every ship that carries cargo that may need to be lashed…
– He moved on to stability, asked me to explain an angle of loll with diagrams, so I drew the GZ curve and then a box diagram, talked about G being above M..
– What could cause an angle of loll? I thought we were still talking about loading a RoRo so I said loading the top decks first.
– What about at sea? If you use up too much fuel and water?
– Well all ships use up fuel and water, what else could cause it? Ice accretion.
– How will you deal with it? Remove ice from the high side/ballast on the low side so you make sure you don’t fall over.
– Ok, you’re going to go to anchor now, tell me why you’d do a running moor and show me how you’d do a running moor with this model. You’d do a running moor in a river or channel where the tide/ current is going to change, or if you’re anchoring in an area where your swinging circle is restricted. Stem the tide, drop windward anchor, run on paying out cable, drop leeward anchor, pay out on that and heave in on windward cable until they’re even.
– You’re at anchor and the 2nd officer is on watch, during the night you start to drag anchor, he can’t get the engines up and running in time and you go aground on a reef. The general alarm is sounded. What do you do? Get up to the bridge, make sure the master is up there and has the con and then go down to assess damage, get the fire party going, damage control team is I have enough crew, sound tanks…
– What else? Sound round outside the vessel, try to establish what kind of ground we’re on and consider options for refloating if there’s no damage.
– There is damage down aft, what else are you going to do? Assess the damage to the rudders and props, contact company and class with a view to Salvage with Lloyds open form…
– What else? Well my main priority is the safety of the crew and the ship…
– Ok But what else? Who would you tell? Flag, company, security message to all vessels in the area…
– What else? You’ve got a damaged tank down aft…. I realised he was after pollution reporting and control, so nearest coastal authority by the fastest means possible, within 10 minutes, get booms out etc..

– Finally we moved on, there was a line of buoys on the edge of the desk which I’d clocked right at the start, region A. He got me to stand up and told me the direction of buoyage and the direction of north and asked me to approach each buoy, identify what it was and which side I’d pass it on. He didn’t want the light characteristics. I was going against the direction of buoyage. I turned around a few times to look at it from the direction of buoyage to ensure I passed the lateral marks the right way, saying going with the direction of buoyage I’d leave it on my xxx side, so going against I will leave it on my other side. Isolated danger mark, port and stbd lateral marks, east and west cardianals, a preferred channel marker, (I asked if I could assume I was in the main channel – I was) and a fairway buoy.

– Gave me a radar plotting sheet and put an arrow on to show my heading (190) He then put two magnets on different points of the outer range ring. Asked what I’d do. I said that’s scanty information I’d continue to plot. Gave me two more plots for each and told me they were 6 minute intervals and asked me to put on W, I said I needed my own ship speed, he said 6 kts. That gave me 0.6’ per interval, so 1.2’ for the full plot. I used a pencil to measure off 1.2’ on the range rings and put on W for each. One was crossing from stbd, one was overtaking me on my port quarter so I said, I shall avoid an alteration of port for a vessels fwd of my beam and avoid an alteration of course toward a vessel abeam or abaft the beam so I will make a substantial alteration of course to stbd and put the vessel ahead of me on my port bow. He asked who’s responsibility it is to take action, In restricted vis – everyones!

– On to the smartie board – wanted to know what it was, day signal and fog signal and actions

– VSL engaged in towing tug under 50m tow over 200m on my port side, Diamonds on both vessels, sound signal one long, two short. Said I’d stand on. It then didn’t alter for me so I said, as it’s apparent he’s not taking action I may take action, Sounded 5 short and rapid and then altered to stbd sounding 1 short. Would you go to port? No as he may still alter to stbd.

– RAM vessel engaged in underwater operations seen from astern. Safe to pass on his port side, Balls and diamonds, one long two short. I will sound 2 short and alter to port to pass on his safe side.

– Vessel probably over 50m aground, 2 black balls, 3 strikes on the bells, rapid ringing of the bell for 5 secs, 3 strikes on the bell and if over 100 rapid ringing of the gong in the aft part of the vessel. Stop, call the master, plot position on chart, APEM to safe water.

He then said that the exam was now over and asked how I felt it had gone. I said I felt that my nerves had played a big part and I was disappointed in myself for not thinking of the pollution aspects of grounding sooner, especially as I’d been smashing Marpol when revising. He said I’d done very well and he thought I’d make a very good chief officer. And you have passed by the way!

Many thanks to the Warsash Lecturers and my coursemates, in particular my housemate Sam, having a study buddy at home was a lifesaver! Also thanks to the other Sam for doing my hair that morning 🙂

Now if anyone knows of any jobs available I’d be extremely grateful!!

From somewhere in the South Atlantic….

It’s been a long time since my last entry here, for which I can only apologise and say that it wouldn’t have been very interesting anyway, not much new has happened.

I say that, but of course things have happened – I bought a house (with my boyfriend), I’ve been promoted to second mate (permanent!), we’ve had some serious weather and, most recently, we went to Montevideo.
The house thing happened last leave, the leave before last was a hectic maelstrom of house hunting and then dealing with all the paperwork that must be done before one can actually put an offer in, let alone actually buy the damn place. There was one place we loved but we didn’t have a mortgage offer in place so we missed it, but in the end we got a house on the same road. We have a few things to do to it, such as put in a proper staircase to the loft conversion (as the current one can only be classed as a deathtrap ladder), but on the whole, it’s pretty damn good. We also have a fish tank, which wasn’t part of the plan, but as we got it for free, we couldn’t resist!

Having completed all the paperwork for our side before I left for work I was able to get back to the UK and pick up the keys within a couple of days, so I spent most of last leave in our new home waiting for deliveries. Not the most exciting of pastimes but made bearable by kitten sitting for a friend. (I now, more than ever, want one for my own). I made my first Christmas dinner in my own kitchen for my beloved Beast, his daughter and mother, and then went back to the familial home to spend Christmas Day itself with my family, which now of course includes my cherub of a Nibling. I’m sure he received more presents than the rest of us put together, and I must admit that in a wine fuelled late night moment after witnessing the ceremonial nibbling and quaffing of the mice pie and whiskey left out for Father Christmas, I quietly wept for my lost childhood as it hit home fully that I was no longer the baby of the family.

It was a wonderful Christmas and leaving was a wrench, but work and the need to pay the mortgage calls like a car alarm at 5am, you don’t like it, but there’s no ignoring it. And, I was going back as permanent 2nd mate. I’d done a couple of trips as relief 2 nd already, but doing the job for a month or so was never going to be the same as doing it full time. After three months I can tell you that the best thing about being permanent 2nd is the ability to change things to suit me (OK, so the things I’ve changed are mostly only filing systems on the computer, but I’m making life simpler for myself and future 2nds… baby steps!) My previous jobs (in a past life) in admin have given me a perspective on filing that perhaps some deck officers don’t get, and I hate cluttered folders. I also hate uncompleted paperwork and records, it’s dull as hell and often feels utterly pointless at the time, but when you have to look back and find out when/if/by whom something was supposedly received or done, if the paperwork isn’t there to support the deed, it’s a fecking nightmare. Most paperwork is all about tracing accountability, and while you may not give a shit about what happens when you’ve gone, somebody else will get it in the neck if you’ve not done it right. I spent much of the early part of this trip catching up on someone else’s version of record keeping, nothing massive but multiple little bits and bobs that mounted up to a fair chunk, and with a definite MCA inspection coming up in the maintenance period, and then possibly also a Port State Control inspection when we found we were going to Montevideo, I had to ensure that everything I was responsible for was in good order, and didn’t feel that I could rely on my predecessor to have left it in quite the sate I would want it to be, so I went through everything, with a fine toothcomb.

Montevideo was a bit of a surprise, normally we’d do our annual maintenance period in Stanley but back in January we had had a wee problem with one our diesel generators. When I say wee problem, I mean it decided to take up smoking, which as we all know is a bad habit, but particularly bad in electrical components. I did A-level physics, and got a very respectable B, I would have got an A but the element that let me down was electronics, so I adhere to the maxim that electricity is made of smoke, and if the smoke gets out of the cables, its bad. I was on watch at the time and when the power alarms went off briefly a couple of times while the available power gauge still said 40% I knew something was amiss , and I was reaching for the phone to call an engineer when the fire alarm went off. There was no actual fire, thank the gods, but an engine room full of smoke is not good for the other engines and we did experience a full power failure. The crew all mustered and reacted immediately and professionally, the engineers got us power back within minutes and everyone remained calm and collected throughout (That’s why we do drills folks, it’s not just because the MCA requires us to!). The DG responsible for the fracas was dead though, it transpired that repair was not going to be a job that could be done onboard either, the copper coil component needed re-winding, and Stanley simply doesn’t have the kit for that kind of job, so our maintenance period was suddenly repositioned to Montevideo.

Most of the passage plans I do on this ship involve re-drawing the same well scored lines on the same charts, so going to Montevideo was a welcome change. I got to christen unfamiliar charts with a 2B pencil, and I even had to order some new ones! I was pulling out and reading things in publications which until now had merely been an annoying heap of paper I had to glue slivers of paper into on a seemingly pointless but regular basis. Ok so the ALRS list of AIS beacons can still take a running jump off a very short pier, but some of those books do actually have useful information in them!

The trip north took us about 5 days, it was unpleasantly cold when we left Stanley, but within a day or so it became at first pleasantly warm, and then sticky warm and by the time we got to Uruguay it was sweltering. Being a British ship we complain about the weather whatever it’s doing, but this was a whole new level of hell, mainly because we don’t have air conditioning. Even worse, the ventilation system was turned off for much of the time as it takes up too much power. As normal in a maintenance period, the engineers needed to work on all the engines, which meant we had to switch over to the generator on deck for our day to day power needs, it does the job, but you don’t get much spare to play with. We got fans, which helped a bit, but as all they can do is move hot air about it was like living in a sauna. I couldn’t even open my windows, not because I’m locked in like a naughty child but because the hinges had seized up through years of inactivity. Thankfully, sorting this out was one of my jobs during the maintenance period.

There are many jobs to do during maintenance, the list grows throughout the year as things crop up and are either too big or too impractical to do while the ship is at sea, and you’re never going to get to do them all, not unless you employ a huge number of shore-side workers to come and do most of it for you. We had a few extra crew and we did hire shore-side workers to do some tank cleaning and all the welding jobs, but the rest was down to us. Naturally the deck team is mostly doing chipping and painting, and on this ship even as an officer, if you’re not busy with anything else, you grab a needle gun or wire brush and set to. There was plenty to keep me from actually reaching that point though, as 2nd mate I am also the safety officer, so it’s my job to issue, extend, keep track of and close all the work permits, and then hot work needs a fire-watch, and tank entry needs a (wo)man outside the tank to make sure no-one dies of asphyxiation etc. And then there’s other things, like people turning up at the gangway needing either to be shown where to go or told to bugger off, surveyors wanting to inspect various bits of kit that are your responsibility, service technicians with questions, assorted LSA to be gathered to be sent ashore for servicing and then distributed when it gets back, and a million other little things…. At the end of all that you look back at your day and feel like you’ve been running about like a blue arsed fly all day but don’t really seem to have achieved anything. I did get my windows done though, it took a few days in the end, in-between all the other stuff, but the brass is now shiny, they open and close properly, and I even picked the right moment to ask if we could get some new curtains as mine were very tatty and let far too much light through for someone who’s job involves trying to get to sleep in broad daylight a lot of the time.

I did do some chipping and painting on deck in the end, our 10’ transport container, which has always been known as The Blue Container, is now a shiny post box red which is taking some getting used to. I spent most of a day sitting on top of it wire brushing and then painting. It sounds like it might be rather pleasant to sit in the sun doing a job like that doesn’t it? But It’s not a shorts and t-shirt job, you’re in a boiler suit and rigger boots, and a harness because you’re working at a height, and thick gloves and goggles and ear defenders and a rag tied over your head to absorb the sweat/keep the sun off your head, and the surface you’re sitting on is metal, which absorbs the sun’s heat very efficiently…. then I got the job of attacking the more difficult to reach and therefore neglected parts on the top of the 20T crane jib, under the drive motors etc. where the rust comes off in chunks instead of flakes. The worst time of day you could pick for a job like that would be after smoko in the afternoon, when the sun has been beating down all day onto the black painted surface of the jib… I fried my ass, literally.

Thankfully there was no lasting damage and we have now returned to the blessed cool of our usual operating area, browner, thinner and poorer than when we left. I didn’t spend a huge amount myself, but some of the lads seemed to be going out almost every night. I can’t do that anymore, not if I’m going to be able to work the next day. We did get Sundays off though so I had one big Saturday night out, getting back to the ship at 0730 the next morning and feeling very, very jaded for the rest of the day (I woke up at 3pm). Once was enough for me, hangovers seem to last longer as I get older, and the memory of the hangover also lasts longer…

I turned 33 today, it’s not a great milestone or anything, but it’s nice not to be travelling to work on my birthday as I have done for the last two years. Everyone’s been very nice to me, although that’s not to say I’ve gotten out of doing any work, it’s been a hectic day in fact. There is also cake, for which I am exceedingly grateful and have already had two slices (It’s got fruit in it so it must be healthy). I’ve got just over a month left of this trip, and am looking forward to getting home and spending time with loved ones again, sleeping late and cooking whatever takes my fancy. In the meantime, I’m still mulling over how to discuss feminism in a blog, and have many more photos to edit…

Wishing you calm seas and fair winds wherever you are, with much love from the South Atlantic. x