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 😉

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

Dry dock

Dry dock: it’s all a bit of a blur really!  Trying to recall what I did every day is nigh on impossible I fear, there was a lot of running around doing “things” and “stuff”. A lot of which involved the removal or the application of paint. Anyway, I should begin at the beginning…

We had already made good progress on chipping and painting the 20T crane down in SG, which was definitely an advantage, it looked a bit patchy, but the worst bits had been done. In Stanley we had a few days to prepare before we headed off to Punta, during which we (well, the engineers and the Chief Officer) did the rocking test on the 20T crane (checking it moves side to side properly and adjusting as necessary), and we loaded a generator, 4 extra cables of anchor chain (Cadet Q: How long is an anchor cable? Answers in fathoms and meters please!) a lot of paint and various other useful bits and bobs. Our departure time was, in all probability, the worst kept secret in Stanley, people we saw in the pub seemed to know more about it than us, but we tried to keep it on the quiet. It took us about two days to make the trip, during which time cardboard was laid down in every alleyway and stairwell by the deck crew.

As we approached the Strait of Magellan on my watch I was hailed on the radio by someone (presumably the Argie VTS), however, their message was too broken to understand (we were still a good 50 miles from land as I recall) and all I could do was reply with “Station calling Pharos SG, your message is broken, please repeat” they never got back to me, so I handed this over to the 2nd officer an hour later at 0000, along with all the usual gubbins and went to my bunk. He was hailed by them again as we got closer and after telling them who we were, where we were going etc, we were left to carry on over the border to Chilean waters. The only odd thing they ask for is the Captains passport number, but once they’ve been given it they seem perfectly happy.

I came back up to the bridge for my next watch just before the pilot came on board and we then continued down towards Punta, making excellent speed as the tide pushed us along, we didn’t quite make 20kts, but seeing as our max speed is usually about 12kts it was still a novelty. The narrowest part of the strait is about 2 miles wide (I’ve been through narrower without a pilot in bigger ships!) but the tidal current is not to be underestimated, (if we tried to go against the tide, we’d have spent a good 10 hours going no-where at full speed!) so I was glad to let the pilot drive while I kept busy with position monitoring on the chart. We have a ECS, not an ECDIS so still do it the old school way: radar ranges and bearings, paper and pencil, plus the Mark #1 eyeball of course (Cadet Q: What’s the difference between ECS and ECDIS?). Technically of course, I had the con, but I let the pilot sit in the big chair and give the helm commands, he was quite chatty and we discussed the appalling condition of some of the (chinese?) fishing boats that were going the same way as us for quite some time, they really did look like floating rust buckets, and according to the pilot are no better inside.

We arrived safely alongside, on the other side of the quay was a Chilean navy vessel, so for the rest of the week we were treated to all sorts of bells and whistles going off as they put flags up and down and people went up or down the gangway. Meanwhile, we shambled along at approximately sunset and sunrise and took the flags up or down with no fuss whatsoever!

Over that week alongside things felt like they were going quite slowly, although a lot did actually happen: we had a Port State inspection the day we arrived, the windlass was taken apart so that the dockyard could clean up, weld extra thickness to the gypsies points and then put them back the other way round, my rescue boat davit got taken apart, and eventually put back together and load tested (it was only supposed to take a day, but… a veil shall be drawn over that one as it’ll send my blood pressure rocketing) some of the fresh water tanks were opened and inspected (I spent a lot of time standing outside tanks, it, became a theme over the dry dock for me!) we had the initial rounds of the 5 yr inspection with our Lloyds/MCA surveyor, who was a lovely man, but he did pick the one day that week I was really hungover to decide he wanted to look at all the LSA and FFA, which included me running round the ship testing fire detectors :-/ When I wasn’t busy with those things, I continued with a wee project of mine: one of the bulkheads on the main deck was particularly rusty, while we were down in SG I attacked the section around one of the panama leads, but now had to face dealing with the section forward of it, this was a nightmare to do because it has 4 Winel heads (vent covers that allow air/water out, but stop water going in) in front of it. So I took them off (a task that proved to be a nightmare enough on it’s own!) and went at the area with needle gun and wire brush, and the Winel heads themselves as well. It’s one thing chipping and brushing a flat surface, but when you’re dealing with angles, tight corners and curves etc, behind pipes as well, it becomes somewhat more of an arse. I regretted starting it almost immediately, but once you start, there’s no going back!

Eventually though we moved over to the dry dock itself. I had by then purchased a small videocamera thing and had worked out how to do time lapse pics with it. Unfortunately I didn’t get it working right at the start of the whole procedure, and I had it mounted on the bridge which meant it was too low to see a lot of the things going on on deck, and finally, while I have worked out how to edit it in movie maker, with music and titles and everything, my computer refuses to save it, telling me that I don’t have enough space, when I have 30GB free on the hard drive I’m trying to save it to… *sigh*. Thankfully though, one of our wonderful AB’s also had a (superior) videocamera which he sensibly mounted onto the monkey island and produced this:

If you look at the right hand side of the picture at the beginning you can see the cradle moving out in readiness for us. We had to take a pilot to take us off the berth and up to the cradle, after that the dock staff take over and are in charge of positioning the ship precisely over the blocks. Once the ship was about halfway into the cradle we had to stop all propulsion and turn off all the engines, (switching over to the generator on deck for lighting etc) and leave the rest to them, the main reason for this being that they send divers down to make sure everything’s in place. It looks like quite a quick process on the video, but in fact it took several hours. It was a long day; once we were actually on the blocks and out of the water the ship was suddenly swarmed by dockyard crew, taking out valves, pipe sections, gratings and gods-know what else from the engine room. The deck officers job at this point is to open tanks, and quickly, because they need to ventilate for 24hrs before anyone can go into them. With the 5 yr survey due it meant that pretty much all the tanks needed inspections. Fresh water and void space tanks are the deck department’s responsibility, even though a lot of the tank lids are in the engine room, underneath the deck plates. (The engine room floor is actually a series of plates suspended over the actual deck/tank top, and between the two is a mind boggling array of pipes, this makes getting to the tank lids even more fun). So we had quite a long day, and by the time we finally got finished at 7, we were very much in need of a beer!

The next few days all blur into one. I spent most of my time sitting outside one or another tank while it was either inspected or worked on, at some points I was outside a tank in an area that I could continue with chipping and scraping or eventually painting those bloody Winel heads (They come apart into several pieces too… Never again!!) I also spent a lot of time running around collecting immersion suits, BA bottles, lifejackets and stuff that needed to be sent ashore for servicing, making lists of these things and trying to keep tabs on what was going when, and where and when it was coming back so that I could make sure they all came back, with the right certificates. Meanwhile sheaves on the end of the 20T crane and the top pins holding the hydraulic arms in place were taken out (with a LOT of effort and some very big hydraulic jacks) so that the seals etc could be replaced (this was the first time we believe this particular job had been done since the ship was built) this involved a lot of chain blocks, welding of extra bits to hold things, and a lot of heat treatment of the pins themselves, all a bit scary looking! Then there was the memorable night when we had the dockyard crew grinding patches on the hull at one point, having already been driven nuts by the guy moving down the hull from fwd to aft, another grinder joined the first guy from the other direction so I ended up being serenaded in stereo, the first guy going for the jiggy beat, the second the long whine. I was close to comitting murder.

After 14 days in Punta, we finally got a half day. Some people went shopping (again) honestly some of the guys seemed to be tootling off to the nearby mall every other evening! Some people went for a walk, (crazy people, it was freezing cold and blowing a hoolie!) I was on day duty though and was very grateful for the opportunity to only have option of staying on board and vegetating! The next day it started snowing. Nothing heavy thank goodness, but it made chipping and painting less of an option! It continued to snow on and off while we had the dockyard guys painting the hull, which meant that they had to stop and start a few times. I stayed warm though, as my job, along with the 2nd officer, was to keep up with the cherry picker with large sections of chipboard to protect the rails and superstructure from the spray paint. We were mostly successful, although we ended up with red toes on our boots and a fine mist of red on our faces and safety goggles! That was also the day the 2nd officer tried to kill me with his piece of chipboard. It wasn’t on purpose by any means, he’d managed to get it up the steps from the main deck to the poop deck and was trying to get it over the rail when a gust of wind took it and it landed on me. Thankfully it only hit my arm not my neck but I had a cracking bruise the size of a grapefruit for the rest of drydock!

That wasn’t the only damage I managed to sustain that month, a few days later I managed to get a shard of metal in my eye, right on the cornea, while wire brushing a particularly awkward bit of my bulkhead (I was wearing goggles, but they weren’t as effective as I had believed they would be, and we’ve ordered better ones now). I thought it would come out with some washing, but no, it was stuck well in there, I could actually see it in the mirror! I went to the Old Man, who is de-facto doctor on board who took one look and called the ships agent. An hour or so later I found myself at a Chilean eye specialist’s who spoke no English and noted my middle name as London, he was however, very good at his job. I got the ships agent to translate for me and once the eye doc had put some anaesthetic drops in my eye (OH the relief!) he inspected it and then produced what looked like a big pen. Then he took the lid off. That was no pen, that was a dirty great big needle and he was coming straight at my eyeball with it!! Somehow, I didn’t flinch (the anaesthetic did it’s job well) and after a couple of pokes he seemed happy that it was gone and I was given eyedrops and an eyepatch to wear for 24 hours. Sadly it was more like a big plaster than a pirate patch and I found it really disorientating to only have one working eye (depth perception really does work better with two!). It was fine after that, a bit blurry for a few weeks after, but I am happy to report that no lasting damage was done. It certainly taught me a lesson about thoroughly checking PPE before using it though!  (Cadet Q: Where can you find information on what PPE you should wear for each type of job, including chapter number!?)

Not long after that the painting had all been completed, valves etc were replaced and we were ready to go back in the water. Once again, my attempt at video footage was a bit of a fail, but Dave the AB did a cracking job with his 🙂

You may notice that that the cradle pauses for a while with the ship in the water but not floating, this is the critical period where everyone runs around doing a check on all the things that got taken out to make sure that they are indeed watertight! Also, once we’re alongside you can see the cradle come back up with another (very small) ship on it.

After that, there were a few things that needed to be put back together on deck, like the 20T crane, which then of course had to be load tested, once again, my gratitude to Dave for his fab footage.

And then of course, when you live in the Falklands and everything has to be shipped in, there’s no point in not loading as much stores as possible before you leave!

That was just some of it going into the aft hold, you should have seen how much we fitted into the fwd hold!

So there we go, that was drydock. As I said, for me it was mostly about chipping and painting, and standing outside tanks. I think there’s a lot more going on in the engine room than on deck at times like this, but I certainly didn’t have enough time to go and watch! Of course, what I have failed to mention at all was the fun we had, there were several nights ashore, (including the one where I was just so knackered that by the time we reached the 3rd bar all I wanted was a cup of tea, I’ve not been allowed to live that one down!) and I even went out in a frock once! Tales of drunken nights out are only funny to the people that were there though, so I won’t bore you with details, but wish you fair winds and calm seas until the next time 🙂

Pictures from drydock and the rest of this trip are on Flickr

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…

Oh how glorious to be in summer, proper summer, I’ve not had this for a while! I returned from deepest darkest winter in the Falklands just over a week month ago, just in time to catch the start of this amazing weather, I couldn’t face wearing jeans so went hunting for my summer clothes: I had one pair of shorts, that I could no longer fit over my backside, and that was, apparently, it. I resorted to borrowing my mums shorts for the day and then went and raided the two clothing shops in Sherborne that don’t cater to middle aged ladies who lunch. £380 later and I have a summer wardrobe, which includes dresses!! (I am a habitual jeans wearer, in fact I have worn nothing but jeans unless forced into a pair of shorts by excessive heat for the last gods know how many years. In the Caribbean when I was on the cruise ships, I had shorts as uniform, so was ok, and was so used to the heat that I was fine in jeans when I went ashore, or had that one pair of shorts for the beach!) Anyway, this is not a fashion blog so I’ll stop talking about clothes!

First of all, I feel I owe an apology, I went off making wild promises about blogging by email from the ship, and yes, I have failed utterly to do so. The problem is,  I’m not allowed to tell you where we are, what we are doing or where we’re off to next. It’s all very secret squirrel, and makes trying to write something without giving stuff away a tad difficult, especially this trip as we were off to dry dock. We go to Punta Arenas in Chile for dry dock, and to get there we have to go through Argentine waters. (I’m not going to give you a history lesson here, if you have to ask why that’s a problem, use google). So we don’t advertise the fact we’re coming, we report in as required by maritime protocols etc, but it’s always a bit of a tense time until we’re through. Nothings ever happened and I doubt it ever would now, but the events of 1982 are still pretty fresh in the memories of many.

We didn’t go to dry dock immediately mind you, we had a few other things to do first; primarily a patrol, but before that we went north of the Falklands to do some buoy work. These buoys are the ones we deployed at the start of my first trip, they are acoustic listening devices that are placed at various levels under the sea to monitor the sea life in the area. The job this time was to recover them so the technicians could service them, and then re-deploy them in the same place. We had  a few days to achieve this is as we weren’t sure whether the weather would be favourable. As it turned out, we had some lumpy seas on the way up to the site and then glorious sunshine and clam seas for the work, enabling us to get all 5 buoys recovered and re-deployed in one day. (Team B wins again!)

It was a quick turnaround after that and straight down to South Georgia for patrol. The weather down in SG was still very pleasant at that time (April) and I got to see what the island looks like in late summer (only the big mountains are covered in snow!). After patrolling the 1000m contour line around the island we went back to King Edward Point and picked up some of the BAS team for the albatross survey on Prion island. Prion Island is one of the major wandering albatross breeding sites and every year they (the scientists) go and check how each nest is doing as they (the birds) return to the same nest site each year. Having not ever been to Prion Island I was extremely keen to do the drop off on the zodiac and have a chance to look around. There was a party going on on the beach: the penguins kept to themselves, but as usual, the fur seals were more, er, well, plain unfriendly. I took one of the paddles from the boat with me, for two reasons: a) there’s a lot of kelp on the beach, thick slimy rotting kelp, and you can’t help but walk on it, it’s that or get a bit too close to a fur seal for comfort! So I needed it for balance. And reason b) fur seals. I’ve probably mentioned before what evil savage little bastards they are, but if it’s not yet been made clear, these animals scare the bejezus out of me! For good reason. If you get bitten by one (and it happens) you have to scrub the wound out with a toothbrush, they have a selection of bacteria living in their mouth that would, in all likelihood, kill you if untreated, or at very least you’d lose the limb. They are vicious, aggressive, territorial buggers and ugly brutes to boot. Ok, the small ones are actually quite cute and would probably only gum you, but a full size male charging at you is when you really, really want a big stick with you!

There is a board-walk path which leads up to the top of the island and I left the Bosun with the other paddle at the zodaic while I took a stroll, accompanied by a few South Georgia Pipits, herding baby fur seals and being hissed at by the older ones who popped out from behind every bit of tussock grass along the path. At the top I was treated to some stunning vistas of the main island, and several wandering albatross sitting on their nests, mostly with their backs to me of course, but one was eventually kind enough to turn their head, allowing me to get a photo of more than just a white shape! Photographic desires fulfilled, I returned to the zodiac and drove back to the ship, a task made much more difficult than it should be by swathes of kelp.

We popped in and out of KEP quite a few times that trip, taking people to various parts of the island to count birds, or make repairs to some of the buildings at the other old whaling stations. The good weather kindly remained with us, and when we weren’t at sea, we had time alongside during which we made a good start on chipping and painting the 20 tonne crane, which is no small job! On Sundays however we get a half day, and I decided to take advantage of the beautiful sunshine and go for a long walk. I went with one of the girls from the base, partly because I didn’t really know where I was going, but also because as Winnie-the-Pooh says; It’s so much friendlier with two! We walked around the cove, past Grytviken and along the stony shore, scrambled over the rocks of the headland and along the beach before cutting through the tussock grass to reach Penguin River. Unsurprisingly we met some penguins there, not many, but more than I’d seen together up close before. Most of the penguins who venture ashore at KEP are Gentu penguins, and I’ve only seen a couple of solitary King penguins, so this was quite special for me and I snapped away like an excited paparazzi.  We left the river and scrambled up a very steep slope, during which I had to keep stopping to take more pictures as the full vista of Penguin River and the glaciers behind emerged. We strode over the flats of Mt Brown, bouncing almost on the soft spongy ground and admiring the variety of plants, mosses and lichens growing in the more boggy areas. We also came across the remains of an Argy helicopter that crashed there during the war (Falklands, not World War!), riddled with bullet holes and missing all the major components, but not looking like it’s going to disappear any time soon.  From there we walked over to the dam, where I was mesmerized by the mirror perfect reflections of the hills for a while before realizing it was going to get dark soon and making our way down the steep “track” back to Grytviken and home. It took us about 4 hours, and I’ve even taken the time to make a picture of where we went.

A wee map of my walk

Incidently, Google maps have updated their satellite images of SG, and the detail is fantastic, they’ve even marked all the tracks (Even on Bird Island, where 4 BAS scientists live studying birds), and have labelled the small islands, so you can now go and have a look at the places I’m talking about in detail (Sadly they’ve not taken their camera car there yet!) Look up South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, otherwise you get the Georgia next to Azerbaijan!

Well that pretty much covers the first month at work, and in the interests of a) publishing this before I go back to work, and b) not making a post that’s so long you get bored and give up, I’ll put this up now and talk about dry dock in another post at a later date. (Next week, maybe??) Meanwhile, I have also been busy putting more pics up on flickr, I’ve got as far St Petersburgh on the Balmoral (5th cadetship trip, less than 2 years ago!) And am going to make a concerted effort to get on with a load more in the next few days.

Edit: All pictures fro this trip are now up on Flickr!

First impressions of the South Atlantic

Well Christmas is over, the New Year has well and truly begun and I have gotten over my stinking cold: I have officially run out of excuses not to write this!

I’ve been home for just over a month, 2 months now and having had time to reflect on the last trip, I’m pleased to say that Yes, it was a good trip. I find that with a bit of time to give me perspective, I sometimes change my mind about whether I actually enjoyed something or not, or rather; whether the good outweighed the bad.

I did my first trip as a qualified officer on a cruise ship, I wrote this about it afterwards. Reading the other posts (such as this one) I did while on board mostly reminds me of how knackered and stressed out I became, and in the time leading up to joining the next ship I was becoming more and more uneasy about going back. While I certainly met some lovely people who I would be more than happy to sail with again, and I got to (briefly) see some beautiful places, the workload and lack of support from HQ was demoralising, there was a lot of playground politics between the crew and I rarely went ashore with people because everyone’s work schedule was different. While I was busy and enjoyed the work (mostly) and the seeing pretty places and really liked my co-workers, I still felt like I was living quite a lonely existence sometimes, and I was knackered. So when I was offered this job, three weeks before I was due to go back to the cruise company, it wasn’t really that difficult a choice! I was, naturally, apprehensive about going to somewhere so cold and far away, but I also saw it as a new adventure. And I do love a new adventure.

It wasn’t the most auspicious of starts. My first thoughts, as we bounced and jiggled and jarred in a minibus along the “road” from Mount Pleasant Airport to Stanley and I stared blearily out of the window at a grey, cold, sleety moorland, were “Oh dear gods, where the hell have I landed myself?” followed soon after by “What the hell? There’s NO trees!”.

No trees. Yes, that’s the thing that hit me the most. The landscape is deeply reminiscent of Dartmoor; low peaty heathland with occasional rocky outcrops that disappear into low cloud. There are differences though too, like the rivers of rock slewing through the landscape, big lumps of grey rock, all pretty much the same size, in long swathes cutting across the land, and nothing grows between the stones. Plus there’s the myriad of areas all along the roadside, all fenced off with barbed wire and red signs saying “WARNING MINES!” And there’s NO trees. Even on the most desolate British bit of moorland there’s the odd tree here and there, or a few bushes. There are no natural trees on the Falkland Islands. It’s weird. In Stanley, people have planted trees and bushes in their gardens, but the westerly gales that the islands generally experience has prevented anything larger than a heather from growing naturally.

By the time we arrived at the ship, I was the last person left on the bus. All the others who had been picked up at the airport with me had been dropped off at their respective homes or hotels already to begin their recovery from the two 8 hour long flights, with a 2 hour break on Ascension Island between them (in what I can only describe as a holding pen), and followed by an hour long drive on a road that really doesn’t deserve such a title. We were warned as we set off “Anyone who’s not been here before, it’s a bit bumpy in places!”. A *bit*! At least half of the road is not tarmacked; it’s gravel and potholes. The sections of tarmac are randomly spread along the road, so you have a period of (relatively) smooth, quiet driving. Then you hit an un-tarmacked bit, and at first you think it’s not that bad, but after a few minutes you realise your neck and back are starting to hurt, and by the time you get to the next smooth bit you are praying for it to end. So you can imagine by now, by the time I reached the ship, I was a *bit* shattered! Keen to make a good impression though, I naturally said yes when asked if I was going to the pub!

The first week onboard was spent alongside, which was strange to me, having only ever worked on ships that almost never spent even one night in port. Still, it meant I had plenty of time to learn the non-navigational side of my new job from my handover. Previously I was only responsible for the LSA, and now I am responsible for both LSA and FFA. I had of course, learned about the maintenance of both during my cadetship, but as a cadet you are generally helping, or doing it under the supervision of someone else, and don’t necessarily get into the routine of doing the same things week in week out. Plus, every ship is different, and the specific jobs and/or ways of doing said jobs vary slightly. Actually having a proper handover was a new one on me as last time I joined a ship the guy I was taking over from was moving into a different role at the same time! Another pleasant surprise was not having to be on the bridge while in port: On cruise ships you stand watches no matter whether you’re in port or not; as you’re in and out of port every day it makes sense to keep the routine, plus its a security requirement, but it doesn’t half make doing the rest of your maintenance a pain. Suddenly finding myself on daywork, having plenty of time to do all my jobs, and being able to knock off at 5 with everyone else and have a few drinks (or maybe several, occasionally!) was a revelation!

So, once I’d learnt my way around the ship, gotten my head around the planned maintenance system and sampled the delights of Stanley’s drinking establishments a few times, it was finally time to head out to sea. Only a short trip, heading north of the islands to lay some acoustic buoys. While the vessel is predominantly a fishery protection vessel, we also get sub-chartered by oil companies to help them do research. The acoustic buoys were being placed to record marine life sounds to see if drilling in that area would have too much of an effect on the wildlife. As the ship was built as a buoy tender she has a large working area fwd and a 20T heavy lift crane, however these buoys were much smaller than navigational mark buoys, we used one of the Effer cranes and a bit of ingenuity. Once that was done we headed back to Stanley and after a quick turnaround we were finally off to South Georgia!

The trip to SG takes about 4 or 5 days, depending on the weather, and on that first trip, Oh Boy did we have weather! The wind got up to 55kts and the waves got up to at least 12m. Sitting on the bridge though, I was pleasantly surprised by two things: a) I definitely do not get seasick (I’d packed a few packets of Stugeron, just in case, never been seasick before, but have mostly been on ships with stabilizers) and b) its not half as scary as it sounds. From the navigator’s chair on the worst day (in weather like that one does not even attempt to stand unless absolutely necessary!) my view consisted of a wall of water, followed 5 seconds later by nothing but sky, followed 5 seconds later by (you guessed it) a wall of water! On the bridge though, I felt perfectly safe, and somehow you don’t notice how bad it is when you’re below, well, I don’t anyway. The ship rolls a fair bit, but we try and direct the bow into the waves so that the motion is mostly pitching rather than rolling. And when it gets really bad, we simply hove to and wait it out. The worst part of it is when you’re in your bunk below trying to sleep. You can stuff your lifejacket under the mattress and put pillows against the bulkhead in an attempt to wedge yourself in, but there’s nothing you can do to stop yourself from noticing when she slams into a wave. No-one gets much sleep when it’s like that, and non-essential maintenance is put on hold until things improve or we reach land.

It was a blessed relief to reach the lee of the island, although due to the visibility I could only see it on radar. We slowed down once in calmer seas, to make an arrival time of 0900 at King Edward Point. As I am the 8-12 watchkeeper this meant I got to do all the arrival checks etc, as well as driving, although by that time the Captain was up and about and as it was my first time coming in he took over earlier than he would normally. (For those not in the know, the Captain ALWAYS does the parking, on every ship). This gave me the opportunity to admire the view. There were blue icebergs in the middle distance and despite the grey and gloom of the weather, the sun managed to shine through the low cloud  at the bottom of the snow covered mountains. The island has no lowlands and no foot hills. It is just, quite literally, a snow covered mountain range in the middle of the ocean. It is, to use the word it in its proper sense, awesome.

We discharged our cargo (supplies for the British Antarctic Survey base), stayed in port for a night and then went out on patrol. This is our primary function; in the South Georgia area there is good fishing to be had; in the winter time, there are long-liners fishing for Toothfish and Icefish and then in the spring we get krill trawlers. The fishing rights are controlled by the SG government who issue permits. The permits also dictate how much each vessel is permitted to catch but obviously we can’t weigh the catch while we’re all at sea. What we do is patrol the area on the 1000m contour line (where the fishing is best) and look out for any vessel that isn’t supposed to be there. We log all vessels sighted and check their AIS details against our list of people we expect to be in the area. If they’re not expected or not on AIS we go for a closer look. Well, actually, we call the Fishery Protection Officer, who decides what they want us to do. The FPO is not a member of crew as such, they sail as the “Charterer’s Representative” but while on patrol they, with the Captain, decide what we’re going to do and where we’re going to go. As well as checking out USOs (Unidentified Sailing Objects) we also, when possible, board the legitimate vessels to check that they are operating as per SG’s rules. This is mostly a case of having a wander around the vessel, making sure they’re not chucking baited hooks overboard/leaving them lying around on deck and probably having a cup of tea too. The hooks thing is because seabirds go for them and then choke and die, which is bad as most of the seabirds down that way are endangered/protected species – various albatrosses and petrels etc. (And it looks like we’re doing well on that front!)

I have to admit something now: I’ve not yet actually done a boarding. I only had one opportunity and when it came to the crunch, I chickened out. This wasn’t on our first patrol,  but we found a couple of krill trawlers one day and as the weather was OK and the seas not too high, the FPO decided to put the RIB down and go see them. I’d been down in the RIB plenty of times when we did practice runs in calm areas, but this was my first time on the high seas. It looked fine from the bridge, and I went down in the RIB perfectly happily, (dressed in full thermal boat suit, helmet etc.). However, once alongside another vessel, which suddenly looked HUGE; and with a swell of about 1-1.5m; and then watching the FPO make a lunge for the ladder and then apparently get his ankles squished by the RIB as it rose up on the swell; and then the RIB driver not being able to keep the boat alongside the vessel, while the other AB held the ladder for me at an angle (so that the only logical conclusion was that I would swing wildly towards the side of the vessel and bash into it once he let go)…… I couldn’t do it. back on the ship, no-one blamed me, most people have backed out more than once, but especially on their first time. As the duty officer I wouldn’t have been responsible for checking anything myself, but we go as a witness, in case a problem is found, in which case I’d have to make a statement and be prepared to go back to the Falklands during my leave when it came to court.

After that first trip everything has slightly blurred into one. There were hours and hours and hours of staring at fog; there were days and days sat at anchor in 50+kt winds; there were weekly and monthly jobs to do, which seemed to come round alarmingly quickly as it very often felt like no time had passed at all; there were passengers to ferry back and forth (max of 12!); there were fuck ups (flooding the port accommodation alleyway being a particularly memorable one!); and there were moments of sheer brilliance: Whales! Seals! Penguins! Huuuge icebergs! (biggest seen on radar was 17 miles long, biggest seen properly by eye was 8 miles long)…. I remember looking out of my porthole on the first morning we had a sunny day in SG and being blown away by the awesomeness (there are pics, I’m working on getting them up!). There were several delightful evenings ashore in Stanley, or just sitting out on the lower poop deck having a few post-work beverages when in port. There were several other evenings when we decided that it was too damn cold to stay out there and retire instead to the engineers workshop (the only place inside where it is permitted to smoke). There were deck BBQs in the hold, complete with laser lighting and mulled wine. (I may not remember the end to all of those evenings!) I visited the SG museum (lots of old whalers equipment and pics, and lots of dead things in jars, I loved it!), we went tobogganing, we went for walks along the beach, which became increasingly populated by seals, mostly of the elephant variety. The last time I went for a wee wander I had the privilege of seeing an elephant seal being born (much like a sheep giving birth: lots of noise followed by a slithery squelch and then licking). So yeah, it was a good trip. Most of all it was good people, with no bullshit and the chance to kick back with them at the end of a long day. The ethos of the ship is that of “Work Hard, then Play Hard”, and I’m looking forward to round two!

I’m sure I’ve missed out loads of stuff, but this has become so long that I’m going to leave it there, hopefully it gives you an idea. Probably a rose tinted idea in fact: it’s difficult to write engagingly about monotony and boredom, much easier to tell you about the memorable and fun bits. If you have any questions or comments though, I’d be happy to answer them 🙂 Meanwhile for the rest of my leave I’ll be working on getting my flickr up to date, which to my shame is now only a year and 10 months behind!!

Wishing you fair winds and calm seas S4 xxx

Edit: Only a year after I wrote this I have finally got those pictures up on Flickr! You can see them here