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

I wrote this a month ago, I just haven’t had the time to post it….

I’ve been here a month now, and things are settling down into a routine. I have a LOT of work to do, but so does everyone else, I thank whatever gods there may be for AMOS, despite it being the bane of my life at times it does help me keep track of what I need to do next! (AMOS is our planned maintenance system and tells me what jobs I need to do each week) I haven’t yet quite been through a full month’s worth of jobs, but February is a short month, so things have been crammed in even more. The inspections and checks I have to do on a weekly or monthly basis lead me to making notes on what maintenance I need to do, most of which is more cosmetic than anything else, but by keeping on top of things I can make sure that a small cosmetic issue does not become a more serious damage issue. There are only 4 members of the bridge team on here, and so all the maintenance is split between three of us. The Captain, obviously, does not have to do such things – he has plenty of paperwork to keep him busy, does every arrival and departure and is on-call 24/7 should anything happen.

So as 3/O, I do the following: 8-12 watchkeeping; Inspections and maintenance on all LSA (Life Saving Appliances); safety familiarisation training for new joiners (which we get weekly) and inputting all crew certification into the on-board database; I do a weekly SOLAS training session on LSA; I am Fire Team 3 leader, and therefore need to do training for my team whenever someone in the team changes, or when we need to pull our game up; I am the bridge administrator (daily stability calcs, PASIS (Port Authority Ship Information Sheets), checking the night guard’s rounds, general filing, organising the Captain’s training sessions, etc etc) and I am also responsible for maintaining and distributing PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), and the SOPEP (Ship Oil Pollution Emergency Plan) gear.

The 2/O does 12-4 watchkeeping; Navigation (Passage planning and chart and publication corrections); FFA (Fire Fighting Appliances) inspections and maintenance, and FFA SOLAS training, and the official log book, sails hours and Watertight Door testing.

The C/O does 4-8 watchkeeping; she is the deck crew boss (I/C of not only me and the 2/O, but the sailors as well, so has to organise all the daily maintenance jobs such as sails maintenance, chipping and painting, deck cleaning, tender drivers and probably a million other little jobs); she is SSO (Ship Security Officer), Garbage Officer, Safety Officer and Training Officer, and has overall responsibility for Stability and tanks (so does a lot of clambering into dark smelly tanks!). She also has to go to a heck of a lot of meetings about planning, generally for the upcoming voyages, but we also have a 4 week wet dock coming up, so there’s even more planning going on!!

Each of those lists is a heck of a lot for one person (and I’ve probably missed a few things), and while we are all contracted to work 10 hours a day, we only technically have 2 hours a day to do most of that in, as when on watch we are navigating. Thankfully though as we go to anchor almost every day we are able at least to get through some of the reams of paperwork that accompany each and every one of the above jobs. The C/O definitely gets the biggest work load, and while the 2/O’s list may sound like the shortest, the Nav aspect of it is huge, chart corrections come out weekly and we have a large on-board portfolio! He spends a lot of time on watch doing charts, and his 2 hours of day work is mostly spent going round checking fire detectors, fire screen doors, extinguishers, hoses etc. (The downside for me is that he does this while I am on watch, so if he’s doing alarms or doors, I have to stand by the appropriate panel and press buttons instead of getting on with my own work). When we are at anchor or berthed though it’s not simply a case of getting on with the paperwork, at anchor we constantly monitor our position, watch what’s going on on the gangway (we do a lot of tendering operations), or in when berthed in port, monitor the moorings and keep an eye on any loading that going on (stores, water, fuel..) and there’s constant calls to the bridge both by phone and radio asking questions and telling us what’s going on too. If you get 10 minutes peace to get on with what you’re doing it’s a miracle!!

In short, I think it’s simply not possible to do everything that needs to be done within the hours we’re contracted to, but I keep getting told to watch my hours. I don’t get paid for overtime, but if I don’t do it I’m going to end up behind. The ILO (International Labour Organisation) rules that we MUST get 77 hours of rest per week (this has recently gone up from 70 hours rest a week). So I could do 13 hours a day and stay within the legal limits, but, I’d be working for an hourly rate that most people would scoff at, especially considering the responsibility for other people’s lives that my and my fellow officers job entails. And, especially in this heat (it gets up to 40 degrees regularly here in Costa Rica) I’d be a wreck. Plus, don’t forget that one has to eat when one is not working, and to be on time for duty you need to get up and sort yourself out in order to be there 5-10 mins before you start watch (You have to be there 10 mins before you take over watch at night so that your eyes can adjust to the dark), handing over the watch takes a few minutes too, so you generally end up leaving the bridge at 10 past the hour. Then you get to go to your cabin, wind down, shower etc. So if you can actually get to sleep within 30 minutes of officially finishing work (on the hour) you’re doing blooming well!  So actual rest time is shorter than it sounds, at the very most, I get 8 hours between watches. Take off time the time spent getting up and ready, handing over etc and I’m realistically getting 7 hours rest, max. The legal minimum is 6 hours continuous rest in a 24 hour period and the remaining 4 or 5 hours rest period cannot be split into more than 2 periods.

……. I would kill for a solid 8 hours kip these days!!

I realise it could well sound like I’m having a moan here, but I don’t mean to, I truly and honestly love my job, and hope sincerely that that never changes. But I do find myself wondering at the high level Industry Management’s, (i.e. the IMO and related bodies) perception of what “Minimum Safe Manning” is (how many jobs can you realistically expect one person to do?), and whether they realise that we have to spend so much time on the paperwork that we have so much less time to do the jobs themselves. I understand the need to provide evidence that things have been done properly, but it’s a vicious circle – if we (as an industry) fail to do the job properly, more checklists and paperwork is brought in, ostensibly to help us not miss anything and do things right. But, there’s so much emphasis put on the paper trail that it risks ending up as a mindless box ticking exercise and the important part, the whole point of it all, (i.e. contentiousness about safety and the environment) gets lost in the process. I fear that people reach a point that they have done the job so many times and just go through a checklist ticking and ticking without paying attention to what they are ticking and signing off – I will never forget the time as a cadet (on a vessel that shall remain nameless) when I had been told to fill out a permit to work for a job that needed doing immediately. I was going round carefully checking each item on the list, when an officer snapped at me, “It’s not a list of what has been done, it’s a list of what will be done, just tick it all and get it signed!” This guy was newly qualified too, so I was doubly horrified at this attitude, but I guess he must have learnt it from somewhere.