Real life vs Ship life: Part 1. Ship life.

Life has been happening, at an alarming rate it seems, I’m over halfway through my leave already and am only just starting to feel like I’m catching up with real life. Guess I won’t be learning to drive this leave then…

Generally, for me, life stops when I am at sea and then kicks in when I am on land. Well it doesn’t stop, it just comes under a completely different heading. At sea it’s all about whether the lifeboat is going to work (or at least not fill with water), or when the life-jacket lights last got changed, or which life-buoys are in desperate need of replacement, or why the immersion suit got mouldy, or trying to get something that is out of date or knackered or  degraded replaced. It’s a never-ending fight: to stay on top of things, to stay sane, to get enough sleep, and to do all that while looking presentable. We have an open bridge policy, so watches aren’t just about driving the ship, (that does come first though, and if it’s busy I’ll happily kick people off the bridge so I can concentrate). I also end up playing the role of tour guide and star expert, I end up repeating my life story ad-infinitum, (the Quartermaster could just as easily tell it by now), explaining the bridge equipment over and over again, and being given verbal pats on the head by a good 70% of those who visit the bridge just because I’m a girl.

To be honest, that’s the only bit that really gets me. I’m proud of my job, and what I’ve achieved so far in my life, I’m only too happy to educate people about what we who drive ships actually do and how we do it, I love stars and learning about the constellations and sharing that with people: one of the best bits of the job is standing on the bridge wing on a clear quiet night being utterly overawed by the night sky. If you’ve never seen it from the deck of a ship away from land, you’ve been missing out.

But, to be told “Well, good for yoooou” over and over again, is something that really gets my goat. None of the other (male) junior officers get that, you certainly wouldn’t hear the Captain being told that, (and believe me, my last Captain slogged his backside off to get where he is), no it’s because of one thing and one thing only that I am singled out as the plucky little soldier who deserves a patronizing comment congratulating me for doing what thousands of other seafarers do every day, many of whom, I’m sure, have had to fight bigger battles that I have. My gender. And that pisses me off.

It’s not just on ship though, for example, my mother related a conversation she had with an acquaintance recently, while not exactly verbatum, it went something like this:

Aquaintance: And what do your daughters do?

Mother: Well, my eldest lives in Reading with her husband, she works in *some sort of IT related place* and they just bought their first house.

Aquaintance: Mmm lovely…. And your youngest?

Mother: Well she’s away at the moment, she works at sea.

Aquaintance: Oh really, how adventurous, what does she do?

Mother: Oh she’s working on a cruise ship a the moment.

Aquaintance: Oh wow, that must be lovely, what does she do? Stewardess? Croupier?

Mother: No, no, she drives she ship, she’s the 3rd Officer.

Aquaintance: GOOD GOD!!

The shock and incredulity that I, a 30 year old woman, could be left in charge of not crashing a whole ship for 4 hours at a time makes me sad. Are we still so steeped in inherent sexism that it’s that crazy an idea? Yes, the Merchant Navy is still a male dominated industry, but haven’t we as a society finally reached the conclusion that ability is not based on gender? Apparently not.

Anyway.

The rest of my trip can be summed up fairly succinctly: Wet dock. This was not a refit period while tied up alongside in some out of the way dockyard. This was a complete rip out and replace of the entire hotel side of the ship, while en-route from Panama to Barcelona, stopping for about 3 days in St Maarten and Algeciras. It was… interesting. It’s not something that I wish to repeat. Ever.

There were up sides, such as being able to go for a drink in the Pool Bar after watch at midnight. (No passengers on ship, just 50 odd British contractors) and there were downsides, such as working 14+ hour days and getting massively behind on my planned maintenance because other things had to take priority. I spent most of my watches crossing the Atlantic navigating around rain clouds – rain + holes in deck and/or wet paint does not mix well. Somehow, it pulled together, the night before we arrived in Barcelona, the spa girls were polishing railings, the VP of hotel operations was wielding a paintbrush, we had Quartermasters scrubbing decks at midnight and floors being waxed. The next morning the new 2nd officer was varnishing the pool surround and the pool bar still looked like a bombsite. However, by 1300, when I took the new crew around on their familiarization tour, the place was spotless.

The last month of the trip was spent catching up on my planned maintenance, catching up on sleep and wondering who, if anyone, was going to relieve me.

Overall, despite all the whinging I have just done, I had a ball this trip. I had fantastic people to work with, in particular, the last Captain and C/O I had, who ripped the piss out of me almost constantly, and ensured that I almost cried with laughter at least once a day. And the first C/O I had too, who took me under her wing and mentored me through my first few weeks as a new officer. (Mostly by standing about chatting shit while smoking too much and occasionally giving me a kick up the backside if I screwed up). She also threw me the first proper birthday party I’ve ever had. (And, more importantly, gave me the watch off the morning after!).

Other highlights of the trip were:

Swimming off Coiba beach on several occasions, where I also met a crocodile, got stung by tiny jelly fish, saw a ray, saw a shark, chased vultures and ate a lot of delicious bbq food.

Going for a post work swim off the stern platform.

Eating fresh out of the oven warm mini chocolate cakes.

Getting her up to 8kts with no engines.

Turning 30: this is because it involved a party, dancing so hard I ached the next day, a lie in, cake and presents.

A free hot stones massage.

Zip lining in Nicaragua.

Free Nicaraguan rum.

Being able to afford Raybans and a pair of swanky binoculars.

Seeing humpback whales, leaping, breaching, fin slapping and tail slapping as we left St Maartin. (New binoculars were very useful at this point.)

Portoferraio, where I climbed a hill and admired the view, then sat in a cafe with a small glass of white, overlooking a picturesque little harbour. On the way home I bought the biggest ice cream I could find: Waffle cone, 4 scoops – blackcurrant, mango, tiramisu and ricotta with burnt caramel. (The Italians really do make the best ice-cream in the world.)

Amalfi, where I visited the Cathedral and bought chocolate and pizza.

Santorini, where I took the cable car to the top and had lunch while admiring the view.

Myknonos, where I simply wandered through the back streets.

And Kusadasi, where I went on tour to see the ruined city of Ephesus.

There are many photos, you can see them on Flickr here.

I was going to rant about all sorts of real life things today, but it seemed necessary to put some kind of chronological order to things. So I will write about real life next time.

Meanwhile, I’m always on twitter.

A Mediterranean Odyssey Part 2

It sounded wonderful- two days off…. Unfortunately, they weren’t lazy days spent chilling out in the sun and sightseeing lovely places at my own pace, no, they were spent herding passengers (around some of the most beautiful cities in Italy admittedly) which was not, I assure you, restful!

Florence and Pisa were as stunning as you would expect, incredibly detailed decoration on some of the buildings, and doors which were works of art on their own. Thankfully it wasn’t as hot as the day before had been, although I would have liked some sunshine for photos. The day did brighten up in the afternoon at Pisa and I happily wandered about on my own for an hour or so. The leaning tower is in a large courtyard with a couple of other, equally impressive, buildings so the tour group had been unleashed and allowed to roam free 🙂

Back on board that night I was on the bridge again for more steering training. My family are still gobsmacked that I was actually given the helm, which I find mildly insulting, seeing as I’ve steered a Tall Ship often enough and got my steering certificate on the Patricia on my first trip. To be fair, QM2 is a wee bit bigger, and we did start off with a quartermaster standing beside us to instruct and take over if necessary, but the wheel itself is the size of a go-cart steering wheel, and the ship is delightfully responsive (hurray for azi-pods!). We were treated to another lightning show that night, this time with intermittent rain showers, much to the entertainment staff’s pleasure as it meant they didn’t have to do the stargazing evening! If we’d not had such a tight schedule we could have steered around the rain, but as it was we had to go at pretty much full pelt to make it on time.

The next day we were at Monte Carlo, which as the harbour is way too small to berth in, was a tender port. We were going to go to anchor but when I got to anchor stations, the duty 3/0 arrived and informed me we weren’t anchoring after all, but just hovering on the thrusters and pods as there were too many yachts around, so I went for breakfast instead. I spent the morning on the pontoons, giving the passengers the old “Good morning! Watch your step and mind your head!” in the same singsong way that the Filipinos do, it just comes naturally after a few minutes! After lunch I was back on the pontoons for a bit and then was allowed to go with a tender & start learning to drive it on runs with no passengers. So I got to see a glimpse of Monte Carlo, it all looked terribly posh and expensive, the boats in the marina were fantastically expensive looking and there was a mister by the quay for people to cool off in. What I really liked were some of the bigger boats that were anchored out off shore, some really sexy looking old 1930s style things, with funnels and lots of shiny! And there was some kind of tall ship too, which always sets me off drooling! The tender I was on was the last one to be lifted home, so while waiting to be called in we took a little detour to take some pictures of the ship, the light was just perfect and I got myself a stunner 🙂

When we arrived in Barcelona, our last stop of the Med tour, I got to operate the mooring line winches, not a major thing really, but enough to give me a small frisson of excitement and feel pleased that they didn’t think I was a complete muppet who shouldn’t be allowed to do anything that might go wrong.
The rest of the day was taken up with tender repairs, the poor little things always seem to take quite a bashing from the pontoons, the slightest swell creates a lot of bobbing!! Because we had to work on the outer side of one of them we had to lower it, drive it round and come in to pick it up the wrong way round, and the same in reverse when the repairs had been done. This gave us a chance to do some more driving practice, which, frankly, I could still do with a lot more of!

The next few days at sea on-route back to the UK were spent emptying small gear and provisions out of a couple of the tenders, which were due to go ashore in Southampton for maintenance. It’s not such an easy job as it sounds as things like the drinking water are stored in lockers under the floor, so you have to lie flat out on the floor between two benches to reach in and grab the bags of sachets out. We actually removed a bench to make getting at them easier, but it made me wonder how on earth you’d get at them when the tender was full of 150 people. I also got to indulge my artistic side when re-painting the ‘fire’ that’s used for the basic fire fighting demonstrations, test about a million fire screen doors before they got tested by the MCA in Southampton and lay out yet more lifeboat gear for the MCA inspectors to inspect.

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but the ship gets an MCA inspection almost every time she goes into Southampton because she’s so big and has such a tight turnaround schedule. Instead of inspecting the whole ship in one go annually, the MCA come aboard and inspect a zone each time. When all the zones have been done they then come and stay on the ship for a few days to watch drills and things and then, and only then, does the ship get issued with their certificate. Of course, a month or two later the whole process has to start all over again!

A Mediterranean Odyssey, part 1

Mmm, yes, again, apologies for the delay, stuff keeps happening and getting in the way of writing about it! So, where was I? Oh yes the med……

We set off from Southampton once again and had one day at sea cleaning tenders, followed by cocktails and a show. Over the three months I have attended innumerable cocktail parties on board, the thrill of which I have to admit, palled somewhat by the end of my time, but it was nice sometimes to put on a bit of make-up and heels and remind myself that I was a girl. We were allowed to sneak in at the back of the shows when they were about to start, on this occasion there weren’t any seats free so we stood to watch Apassionanta, and I tell you, those dancers can go some!

I was rather excited the next morning at stations, as we were coming into Lisbon, one of the places I sailed into 10 years previously when sailing in the Tall Ships Race on Astrid. This time we made our way up the river at dawn and I was treated to a beautiful sunrise with the bridge’s silhouette coming closer and closer. Passing beneath it we heard the most bizarre roaring noise, caused by the traffic above. The bridge isn’t tarmacked, it’s just metal grilling, so you can actually see the traffic as it passes above you, which I found slightly disconcerting. I didn’t get ashore in Lisbon, my day was spent cleaning out the tenders ready for use in Gibraltar the next day instead.

Gibraltar was slightly more exciting, I had yet another lovely sunrise, this time with the Rock silhouetted in front of it and I then spent most of the day on the pontoons, telling passengers to mind their step and please could they not try and barge the people in front of them on. It’s like they think the boat’s on a timer and if they don’t get on as fast as possible it’ll go without them. There’s also the people, mostly men, who, when offered a helping hand when bridging the gap between a stable platform and a bobbing boat, take it as a personal affront and huffily snatch their hand away. It’s always them who nearly go flying as the boat lurches too. Small victories.

Anyway the lovely part of the day was getting to go ashore and visit my friend N for lunch, she’d been away from the homeland for a while so we spent a fabulous 3 hours nattering about life and it’s myriad of complications. And, I got to wear the dress. I bought the dress in Swansea when I was doing my first trip on the THV Patricia. I’d wandered into a shop called Blue Banana selling the most divine retro and alternative clothing, the kind of stuff I’d love to buy and wear on a regular basis if I could a) afford it and b) wasn’t so lazy and actually put in the effort to do hair and make up and such things that are needed to make it look good, most of the time I live in jeans and only wear make up for parties. I oohed and aahed over the dresses for a while and was then pounced upon by one of the shop assistants who demanded I try the object of my affections on. I did, and while it was nice, I wasn’t convinced, mainly due to my socks and bad hair. She then produced the most glorious pair of black patent leather peep toe wedge heels with a red trim. Needless to say I bought the lot.

I digress, sorry, I am a girl after all.

I didn’t wear the shoes that day but the dress needed to be shown to N as she is my Dita Von Teasesque icon. I did however, wear the dress for the next two days ashore, (I only had the one smart thing to wear) which felt delightfully subversive as I was escorting tours and therefore representing the ship. Razor blades and 1940’s pin-ups never struck me as a Cunard look, but they didn’t seem to mind when I rocked up in it, after all, I was wearing my badge.

My first big day out was Rome, I collected my tour group from the theatre and led them to the bus with my little placard. The worst part was having to stand at the front and say in my best posh voice (which I do very well, I would point out) “Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen, I am your escort for the day”. I then tried to point out that I was not the tour guide and knew nothing about the places we were going to see as I had never been there either. I was just there in case someone lost something or fell over. This didn’t stop people from asking me everything from how long it was going to take us to get there, to which things we were going to see. Some people just don’t listen, but hey, I was seeing Rome for free!!

After an hour and a bit on the bus from Civitavecchia, during which I gazed out of the window wistfully at olive groves and umbrella pines, we arrived in the city, making our way through narrow streets on foot to the Trevi Fountain. As you round the corner and see it you realise that the term fountain doesn’t really accurately describe it, not at all in fact, it takes up the entire side of a square, and most of the middle of it too, it is the side of a building, not some small architectural afterthought added on later. From there we were taken to Venice Square, past the huge white building known unaffectionally by the locals as “the wedding cake” and on to the Forum. I can’t possibly do justice to any of these places with description, and truth be told, I am writing this many months later, but I have photos, many, many photos, which, will one day make it onto my flickr account when I have had time to tweak them. I wouldn’t hold your breath though as I am still behind on photo editing by over a year!

We moved on to the Colosseum before lunch, it is a splendid ruin, though horribly over-crowded by tourists, which I hate, especially when I am aware that I am one of them. I managed to get most of my photos without people in them and so left happy. We were all hot and flagging by then, and I was discovering which of my wards I needed to keep an extra eye on so we didn’t lose them as they stopped to photograph everything on route. The term “herding cats” is appropriate here. Lunch was in a hotel, and as we arrived I felt something on my dress go ping. To my horror a button had become unstitched and one shoulder strap was hanging lose. I managed with the help of our tour guide to beg a safety pin from the receptionist and get it temporarily fixed and sat down with some of my tour to eat. It went again during lunch but one of the ladies helped me out, for which I am eternally grateful.

Suitably refreshed we went on to the Vatican. Again, words can do no justice (sorry mum!) the painted ceilings, the architecture, the sculpture, mosaic floors… oh and the small matter of the Sistine Chapel. Which one is absolutely not supposed to take photos of inside. None of us did of course. OK so we nearly got the tour guide in trouble and get kicked out but everyone loves a chancer don’t they! After briefly visiting St Peters Basillica there was time to get an ice cream which sustained me on the walk back to the bus. Our tour was one of the last back and as I was excused from mooring stations I took the chance to go up to deck 13 to see us sail out. Very soon after that I went and crashed for an hour or so, Rome in a day is rather exhausting!

There’s no rest for the wicked unfortunately and after dinner we went up to the bridge to start steering training. I got up there and very nearly asked which muppet was taking photographs, I soon realised that it wasn’t a camera flash I was seeing, but lightning. We had an incredible light show that night and debated what would happen if the ship got hit, thankfully we didn’t have to find out!