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are in desperate need of replacement, or why the immersion suit got mouldy, or trying to get something that is out of date or knackered or  degraded replaced.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.

Has it really only been 5 days?!

Well things haven’t slowed down yet!

On Saturday it was turnaround day in Colon, this is always the busiest day of the week as all the passengers get off, and then a couple of hours later a whole new lot come on board. We also get crew signing off and new crew joining. My job is to sign them on and then give them safety and familiarisation training. This time I only had one new new guy, as the musician has sailed on the Star several times and didn’t need a tour. So it was easier giving training to one person, rather than a whole bunch. I’m sure I’ll get the tour into a better order once I’m more familiar with the layout, but I knew where to find everything I needed to show him. The other side to this part of my job is mainaning the records of what certification everyone has on the computer system, it’s a pretty boring job but if it’s kept on top of I shouldn’t have to spend too much time on it. I also am responsible for updating and printing out the muster lists, which have to then be posted in various locations around the ship, this has to be done twice on turnaround day, once before the passenger muster drill and then again after. I went to the passenger muster drill, but I have no active role in it specifically, and the 2/O has said he’s happy to do it as it cuts right into my rest period, we’ll take it in turns perhaps.

Then in the evening, it was my first full watch on my own. I was less scared than I thought I would be, probably because I’d been chucked in at the deep end the night before. I did call the Captain once, because I got confused about which track we were taking – there’s a long and a short both on the chart, and the waypoint we were headed to next had a very similar name as the one on the chart that we weren’t headed to… I felt like a muppet when he explained but he was still pleased that I called him rather then trog on and do the wrong course. We would have got to the same place, but at the wrong time, but still, better to call him and it be nothing, then not call him and screw up!

On Sunday we were back at the islands of San Blas and I spent my anchor watch doing admin and keeping a close eye on the tender service. From there we went back to Colon, as we needed to pick up a container’s worth of stores that had gotten a little bit lost. This meant that I did an arrival and a departure, in quick succession, which made me extremely glad that I had spent so long on the 4-8 watch last year on the Surf (which is pretty much always the watch that does arrivals and departures), the checklists are exactly the same as they were on there and things all went very smoothly. As we left the Captain concentrated on getting through the channel and the very narrow harbour entrance so my role was to keep watch for any traffic that might cause a problem. There was one ship making her way to the harbour entrance so we ended up having to wiggle through some ships at anchor to avoid her (not a technical term). If I’d been conning I think I would have had some serious fear going on at that point, but the Captain took it all easily in his stride and made it look like a very simple thing. That’s why he’s Captain really!

 

Monday started early, with a wake up call at 0540 for an 0600 start down aft, I was doing locks comms- as ships go through the locks they don’t tie up in a conventional manner, there are mules on each side that the vessel ties up to on both sides via wires, and they then move along with the vessel as she enters the lock, and hold her in position. They are called mules because it really did use to be a team of mules, but now they are large heavy engines on a track. All the work is done by a team of foremen that come on board, so all that needs to be done is telling the bridge when the mules are connected and what number mule it is, port or stbd, when the lock gates are closing or opening and when they are disconnected. I got half an hour for breakfast at 0730, and then did my watch (Pilot conning, I just did radio, log book and speed control) and then I was straight back down aft for the last two locks. I finally knocked off at 1420, absolutely knackered!

 

After some sleep I got up to the bridge at 1955 for watch and was told to bugger off for another half hour by the C/O, bless her. Watch this eve was fun- I finally got to play with traffic! I called the Captain once as I had an overtaking vessel had a CPA of 1.4, and he wants me to stay 2 miles from everything but he was happy that I was doing fine on my own and didn’t bother coming up. I’d waited until this guy was 4.5 miles behind me and then, as I had him on AIS, I called him up and asked what his intentions were (his original CPA was 0.1) from what he said to me I got the feeling that he’d only just noticed me. I get the impression that there are some muppets out there…

It was made more interesting by another vessel on a nearly reciprocal course to mine that I had expected to take some action, which they didn’t, (again with the muppetry) so by the time the overtaking vessel had cleared enough for me to be able to turn to starboard I did have to make a fairly big alteration (50 degrees) but I had enough time to do so without getting too close and by the time the 2/O came up on watch at 0000 I had us back on a course that would take us well clear of the other bits of traffic that could have become a problem.

 

Today was a sea day, but this morning’s watch was mostly taken up by training (Security, Environmental and Crowd management) so the C/O covered me while I did that (being trained, not training others). We were under sail only for most of it but by 1200 the wind had died completely and we had to put the engines on, first time I’ve properly seen her with sails out at 100% though, and Oh My does she look gorgeous! This evening’s watch was quieter, didn’t have to call the Captain, but he came up at 2200 anyway to see how we were doing – we were bimbling south, basically to kill some time and he decided that we would be best off turning 180 degrees and heading north again. I’d boomed out the sails to make best use of the wind (what little there was at that time) and so got to play with them again, and then as the watch went on the wind increased slightly so I took sail in, first to 50% then 30%. I love having sails, it makes life so much more interesting on watch 🙂 The nicest thing though is what the C/O said to me this evening – it’s only been 5 days, but I’ve settled in really well, and it feels like a long time since I joined. And it’s true, while on one hand I’m still very aware of my noobie status and I am super-keen to get things right, I already feel like this is home-from-home and that I have a place here that fits perfectly 🙂

 

Busy busy!

Well, it’s been a busy couple of days! Having been told to call the agent in the morning to find out what time the ship was arriving, I imagined I would get a good 8 hours sleep in the hotel. So I was fairly unimpressed to get a phone call at 0435 saying my taxi was waiting. I made coffee, threw my clothes on and my things back into my bags while gulping it down, got locked out of the room as I attempted to manoeuvre two large cases out of the door and eventually made it downstairs. The taxi ride was much longer than I had been led to think it would be the night before, and involved stopping off twice, each time the taxi driver got out with some pieces of paper, went off to do something with them and came back, all without a word, apart from asking me for my passport at the second stop. I began to feel more like a parcel than a person, I had no idea where I was going or what was going on around me, but at that point I simply had to trust that these people would get me to my destination! The last stop was at a rather small jetty, even in the dark I could see that there was no way that the vessel would fit alongside it, and sat, waiting for the next move, feeling confused. As dawn brightened the sky a man arrived, and I could over hear him talking to the Wind Star on the phone, I had no idea who he was, but at least I appeared to be in the right vicinity! Shortly after I was told, “Ok, we go now” and my bags and I were led down the jetty to a small boat. The realisation dawned then, I was joining the ship on the move, and I was wearing flip flops!

Luckily my trainers were at the top of my bag and while we chuntered out to the ship I changed footwear. It took about 25 minutes to reach her, as the boat approached the pilot ladder there was a bit of a swell, so it was a case of choosing one’s moment carefully. I asked if there were any lifejackets and the agent (as the man on the phone had turned out to be) smiled and simply said “No, not here I don’t think!” My bags went first and I was relieved to see them safely on board, and then it was my turn to find a moment when the movement between the two vessels was at a minimum. I scrambled up easily, but it was still a relief to be on board. I was met by the Purser, and there were forms to fill in and then I was taken to the bridge, where I was greeted by the Captain and C/O. We waved goodbye to the Senior 2nd officer as he left on another boat. He’d been waiting for a relief for a couple of weeks I am told, which explained the huge smile he had greeted me with as we passed at the pilot station. He has been relieved by the previous 3/O, who is now promoted to 2/O and I am taking over as 3/O. I must say it is comforting to know I have the guy who was doing my job around for a while, as there’s a hell of a lot to take in! Most handovers for new officers are done over a week, and while I am in one sense taking over immediately, he is going to be there for me to pick his brain for much longer.J

After going through the basics, the C/O’s first concern was how much sleep I’d had, and on hearing that I’d not slept for 24 hours and then only had about 5 hours kip in the hotel, she told me to go and rest up, sort myself out and be ready to start work at 8 that evening. I could have hugged her! My cabin is one deck below the bridge, on the same deck as the mess. I have three mirrors in the cabin, plus one in the bathroom, (why there are so many is baffling, I guess they want us to be aware of how we look so that we don’t look like scruffy baggages in front of the guests). I have a tv and dvd player, a fridge, lots of storage space, a double bunk and a porthole. Oh and wifi access too! (I am going to get through a lot of internet cards I think!) I unpacked and went and found uniform, saw the Doc (she stuck needles in me) and then meandered up to the bridge again, never having been through the Panama Canal before I wanted to see what was going on. We were in one lock, and about to go through the second, for which the C/O suggested I go down to the aft mooring deck to see how things worked. I will save lengthy descriptions of the process until I know a bit more about it all, but in fact, my job will simply involve talking to the bridge on the radio. After that, we went under a bridge and I then decided it would be a good idea to take the C/O’s hints (she started asking if I had actually slept yet) and go to bed.

I dozed for a few hours, but solid sleep evaded me, but I did feel refreshed when I got up for dinner. I had a wander around the ship just to see what was what, and then it was time to go to the bridge. I had the C/O with me for the first hour (she takes the 4-8 watch) and then the Captain for the next three. It turns out that he and I have several friends in common from the Tall Ships, he sailed as Captain with people that have in turn been my Captain, only he sailed with them when they were still bosuns mates and 2ndOfficers and Mates. I have promised to bore him silly with pictures of Pelican! Both he and the C/O are absolutely lovely and while I have no doubt that they would not take kindly to stupid behaviour (which I have No intention of starting!) they are very approachable and supportive and easy to talk to.

This morning I got up to the bridge for my anchor watch and was told to go straight down to the tender and go with the security officer to have a quick look around the island we would be tendering to. There are several islands, all tiny and all crammed with more wooden, palm thatched huts than you would think possible. The locals were all busily setting up displays of their wares, and I imagine that by the time our guests arrived on the island, the streets (if you can call them that) would be a riot of colour. Sadly I couldn’t linger and we returned to the Star. Anchor watch was quiet enough, and I managed to get a fair bit of reading done, there are many, many documents I must be familiarised with! After lunch and a wee lie down I went back up to do my two hours day work – more reading, indispersed with asking the 2/O many questions about how this and that was done and where to find the right forms on the computer system. I was still there when the C/O came up for her watch and was firmly told to go and get some rest!

This evening, I imagined things would go as they had done last night. The C/O asked how I was getting on with the familiarisation check lists, and I showed her what I’d got ticked off so far, she then asked me if I knew where various alarm panels were, what I’d do if this happened or that happened, how I’d call the Captain if he wasn’t in his cabin, and then ticked off a load more things and signed it off. At 2100 she went off saying she was going to call the Captain, who turned up about 15 minutes later, he hung about for about half an hour, we discussed the traffic situation (one cruise ship on my port side, passing about a mile and a half astern) he asked if I knew all the various ways I could get hold of him, told me to keep 2 miles away from any danger and to call him if in any doubt and then shook my hand and told me he was going to bed! I really hadn’t expected to be left to it that quickly, but I’m positive that they wouldn’t leave me if they had any worries. I told him that I am absolutely determined not to let him down and thanked him, several times I think! There was no traffic, and nothing going on, but of course, that couldn’t last! In the next 2 and ½ hours I had a fire alarm; (not an actual fire, just a lot of people smoking in the crew mess, but Dear God, when it went off I nearly had a heart attack! Sent the quartermaster to check it and reset it…) disposal of food waste, the incinerator, greys and blacks (lots of logging of times and positions of start and stop times); and then a vessel, on my port side, crossing 1.4 miles ahead. Which, frankly, seemed rude, like someone brushing past you when you’re in a wide open space. I spotted him from about 15 miles away, and watched and waited to see if he was going to give way, but when he got to 4 miles, and still hadn’t done any thing, I called the Captain. He came up, and we watched as this ship passed ahead of us, and then he thanked me for calling him and went back to his cabin.

All in all, I think this is going pretty well so far!

Greetings from Panama!

Well that’s resolution number 1 sorted 🙂 And it’s not just any job, it’s the job I’d been really hoping might show up. (Without seriously thinking that I’d be THAT lucky as to actually get it!) But here I am, in a hotel room on the 11th floor of the Crown Plaza in Panama City, contemplating the fact that I’m joining the Wind Star tomorrow morning as 3/O. That’s one of the sister ships to the Wind Surf, which, if you are a regular reader, you will know I spent 4 and 1/2 months on last year as a cadet.

I have, basically, landed my dream job (dream starter job anyway, I intend to progress up the ladder!) first time. I was very half hearted about job hunting for most of January, mainly because I had to wait 2 weeks to get my CoC back and I needed my CoC number to put on job applications. Once I had it though, I was able to finish filling out a couple of on-line applications, I then called my sponsor to ask about something banal and also got a contact name and number for one of the companies I’d just done the online application for. A few minutes later I had an interview with a recruitment agency lined up! They told me it that there was practically zero chance of anyone taking me on as a 3/O and the best I could hope for was a 4/O position to start with. (Everyone wants experience, but you seem to have to have experience in order to get experience…) And that once they’d interviewed me, if I passed muster, then I’d still have to wait around for an unknown period of time waiting for a position to actually open up.

The interview certainly seemed to go well, and they told me they’d let me know the final outcome in a couple of days. I did tell them, several times, that I had really enjoyed my time on the Surf and that I’d love to go back, and when I got home I dropped a line to a contact from the ship, asking if they might be able to put in a good word for me. Next morning I got the call asking me when I could start! They wanted me to join at the weekend, but that would have given me two days to sort everything out, and I’d got plans too, so I asked if I could possibly join mid-week instead, and here I am!

The journey here has been long and arduous, starting on Tues morning with a trip to the Docs for a company medical, then a stay in a hotel miles from the airport, two flights, the second of which was 10 and 3/4 hrs, but that’s not including the delay due to technical faults and refuelling etc. Think I spent about 12 hrs sat on that one! But I’m here now, and I can hardly keep my eyes open any more (Well I have been up for 24 hours!)

The fun starts tomorrow; I’ll keep you posted 🙂