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