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.

Fishing Vessels…… Grrrrrr!

The last couple of nights have been made fun by tiny little fishing vessels: in short, I hate them. They do not show up on radar easily, nor do they show the lights I have been taught to recognise. I had been told that the flashing lights (LED strobe types) were just fishing buoys and not to worry too much about them. However, last night I had what I thought was a fishing buoy coming down my stbd side, as it began to pass, it suddenly turned on it’s main light, we put the search light on it, and there was a tiny little boat, only a few meters long (if that), about 100m from me. The gits. Thankfully, this was just as I had handed over the watch to the 2/O, so he had the fun of playing dodgems with the other lights that were coming up! Still, it scared the cr@p out of me, and from now on I will be treating every flashing light as a boat!

This evening, more fishing vessels, we left Porta Caldera at 2000hrs and there were a bunch of them hanging about, thankfully the Captain was still on the bridge and gently coached me on how to dodge between them, rather than make a massive deviation around them all. Later though, after he’d gone to bed I had 4 more, all of whom appeared to be charging toward my planned course, so I ended up going 4 miles to stbd off track, away from the land, to skirt them.Once they were clear, I made a course toward the next waypoint, but then there were more, but on my port side, so I headed back to track, which took me clear again. Of course, another one popped up (on Radar first this time) right on my head… By the time I had cleared the closer ones I would be able to alter again to onto more or less our planned course and avoid the next lot, but it was handover time too, so I left it in the very capable hands of the 2/O. He’ll probably let them come closer than I would, but at the moment, I’d much rather give them all a very wide berth, especially as they keep altering their course and speed, it’s like avoiding a swarm of flies!!

In other news, life has mostly been taken up by paperwork, training and inspections. Despite the glamourous picture I may paint by posting photos like the one in my last blog entry, that is actually not the norm. I’ve been off the vessel once, twice if you count the half hour I got at San Blas with the Security Supervisor on my first morning. I decided not to do my lifeboat inventory in the heat of the midday sun (so far, the thermometer has registered as high as 44 degrees Celsius in full sunlight… I don’t want heatstroke!) So when I have outside jobs I’ve decided to chill after watch until 3 or 4 in the afternoon and then do a couple of hours work before watch at 8pm. Most of my free time is spent sleeping or just chilling (literally) in my cabin, it has TV and wifi access and is deliciously air-conditioned, after being outside it feels like walking into a fridge!

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!

The beginning of the end

I finished my last trip yesterday, it was only a 4 day trip, but my last as a cadet, and I suddenly find myself facing the prospect of returning to college for the last time.Where did the last three years go? I wonder, have I learnt enough? Will I crumble into a small heap of nerves as I step into that exam room? I am I good enough?

If you read my appraisals, you would probably say yes, phrases such as “Will make a fine officer” “Is welcome back any time” “Has demonstrated a solid understanding of the rules in busy traffic” are but a few of the kind things my training officers and Captains have written, but I can’t help but think… Are they just being nice?? My father says of course not, they wouldn’t say it if they didn’t mean it, but he’s my Dad, and a proud father, and therefore unlikely to say anything otherwise. I know he’s probably right, but I still have this deep down gnawing fear…

The last month or two has been interesting, for a variety of reasons. My last trip on the Balmoral was supposed to be my last trip, but as I had only gained 6 hrs watchkeeping hours per day on the Adventurer I needed 32 hours more bridge watchkeeping time, I had asked my sponsors about this a while ago and they’d said “Ohhh it’s fine” and then phoned up a few days ago and said, “Oh, um, it’s probably not fine”. They did find me ship though, and a great little ship it was too; Huelin Dispatch sails out of Southampton three times a week, taking general cargo to the Channel Islands, the crew totals nine and there’s no uniform, no calling people Sir, no EDCIS, no ARPA…. it was wonderful, and totally, utterly opposite in every respect to the Balmoral. In the space of 4 days I felt first welcomed, then accepted and valued, and without any wish to sound nauseatingly gushy, it felt like I was part of the family. I wish I’d had the chance to sail on her for longer, navigating without the course laid out on the Radar or AIS cluttering up the screen made watches interesting cos I had to actually think about things, the cargo stayed where it was put, it didn’t ask me anything and it didn’t complain when the weather made life a little lumpy. And when I say lumpy I mean, in a force 7 the ship was moving so much that I started to get a headache and feel that tea rather than coffee was necessary (which is about as close to being seasick as I get), and I couldn’t sleep, which means it’s seriously lumpy. But how devine to actually feel like I was on a ship, rather than having stabilizers take all the fun out of it.

You may have gathered from this that I liked the Dispatch (Pictures are here) , almost as much as I disliked the Balmoral (Pictures are here). I would like to point out that the officers were all perfectly nice to me on there, but I always felt like a spare part, and as for other things…. I’m not going to go into detail about them here, as I think they’ve gotten themselves into a big enough hole as it is, but as I said to the MCA inspector on the day I left, most of what I learnt on there was what not to do. As I said, it’s been interesting….

So with all these experiences under my belt, and the lessons therein tucked firmly into my brain, am I ready? I guess I’ll never feel 100% ready, 100% confident, and will always wish I could have just a bit more time. But on the other hand, I’m looking forward to having my own watch, looking forward to the leave periods, looking forward to the pay,  looking forward to the opportunity to choose the ship I work on, especially as that ship might be a Tall Ship.