June 05, 2009

Cowboys and Indians

For many years starting the end of the eighties, I sailed on ships that typically had a total complement of seven. A Chief Officer and two GPs on deck, a Chief Engineer and one fitter in the Engine Room, a cook, and a Master. That was it.

No, this was not a coastal ship tying up every night. Although the longest passage I made was from Malaysia to Suriname and then Trinidad (my very own Kon Tiki expedition with a hurricane thrown in, a story for another place and time perhaps), usual voyages were not longer than three or four days, and the average passage may have been less than twenty four hours. In addition, again on an average, we often touched two ports, or two terminals, every day. Busy.

These were ocean going ships. Typically around a hundred metres or a little more in length, with elaborate and specialised cargo gear and a fair amount of other equipment I have not seen before or since on normal ships, all of us were run ragged throughout the contract. Bow doors, side doors, car decks, forklifts and assorted gear had to be maintained; these were aging beauties. Small aging beauties, admittedly, but not all that small.

Did I mention that Singapore was our homeport, which we called around once a week? And had pilotage and tug exemption there, which meant the Master used to berth, anchor and shift berth without tugs or pilots? Almost all the Masters did that; the few new ones that joined got a little time to get used to it, also because the port did not give them pilotage exemption straight off.

Six on six off for the Master and Chief Officer from the instant they stepped on board to signing off. In addition to maneuvering and other work, of course. For those who wonder how we did what, a typical arrival or departure stations scenario in Singapore: Master alone on the bridge (including at the wheel), no pilot or tugs, Chief Officer and cook on forward stations (the cook sometimes running indoors for a few seconds to stir the gravy was quite common; fortunately for him the ships had forward accommodation), two GP’s on aft stations, and the Chief Engineer and fitter in the Engine room. In case of problems in the Engine Room, whoever was momentarily free would land up there to help. We did not have the luxury of job descriptions and set responsibilities.

Meanwhile, the Master, the sole person on the bridge, was steering, keeping lookout, ship handling, checking positions, operating the thruster and main engines (bridge controlled), communicating with forward and aft, communicating with Port Control, berthing or unberthing and doing a zillion other things that three people on the bridge would find stressful under normal circumstances. Not to talk of mobile phones ringing with everybody demanding immediate satisfaction, as is irritatingly common these days.

You thought all this is crazy enough? So did I. Then I did two stints on an oceangoing tug and specialised barge combination (with a complement of around ten) which blew me away.

The tug was around 35 metres long, the barge around 130. In the open sea, the length of the tow was around 200 metres, making your effective length almost 400 metres at times.

To make port or even in very narrow rivers, the tug had to be maneuvered and tied up, often in strong current, port side alongside the barge, making it a composite unit. After that, a cable had to be connected from the tug bridge to the roof of the barge, which was essentially an inverted V. The barge looked just like a floating warehouse (I had another more derogatory term for it, one that rhymes with warehouse and involves women of easy virtue).

Anyway, after cabling up, the Master transferred himself from the tug to the roof of the barge, under a small makeshift shelter right on the starboard side. He took a pre emptor leak beforehand, because the barge roof had no such esoteric facility. On his port side under the shelter, he had about 30 metres of the width of the barge and then the tug width since she was tied up alongside. He then operated the two thrusters on the barge, the two engines on the tug and the helm on the tug from this location, bringing the unit alongside the berth from sometimes as far as six miles away. As an indication, I have done this on innumerable occasions all the way from Singapore pilot boarding ground to the berth, besides others. Pilots, when available, usually had coffee on the tug meanwhile, though a few did land up on the roof in shock and awe. Because, you see, while on the roof of the barge, the Master had no charts, no compass, no radar or other instruments besides binoculars. (The Chief Engineer stayed on the bridge of the tug to give clearances and communicate with the port on VHF). Besides, steering was a bummer, because the tug and the propellers were offset to the extreme port of the contraption. The thrusters on the barge actually did the steering and compensating for this absurdity.

Maneuvering the tug alongside the barge, in areas like the Singapore and Malacca Straits involved a similar exercise, only this time we went up about ten metres above the tug bridge onto a platform on the mast, and operated everything from there, including the towing winch, an independent engine. Unfortunately, we did this facing aft, which used to confuse the basics of port and starboard right out of me and tended to play havoc with dubious ship handling skills. (In Vietnam, a brave pilot who came up with me on this narrow platform got seasick within the port limits, and disembarked without waiting for his complimentary smokes)

We went towing up 200 miles of uncharted river in Indonesia in this contraption. We tied up to trees at night (one tree broke once, and I was woken up by a frantic foghorn in the middle of the night since a small vessel couldn’t pass us as we were right across the river in the strongish current). Once the barge hit virgin branches of trees overhanging the river, and snakes rained down on it. True phantom country. We had a great time.

There was remarkably low attrition in this firm, by the way, though many understandably did not want the tug and barge combination on their resume. Most officers and crew stayed on for years. I now wonder why we did so, and this is why I think why.

First of all, there were compensations. Short contracts. Decent wages. Good treatment. A close knit family feeling. Minimum paperwork and administration: storing required a phone call to the Superintendent or the shipchandler, the phone being handed over to the cook to dictate his requirements directly to the chandler. Excellent bosses who appreciated what we did. No ISM, though towards the end it was threatening to ruin our way of life, and it eventually did do so. Extremely low tolerance for non performers on board. The fact that all non essential peripherals were discarded, and core work related to safety and operations was concentrated upon. The fact that going back on board was like going from one home to another: with the low attrition, all of us sailed with each other many times. We knew each other. We did each other’s jobs: a Master helping in the engine room or operating or repairing a forklift was not uncommon. Many of us still keep in touch. Many respect each other, regardless of rank.

Then there was job satisfaction. I learnt more about shiphandling in a couple of tenures there than I did in ten years of sailing on normal ships, partly because of the extreme manning and partly because of pilotage and tug exemptions. We took pride in the desperate multitasking required by a Master and everybody else, under the circumstances, just to bring the ship alongside. There was the satisfaction of doing a job under extreme conditions. Never again have I been wary of shiphandling; I have taken over from the pilot without much thought when I have felt he was less than competent a few times since. I am sure I would have been more hesitant but for my experiences.

Did we follow all the rules religiously? Of course not. Were we cowboys? To an extent, yes. Could we operate the same way in today’s atmosphere of ISM, checklists, non conformity reports and a plethora of other stuff that threaten to make bureaucrats out of seamen? Of course not. Do I think we operated safely enough? Yes. Would I have liked a few more men on board and a little more safety? Yes.

Do I miss it? Hell, yes. Much like a cowboy misses the Wild West. It was fun in a way that sailing today can never be.