Nov 2, 2005, 10:25 PM
Post #1 of 3
Ever wonder how all that crap Wal-mart sells from China got there? And how all that Mount Gay Rum got to your club? On a containership.
The other Pro Sailors
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I work as Chief Mate. This is how I got my first job as a containership Captain this fall:
While in San Juan we heard that New Orleans had been flooded during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The Captain was not sure of the condition of his home in Jefferson Parish and wanted to return with his wife, who had evacuated north. He stayed aboard to try to complete the upcoming ship’s payroll as we went up and back to Elizabeth, NJ.
Upon arriving back in San Juan on September 6th, the Captain realized he could get most of the payroll finished and be on a plane to Memphis that afternoon to meet his wife and drive down to New Orleans see their house. At 0430, as I came to the ship’s bridge at the pilot station on arrival off San Juan, he proposed that I take over the ship as Master that day, once he cleared it with our Vessel Superintendent.
Tropical Storm Ophelia had formed over the Bahamas and drifted off a bit to the west and was brewing into a category 1 hurricane over the Gulf Stream east of Cape Canaveral as we sailed from San Juan. The Captain had hurriedly filled me in on the latest quirks in the vessel’s computer network, 4 main servers and the Master’s computer, as well as all the payroll responsibilities of the Captain. I learned how to open the safe, counted all the money, signed for the controlled substances the Captain is in charge of, plus many other details.
We hired a relief chief mate out of the San Juan union hall for 4 days and I showed him the ropes on the Chief Mate computer when he boarded at 1100.
I arranged for a ride to the airport for the Captain by the Company van, helped him with his bags to the gangway and he was gone at 1300. I was to skipper the ship to Jacksonville.
The cargo operation finished about 2300 and we took aboard pilot, a previous shipmate, who smoothly got us out to the sea with the help of 2 tugs to push us around the sharp corner off the docks in San Juan. After he departed to his pilot boat, we set course 311 degrees and full sea speed of 21 knots for JAX, departing SJU at 0054 September 7th. I figured we would probably need every minute up our sleeve to allow for the upcoming weather.
I sent the ETA of 0400 on Friday September 9th at the pilot station off the St. John’s river by GMDSS Polestar as well as the USCG eNOAD email now required by law.
We had aboard a very light load of cargo and our GM was a huge 12+ feet, which means the ship is stiff as a church with an excess of stability.
All day Wednesday the weather was glorious; sunny with light easterly trade winds on the quarter. As we passed off the Turks & Caicos Islands, we began to get a short Northerly swell, probably generated by Hurricane Nate located south of Bermuda. I timed the ship’s roll period to be about 6 seconds which is extremely fast and creates an uncomfortable ride in the swell.
The Cargo office in Dallas sent me an email which stated that they did not expect to work cargo on us in JAX until Saturday, as now Hurricane Ophelia was predicted to slowly move north and block our progress to JAX as well create high winds in the port, curtailing the loading operation. This message let me know that the Company was well aware of the storm and that I would not be criticized if I had to slow down and miss our ETA Friday morning.
But Ophelia was still nearly stationary and was NOT moving off to the north as predicted but was still well south of our rumbline to JAX. I ordered the engineers to keep up full speed as we were still 40 minutes ahead of our ETA if we could get by Ophelia on its north side.
When we were abeam of “Hole in the Wall”, the Northwest Providence Channel in the Bahamas, I had a decision to make. The shelter of the channel was tempting as we had an uncomfortable day and night ahead of us, especially if Ophelia started to move north as predicted. We could go roughly due west through the channel and get south of the storm and follow it up the coast and be 12 hours or so late for our ETA.
I called the USCG in JAX direct by Globalstar satellite phone. They were not planning on closing the port of Jacksonville at that point, but told me the US Navy was sortieing the aircraft carrier Kennedy and her battle group to sea from Mayport, near JAX, that day.
I decided not to go through Hole in the Wall but to keep going direct to JAX at full speed and deal with whatever was in our path.
We held our required Fire & Boat drill Thursday morning but did not lower the boats to the embarkation deck as we normally would, due to the excessive motion. I did not want trouble with a davit at this point or to damage a lifeboat in the rolling conditions. I warned the crew to expect heavy weather and to secure the ship and their personal gear. The bosun and deck gang secured all the vents and lashed down the gear and lines on deck.
As Thursday progressed, we started to get a southwest wind and swell and could begin to see the impressive cloud tops ahead that were the fringes of Ophelia. I found my camera and took some photos. Eventually we got out of the lee of the Bahamas and the swell period lengthened and the height gradually increased, but the combination of the old swell from Nate in the North combined to knock down the new southwest swell a bit and the motion was controlled enough to allow continued full speed through out daylight on Thursday.
In the afternoon I spoke with the Vessel Super and told him I was still making my ETA but might have to slow down if it got too rough during the evening, but that I was going to continue to come to JAX ASAP. He said that they had ordered 3 gangs of longshore labor to begin work at 0800, instead of the usual 0700 because of my statement that I might have to slow down during the night. This gave me an extra hour up my sleeve.
I also called the bunker fuel company as we were stemmed for 10,500 barrels of bunker C on arrival in JAX. They wanted a heads up call if we were to be late.
As it got dark Thursday the southwesterly began to increase gradually to 50 knots and more, beginning to blow the tops off the whitecaps. The barograph entered a steep decline which quickly became a cliff, eventually bottoming out at 991 millibars. The weather reports declared the central pressure of Ophelia to be 985 mbs and the hurricane’s eye diameter was 20 miles wide that day, so we were never in the eye but I calculated we were within 30 miles of the center and hence probably 10 miles from the eyewall. We crossed paths with only one other ship, a southbound tanker making heavy weather of it.
Thursday after steak dinner we entered squalls with heavy rain blowing in sheets with visibility reduced to a few miles at times. We began to roll more as the seas increased. A crewmember phoned me on the bridge to complain that the Thursday night NFL game was not on the Satellite TV, so I ran down to the radio shack and lined up one of our 16 Direct TV boxes to an ABC network station to provide the evenings entertainment as we all held on tight in the snap rolling.
By 2000 we were in a storm and the wind began to back to the south. This ship rolls her worst with seas on the quarter and we took a few heavy rolls. These prompted me to change course briefly to 270 degrees to quell the roll, actually heading closer to the center of the storm briefly, but I was eventually able to come back to 290 degrees to try to keep headed towards JAX as much as possible. We were still rolling heavily but not dangerously as the wind kept backing to the southeast. I kept up full speed because I did not want the ship to wallow in the swells and I wanted to get through the worst of it as quickly as possible. The ship never pounded, only the rolling was a problem. We only had 2 high tiers of mostly empty containers on deck, well lashed so the cargo was not in danger.
As the hurricane eye came aaft to our port beam, and the wind became easterly from astern making it feel like it was calming down a bit, I jibed the ship to starboard to heading 320 degrees to shift the seas from the port beam to the starboard beam. Now we were in the center of the Gulf Stream current with steady 70 knot winds, gusting to a peak of 101 knots on our recording anemometer, with 20 foot confused seas in heavy rain, rocketing up the Gulf Stream at 23+ knots on the fringes of a hurricane. Great stuff!
Spray was flying in great sheets as the waves hit the starboard side and were launched by the ship’s bow. The noise of the wind was screeching and howling. The rain and spray crashed into the wheelhouse glass. At one point the ship rolled into a big trough and we took a severe roll to port which tipped over the potted plants in the wheelhouse, spreading dirt on the starboard side. I immediately altered course to 340 to try to limit the rolling.
At this speed we raced away from the nearly stationary eye of Ophelia and by 2300 the winds were down to 50-60 and the seas were 15 feet. I changed course directly to JAX, ordered the 3rd Mate to decrease speed to 95rpms at midnight as we were still 20 minutes ahead of schedule.
I then went below to phone the pilot station to make sure they would take us in on arrival, confirming our 0400 ETA. They said they would and I turned in for a 2 hour nap in preparation for arrival on time at 0400, with orders for the watch to call me if conditions changed.
I awoke at 0200 and found were right on time for our arrival, but it was still blowing 40 knots from the east with 10 foot seas as the pilot boat slowly made its way out to meet us. The pilot was a classmate of mine from Kings Point, who had a heck of a time getting from the pilot boat to our pilot ladder despite the lee I had made by altering course toward the beach. He made it across ok and on entering the wheelhouse congratulated me on my first Master gig and listened to my tale of how we got there on time and in one piece.
Up the river we went, turning around with the help of 2 tugs and were tied up and FWE by 0612.
During the cargo meeting with the vessel planner I learned that they had not expected us to make it Friday and were very surprised to see us alongside the pier when they arrived at work that morning.
By making the ETA, we saved our Company untold thousands of dollars and many headaches as our tight schedule would not have allowed us to make up much lost time. Wal-mart and all the food stores in the Caribbean would quickly have run into shortages of fresh food, such as eggs and vegetables on the shelves. We carry 150 to 170 refrigerated containers weighing 50,000 pounds each of food and pharmaceuticals a week southbound, nearly 700 boxes of all types per week and our opposite ship carries a similar weekly load.
I took a calculated risk when I plotted the actual positions of Ophelia and realized it was not moving as predicted, barely moving at all. We kept coming at 21 knots and it stayed put, allowing us to skirt the fringes and get in to JAX on time.
While we were docked in JAX on Friday, the storm picked up and moved north so that when we sailed from JAX at 2048 Friday night loaded with over 11,000 tons of cargo, we passed well south and felt few effects from Ophelia other than some left over swell. I was glad it had not made this move 24 hours earlier or it would have blocked my sprint to JAX and made the move through the Hole in the wall the better call.
Next time you enjoy a Mount Gay, consider how it got to you from Barbados.