It's been 18 long, miserable days at sea. I've got the shakes so bad I can't even hold a drink. I need some dirt, man. I need to feel the land. As usual, the shipping business is a comedy of floating (hopefully) errors. Just when you think the whole mess is wavy, day-to-day drudgery, all hell breaks loose.
As we pulled out of Genoa, the captain didn't know the weight of the cargo. This constitutes the draft of the ship, which you will see is a major consideration in ports. The draft differs depending on the weight of the cargo. The more weight, the more draft, the deeper the ship sits in the water, depending on the viscosity of the water. The man who was supposed to know the answer, the chief officer, had a stack of invoices to dig through.
We steamed that night through the straits of Messina between the island of Sicily and the point of the Italian Peninsula. The channel is so narrow that you are required to have a pilot on board if your ship is over15,000 metric tons. We were weighing in at the 30,000-ton range. It was nightfall but I staggered up to the bridge to check the action. Even after midnight, a multitude of water taxis and ferries blasted back and forth across the channel.
Let me flash ahead because we covered the Suez Canal, the Red Sea and who knows what else. The salt spray isn't cocaine but I'm writing about opium and don't have anything to snort besides salt air. It's getting to me. You're going to love this: While in the Suez, someone mentioned that the Rickmers Company sent a box of movies to the ship in Egypt, a Muslim nation. Seems the top 20 were porno or adult films. Needless to say, customs did not allow them on the ship. We are scheduled to receive them here in Singapore.
While we were discussing the movie fuck-up, the captain mentioned how strict the people of Singapore are. If you spit on the sidewalk, the fine is $100. He also mentioned how the fueling people try to cheat the ships. They pump almost 1,000 metric tons of fuel in the Bibi (the Leon's sister ship) that was 16 percent sea water. It's in court now. Some ships have testers that take drops of the fuel as it is loaded into three bottles, one for the ship, one for the fuel company and one for the lab. In the past, the crooks would ask the chief engineer how much less fuel he wanted. They paid him under the table for the rest. Then they would put water in the fuel because they knew the engineer would keep his mouth shut. Capacity on a ship this size is 1,300 metric tons of fuel oil and 300 tons of diesel fuel.
On Monday I saw the captain on the bridge, his young face buried in his hands. Jakarta was calling, wanting to know when we would get there. He doesn't know and can't know. He doesn't have any idea of the cargo being loaded on the ship. He knows that some cargo will be discharged and some shifted but that all depends on what?s being loaded and he doesn't know. It is out of his control.
I tell some wild ass stories that give the impression that we're lucky we aren't floating in a sinking life raft off the coast of China. Maybe we will be. We manage to get from day to day with decent food and watch as the corroded ship's conditions improve. The sordid stories continue, though.
Here's a positive one: The Saturday of the 26th we had an engine room fire drill that consisted of donning fire suits, locking down the engine room and releasing a gas within it. The crew went through the motions, but couldn't shut down the exterior vents from the engine room due to rust and deterioration. I've seen chunks of mild steel a half-inch thick that are so corroded that they look like a chunk of wood left in the desert. The grain of the metal is exposed and separated from the other grains so that the layers peel away from one another, until there is nothing of any strength left.
These vents are 5 feet tall and 4 feet wide and louvered with a lever that runs down the center from flap to flap to shut off the escaping air. One of the vents was shot, so the handyman, Kuriata Andrizej, went to work. He set up scaffolding off to the side of the vent and there was a platform in front. He cut the old sonuvabitch off and fabricated a new one. I thought this guy was cool, but not a rocket scientist, or a JesseJames fabricator, until I saw this project finished. I watched as the crew set up a series of hoists to lift the new vent back into place where it took him two days to finish welding the damn thing into place. I was impressed.
OK, so now that I mentioned something upbeat about the crew and their abilities to refit a rusted vent, I can get back to the bullshit. A few days out of Singapore the captain had to get the paperwork together. He discovered that if we go ashore as the strange citizens that we are, we would be forced to endure a series of interviews by customs people at their offices. Bad news, so we are now consultants and members of the crew hired by Rickmers to write a book. This is actually not far off. I am writing a book. But does a book about a biker chasing his kidnapped girl have anything to do with Rickmers?
All right so last night was the final pirate watch before arriving in Singapore. We had entered the Strait of Malacca between Malay Peninsula and Sumatra. Yesterday we had another pirate alarm drill (general alarm). In this area the threats were even greater than Somalia, so the captain pulled out the stops and taught his crew how to use anything that would shoot from line rockets to flairs. Old rusted spotlights were mounted on the bridge. Extra spots were mounted on the bow and all the firehoses were hooked up and laid along the decks.
I broke out my 1-foot blade sheath knife and prepared for the worse. At midnight I was on the bridge with the crew. We were watching out as the Leon and a number of other vessels crept through the straits. The moon was full and it must have been almost 80 degrees. The skies were perfectly clear as we motored along with the flicker of lights occasionally visible on the coast. The night was incredible and we could have seen pirates from a distance as I stood dressed in all black with by blade on my belt and three, 200-meter flairs jammed into my waist band. Nothing happened.
I awoke at 7 a.m. and felt the sun beating in the portholes. It was a magnificent day as we steamed toward the tip of Malay into Singapore. I was on the bridge as the harbor pilot came on board. He was a short man who wore a pharmacist?s-style white coat, black pants and deck shoes. He wore gloves as he got on board and made his way to the bridge six decks up. He had a round face and almost black hair. His age was showing in flecks of gray. I found out later as I watched him pull a handkerchief and clean his bifocals that he was retiring that night. It was his last night on the job so he was particularly detail oriented. He wanted nothing to go wrong.
That's where the fun began. There is a buoy that ships must pull near in order to receive a pilot. The buoy was across the channel and since another ship was coming, the captain passed over the channel and continued to wait for the pilot, since he didn't arrive on time. When the pilot entered the bridge, the captain attempted to shake his hand and welcome him on board but the pilot quickly shrugged off his greeting and abruptly instructed him to stop the ship immediately, back up and use his bow thruster to turn the ship to the starboard. Seems he was on the brink, according to the pilot, of running aground.
You have to keep in mind as you picture the captain attempting to back up a 30,000-ton vessel, that no ships moving along at 14 knots do anything on a dime. It?s a tough job that happens at a snail's pace. The bridge went into red alert while the pilot explained to the captain that he should never cross the channel until the pilot has arrived. If you look at a map you will see that this is one of the few high traffic areas on the globe for ships. There were more than 42 ships surrounding us as we entered the port. Tankers are running back and forth to Saudi Arabia. All the ships from Japan heading to Europe pass through these straits heading west. It's a goddamn traffic jam.
So the captain backed the ship down, threw the bow thruster into gear and lined us up with a couple of buoys leading us into the harbor. Is that all there is? Hell no. First the captain hands over the paper work to the pilot who wasn't pleased with it and made them change it, but the key fuck-up is next. A Telex was sent to the agent in Singapore several days ago with the cargo figured out and the draft of the ship listed at 9.9 meters, or about 10 yards. He was sent a similar Telex three more times before entering port.
The agent contacted the docking people and made arrangements for the parking spot. During the translation of the materials, the draft number was changed to 9 meters. The docking people set them up with a 9.5-meter spot and the agent would not allow the captain to pull into his docking area, but forced him to anchor 300 yards off the docks until appropriate arrangements could be made. That's where we sit. Welcome to Singapore.
On to Part 11
Back to Part 9