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Thursday, 29 December 2011

Welcome to 2012-Typical voyage on a VLCC PG-US

I have many batchmates who are Masters on huge ships, called ULCCs and VLCCs, what I like about all of them is their solid and stolid and stoic approach to all matters in life, especially maritime. Since I have known all of them from another era when they were like the rest of us carefree and footloose and fancy-free and more, it is not easy to get them to really unwind, but here's the result of an evening with one of them, currently on leave, but likely to rejoin early to mid January somewhere in Suez Southbound.

Off the flight, cooped up in cattle class on a heavily discounted ticket, tired and functioning off chemicals masquerading as coffee, dopamines racing ahead thanks to garbage fast food en route, dumped on a deserted wharf with other joining crew by a taxi driver eager to get back and make some real money, you are looking back at 30-odd years in command - even as a cadet in the ownership company you apprenticed with, things were better, when compared to this management company cut cost phenomena. As a Master, you carry your own bags on taxi, off taxi, onto boat, off boat, onboard into the Owner's or Pilot's cabin, if spare, and then run a rapid take-over. Even before you get used to the ship and the people onboard, you are in the heavy traffic in the Gulf of Suez, so you slow down since you have to pick the armed guards up from a pre-determind spot in the Red Sea, and you don't want too many ships messing around at that time.

The guards onboard are not really legit, and they know they have you by the short hairs, so even before you start, you have a problem - besides, you have been told that the crew already thinks that their lives and safety at sea depend more on the guards that on you, so now you have authority issue also.

When you pick the guards up, you discover that they have not been given training in being politically correct with officers and crew of a different Nationality, so there is, right away, a muster. This leaves a fair bit of muttering on all decks and a naked display of muscle power on the main cargo deck as part of their practice and to be on the safe side we go onto strict zero alcohol policy which leaves more people locking themselves up in their cabins.

Then you cross Bab el Mandir, and give the guards a short lecture on history as well as facts of life, while asking them to stay wide awake and wary as intelligence reports have just come in about some activity. They show you the reports they have received on their sat phones, which are way ahead of yours, and more precise. Go back to cabin. There is terror in everybody's eyes at this juncture in the Gulf of Aden area. Everybody knows that the razor wire has been lashed on to the railings, by plastic jubilee clips, ordered by a stores department who has seen too many American movies on Desert Rose.

Speak with Chief Engineer. Orders for next loading have still not come. Slow steaming is required. Low sulphur fuel adds to the risk of a temporary engine stoppage, no chance, hang around steaming at slow speed in the Arabian Sea, hopefully high freeboard and copy of BMP4 + SSO certificate will be enough, soon enough Chief Engineer insists that we need to stop for 12-24 hours, full dead. Sigh. Guards now even more cocky.

Enter PG, remember '80s, when we were not sure who was shooting at us with torpedoes and why. For some time, think about painting INDIA in huge letters on the ship-side, but change yourmind when the guards speak about Pakistani activities vis-a-vis Indians, which is the safe flag now, Lucerne? Edge up Hormuz with caution, and spot what just might be periscopes loitering around, read up notice on magnetic mines from mini subs and wonder what double hull does in such cases? Every twig and piece of driftwood or log afloat or packing case thrown overboard is a nuclear sub underneath.

Sail through the huge assortment of oil industry installations and traffic. VHF has become a zoo of ek do teen char balot balot pasok kabayan ella ella miakute and also songs, noises from animal farm and in the middle some ship is always getting a rocket from pilot. Somehow reach the terminal and then manouvering for 8 hours because, well, because the pilot did not get a hot breakfast, with only one GS, who gets hot fresh cooked food anymore? Get the ship ready to load. Many people have not slept for 48 hours. Fudge Rest Hours and enter Chief Engineer or Master in all the blank spaces. Guards are eating three times their entitlement, galley is in uproar, and two of the guards are now sun-bathing in the nude, offending sensibilities, luckily no ladies onboard.

Finish loading. Received stores which have come onboard with almost 2 tonnes of plastic wrapping. Departure formalities. We have used 4 reams of paper and the one you are not a Master, you are a photo-copying assistant, your 18k dollar salary is being utilised to perform a 8k rupees job, your fingers have gone black from playing with toner ink. Pilot enters into heavy discussion and allegations on why minorities are not treated properly in India, you want to try to tell him that they aren't doing too well in their country with minorities, he tells you they are a monarchy holy land and therefore exempted. You feel like kicking him, but you do not hit men in the nuts if they are wearing skirts, instead you just want to get out of there.

The threat of more torpedoes on the way out are how to de-stress. Latest reports indicate that there are 3 Israeli submarines inside the PG, and also Iranian, North Korean, Umrikan, Russian and the rest of them. And the Japanese have started selling arms and ammo again - after WW-II.

Sail out, inspectors, vetting, pilot, customs, Port State, Flag State, tug vaala, no shore leave, no sleep, and worst of all, the cook is sulking so we get corn in everything - including the desserts and the pickle. Tanker is really low in the water, given half a chance the owners will remove the Plimsoll Line also, but the bigger worry is you still do not know whose torpedo is doing target practice on you right now. It would have been good to have a radio officer, they used to be from the Indian Navy in the old days, and had re-assuring tales of how these torpedos were often duds.

Next worry is pirates. Every fishing boat looks like one. All ships are sailing with AIS off. Bo'sun is sent up as crew rep to ask why ship can't go sail closer to the coast. Bo'sun is old friend from previous ships. You tell Bo'sun to distribute canvas to crew to resolve matters, as old days type solution, Bo'sun says there is no canvas on ship. Extra ice-cream won't do it either. What to do? Double ration of weekly issue of Camay Soap.

Now you are in full-too piracy area. Some crew members want to sleep in citadel. (Next part is censored for operational reasons till guards are off-loaded at point xxyy North in Red Sea).

You have to now do the pipeline dance. Discharge some oil in the pipeline, race North to Med through Suez, re-load the oil. Suez song and game and boat and light and 4 pilots plus 4 trainee pilots plus all sorts of helpers and boatmen. They all want to eat every 2 hours. Sounding pipe covers gone again. Somehow, load oil back at the other end? How do you know it is the same oil? You do not. This is called blending. Iran Egypt Saudi all oil same same, never mind sanctions, multi point fuel injection no can tell.

Once again, no sleep for 72 hours, in addition, same old nonsense of getting off the ship the Suez light man-handling, bumboat guys onboard now make goodbye with bags bulging so secure anything loose, and bump your way out the canal and four pilots.

(To be Continued)

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