Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Twist Lock

So, twist locks, eh? They're fun. Oh wait. NO THEY'RE NOT.

The ship had a load of inventory to get done today, so Ian and I were taken off our respective watches and both worked the whole day with the bosun and the ABs. Our first task - to count all of the twist locks we had in stores. For those who don't know, a twist lock is a contraption that secures containers onto the deck (or onto the spreaders, which manoeuvre them in port, or onto whatever else you like) by way of a couple of different pieces of metal, one of which twists when in place. There are a few different types - the ones we have on board are semi automatic (which twist by themselves but still need a cord to be pulled to be fully locked) and hanging locks, which... oh, this explanation is boring me already. You can guess how hanging locks work.

Anyway, so throwing hundreds and hundreds of heavy bits of metal around wooden bins for a few hours wasn't really my ideal way to start the day. We were under the fo'c'sle, which is the front top part of the deck, and so could really feel all the pitching and rolling in this mental ocean. Add heat and tiredness to that (had a really bad dream last night) and you've got the start of what I suspected to be seasickness. I felt faint and dizzy, and from the looks of him Ian felt the same, but the ABs assured us that all we needed to do was rest more. We worked too fast, they said. If we did all the work before morning coffee we'd have nothing to do this afternoon! So we slowed down a bit, brought some kind of power fan contraption down to where we were working, and spent the rest of the morning in pleasant (well, cooler) conditions. This afternoon we counted all the fallen and spare locks around the deck and the containers, and then practised our knot tying, which apparently we had both completely forgotten. We were shown how to cut rope using a hammer, which was cool.

Days like this are completely expected and actually provide a welcome relief from mathematical navigation. You realise how hard the crew work and the physical activity cheers you up, although at the same time wears you out so you end up sitting in silence for a while afterwards examining your blisters and bruises. I think I might try to watch a movie from the ship's library later to unwind. Back on watch in the morning, and we hit Durban the next day!

Monday, 30 January 2012

Rolling In The Deep

Ahh, day off... well, sort of. I have the afternoon off deck work, which means a day without boilersuits, sweating, iron ladders, helmet marks on the forehead... but instead I have a load of calculations and diagrams to do for my navigational workbook.  P and I decided to make 8-10 each watch teaching/studying time (and then 10-12 for learning actual bridge work), and today was celestial navigation - we haven't even touched on that in college yet so it's fascinating. I think I've understood the basics and have some good ideas and projects to enter into the workbook

The captain invited me to observe a meeting of the ship's Safety Committee which was also interesting, finding out how problems were resolved and what the day to day issues are. The main thing I got from it was that they were hardly ever all in agreement but always managed to find a good compromise! We've been told we have to be extra vigilant around the area that we're going into, so there's going to be an extra AB on watch for additional lookout duties.

Something I immediately noticed upon leaving Port Louis was that instead of pitching (in layman's terms the ship's bow dipping up and down), the swell of the ocean is making us roll (ie from side to side). I thought this was the bit where I'd get seasick but for some reason I find the motion really comforting. The incline of a ship is measured by the clinometer, which today said 5 degrees to port and then 3 to starboard - this worried me until I realised that the meter wasn't exactly in the centre! If it actually had been inclining more on one side, this would be due to an angle of list - which basically means that the cargo on the ship is stored unevenly and isn't exactly safe.

Anyway, now that two rows of containers have been removed from in front of my cabin, I can actually see the ocean so I'm going back down to enjoy my view while I study. Clocks go back again tonight so we're going from +4 to +3, and then the following night we go to +2 in preparation for Durban. Extra sleep two nights in a row!

Sunday, 29 January 2012


We've just left Mauritius. We were so quick that I was greeted this morning at the start of my cargo watch by a sign by the gangway saying that nobody was allowed shore leave! Operations finished at lunchtime ish, we had a stowaway search, the pilot came on board and from then it was the reverse procedure for getting into port. Instead of Ian and I swapping roles so that I was down on the deck with the winches and ropes and he was on the bridge, I was told to put on my uniform and go up to the bridge - so I guess we'll swap around for getting both in and out of port next time.

I've never seen a tug boat in action in the daylight before! When we came in it was dark so all I could make out from the bridge were the lights. Watching them in all their detail was really fascinating - definitely a job to consider if I wanted to stay in one place! They approach the ship and attach themselves using heavy lines (I have yet to see this from the deck point of view but the third officer explained how it all worked so now I want to get down there to see for myself!) then, as the name suggests, tug the ship gently out of its berth and towards the right course. On the starboard side, where we'd been tied alongside, two more tugs came and  nudged us out using the fenders on their bows. They looked, to use a completely unprofessional analogy, like tiny mice from a Disney movie - am I thinking of Cinderella or something? - pushing and pulling a big lumbering person around. Maybe Gulliver is a more appropriate comparison. As before, I thought the tugs looked tiny, then saw someone aboard one come to rescue a fender that was hanging off and realised it was actually the size of my house.

Something else I've done today is more cargo watch, including checking all the lashings for the containers that were loaded. This involves climbing up to and walking along lashing bridges, which are tiny little walkways between each row of containers. The bridges themselves are stable enough but sometimes the stevedores (guys employed by the port to do the container manoeuvring) leave metal lashing bars along them so it feels like playing hopscotch in midair! I walked all the way along the second level towards port, which faced out to sea, and it seemed like I was walking the plank. Then up in the bridge later I realised how comparitively low down that second level is - our containers are 8'6" tall and wide (20', 40' or 45' long) and above deck they're stacked pretty high, with max sixteen across. There are thirty something rows of them from fore to aft. Yes, I am indeed on an enormous ship.

Sundays are supposed to be a day off watch for us cadets so we can study, but obviously that can't be applicable in port (real officers do cargo watch for 6 hours on and 6 off, instead of bridge watch which is 4 on and 8 off. Exhausting especially in this heat!). Instead we have tomorrow off deck work, so we still do our four hours watch but Ian gets the morning for a lie in - I mean, to study - and I have the afternoon free.

Dinner soon so I'm going to get changed and relax after a knackering day in port. Hope you've all had a lovely weekend!

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Meet Me In Port Louis

Today's been the weirdest-feeling one so far - seeing land! Not only seeing it, but aiming for it... we were due to get to the island of Mauritius at around 6.30am. We were slightly later than that, but no matter - there was a ship still in our berth, and it's only a little port so they needed to come out before we could get in. So we drifted, waiting. For hours. And hours. And hours.

Finally, at 8pm, I got a call to go up to the bridge - the captain had asked if I wanted to go and watch us coming into the port at night time, as all of our watches have been during the day so far. It's a completely different experience seeing only navigational lights, and it really needs to be done in order to understand what on earth they're trying to examine us on in college! Despite a bit of confusion about what exactly I was to be doing, which involved me running up and down five flights of stairs three or four times to change in and out and in and out of my boilersuit and proper uniform (all good exercise. I don't like to use the lift as it feels lazy), eventually there we were. The pilot was on board - this is a person, usually an ex-captain, who has indepth knowledge of the port and surrounding waters and so offers the captain advice on how to steer the ship into its berth - and I was dispatched to get him a Coke, which I did with grace and aplomb much like that stretcher the other day. It was odd seeing all of the equipment in the dark. They have particular settings to make them easier on the eye, for example the text on the radar turns red, but it still takes a bit of getting used to. For the short distance up until we touch the fenders in our berth, the steering is switched to a panel on the bridge wing so that the pilot and captain can step outside and look right down the side of the vessel to ensure proper manoeuvring. It's fascinating to watch the number of constant adjustments that need to be made - and the sheer scale of the whole operation. It all looks quite big, until you see the little post or bollard on the ground move and you realise that actually, that thing you thought was two feet tall is a fully grown man. Then it all starts to look a bit overwhelming...

I've just done my first cargo watch shift (making sure the right containers are being discharged and loaded) and now have to hurry up and finish my blog so I can get some kip before my next watch in 8 hours! Not sure if I'll get any time ashore - it depends how quickly all of the cargo ops get done, but after South Africa we're heading back up past here anyway so I'm sure I'll see it at some point.

Now. Knackered. Must sleep. Goodnight!

Friday, 27 January 2012

Action Stations

An exciting end to my first week onboard. First of all, an Enclosed Space Rescue drill. Then chilli garlic prawns for lunch! Everyone's a winner.

The drill was interesting - we were informed ahead of time as to what was going to happen, and after the alarm sounded everyone had their part to play. The scenario was that the electrician was missing, so two people from each "team" (everyone on board is in one of two emergency teams, each having their own muster point in case of an alarm) put on breathing apparatus to locate and then rescue the missing person. I think it all went fairly smoothly - my job was to go and get the stretcher, which I believe I did with grace and aplomb...I'm not actually sure what aplomb means, but I'm sure I had it.

After that was over, we watched a video about stowaways which I think was meant to reassure us of the action to take but really just scared me a little bit. Then back up to the bridge for the rest of my rudely interrupted watch!

P insisted that I come up with my own plan for learning, and today we went through it all and put a few things into place. Being at college for only three months before this I've realised how little we actually know (and at the time it felt like we were learning so much!) so sitting down and planning it all out was really handy. I've split it up into six sections: chartwork, celestial/terrestrial navigation, Rules Of The Road, cargo operations, bridge equipment/steering (this is what I have proved utterly useless at so far) and weather/meteorology. Focusing on two of those per day, I should do everything twice a week within the 8-12 watch, and we get one day off per week to consolidate... sounds pretty heavy but I think also manageable. Hope so anyway!

I've been reading Murakami's 1Q84 when I can grab a spare minute, which I'm absolutely loving, but I must say its fantastical worlds and airy fairy weird characters are not exactly allowing me to ground myself in serious work. Maybe I should have brought A Brief History Of Time instead.

Tomorrow: the weekend! It doesn't bring with it a lie in, but it does bring a new port, and cargo watch...

Thursday, 26 January 2012


Just a quick one today - I was all set to type out huge spiels last night (Thursday morning, for you Brits) but then the ship's Internet died, and by the time it came back on I was asleep. Which was around 6.30pm our time. Not quite sure why I'm still so tired constantly, I slept for about eleven hours last night! I keep promising the third officer I'll come and do some work and look at stars on his night watch as well and then before I know it it's morning and I've done zero with my evening. It was nice at first to catch up on all the sleep I'm sure I've been missing out on as a student and over Christmas, but it's starting to get a little frustrating. Tonight immediately after dinner I'm going to make myself coffee and hope that works. Which was my plan yesterday but I made the mistake of sitting down in my cabin instead of heading to the coffee machine straight away!

We get into Port Louis (Mauritius) around this time tomorrow. I'm excited as this is the first port I'll have entered - makes me think I should allow myself to sleep early one more night so I can get up in plenty of time to see all the action!

Today P and I attempted to put stencils on to our liferings. For some reason, this UK-flagged ship only carries "Singapore" stencils! So we had to create one with the right curve for the lifering, which was fine, all looked very nice. Then it came to keeping it steady as we painted. I think it's a three man job really, two to do the work and one to stand over us reminding us not to get distracted by stories of previous cadets and crew who have mysteriously vanished overboard! Tales like this are rife throughout college and ships. There's one that everyone knows about the US navy ship and the lighthouse...but whether you take them as true or just a nice way to pass the time, there is pretty much nothing as enjoyable as sitting on the deck, painting and chatting to your colleagues with the wind of the Indian Ocean in your face, with the brightest, deepest blue water you've ever seen all around you, knowing that dinner is on its way... aahhhhh...

It's early morning here now and I'm off for breakfast. We've just had confirmation we're returning to college in May instead of September, which is a bit of a blow, but it does mean the next sea phase will presumably be lengthened - and it also means I need to enjoy being on a ship while I can. Ta ra!

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Finding My Feet

My sleeping pattern is slowly drifting into the "normal" range. I know what some of the equipment does, and where to find information about what I don't know. I can remember all of the officers' names, and where everything is kept. I think I'm doing OK.

Today was the most fun day so far, not in terms of jobs but because of the fact that I'm starting to feel more comfortable with it all. I understand the routines and I'm enjoying learning the things that the officers have to teach me. It feels almost like a kind of relief - the start of the trip was so nervewracking. Can I learn all of this stuff? Will they be annoyed if I forget something? Where on earth is my cabin again? But now I'm fine with it all, and I'm fine with not knowing stuff. I've started to memorise COLREGs (collision regulations - the "rules of the road") and today, helped the 3rd officer with coming up with a passage plan for the next part of our voyage, from Port Louis to Durban. Now *that* was fun, doing the actual navigation stuff that is supposed to be the main part of the job! As all good cadets will know, passage planning has four parts - appraisal, planning, execution and monitoring. It was great seeing it being put to use - there are two routes you can go down as a cadet, HND or Foundation Degree. I'm doing the HND which is a lot more general information about the shipping industry etc (better for those who don't have experience of it). What we don't get until our next phase, though, are lessons in proper chartwork, so I'm seeing a lot of this for the first time. It's so much fun and now I know exactly what I need to learn when I get back to college.

Life elsewhere on board is great too. The food is yum (such a relief considering some horror stories we get told by older cadets - as well as Nautilus, the seafarers' union, regaling us with a tale of one cadet who lost so much weight that he had to be sent home because he couldn't face eating any of the food he was given...). I'm in no danger of losing any weight! Although I'm drinking less coffee than I would at home, which is definitely a good thing.

Off to dress for dinner now - we wear uniform every dinnertime apart from Sundays. Just as well I sewed up my falling-apart epaulets before I left!

Tuesday, 24 January 2012


Late last night, we crossed the equator. I've never been in the southern hemisphere before (although to be honest, in the middle of the ocean...nothing's changed. I haven't checked the sinks for water swirling the other way yet). No line-crossing ceremonies - thank God, because it was around midnight and I would not have been a happy bunny to have been awoken from the middle of my ten hour sleep!

I think today might have been the breaking point in my weird sleep pattern. Slept for too long, woke up too early, but now have made a plan for doing something after dinner so I have the impetus to stay awake longer instead of just sitting in my cabin and reading til I nod off! I'll still be reading, but Collision Regulations, up on the bridge, with a flashlight, so I'll be forced to concentrate.

I've had a really busy and fun day but I'm sitting here struggling to think of things to write - probably still getting too much information into my brain during the day and now unable to sift/filter... I do have a couple of practical points for anyone about to go to sea or thinking of doing so:

- Bring a suitcase you can carry up steps. I struggled up the gangway with my two!
- Girls, if you're joining in hot climes, bring plenty of bras. The non-bridge work you do means they will be soaked with sweat. Which sounds disgusting, but hey ho. And trust me, you'll be too knackered to be washing them every night!
- Make one of the first things you do ascertain where you can drink water. I was dehydrated as soon as I got on board and found out later that they hadn't changed the filters in most of the water fountains! Cholera here I come.
-  Bring notebooks to write/draw things in. Loads of notebooks.

I think that's your lot for today. On Friday we have an emergency drill which should be fun, then at the weekend we're in our next port, in Mauritius!

Monday, 23 January 2012


So, er, it's pretty hot down here near the equator. I was on watch today from 8-12 on the lovely air conditioned bridge (although the coffee machine was broken. Poor little Kat) where the third officer P is going through everything with me. He's a really nice guy and tries so hard to be serious. I may be a bad influence. The new captain started talking to me and P about the best way to teach/learn which is a little frustrating as it felt like a lecture - I've only been here two days (as has he!) and he's never even looked at me before, let alone said hello or asked how I'm getting on. I'm sure he knows what he's talking about and it will all work itself out eventually, but I don't like being told I'm not doing something properly by someone who has no idea how I'm doing it.

After watch came boiler suit time. Turns out it's called a boiler suit because when you wear it, you boil... P and I dashed around a bit in the engine room and steering gear room to pick up some things to fix the thermometers up on the bridge - there's a dry one to measure the air temperature and one which is dipped into water to measure humidity. Anyway one of them was tilting slightly so we need to attach it again using cable ties from the engine room. Which is incredibly hot. And loud. I could feel sweat trickling down my back.

Next up was working with the bosun. He told me to go and observe the ABs (able seamen) while they used a wire brush (a powered tool which uses wire bristles and air to remove rust and dirt and smooth down edges of chipped paint) and then painted on top of the marks. Observe?! No chance. The wire brush was loads of fun - very heavy and a bit awkward, but so therapeutic to get rid of all that muck etc on the deck! Then painting over with the grey primer to get ready for the colour later. It's not tricky, just tiring - all that on the deck of a ship in 30 degree heat, in a boilersuit and goggles and ear defenders... I was glad when it hit 5 o'clock! My face had deep red marks where the goggles sat and I looked tanned, until I washed my face and realised it was all rust and dust. Shame.

The breaking of the coffee machine (hereafter known as The Great Caffeine Disaster 2012) has prevented me from staying awake any later than 8pm so here I must go. Will I ever get used to this?

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Information Overload

It's nearly dinnertime on my first full day at sea. I woke up at four ish, due to jetlag, and dozed until breakfast (my eating habits have never been that great in terms of regularity, so this is a nice enforced routine) and then my first watch! The officers changed their minds a few times yesterday so the upshot is that both Ian and I thought we were on the 8-12 watch. We both turned up and decided to stay the whole day, so only finished an hour ago (4pm). There's so much to learn!

Today was mainly about getting to know our way around the bridge, and all the equipment. We have lots of checklists to fill in, lots of buttons to push to test things out - my favourite is the RADAR, where you can look at the rain, the sea swells and other vessels nearby. You can also get loads of information about the nearby ships, such as if/when you're likely to collide! Loads of fun.

We also used the binoculars a lot, pointed at ships and pretended we knew what we were talking about. We've been plotting our position on charts and comparing it to the planned route, watching the officers make alterations in the course when we're overtaking or in the way of another vessel, and updating the weather systems. And drinking coffee. Lots of coffee.

It's quiet sometimes, giving us time to study regulations etc, but can get hectic and you need to get used to the various alarms and procedures. Last night there was an alarm going off loads, which kind of freaked me out a bit. Should I have been doing something?! But I figured it wasn't loud enough to have woken me if I'd been asleep so I should ignore it, and it turned out to be something for the engineers anyway. All of the officers are great - really helpful and fun and they know their stuff.

Tomorrow, I do the 8-12 watch and then work with the bosun on deck for a few hours. Hope it isn't raining - it's incredibly windy up on the bridge and we aren't even in deep ocean yet!

I'm going to have some dinner (we get very nice food. Although I miss not being able to sort my own food out, it's good knowing that what we have to have is really tasty. Unlike college!). More tomorrow!

Friday, 20 January 2012

Never Been So Far Away...

...and yet I feel like I'm at home. I've just boarded my first ship in my first sea phase, all the way over in Tanjung Pelepas, Malaysia. After a frustratingly long journey, in which my flight was delayed 12 hours, I spent a while in a Heathrow hotel room trying to phone Asian numbers to let everybody know about the delay, I thought I'd lost my yellow fever certificate, and the eventual flight couldn't serve a second meal as their catering facilities broke...after all that, I finally got here. I was met off my flight and taken to a swanky hotel, in which I had some great food - including curry for breakfast, Malay Kuih (little sweet things that look like neon jelly but taste of coconut rice pudding) and fish porridge (a Malaysian version of cullen skink. Ian, the other cadet, refused to have it. It was delicious). Got some sleep and watched a bit of Asian TV, then this morning we were taken to the Maersk Kendal!

The ship is enormous. At 299 metres long and 40 metres across, it's by no means the biggest Maersk have to offer, but it certainly looks and feels huge. The approach in the taxi was terrifying as our new home loomed over the port. We were taken to meet the captain and do all the paperwork, then had a bit of lunch under a photo of the Queen (it's a UK-flagged vessel), and then were taken on a tour and to meet various officers. Quick summary of the tour: Engine room - sweltering. Bridge - air conditioned and has a coffee machine. I knew I picked the right job...

We then watched a rescue boat drill, had a quick search for the swimming pool (just an empty cube in an open deck, at least at the moment) and are now relaxing until we start work tomorrow. Ian has the 8-12 watch and I'm on 12-4, then we both do a few hours of work on deck. So more or less an 8 hour day, with Sundays off (aside from tomorrow). I get the feeling three or four months will pass in the blink of an eye, and I only hope that I will remember at least some of what I learn.

I'm not allowed to upload photos while onboard due to our limited data allowance, but hopefully in port I might get some time off and can find somewhere to show you all the sights. For now, I need sleep - but I'll report back later on the next bit of my adventure!