Notes from a cargo ship deckhand
Marty Machado writes about and photographs the last leg of a 6-month stay working as deckhand (and often pulling the 12am to 4am watch) aboard a container ship.
WE WERE APPROACHING Dubai on the third of three 57-day trips from New York to Singapore and back. In typical shipping industry fashion there was a drastic change of plans at the last minute, and it was decided to send the ship through the dry docks in Singapore.
Unfortunately, I was not going to be home for the holidays as planned, and my stay on board would now exceed six months. However, I was going to get to spend two full weeks in Singapore, after which our ship would start a Pacific run, hitting several new Asian ports and eventually sailing back under Golden Gate into my home port of San Francisco.
So after leaving our pals in Dubai, we sail straight to Singapore and unload all of our containers at our normal dock. We then sail completely empty, and very high in the water, to the shipyard in an industrial area on the west side called Tuas.
It was quite an operation getting everything in place. Huge overhead cranes assisted us with many mooring lines, making sure we were in perfect position so that the keel would rest upon pre-positioned blocks and the ship would not tip over when the water was pumped out.
Almost instantly we are flooded with hundreds of workers from the shipyard. Welders, pipe fitters, electricians, and specialists of all kinds. Most are on two-year contracts from India. While friendly and good workers, they immediately steal anything that we have not locked away: spare line, flashlights, shackles, life-rings, etc. They make so little that we don't blame them. The heat is sweltering, it rains insanely hard every afternoon, and the noise is constant and unbearable without earplugs. There are hundreds of projects being worked on, but the main objective is stripping/painting the hull and inspecting/cleaning the prop.
In the deck gang, for the first few days we work very hard, stripping the hatches of thousands of heavy steel lashing rods, turnbuckles, and container cones. We become day workers, meaning we get to work regular 8-5 hours and even have the option of taking weekends! I take advantage of the opportunity to see more of Singapore as much as possible. It feels great to call a place home for a while, but in the dusty shipyard it doesn't take long for everyone to get a bit antsy. A couple of crewmates have spent nearly their entire paychecks ashore on tattoos, booze, and women. There seems to be a unanimous desire to get back to sea; sailors weren’t meant to be onshore this long.
Finally the necessary work is done. We have a bright new paint job, a shiny prop, and although the decks are a complete mess, they fill the dry dock with water, open the gate, and we get underway.
After several engine failures and a quick stop to pick up a full load of empty containers, we are happily back at sea, en route to China.
I work in the deck department as a watch-standing "AB," or Able Bodied Seaman. I'm on the 12 to 4 watch: seven days a week, from midnight to four a.m. and from noon to four p.m., I am up on the bridge, steering the ship or being a lookout. In addition I usually work overtime on deck from eight am to noon, tightening/greasing the containers' lashing gear, chipping rust, painting, or doing whatever odd jobs need to be done. Overtime is where a sailor makes his money, so we take as much as they'll give. I typically get around 12 hours work each day at sea, and in port I can work almost 24 hours straight at times.
In a matter of days the temperature drops dramatically as we get closer to China. Huge fleets of fishing vessels become more prominent and we must keep a sharp eye out for the incandescent flashing of their buoys at night. At times they are so thick that we must cut between small fishing boats and we usually get a sort of "FU" from the fishermen in the form of a bright spotlight in our eyes on the bridge.
Unfortunately our Chinese visas did not arrive in time in Singapore so we are not allowed ashore in Qingdao. I wish I could say more, but I really didn't see much; a thick layer of smog/mist filled the air so that I could barely see the landscape. The local longshoremen were rosy cheeked and smiling, wearing black Russian looking hats with ear-flaps.
We leave China quickly and in a day are in Pusan, Korea. I spend Christmas Eve wandering the winding European-looking streets of downtown. I'm really impressed with Pusan: super nice people, delicious street food, and cheap shopping. Christmas was en route to Japan. The cooks made us a big feast and even broke out some boxed wine. I made a Christmas tree out of an old green tarp and my pal Charlie helped me decorate it with paper ornaments. We pulled into Yokohama the next night, and I ran ashore with my crewmate "Rowdy." As usual the cab driver automatically brought us to a sort of red light district. Brothels advertised their services with Anime women in various poses with prices next to them.
The Pacific is surprisingly mellow. I really wanted to get some kick-ass storms so I could brag about how the Pacific should be re-named El Diablo compared to all the other wuss oceans.
But aside from the cold drizzly weather, we manage to avoid any really bad systems.
We went north under the Aleutian Chain. Working on deck was cold, but we had some nice clear nights with bright stars. On New Years Eve we crossed the dateline; as we counted down, the calendar switched back and it was NYE all over again - a little anti-climactic. With the swell behind us we cruise steadily toward Los Angeles. The port stay in LA seemed like it would never end. After three days and several engine issues, we were finally heading north towards home. I happily volunteered for bow lookout at dawn. I didn't mind the cold; I was too excited to be home. The fog seemed to split as the wind sucked us under the Golden Gate.