Friday, July 04, 2008

Eurotrip without Club VanderSexx

I wrote this email to my friends and family while on my latest contract at sea. I edited a little but I hope you enjoy the insight as I reproduce it here. - Martin

I am pretty much half way between Europe and North America in the North Atlantic as I write this. I was sleeping but the weather has deteriorated, making sleep somewhat impossible. I flew to Amsterdam about 12 days ago on a direct flight from Vancouver, after agreeing to terms with a new company a little over 24 hrs prior to flight time. Things move pretty quick in this world, sometimes you you just gotta jump on the opportunities as they present themselves. Work on the Canadian west coast has been sporadic with the slowdown in the US housing - a principle consumer of BC wood products, which we pretty much exclusively deal with on my last ship. So when a call came in for an engineer to take a cargo ship from Europe to the Great Lakes, I thought it would not be a bad thing to get that experience, crossing the Atlantic, working on the lakes and getting a chance to see that side of Canada, the St Lawrence Seaway... how can I lose (?)... eheheheh

Pictures: above the 84 meter (275') long Dutch Runner. Side right, parts of two new cranes stowed in cargo hold.

The ship I am on now, is called the Dutch Runner. It is the first ship for Great Lakes Feeder Line, a new company based in Ontario. The ship is called a feeder ship and the idea, long used in Europe, is to take container from larger destination ports and take them to the smaller distribution hubs by sea, rather than by truck or rail, relieving congestion on land. So the plan is to do scheduled port calls to Toronto, Montreal and Halifax. The ship itself is a sturdy and versatile little boat built in Germany, when it came out of the JJ Siesta shipyard back in 1988, she must have been a very fine ship. But it appears that many years of neglect have made their mark and the ship is quite dirty and smelly and in need of serious TLC - a bit of a fixer upper.

After landing in Amsterdam, I met up with one of the mates from Newfoundland, she had flown in several hours earlier. We were to be met by the owner of the company, a Dutchman now living in Canada, but somehow that did not happen. After contacting the ship's agent in Holland, we were told that the easiest way for us to get to the ship is to take the train to Flushing, about 2.5 hours south. Easy enough to do since the Europeans have very good transportation system and the train station is right in the basement of the airport, pretty much below the baggage claim area. Perfect, no prob - except there is no Flushing. There's a little thing with the Dutch, spelling and pronunciation are two different things. After a little while, and an evil belly laugh from the tourist information girl at the airport, we realized that we need to go to Vlissingen not "Flushing" - there is no such place - yup, that does sound close to each other, its easy to see how I could have made the mistake.

Anyways off we went on the train, passing the iconic windmills of Holland and the many, many, many farming fields all bordered by a complex maze of dikes - and not the UVic types either. We rolled past quite a few train stations in our two hour ride south; Rotterdam, The Hague to name a few, but unfortunately mostly saw graffiti. After quickly changing train cars, because the second half of the train did not go all the way to our destination, a fact we did not realize until the last minute, we finally arrived in "Flushing". A quiet area with its skyline dotted with many modern power generating windmills and port facilities (mind you, the whole country feels like a giant port). We then drove for another hours or so by taxi to a little place called Terneuzen in the Dutch province of Zeeland, not to far from the Belgium border. A bustling port area - the third largest in Holland, booming with various industry but seemingly not much else.

Our cargo was already stowed by the time I signed on, and consisted of two complete, brand new Liebherr Cranes, apparently worth over 5 million dollars, and some refrigerated containers returning to Canada. The cargo is worth quite a bit to the company, so there is pressure not to screw up too badly. We were to depart the next morning, Friday - at least that was the plan. Unfortunately, we had some mechanical problems with the controls of the main engine - the ship had just come out of the shipyard in Barcelona and the speed pick up of the governor was probaly not tightened and subsequently driven by vibrations into the teeth of the flywheel, causing some issues, like automatic shutdown.

The electronics technician was onboard for 8 hrs and determine that we needed "this part", but little did we know the whole country stops Friday afternoon, and does not go back to work until Monday morning, no stores are open, even if you can find them. No part was available save from the Wartsila factory in Finland - but of course not before Monday could anyone even find out about that. So feeling the commercial needs to go, we "mikey moused" some thing and the engine ran fine.

Ran fine it did, until you tried to move the pitch of the Variable Pitch Propeller, which we did, later that night around midnight. We cast off the lines and the ceremonial band and was playing in the background (not really), unfortunately, as soon as the captain "put her in gear" - the engine died and we started drifting towards a tanker, not a good thing when you are in narrow water channels. The music stopped like someone kicked the turn table. Seems the workaround for the speed pick up was causing a "start block" on the engine, shutting it down as soon as pitch was demanded. Arggggh.

Luckily we had asked for a tug to standby in case we experienced some problems, so we were fortunate to be taken right away by the tug to a near by pier. A couple days past - after the weekend - and the repair guy came and set us up on our way with the new parts; the band gathered once again.

Midnight rolled around and we departed Terneuzen, at slow speeds. We finally made it to the North Sea, full away is rung but alas, more problems surfaced, this time with our propulsion system (VPP) - the band continues, but off key. Seems the VPP system caught the same "cold" that the main engine had, and the load control circuitry was sending slow down signals to the VPP every two seconds. We worked around those issues - turning off the Load Control - but it meant we would reduce the load on the engine to 75%, so as to prevent surging should we encounter roughs seas. Meanwhile the chief has been awake for about 30 hrs now.

Pictured - Above, a beautiful sunrise greets us in the North Sea; below, a shot looking aft, of the engine room and main engine, a Wartsila 6R32

Latter the next day, I take over the noon watch, we are working sixes (12-6, 6-12 so on and so forth), the chief finally gets a chance to go up for a snooze. At 12:35 I wake him up, with the bow pointed to the English channel and lots, and I do means lots of other ships around - a very busy place for ships in the world; a fuel supply manifold pipe burst, sending fuel at 7 bar and 115 degrees, cascading down all sides of the hot, running engine.

I observe wisps of smoke floating up from the engine, and fuel spray painting the aft end of the engine thrown from the flywheel, the hairs on the back of my neck are at attention. The band rushes for the lifeboats. Not wanting a blackout I manage to put online a generator (we were runningon shaft generator) and quickly shut down the engine while the motor man is laying out fire hoses. I feel the need to clean my shorts, and realize we are left with a major problem, a dead ship in the English channel.

One 8mm bolt on a two bolt flange of the fuel oil return pipe of #5 cylinder sheared off, with no room in the hot box to drill out the broken bolt we ponder our options. First things first, we hit the manual and find the parts we need to make it right.

Just like moving into a new house or apartment, its not always easy to find a particular item, which box did I pack in? where is the box? did we even pack it??? My tired guardian angel yet again jumps in to help, we find the orings, but more importandly we find the new updated fuel line - which was designed with a beafier four bolt flange pattern to prevent just such problem. This four bolt pattern allows us to bolt on the new fuel pipe without having to take apart the whole hot box and fuel supply manifolds to drill out the broken bolt. The exact part we needed, and four hours later, the band comes out of the lifeboats and start nervously playing as we speed up and make our way past England on our right and France on our left.

3 uneventful days later we are finally caught up on some of our sleep and heading out of the English channel, vessel traffic is sparse now and open Atlantic water lies ahead with only two course changes planned. I originally started writing this (long) email, about seven days ago, maybe more, I am not sure as I have totally lost track of time, position, and some may say, my sense of hygiene.

Its a funny thing the sea, there is nothing to see at all. As a matter of fact we haven't even heard of another ship for 6 days, all you see for as far as the eye can see is well, sea ! Anyways, I had started writing this earlier but had to suspend my prose for some time, as it was hard to write as we encountered some 4-5 m swells on the port quarter, and the 84 meter ship started rolling and pitching incessantly, as a matter of fact it was hard to do just about everything - walking, sitting, being human and putting sentences together.

Picture. Above, right and below are shots of the ship at sea in the middle of the Atlantic, beautiful weather most of the time, just some swells at time.

Well I am not sure exactly how long we have been at sea now, I think its been about 15 days now, but we are just coming into Canadian territorial waters, we are at the southern tip of the famed Grand Banks fishing grounds, off Newfoundland. Our fresh water supply is getting pretty low. I haven't seen any fruit or any food that wasn't frozen at least six times before, for quite a while now.

The "stores order" was screwed up in Rotterdam so we have been having some form of chicken for about 80 percent of our meals since we left - good thing I like chicken. Our spirits are up though, the band is starting to strike up again at the though of land sighting in another day or two. We are planning to be in Montreal on the 19th of June, hopefully you get this message, which means I did in fact make it there, concluding this part of the adventure. After we unload our cargo of cranes in Montreal, we have to carry out some much needed repairs ,and then I understand we have our first scheduled trip to Halifax to perform. That should take about one week, which should bring me to the end of this 28 day contract.


Epilogue. We did indeed reach Montreal without any other major issues. We had a beautiful trip down the St Lawrence river, past Quebec City and the many ships that use this waterway, it was nice to see life again, and even better when we started "getting cel signal". We tied up right down near the Old Port of Montreal, a place rich in history and flair.

The cranes were unloaded from the ship over a couple of days, and very neat show of cargo handling was put on by the stevedores. After a week of loading the crane pieces on flat bed trucks, the final pieces were finally loaded, and continued their journey to the oil patch in Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Meanwhile the ship was undergoing a flurry of activity, stores brought on board, a parade of technicians installing pieces, and 30 feet or so of piping for the vacuum toilets was replaced, they were plugged solid. We switched over to day work giving us a chance to get the customary "seafarer rip off" from the taxi drivers, but I did manage to visit the city, a sight I hadn't seen in over 20 years. After a week in Montreal, exhausted but still upbeat, I signed off and flew back home to some kids very happy to see their father home.