Category: Sea Stories

Longline fishing video

Check this out, from the Antarctic toothfishery, which was developed about 1990 and has become a big distant-water fishery in the southern ocean using longline vessels fishing with the Mustad mechanized longline system (same system I used in 1981 on Georges Bank with Roger Bakey’s Sea Dog V, when I measured every damn fish he brought aboard and determined that if you took fish with hooks instead of nets you could bring home twice the tonnage and still leave the population intact)

Now this, this is fishin’…….

Coming home

A gazillion years ago when I fished from Chatham we had to cross the bar from Pleasant Bay into the Atlantic. It was (and still is) hairy, especially if it was foggy – and it was always foggy – and a sea was running. The channel shifted daily, sand, tons, being moved, and the course would wind among the breakers, left, then right. The boats fishing from Chatham are small, 40-50 feet, yet those seas could be large. When I was fishing we’d cross the bar. Just beyond was the broken and sunken half of the ship Pendlelton, which in the early 50s had come ashore and broken in half. There was a movie made about it, Finest Hours, recently, which I thought was pretty accurate except the absolute hairiest part of that saga, crossing the bar back into Pleasant Bay with all those men aboard and the storm raging, was sort of skipped. But those of us who fished from Chatham, we understood how hairy that had been.  There are lots of other bars and hairy entrances around the world fishermen must pass, and even ships (the Columbia Bar off Oregon and Washington for example). This grainy You Tube video here shows the Grindavik, Iceland, harbor entrance in January 1991 in a nasty sea and is in my opinion the most dramatic bar crossing on video ever made. My guess is the boat in the video is 110-130 feet long. Just imagine….


The greatest small boat journey ever made?

Shackleton’s trip to South Georgia Island from Elephant Island in the Southern Ocean. But he has competition –  Bligh’s passage after the mutiny across 2,000 miles of Pacific Ocean in an open boat, or Blackburn’s row across the Atlantic after losing his fingers and toes in a blizzard off the Grand banks…..humans have been going to sea in open boats for hundreds of thousands of years, before writing, before history, before legend…what about their journeys? Imagine – navigating an open boat, skin-covered perhaps, along a harsh coast, heavy ice on the upland, great animals, hungry, roaming and looking if they come ashore, forced to find food as they travel, despite danger, facing the cold, the weather, the unknown…..yet still they traveled….and found, and populated, the earth…



Some things never change…..four years ago when I sailed with APL we stood pirate watch all the way from the foot of the Red Sea out northeast toward Oman, going and coming. The situation then was that a ship traveling at 16+ knots was pretty untouchable; it was the slower vessels that were vulnerable. I remember being told, back then, there were dozens of seized ships being held along the Somali coast, for ransom, and that ransom was often paid, with little said about it. Maybe that still happens. By the time I sailed that route they had established lanes, outbound and returning, and some warships were in the area patrolling the lanes in case of attack. But, still, ships are seized, held, and then, as in this story here, released….

Ortho Spiders

When I sailed on an APL ship, 70 day round trip New York to Singapore with lots of stops in between, crossing the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Red and Arabian Seas, Indian Ocean and Straits of Malacca the company produced a one page news summary for the sailors, which was downloaded and printed by the third mate and posted in the mess and common room. One trip the third mate was a young computer savvy kid and he and I stood watch together, way too many hours, and we dreamed up a fake news story for fun. This is what I wrote and then Carl somehow managed to insert into the week’s summary. I think we were somewhere slogging across the Indian Ocean toward Malaysia.

Ortho Spider Alert: Sailors are warned to keep an eye out for a new type of spider that has been reported in Southeast Asia. Apparently these spiders nestle in the valleys between the corrugated sides of containers and then drop onto the ship when loaded into the hold. They prefer dark places and will be found in the bilges, near fluids and grease. First spotted on ships leaving Ho Chi Min City, it is speculated these spiders are a variant of a jungle spider then affected by Agent Orange. They have most recently been reported as far west as the western opening to the Strait of Malacca. These spiders, the size of a small cat, are very fast, gather in groups, and have a paralyzing, agonizing  bite. They prefer exposed skin.

Carl inserted this story on the lower right hand corner of the news sheet and I scattered them about the ship. Soon enough, at mess, talk turned to Ortho Spiders.

“The size of a small cat? Really?”

“They won’t be on this ship, we’re headed toward the Strait, not away.”

“But we were there two months ago. If any got aboard there may be thousands down in the bilges by now.”

I was sitting at the table and I said, “I don’t believe it. This sounds ridiculous. This sounds like a made up story.” I was the guy who wrote the story.

Alex, a Russian AB, good sailor, and definitely Russian, shook his head violently.

“No, Charles, No! These things happen! Believe me!”

Strangely enough, after that none of we sailors wanted to go below to check the voids deep in the ship. Not even me.



You think you have it bad….

On November 30 2016 my wife and I took the Coho ferry from Port Angeles, Washington across the 10-mile wide Strait of Juan de Fuca to Victoria, British Columbia to visit the museum there and a fantastic ice age exhibit. On the way over, and then again the next day coming back, we passed an anchored Hanjin container ship lying about four miles from Victoria, almost in the middle of the Strait, it seemed. The ship was dark, entirely empty of containers, just sitting there. In the late summer of 2016 Hanjin went bankrupt. Its fleet was basically abandoned, owned and leased ships. Some managed to get back to their home port, but others, once discharged of cargo, were placed in limbo. They had crews but no funds, and so they couldn’t berth anywhere accruing charges, no terminal would have them, and all over the world these ships anchored or found a place somewhere to tie up. One of those ships was that ship we saw from the Coho. She had a full crew – 22 people – and they had been on the ship, anchored there, since before the end of last summer, and for all I know she lies there still. She was there Christmas when the crew were delivered some holiday things. The ship they were working on was leased, not owned by Hanjin, and the ship’s owner has been ferrying food to the crew at anchor.

Imagine….you’re on the hook far from land, alone, stores steadily diminishing, fuel being burned for generators, not being paid, unable to get off the ship, with no idea of when you will get home, or get paid, spending each day in deadly routine, chipping rust, repairing, touring the vessel, staying busy, just staying busy. They’ve been there now since early September, and as of Christmas that’s four months, and my guess is the ship is still there, though maybe by now Hanjin has found a godmother to take over the ships and bring them home.

Those poor guys….the Coho doesn’t pass that close to the ship, a few miles away, but I am sure the Coho can be seen from the Hanjin ship, a bright little ferry filled with eager and happy tourists heading somewhere, passing by, probably with no thought or understanding of the prison that anchored ship has become…..

That New Panama Canal….

Here’s an article about ship damages to those ships transiting the widened Panama Canal. This appears to be something that could become a huge disincentive to using the canal at all. If your ship gets damaged, like something in the photo on the link below, you need to get it repaired, find a shipyard, spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and who knows what amount of time, and then, what, run the risk if similar damage during the next canal passage?

Containers = Globalization

The first containers, I was told, back when working for the Port of New York and New Jersey in the 1980s, were used by the U.S. Army shipping cargo in truck bodies to Alaska from the West Coast. These weren’t the 40-foot containers Malcolm McClean made famous in the 1950s  but they were the start of it. McClean had the vision of loading a truck chassis with a box filled with stuff packed at the factory, then the box removed from the chassis, loaded aboard a ship, and sailed to another truck chassis far away. His original vision was tied to sending stuff from New York to Texas, avoiding the trucking costs for the long distance, but by the mid-1960s this technology was sweeping the world. I remember seeing the first container ships passing our lobster gear on Lydonia Canyon off Georges bank in 1969. “What’s that?” we’d ask.

Serving as a sailor in the “old” days meant you’d steam between ports, a few days, maybe longer, and then spend two to three weeks tied to the dock being unloaded and loaded. It took a lot of people, longshoremen, and a lot of time. “Stick” cranes were used, hauling huge nets of cargo from the hold to the pier, or strapped boxes. In the early 1960s there were 30,000 longshoremen in New York alone. Remember the movie “On the waterfront?” That was the old days.

It didn’t take long to figure out that by using a standardized truck container, one that fit any chassis, you could handle the cargo at the factory once, to load the box, and then not touch it again, or open the box for theft, until it reached its destination far away – a warehouse or retail store. This had the advantage of reducing theft and pilferage, a huge problem at every port. It reduced cost by reducing handling time and manpower, and saved lots of time in transit. With special cranes, container ships began to sail on set schedules, port to port, and they’d be tied up for a day or two, not weeks, as the boxes were unloaded and others loaded, to and from trucks. Starting in the United States, within 10 years this system expanded to Europe and then everywhere.

This of course was a huge smack in the face to longshoremen, because you only needed a couple dozen people to unload a container ship, not hundreds. In New York, to enable the handling of such ships, the ship owners instituted  thing called GAI, for guaranteed annual income, which was an agreement, to avoid war n the docks, to pay all the idled and registered longshoremen, until they died, because the technology had stolen their job. When I went to work in New York in 1984 the shipowners were paying $ 100,000,000 a year to cover this, but by then the longshoremen were dying of old age. This made shipping through New York expensive. Then people realized you can place containers on trains and haul them very fast hundreds of miles, and, if stacked two-high, efficiently. It took a while, but by the late 1980s a huge new system had developed whereby train routes had tunnels raised so “stack trains” could carry containers inland.

Ships kept getting bigger. The first ones were regular ships carrying containers on deck, Then the first purpose-built container ships were built, carrying 1200 containers. By the late 1980s ships were carrying 4500 containers. Today ships carry 18,000 containers (and many are idle because as usual the system has been way overbuilt).

There were other reasons, of course, but I’d hazard the theory that containers are what made true globalization possible. The scheduled shipments, the cheap cost, the cargo security, meant that a business could start making things where labor was cheapest and then carry the stuff in containers to  US markets, and this is exactly what happened.

The infrastructure from container ships, special cranes, computers, electronic billing and payment, rapid delivery, stack trains linking the west coast to the American heartland and east coast, all meant that the entire system of manufacture and delivery changed and saw manufacturing move to Mexico, then Asia, then Southeast Asia. We Americans began receiving clothing, shoes, furniture, you name it, from Japan and China and Vietnam; cars in special auto ships from Korea and Japan and Europe; auto parts in containers from wherever; and especially fresh food from all over the world, shipped in refrigerated containers to American markets. How else do you think we get fresh oranges in February in New York? The oranges are grown in Brazil, placed in reefer containers for the two week voyage, and ripen on the way north. A miracle, one might say.

In 1987 the first “Post Panamax” container ship was built, for APL, the President Truman – a ship too wide to pass through the Panama Canal. This ship was the first of dozens built to carry containers from Asia to Europe through the Suez Canal and also from Asia to the US West Coast, then to be loaded onto stack trains for delivery east. By 1990 there were 100 such trains a week carrying cargo this way, and by 2000 over 200. Now, in reaction of the huge growth of west coast ports, and the huge new ships, the Panama Canal has been widened, and is now able to handle the huge ships. Billions have been spent on the Gulf and the east coast to deepen harbors for these ships, using Harbor Maintenance Tax money. However, the new canal’s locks are hard to use and maybe those big ships won’t be coming. That is, if globalization cargo growth continues….

The first and last container ship I worked on was the same President Truman. At the time built (1987) she was the largest container ship in the world. To indicate how fast this all happened, or maybe how old I really am, in 1984 I was in New York (not as a sailor but as a suit) when the first stack train was tried to Chicago, one level of containers, and the rail cars and rough roadbed beat up the cargo. This was three years before the Truman was built. I recall old Port Authority marketing types scoffing at the idea there would ever be cargo hauled through the Suez to New York from Asia. Yet, in 2012, there I was, on the bridge of the same ship, now  a rusted old beauty ending her days, sailing as Ordinary to get my time on big tonnage, at the wheel, passing beneath the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, outbound, on that same route. Eight months later, I was aboard her when we took her to Singapore to the breakers. On the way in to Singapore we passed the Emma Maersk, brand new on her maiden voyage, outbound, 18,500 TEUs, huge. We were just a little old rust bucket, yet once the proudest in the world. I felt damn old, watching Emma pass. I am damn old, actually.

This less than 30 year time period embraced the rapid and dramatic sweep of globalization, which has now, five years on, resulted in  worldwide adjustment as folks turn their backs on the notion of free trade after seeing their factories close and their towns die. I don’t think most people thought this would happen, those who thought about it. It was the mantra always during those years that free trade and globalization was GOOD. I parroted that when I worked for Ports, and I believed it, too.

Then I sailed with APL for the Sailors Union of the Pacific aboard the Truman, which was one of the about 250 remaining American cargo ships (from a fleet over over 5,000 after World War II) , because globalization and the urge for cheap stuff meant that American sailors and ships died the death of high cost, and if not for the Jones Act and military cargo preference aboard US ships and US sailors we’d have no merchant marine at all.

So, ironically, the trade we U.S. sailors followed hauling containers was in pursuit of a trade system that made the very fact of globalization and now the rage of the working man possible. Now the cry is, bring those jobs back. Some argue that it cannot ever happen.

I wonder, though, as such efforts are made, will bringing those jobs back include bringing American ships and sailors back, too? I sure hope so.