Category: Sea Stories


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.

That New Panama Canal

The old Panama Canal, the narrow canal, uses little train engines to pull the ships into and from the locks. The new, wider, BIGGER canal does not; instead it uses tugs. Apparently it is nearly a nightmare, and not going well. This article below is not about the tugs in the locks per se but other problems, but still…..teething problems? Or a fatal flaw? Only time will tell….



The Dory Men

Denny was born up Pubnico way in eighteen and ninety two,

In nineteen eleven to Boston he came, a dory man tried and true.

He fished from a dory for thirty two years till the war put an end to the trade

Moved to Chatham and fished alongshore in good weather, not much, but a living he made,

At age seventy-two he fetched up on the beach in a shack in the woods by the Bay,

Rigged gear for the fleet and cleared our bad snarls, recoiled in a tight perfect lay.

A master, was Denny, rerigging our gear, each bundle a near work of art,

With his help all that summer we landed huge trips and a half share we left in his cart.

Denny was tiny, a lone quiet man, no family he had of we knew,

We’d leave him some beer and groceries to hand in the winter when gear work was few.

Then one day next winter Denny was sick, in his shack stone cold and in pain,

To a hospital bed in Hyannis he went not far from our boat on the bay.

We’d travel to see him, kids twenty five years, he’s lost in the bed, thin and pale,

Hated that hospital food, he did, wouldn’t eat and was wasting away.

So we went to the fish store and bought us some haddock which we cooked on our boat at the dock,

Wrapped it in foil and raced to the hospital, still hot when he reached for his fork.

Oh that fish he did eat, every bit, every bite, and a smile we’d see in his eyes,

So each day we’d cook and bring him his lunch, hear his stories which Denny called lies.

Later he moved to an old people’s home in South Chatham for hospice care,

The food there was better, but Denny was failing, companionship was all he could share.

And always with Denny, those last weeks he had, three men sat with him for hours,

Old dory mates all, telling tales of the days they all shared in their youth and their power,

Harold and Peter and Edward their names, first sailing then steaming offshore,

From their dories through years of weather and waves, saw men lost in the fog evermore.

I can hear those four men, all old, one quite ill, in that pale late afternoon light,

Their memories and laughter of days now long gone when from dories they worked with such pride.

Denny came to Boston a century ago, a dory man he and his mates,

I was lucky to know him, see his art working gear, he was small but to us he was great.

His lies now all lost, the memories too, but I hold in my heart that rare sight,

Four dory men true, gathered together, keeping real their lost way of life.

Now Denny’s long gone, it’s nigh forty years since the kid in me brought gear to his shack,

And just as his memories are lost now forever mine soon will fade in the black.

When you see an old fisherman, hands like burled wood, skin pale and eyes watery and dim,

Unshaven, clothes rumpled, slumped deep in a chair, never judge there’s no glory in him,

His story not written, his memories mist, his whole way of life but a dream,

Whaler, salt banker, dory man he, now one with the unchanging sea.

New Orleans to New York by Sea March 2016

IMG_20160329_170845From Violet Louisiana to the shipyard in Bayonne New Jersey, a 42 year old 960-foot ro-ro ship, fourteen days. Crew flies in Wednesday and the madhouse begins. The steward is ready to quit, the second engineer maybe had a stroke, the new captain has his own set of rules, half the new crew are green and the other half greener still. Lash everything down, secure the watertight doors, set the watch routine, and cast off into the Mississippi River, starting downstream, only to anchor up 15 miles further with an engine problem.  New part arrives on a launch at midnight, we lift it aboard, and by dawn we’re off again. Everything held together with hope and wire, the engineers madly finding solutions, the rest of us steering and cleaning and lashing, crossing the Gulf, coming around Florida, then heading out into the Atlantic to burn our heavy fuel oil far from land, day after day doing donuts on the broad reach, back and forth. Hours – days – replacing the ballast water, pumping and sounding tanks and pumping again. The new steward’s assistant misbehaves with the cook and assistant cook, misbehaves badly, and is sent to swab decks far below for the balance of the trip. His name becomes Creepy. One sailor becomes sickened in the holds and goes to his room, another runs out of smokes and becomes insufferable, the food starts to run out, the milk goes, and the wind begins to blow. The big ship rolls and pounds, lashings shift and slide, nobody sleeps, the gale rages, the big crane hooks forward come loose and swing like death, one of the anchors breaks, the toilets stop flushing and the hot water system dies. No one is happy.

Now, finally, at anchor in New York, the bright skyline teasing, waiting for dry dock, everyone stumbling with fatigue, Creepy slinking the halls, the steward muttering, and the captain barking impossible orders everyone ignores.  But we are on the hook, in the Hudson, safe, and arrived.

Life is good.