Dan W

Software Developer

Postcards #6: Waiting at Anchor

Feb 19, 2015

I’m not a morning person. 4:30 am is far earlier than I would like to be awake. But I have dragged myself out of bed to watch the ship collect a pilot in preparation for our 6 am berthing time. The port works 24 hours a day to maximise its throughput. We will dock at whichever time is optimal, regardless of whether I'd rather be asleep.

The bridge is not the hive of activity I anticipated and I cannot see any land ahead. Chief Officer Zhao is on watch and informs me the plan has changed while I was asleep. Now we won’t berth until 8pm. There’s not much action to see. The vessel's autopilot is taking us in a straight line. Our next turn is scheduled in an hour’s time. I take consolation in watching the sunrise.

In the meantime the ship has slowed to 10 knots, crawling along nowhere near its maximum speed of 25 knots. The Seletar hasn’t been near its top speed in a long while. These days the priority is lowering costs rather than transporting goods quickly. The ship travels as slowly as it can without damaging the engine, reducing fuel consumption.

Maersk’s Eco-voyage software calculates which route and speed will burn the least fuel, optimising the ship’s itinerary. Deviation from the plan might lead to a phone call from operations, which monitor the ship remotely, asking for an explanation. Even at our reduced speed, we will arrive early. We will drop anchor and wait.

Conversation turns to the topic of timekeeping and routine aboard the ship. On the bridge the day is split into six watches shared among three officers. The first officer is on duty from 4 until 8, both am and pm. Second officer has 8 until 12 and the third officer takes 12 until 4. At night they’re joined by an able-biodied seaman to act as a lookout and helmsman; and to make sure neither falls asleep.

I ask what happens when we change time zones, as we did the previous day, and gain an extra hour in the day. Who has to work the extra time? Do they get an extra hour off to make up for it? I’m told I’m thinking about time the wrong way. Aboard the ship there are no working hours, but instead there are resting hours. You’re assumed to be working unless scheduled otherwise.

It’s the first officer’s responsibility to that ensure everyone has enough rest each day. In this environment tiredness can be dangerous. He shows me their scheduling software on the bridge’s desktop computer, dragging blocks of time around a grid reminiscent of Tetris. Balancing the ship’s internal routine against external demands. Meal times against crewing requirements. Labour-intensive acts such as mooring versus the need for blocks of sleeping time. Anyone without the daily minimum hours of rest is highlighted in red.

As we approach the anchorage I head to the bow with Third Officer Bao. As the ship comes to a halt the anchor is slowly lowered to the water’s surface. The next step is to drop the anchor and a carefully calculated length of chain. I’m warned it might be loud and made to stand a safe distance away.

Loud is an understatement. Despite expecting the sounds, I can’t help jumping in surprise. I try to play it cool, hoping the crew hasn’t noticed. Perhaps the cloud of dust the chain throws up blocks their view. Chunks of mud fly across the deck, remnants brought up from the seabed the last time the chain was raised. The vibration is strong enough to spin my camera around in it’s mount.

The crew carefully watches the chain as it passes through the windlass. Every 15 fathoms a link in the chain bears a mark and is painted a bright colour. This is how the chain is measured as it’s released, by counting these passing links. Once the anchor is lowered the ship slowly reverses, taking up the slack.

Without the continuous hum of the engine, the ship is now silent. The deck slowly starts to rock as we drift in the current, the vessel occasionally jerking on the end of the chain. Yellow dragonflies blown out by the wind from the mainland fill an empty bay in front of the accommodation block — the most wildlife we have seen on the voyage so far.

The Captain has seen the amount of visible marine life decline during his career at sea. He recounts being at anchor long ago and lowering the gangway for the crew to take a refreshing swim. The next day they had considered going for another dip, but had spotted tiger sharks circling the vessel. There’s no sign of sharks on this voyage; nor dolphins or whales.

I pass the time watching a handful of ships anchor around us. During the financial crisis the Captain spent months waiting at anchor alongside dozens of other ship. More caretaker than a seafarer, a skeleton crew waiting for new orders. The uncertain life of logistics, at the whim of the markets.

At least today we know how long we have to wait.

Elsewhere: You might enjoy the excellent writing of Charmaine Chua, who is travelling as an ethnographer aboard an Evergreen container ship from the Pacific from LA to Taipei. Start with part one, watching Oakland's New Year fireworks from the bridge of the ship.

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