Friday, September 4, 2009

Life of a Sailor - "So, do you get to steer the ship?"

When I'm Captain, Grant get's to steer!

This is one of our most FAQ's. The answer is NO. Grant is an Engineering Officer, so he works in the engine room. I am a Deck Officer, which means I am in charge of the overall navigation of the ship when I am standing my bridge watch. I cannot fix our position on the chart, do collision avoidance, communicate on the VHF's, GMDSS, and internal comms, or do any number of other clerical work such as logbook entries, if I am standing around steering the ship. And how am I going to know what course to steer if I'm stuck behind the wheel? Ah, somebody has to tell me the course, and that person is me. So I need somebody else behind the wheel, so I can give them a course to steer. In short, no, I don't get to steer the ship.

Me at work. Notice I am not steering.

Proof that what Grant says I do for living is true: I'm heading to the coffee pot for a refill, after which I'll put my feet up and enjoy the view.

In reality, most of the time the ship steers itself. In the old days, (like a few years ago), we would put the ship in auto pilot, and the ship would use whatever rudder it needed, within the limits I input, to keep the ship pointed in the direction dialed in. We still have that option (the old iron-mike), but in addition we have a "Track Mode" or as some people call it, ECDIS mode. Basically, we go to the computer with electronic charts (Electronic Chart Display and Information System) and input our route. This is displayed as track lines on the screen. Once we're pretty darn close to the line, like less than a tenth of a mile off, we switch the steering stand to "Track" mode. Once on Track mode, the ship doesn't just steer a course automatically, it accounts for set and drift, and steers whatever course it needs to keep you on the line. For instance, the track line may be 090 (east), but because of current, we are being set to the south. The ship will then steer a little more northerly, say 088, to make good the 090 track line. And I don't have to do a damn thing. The computer and GPS does it all. Another cool thing, is when we are on a Great Circle route, which plots as a curved line on our flattened out Mercator projection charts, the ship will continuously adjust course along the curved line. Pretty cool.

When we have traffic, or we are too close to land for it to be prudent to let a computer drive the ship, it goes back to auto pilot. I evaluate what course we need to steer to make good our track line or give the traffic an appropriate wide berth, and then tell the AB on my watch what to do. He dials in the course, and checks the magnetic heading. When traffic is particularly heavy, there is a large course change, or we are steering very close to land, I put the ship into hand steering, or what people think of when they ask, "do you get to steer the ship". Now the AB on watch is steering the ship by hand. I give courses, and even rudder orders if needed, and he repeats my orders back to me and tells me when he is steady on course.

My view from the bridge. Hey weekend warriors. Just so you know, when you try to cross my bow, I am steering 700 feet from the bow, and going 25mph, so you might want to rethink your strategy!

Now for a sea story: A few years ago while in Kodiak, we had such a big storm that our ship parted 8 mooring lines over the course of the day (very dangerous, people can die, and one of our men almost did). Our dock in Kodiak is really crappy as there is no breakwater, natural or otherwise, to protect us from the seas that roll in. We had a tug holding us against the dock and our bow and stern thrusters going. The longshoreman wanted to quit, but we still had hatch covers off. It is illegal and just plain stupid to go to sea, especially in a storm, with huge holes into your hull. We convinced them to get the hatch covers on, but they refused to lash the containers as they wanted off the ship. (Hatch covers weigh several tons each, so require a crane to move them.) All hands were on deck securing the containers. I was called to the bridge with the Captain and Pilot to get all the navigation equipment going so we could leave. Well, it was time to go, but we looked around the bridge and realized we didn't have a helmsman! The Captain looked at me and said, "Robin, you have to steer." It had been about six years since I steered a ship, but I hopped on, and apparently did a good job. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when the AB finally made it to the bridge to take over. Phew. Just goes to show, we have to be ready to do anything, and perform all job functions at any time while out there. And I must say, if I ever "get to steer the ship" it's because the "shit has hit the fan", so to speak.

A heap of parted mooring lines. The line is several inches in diameter, or was.

View from the offshore side of the ship at the Kodiak dock. Though a nice day today, you can see we are open to any seas or swell that come in. This exposed, even a little bit of swell makes the ship surge away from the dock.

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