Since we lost several ships to other ports, the core of Grant and my jobs out of Seattle/Tacoma are on the domestic runs either to Hawaii, and more significantly, Alaska. In 2009 I worked exclusively on the Alaska run. Though I had been invited back to “my” ship several times since my first trip the spring of 2007, I have been hesitant to due to the a really bad day I described in a previous post. The truth is, I can’t turn down work if I’m going to pay my mortgage and eat. And also, truth be told, these ships going to Alaska are pretty good pay. I also really like the people I work with on this particular ship. They have become the closest to “family” I have had on any of these ships, and there is a lot of camaraderie amongst we Alaska-run people.
In many ways the run to Anchorage, Kodiak, and Dutch Harbor is not particularly difficult as there is very little traffic, we get home a few times a month, and everybody speaks English. But in many ways, this run is much more difficult than picking your way through thousands of fishing boats or arguing with Shanghai pilots as they light a cigarette while colliding head on with an outbound ship.
The reason it is harder?
THE WEATHER SUCKS. Especially in November and April. Not to mention December, January, February, and March, and often May and June… When I joined the ship this last time, around Halloween, my watch partner started speculating about the weather in November. He, and others, mentioned that the really bad storms come with the transition seasons, particularly fall turning into winter, and winter turning to spring. I already experienced April/May with the worst day of my career back in 2007, and November 2009 also did not disappoint.
A day out of the Straits (Strait of Juan de Fuca, entrance to the Puget Sound, aka, the body of water that makes Washington State look funny, and separates the Olympic Peninsula from Vancouver Island, Canada) we found ourselves going straight into winds upwards of 50 knots with 40 foot seas. That’s about the height of my apartment building. We slowed down through the night to avoid pounding, to the point where we were in hand steering going 4 knots, basically hove to. We were not rolling much, as we were heading into the seas, but we had to be very careful, as the seas could punch the containers in, and we could risk incredible damage to our hull.
Our stern was completely underwater. We had a fire alarm go off in a space on deck, so we had to stop, and turn around about 90 degrees to make a lee for the Chief Mate to investigate. No fire, but the mate was able to snap this photo.
Last season large seas crumpled our huge steel breakwater like an old credit card bill. This year we tried to avoid that kind of damage.
We only punched in three containers, which is a miracle:
After seas like this:
When these 30ft+ seas break, they break containers too!
I never felt like I was in real danger like on other ships and other storms, but it definitely wasn’t pretty, and as little sleep as I got, the Captain hadn’t slept in days. He literally spent all day and night on the bridge. Ok, I know what your next question is going to be: “Isn’t the Captain always on the bridge anyway?” No! The Captain is not a watch stander. I am the Officer In Charge of the Navigation Watch, and the Captain is available when extra help is needed like in heavy traffic, or when transiting especially hairy pilotage areas. When the Captain is on the bridge all the time on the open ocean it means one of three things:(1) He is really obnoxious, (2) you are a crappy mate and he doesn’t trust you, or (3) the shit has hit the fan (or could if we are not careful). I assure you our Captain is not obnoxious nor does he think I'm a crappy mate. Because he was so dedicated to maneuvering the ship safely through the storm for days, we escaped major damage to the cargo, ship, and crew.
When not in huge North Pacific storms, the weather and other environmental factors in Alaska make it difficult to work. In Anchorage, it gets really, really cold. Cook Inlet around Anchorage gets ice anywhere from before October and into April, May, and beyond. The worst of course is in the dead of winter, when the Coast Guard institutes Ice Rules for shipping. These rules basically mean that the pilot and/or Captain must be aboard at all times, engines ready to go, and extra lines put out. The ice can, and has, gotten between the ship and dock and torn them off the dock. Ice doesn’t compress very well.
When we are docking, we actually have to put the bow on the dock at an angle and either let the current move all the ice out of the way, or get a tug to come over and swish all the ice out with it’s prop, before we can come alongside.This makes for long, cold tieups. It sucks working outside for 8 hours in -20 degrees Fahrenheit (not Celsius. If only it were Celsius).
In addition to the ice, Anchorage has the second largest tidal range in the world. It regularly changes by 30 feet in a matter of six or seven hours. Again, that’s about the height of my apartment building. So picture sitting in your boat, or 700ft container ship, and suddenly finding yourself 30 feet higher a few hours later. It is as crazy as it sounds.This makes for a lot of unique problems while docking.
When docking soon after low tide, I literally cannot see the dock. I send my mooring lines UP instead of down like at most docks. I must rely on the Captain on the bridge looking down to tell me by radio when my spring lines are on the bollard. Also, the lines will get pinched between the dock and ship, so they often have to pull the ship off the dock in order for me to pull the lines tight, so we are flat alongside the dock. Confusing, no? The biggest safety issue while docking at such a low tide is that you don’t get your fingers, or head, caught between the ship and the dock stringers. Scary? Yes. Dangerous? Yes. It’s hard to describe, so hopefully these pictures help.
Nearly low tide. At high tide this deck is above the top of the dock. Here I am looking up 20 feet to the dock. Notice the yellow dock stringers? On the stern, if you stick your head out at the gaps, then the ship moves forward, you can be decapitated. Luckily, we have avoided that so far.
The large tides require this unique gangway. At high tide, the center of the gangway rests on the ship's helo deck. At low tide, it is a long, steep hike up and down. This helo deck is a deck above the main deck pictured above.
So after surviving the storms, the ice, and the tidal range of Anchorage, it’s off to Kodiak.
In Kodiak our dock is not protected by a natural or man made breakwater, so our ship surges off the dock, even on a calm day. I mentioned before that my first trip up in 2007, we had a particularly bad day with high winds and a large surge, and we parted 8 lines. When a mooring line parts, if you are caught in the middle, you will be cut in half, and this does happen on occasion. The energy of the line parting can knock you down if you are near, even if the line itself does not hit you. I had a guy that was hit by a line not parting, but just slipping around the capstan, and the force of it broke his wrist in several places, and broke his hip. I had to call for an ambulance, get him into a safe place, and give him first aid. He was in so much pain that he though he had been cut in half. It was very scary, and the worst day of my career. I am very gun-shy around mooring lines now, especially in Kodiak.
Dutch Harbor does not have a surge, ice, or cold temperatures as Anchorage, but it does get hit by very large storms. Luckily we missed the storm that did this:
Gusts up to 125 mph knocked this huge gantry crane over at the APL dock in Dutch Harbor early December. Horizon Lines is servicing APL ships for now. They own an extra crane in this port and may sell it to APL, but it will still be a huge, expensive process no matter how you look at it.
Now that I am safely home, drinking my coffee in my pajamas, I can look at this two-month tour of duty as a success. Nobody was hurt, I made a few bucks, and I’m going to Mexico. Uno mas cerveza por favor!
Here is some really cool sea smoke, which I had never seen before!