Sunday, January 25, 2009

Flocculated in the Mississippi

After a few pleasant days at anchor in Venezuela and an uneventful voyage up
the Caribbean, I find myself again going up my favorite river, the
Mississippi. There was a possibility that I might have been heading off home
from the vessel, and it would have been great to spend a couple of days out
in New Orleans. But as it turns out, I still have a few turns of the log to
do out here.

As we came up the South west pass, it was dusk and the banks of the
Mississippi were actually steaming. I kid you not. There is a wicked cold
front out in New Orleans and the whole day a moist southerly wind was
trickling up the shore. As it came in contact with the cold waters of the
river, I could see the vapors forming on the surface. The effect was great.
Sadly it was quite dark to take a good picture. Going up the Mississippi in
the night is such a pity. Dawns and dusks are brilliant out in the river and
hopefully I'll catch another one going out of here.

A new thing I learnt on the river today is "Flocculation". Its called
locally as "Slush", primararily I suspect because Flocculation sounds so
indecent. The US Coast pilot Volume 5, Chapter 8, describes Flocculation as,

" ... A living mass of jellied material or muck, deposited in the lower part
of the Mississippi, during low stages of the river. It consists of the
suspended material which after being carried downstream by the current,
comes into contact with the relatively still water which breaks into the
passes. This muck has been observed to be as much as 10 to 15 feet deep. It
remains where deposited untill flushed out during high water stages of the
river. Although slowed down by this muck, deep draft vessels are able to
pass through it. Accordingly and because it will be flushed out eventually,
the corps of Engineers do not consider it necessary to remove the material
during low stages."

What the US Coast pilot Volume 5, Chapter 8 does not mention is how the
master of a deep draft vessel feels when his ship is Flocculated (I do like
this word :) ). The effect is very much like running aground. Your ship, one
moment humming its way up the muddy river is suddenly straining and
shuddering as if its stuck in jelly. The speed drops from a nice 10 knots to
something like two knots. The pilot was telling me that once they managed
to move only about 300 meters in four hours through this muck. Its not a
nice thing to experience and I'm not really keen to repeat the experience.

It seems that this happens only in Amazon other then this river, so even if
I can't say I enjoyed it, at least I can say that I was Flocculated!

(Since I couldn't take any pictures of the river tonight, Have put in a
picture of the chaps greasing the crane wire back in Venezuela. I am
personally afraid of heights and now as a Captain, I feel scared when even
others go up those chairs and stages!)

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Marlboro Economics

We have been spending the last few days at anchorage off Venezuela. It is a welcome change as the crew had a lot to do in the days preceding that. The days begin beautifully, but by the time the people ashore get ready to bring us in, the wind picks up and the berthing gets cancelled. Acts of god, we call it out at sea. J

A long time back, my elder brother told me about “Burger Economics”. It seemed that with the rapid spread of Capitalism, a whole new branch of economics was coming up dealing with the pricing mechanism of McDonald’s Chicken burgers. You see, as McDonald opened new stores in new countries, it used local ingredients at local prices and then had to charge a price for its burgers which normal people would pay. Hence though it might charge 1.99 USD for a chicken burger in the US, it would charge only 0.85 cents in India and maybe actually pay the customers 0.20 cents in Rawanda! So by simply glancing at a list of prices of Big Macs around the world, we could get a reasonably good idea about the standards of living and pricing around the world. I realize over time that one should not take everything an elder brother says at face value, but you do realize the immense potential of at least one research paper on the subject.

We seamen have been around for some time. Being in the second oldest profession and constantly discovering new worlds meant that the ship masters over time have had to have an astute and forgiving grasp of the bending laws of economics. Often, captains would land up on an island where the natives had no concept of money. To trade with these people posed daunting challenges that were faced very admirably by our past compatriots. Captain Cook apparently traded a bushel of cucumbers for twelve virgins in the Samoa Islands. A trade which has regrettably declined over the years. Primararily due to lack of fresh cucumbers. I have a theory that this is due to all cucumber farmers being fathers of Virginal daughters. But we shall come to that on a later post.

What we are going to touch now is the complex trade in Cigarettes being done by captains all over the world. When the crowd of port, environment, security, safety and security inspectors board the ship, it is understood that their strenuous efforts at ensuring that their national laws are obeyed, have to be rewarded with Cartons of Cigarettes. I don’t care what the Surgeon general might have to say about them, but I think that Marlboros are an amazingly versatile tool. In the 90’s, when Liquor was allowed on ships, Cigarettes were a largely ignored tool of trade. The immigration officer was hardly going to be tempted to a dead taste in the mouth when Johnny Walker was winking at him from the racks of the bond store. It is since the 2000’s that Marlboro has truly become the global tender among authorities worldwide.

I believe a progressive shipping company should actually promulgate among the whole fleet, the average number of Marlboros dispensed out in the ports worldwide. This would give the master of the ship arriving at a port for the first time, a pretty fair idea about what faces him when the gangway touches the Jetty. For example over the last couple of years, I have had experiences ranging from a couple of cartons in the US to a personal record of 58 Cartons in Ukraine. Of course that is exempting the revered continent of Africa, which is governed by a different set of economic laws of its own. The last time I was in Togo, the agent offered to sell back to me my own cartons of Marlboros for 10 USD so that I could again give it back to him, a second time. The economics for this are a bit tedious and disinterested parties might want to skip the next paragraph.

You see, I had purchased these particular bunch of Marlboro reds, from an unscrupulous (are there any other kind) ship chandler in Panama for 15.75 USD, per carton. Thus a crate of 50 Cartons, cost me 787.5 USD. Now, I need to give this agent a 100 Cartons. So if I give him 50 Cartons at 15.75 USD per carton, then buy them back at 10 USD per carton, I am spending only 500 USD for the second crate of Marlboros. So when I give him back this second crate (which is actually the first crate) I am actually saving the company 287.5 USD. Plus of course, since the first crate (which is also the second crate) never left the ship, it means that agent graciously offers to exempt us the transportation and port dues for supplying the second crate of Marlboro’s (which is also the first crate). Of course I could have offered to buy back the crate of 50 Marlboro’s back a second time and saved us a further 287.5 USD, but under that company regulations, I couldn’t pick up bonded stores from any unscrupulous supplier other then their approved list of unscrupulous suppliers.

Usually the rules of polite Marlboro transaction dictate that one Marlboro carton be given to each person boarding. This law sometimes has to be stretched into the probability sector. Let me give an example. When we arrived at this port, the weather was a bit choppy, so the port authorities send across the Agent to take care of the formalities. Now I am informed that if the weather had been all right, it is probable that five officers would have boarded. So that makes five cartons for those fine gentlemen. Plus it is probable that if the five authorities had boarded, the agent would have probably helped me out with the documentation, so that is a sixth carton for the agent. Now there was a crew change scheduled for this port. So that would entail intervention from the boss of the Authority Since he’s the boss, he of course needs to be given two cartons.

I am currently doing my Extra masters and at the end of it, I am required to submit a research paper dealing with pertinent maritime topics. I think the theories of Marlboro economics might have just enough juice to squeeze out one research paper.

On a parting note, I am often struck by an image of a hot and humid room with the windows open and a fan swriling overhead in a futile gesture. There are six men sitting around a table. All of them smoking, with the person at the head of the table smoking two cigarettes – because he’s the boss.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Singapore Smiley

Location : Venezuela

I have been working for some time of Singapore flagged vessels, but I was
struck by it for the first time today. Is there any one else here who thinks
that the Singapore flag looks like a smiley of an alien with five eyes?

Say now that I am on that thought process, wouldn't the American flag look like a humorless multi-eyed alien? :)

In the background is the small town of Aransas pass on the Corpus Christi
Ship Channel.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

After a duration of many years I have resumed making weather reports out at
sea. We installed the "AMVER SEAS" software on new years and though we're
not catching every synoptic hour, we do manage to send a couple of reports
every day.

For people not in the know, AMVER stands for "Automated - Mutual VEssel
Rescue system" a voluntary ship reporting system operated by the USCG.

During my last contract in the US gulf, as we were tossed around by Gustav,
Hannah and Ike I developed an abiding respect for the USCG and the NOAA. The
NOAA has an amazing website where we could get practically all the info that
I could ever need out at sea. It really is a pity that I don't have accesses
to the net this trip. But anyway, end of last year, we were contact by the
committed people at NOAA and they sent across the software along with a
couple of Hygrometers. The software is easy to use and using it, we can send
both AMVER position reports and NOAA weather reports. For people at sea who
don't have it, you can get it by downloading it from the NOAA website, or by
sending your next port details to the NOAA.

I had stopped sending weather reports because it was a pain to figure out
how many oktas of Cb clouds were between the height range of 800 to 1200
meters. And if they had been increasing or decreasing over the last
specified time interval. Though I might never seem to have much to do, I
always did feel like I had better things lined up then looking for Cb
clouds. The SEAS software rather makes it all easy by giving me 10 pictures
to choose from. For some reason, I always seem to be choosing the same
pictures for the last many days. I think I'm being followed by some clouds.

The second reason I had stopped weather reporting was simply because I
didn't think thy were relevant. I mean, who is going to look at data sent by
someone on a ship when you have weather radars, satellites and buoys giving
you live information. It simply seemed a colossal waste of time. But then it
does seem important to those good fellows at NOAA, so who am I to argue. I
just try to get these reports to them in good time. Also, I'm paying off
those two hygrometers one weather report at a time.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

X-mas, the new year and the year ahead

Location : The Caribbean
If you have ever heard me complaining of how busy I've been, all that pales into insignificance as compared to how busy I've been this last fortnight. I kid you not. The last sane day we had was the 30th of Dec, when we wished the best of new year to the Corpus Christi Pilots, Speaking of Pilots, A couple of posts back one of the Houston pilots had dropped a kind comment. He has a great flikr stream, which you really must see. I think I have put a link to his stream on the left of this blog, but as I'm not on the internet, I can't be too sure.
Picture above is the San Jacinto park on the Houston Ship Channel. The warship moored here is the USS Texas, that has been converted into a Museum. On the way out of Houston, the fog cam down so bad that I couldn't see the bridge of that ship. It was one spooky ride out of the city and I am really impressed with the guys who take ships like ours every day up an down what water body. 
Another reason I'm rather happy with Houston pilots is because of Christmas. I'm not sure if they had anything to be with the birth of Christ, but they sure did give away gifts on the occasion. We spent the Christmas at Houston, and the kind people from the Seaman's centre came over with gifts for the ships crew and brought along with them a lot of cheer that was sorely needed that day. Also as we were leaving, the Houston pilots gave us some neat pens that actually glow when you click them. Very neat if you have to write something on bridge at night. Not only do you not have to look for a torch, but it assures that every one will stop doing anything on bridge and start looking at you. Of course it also means that while writing you have to shout at people to steer the ship, keep lookout, plot the positions etc, but a really cool gizmo.
So thank you all, and a very sincere wish to you all for a safe and happy year ahead.

Happy Birthday Dada

A few days ago my brother surprised me by saying that he actually checks out
this blog sometimes. It was by all accounts a big surprise. :)

So just incase you do drop by here, A very happy birthday.


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