Crew changes and the waiting game

October 6th, 2008 by scott and becky

On Friday night we headed out of Port Everglades destined for Freeport, Bahamas. Freeport is only 80 miles from Florida, so the trip over did not take long. The MSC Alessia reported in to Freeport at 2330 (11:30 pm) on Friday but we did not actually go to Freeport. We entered the port limit and radioed in our position. From there, we moved out a safe distance and let the ship drift.

Becky sitting in the Captain's seat - MSC Alessia

Becky sitting in the Captain's seat - MSC Alessia

It is intriguing the way this is done. The ship is placed a safe distance from all the other ships, the engines are shut down, and the “not under command” signal (red over red) is set. The ship continues to drift until there is a need for it go someplace, or we get too close to land. We drifted until midway through the afternoon on Saturday. The Gulf Stream passes between Florida and the Bahamas and is a 3 knot current, so in the time we were adrift, we moved half way back to Florida!

The MSC Alessia is not scheduled to enter Freeport for the next few days. Exactly when it will enter is not clear, the estimated time of landing changes at least once a day. We are at the mercy of the MSC freight director in Freeport, who is waiting for other feeder ships to deliver more cargo from throughout the Americas. We expect at least two and as many as four days before we go to port. However, we did have a crew change scheduled for Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday evening, the new Third Mate came on board, and on Sunday morning after the handover of duties was completed, the old Third Mate was discharged. Since we are not in port, this process requires a small boat to deliver and retrieve the changing crew.

To prevent the need of the small boat to travel too far (the seas are quite wavy from the small boats perspective, but we don’t really notice it on the ship), the MSC Alessia was manoeuvred to within half a mile of the port. We do find it quite interesting that they move this huge ship (with the associated fuel and personnel costs) rather than moving the smaller boat further or delaying the exchange until we are in port. Manoeuvring the ship towards the port turned out to be a little more challenging than it should have been. There was a tanker in our path to the port that was not answering any radio calls. The mate and the captain manoeuvred the MSC Alessia around the tanker, but with no radio contact it was a bit challenging. Half a nautical mile is lots of clearance in a sailboat, but not quite as much between two 300m freighters. A small boat came alongside, and the gangway was lowered. The new 3rd mate climbed on board and the excitement was over for the evening.

Something we learned about fuel tankers is that they almost never stop moving. The exhaust gases from the engine are scrubbed and used as an inert gas to fill the fuel tanks. This is to drive out the oxygen from the tanks so a stray spark can’t ignite the fuel. While waiting to dock, they putter back and forth at 1-2 knots rather than anchoring or drifting.

While we were trying to capture the excitement of the crew changeover with our cameras, Becky ran into a little party happening on the deck. A few of the crew were snacking and drinking beers. Upon seeing us, they immediately invited us to join them. Of course, we would never turn down the opportunity to meet more people and a beer was also a nice bonus! It was our first opportunity to spend off-duty time with the crew, and it was nice to get to know Fernandez, Arturo and David. The conversation was mostly dominated by David, a young German officer-in-training. He is training to become a ship’s engineer. He explained that Saturday night is the closest thing to a “night off” they have, because they only work from 9 – noon on Sunday. They work from 9 – 5, Monday to Friday, and 9 – 3 on Saturday. They also work whenever something needs to be done and when they are in port, they may also sit a special port watch (like gangway watch – supervising the comings and goings on the ship). David entertained us with his colorful commentaries on the different places he has been. He has an excellent ability to reproduce accents, although his English involves a bit too much profanity for Becky’s taste. Perhaps there is something to the saying “Swearing like a Sailor”.

On Sunday, we were awake in time to observe the maneuvering associated with the departure of the off duty Third Mate. This should have been a standard procedure; however it was Sunday, and the driver of the relief boat was either particularly incompetent or suffering a wicked hangover. First, he took several attempts to successfully come alongside. Then after the transfer was complete he seem to be completely unable to get his boat away from the ship. He kept backing the boat up and then going forward directly into the ship. It was very comical – with the Captain, the First Mate, and everyone else watching chortling with amusement. Scott commented to the First Mate that we must have had an electromagnet engaged drawing the boat to the ship! It took the boat driver almost 10 minutes to break away.

Scott sticking his head out of the bow on MSC Alessia

Scott sticking his head out of the bow on MSC Alessia

After this excitement, the boat headed out to the coast of the Bimini Islands on the Grand Bahama Banks and set anchor. At anchor, the engines get shut down, so it’s a good time to do maintenance. Since it was Sunday the ship was rather quiet in the afternoon with everyone enjoying their weekly time off. In the evening however, we had great excitement. Anchoring outside Freeport and waiting for cargo seems common on this route, and the Captain has found a great spot. Because we are at anchor in relatively shallow waters (20m below the hull, so about 32 meters of water), the crew go fishing. Yes, that is correct, fishing off the back of a freighter! We certainly never imagined this would be part of the journey! Becky expected to see people fishing with fishing poles, but that is not how it is done. The crew is mostly from the Philippines and they are excellent fisherman using only a line and hooks. The line is wrapped around a cylindrical object (a pop bottle, an old can, whatever is at hand). Each line has a weight and several baited hooks. At least one of the fisherman was using a large bolt as a weight. Fishing reduced to its bare essentials! More than half the crew participated, but only the Chief and Second Mates was there to represent the officers.

Scott showing off some of the earlier catches

Scott showing off some of the earlier catches

The fishing began before dark, but is wasn’t until after sunset that the excitement began. Several lights were placed at the stern pointing directly at the water. The lights attracted the fish, which made the process much more effective. At first, they were catching many small red snappers (about the size of a hand), but eventually they also caught some larger white fish (about a foot). At one point a two to three foot fish was caught and being hauled up, then … scary music here … a chomp, and what gets brought up is only the head and top 2 inches of the fish. A shark was prowling in the waters and ate the bottom three quarters of the fish! Then it happened a second time. It was quite amusing to see the heads of the fish being brought up on the lines. We could see the white form of the six foot shark swimming about around the stern of the ship looking for other tasty tidbits. Eventually the shark left, and many more fish were caught and barbequed.

Oops, a shark got most of this one!

Oops, a shark got most of this one!

We didn’t stay up late enough to enjoy the barbeque, but the crew saved us a few fish, and we enjoyed them for lunch the next day. Very yummy!

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