Logbook: Houston to Panama on a merchant ship.
Personal account and impressions of my time on a ship.
06:00 — March 10, 2017
I was shaken awake by an inexplicable, deep, profound rumbling.
And then it was calm. “Was it a dream?” I thought in a groggy haze.
30 seconds passed. Complete serenity. I shut my eyes again.
Then another abrupt feeling. Then a hiss, and 3 full axis’ of longform wave vibration… slowly… methodically began shaking the bed beneath me.
Then it was calm. Definitely… not a dream.
This cycle continued 4 more times. Between the second and third occurrence I realized it was the the 3 story tall, 12,000 HP, 50 metric ton a day bunker-burning main engine of a 225m (738 ft) long, diesel engine starting up.
I was on board a gas tanker ship carrying 44,000 metric tons (mt) of Liquid Propane Gas (LPG) heading to Ningbo, China by way of the Panama Canal.
I threw on my pants, t-shirt, and hardhat, grabbed my camera and headed for the bridge.
The pilots (2 of them) had boarded. Every port worldwide has pilots that know how to navigate the local waters and board every merchant vessel upon approach and departure to guide the ship safely about the intricacies of the local waters. They were on their radios communicating with the tug pushing the front of the ship parallel with the channel.
The pilots were calling out commands to the cadet manning the wheel while the captain and chief supervised.
“20 PORT!” — the pilot shouted in a deep southern Texas accent.
The cadet turned the wheel 20 degrees to the left and shouted: “20 PORT”, in confirmation.
This exchange continued, over and over again the whole morning. The pilot standing, nose to the bridge window, not even looking at the equipment. Just gazing out at the landscape.
Hard Starboard! Hard Starboard! — Mid ship! Mid Ship! — Full steam! Full Steam! — 10 Starboard! 10 Starboard!
I watched in amazement at the non-technical nature of the process. I asked the pilot about his job, and his response: “it’s like an art”… to be clear, he was just shouting out commands at the right time, based on proprietary information they intentionally don’t make public.
The day was peaceful, leaving the Port of Houston sitting up in the bridge working. I got time to catch up. Remarkable how clear and yet clouded your thoughts become as the shore, and everything you know, drifts away into the distance.
I filled my day with research. I asked the crew more questions than I think anyone had asked them before. They were more than willing to answer.
I went down to the engine room for the first time and got to see the low RPM engine running… wow, what a sight, what a sound.
Back to the bridge. I stayed there until night.
Speed seems to be amplified out on the water, in the middle of a moonlit ocean. I didn’t really notice until I was heading back to my cabin, which was not accessible from the inside. I had to go out on the deck and around the back of the superstructure to access the door to my room.
After opening the hatch to go outside, I was shocked by how windy it was. I began to look around. Not just glance, but really look at what was happening around me.
The moon was just shining through the broken cloud formations. The ship felt as if it was flying.
The wind was overbearing. Staring out straight toward the bow, my eyes instantly teared up from the warm gulf gusts. Relative wind speed must have been close to 45 MPH, from dead ahead. It was impossible to tell our heading. There was no light in sight.
The was an immense feeling of awe that overswept me in that moment. Here I was, a spec. A small part of the 25 person crew, all who were nowhere to be found, as this 70,000 DWT ship was flying through the ocean.
The vibration from the engine steadily shaking everything onboard.
Many perceive ships to be steady, heavy behemoths, not easily overtaken by the sea, especially loaded. Well, as many tales say, the ocean is a strangely mystical and powerful force to be reckoned with.
The ship sways. More than you would expect. In every direction. It’s like being gently rocked to sleep on top of a shaky washing machine.
The scale of it all starts to settle in.
The gravity of what we’re doing, and the potential it has to influence so much needed change is immeasurable.
These were my thoughts as I was slowly shaken to sleep.
09:07 — March 11, 2017
I woke to a strange, constant shake. Peeling one eyelid open after the other.
The hum of air howling past the door hatch.
A repeating noise of something tapping a piece of metal below and above me.
It was pitch dark. I wasn’t quite sure where I was. Oh, duh. I was on a ship.
I was in my bunk and I had the blinds closed in my isolated sleeping pod. I fumbled for my phone, only to realize it had died and I had overslept. Damn it.
I whisked the blinds open and still no light… I went over to window, pushed aside the blinds and was blinded with sunlight.
I showered, and threw on some clothes. I missed breakfast, so I took a Cliff bar I brought with me and went to the dining room to pour out what was left of the the coffee and proceeded to the bridge.
The Chief Mate greeted me with a slow “Good morning Mr. Antony” in a deep Russian accent.
NOTE: On board there are 5 languages spoken: Greek, Filipino, Latvian, Russian, and finally English, which is none of the crew’s first language. However it’s the universal language for working on the ship.
I sat down and thought how bad I wanted to check my email. Force of habit. But I had yet to be able to find the crew member I needed to pay to get wifi access code. So I was still in the dark.
I grabbed my notebook and camera and headed down to the engine control room (ECR) to check on the device we had installed. Glen, the ship electrician, had already begun mounting it. I stayed the rest of the morning, helping him mount and reconnect the cables funneling into our prized device.
We headed up for lunch. Fried red snapper with roasted potatoes and pineapple. It was delicious.
After lunch I decided I would head up to the bridge where I stayed for the remainder of the afternoon, reading, documenting, and researching the multitude of strange bridge procedures the crew performs every day.
It really is quite incredible.
A merchant ship is basically a small city, not only floating, but cruising through the water at surprisingly speeds (or so it seems while you’re on board). It’s not meant for comfort, it’s means for efficiency.
It’s a hotel, a power plant, a chemical liquefaction plant, a water treatment plant, a fire station, an ongoing construction site, an architectural marvel, advanced sensor suite, and a data center (a poor one, but nonetheless, a data center). It’s outfitted with survival gear, emergency gear, a Playstation 4, a gym, laundromat, wifi, every critical system has redundant system after redundant system. Every crew member is needed and they work like crazy.
We’re indebted to these people. At any moment something could go wrong, and death is a short throw away.
There is something “fantastical” about being on a vessel like this.
There is nothing around you.
And yet, I feel closer to the world perched out on the outermost tips of the bridge wings. Standing there, 50 ft above the starboard side of the ship. Flying. A full moon brightly illuminating the surrounding ocean all the way through ’til the horizon.
And there’s nothing stopping you.
It is a powerful feeling.
08:00 — March 14, 2017
The ship was swaying more today. It felt like I was on a slowly moving airplane about to land, but the wheels never quite touched down. It just kept adjusting its course, putting the mass metal structure as close to the desired trajectory as it could.
Current and swell and sea all traveling close to perpendicular to the motion of a ship. It reminded me of a high school physics class. If the ship was going 15.4 knots across the river, what course (angle) would it need to set for it’s actual motion vector to be straight across the river.
The only difference, this ship was burning 2.1 tons of fuel per hour.
I sat up in the bridge and resorted to more general “thought” as the ship swayed 5 degrees port, then starboard.
Granted, these weren’t even big seas. Maybe 3–4m swells at most. It was enough that a human would have disappeared behind a subsequent wave. Occasionally water would spray up over the port side of the ship.
*What if the ship, went with the wind for a bit…*
Turning just 15 degrees to starboard. Used the reduction of needed speed over a very long distance to burn less. This would throw its destination off course maybe 25–50 nautical miles over the course of the day, but the ship would be able to drop at least 10 RPM off it’s main engine and still, more than likely, travel at greater than 15 knots speed over ground (SOG). Speed through water (STW) would drop closer to 13.5 knots. As opposed to the current 15.5 knots STW. That’s a 2 knot difference.
This would make for a ~25% savings on this leg (pure drag through water calculation) of the trip’s fuel cost. Question is, what’s the added time and distance they would have to travel to make up their difference in position.
Data could tell us…
This is such a large wasted energy dump. The problem is in the nonchalant nature of how the crew treats speed of the ship on any given leg of the journey. There’s never been significant pressure to. So why would they care? They’re there to get the cargo there on time, that’s it.
Saving even 20% (10 tons of fuel) per day because of a slight deviation would be substantial. That’s about $5000 per day saved. Sounds like a massive potential competitive advantage to me.
But operators in the bridge don’t prioritize that. There’s NOTHING on the bridge that tells them how much they’re burning. It’s not a variable in the operational equation. It’s never been a part of their job. They’re far removed from the problem, and frankly there’s no reason for them to care.
However I’d argue, in today’s world, there should be.
03:34 — March 16, 2017
I was shook awake by a filipino man, yelling “UP! UP! Your boat here off the Starboard side!”
I had told the chief that I was going to be traversing the canal instead of getting off before it.
I made the fatal mistake of not informing the Captain.
Therefore, my papers all said I was getting off the ship before the canal. So subsequently, there was a crew boat, waiting for me off the starboard side of the ship, at 3:30 in the morning.
I called up to the bridge to try to explain the confusion. I was promptly put in my place — I was getting off RIGHT NOW. It was non-negotiable.
I hastily threw my clothes and dignity in my suitcase. Broke my zipper trying to close it and stumbling, dragged my belongings out to the deck. There was a crew of people waiting.
They immediately took a rope and tied the end around my bag…. Then they threw it overboard. They were pushing me and yelling something about me going to the side.
The boat was leaving and I needed to go over to the pilot ladder. (A rope ladder off the side of the ship).
As I got closer, I noticed a staircase they had lowered off the edge and at the bottom, was a boat, 5 m below.
The horn of the ship blew, and startled me a bit. I reached the end of the staircase, and proceeded the last 5 m down to the boat on the ladder. They had untied my bag from the rope and I was welcomed onboard.
They pulled off from the ship and we were off to Panama.
Being out at sea tests you in strange ways.
Often times you’re alone.
Back home in NYC, I’m used to being constantly stimulated, I always have an outlet. On a ship even communication is different. Words are used more sparingly. Time moves differently.
I was able to think.
Mind mind could dive deep into problems with no distractions. When my mind did happen wander, it usually arrived on a novel thought, and I could spend an hour diving deeper on that until it happened again. This went on for 4–5 hours on some days.
Especially at night.
Sitting on the swaying ship’s staircase out on the starboard side of the superstructure, staring at the twinkling stars is surreal. It’s a treat I never get to experience in NYC.
I get why people call it romantic. It’s nothing short of magical — it’s something you just need to experience yourself.
Over the trip I spoke with the Captain, 2nd mate, 3rd mate, chief electrical, chief mechanical, chief of staff, technical superintendent, chefs, engine technicians, gas engineer, the electrician, and cadets. They’re all standout people, and I see why Dorian has the reputation they do. Their crew is nothing short of standout. I was thoroughly impressed by the care they took in their tasks, and their ship.
They really made the trip.
Maritime needs progress.
Imagine a world so stuck in the past, so ingrained in the way things were, that they don’t even see where the major problems are.
Now, ships have so many procedures. So many. It didn’t used to be that way. But it’s the current reality, and it isn’t going to change back anytime soon.
Only more will be added as regulations continue to be applied.
One of the more meaningful quotes from trip was, “Sometimes I feel more like a secretary than I do a Captain” — The Captain.
Well good news, Nautilus is going to help fix that.
To everyone at Dorian LPG, thank you for giving us the opportunities you have. It was a priceless experience.