Wednesday, May 19, 2021

This Week In Shipping, or Everything Is Awful Again

 Well... quite a week we're having. 

        As Peter noted in a great summary about shipping woes this week, Things are looking grim for consumers.  After a couple of years of shockingly low freight rates, bankruptcies, accelerated ship scrapping, an insane and poorly-planned out drastic tightening of global marine fuel environmental regulations, the virtual elimination of competition between mega-corporations and then Covid-19, the shipping industry appeared to look like this:

 But, it's worse than that. Oh, the shipping mega companies are doing well, thank you. Record profits for the largest of them. 

 If you looked at the article above, Peter points out correctly that we're going to feel the squeeze as transport costs get passed to consumers.  This will happen, and is beyond my ability to competently discuss, so I'll leave that be.  I'm more curious about the muddied waters in the trade at the moment. A freight forwarder who wished to remain anonymous noted that the explosion in freight rates the past few weeks is 'largely academic' as there are no more actual spaces left on transpacific shipping for at least the next month. 

     This is pissing off some folks, for sure. Shippers aren't just not taking orders while there's a backlog. Prices continue to rise after a reservation is made. At the point of sale, you pay 'index price,' or whatever the shipper is charging at that moment. However, before your box gets in the queue, you pay any fees levied between having made your reservation and the time of shipping, and some of these, like 'priority fees' that guarantee your box will be on the boat in a timely manner, can be quite steep, in the thousands. 

           It's just as bad for Europe, if not worse. The Loadstar, a trade publication, has recorded that the most recent data indicates less than 10% of ships are arriving on time to Europe. Despite this, there have been a great deal of cancelled trips, as shippers try to get their ships onto some sort of schedule again, despite delays at load and discharge ports because of congestion. 

 And that brings us to congestion as an issue. Mega-terminals such as the one that I work to service, are operating at 100% capacity for extended periods to deal with the insane spike in imports. The shift to larger and larger ships means that, like rush-hour traffic, congestion is an issue even when ports are operating below capacity. I'm watching AIS tracking sites to see where our ships are, as it's not unusual for us to rush rush rush to load a cargo, fussing at the terminal operators to hurry up and fill us up so we can get oil to a ship that is only in port for so many hours and needs fuel, only to learn on topping off our own tanks that they've dropped anchor and will be coming in tomorrow instead... container ships lose MILLIONS by being a day late to port. 

    Another interesting nightmare is that it is getting increasingly difficult to ship stuff to Asia. No, really, shipping companies used to HATE having to ship mostly empty containers across an ocean. They don't make money doing that... but demand for containers is so high at the moment that empty containers are taking priority in loading for export from the US, over, say, actual cargo. 

   It's an odd thing to see, a completely full containership, boxes stacked to the sky, riding high enough out of the water that the prop wash is full of foam from the ships's wheel being so close to the surface, like it would when the ship is in ballast. 

    When your container isn't loaded on the ship it was supposed to be loaded on, this is called being 'rolled.'  Rollover rates are presently a record-shattering 30-50% which says something about the present moment, certainly. In our era of 'just-in-time' inventories, this also means that suppliers have to beef up inventories earlier than in past years, and with at least one shipper noting that they've already sold 80% of their container spots for this year globally, it implies that the chaos will continue at least in the short-term. I suppose that in 2021 there is less focus on long-term, given how unstable things are. 

 Now, a word: I am NOT a logistics person and NOT an industry expert. I am the maritime equivalent of the guy at the rest-stop gas station on the Jersey Turnpike who sullenly puts $15 in 87 in your tank. Except that I also fetch the truck that carries gas to the stat.. you know what, that's not a great metaphor, but you get the idea...but I make my living off of these ships that come to call, and when the industry is a mess, eventually that trickles down into my little oasis of sanity and rationality here aboard the HQ, such as it is. 

Monday, May 10, 2021

Other People's Sea Stories

 Finishing up our cargoes from the weekend (today being Monday), just before lunchtime today, we sailed from a small container ship to the next berth forward, which is one of my employer's lay berths, where we can go to sit and wait for the next cargo load. In the New York harbor area, having 800 feet or so of waterfront property is NOT cheap, and so having a place to tie up when we're not making money is an expensive proposition... and we have four of them scattered around the harbor, by necessity. While we do utilize the anchorages, too, to lie around and fuck off  do maintenance between jobs,  we can't leave barges untended by tugs, and we have a lot more barges than tugs.

 So I am in the lay berth, and with the latest job complete, I was able to file my papers and change clothes (it was raining this morning), and get lunch on the stove finally. 

    Our tug today is crewed with all guys I like. The younger of the two deckhands, an experienced 25-year old, is someone I get along with especially well. We work very well together, and he's very level-headed, and pleasant company besides. 

        So today we had a little delay while waiting to sail from the container ship we were moored up to. While I was waiting for the last of the papers to be passed, the kid and I got talking, as we do, and the subject of family, we're both children of US Navy 'lifers.'  We shared a few of our fathers' navy sea stories... and that got me thinking about how much harder it is to acquire sea stories today. 

       Sea stories are how we come to grip with memories of the past at work. Often really bad ones, sometimes exceptionally good, often both, in hindsight. During my first 'real' voyage to sea, and having grown up on my father's sea stories, both war stories from Korea, and merchant marine sea stories too, I had made peace with the fact that I would never do the crazy and insane shit my father did, and never have the memories to go with it. Things are just too safe and regulated today. 

    Well, turns out, I did acquire sea stories of my own, over time. Perhaps not to the Elysian heights and hellish lows of my father's, but enough to make him laugh, commiserate and be proud that I was living a free life when we got to talking. I'm fortunate enough to have done some shit and come away with just a few little scars, a touch of a limp at times, and some friends and memories I don't regret making. 

     Most sea stories aren't things that happen from your choosing. I met a very nice girl at a bar in Savannah one time, having wandered into the ladies' room by accident while drunk on shore leave. I almost got away with it until a local girl recognized my shoes from under the stall. My friends and I entertained her friends and she for the night as penance for my sins. During Hurricane Ike, at a moment when my ship's survival was absolutely not guaranteed, and I felt the hull hesitate to roll back from a deep roll onto her beam, not just once, but a few times, The captain sent the mate and I into the gyrocompass room to stop whatever was banging around in there before it knocked the gyro off it's stand. Turns out, the captain had a couple of 50lb sacks of his private stock of coffee beans in there, and they're been ripped open, and 100lbs of coffee beans was rolling loose across the deck, and so boxes of stuff were rolling across the beans. Since we were rolling through about 120 degrees of arc and probably pitching through 50-60 during the good moments, I have good memories of me cussing out and refusing the chief mate (one of my closest friends) when he ordered me in the room to lash down the boxes. We went in together, and got rolled, flipped, crushed, hit by sliding and flying objects, he kneed me square in the ear, I booted him in the back of the head, all while flailing around and cursing, sliding over the damn coffee beans... in retrospect, it was hilarious, and in later years, we laughed about it a lot. Hell, I talked to him about 2 weeks ago, and I haven't seen him in years now. We still talk a few times a year. 

 Nowadays, while that particular company no longer exists, there would have been hell to pay over the coffee beans. A Near Miss Report, possibly a Nonconformity Report, and the Safety Managment System would have been chapter and verse all up in our business. And maybe in most cases that is a good thing. We are undoubtedly more safe at sea than ever before... and the truth is that I was a LOT happier when we were left to our own devices when it comes to safety at the micromanagement level. I recognize that a safer workplace increases the odds of everyone coming home. I don't recognize that filling out a Job Hazard Analysis for climbing a fucking stepstool has value to me as a mariner, though. Like anything taken to hyperbole. 

       No risk, no reward.  That is the reality on a longer timeline when it comes to job satisfaction. I speak only for myself, not for my peers or my employer, certainly.  I lacked the temperament to work in an office, no matter how hard I tried, as a younger man. I needed to get some bruises and scrapes to toughen up and live life more deliberately, especially as someone who tried and failed to last at nicer, less physical jobs indoors. I still don't know if having spent years and a small fortune to be a biologist was a mistake or not. I have the occasional regret. 

    Where I don't have regret is the 'holy shit we're all OK!' moments, like when a rogue wave buried the bow of my ship, and 6 of us were working... on the bow. Going underwater deep enough to make my ears hurt, hugging the mainmast up forward and getting knocked down to the deck by the breaking wave as it fell down on us. Guys got washed 150 feet back on that one, one ending up in his underwear after the nonskid deck tore his coveralls right off.  I walked off the deck feeling so alive after that, laughing, all of us laughing, at having had a close brush with disaster. 

 I don't regret that. Look, I had a little sea story to tell from it too. Today, the mate on watch would have been called on the carpet, placed in full proskynesis, and heaven forfend that the vetter or ABS hear about it! Dear Lord! 

    I feel a little bad for the kid I was talking with today. It's so hard to have a good sea story now. We don't drink whether in port or at sea today, and that alone is responsible for much of the improvements in safety on board... but he'll never get sent on a scavenger hunt in a strange city with a grocery list of porn DVD's that the captain wanted and $600 either. And the clerk at one of the porno stores wouldn't be a hot goth girl his age, and he wouldn't have to turn around, down 4 shots of Jamison next door, and come back, put the list on the counter and say "hello, miss, do you have..." and read some of the most degenerate phrases out there, with a pen to check off the titles she did, in fact, have. And then go to another adult video market, facing dirty looks from the taxi driver, to repeat. Four times. 

On the other hand, that was how I got a permanent position as crew on that ship. No more sitting in union halls. And my wife nearly died of laughter when I told her that story. I was smiling too. It was, in hindsight, hilarious. That was my favorite captain to work with. Shit, he was the first person I talked to after I proposed to my wife. 

          We'll find a way to have our own sea stories, I suppose. Perhaps they won't be the high highs or the low lows of our sailor forebears, and maybe I squeaked in under the wire at the time when even being a merchant seaman got boring, but the phrase 'months of boredom punctuated by seconds of terror' still applies to the job. I just hope today's young sailors find enough to keep them satisfied, because right now there aren't a lot of young sailors who stick with sailing as a career, and I believe I know why. It's not an easy job, so it has to be a satisfying one. We NEED sea stories of our own. 

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Ass Kick 2: Eclectic Booger Stew

 We're back to the grind here at HAWSEPIPER's Afloat Global HQ/Center of Excellence in Talking Wicked Good. 

         Last week was a light week. Weather was nice, minus that one day gale we rode out at anchor. This week we're running around like a bunch of idjits again, busy AF. My company was smart though: they eased us into it. We had our break, then, as often happens now, a job pops up for the same day, about 4 hours ahead. Well, that sucks, but so it goes. It's not the work, it's the last minute nature of it, but still, we're rested, we're ready, and there's nothing scheduled for after, so we load and discharge, and wow, dispatch even arranged for us to tie up at a pier with shore access after the job, so we can get ashore and get groceries!

 Oh, wait, no, 5 minutes after we sail, 3 jobs pop up, back to back, starting in 2 hours, so the next 4 days are going to be busy. Oh, and it's going to rain THE WHOLE TIME. 

        Nothing to do but embrace the suck. We're getting paid at least, unlike the poor bastards with those pretty big red tugboats.  

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Big Blow

 Well, yesterday was pretty nautical here on HAWSEPIPER's Afloat Global HQ/ Wind Farm. 

        I was looking forward to spring up here in the northeast. After the last few winters, which were pretty mild in terms of snowfall, Spring lasted about 4 days and then we got heat waves early. 

 This winter, the snowfall was still very mild, but the wind, damn, the wind was insane. We had gales coming in every 2-3 days all winter long. And so, with the days getting warmer, and spring weather here (t-shirts from 11am-3pm, light sweatshirts otherwise), I thought we were done with the gales. But sadly, nope. It blew its balls off yesterday, and we got the weirdest hull resonance going from the waves, so these waves of motion were causing the hull of the HQ to flex a few inches at bow and stern, about twice a second, and about 3-6 inches, all damn day. 

    3-6 inches is a hell of a lot of flex, and while the current HQ is still relatively new to me, the hull is not. The original HQ is a sister to this one... and it's a flexible thing, very forgiving to hull stress... it's just the weird ass motion yesteday made our feet itch and did funny stuff to the middle ear. It felt almost exactly like driving over well-laid cobble roads, if you've ever done that. Sleep was possible, although the vibration was funky, it wasn't unpleasant, a lot like being underway in a strong chop. And sleep we did. Noisy, though. Everything was squeaking with the resonance. The cabinets in the galley, the plates in the cabinets, the silverware in the drawer, even the toilet seat was chattering a bit. 

 And you know, still it was 10x better than dealing with a shitty swell at sea.