It’s the happy hours. I was early and excited, after all, I was meeting Rishi and Ashima after 2 years. The ambience of the pub reminded me of a place I had been to, near the port of Rotterdam. The last voyage at sea was a long one with so many cheerful memories. My finishing gulp of Mojito was disrupted by a hard tap on my shoulder. Off came the burst of mint drink through my lips and lay on the table.
“Who is that! @#$%# ”. Rishi and Ashima had their burst of laughter. “ Sorry Mate, Did not mean to. Are you alright? “. “Of course, you did not. @#$“, I replied and hugged them.
“Sorry, we are so late. I tell you, these bosses should be sent to the Himalayas at least for an year. They can have their peace of mind and pass on at least a fraction of that to us.”Ashima grunted.
I grinned back and said, “You could always switch to this side. Work on contract basis for four to six months. Every new contract has a new boss. Problem solved.”She sulked more.
“However”, I said, “For those four to six months there is a good possibility you will be spending the same amount of time with your boss you would have spent here at your office”.I was grinning more already.
“You have been at sea for so long. You must be having so many stories to tell. Tell me, how did it all start? how did it feel when you joined the ship for your first voyage ever? How were your days at sea? Tell me, I always wanted to hear those stories”asked Rishi.
I shifted my eyes and started scanning back to good old days when it all began.“
Well, I started off as a junior engineer. My first was a container ship. It was on this ship that I sailed across the Pacific Ocean for the first time from Japan to Panama. A good thirteen days voyage including crossing the International Date Line which makes you skip a day in your life. Rishi was feeling amused already.
I used to wake up every day around 0600 hrs. Drag myself off the bed, slide the curtain, watch the sun and the sea, a deep breath and get ready in that uniform of mine. White shirt with epaulettes and dark blue trousers.
It is mandatory for juniors to be in uniform once they step out of their cabin. Paratha or scrambled eggs were the choices for breakfast. One can’t be too choosy on a vessel with multinational crew in open waters. On ship the meal timings are fixed. It is an expected decorum of things. However, you can visit the pantry day and night for those noodles and ice creams.
By 0715H, I used to be in the officer’s changing room to put on the yellow boiler suit and other safety gears. Being in the engine department, donning the boiler suit, safety – helmet, gloves, goggles, shoes and ear muffs is the basic safety standard.
I used to reach the Engine Control Room by 0730H for the Work Planning Meeting. Usually Second Engineer (second in command in Engine department) heads it. We would discuss the day’s work to be undertaken. What motor has burnt and needs repair, what cooler needs cleaning, what pump needs overhaul. Stuff like that.
Also, who is going to take which job, who will need an extra hand was decided upon. The safe work permits, transfer checklist were discussed with the involved personnel.
Next sign offs, promotions and shore recreational visits were also given their due 5 minutes. I was usually asked to be with a fourth Engineer, to assist and learn as it was my next rank to be.
Other than the regular and break down jobs, there is the concept of Watch-keeping on board ships. Watch-keeping applies to both, the engine and navigation department.
Watch keepers are people who ensure safe voyage amid the precarious weather and sea traffic in open waters, people who ensure uninterrupted power, propulsion, water, etc to fuel the ship, its cargo and its people safely from port A to port B.
In the engine department, out of the four engineers namely – Chief, Second, Third, Fourth – the latter three do watch keeping on board.
Coming back to work planning meeting. Out of the three engineers at least one is on watch keeping. He will ensure safe, efficient operation and readiness of the machinery. The other two will be engaged in planned and break down maintenance jobs as discussed during the work planning.
The temperature in the engine room used to be soaring at 45+ deg. C and the noise will be at its usual roaring level. I assisted in organising the tools and spares, cleaning and other odd jobs as required.
A tea break used to appear between 1000H – 1030H and a lunch break between 1200H – 1300H. The break timings were seldom consumed by the work at hand. There was another tea break between 1500H-1530H which served the purpose of reviewing the day’s work and decide upon the next day’s job. Headed by the Captain, the review meeting had senior officers, safety officers and senior ratings as participants.
1700H the work used to end for the day, however, the watch keeping officer was on continuous duty for the day and following night and keeps a check on running machinery. He used to do two thorough inspections of the Engine room and essential ship’s safety/fire fighting equipment at 1600H and 2100H.
Thereafter, he switched the Engine Room to Unmanned Machinery Space (UMS) mode. This is an electronic setting( with accessible panels in all important public places) available on most merchant ship these days which lets the watch keeping engineer have the engine room remotely under his supervision.
In case of any fault/abnormality in the engine room, the UMS electronic panel raises an audible alarm alerting the engineer of the problem. He even has a panel in his personal cabin letting him acknowledge the fault in the night hours and reach the Engine Room to address the problem.
As the second engineer was my assigned mentor on board, on his watch keeping days, I used to go for inspections with him, learning from him as much as I can.
Weekdays were hectic and tiring. Work hours used to get extended more often. It was a solid learning experience. After getting off from work somewhere between 1700H to 1800H (on a good day), I used to rush to my cabin, clean up, put on the uniform with epaulettes and reach for dinner.
Dinner is early on a ship, between 1800H to 1900H. A customary stroll to the Crew smoke room followed. This is was the best hour or two I got to interact with the people on board. We had a multinational setup, a total of 4 nationalities on board at that time. I used to hear their stories, their culture. I reciprocated with mine.
It used to get amusingly embarrassing sometimes as they used to pull my leg for I was the most junior one around – the one with the least sea experience. A sailor has abundant wit and humour, I found out in those interactions.
By 2100H, I would be lingering around the computer / satellite phone room. More than often, the third Engineer used to be on phone with his girlfriend. He was really nice and would let me call home from his calling card. A calling card used to cost US$ 50 and lasted for 55 minutes. Thus, on most days, I would stick to emails.
2200H to 0000H was the time I was already in my cabin, finishing a bit of training book and dozing myself off to sleep listening to Coldplay.
Weekends were different. Actually, we had the luxury of do-as-we-like weekends only at open sea. Safety checks, alarms and emergency equipment checks were rigorously done, which was not possible during the week.
Drills were held to prepare us against the dangers a ship at sea faces – Fire, Piracy, Man overboard, Oil Spill to name a few. This was all the day’s work and the evenings were to make merry. Saturday evenings beamed with recreation and leisure activities – dips in the swimming pool, karaoke, cakes, dancing, bingo bets, poker and so on. Sundays were off (except for watch keepers of the day).
An amusing fact – There is an unsaid practice I found out which crudely applies to any merchant ship with an Indian Captain. Biryani for Lunch on Sundays. No matter what ship, what company or what part of the world you are in. More so, my count-down included the number of biryanis left before I will sign off from the ship.
Well, Rishi, I guess you would have got the idea by now.” with a sly smile I looked back at him. He smiled back.
“Dude, it feels like a different setup. A different world out there. Though, I would want more details on the weekend ‘leisure’ activities part. Port visits, you missed out on the port visits. What are they like, what all you get to see and…?” Ashima spoke this time with a streak of excitement.
“Well, it is truly a different world. More on leisure activities and port visits some other time. I am starving and you guys didn’t let me finish my drink either. Let us order something”, I said.
“How about lamb Biriyani?” Rishi smirked. We all did.
Related post: Merchant Navy problems: Life of a Marine Engineer
Image credit: Shubham Somani