Sunday, April 03, 2005

Guarding the Coast.....Cement Shortages....Fear of Dragons and Good Curry

I just finished my 2 weeks of Active Duty.

I did more in 2 weeks as a Boarding Officer in training than I did in 18 months of active duty! My previous activations were complicated by my knee injury that led to my active duty period being more an excersize in ignominy than anything else.

Currently my new reserve unit has me training to be a Foreign Vessel Boarding Officer (as in Law enforcement officer....I'm still enlisted) I participated in eleven boardings, some of them quite "involved" . On the last few I asked to conduct the inspections myself and have an officer point out and correct my mistakes. Despite the tedium of this, they did allow,it and I learned more in two days than I did in 10. I'll not speak to the details of the boarding procedures for security reasons (though its mostly utterly banal stuff) but a few observations might prove interesting.

Merchant Ships with officers from the subcontinent are really squared away ships. I went on several quite old bulk freighters that were nevertheless very well maintained with well trained crews, this later all the more astonishing given the language barriers faced by the Chief mates in dealing with crews of completely different nationalities. The reforms put in place after the Marine Electric Disaster have made a noticeable difference. The quality of ships is markedly better than when I was working for McAllister some 16 years ago. The ships are better maintained and USCG Port/State inspections have real teeth. Of course given recent events, Security is also a high concern but the less said about that he better.

Most of the crews I encountered were fairly homogenous. Usually a crew would be Phillipino or Chinese and the officers would be from another country, usually Greece or a member of the UK Commonwealth (India being highly represented). One Greek Collier had a remarkably diverse crew from 16 countries many Russians on these ships too.

One thing did come through in several conversations with foreign vessel officers (usually the chief mate), These people are very nervous about China. When I was doing facility inspections last year, the owner of a concrete plant related a story of how a Chinese agent tried to get him to break a contract with an american construction company and sell all of his concrete inventory to China! This accounts for the current concrete shortage worldwide. I heard two stories in a similar vein this week. One related how a load of coal had been bought out from under him in another port by a Chinese ship....the coal was diverted to the chinese ship instead of his greatly increasing their port cost and dockage fees, and one chief mate told me that he has noticed that Chinese crews are being put on ships and rotated quickly....his theory is that they are cycling people through to get rudimentary seamanship training. On several ships the topic of Chinas ambitions came up out of the blue, especially for people from South asia and Indonesia this seems to be the thing on everyones mind who is not obsessed with American Idol, Michael Jackson or the wretched Schiavo business.

Finally, on two seperate occasions, when circumstances stranded us on a ship for many hours we were graciously offered dinner by the captains. As the ships were an Indian and Greek vessel respectively, both with superb cooks we ate quite well. (best Curry I've had....EVER :) Talking to these Merchant captains from other countries was also really interesting.

With any luck I'll get qualified in this job by the end of the year. I'll finally get a full qualification in something before switching jobs! Schweet!!

One good point about being moved around a lot in the reserves is that I've done a little bit of a whole lot.

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