By Captain Ranganathan Narasimhan
The Welsh poet George Herbert had once said, “He that will learne to pray, let him goe to Sea”, implying how the ship and its crew are always at the mercy of the sea and its weather. APJ Uma Kismat, acquired in Hong Kong earlier this month, sent me into a flashback of my adventures as a part of the crew of numerous ships during my career. This unique, often treacherous work environment on high seas, has brought its own set of thrills, perhaps unheard of, in terms of physical danger that one can be in, personally as well as material damage, that can occur in the assets of the employer under one’s charge. Two and half decades later after having worked in Bulk Carriers, Product Tankers and Chemical Tankers, today, when I look out of the window of my work place at Apeejay Shipping’s headquarters in Kolkata, I don’t see the sea but I can see that the foundation of my success is rooted in the individual sense of enterprise and hunger for knowledge.
I distinctly remember how after I joined my first ship as a Cadet (deck apprentice) in 1993, I departed from the port on my very first day as a sea farer. As I became an officer, I used to particularly ask my employers to send me on their difficult ships because I used to enjoy challenges.
On my first ship as Chief Officer, while passing Japanese coast on a ballast voyage from US to Korea, during the morning watch, there was loud sound and suddenly the vessel’s vibrations which will be present with the engine running stopped. The duty engineer called me and requested me to immediately ask the Captain to come down to the engine room. I called the Captain who went down and after he came up, I could see that his face was awash with no emotions. That’s when I came to know that the intermediate propeller shaft had broken. The breaking of intermediate shaft is an extremely rare occurrence. We soon called a Japanese Coast guard vessel to assist the vessel by towing her away from an island towards which she was drifting due to current. The coast guard vessel tried towing for 24 hours both from the bow and from the stern. She did her best to atleast hold our vessel in position. My vessel was much bigger in size. The Company meanwhile arranged for a Salvage tug to tow us to a major Shipyard in Korea for repairs. Since the propeller shaft was loose, the vessel could not be towed. With the propeller turning freely and wobbling, once the vessel started moving, water started leaking into the engine room. To be able to move without any water ingress, the propeller had to be kept lashed and also lifted above water. The vessel was 4 meters down by head and the propeller boss (mid-point) was brought above water. The ship’s shearing force (a measure of balance of loads and buoyancy) was 157%. Generally it should always be under 100%. We secured the propeller both from inside using heavy blocks and from outside using thick wires. All these securing were done by the ship’s crew. Only then the vessel could be towed. She was thereafter in shipyard for 65 days to get a new shaft. These kind of things are only read in text books and hardly experienced.
At the Mercy of the Sea
I recollect once when I was the Chief Officer on a Bulk carrier and we were in the middle of Atlantic Ocean and facing a storm of force 10-11. While all heavy weather precautions had been taken and I was on the bridge with the Captain and the vessel was rolling and yawing heavily, we could see that the parking crutches of two of the ship’s crane jibs (lifting booms) had broken from the base and the jibs started to move. The momentum was such that, slewing brakes of both the cranes were not able to hold, which means that two cranes, which were originally parked facing each other, were swinging and hitting the crane post of each other. The each jib had a weight of around 11 tons. It was a terrifying experience. We also saw the forward life-raft had come off its cradle and was fully inflated and lying on the starboard main deck. The main deck was awash with waves measuring up to 2-3 metres in height. The only thing that prevented the life-raft from getting washed overboard was the thin rope from the raft that had got entangled on the ship’s railing. It was necessary that the life-raft be recovered and the crane jibs secured. It was difficult to get the crew to agree to go on the deck in such life threatening weather but they relented to accompany me after lot of coaxing and pep talk. I took a handful of people including the Boatswain, fitter and 2 crew, along with life-jacket and lifeline. While walking on deck, a huge wave swept the ship and the water was about a metre above all of us. With all the rolling, pitching and yawing, I somehow went near to the life-raft, cut the rope with a knife and brought it aft. Then went up the cranes and secured both the crane booms by tying them along with the crane posts using strong wires and securing arrangements. The Captain to ease our movement had heaved to the weather and minimized the rolling but the swell continued. He was a veteran and faced many such storms but never such an instance and later shared with me that when he saw the deck awash with water due to the wave and none of us were visible, his heart skipped a beat and he was praying fervently. Actually my wife was sailing with me and she had peeped through the porthole and saw the huge wave drowning 4 to 5 people. She came to know only later that I was one amongst them!
On another occasion, I was the Master on a chemical tanker loading Petroleum products at Limbe in Cameroon. The port had only one berth attached to a refinery and it was open to the Atlantic ocean. As we were alongside, we suddenly started experiencing long swells coming from South Atlantic Sea. The weather was fine, there was no heavy winds but the swells were increasing. With the increasing swells, in spite of doubling the ropes, the ropes started parting. It was night time. I asked the Chief Officer to shut the cargo operations and disconnected the loading arm and hoped to keep the vessel alongside by continuously tightening the mooring ropes. The vessel continued to surge badly and more ropes kept parting. I requested for the pilot and tugs to cast off the vessel. The terminal informed that the Pilot had gone home to Douala, a city nearby, on weekly off and will take 8 hours to come if summoned. The tugs which were nearby were called and were pushing the vessel to keep her in position but the vessel was surging along with the tugs. The terminal asked me if I could take the vessel out myself. As it was unsafe for the vessel to continue to stay alongside, I asked for the tugs to be secured and maneuvered the vessel out of the port myself without the pilot. The challenge was that it was a very tricky maneuver and had to be done with very good co-ordination with the tugs. Being nighttime, I also had to keep in mind all the navigational hazards which were unlit. Not a comfortable situation to be in. Such kinds of swells were quite rare for the port but had happened in the past. I called the company after the entire operation had concluded and I came to the anchorage late in the night. They said that they were unable to help me but fully supported my decisions and actions. They were happy that their asset was safe and there were no accidents.
Trial by Fire
On another occasion, when I was sailing as Chief Officer on a fully loaded product tanker, there was an explosion and fire in the engine room. This happened while approaching Singapore for discharging close to Horsburgh light. It was early morning and I was forward attending an emergency anchoring operation when this happened. Thanks to good emergency preparedness drilled into the ship-staff, by the time I rushed back, the crew had already commenced the fire-fighting in full swing. I released CO2 into the engine room after the Chief Engineer requested me due to the extent of fire. He was injured, could not move much and could only murmur. Releasing CO2 is something very few people may ever get to do. Thereafter, once the fire had died down, we had to assess damages and prepare the vessel for discharging. The entire cabling in the engine room had got burnt. Singapore Shipyard refused to take a loaded vessel and the cargo terminal refused to take the vessel in without CO2 system working again. Within 72 hours, the entire bank of CO2 bottles were disconnected, landed, refilled and fitted back. Make-shift cabling was done for just one generator and only one cargo pump and one ballast pump could work. The vessel was towed and berthed with tugs along-side. During cargo discharge, I used to sleep on the main deck near the cargo manifold. After discharge, the vessel stayed in a shipyard for 11 days to get the cabling done. However, the engine room continued to be in a very bad condition. The vessel had lost all oil major approvals which is necessary to get charters on tankers and so they could not get any cargo at all. The company managed after great efforts to get one dirty product cargo under the condition that before she goes to the discharge terminal, the vessel will clear at least 2 oil major vetting inspections one after the other. The Superintendent requested me to somehow get the engine room ready for the vetting inspection as the engineers were totally stretched to attend to various machinery. For nearly 10 days, I worked with half the ship’s crew in the engine room to get the engine room ready while I was deputing and monitoring the other half on deck to get it ready for inspection. The Vessel cleared both vetting inspections with minimal findings. It was followed by few more such inspections soon after, all of which were cleared.
In Severe Weather
I was sailing as a Chief Officer on a product tanker on a voyage from Europe to New York. There was severe icing on the deck and the ice had completely covered the air vents for all the cargo tanks. With my entire deck crew, I had to work in sub-zero temperature to clear all the ice so that the vents get cleared. I also had to get the vessel’s decks cleared for discharging in US.
One thing common in all of my adventures and crisis management at sea is that I had a great team every time. Each of them rose to the occasion. My observation of my seniors who taught through their conduct how to be and how not to be too has been important. Being a dependable professional, a supportive and engaged team member or a leader has a few foundational values in common and this is why the lessons I have learnt so far from my 24 years in the Shipping Industry are these :-
a) Never judge or stereotype someone on the basis of your own limited assessment of their past; people can surprise you. You need to spend some time and effort to find their spark and fuel it to see hitherto unseen results.
b) Do not decide on something till you have analyzed it thoroughly.
c) Do not give up on something or someone till the best possible effort has been applied.
d) Share your knowledge and experience with your colleagues and help them grow and you don’t have to worry about your own growth; it follows naturally.
e) Every moment gives an opportunity to learn and to make things better.
f) It is the People who make all the difference, in addition to processes, invest in people; they will make sure that your processes succeed.
Looking back, from my first day as a cadet till now, just after the acquisition of APJ Uma Kismat, my professional life has been providing lessons aplenty. While in the pursuit of better standards and better quality, I try to keep each of these in mind during my interactions with our most crucial asset – our ship-staff and try to ensure that I am as empathetic as possible and pass on whatever little wisdom I might have gained and of course keep myself open for more lessons to learn.
Captain Narasimhan is Director, Operations & Commercial, Apeejay Shipping Limited. A Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Ship Brokers (FICS) UK, a member of Nautical Institute, UK & Company of Master Mariners of India (CMMI), committee member in Indian National Shipowners Association (INSA), he has also been a visiting faculty at a logistics school in Chennai teaching shipping business and dry-cargo chartering to MBA students.