INCIDENTS OF My TRAVELS to
NEVER SEEKING ADVENTURE YET ADVENTURE FINDS ME
Service Call - Spring 2009
The burs and frayed strands of the hemp rope burned in my bare palms. Not a problem under normal circumstances, I would simply let go and re re-grip with care and continue, but this was not normal circumstance and I had to grip harder and ignore the pain. I held on as if my life depended on it. Because it did, literally.
I hung precariously on a Jacob’s ladder.
What is a Jacob's ladder? Well, that is the same question I have asked just moments ago.
The cause of my current dilemma was an emergency service call. An LMSR (Large, Medium-Speed Roll-On/Roll-Off) transport ship that was trying to dock in Jacksonville Florida refuses to go astern (backward) and as a result, cannot dock. It has been circling five miles out in the Atlantic for a couple of days. The perpetrator of the current problem, a computerized propulsion system that my company replaced five years ago had a computer program that ‘changed' its programming! The mechanical engineer insists on this, all other mechanical components verified to be working. A corrupt program must be the only solution. The emergency was that every hour of ship run time consumed 1500 gallons of diesel fuel. Like a shark, the ship must always be in motion while away. With my 12 hours delayed response her tanks are almost depleted.
I did not write the program in question, my three bosses did and kept it close to the cuff. When awarded such a prestigious job they planned proprietary rights for future conversions. Yet when this call was made none of them wanted to respond. During the installation, I was the one in charge of the demolition and replacement. Spending 6 months on the ship while at a Bayonne dry-dock running the work crew. After a long day’s work, my crew crossed the river and partied it up at New York’s Times Square while I stayed and filed the late hours with documentation of the day's activities. Redlining modifications and organizing schedules for the next day’s activities. My only compensation for the trip was the assignment an officer’s quarters where a view of the Statue of Liberty was available from the porthole in my cabin. As ship life became my commonplace, getting up in the mornings I would greet her form in the dawning light. "Mornin' Libby!"(My constant friend and I on first-name basis by then), the New York skyline a haze in the morning mist behind her. I would head down to the mess hall for breakfast where I would discuss the day’s plans with the Chief Engineer then. Schedule crane usage with the Boatswain to lift our heavy cabinets seven levels in or out from the engine room. Then continue even further down to the bowels of the behemoth for another 12-hour workday.
At the end of the day, the same occurred. Documentation, scheduling. Over and over again. This experience informed my decision against incumbent management position offers.
The job concludes with a successful sea trial and the gratitude of Military Sealift Command, we thought it was the end of that. The ship now self-reliant, she did not need our service agreement. Our company decided not to pursue further ship jobs. Too many regulations.
In the five years since I have settled into an undemanding job for the same company as a resident engineer at a soap factory, basic unchallenged work, but with the factory being a mile from my home I settled for this banal existence. Daily I would wake, walk the tracks to work, settle into a small desk in our company trailer where I would create spreadsheets of existing process hardware that need upgrades, investigate that my part numbers match the existing hardware and then walk the tracks home at end of the day. Every day the same mundane activity. So often did I walk that I soon realized my physical tolerance for the 40-minute one-way trek was only between 10 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. One sixty-degree afternoon as I prepared for the afternoon walk home I get an urgent call from my project manager. "Gil! Drop everything! You gotta go to Florida!"
"Sure. Tomorrow?" absently considering if I should detour to Dairy Queen for a Dilly bar during tonight’s walk home.
"No. Now! You have to be on the Jacksonville docks by 6 AM!"
The current time was 5 PM CST, six Florida time. I was still a good half hour from home. My mind was computing the logistics as he explains the situation over the phone. To find a flight to Jacksonville that late in the evening would be tough. Even tougher to be riding against traffic to the airport I pointed out. "I'll take care of it." The manager assures.
He did not. Chicago flights to Jacksonville were not as common as to tourist destinations. Littered with multiple east coast layovers his plan had me landing a full hour past the demand time. Unsatisfied, I rearranged the schedule for a red-eye to Orlando, then hours driving a rental on the darkened Beeline highway. On the way, I am fighting off sleepiness and fatigue of the day by singing with the radio at the top of my lungs, slapping my face and punching my chest. Windows wide open so the cold air hits my waning system. I arrived at my destination in the predawn light. Parking at a hotel across the docks, I walked over and waited for the appointed time slumped on a hitching post, my test equipment, and tools at my feet. I am soon approached by the Chief Engineer and his first mate from a sister ship, they too are here to help with the problem. Both surprised to see me already there. “You came from where?”
How are we to get on the ship, I asked. The fact of the implication that we were going to be Helo’d in excited me; I have never been on a helicopter. However, news soon came that a growing storm was too strong for an aerial approach. There's a storm? It started to drizzle on the docks.
A new plan was hatched, we are going by Zodiac boat. The three of us jump into the small inflatable raft with potent engines and take off, skipping on smooth waters was promising but as soon as we breached the break wall we were met the rage of five-foot waves. The pilot slowed and deferred to our decision but the look on his face betrayed his concerns. We turn back.
The last option was a Pilot boat. An aluminum transport with an enclosed cabin that meets ships to move crew and equipment to and from the approaching vessels without requiring docking. This was our solution we boarded promptly and took off.
Passing the break wall we ride the violent waves. Unexpected undulations, unpredictable directions, rising, falling, floating midair until the pull of gravity crashes us on hard water. Our frail bodies are jerks about in the enclosed cabin. I was sitting sideward to the attempted forward momentum and soon began the motion sickness. I never get motion sickness. Nauseous, my mouth watered up and chokes me with the urge to spew I swallowed copiously the excess buildup of bile tasting saliva to belay the instinct to release. It works and with an adjustment in my seat, the dizziness dissipates, but not without an injury. In an unexpected roll, my thumb jams between the back of the chair and a strut on the wall, the pain like that of getting a car door slammed on it. Damn, I'm going to lose that nail!
As I attended the thumb, sucking the pain away, the pilot yells, "There she is!"
I look out of his forward window and see nothing. Just waves and storm clouds. How can I be missing it, the ship is 900 feet long and seven stories tall! A sideways building on water. I soon realize that when he yelled it we were on the rise of a wave and as soon as we crested and fell to the other side of the wave and the ship appears, blocking our view of everything. A gray metal wall towered before us.
A thought occurs to me at that moment, during dry-dock our only access to the ship was a steadied stern ramp always lowered. This extended rear ramp is where tanks, troops, and supplies would be loaded onto the ship while docked. Foolishly, for those months I have never considered any other forms of access. Even during the sea trials after the installation, we boarded and disembarked when the ramp was deployed and secured. A process that took up to two hours.
"Are they going to lower the ramp for us?" I yell in the din.
They all look at me stunned for a moment then guffawed. "No! We are going up by Jacob's ladder!"
"What's a Jacob's ladder?"
The rope was thick and damp with evenly knotted intervals spaced to hold slats of wood for rungs. A sailor’s contraption known as a Jacob's ladder. We are now standing on the roof of the Pilot boat’s cabin, exposed to the elements and only a low rail against our shins keeping us from going overboard. The ship, empty of cargo, rode higher on the water and the bottom rung of the ladder above our heads just beyond reach. But the swelling waves brings the bottom rungs near, but briefly, and in reach for an instant before the pilot boat is bounced away from the ship’s hull. As one swell rises us near…
“JUMP!” the pilot’s yell barely a whisper.
I lurch hands out, eyes bleary with rain droplets, and tools hoisted on hips. Attempting to use the rail as leverage but its slickness makes me slip a bit, enough to barely purchase the bottom rungs with my hands only, slipping rope burning my palms. My feet dangling, panic kicking trying to find the last rung. My left eventually lands on it it but my right keeps missing. I pull up with my few points of contact but find myself stuck. One foot still dangling and kicking contorts the ladder. The slat is not where it should be. Struggling to find a balance and still not realizing the mechanics that pulling one side of the rope towards you causes the other to push away, all the while needing to step from one unsteady rung to the next requires synchronicity in motion. The counterweight of my laptop and tools slung over a shoulder and off my right hip is no help and puts me further off balance. No problem, I will just step back down to the boat and restart with a better grip.
I look down and find that the pilot has moved away to not be buffeted against the behemoth's hull in the rage of waves. He will approach again for the next person once I clear my ascent. Directly below me is the swelling ocean waiting to swallow me up if I miss a step or let go. The view mesmerizing, for a moment there, I think I hear Odysseus' sirens.
I cannot go down I can only go but up. The perilous situation suddenly dawns on me. I’m gonna die here! If only I had accepted the life vest.
Ah, yes the life vest. An oversized Styrofoam stock that protruded straight out from my chest when worn. I would have had to climb all the way up the ladder at arm's length. I can't do that. I refuse it. "He doesn’t want the vest…" was the radio call to the boatswain waiting for us three stories up. A concerned "…all right." Was his delayed response.
My foot finally catches the rung and I am finally stable with all four points on the swinging ladder. Bouncing off the gray wall with every sway. My knuckles meet the slick steel every time. My grip so hard that I wring the moisture from the held rope.
I soon figure it out. Keep both hands on the rope, no matter the pain. Move one foot up, place, then the other, place. Then one hand up and finally the other. Two steps up, infinity to go. The swing continues but I now steadied on the ladder. I kept going. Foot, foot, hand, hand. I do not know how long it took but I was grateful to for the howl of the storm and for covering my cries for mercy and the falling rain for shedding of tears from those above and below to witness.
Eventually I get to the top. Throw my bags on the deck as the boatswain and his mate pull me up by my pits. I breathed heavily, exhausted more from fear than the exertion. "Permission to come aboard."
They look at one other and the disappointed one hands the other a twenty. He was sure I would fall.
For the next twenty hours we tested all systems. I would prove that the program was not corrupted by showing them the execution on my computer screen and them verifying mechanical movements as a result. The mechanical engineer who determined the cause was surely electronic was beside himself. He then had a thought, told us to hold on while he checks something. With a radio call to the control room he finally found the root of the problem. One of his Zerk fittings, a plug, fell out from an oil reservoir into the bilge in transit days before. This quarter inch item prevented hydraulics build up to move the propeller into a reversing position.
He fixes it, returns sheepishly to the engine room and reluctantly admits his failure. All stunned they all look at me, for once without accusation. I shrug it off "Hey, next time you people want to give me a free cruise like this I'm golden!"
From that moment they would not execute another sea trial without contracting me to verify the systems (electronic and mechanical) operated properly. In subsequent visits I made sure I always boarded from the safe and steady stern ramp.
Leave a Reply.
About the Author
I have always ended up in unexpected places. So I present a collection of my tales told over the years. Places that due to circumstances I might never go on my own accord.