Tuesday, June 12, 2007

And then........ The sign off!!!!!!

0630 Hrs
15 Jan 2007
Haldia Port

The new bag that I had bought from Port Said too was full. The suitcase was already full. Infact there were close to 5 Kgs of chocolates packed in them. Everything was packed. After 9 months and 28 days onboard, I was finally signing off. Of course I was very elated at the thought of getting back home. But at the same time a touch dissapointed that I ll be missing out on the Prolonged service allowance by just 3 days. Strange are the matters in life....

Barely 9 months back, some ten fifteen days after joining the ship I was so depressed that I had almost decided to call it quits. I was reprimanded by the chief engineer badly for something that was' nt completely my fault. My spirits had reached an all time low that day and was literally in tears. It was the third engineer who had then consoled me. He later went on to be my best friend on board. But I was literally crossing the days on the calender daily. Waiting just to earn back all that I had invested to get into this field. 'Hardly a matter of 6 months' I used to console myself then.

But things changed rapidly and for good. The chief and the second were true professionals and took my follies as apart of the game. I was given support at all times and I actually started feeling that this is nt such bad after all. I had made friends with the cadets and every evening we used to smuggle Cds out of the library and watch in the recreation room. Time went on smoothly and I didnt realise when the first voyage was almost over. Month endings used to be specially hectic as I had to assist the Chief in preparing the PMS schedules and other monthly paperworks.

Both the chief engineer and the second engineer signed off after my first voyage. I was a bit apprehensive as to how the new Chief and Second would be. To my relief they too turned out to be gems. The second voyage was memorable in the sence that I got to see the Pyramids. This was infact getting better and by now I had no plans of signing off in six months.

The third engineer who had turned out to be my best friend on board signed off after my second voyage. Instead came an additional second engineer. A guy from my own state and with whome I stuck off a perfect rapport from the begining. By now I too had transformed from the nervous fresher I was four months ago to a quite confident engineer. I had already bought a music system and TV in my cabin and during evenings my cabin transformed into a mini officers mess. We specially used the music system to the maximum during the mini parties we usually had in the ship's swimming pool. My music system was always played at full blast on those days.

We started having regular parties on board. I usually used to get a free go which was surprising( I had heard juniors are not allowed to touch beer). Not in my case as there was always enough stock in my cabin. It was amazing how my spirits did a neat 180 degree shift in just a span of few months. From being terribly homesick in the begining I had finally decided to pursue Marine engineering as a career. Now I was sitting dissapointed at not being able to complete 10 months. Dissapointed at having lost the chance to earn a few thousands more, that too when I had already saved on so much tax after getting NRI status for the financial year. It is really strange how man's desires change with situations.

I put the boiler suits (my companions for the past ten months) into the garbage bag. No need to carry them home. The safety shoes too wud have to go.
The door opened and in came the Third officer. A young lad perhaps younger than me. But the deck officers always had the advantage of age over us.
"What Paanch Saab Paking over??"

"Yeah almost. What abt u?" I asked
He and the Radio Officer was also supposed to sign off with me.

"Hmm I m done with it. Captain says we can sign off by 0800 hrs. Will need to see if the galley guys have some arrangement for breakfast before that." he said.

"Well I ve just got to visit the engine room n bid everyone final good bye. Then I ll join u at the Mess" I told him.

"OK fine" He said and left.

I too quickly wrapped up whatever was remaining and left to engine room.

I had done the night watch and the additional second engineer had come down at 0500 hrs to relieve me 1 hr ahead of time so that I cud do my packings. The fourth engineer was also down. It was already 0700 hrs and the crew too started comming. Second engineer too reached the control room. I bid farewell to all and was surprisingly very emotional. The second engineer and additional second engineer insisted on seeing me off.

I quickly went to the officers lounge had a toast and my regular milk cornflakes. The third officer informed me that our papers are all ready and I cud collect them from the Master. I rushed to the Master and collected all my documents. The custom inspection had already been completed the previous day. Luckily I did nt have to shell out any money for the clearance. As I reached my cabin with the documents I saw that the Second engineer and the additional second engineer were waiting for me. I packed my certificates into the hand bag and got ready to leave. Our car had already arrived.

As I reached the poop deck I remembered that the chief engineer had specifically told me to meet him before signing off. I left my luggage there and rushed to his cabin. We shook hands and the chief remarked "Good performance paanch saab. I ve spoken to the office abt you." I was overwhelmed by emotions and quickly took leave from him before my tears could defy me.

Back at the poop deck I cud nt find my luggage. It was already towed to the car by the second and additional second engineer. What more a mini entourage from the engine room had gathered to see me off. Finally after the goodbye and hugs we left the ship and got on to the car. I was rather overwhelmed from the kind of send off I got.

I looked back from the car as we went away from the ship. It was the same bright orange beauty as it was 9 months and 27 days ago. I could see my mates on the deck waving at us as we went farther away. I didnt know whether I d be able to see her again. But deep within the recesses of my mind I had already made a decision. I wud be back, if not on her, then on some other but I d defenitely be back...

I laughed in my mind at the paradox of how just 9 months ago I had hated my decision to join sea. My fourth engineer's remarks floated back to my mind.

"Paanch Saab, once someone drinks water from the tanki ( The Fresh Water Generator), he no longer likes water of the land. He comes back to sea paanch saab. You too wud be back."

Yes he was right, I would defenitely return back from the land to answer the CALL OF THE OCEAN.......................

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Onboard Finally!!!!!!!

It was 0300 hrs. The Mumbai Airport was its normal hustle bustle self. I was in the passengers lounge waiting for my Jet Airways flight to Goa. This wasnt the first time I was flying. But deep inside me I was having those goose bumps. A sense of unknown. I had went off to bed last night at 2000 hrs but cud hardly manage a minute of sleep. How cud I ??? Most of my friends had already signed on. I was made to do the specialised chemical tanker course and was supposed to join a chemical tanker!! All the stories of Juniors being harased at sea, sea sickness, home sickness, hazards on chemical tankers etc kept comming back to my mind jolting me back from my sleep everytime I had wandered close enough. Now I was sitting there at the airport more than 3 hrs ahead of time waiting for a domestic flight. Those three hours seemed to be the longest I had in my whole life.

I was told to report at the agents office who d take care of the required formalites. The office was at Vasco. I was there by about 0900 hrs, a good one hr before the the people started to arrive. I later learnt that some crew members and the chief engineer's family too wud be signing on at Marmagao port. Always better if u r not signing on alone. The ship was anchored off the port as the berth was nt free. We were to complete all the requisite formalities of immigration etc. and reach the ship by a boat. Two workshop guys who were to service some engine room equipment also joined us. From them I came to know that the chief engineer was a gem. It was as though a heavy weight was lifted from my heart.

It was an old ferry boat in pathetic condition. I wondered if we cud make it safely to the ship. My heartbeat was rising by the minute. I was just a couple of hours away from going on board a merchant ship for the first time in my life. We were twelve altogether to join the ship plus the ferry staff. I was the only officer among the sign on party. Along with me were the engine and deck serangs, two helmsmen, two stewards and one greaser among the ships staff. Apart from us there were the two workshop guys and the chief engg. s wife n son.

Finally the ferry chugged off, puffing black smoke. As we went away from the jetty, we cud see a number of ships anchored. I was wondering how my ship looked like when someone called out that its bright orange in colour. It was a sunny day and the sun was beating down on us. The high humidity levels didnt make matters any better. Finally after about an hour and half I finally saw her. She looked beautiful in bright orange. The white super structure and the black funnel behind it made her look majestic. As we got nearer, it seemed huge to me. Although at about 180 meters long and 30 meters wide, it was nt the largest of vessels around. I had heard huge crude oil carriers were upto 400 meters long. But not really having seen one made me feel as though this itself is a huge one and I wondered how those giants wud lok like.

The sea was perfectly calm and there were just minor ripples on the surface of the water. Within moments the boatman alligned the ferry to the ladder and one by one we started to embark on to the vessel. A man in his 30s(who to me seemed the Chief Engg.) was waiting at the gangway. He greeted the lady and the child and led them in. Our luggage was being towed by the four additional guys on the ferry. I picked up one air bag and gingerely stepped on to the ladder and climbed up. At that point I could actually hear my own heart beat. A great no of pipelines crisscrossed the deck. One more ladder towrds the aft of the vessel led upwards to the poop deck.

A cold gush of air blew as I opened the door of the accomodation. Not knowing where to head I just followed the guy in front of me. He opened a door on which it was written "Staircase". I followed him in. He started climing down and on seeing me following him said, "Arrey Saab aap logon ka toh ooper hoga" signalling towards the flight of stairs leading upwards. I took the hint and went up. At the first level was a door on which it was marked 'Officer,s Pantry, officer's lounge, petty officer, Repair engineer and Engine Office". At that very moment the door opened and a man who seemed to be in his early fifties came out. He was wearing a blue boiler suit stained with white paint here n there.

I said, " Hi I m the new Fifth Engineer. Where can I find the fourth Engineer."

The person smiled n said, "Welcome onboard Paanch Saab" It was the first time I hear that and then I did nt know that for the next 10 months I ll be known as Paanch Saab.

"Which Chaar saab are u looking for?? The one who is signing off?" He continued.

"Yeah" I said

Come he said and took me to the next deck and opened a door on which it was written " Chief Officer, Third Officer, Cadet, Second Engg. Officer, Fourth Engg. Officer, Fifth Engg. Officer., Hospital"

On entering, immediately on the left was the fourth engg. Cabin and on the right was fifth engg. cabin. He knocked for sometime on the fifth engg. Cabin and said maybe he is in the engine room.

I asked him where I cud find the chief engg. then.

He told me he had just seen him entering the officers lounge. That was in the deck one level below this. I recollected having read "Officer's Lounge written on the door."

I thanked the gentle man, picked up my bag and climbed down the stairs. He insisted on showing me the way to the lounge.

"Saab this is the new paanch saab."

He told the Chief Engineer once we reached the Officers lounge and took leave.

He was the same guy in white boiler suit whome I had seen on the deck earlier.

We shook hands and introduced each other. I learnt he too did his training from the same institute I did from.
"Having your own aluminy as your boss may infact be helpful.." I thought.

He asked the pantry man to get me something to eat and picked up the phone nearby and said something on it. There was nt much food left and I had to make do with toast. I was already on the seventh heaven, the chief engineer seemed to be a good guy defenitely a far cry from the saddist chief engineers abt whome u usually hear a lot. What else, we were from the same training institute. I thought it could nt get any better for me. Moments later a chap in grey boiler suit stained with white paint came with a key and handed it over to the chief engineer. The Chief gave me the key and said, "This is the key to Repair Engg. Cabin. Go in and get freshen up. You can change over to your cabin once Chaar Saab signs off."
And he went off.

I quickly had my toast. I learnt that the pantry boy belonged to my state. After the customary introduction I took leave and went off to the repair Engineers cabin. I located the ferry boys and asked them to tow my luggage to my alloted cabin. It was a small cabin with attached toilet and bathroom. One of my worst fears were stalled. I had heard that in many old ships, the juniors had to share toilets. Luckily not on this one.

"The sign on party please come to the bridge with yr documents."
I got up with a startled as the public address system blared. I didnt know when I had dozed off. I quickly washed my face and grabbed my document folder and rushed out. The stairs led upwards to the B deck, C deck and finally the Navigation Bridge. The door was open. Inside I saw a Desk with a lot of charts. A shelf just above the desk had many books neatly arranged. On the right side was a doorway to a bigger hall. Many navigational equipments were placed. On one side was another desk and a man who seemed to be in his fifties was sitting on a chair near it. He was accompanied by another man standing near him who too seemed to be in his fifties. Both of them were in their uniforms and from the four stripes on his eppaulet, I made out that the man sitting should be the captain.
I greeted them and handed over my documents to the Master for scrutiny. After thoroughly checking all the documents, he handed over the required ones to the the other guy who turned out to be the Radio Officer, and returned the rest to me.

A long queue of the sign on party had collected outside as I finished my formalities. I was in a doubt as to what my next move should be. I finally decided that it would be better if I located the fourth engineer first. After all he was the person I was supposed to relieve. Hoping to find some assistance I went towards the Officer's Lounge. On the way I met a person who told me that the fourht Engineer wud be in the engine room. He advised me to go there an meet him. He further offered to lead me to the Engine Room. We climbed down the stairs and at the bottom most deck reached a door on which it was written Officer's Changing room. On entering I found yet another door with "The Engine Room" written on it. I opened the door and saw a fleet of steps leading down. There was the characteristic sound of the generators running. The characteristic clatter of the valves of a four stroke engine.

The steps led to the Top Platform of th engine room. On the Center was the imposing Main Engine.It was a 6 cylinder giant. A MAN B& W 6 S 60 MC. It was 3 levels in height almost as high as a two storey building. There were people workin on the 3 rd unit. I was simply awestruck at the massive strucure. I had always found it difficult to believe that you could have such large engines. The thought of working on it sent shivers down my spine. Towards the Port side on the forward were the two generators supplying power to the whole vessel. On the port side of the main engine was the Engine Control Room. I saw two persons inside. I entered the ECR. It was almost a mess. They had just recieved spares which were spread all over the place and two guys were busy checking them. One of them was the fourth engineer and the other was the third engineer. I introduced myself and after a small chit chat they told me to meet the second engineer. I was told that he wud be in the bottom platform. I headed downwards. I could see all the others staring at me. I wondered why.

At the bottom platform I saw that the crankcase doors were open. A blower was kept outside and a man was standing outside the door. I enquired to him abt the 2nd Engineer. He pointed inside the crankcase. I took a look in. It was huge. There were two guys out there standing on what looked to me as the crosshead and tightening the bolts over head. Finally after about ten minutes, the two men came out. One was a frail looking old man with specs. The other was a young man not yet in his thirties. His boiler suit was wet with sweat. I figured him to be the second engineer and introduced myself. He gave me a look which caused all the feel good sensations to just vaporise in a second.
"Where is your boiler suit?" was all he asked.
The very next moment i was hurrying off the engine room. Back at the cabin I quickly unpacked my luggage and took out my boiler suit. I dressed up quickly and left the room praying all the gods I cud recall. I rushed back to the Engine Room. The fourth Engineer told me to assist the man tightening some bolts on the cylinder head cover. I took a spanner and started tightening one of the bolts. In the enthusiasm the spanner just slipped off the bolt and my hand went and banged the metal. The spanner fell down.
"Careful" Shouted the man next to me..
"What Paanch saab, never used a spanner or what? Arrey Chaar saab give him something else or else the chap wud injure himself on the very first day" He remarked and sarted laughing.
My heart sank low. After all I was an engineer and he was just a crew. He is nt supposed to speak like that.
"Forget it paanch saab u ll learn with time" The fourth engineer said later.
"Its same with everyone in the begining"
I nodded. That was the only thing I cud do. Words would nt come out of my mouth. It was as if my jaws were suddenly too heavy and I just could nt open them.
"Come I ll show you the engine room." he said.
By then it was already 1630 hrs and the people started leaving.
See Paanch Saab these are the genees. When ever runing u need to check the Lube oil level n temp, Pressure..........." He went on but I cud hardly concentrate.

The sight of the spanner slipping, my hand banging and the guys remarks kept replaying in my mind. This was nt how I wanted my first day onboard to be. I had managed to make myself look like a fool. I could visualise him making fun of me in his cabin to other crew member, "Ha ha ha ha ha Engineer. Wat use is an engineer? Just on paper. Fools dont know how to work and try to boss oround with us." I would be their laughing stock.......
Moreover the second engineer seemed to be a moron too.

" Hey Paanch Saab You here?" Asked the fourth Engineer.
" Er Yes" I replied
"What time was the flight?" He asked
"0630 in the morning" I said.
"Hmm no wonder u look lost" He remarked.
We went to the Control room. The crew had left. The second engineer and the third engineer were checking the stores recieved.
I had a brief introduction with the second engineer. This time he seemed a whole lot friendlier.

By around 1730 hrs the second and third engineer took leave. The fourth engineer then told me to break off for the day. I tld him I m in the repair engg. cabin and left.

Back in the cabin I felt very desperate. I was depressed at the happenings and the fact that I had nt slep the previous night did nt help either. I simply dozed off the moment I lay down. I was woken up by a knocking on my door. I opened the door. It was the fourth engineer.

"Hey Paanch saab wat happened? Slept off or what? Cmon get ready n join us for dinner" N he left.

I took a quick bath and dressed up and headed towards the lounge, The second engineer, third engineer and fourth engineer were waiting for me. We had dinner together and the second engineer took us to his cabin. It was a two room cabin. One was his day room and the othe rone the bed room. His day room had all facilities like refigerator, TV, music system etc. I wondered when I would I get to be a second engineer. We watched a few music videos and had some general chit chat. The second engineer now seemed to be a different person altogether. After sometime we took leave and headed towards our respective cabins. The Fourth engineer told me that he ll send the Oilman to wake me up at 0630 in the morning .

I felt a little better now. But how wud the comming days be. The fourth engineer was by far the most friendlier and he would sign off once we berthed at Goa. Would I be able to complete the stipulated 6 month of the article onboard, or would I like many others not be able to handle the pressures and give up mid way? All these thoughts and many more lingered on my mind. But I had no time for them. What I wanted was a deep sleep. The days activities had taken a toll on me. I was drifting slowly but surely into the oblivion of sleep. The great oblivion of deep sleep........