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|Irish Trampship mis-adventures: Chapter One|
|Monday, 16 July 2012 14:31|
Chapter One: Introduction to the MV 'Helena'
By Gordon O'Rourke
The MV 'Helena' was a 9,701DWT Trampship, owned at a late stage in her life by an Irish company based in the Far East called Canal Shipping. At the tender age of 27 years old she was no spring chicken, and had just completed her fifth special survey in Greece before being acquired for the princely sum of two million US Dollars.
The owner, John, had bought the ship in Greece before I had joined his company. John thought he could copy the Greeks' tradition of buying a ship at low prices and selling it later at a much higher price, thus avoiding depreciation charges. Perhaps he was taking a leaf out of the Irish government's book and trying to make a small fortune by putting a large fortune into a ship and watching it become a small fortune.
Because of her age and the known activities and demands of the international seafaring unions, it was decided to trade her mainly in the Far East, carrying whatever cargo we could obtain for her type as a Geared Tween Decker (a vessel type which could be relatively versatile with cargo at the time).
Both the ‘A-team’ and the ‘B-team’ consisted of three persons, all of some Irish ancestry, as well as owner John Mullins, his eldest son Declan Mullins and myself. Two enthusiastic amateurs and one seasoned professional. Little did we know what drama, danger and fun lay ahead of us. Over the next three years we gave it our best shot.
The initial choice of flag state for her was the Panamanian Flag.
She left Greece and sailed for Turkey to load a cargo of scrap steel for Karachi and Bangkok. This was basically a positioning voyage to get her to the Far East. The crew consisted of Polish Officers and a Filipino radio officer and ratings.
The modus operandi was that the owner’s son would learn all about ship management, chartering, technical and crewing from me and would accompany me on some voyages. Meanwhile, his father held the fort and secured the charters and all commercial matters, whilst simultaneously consulting with me on chartering and maritime law, technical and marine insurance matters.
Two of us, Declan and myself were directors of the company that managed the ship, whilst the ship itself was owned by a separate company called Canal Shipping. John was not a Director of either company, for reasons best known to him.
We saw the load out in Turkey and then flew to Karachi to meet her on arrival. There were no real problems encountered in Turkey, or during the Suez Canal transit. Karachi had a few minor incidents. There was a visit from a person purporting to represent the ITF (International Transport Federation of Unions) in Karachi. This presented a problem that was overcome by a ‘small donation’ to Union funds. We strongly suspected that he was not genuine.
Later, the Polish ships officers were refusing to break watches whilst the ship was in Port and to go onto day work. This left one officer as the ‘night watchman’ by rotation over a port stay of five days.
These officers also refused to carry out even minor repairs to machinery or deck machinery, claiming that sort of work was for the next dry-docking list, showing shades of former Soviet Union job protectionism and two men for every one-man job.
This was not a good omen for the large amount of repair work that was still outstanding after the fifth special survey in Greece and for future preventive maintenance.
The ship’s Captain, who was Polish, also wanted to have the whole ship manned by Polish seamen, a request which we refused, due to the higher costs and the poor example set by the current squad of Polish officers. He decided to resign and asked to be replaced when the ship reached Bangkok. We agreed with his request.
Back in Greece, the Filipino ratings had also asked for a pay increase shortly after arrival, a request we again resisted. We would not risk appearing too softhearted, giving in to frivolous demands. It is the wrong way to enforce discipline and keep within budget. I know of some ship managers who cave in and pay extra money immediately, but if you go buying loyalty by increasing wages or overtime without due cause, you are storing up problems for the future. We persevered, Declan even arranged a trip to the beach for the off duty crew members over the weekend, with a barbecue meal to improve good relations with all of the crew.
Meanwhile, during our hotel stay we were beset with illness from drinking tap water (in the form of ice cubes) with whiskey. After a couple of days of intense sickness, we recovered. Being non-Muslims, we were allowed whiskey in the Hotel, provided that we signed a register for it. Fair enough. We did just that.
Whilst in Karachi we looked for outgoing cargo opportunities, but the only cargo that was offered was dried up pats of cow dung, in bulk and not bagged, to an Omani Port. This would have only been a short voyage whilst on the way to Bangkok, but after some hard negotiations, the rate was rock bottom and we would have made a loss. So we declined.
After discharge, the ship sailed for Bangkok. We flew to Singapore to find cargo or time charter opportunities for the ship before a rendezvous in Thailand. There would be opportunities, but our voyage or T/C (Time charter) rates had to be competitive with the local and ubiquitous 7,000-9,000DWT ‘logger’ vessels. These vessels were geared with strong steel uprights for heavy deck cargoes of logs. These were the workhorses of the Asia Pacific region. They were also capable of loading bulk and/or carrying containers. Our intake of containers was only 20 TEUs on deck, where we had the fittings.
Our ship was suitable for small bagged cargoes, large unit size blocks(such as granite or marble) up to 10 tonnes in weight, vehicles, logs of differing sizes, drummed bitumen, bagged cement, bagged rice, bagged fishmeal, bagged grain, steel coils, or project cargo.
When the ‘Helena’ was built in 1963, stevedoring labour (even in undeveloped countries) was still using labour-intensive operations to load and discharge general cargo ships. Twenty-seven years later, mechanisation was implemented in the form of small versatile forklifts that saved labour costs and improve productivity.
Her lower holds were spacious, and the tween deck covers were heavy wooden boards. These boards needed four men to lift and carry each one, as opposed to the steel hatch covers of a modern day ship, able to be opened and closed by a wire pull from the deck winches. To top it all off, her upper hold’s space was subdivided into two tween decks with limited head room, meaning that forklifts could not get cargo in or out from the wing spaces of the upper tween decks, even with their masts lowered.
Because of our limited hold configurations, our ship’s age (insurance underwriters charge an additional premium to cargo owners shipping cargo in older ships), the possibility of local stevedore strike action in some countries on behalf of the crew if they thought wages were low, some ports exercising state control to obtain extra revenue, and competition from cheaper loggers with better stowage space on trade routes, we had our work cut out for us.
To make matters worse, mechanisation and containerisation were the in-vogue methods of handling and transportation of cargo.
We were past it, so to speak. A seagoing dinosaur. We had to make the best of a bad job, and go to those places where mechanisation and containerisation were not being used yet.
Outline of the ‘MV Helena’
This story is a work of non-fiction. Unless otherwise noted, the
author and the publisher make no explicit guarantees as to the accuracy
of the information contained in this story and in some cases, names of
people and places have been altered to protect their privacy.
The Irish Trampship mis-adventures
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