Sunday, February 7, 2010

First Command

My first command was in 1988.  A 257 foot two hatch refrigerated break bulk freighter with a yard and stay rig.  Her name was the M/V Sunmar Sky.  She was a single screw direct reversible, with a gill jet omni-directional thruster on the bow.

I had sailed on the Sky for several voyages as Chief Mate with Capt Bob Fay.  Bob moved up to port captain and recommended me for the job.

      M/V Sunmar Sky as she appears today as the Coastal Trader
The Sky was a coastal freighter in service between Seattle and Dutch Harbor, Alaska.  We loaded at a dock in Seattle, inside the Lake Washington Ship Canal, just east of the Ballard Bridge.  Loading took a couple days.  Northbound we took lots of general cargo.  Southbound we carried cold dead fish.  The crew spent long hours making sure the stevedores stowed and lashed everything properly.  We were headed into some of the worst sea conditions on the planet and the ship was going to move violently.  Everything had to be really well tied down.

I was very nervous as this was my first time sailing as master.  I spent a lot of long hours out on deck, checking the cargo stowage and lashing.  The last few hours before departure I lay down and tried to get some rest so I would be in good shape to take the first watch.  I tossed and turned listening to the cargo hydraulics and the shouts of the crew and stevedores.

 I pulled away from the dock at 0700 on a Saturday morning, the 18th of June of 1988.  We cleared the Ballard Bridge and idled down the Lake Washington Ship Canal and after we got the green light, we tied up in the locks, with Chief Mate Erik Pratt on the thruster controls and 2nd Mate Mike Taylor on the helm and engine throttle as a went from the port to the starboard bridge wings calling out orders and talking to the bow and stern on the hand-held VHF.  We tied up, the lock gates closed and we were lowered down to sea level.  The deckhands took in the lines and we eased out of the locks and through the Burlington Northern Railroad Bridge and out the channel past Shilshole Bay Marina and out into Puget Sound.  I brought the ship up to sea speed, merging into the vessel traffic system lanes, headed north.

My Standing Orders for the M/V Sunmar Sky

I took the watch until 14:00 to give the other officers a chance to rest after having been up all night securing cargo lashings on deck.  We have a full northbound load.  Holds full of fiber boxes, packaging for the seafood plants and processors in Dutch Harbor, sorbitol for surimi production, groceries and toiletries for the general store, a drop box, crab pots, and several vehicles lashed on deck.

We had a nice smooth transit through Rosario Strait and up the Canadian waters of the Strait of Georgia.  We made the tide at Seymour Narrows without delay and made good time on a favorable tide up Discovery Passage and Johnstone Strait.  The ship rocketed through Blackney Pass at 13 kts.

I took Laredo Sound and Principe Channel up to Hecate Strait.  I then headed out Dixon Entrance on a course for the Shumigan Islands.

We skirted the north side of a 970 millibar low.  The strong SE winds gave us a push across the Gulf of Alaska.  We were making 9.5 knots, rolling in the large quartering seas.

About a day out of Dixon Entrance, our port generator failed due to the fuel control seizing up.  Then, later, as the ship rolled, the water-maker came loose (It hadn't been fastened down when it was installed!) and pulled the hose that supplies it with heated cooling water off of the starboard generator.  This resulted in the generator shutting down, the main engine shutting down, and the ship drifting blacked out in the trough of the seas for 10 or 15 minutes while the engineers scrambled to put things right.

When all systems were back on line, the gyro compass started hunting and took one and a half hours to settle down, and we discovered the magnetic autopilot was inoperative, so we hand steered by hand steering and magnetic compass.

It was decided we would stop in Kodiak to pickup a new fuel control for the port generator.  Late at night, about 2 days out of Kodiak the steering relays failed.  While the 2nd Mate steered using the hydraulic steering on the wheel, Jeff, the Chief Engineer replaced them, at some risk, due to the 300 Volts AC that was of unknown origin in the junction box.  But the replacements wouldn't function.  After much head scratching and probing and testing, the relays still wouldn't work.  Then I discovered that the office had mistakenly provided us with DC voltage relays instead of the AC relays the system required.  The engineers went back down below and after some digging found some AC relays among their supplies.  Once these were installed, we were back in business.

We stopped in Kodiak, got the fuel control for the generator and proceeded onwards towards the Shumigans.  We transited Iliasik Passage and steered a course for Unimak Pass and the Bering Sea.

We sailed into Captain's Bay in Dutch Harbor and moored to the OSI dock.  We spent the next day offloading cargo and ballasting down.  Then we set sail for Bristol Bay.

We were headed to Naknek River Anchorage to take frozen salmon from the big factory processing ship the Bering Trader.

We arrived there a few days later and after rigging our Yokohama fenders, we moored alongside the of the big blue and gold processor.  The Bering Trader went bankrupt the following year and was hired as a hotel ship during the Exxon Valdez oil spill cleanup effort.

We spent a day taking cold dead fish aboard and headed west en route to Akutan to load Opilio crab.

At Akutan we tied up to the dock at the bustling crab processing plant and swung the hatches open and with screaming hydraulic winches started loading pallet loads of cases of frozen crab.

After we took the load allotted to us we closed and secured the hatches and sailed eastward en route to Sand Point in the Shumigan Islands for a load of frozen headed and gutted cod and halibut.

After loading the ship with the last of her cargo in Sand Point, we sailed homeward on a great circle course for Cape Flattery and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  The weather was fine and we had a smooth homeward voyage

We arrived back in Seattle on the 21st of July 1988.  The voyage had taken 34 days.  I had learned how to handle crisis and routine and the stress of flying solo.  I had come though it unscathed and more confident of my ability to handle command.  Over the years I sailed on the Sky, I found my tempo and style as a ship master and honed my skills as a mariner.  But the first voyage remains most vivid in my memory.