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Open Features: MTS Nacella - Part 10

...I looked straight up into the clouds. The monster under my feet was on a balancing act on top of a huge wave. In slow motion we tilted over it and a short distance away I saw the next wave rolling towards us...

Alfred Mielacher continues his tale of a young man who went to sea in search of adventure.

Many weeks have come and gone since. I had adapted beautifully to life aboard a crude oil tanker. The working routine wasn’t too bad at all, if one takes Mr. Hacke’s behaviour out of the equation. This guy is truly a weird character! That sailors are a breed on their own is well documented, however he was more eccentric than the rest.

Most are alcoholics, or at least are busy practising to achieve that status and time certainly is plentiful to attain enough practice. A seasoned seafarer has most likely read all the books in the on-board library, or has seen all the movies that are available to watch on a weekly basis, or doesn’t want to exercise all alone in the gym, or again wishes to see the various harbour towns one anchors at – so he drinks or entertains hors! What else is there to do?

Me on the other hand am new in the game and daily after breakfast, I jogged ten or more laps around the deck, enjoying the view – even rain couldn’t stop me. I had found interesting reading material in the library however watching movies I didn’t consider as fulfilling entertainment. Whenever weather allowed it, I spent my free time at the bow or the stern of the monster watching the sun creeping towards the horizon. As mentioned earlier, when the tanker was empty, there were 16 m from deck to waterline and the giant dipped heavily into oncoming waves. When we were fully loaded no-one was allowed to be there, besides certain members of the crew on duty, of course. But the best of all were the many stops for taking-on or off-loading crude oil. In the first three months I had seen and visited 13 different harbours and cities around the European mainland and the British Isles. Only seafaring men were able to indulge in such experiences; and boy, did I enjoy those.

Once I called Candice to find out how she was doing. She was in a great mental frame of mind and rather talkative. With a proud tone in her voice she informed me that I had told her the truth about the inheritance.

“Some 290 million bucks, can you believe it? What am I supposed to do with all that cash? Buy myself an island in the Caribbean?” she said. The girl really was beside herself over such news from Karl’s lawyers.

“Don’t spend it all on nothing”, I had told her. “I am going to finish here in a few months time. Why don’t you wait for me and we can blow some of that fortune together. What do you say?”

“For sure I’ll wait for you. It’s because of you that I didn’t run away to Alaska with that Kasper guy.”

We kept on chatting until Morsey gestured to me time out. I had promised to inform her about the exact date of my departure from the ship. All I could tell her was that I will be flying to Hamburg, where we certainly will meet again. Something to look forward to!

The North Sea is famous for its unpredictably stormy autumn and winter weather with extremely rough seas. At one time we were heading north from Shell Haven and on the northward trip to the Orkney’s the tanks were empty. One of those storms hit during my morning shift. We seemed to cut straight through oncoming waves which made the ship tilt forward and then backward; in rather slow motion but definitely noticeable.

Down in the engine room everything that wasn’t bolted to the floor moved or fell over. Walking along narrow passages around that massive engine block was something one has to experience firsthand to appreciate the difficulty. One stumbles like a drunkard! The lifts didn’t work during such weather conditions, so I had to use the stairwell to get back to my cabin which looked like a whirlwind had swept through it. After cleaning up the mess I decided to get the best view of it all from the bridge. The captain had welcomed me affably. He offered me a proper rain suite and said “You get the best view from out there. Just make sure you hang tightly onto the railing. If you should get swept overboard don’t expect us to come to your rescue.”

“Thank you, Sir!” I answered and step out onto a 2 m x 4 m platform – called the bridge wings in sailor jargon.

Gail force wind and driving rain hit me face on and I stumbled backwards, only to be saved by a railing. I leant into the blustery storm and it took quite some effort to reach the opposite railing 2 m away. I hung onto it for dear life and once I felt secure enough to be able to appreciate the view, I was dumbstruck – I looked straight up into the clouds. The monster under my feet was on a balancing act on top of a huge wave. In slow motion we tilted over it and a short distance away I saw the next wave rolling towards us. A few seconds later the bow dived into a wall of water which made the ship tremble and shake. There were two tall metal masts up front that vanished in the spray and foam. I must have lived through ten or more such onslaughts, actually enjoying every single one tremendously, before I went back into the safety of the bridge. The Captain said “Have you had enough already?”

“Wow, this is amazing stuff! How often do such storms occur?”

“One in every few weeks. The met office had warned us about this one; a strong gale, force 9, according to the Beaufort scale. This is the worst one this autumn. Real winter storms are superior in strength and velocity. You will experience one or two, just you wait.”

“Could such forces of nature harm this tanker?” I asked the Captain. The other officers around seemed to ignore my presence.

“Hardly likely! There is never any danger of capsizing. This baby is much too buoyant, filled to maximum capacity or empty. If my ship should ever go down then it would be because the engineer’s assistant forgot to fill the ballast tanks while off-loading. Then she theoretically could break in half on top of a wave. It never has happened and it certainly is not going to on my watch. Don’t worry about such an impossible event.”

“Good to know!” I said. “But aren’t the ballast tanks filled and emptied automatically? Depending on the...”

“Sure! However, remember all automatisation can be over-ridden by the engineer or his assistant. Any minor electrical or other fault gets dealt with on the spot. I hope you will not experience such little emergencies, although they do occur. Imagine one of the six ballast pumps goes on strike and has to be fixed during off-loading. Naturally the switch for automatic filling is set on OFF for the faulty pump. Once it is repaired it would be your job to switch it back to ON. Even if you forgot, an alarm will sound in your control room and a red light will come on up here. This one, to be precise.” pointing at a tiny area with the word BALLAST atop. “That all six of them die on us simultaneously is virtually impossible.”

“Right!” I said. “But let’s assume that all safety systems fail?”

“Don’t paint a devils picture! In such a case the ship could theoretically break in half balancing atop a monstrous wave. Are you a good swimmer?”

“I surely would drown!” I said. My fine neck hair stiffened instantly and looking around, all present officers having listened to our conversation sneered at me awkwardly.

“Don’t you worry yourself about stuff like that? It’s not going to happen on my watch!”

He briefly related an anecdote whilst sailing through really rough weather. Then suddenly an alarm sounded, and it was time for me to leave. I excused myself and went down for breakfast!

A seriously scary thing did happen about two weeks later around beginning of December. Again we were heading north from Shell Haven towards the Orkney’s. Due to my 4-8 shift that evening I was able to take part in the Captain’s 50th birthday celebration and Frank had prepared a full-on gala dinner, laid out stylishly in the officer’s bar – not in the crew dining room. One of those massive storms swept over the area we were cruising through when Morsey received a desperate mayday-mayday call from a freighter. Unfortunately we were not close enough to come to their rescue. Meanwhile the waves were pounding the ship heavily, making it roll badly from side to side. The chairs we sat on, as well as the long table, were anchored to the floor – however the plates weren’t. Laden with most delicious food stuff, they were sliding down the length of the table, piling up on top of each other on the floor. The news the following morning of the sinking about the freighter shocked us all – apparently only one empty life boat and a few floating containers were recovered!


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