The captain stared down from the bridge and pulled out his radio. “Aft, bridge: what on earth is going on down there?”
I was doing my best not to look at the one Australian and twenty Chinese men standing in the snow, urinating on the aft mooring winch. I pulled a glove off and fumbled for the push-to-talk button on my radio.
“Bridge, aft: it’s hard to explain, captain.”
“Aft, bridge: see me when we’re done. I look forward to your explanation.” As I pulled my glove back on, I questioned every life decision that had led me to that moment.
It had seemed like everything was going smoothly. The ship was at a lay-by berth in the dockyard. The engine, generators and hydraulics were disabled for maintenance, which meant we weren’t going anywhere. The captain had allowed most of the crew a night off. There were six of us left on board a three-hundred metre ship: the captain, three officers, one engineer, and one deck rating. We were expecting a quiet night; we should have known better.
At about 23:00, the dockyard manager turned up with a pilot and tugs and insisted that we shift the ship to another berth immediately. He knew that we were short on people, so he’d helpfully brought a gang of Chinese dock workers along to do the heavy work. Never mind that we couldn’t communicate with them. Never mind that our machinery was unusable. Never mind that the workers didn’t know how to operate our equipment. The captain tried to explain the problem, but the manager threatened all sorts of nasty things, and the captain capitulated. We cut off the lockout locks with bolt cutters and tried to get things working. That was where my problems started.
For those of you who can’t remember that far back, you need to understand that in the days before google translate, communicating with people who didn’t speak your language was basically a game of charades. With that in mind, try to work out how to communicate the following sentence in charades:
“I can’t start the winch until the cooling water system starts working, or the winch will overheat.”
If you have trouble with that, you’re in good company. After several failed attempts by me, and much pointing and shouting in whatever language seemed like it might work, the rating tried to help: he pretended the winch was on fire and started pissing on it to put it out. I can say a lot of things about the Chinese work gang that night, but they did do their best to cooperate: they exchanged baffled looks, shrugged, walked through the snow and ice on deck, and started pissing on the winch.
And that’s the story of why twenty Chinese men and one Aussie were standing in the snow on a ship in a Chinese dockyard urinating on a winch. You’re welcome.