Rule 3: Don’t blow up the ship

Photo by Jakub Skafiriak on Unsplash

I stared at the third mate. “Is this a joke? Because it’s Christmas, you know, not April Fool’s Day.”
He shrugged. We stared down at the night orders.

The first part was reasonable enough: follow the cargo plan, pump ballast when necessary, don’t break the ship in half, don’t blow the ship up. I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the gist of it. Those are standard instructions when you’re discharging coal from a big ship. The problem lay in the scribbled note from the captain at the bottom of the page:

We’ve got a heap of welders arriving at 06:00 to replace the rusted pipework on the main deck fire line. Write up a JHA (job hazard assessment) and work permit for disabling the fire fighting system while doing hot work on deck during coal discharge.

Have a quiet watch,

The problem, you see, is that coal is prone to catching fire. And producing methane, which is prone to catching fire. And exploding. So, disabling the firefighting system, then using welding and grinding equipment in an area that was covered in coal dust, with coal dust hanging in the air, seemed a little odd. And I was the safety officer. I pointed all of this out to the third mate, who shrugged again. “Better you than me,” he smirked. “Maybe we’ll get a free trip to the moon for Christmas.” And he went to bed.

Staring at the instructions wouldn’t get me anywhere, so I started by writing up the obvious option: finish discharge, clean the coal off, then start the job. I was pretty sure that the company wouldn’t be happy with that option, so I wrote up option B: work a section at a time next to whichever hatch we weren’t discharging, clean the coal from around the work area, stay to windward of the coal dust, and do as much of the welding as possible somewhere other than the main deck. Don’t allow any tools on deck that could make a spark. It wasn’t ideal, and the job would take considerably longer than it should, but it wouldn’t kill us all. Hopefully

Six hours later, the welders and the chief mate turned up. I handed over my paperwork, gave my fairly blunt opinion of whoever had come up with this job, and went to bed.

Five and a half hours after that, I woke up, pleasantly surprised to discover that I was alive, the ship was afloat, and we weren’t en route to the moon. Maybe, I thought, they’d come to their senses and postponed the job. I had no such luck.

I took the watch, only to find that they were using “Option B.” The bigger problem was, whenever I looked away, they started using grinders, arc welders, and other tools that were likely to blow us all up. Fortunately for all of us, the man on gangway watch was Neal.

The great thing about Neal is that he does as he’s told. Always. Without arguing. As long as you give him clear instructions, he’s the right man for the job. I told him to watch the contractors. Whenever they used a tool that made sparks, he should unplug it, take it off them and refuse to give it back. I watched him for a few minutes to ensure that he’d understood, then I returned to the control room to focus on my main job of preventing the stevedores from breaking the ship in half.

And so it went for several hours. Nearly five hours, in fact. Shortly after 17:00, the foreman stormed into the control room, yelling in Mandarin and waving his hands. It took me some time to work out what he was upset about, as I don’t speak Mandarin, but eventually I understood. I went on deck and found Neal sitting stubbornly on a pile of about ten arc welders, twenty angle grinders, and more chipping hammers than I could easily count. His arms were crossed, his jaw was set, and he had a steel hatch bar in his lap.

“Nic, these blokes keep yelling at me!” he complained when I appeared. I couldn’t help it: I laughed. He looked offended. The thirty or so contractors looked murderous. I laughed harder. When I finally managed to stop laughing, I pulled out my trusty translation app and told the foreman that he could have his tools back as long as he didn’t use them on deck again. Just to be sure, I reverted to charades: I pointed at the coal, pretended I was grinding, mimed an explosion, and lay down on deck pretending to be dead.

A bit more hand-waving and chatter in Mandarin and the tools were duly returned. Neal complained that it had taken him hours to collect them all. We discharged the ship, repaired the fire line, and we all survived to leave that port. Without going via the moon.

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