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A Quick Glimpse of the Life at Sea

View of Manila from a cabin window on a ship at Manila Bay
I am not a seaman, but I work with them. I talk to them almost everyday, deal with their stories, read about their challenges. You can easily spot some of them - with their dangling large gold necklaces with anchor pendant, bracelets and rings with seafaring-inspired engravings. You know the common joke – “mukha ng may hepa sa dami ng alahas” Some are more discreet, but you can still see the signs on their houses. They usually have iron-work anchor designs at their gates, old gallon and sailboat miniatures as living room decor pieces.

With the sacrifices they’ve been through, they have all the reasons to be proud.

However, some of them are not lucky enough. At the other side of those success stories are really unfortunate saga. I have a friend who jumped ship in Taiwan port, but was repatriated back to the Philippines. Somebody drugged him while on shore leave – was his initial alibi. However, he confided to me, over bottles of beer, that he intentionally quit because he felt he is losing his sanity if he stayed onboard. He said he was so traumatized by the routine that he got chills whenever he sees even just a picture of a sea. I also know a story of a Chief Cook who decided to commit suicide by jumping overboard, was rescued and later diagnosed with psychosis.   

Well, it's not a hidden fact that there are number of recorded cases of seafarers losing their sanity while onboard.

All these stories are enough reasons for me to totally wonder what it's like to be onboard a ship. Hence, when I was asked if I want to join the one-week onboard familiarization program for non-technical shipping personnel, I immediately registered and said why not.
The purpose of the program is to familiarize non-seafarer ship manning personnel with bits of technical seafaring stuff onboard Training Ship Kapitan Felix Oca (T/S KFO). But for me, I’m after the experience – the routine, how they survive each day, how they entertain themselves, etc. Of course, knowing some technical stuff is also a plus – considering my line of work.

DAY 1, September 17, 2012, Monday

Welcome aboard!

Life boat approaching TSKFO ship with seaman
Calm scene of T/S KFO as we approached it riding a life boat from Manila South Harbor 
It's always nice to travel and have a break from work, but on this trip, I have to remind myself that this is not same as those leisure travels I had. This is still work, and the fact that I need to experience being a seaman for one-week is somehow disquieting. 

If I may borrow an expression from Goethe, I guess all I need to do is enjoy the experience when I can and endure when I must. 

We are supposed to leave at 9:00 am from Pier 15 Manila South Harbor going to Palawan but there's some unfortunate accident happened on one of the cadets who slipped on the shower room and cut his head. How’s that for welcoming news!

View of Manila skyline taken from a ship in Manila Bay
Picturesque Manila skyline taken from Manila Bay onboard T/S KFO
Hence, we got delayed for about an hour. It’s fine though, because I got a chance to admire Manila skyline beyond the bay area, although those floating thrash are really an eye sore.

Picture of seaman and seawoman
Let me call this our Armageddon shot
Getting to know our country-for-a-week

I called our first activity the getting to know your floating country. 

“A ship is like an autonomous country” – I heard this expression few times while onboard T/S KFO – mentioned by the two cadets who showed us around and from a training officer onboard, which I agree.

Photo of T/S KFO calmly floating in Manila Bay
Training Ship Kapitan Felix Oca (T/S KFO)
T/S KFO, by the way, is a training ship acquired by the Associated Marine Officers and Seamen’s Union of the Philippines (AMOSUP) from the Ministry of Transport of Japan in 1997. It was launched by NKK Corp. as MS Seiun Maru on July 1968 at Yokohama, first owned by Inter Pacific Lines Co.,Ltd. of Japan and was utilized as a training ship.    

MSAP cadets eating in TSKFO mess hall
Cadet trainees having their dinner at the mess hall
Currently, the ship is where cadets of the Maritime Academy of Asia and the Pacific (MAAP), the students of the AMOSUP Seaman's Training Center, other maritime schools and MSAP topnotchers put theory into practice.

Lecture room onboard TS KFO
Deck lecture room with seating capacity of 182 person 
The ship is a bit old, most panels and flooring are made of wood thus smoking is strictly prohibited inside. But I have to mention this – I caught some crew throwing cigarette butts at the sea. That proves that officer-imposed discipline is totally different from self-imposed discipline.  

Short safety briefing onboard TSKFO
Quick safety briefing and ship familiarization
We had our safety briefing courtesy of the very enthusiastic training officer, 1/E Gerard Paiso, followed by safety familiarization tour. Two MSAP cadets accompanied us, who at their very best tried to explain some ship's equipments and their functions, which of course sounds alien to me. Seafaring, with its old history seemed to develop their own language. Terms like supernumerary, starboard, proa or prowa (i'm not sure about how they spell it) confused me. It's like Mirriam Santiago speaking. 

Supernumeraries having briefing of equipments at the ship bridge
Safety briefing and equipment familiarization at the bridge
Ship Engine room tour and familiarization
Quick familiarization tour of the TS KFO engine room
After the ship tour, we had a quick rest to prepare for the evening duty at the bridge.

Cabin room for guests onboard ship
The cabin room where I stayed for a week
By the way, I like my cabin. It's a cube room plastered with wallpaper with childish design. On top are snippets of seafaring inspired crayon colored sketches. There are two standard round cabin windows where you can occasionally peek – if you are hoping to see some interesting island, which most of the time are just boring endless waters. 

I tried catching a quick nap but hey, my whole room is swaying and sleeping is weird!

Dinner is served at 5:00 pm, yes it’s not snack it’s dinner – we are still in the Philippines but it’s like we are in a different time zone.

After snack, err dinner, we prepared for our evening duty set at 8:00 pm to 12:00 am.  

Into the dark room

Yodi studying ship bridge calculations
Me trying hard to understand ship calculations and equipment readings
Before going to the bridge, I think I assumed the bridge to be a constant source of frantic activity.  I quickly found out, however, that it is usually very quiet, with only a few watch officers and it’s cold and dark like a ghost ship.

Our time on the bridge is spent watching for other ship and vessel traffic using radar and binoculars.  The extra crewmember on the bridge at night is there to help look for other vessel traffic or perhaps to make sure the watch officer doesn’t fall asleep.

Dark chartroom at the bridge where seaman plots ship course
Ship officers and cadets plotting ship course
Deck Cadet trainees are showing up by batches guided by their training officer to record hourly, the temperature, barometric pressure, wind direction and force and lots of other technical stuff I don’t know of. As part of our watch, we also do the hourly rounds to get those readings. It’s interesting at first, but becomes boring as we finished the first half of our watch duty. 

We are fortunate to have a clear sky that night and I chance a few cadets who seemed stargazing outside. I approached and ask them what they are doing and they said it’s a celestial navigation activity – uh celestial… what? “Ok just go on with the activity,” I just said. I later found out that celestial navigation is an old navigation technique using stars – awesome! 

Oh and their description of ocean waves is interesting - from calm to rough to phenomenal - yes, deadly waves is called “phenomenal.” In that case, I guess I can describe seafaring as phenomenal. 

DAY 2 - September 18, 2012 – Tuesday

Still sailing

Got a rough first night - I felt like there's always somebody knocking at my cabin door - and for some bad luck, my left headset was broken so I'm hearing Enya on my right and the constant knocking and creaking on my left, luckily out of exhaustion I was able to sleep for four hours.

Regular morning calesthenics onboard ship
Regular morning calisthenics at the poof deck
Just woke up with the morning calisthenics about to start, and I heard it will be at the poop deck – no it’s not a deck where they throw their poop, its technically a stern deck. I’m already late so I just grab my sneakers and bonnet and head on to the poop deck.

Tae Bo lesson onboard a ship
Tae Bo lesson courtesy of me and Bern
People jogging at the ship poof deck against rising sun
Sweating it out while admiring the scene
The exercise was just a regular 6:00 a.m. short stretching but I stayed for awhile for a morning jog. I thought of taking advantage of the moment because this could be a one-time only scene  - you know, morning jog on a vessel in transit, sunrise on the left while passing some enchanted islands.

We had a quick breakfast then head on to the bridge for our 8:00 am to 12:00 pm bridge duty. Weather is fine and everything seems in order at the bridge, but I was secretly praying for a rough weather though, to experience some bridge action. 

Cadets having a briefing as part of the fire drill
Cadets having a life-jacket donning briefing as part of the Fire Drill
Then I heard loud alarms, which I ignore. I later found out that the ship is having fire drill and all personnel onboard are required to participate. I head on to the poop deck and saw some crew preparing two fire hoses, while the cadets are having their life-jacket donning activity. Then we head on to our designated lifeboat stations, also as part of the drill.   

Life Boat Drill! Off to your muster station!
Everything in the bridge was the same as last night during our second watch - officers and cadet trainees recording equipment readings, some are plotting on maps, others observing radar every now and then - while of course the Master, the only one allowed to sit barks order every now and then.

Seaman plotting at ship charts
Me trying to understand the charts
We ran out of things to do and we loose interest on those navigation equipment so we just decided to go outside the bridge - of course to camwhore.

Dolphins playing along a ship
Awesome dolphins playing with us
Luckily we chance upon some frolicking dolphins along the ship. They loved to dash back and forth and take great leaps out of the water. They played with us for a really quick moment but it was fun and somehow broke our boredom. Flying fishes also put in their appearance every now and then. These awesome creatures make this whole sea their playground and seeing the dirty Manila Bay, I can’t help but feel sorry for these wonderful marine creatures. 

We arrived at Puerto Princesa, Palawan around 4:00 p.m and decided to take a short shore leave. We spend the night at the city to prepare for our by-chance and impromptu Underground River escapade.

The best part of this trip is, we successfully made it to the world famous Underground River! 

DAY 3 – September 19, 2012 – Wednesday

At the heart of the ship 

We returned to the ship around 4:30 in the afternoon exhausted from our whirlwind underground river tour. But even though we are tired, we still made it to our 8:00 pm duty at the heart of the ship – the hot and noisy engine room.

This time we are required to wear our cover-alls for safety. As we entered the engine room door, we were greeted by a blast of hot air and a surprisingly loud noise that characterizes the engineering spaces. 

Seaman taking equipment readings while on engine watch duty
Me and Bern taking hourly equipment readings as part of our watch duty
I was instantly amazed by all those large moving machines connected to lots of gauges and tubes. However, I could not help but feel the danger everywhere and I thought the room will explode any moment.

Cadets and officers at the ship engine control room
Me talking to cadets at the Engine Control Room
We had a quick briefing at the engine control room. We meet some Engine staff on duty and that stoic head engineer who seemed really bored and deadly serious. Then each of us was assigned an Engine Cadet to familiarize us on their duties during their watch. Same with the cadets at the deck department, Engine Cadets are also tasked to take various gauges and meter readings on different areas of the engine room. Despite the heat and noise, we patiently go around the engine room while the cadets tried their best to explain the functions of various parts of the engine room. 

MEMORUNDUM? Notice posted at the ECR
Speaking in English is being strictly implemented at the Deck training bridge but at the Engine room, cadets can freely communicate in Filipino.    

We spent the next hour or so exploring the engine room and came back at the ECR soaking in sweat. I later catch a nasty cough and my sinusitis gone wild again so I tried resting early.

DAY 4 – September 20, 2012 – Thursday
It’s a prison

At 6 am, I slid out of bed, bleary-eyed and feeling more tired than when I went to bed. I got a terrible headache so I decided not to attend the morning exercise. After breakfast, I rushed back to my cabin and sought the only relief one can get when one has this condition and that is bed.

This day is an exception to our typical day at sea because today is like our usual lazy Sunday – we can rest. It’s been only few days and I’m sick already and as I lay in my cabin, I spent a lot of time thinking about the whole point of being a seafarer.

Only one conclusion came out – it’s like being on a prison with a whole new way of life. 

DAY 5 – September 21, 2012 – Friday

We made it!
Jumpt shot at the poof deck
At last we made it!..I mean the jump shot.
It’s our last day today and I woke up seeing the amazing Manila skyline. This is one of those weird moments when you missed the polluted Metropolis.

Our last activity before disembarking T/S KFO was to observe anchoring procedures – but there’s not much to see because we are not allowed to be that close to the actual risky operation. We just contented ourselves at the training bridge, camwhoring.

After a few goodbyes with some of the crew and last camera shots, we left T/S KFO ending our one-week adventure.  

I respect them more

I got a chance to experience what it's like to be a seaman even for a very short time, one week to be exact. PJMCC, the program sponsor, said it’s a familiarization program for non-technical staff. So basically it’s a technical familiarization which of course will not really become effective because everything onboard is too technical.   

However, I personally I assume that the most important outcome of this exercise, for me at least, is the chance to have a deeper understanding of what it means to be a seaman – a comprehension which goes beyond such things as rank, jewelries and seeing the world for free.  
Out at sea for months at a time, seafarers are confronted on a nearly daily basis life-threatening danger, isolation, loneliness and exhaustion plus the fact that they always missed important family events back at home. The work of a seaman was hard and is truly a sacrifice.  

I know I only had a glimpse of some of the many facets of the vast experiences a life at sea can bring about. However, I guess it’s safe to conclude that life at sea is not for everyone.

There are so many inconveniences that come with this profession, but those who decided to take the plunge are really brave enough - and now, I respect them more.

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