PROPULSION

For centuries ships were powered by sail. There were barks, brigs, brigantines, frigates, ships (three masted, square rigged), schooners, etc., depending on how the sails were rigged on each mast, number of masts, whether fore and aft, or square rigged. The first steam powered ocean going ship was the Savannah, which made trips across the Atlantic from Savannah, Georgia to St. Petersburg, Russia. Although the United States got a head start in steam powered propulsion, other countries perfected it, while the United States continued to use it's vast forests to build more wooden sailing ships. After WWII the diesel and internal combustion engine started to replace the steam engine as the preferred power source for ocean going ships. The engines were more fuel efficient than steam, especially diesel. There was no boiler that was constantly being fired, with a lot of heat loss going up the stack. The diesel engines were adapted to burning the same heavy bunker fuel used by steam engines. Finally, about 20 years ago, the United States started to operate diesel powered ships. It wasn't a happy transition. Engineers who had little previous experience with diesel power had to be quickly trained and licensed for diesel. The Coast Guard had always had separate licenses for steam and diesel engineers. Companies and Labor Unions, with the help of the Coast Guard, set up a program whereby a steam engineer could take a course of study of a few weeks, then make a trip as an observer engineer on a diesel powered ship. After that, they were on their own.

My first diesel powered ship was the M/V Charlotte Lykes. It was a 15 year old container ship, about 1100 TEU's in the jargon of the container trade, that Lykes had purchased from Hapaag Lloyd. It was built in Hamburg, and had been sailed previously by German officers and a Malay Crew. We took over the ships in Yokohama. It was a fiasco from the beginning. The crew's quarters had only Japanese style "binjos" or toilets made only of two footprints placed over a hole in the deck. The officers had shelf style toilets, which were not too popular, either. But the toilets were only a small part of the problem. The power plant was a real disaster. The problems started thanks to the wisdom of our U.S. Coast Guard inspectors. Marine diesel engines are started by compressed air. It takes large capacity air compressors and a large tank of air to get the engine to turn over. The Coast Guard, not being too well informed about this new method of propulsion, thought it wise to decrease the allowed air pressure on the starting air tank. The result was that the engine was difficult to start, and if the ship had any headway it was impossible to reverse the engine. The ship had to enter port very carefully, at minimum speed (about 7 knots) while tugs had to chase us from behind and get a line on us so that we could have a hope of stopping without losing total control. The Coast Guard did this in the interest of marine safety!

The ships had been pretty well used by their former owner. Little or no money was spent on maintenance. The docking winches were falling apart. It was next to impossible to heave up an anchor, so that if you wanted to stop by dropping the anchor, you may well not get underway again for several days. I remember one day near the port of Nagoya, we had anchored to ride out a typhoon. We put out 10 shots of chain on the starboard anchor, and 7 shots on the port. It took us about 30 hours to heave up that much chain. The mechanism that "engaged" the chain heaving mechanism, called a "wildcat", to the winch motor was badly worn. It had to be welded in order to pull the chain. We had half the crew on the bow. Several engineers with a welding and cutting torch, as well as myself conning the ship from the bow. I had to keep the anchor chain straight up and down. If we started to drift off position, and the chain started to take any stress, it would break loose and the chain would run out again.

The engineers weren't much help. They were really some "Krispy Critters" as I called them. They were more interested in drinking and chasing women than in keeping the engine going. Since they were some of the few licensed diesel engineers, they thought they couldn't be fired. Taking care of them was like running a day care center more than a ship.

Through all of this I was really impressed with our Captain, Gail Spafford, who had been transferred there from one of the steam ships. I think that those diesel engineers forced him into an early retirement. He now spends his time duck hunting in rural Kansas. Captain Spafford was a real gentleman, and looked like Charles Kerault. He kept things on a even keel when things started to go out of control. When the drunken chief engineer wanted to log and fire the second mate for not obeying his orders, or when the engines could not be reversed to avoid a collision, I never saw the captain lose his "cool".

The real test of Captain Spafford came when we were in the port of San Francisco, California. There's no worse place in the world to pollute a harbor than there. We had just arrived from Long Beach, and were going to load over the night, and sail before daybreak for Yokohama. When a container ship loads, it usually discharges salt water ballast to maintain a constant draft and trim. The captain had gone ashore to have dinner with his family, when I began the de-ballasting of several tanks. After a few minutes I noticed a sheen on the water near the overboard discharge. I knew immediately what was going on. I called the engine room, and told them to stop pumping immediately. These newly anointed diesel engineers had just used the ballast pump for transferring fuel oil, and it was contaminated. We had then three options, none of them very good choices. We could continue de-ballasting, polluting San Francisco Bay (not a wise choice, even though it was night time the oil could be traced to us eventually). Secondly we could pump it ashore, or into a barge. Unfortunately there was no way this container ship could pump ballast water ashore without major shipyard work to change piping, and taking up days of valuable time. Thirdly, we could retain the ballast aboard. I quickly calculated that we would have to sail about two feet over our load-line. I phoned the captain at his family dinner, and presented these options, and he agreed with me that the third one was the only logical choice. We could sail outside the 250 mile limit, and then de-ballast through the oil-water separator. It would present relatively little risk to sail over our mark if the Coast Guard or Customs did not check out the ship at our 3 a.m. sailing, which I didn't think was probable.

It is choices like these that confront a captain on a regular basis. The only legal solution is one that is totally out of the question from a practical standpoint. It is those situations that test the true ability of a shipmaster.