Monday, September 11, 2006

Naval Nostalgia

A series of maritime events takes my imagination on a nostalgic trip along memory (sea) lanes. First, a very dear friend, Dr Luis Tamayo, introduces me to his cousin, Valdemar, PN (ret), and brings him to our home for a visit. Then some late news of another joint Phil Navy-US Navy exercises in Zambales and La Union (my home province), followed by a whimsical harebrained scheme to send two Coast Guard vessels (tiny motorboats) to Lebanon to evacuate 30,000 Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) employed as domestic helpers in Beirut, presumably at 300 persons per vessel trip.

In mid-August the Philippine and U.S. navies conducted joint training exercises, a regular program held under the RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty which aims to enhance operational coordination of the two navies.. This last brings back sentimental memories of youth and adventure. My participation in a similar event decades ago involved dozens of ships from both navies, mainly to teach naval tactics to the fledgling PN navy: fleet maneuvers, communications, command and control. To a junior officer, the novel experience was awesome and exhilarating, and so deeply imbedded into memory.

Just before graduation from Kings Point (USMMA), a Federal academy located in scenic Long Island, New York), all 20 Filipinos of class 53A were inducted into the Philippine Navy (PN) by a naval attaché (PN, Annapolis grad) from Washington D.C. The induction was more than an invitation; it was a mandate. Thus, my sea life resumed as an ensign in the PN. (My seafaring days as an adult began in year two of my maritime curriculum.)

My initiation to the sea, inevitable to people living in an archipelago, was in voyages as a child traveling to the island of Masbate where my parents worked as teachers. Many of my boyhood weekends were spent romping with friends on a beach or swimming in the pristine waters. Being a short walk from home, the beach was an enticing playground, clean, free, and friendly. I knew even at that tender age that the sea was also the source of the proteins and weeds served at mealtime, and the cause of motion sickness on a choppy crossing by boat to reach a faraway place named Masbate.

Not many beaches nowadays are clean and free, some even downright unfriendly (spoiled by reckless humans or ruined by fuel oil spilled from wayward tankers), and certainly not with pristine waters. But the sea could still be rough and choppy. And hopping from one island to the next takes a bit of planning – which rickety boat goes where, how seldom, what classes and costs of berthing, and sailing schedules, if any. Naturally, one’s fare budget determines whether the choice will be a fast ferry liner or a decrepit rust bucket.

Traffic on the sea lanes are as varied as their land-bound equivalents, tankers, passenger ferries, containerships, fishing boats, leisure craft, sneaky smugglers and sometimes a pirate speedboat. But unlike road traffic, the sea lanes have no paving or traffic signs. Instead, maritime vessels must follow certain conventions called Rules of the Road to avoid a collision.

Navigating in heavy sea traffic invokes the injunction that constant vigilance is the price of safety. Notwithstanding the aid of radar, avoidance of collision heavily depends on the alertness and judgment of the men on the bridge – the watch officer and lookouts – where the ship is controlled.

An actual collision occurred near Macajalar Bay of this city in early 1998 involving a ferry and a motorized banca. Reports culled from TV described the two vessels in a crossing situation. In such a case, the rules define a burdened vessel as one which has the other vessel on its starboard (rightside) bow and is forbidden to cross ahead of the other (privileged) vessel. Evasive action of the burdened vessel can take the form of slackening speed, stopping or reversing, or turning to starboard toward the other vessel’s stern. The privileged vessel is required to maintain course and speed.

Why then did the vessels collide? One of them or both defied the rules.

Records of marine protests (inquiries) of mishaps invariably indicate that the rules need no enhancement; they have stood the test of time. The records have clearly shown that when a vessel approaches another, one of three things will probably result: (1) both will obey the rules and will accordingly clear each other routinely, (2) either one will try to improve on the established rules with a system of his own and there will be a near collision, or (3) the novel technique, contrary to the rules, which will result in actual collision. The almost total correlation between disobedience of the rules and collision leads to the inescapable conclusion that the rules, if obeyed by both vessels, are practically collision proof.

Sea mishap records show that almost 90% are caused by the human factor. Safety of life at sea obviously depends on the competence of the ship’s crew. The skills of the officers and seamen are the result of good training in a maritime school and experience from a well-managed vessel.

At last count, there were about 200,000 Filipino seafarers working abroad (out of 450,000 registered seamen) earning roughly $2 billion annually. They are products of the 118 nautical schools scattered across the country. The diligence of these men helped keep the country financially afloat. (Seagoing OFWs today include landlubbers working in cruise ships mostly in hotel-related jobs.)

But dark clouds hover over the horizon. The quality of graduates have deteriorated; only nine out of the 118 schools (Cagayan Capitol College is one of them) could meet world standards set by the International Maritime Organization (IMO, a UN entity) of which the Philippines is a member. The revised IMO standards of training certification and watch keeping for seafarers require that evaluators of master mariners and seamen must be qualified and have marine expertise (“sealegs” in marine jargon).

The IMO has declared that the International Shipping Management (ISM) code is a mandatory requirement for the vessels of countries who have ratified and acceded to the Solas Convention. The code requires offshore shipping offices to consistently maintain structured identification documentation and implementation of key policies to insure management consistency and quality service. Recent awardees of ISM IMO are the WG&A group.

A national president of a seafarers federation voiced fear that the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) which is known to have no “sealegs” may be “incompetent” in issuing certification for qualified seafarers. This problem may have been resolved when the functions of the Coast Guard and Marina were redefined as a consequence of the finger pointing fiasco and aftermath of the Pearl of the Orient marine inquiry. A Department of Transportation and Communications order delineated the Marina as the policy-making agency for maritime safety while the coast Guard will enforce the rules.

Soon, foreign vessels will be allowed entry into our coastwise shipping trade, a liberization which could stimulate safety and service. This development may force non-compliant domestic shipping to apply the IMO standards.

Shipboard technology advances has changed some of seafaring traditions. Celestial navigation using sextants are nudged aside by the Global Positioning System, an electronic device linked to satellites that can fix a ship’s position accurately. Radiomen are being rendered redundant by the global maritime distress system, a device which has features that can be operated by any officer, and radio-telephony via satellite is making Morse code obsolete (well, not entirely; it is still part of an NTC test for voice radio). On some ships, collision prevention has been automated with computerized radar that can track vessels in the vicinity, give warning of any vessel on a collision course, and provide the appropriate evasive action.

Landlubbers speak the seaman’s language without realizing it. A modern office is equipped with bottled water in demijohns where thirsty people meet to exchange scuttlebutt. The word, which means gossip, came from seaman’s jargon and originally referred to the barrel that held drinking water. Sailors gathering around the barrel for a drink exchanged the latest rumors. The conversation itself eventually became the word scuttlebutt.

Persons on a skimpy budget try to “make ends meet”, (a common predicament of Ensigns in the PN) practiced by sailors of old when they tied together frayed ropes instead of buying new ropes. If you and others share a problem, you’re “all in the same boat”(a situation gripping the nursing candidates in the exam leak fiasco). When you want to understand something, you’re trying to “fathom” it, a word that to a seaman means the length of six feet on rope marked in fathoms and used to measure depth.

Toe the line

The space between each pair of deck planks in a wooden ship was filled with a packing material called "oakum" and then sealed with a mixture of pitch and tar. The result, from afar, was a series of parallel lines a half-foot or so apart, running the length of the deck. Once a week, as a rule, usually on Sunday, a warship's crew was ordered to fall in at quarters -- that is, each group of men into which the crew was divided would line up in formation in a given area of the deck. To insure a neat alignment of each row, the Sailors were directed to stand with their toes just touching a particular seam. Another use for these seams was punitive. The youngsters in a ship, be they ship's boys or student officers, might be required to stand with their toes just touching a designated seam for a length of time as punishment for some minor infraction of discipline, such as talking or fidgeting at the wrong time. A tough captain might require the miscreant to stand there, not talking to anyone, in fair weather or foul, for hours at a time. Hopefully, he would learn it was easier and more pleasant to conduct himself in the required manner rather than suffer the punishment. From these two uses of deck seams comes our cautionary word to obstreperous youngsters to "toe the line."
Finally, a sage advice to economizing travelers taking a sea voyage for the first time. One hour before boarding, take an anti-motion-sickness pill (Dramamine or Bonamine). Ginger is a slower-acting substitute. The remedy may allow enjoyment of the scenery – the dolphins, sailfish, green islands – without turning green and butterflies churning in the stomach. Bon Voyage.

But I digress.

My first year in the navy was not without excitement. My patrol boat (emphasis on the word boat) was a gift from the US Navy, a wooden minesweeper diverted from its way to retirement in the junk pile. But she could still chug along at a top clip of 12 knots, give or take a knot or two at flank speed.

Patrol coverage was along the waters bordering the islands of Indonesia and Borneo. As you might have guessed, the area included the notorious islands of Basilan and Jolo. At that time the infamous Abu Sayyaf bandits were not yet born, but another villain called Kamlon and his several hundred followers were creating mischief in his native Jolo island. Our boat was assigned to assist the army in containing the bandit group. At one point during the single-ship blockade of Jolo we ferried a platoon of troops for a beach landing near the rebel’s flank. This maneuver, of course, included the obligatory naval gunfire support to soften resistance, that consisted primarily of 20mm and 40 mm rapid fire but throwing in a shell or two from our 3-incher, just for effect.

After exhausting about half of our armory ammo, the CO determined that the enemy should by then be sufficiently chastised (who at 5 AM were not visible, or may not even be in the area). The troopers then boarded our wherry boat, a half-dozen at a time, and headed for shore, landing safely and unopposed. First light of day revealed the landing area with its pristine landscape unscathed. The exercise was not entirely wasted. We got some much-needed firing practice in the episode.

After the Kamlon campaign episode, it was back to dull patrolling duties. Luckily for the crew, the skipper was not just a seasoned patroller but also an imaginative one. The route was plotted to include places that are either scenic or unique, sites that would easily qualify as tourist spots and which would require closer scrutiny, officially of course. Places inspected include the Turtle islands and the visiting egg-laying mother turtles, the birds-nest cliffs and the fish-rich Malampaya bay of Palawan, Hibok-hibok volcano in Camiguin. In one southern Mindanao village we feasted on crabs the size of King crabs of Alaska and on lobsters. We even forayed into Sabah, Borneo to a cluster of huts called Sandakan (a fair-sized city today).

This somewhat carefree lifestyle ended when some biggies in the naval hierarchy decided to test my mettle by assignment as skipper albeit acting (to relieve vacationing COs.) but nevertheless given the endearing “old man” epithet by the crew. Sadly, the rank (and pay) was not adjusted along with the heavier burdens, and life continued to be a constant struggle to make ends meet.

At about this time I met and married Josie, and the ends would no longer meet. Not long thereafter, here come orders to prepare to proceed to Navy Post-Graduate School in Monterey, California. This urged a thorough review of my naval career and future. Decision time… Monterey would mean 4 more years tacked on to serve the Navy, and that would mean reaching the point of no return,— Navy up to retirement, a prospect that holds little appeal --- PN’s aging vessels and no replenishment agenda, and politics extending the time-in-grade (slow promotions) of officers. I decided to be a civilian, free to pursue opportunities, not a seadog drowning in deprivation.

I treasure this brief episode in my life and the souvenir (Military Merit medal) that came with it , but the nostalgia is somewhat spoiled by the realization of the distressing lack of progress in this branch of uniformed services. What little advances are visible are not in naval form but in its amphibious arm, the Marines, thanks to their American counterpart. But even this esprit-de-corps is being eroded by demoralization palpably demonstrated by “withdrawal of support” to the administration (the equivalent of the Brit sit-down strike). We may yet rue the day if this magnificent bunch of young men join the exodus and become OFWs, mercenaries in Iraq or other war zones.


Manila Bay Watch said...

Appreciated this thread very much.

Am pleased to make your acquaintance.

Look forward to reading more posts.


Anonymous said...

Hi Orly,

Are you Philippine based at the moment or abroad?



Anonymous said...

Hi Orly,

Just want to know if you are Philippine based still or now abroad...



(sorry couldn't log into my blog ID, hence forced to post anonymous.)

orly_habari said...

Philippines, neighbor of Ka Enchong, although he is not aware of this.