Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The MacVie Story, Part X. Victory???

(The M/T MacVie, fully loaded, sails under the high bridge (Queen Juliana Bridge) on her way to Bonaire.)

(For a larger view of any picture, double click on the thumbnail photo.)

The is the last part of the MacVie narrative which was covered in ten parts from finding her to getting chartered. Starting with the next post, I want to share some vignettes featuring both humorous and serious events over the two years we ran the charter. For example, the murder of our crewman, Ethan Toney.

This part of the narrative, has a question mark behind "Victory???" because there was trouble yet to come, the outcome of which we were uncertain in November, 1981.

In mid November, 1981, the Shell Refinery Marketing Department agreed to hire the M/T MacVie to run the Bonaire as needed, which turned out to be about once a week. By Mid December, however, I began to realize that the $900 per day rate was inadequate to retire our loan and repairs. It was the 1980s and interest rates were soaring. Our loan was with Heller & Company of Chicago at an interest rate of 24.3%. Something had to be done or we would surely fail. But what?

While we ran the trips to Bonaire as planned, I kept pondering what could be done to get them to increase our charter. My chance came on January 8, 1982, when Shell handed me the completed Time Charter document supposedly containing all the terms which had been negotiated. In the approximately two months since we started sailing. I had learned something about shipping and charters and that was to read and study your charter carefully and thoroughly and hold your charterer to the provisions in them because they will hold those same provisions against you. When I got the actual charter, I did just that and discovered that all the restrictions that were agreed to regarding where and how they could use the MacVie were ignored. Whether this was by design or mistake it mattered not; I took the charter at face value and decided to take action.

After a day or so, I wrote an extensive letter to Mr. Schoonbrood of Shell in which I pointed out the lack of restrictions. I concluded the letter by saying that as far as our company was concerned, the charter was null and void and had to be re-negotiated. Period. I delivered the letter by hand and the next morning I was called to Schoonbrood's office for a discussion.

As forcefully as I could, I pointed out the provisions in the charter which dealt with voiding the charter. He listened intently but said nothing. After a few moments of silence I said that he knew the charter and shipping business better than I and that he knew that the rate negotiated was inadequate. Further, I pointed out again that neither he nor I were part of the negotiation so we had no emotional ties to the terms. Then I asked for $300 more per day for a total of $1,200. Though reserved, he was friendly and said he would take it to his board to get their response.

(Here we are underway heading for Bonaire. With the deck almost at the waterline, the seas wash over it as though it was a immovable dock. Sailing back and forth was always a pleasant experience. Porpoises and flying fish were regular visitors and once a baby surfaced near the ship.)

Within a few days, Schoonbrood called to tell me that he would like to see me. Dressed in a suit and tie as most Dutch businessmen, I arrived full of anticipation tinged with dread. What would I do if he said "no?"

I had brought a briefcase with me and I opened it and spread out my papers on the table. He got right to the point: his board understood the situation and agreed that 1) the rate was too low, 2) that they would raise it to $1,200 as requested effective immediately, and 3) all the restrictions previously negotiated would be spelled out. I thanked him and but said I wanted the pay to be retroactive to when we started sailing, almost 60 days earlier, a total of $18,000.

Absolutely not, he said.

Now this is one of those decisive moments when a businessman has to take the ultimate risk: all, compromise, or nothing. I chose "all" because in reality I had no other option.

I slowly picked up my papers, swept them into my briefcase, snapped it shut, and said, "Well, Mr. Schoonbrood, I 'm afraid I will have to pick up my chips and go home," and with that I got up, shook his hand, and walked across the office toward the door. As I walked, I started to panic. Was this foolish? What the Hell was I doing? One is amazed how many thoughts can go through one's head as he is making this dramatic a move.

When I got to the door, in an irritated voice, he said, "Come back here!"

(One of the local pilots which we were required to use when entering the Ports of Bonaire and Curacao. Pilots have specialized knowledge of local conditions.)

(Berthed at Bonaire's desalinization plant where sea water is converted to fresh water. The equipment needed a weekly ration of gas oil. We stayed at this location only as long as it took to off-load the oil after which we would be taken by pilot to the main pier in Kralendijk, the largest city in Bonaire and the seat of the local government.

(Approaching our berth in downtown Kralendijk, the main city in Bonaire. From this pier we off-loaded gasoline and propane tanks. Typically, we would remain in Bonaire for a couple of days just relaxing before heading back to the refinery.)

(At our berth in the center of Kralendijk. The vessel to the far right is the bow of the condemned tanker "Debbie" which we replaced.)

Relieved, I went back to the table and opened my briefcase resolving as I did that I might have to accept defeat or compromise after all. But it was neither: he agreed to the retroactive pay and ordered his secretary to cut a check. Less friendly now, he handed me the check and said simply, "Good luck." I thanked him and mumbled something about having a good working relationship , etc. and then departed as quickly as possible.

I drove immediately to the Bank of America where I had my account. Standing on the front steps of the bank, I turned and with arms and check raised like Rocky Balboa, I had my son-in-law, Jack Eberhard, take my picture. Unfortunately, we can't find it for this blog.

So everything was signed, sealed and delivered and we were in business. Little did I know, however, that at the time I had planted the seeds for my eventual downfall. But thats another chapter for later. In the meantime, let's bask with a few vignettes.

(The M/T Macvie returning empty from Bonaire.)

Next: A portrait of the wonderfully vexing Captain Christopher "Zack" Zahariasyzwitz.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The MacVie Story, Part IX: Ready for My first trip.

(A small part of the Shell Oil Company Refinery on Curaçao. Once one of the the world's largest refineries, it is now considered rather average.)

At 10:30 p.m. on the evening of November 25, 1981, I arrived at the Curaçao airport and after clearing customs was met by Capt. Zack who drove me to the ship. On the way, Zack said that she was fully loaded and ready to sail in the morning. It would be her 2nd trip to Bonaire and I was going to be aboard. I could hardly contain my glee at the thought of it. Also, it would also be my first sight of the MacVie at her berth in the Shell refinery. Zack had already got my pass so we entered the grounds of the refinery, a highly restricted area, without delay. Driving through a refinery at night, especially one of the world’s largest, is eerily disconcerting the first time. Danger lies everywhere: pipes emitting steam, methane vented and burned in great plumes of fire and smoke from tens of stacks throughout the grounds and everywhere what must be miles of pipes and hundreds of blue, red, and yellow lights, some blinking madly, others buried deep in the apparatus of the cracking plant and "DANGER" signs everywhere. Refinery odors are unique and almost overbearing. But as those who live downwind from a paper mill, one gets used to it.

After a winding long drive through the refinery we arrived at the ship. There she lay: the M/T MacVie, low in the water, filled with gasoline, diesel fuel and propane tanks, all ready to sail. I was awestruck. She looked glorius. When I boarded, I could feel the heaviness of the ship. Yet it was a feeling that she was alive, almost a springy spongy feeling. It was a feeling I grew to love.

After a short sleep, I awoke early. Unlike the dockyard where noise was constant and harsh, the refinery’s noises are hushed, humming, swishing, and the MacVie’s generators hummed and droned along with them. It was very soothing. The MacVie was berthed on her port (left) side and my stateroom was on the starboard side so when I looked out of my portlights, I saw only the harbor water shimmering from the lights of the refinery beyond the small bay we occupied. I looked out for a long time. It was also the windward side. Far in the distance was the high bridge which crossed the Sint Annabaai River which bisected the city of Willemstad. Soaring above the bridge at one end was Fort Nassau and the restaurant where a few week earlier I had stood in utter despair. Beyond that was the lights of Willemstad reflected into the sky against some low-lying clouds. And the wind! Prevailing easterly, it blew into my portlights constantly, a hot, dry wind. As I faced it, I had the sensation that I should feel cold; I didn’t and it was altogether pleasant. Into my berth I went and slept.

When I awoke, it was getting light and I could here noises about the ship, sounds that I couldn’t yet indentify. I dressed and walked back to the officer’s mess at the stern of the ship. A secured table surrounded by eight secured swivel chairs and a small refrigerator were in the room. The adjacent room was the galley where two crewmen were preparing breakfast for themselves. I asked them their names and position on the ship and was quickly told that they were not cooks. In fact, they said, we don’t have a cook at all and everyone just makes do for himself. After showing me where the coffee was, they departed to the crew’s mess which was on the other side of the deck. I poured myself a cup of coffee and walked out on the fantail to survey my surroundings. My whole body was electric; I couldn’t stand still and could barely drink my coffee.

Zack came down from the bridge deck where his stateroom was located and greeted me by telling me about several problems that we had faced when I was in Michigan, all of which took money to solve. But even that news couldn’t undo me. I just laughed it off. Told we were waiting for a pilot to guide us from the Harbor, I was taken aback. Simple as that, I thought, no ceremony; just get the pilot and leave. And then as if he deemed it, the pilot boat arrived and a young man dressed in a smart white shirt with captain’s bars and neatly pressed black trousers came aboard and headed directly to the bridge. I wanted a picture of the ship before we left and I asked if I had time to take a picture. With a long-suffering look at Capt. Zack, the pilot said okay and worked on his paperwork while I ran off the ship with my camera and looked for a vantage point. Being very low in the water, she didn’t look right taking the picture from the wharf so I ran around the end of the inlet and took a picture from across the way. Though hastily done, it turned out to be my favorite picture.

(November 26, 1981, the M/T MacVie fully loaded and ready to sail to Bonaire)

Next, Part X: Sailing to Bonaire.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Part VIII: The MacVie Story. We are chartered.

(Curaçao Dockyard personnel starting the repairs to the MacVie)

The reader might be interested in a little background on what happened before we bought the MacVie. Prior to my owning the ship, three people had negotiated a Shell Time Charter for her if there was to be one. You see, Shell Oil owned a ship, the Debbie, which had for many years transported petroleum products to Bonaire. However, the Debbie was very old and in terrible shape and finally, Lloyds Register declassified it so it had to be scrapped and replaced.

Fortuitously, the owner of the M/T MacVie, Capt. Vieweger, happens to have a ship almost ready to sail and it is already in Curaçao and available for charter. As I mentioned earlier, there was an Aruban businessman, a personal friend of Joop deVries whose father had been Medical Director of Shell Oil, who knew of Shell's need. He had flown to Holland in search of a small tanker with which to make a bid on the charter. I was to learn later that he found a ship but that coincidentally while the US and Antillian dollar had remained stable (Curaçao having a large off-shore banking community pegs its Antillian Guilder to the US dollar) the Netherlands’ Guilder in Holland floated with the world market and suddenly the world money market collapsed about 15%. As a result, the ship that the Aruban had found in Holland now cost 15% more and he would not be able to take a $900 per day charter. He needed time to find another, less expensive ship.

Meantime, Shell Refinery, with a declassified vessel, was forced to negotiate with the owner of the MacVie, Capt. Vieweger, thinking that the MacVie was not only in class but had been chartered recently by Texaco Oil Company in Trinidad. So, they assumed, it must be okay.

Meantime, the Aruban businessman (I can’t find his name among my notes) called his friend, deVries (hearsay), to ask him to try to delay Shell from awarding of the charter until he found another ship. Months later, when I learned of this story, I wondered if deVries' inspection was designed to knock the MacVie out of contention. If it had been, he didn’t know the tenacity of those of Finnish heritage.

In any case, the strategy didn’t work. Lloyds declassified the Debbie and Shell had to have a ship; now. Three men were present for the negotiating session: Mr. Steen, Manager, Shell Refinery Marketing, J.K. vanden Berg, an agent from from Dammers and van der Heide (all ships must have an agent to take care of the ship when it is in port), and Capt. Vieweger of the MacVie. It was agreed that if there was to be a charter, it would be a Time Charter at the rate of US$900 per day. Furthermore, to compensate for this low rate, the Time Charter would have numerous restrictions as to what the Shell could do with the ship and where they could send it. Specifically, the MacVie would be chartered to run petroleum products from the refinery in Curacao to the island of Bonaire, one of the six Dutch Antilles islands—Aruba, Curaçao, Boinaire off the coast of Venezuela, and Saba, Sint Eustatius and Sint Maarten in the Windwards—as directed and no farther, a trip that would occur about once a week. Shell would supply all fuel and port costs to the MacVie and the MacVie's owner would be responsible for keeping the ship available whenever needed around the clock. The charter would be paid in advance on the first day of each month. It was agreed that the agent would receive 5% of the charter and that it would be taken out of our check. All that remained was for the ship to pass the Antillian and Lloyds inspections.

Suddenly, Capt. Vieweger sold the ship to us and when we arrived on the scene, we were contacted immediately by Shell Oil and asked if we would agree to the negotiated terms. It was apparent to us that we had no choice. We agreed to abide by the negotiated terms of the Time Charter. Good, they said, so all that remained was for the inspections to take place. And that, good friends, was the behind-the-scenes story leading up the arrival of Joop deVries to inspect our ship.

Incidentally, it is important to note that everyone who negotiated the original terms of the Time Charter was now gone from the scene. Mr. Schoonbrood replaced Mr. Steen as Manager, Shell Marketing, Mr. Jack Ponson (his first name was Joop but he loathed being called Joop because most Americans pronounced Joop rhyming with “hoop”) replaced Mr. vanden Berg, and we replaced Capt. Vieweger.

Now, back to the story: Joop deVries had his lunch with Mr. Schoonbrood, of Shell Oil Refinery Marketing, during which he said that he would give the MacVie his blessing when the needed repairs were completed to his satisfaction. Moreover, I was to learn that he gave Betty and me a rave review.

(Here's a picture of the venting system. These are designed to carry the fumes from the tanks below high up over the mast of the ship.)
With that good news and the list of 150 deficiencies in hand, I went to work raising the necessary money. Concurrently, the dockyard went to work repairing the most important item on the list, the entire venting system. For the next many days, I could see my vent pipes strewn about the dockyard as the men worked 24 hours a day rebuilding them to our specs. During daylight, the Chief Engineer and our crew attacked the deck problems which were on the list. It was a busy time with work going on all day and long into the night on the ship and all night in the dockyard sheds. Betty and I got busy too looking for a place to live in Curaçao and enrolling our youngest son, John, in the American School in Willemstad. Betty left for home to arrange for our youngest daughter, Lisa, to be home-studied in Curacao during part of her junior year. To our great relief, the Hancock Public Schools were helpful in deciding upon a suitable curriculum for her to follow.

(A deckhand cleaning up a venting valve.)

Somehow, somewhere, the money came to us in the form of loans and savings and we were able to complete as many repairs as necessary to be approved to sail and in mid November, 1981, a little over six months since learning of the MacVie for sale, I signed a Letter of Commitment for a Time Charter with Shell Oil Company at the rate of $900.00 per day. Our first check for $19,800.00 (pro-rated for November) was waiting for me at the Shell office the day after signing the letter. I took it downtown to the Bank Of Boston, introduced myself to the manager, and opened an account where I deposited the money. When I arrived at the ship to pay the crew I was to learn that they accepted no checks, that they would work only for cash and US dollars only. Back to the bank I went to get the ship’s payroll in cash, thankful that it wasn’t coming out of my own pocket. The moment was glorious and memorable.

(Betty and I celebrating our charter at a little outdoor cafe on the esplanade along the river that bisects Willemstad. It was and is our favorite location.)

The next day, personnel from Shell Oil Marketing and I flew to Bonaire to check on the piers and quays to which we would be berthed and to be introduced to local Bonairian officials. Despite that Curaçao was the seat of the entire Netherlands Antilles, protocol called for Shell Oil and us to pay respects to them.

Now deeper in debt than ever, I left for Hancock to prepare to bring the children to Curacao to run our new business, Caribbean Shipping Ltd., a Tortolan firm with a lawyer and mail drop in Roadtown, Tortola.

While we were gone, the ship was moved to the Shell Refinery wharf where she would be stationed. Within days the MacVie made her first trip to Bonaire. The ship was slowed because of the heavy algae growth on her hull and upon arrival back in Curaçao we had to pay to have her hull cleaned, or as they called it, “a shave and a haircut. “

There was one thing left undone, something that would create a great problem for both Shell Oil and us within two months: Since we had not actually read the Time Charter, an extensive document with many clauses buried therin, we were operating solely on their word that the document was “in the works.”

Part IX: My First Trip to Bonaire.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The MacVie Story, Part VII: Lloyds Inspection

Disclaimer: the events I have and will describe in this series of blogs about the MacVie occurred almost 26 years ago and my notes written at that time are abbreviated somewhat. For example, the two inspections and the visit with deVries took place over four days, not the three implied in the blog. I know that Betty could not make it to Curacao from Hancock in one day but would require at least two days, one to Chicago and another to Curacao. However that may be, I am not inclined to go back and find the problem with days, etc., so will just move on.

(below, the ship as it looked when we bought it.)
Since so many of our problems relate to our ship register, Lloyds, I think it would be interesting to know a bit about them. Every country involved with major shipping has its own ship registry. Shippers and insurance companies rely on these registries to assure them that ships which they hire and insure are not only safe but structurally and mechanically sound. Without an approved classification by a registry (the ship's flag will usually determine the ship registry), a ship owner would not be able to insure his ship or its contents and no shipper in his right mind would ship cargo on an unclassified ship. For more information on this subject, Google, “ship registries” and check out the various websites. Some major ship registries are American Bureau of Shipping (USA), Lloyds Register of Ships (British Commonwealth), Det Norske (Norrway), Gewrmanischer Lloyd (Germany), Cypress Bureau of Shipping (Greek), and Nippon Kaijai (Japan).

The M/T MacVie flew a Tortola flag and because Tortola is part of the British Commonwealth, we were registered and inspected by Lloyds Register of Ships. When I closed the sale on the M/T MacVie she held a classification of 100-A1, Lloyds highest rating. Accordingly, she was insured by Lloyds of London (no operating relationship to Lloyds Register) who was the lead insurer. That night as Betty and I tried to sleep, I kept wondering what went wrong. What could we have done differently? It was a question that plagued me for the next two years.

The basic difference between the Antillian Ship Inspector and Lloyds Register was important: whereas Lloyds could de-classify a ship and make it uninsurable, they could not prevent it from sailing as a de-classified ship, the Antillian Ship Inspector could deny a ship from operating in Antillian waters. As a practical matter, therefore, they were both critical.

We arose early and left for the government building in downtown Willemstad. I remember being somewhat surprised that the Dutch Marine Guard standing outside let us pass with a question or glance, all the moreso because it was before normal office hours. We entered the building, went to the second floor and began the long walk down the darkened corridor leading to deVries office. Our footsteps echoed from the tile floor.

DeVries office window, which was opaque, revealed that the office was lit and occupied. With a final deep breath I knocked on the door and waited. I could see a shadow approaching the door—could my pounding heart be heard?—and then it opened. “Good Morning,” he said calmly. “Mr. DeVries, I would like you to meet my wife who just arrived from Michigan. We would like to talk about the MacVie.” After what seemed like a long pause, he opened the door wide and asked us to come in and have a seat at a round coffee table in the corner of his office. His next question was the most important and gratifying question I could have had” “May I get you some coffee?”

When I got the coffee, I determined to drink slowly for I was certain that he would not ask us to leave until I finished it. When, after a good hour, we finally left his office there was still a bit of cold coffee in that cup. It is strange to me now that so much importance rested on the speed which one drinks his coffee.

In essence, during our hour, we told deVries that we were good people, that we were duped by the previous owner, and most importantly that we would repair anything and everything that he determined to be faulty. As I said this, I was already wondering where we could get the funds. He was cordial and helpful throughout the meeting and at one point he excused himself to make a telephone call. He called his wife, Edith, and set up a dinner with the four of us at a Chinese restaurant. We did it!

When we left, we headed directly to the MacVie to await the Lloyds’ inspector, F.J. Verloop (rhymes with “hope”).

Just before Verloop arrived I looked over the Lloyds' Special Survey conducted a few months earlier in Trinidad and endorsed by him about a month ago. There were two minor problems relating to running lights and one other. When Verloop left the ship some three hours later, I was handed a list of 150 deficiencies, one of which I was to discover would cost about $40,000 to repair. My anger burst out in a tirade of yelling and stamping my feet and actually throwing the list to the deck. It was all too much.

(Above, Capt. Zack watches while they tear down the lifeboats to inspect its floatation and seaworthiness.)

Exhausted, I collapsed in my berth for an hour and then began to get estimates from the dockyard on the cost of the repairs. In the late afternoon, Betty and I drove downtown and sat in a small wharf-side café to drink coffee and watch the ships passing before us.

Later that evening we met Edith and Joop at the restaurant and spent a pleasant evening getting to know each other and our families, finding out in the process that they had two daughters one of which was the same age as our daughter, Lisa. No mention was made of the luncheon he was to have with Shell Oil Company the next day but I was confident I had allayed some of the criticism that he might have made had we not confronted him.

Having had two nights of little sleep, Betty and I snuggled on my berth, heads on opposite ends, and slept well. Good we did, for there were trying days ahead.

(Left, our stateroom)

Next: Part VIII, Shell makes known its decision as to whether or not the MacVie will be chartered.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Part VI: Aftermath

(Two pictures from the "Punda," a downtown area of Willemstad, Curacao. The first is the waterfront esplanade with the colorful buildings and the second is the main street. The city is divided by the "river" which leads to the bay and refineries. The other side of the "river" is called the Outrabunda and is populated by more Antillians than tourists while the Punda is the main more or less upscale shopping area. Twenty years later, we found that this was to change drastically with the outrabunda becoming the main tourist center and the Punda falling in a bit of decay.)

When deVries left the ship after his inspection, I was despondent. I had been told that a charter had been negotiated for me by Capt. Vieweger and that Shell and was waiting for the ship to be cleared the inspectors. In short, everything depended on the outcome of deVries' inspection.

The day slipping away. Betty was already in Chicago on her way and I didn't want to stand around and talk with Captain Zack (more on him in a later blog) so I left the ship ostensibly to do some shopping but in reality to go to deVries' office in the Government Building and ask for a private audience with him during which I would try to convince him that we were good people who had been wronged. Arriving at his reception area, I could see him in a glass-enclosed office a couple of rooms away. His secretary, a very friendly older Antillian woman, took my request to him and then returned to tell me he could not see me. What was I to do? It was one of those moments we have in our lives when all the alternatives seem hopeless. I couldn't leave; I couldn't stay. But I left the office and started down the hall, head down, defeated. I guess I looked pretty sad as I left the office because deVrties' secretary ran after me and stopped me. She said that Mr. DeVries gets to his office at 7 O’clock each morning and if I were to come down the hall and knock on his office door, which she pointed out to me, he would probably answer it and then it would be up to me. I thanked her profusely but wondered if any good could come out of such a bold strategy.

Later that evening, I went to a wonderful restaurant perched high about and overlooking Willemstad and the port. With a ice cold drink in my hand, I walked out on a perfectly safe catwalk to a viewing pod looking straight down to the reefs 200-feet below. I took one look down and I think I remember wondering if I could be suicidal and then decided not to test myself. Rather hastily I retreated to the safe environs inside the restaurant.

Betty arrived on the 11 p.m. flight and we both decided to confront deVries early the next morning. If we slept, it was fitfully.

Part VII: We confront Joop deVries in his office and later receive our Lloyd's inspection.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Part V: The MacVie Story

Our first Inspection...

Let me be clear about the certificates which verified to us that the MacVie was in excellent shape. First, she had undergone a Lloyds Registry of Ships Special Survey which indicated that there were two minor deficiencies. A Lloyds’ Special Survey is an extensive inspection conducted once every four years and covers virtually everything on the ship including safety equipment, machinery, hull condition, and piping (of which there are hundreds of feet on an oil tanker). The survey had been completed three months earlier when the ship was in Trinidad and was signed by Mr. Lumsden, the Lloyds’ inspector there.

Second, we had a local Ship Surveyor conduct a private inspection which certified that everything was in fine working order. In short, when I was informed that the Antillian Ship Inspector stationed in Curacao would be inspecting the ship before authorizing it to operate out of Antillian waters, I was not concerned. I had owned the MacVie for a mere eight days, seven of which were spent away from the vessel, so I had little opportunity to check things out for myself. Instead I relied on Captain Zack to ready the ship for the inspection.

Joop (pronounced as in “hope”) deVries was the Antillian Ship Inspector and as such had ultimate authority over Antillian waters. On Monday afternoon, in the small lounge that the dockyard company provided each afternoon for the convenience of ship owners or their representatives, inspectors, and dockyard executives, I had been introduced to deVries and found him pleasant but formal. I slept well.
(A crewman opens a venting valve for the inspector)

The next morning, deVries arrived with his aide and quickly began his inspection. Pulling out a small copper alloy non-sparking hammer--one does not beat in a steel deck of an oil tanker with a steel hammer lest one wants to be blown up—with one end of the hammer head pointed like an awl, on his first try, he sank the awl completely through the nicely painted deck plating. And so it went: he tore long slits in the venting system, the pipes that vent gasoline fumes high up the mast away from the ship, he broke off rusted pieces of equipment, pieces that had been skillfully masked and painted as though new. Within minutes, I knew we had a serious problem and that we had been tricked by old Capt. Vieweger.
(Captain Zack stripping the lifeboats for inspection)

After about an hour or two (time was all but lost in my mental fog) deVries left saying that he would send me his written report in a day or two but meantime he would have to issue a “No Sail” decree on the ship. Compounding my problem was the fact that on Thursday, deVries was to meet with our potential charterer, Shell Oil Company, to give them his report on the condition of the vessel.

Immediately after deVries left, I telephoned Betty in Hancock and told her to catch the very next flights to Curacao. We had a serious problem with an inspection and I needed her as soon as possible.

Later that afternoon, I learned that the local Lloyds’ inspector had got wind of deVries findings and decided to make an inspection of his own the next day. Unfortunately, I was to learn, deVries and the Lloyds inspector Johan Verloop had a long history of animosity over other ships. I wondered if deVries was engaging in a little pay back and that perhaps the MacVie was his down payment. That night, with the noise of clanking and clunking and whistles and bells from the midnight shift of the dockyard wafting in my open portlight, I slept fitfully.

Next: Part VI: Another Day, Another Inspection.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Part IV : The MacVie Story

(When I finally arrived at the ship at the Curacao Drydock Company, I found the crew working on her.)

A Series of Shocks:

The trip from Hancock to Curacao to pick up the ship was one during which I was to discover what would define my experience as the owner of a ship sailing from a foreign port under a foreign flag: a series of shocks.

The first shock I was to receive was at the airport in Barbados. I had stopped there on my way to Curacao both to wrap up any loose ends with Capt. Vieweger and to assure myself and our finance company, as well as a future charterer, that the ship was fully covered. Before I left Hancock, I had purchased a pistol to bring to our captain who would not sail unless he had a weapon in the safe. When I arrived in Barbados, I ran quickly to the customs to beat the crowd. "Do you have anything to declare?" the customs official asked politely. "Nothing," I said. "Please open your suitcase." he said. I did and there to my horror was the pistol, right on top in full view. I was arrested immediately or more politely, detained for questioning, for over an hour after which, with the airport deserted of passengers and my pistol and passport confiscated, I was released with orders to appear at the magistrate's offoce the next morning for a hearing. Apparently I had convinced them that I was not a terrorist for they let me go into the night. I was shaken.

(Here's a picture of the ship lying at berth next to the Curacao Drydock Company, a berth for which we paid US$600 per day to use.)

After three horrendous days in Barbados during which I was assured that Lloyd's of London would maintain coverage on the ship, during which I was fined a hundred dollars and the loss of my pistol for trying to smuggle it into the country, and during which I learned that the ship had lost its charter at the Texaco refinery in Trinidad, I departed for Curacao shaken but undaunted for Vieweger had assured me that there was a charter awaiting us in Curacao with Shell Oil Company of Curacao.

Arriving in Curacao, I took a taxi to the Hilton Hotel where I slept fitfully.

I awoke early, excited and expectant, ate a hasty breakfast and went to the Curacao Drydock Company where the ship was berthed. There, I was to receive my second shock.

The Shell charter was tenuous. There was a competing bid by a local man who, though he didn't own a ship at present, was in the Netherlands looking for one. Furthermore, he was the son of the former Medical Director at Shell and certainly had the fast track. Moreover, told by the dockyard that the ship would cost $600 per day to berth and that, coupled with the fact that the crew of seven were now my responsibility to pay and feed, I knew something had to give. Well, when things are going badly, one had best do something even if its wrong. I went to the dockyard open bar where i got a smattering of good news: the dockyard gave me 24-hour use of a car, a small office with a secretary if I needed one, and unlimited use of the open bar at the office which was open from 4-6 each afternoon. In addition, I got daily garbage pickup and free fresh water. Just think, a place to berth and all the extras for just $600 a day. Our electricity was supplied by our own diesel genertators which ran constantly, night and day. I slept on the ship the first night as owner but was awakened often by the noise of the dockyard which operated around the clock.

On the seventh day as owner without charter, I was beginning to get pretty nervous. As the day came to a close, I was told that Shell had ordered both the Antillian Ship Inspector and Lloyd's Registery of Ships (unaffiliated with Lloyd's Insurance Company) to conduct final inspections which could lead to a charter. Fantastic! I slept like a baby and only awoke when the shift change whistle was sounded.

Unfortunately, on the eighth day, I was to receive one of the biggest shocks. Though I had "gold-plated" certificates of inspection from Lloyd's and from a private surveyor, the ship was condemned, first by the Antillian inspector and later the Lloyd's inspector. I was given a list of 150 violations that would have to be satisfactorily repaired or replaced before I could be allowed to sail. One of those violations, the venting system, was to cost over $35,000 to repair. And to my horror, the Antillian Ship Inspector was going to meet with Shell management in two days to give them the grim news.

Next Installment: We visit the ship inspector.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The 27th Annual Black Fly Open Golf Tournament

It seems like yesterday when Capt. Don Kilpela Jr. started his Black Fly Open Golf Tournament.

Held on the third Thursday in May each year, it is usually at the height of the infestation of black flies. For protection from the vicious gnats, golfers have worn duck tape around their ankles, head nets, full body nets, and doused themselves liberally with every imaginable bug spray only to find that the flies defy them and usually drive them nuts.

Golfers have tried putting a strip of "Bounce" hanging from the back of their caps, they've tried swallowing mega doses of vitamin B-12 or bathing with special "bug-repellant" soaps; some have tried not washing for several days before the tournament. Nothing really works. One simply endures.

The tournament is listed as a random draw (golfer's names are put into one of three boxes according to their level of skill), 18-hole scramble with a shotgun start. Just prior to the the start, names are drawn from the hat to make up 2-man teams. The catch is that a great golfer will get paired with a bad golfer, etc. In short, one would never get paired with someone of equal skill. In that manner, about 24 years ago I won the tournament having been paired with the late Professor Carmen DelaQuadri He had a bad right hip and I had a bad left leg; we won going away.

The opening ceremony usually features a piper leading the group to the first tee where Scotsman Don Keith, dressed in Keith Clan) dedicates the tounmant to the memory of St. Andrews Golf Course. This year he brought a bottle of Glen Keith scotch (distilled in Northern Scotland) with which to dab a bit behind each ear to keep the bugs away.

Following this, Capt Don has three golfers hit an opening demonstration drive: the oldest participant (this year, at 76 and 11 months, I was given the honor); the golfer who has been in the most tournaments; and usually one who will give everyone a good laugh when his drive flies in a gigantic slice over to the woods.

While the tournament is underway, Capt Don drives around the course filming everyone and usually harassing them enough to produce a prodigeous dub.

At the conclusion of the day, the golfers gather in the club house to accept the prize money and especially to see who gets the booby prizes (the main one traditionally a watermelon) for being the worst team of the day. Finally, Don plays the tape of the day on the VCR and a final good laugh is had by all.

I should mention that on the evening preceding the tournament, there is a 9-hole mini tournament whereby each hole is shortened to a 3-par distance. A number of golfers enjoy this as well and many stay the night at the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Part III: The M/T MacVie is OURS

She's Ours

After Betty and I decided to “go for it,” we had to "go for the money." Local banks were out of the question but the late Alex Sample of the Houghton National Bank set me up with an appointment at one of their correspondent banks, Chase Manhattan, New York City. So off to new York I flew.

Chase Manhattan, in downtown New York, was nestled among several skyscrapers It was early morning when I arrived and the boys at the bank ushered me into the walnut paneled conference room to listen to my proposal. They asked some pointed questions which, I realized years later, were evidence of the fact that I didn’t know what I was doing: in short, an oil boat operating in salt water is as far from a fresh water passenger boat as an airliner is from a Piper Cub. After the meeting, Smiling, encouraging, apologizing ("Sorry, Mr. Kilpela, but Chase isn't interested in single ship deals, but we think this sounds great."), the boys ushered me out of the walnut panelled conference room and into the elevator. I was out of the bank before the sun cleared the building and hit the street.

Chastened but not defeated I began an almost quixotic quest to find the money. After a futile search for about a month, the ship broker set me up with Heller Financial in Chicago and, wow, I got the loan…at 24.3% interest. Remember, this was the early eighties and the prime US rate was over 18%. We were in business.

The ship was registered in Tortola, British Virgin Islands, so we had to set up a corporation there, Caribbean Shipping Ltd., which would actually own her. Off to Tortola I went to close the deal and re-register the MacVie. By four o’clock that July day, we were proud owners of the Motor Tanker MacVie. I headed home to prepare to move to Curaçao where the ship lay at a wharf in the Curaçao Dockyard. Aboard, a captain and crew who were now our responsibility to feed.

Like a fire dog hearing the fire bell, off I went to Barbados on my way to Curaçao to begin take over; a question I never asked was, did a make a wrong turn when I ran out of the firehouse?

Picture: with great care and exquisite handwriting, the ship registrar of Tortola signs the M/T MacVie over to Caribberan Shipping Ltd.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Back Home in Copper Harbor

Here's two pictures of the Queen IV returning to Copper Harbor this evening. After a long winter frozen in the ice on the Portage Waterway, she's home and ready for her first voyage to the Isle Royale on May 14.

This will be our 37th summer running to the island, almost 3500 trips across the chilly, choppy waters of Lake Superior, the largest fresh water lake in the world. Exhilerating!

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Part II: April Fool's Day, 1981

On April 1, 1981, while exploring a boat business opportunity in Miami, Florida, I was shown a drawing of the M/T MacVie. At the time the ship was in drydock in Curaçao, Netherland Antilles, undergoing repairs to her propeller and shaft. Apparently she had run aground while off-loading gasoline in a small bay on the coast of Barbados . The broker, Fred Driver, took time to describe the ship’s itinerary: “She picks up oil at the refinery in Trinidad and then sails to several islands in the Lesser Antilles to off-load her cargo. Meantime, the owner, Captain Vieweger—a Canadian from B.C.—and his wife live in Barbados in a lovely home. Once a month Vieweger flies to the island where the ship in off-loading to make the payroll. Occasionally, rarely, he sails with the ship. “ Then Fred Driver, with the ease of someone who had spent languorous afternoons under fluttering tents while sipping tea and watching cricket marches being played on lush green lawns, described Barbados in stunning detail and concluded with, “Barbados is very very British, you know. Not at all like bloody Trinidad where nothing works.”

I was hooked. Pocketing the drawing, I went to lunch alone to study it. By the time I finished lunch that April Fool’s Day afternoon in downtown Miami, I was captive to my imagination. In an instant my life changed; I had fallen in love. I returned to my motel and called Betty. With extra emphasis on living in Barbados, I described the ship and the business. She listened patiently and said, finally, “Go for it.”

One month later, with a letter of introduction in hand, I flew to Curaçao to examine the ship while she was in drydock. The pictures were taken at that time. The first was taken overlooking the forward end of the ship with its discharge hoses lying on the catwalk over the tanks, and the second is of 75-year old Captain Vieweger posing in the pilot house. It looked like a scary proposition, but with those cricket matches and all floating around in my head, I decided to "go for it."

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Part I: Introducing the M/T MacVie

Welcome to a new series of blogs about the M/T (Motor Tanker) MacVie, a coastal oil tanker we owned and operated from November, 1981 through December, 1984. The MacVie was under time charter to the Shell Oil Refinery located on the island of Curaçao for the purpose of transporting gas oil (diesel fuel), gasoline, and 200-gallon propane tanks to the island of Bonaire, both in the Netherlands Antilles.

The MacVie was been built in 1959 by the Standard Oil Company of British Columbia and used there to move refined oil around the near coast and harbors. She was 170’ in length with a 33’ beam and had capacity for 211,232 Imperial gallons of cargo and 8000 of fresh water for drinking and bathing.

Accommodations: the top deck contained the captain’s quarters and office, a chart room, and the ship’s bridge. One deck down were the officer’s deck consisting of the chief engineer’s stateroom, five officer staterooms, a galley, the officer’s mess, and the crew’s mess. Down one more deck and we find the crew’s quarters, a cold storage room, and a small recreation room. The minimum number of men needed to operated the ship for an eight hour-hour shift was 6-7 including the captain, officers, oilers and deck hands. Finally, we go down to the engine room where the Werkspoor 825 hp, 8 cylinder diesel engine dominated; in addition there were two 250 hp diesel generators, one of which was running at all times.

During most of our ownership the ship's complement included:
Chief Engineer
Assistant Chief Engineer
2-3 Oilers
2-3 Deckhands who also acted as wheelsmen
Pump operator

None of the complement were US citizens; all, except my captain, a naturalized Canadian, were from the Caribbean basin countries.

It was an interesting time in the kilpela family, a time which we look back on with whimsy and sadness sprinkled liberally with nostalgia. But let me start at the beginning...

Monday, April 16, 2007

Home Again

Awaiting us upon our return to the Copper Country from our vacation in Florida was a good covering of snow, the results of a blizzard that passed through a couple of weeks ago. Reported was a snowfall of 45-54 inches at Delaware, a defunct copper mining mining location 10 miles west of Copper Harbor and 67 inches in Painsdale, a small village about 12 miles south of Houghton. It is melting fast, however, and if we could get a good spring rain it would all but disappear.

Our friend Jim Junttila from Laurium, an outdoor writer for the Daily Mining Gazette and other publications was out on a photographic prowl on April 11 and captured the Isle Royale Queen IV frozen in a swirl of ice. With the Houghton-Hancock lift bridge in the backgfround, it makes for an interesting picture which we will add to our extensive collection. Jim can be contacted at jjunttila@chartermi.net.

The Queen lies at her winter wharf on what is called the Portage Canal (technically it is Portage Lake), a waterway the final mile of which was dredged long ago to create a passageway completely across the Keweenaw Peninsula. With minimal ice movement, the boat is quite safe and weathers the winters well. Every five years we have her put into drydock for a hull inspection and cleaning. Presently, our captains are getting her ready to sail to Isle Royale National Park on May 14, the opening voyage for the 2007 season.

A great number and variety of Isle Royale and Queen pictures and be seen at Captain Ben's blog: www.isleroyale.blogspot.com.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Heading North

Hearing about the massive blizzard heading for Copper Harbor, we found every possible reason to delay our arrival. We visited friends in St. Petersburg, Tampa, and Bradenton which gave us a few more days of warm weather. Then, as is our wont, we stopped in Okemos, Michigan, to spend two nights with son Ben and his family. While there, we got a chance to go to his new office building which is attached to the West side of the football field and soars high into the air. We especially wanted to see the pictures that he had taken of MSU buildings and environs, pictures that MSU Development Office purchased from him and displayed them around the halls of the building and in the entrance.

The top picture was taken in the Cedar River Conference Room where four of his photos of the Cedar River are hung.

Next is a shot of one of the buildings on campus with Capt. Ben standing next to it.

The third picture is one of two one the wall of the reception desk at the Entry.

There were a total of 17 pictures on display for all donors and employees of MSU to see and enjoy. Needless to say, Elizabeth and I are extremely proud of this accomplishment.

Photography is Capt. Ben's avocation. Nine months of the year he is employed by the MSU Development Office as a writer and the other three months he is in Copper Harbor working, along with his two brothers on the Isle Royale Queen IV. In short, he has a varied and interesting life and you will be interested in seeing his Copper Harbor and Isle Royale blogs.

(Ben's blogs with their interesting pictures are at www.copperharbor.blogspot.com and www.isleroyale.blogspot.com. From these you can connect to his wedsite as well for some wonderful photography of Isle Royale National Park, etc.)

End of the Vacation

I have been remiss in posting to this blog so I have a couple of additions to make in the next day or so. First, just before we left Florida, we visited our nephew Kevin Koski and his dad, Steve Szyszkowski, at Kevin's condo overlooking Collins Avenue in South Beach, Miami. That's my wife, Elizabeth, looking quite happy. The condo is a block off the ocean and about four blocks from the infamous Versace mansion. Nice neighborhood. I tell you it's a whole different world down there. Unfortunately, when we went for lunch and a walk on the beach....well, I should have brought my camera. As the kids say, it's unreal.

Kevin was home for 30 days from his job as a consultant at a Marathon refinery off the West coast of Africa, 30 on, 30 off. Steve was biding his time at the condo between trips to Lake Worth, where he just bought a condo, and Costa Rica and other points. He's a man on the move. I wish he would publish a blog featuring his own travels when he was a prospector and gold mine operator in Costa Rica.

Hot, windy, noisy, full of activity by youngsters on Spring break and oldsters in retirement, South Beach is a place everyone should visit at least once; and oh yeah, bring lots of cash.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Well, our winter vacation is quickly drawing to a close. Next Sunday, April 1, we depart for Copper Harbor and the start of our 37th year owning and operating the Isle Royale Ferry Service from the Harbor to Isle Royale Narional Park.

I thought I would conclude my winter blog by posting the cover of the latest of three book I have read since arriving here in mid-February. The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason, is Charles Freeman's latest book on the founding and development of Christianity from Jesus to Thomas Aquinas with a fair amount of Greek philosopy (namely Plato and Aristotle) added. With a great deal of selectivity and not a little looseness, he adequately supports his premise as indicated in the sub-title of his book. Personally, I am wary of any writer on Christianity who glosses over the cataclysmic destruction of the Temple Mount in 70 ce and its impetus to Christianity and Freeman does just that. Moreover, in a patently untrue statement, he implies that all of Paul's letters were written before that event. This makes one suspect about the rest of the supporting evidence. Nonetheless, it is a good read and well worthwhile.

The other two books I read were Jerusalem: City of Three Faiths, (for the second time) by Karen Armstrong (another popularization of the history of that vital city), and Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds (for the umteenth time), a book that stoked and continues to feed my interest in the history of religion (as opposed to the history of theology), by Donald K. Akenson.

Finally, I listened to the 14 lectures entitled, "Jerusalem: City of God, City of Fire," delivered by Professor F. E. Peters of New York Univerrsity, a series from the Portable Professor, whick is available at Amazon or B&N. It is a very interesting overview of the events that vexed people throughout its history and well into modern times.

In short, my free time between visiting friends, eating out a couple of times a day, walking about 3 miles per day, and shopping was spent doing what I love to do most: read.

As we start our season, I am on a critical path to retire on January 1, 2008 at the age of 77-1/2, just about the age my own father reached before he passed away and I guess that is the goal of most men: to live beyond their fathers. See you later.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Rosvopaisti at the Suomi Talo, Lake Worth, Florida

Here are three pictures of the roasting of the Lamb during the Rosvopaisti at the Suomi Talo (Finland House) in Lake Worth, Florida. Rosvopaisti is an annual celebration honoring the veterans if the Winter War of 1939-40 against the Soviet Union.

We met the man in the fireman's outfit at our apartment. He was flown here from Helsinki for a week to do the actual roasting. They expected hundreds of Finns to show up for the lamb dinner. Betty and I heard the term 5 o'clock so promptly at five we showed up ready for dinner only to discover that they started the roasting at 5:00 a.m. and that dinner was served at noon.

The roasting consists of digging a deep hole and lining it with rocks. Coals are then piled on the rocks and fired. When the coals are fiully consumed, the rocks are covered with more dirt and a layer of steel mesh on which the lamb (wrapped in foil) are placed. Mor cover of dirt are laid on the lanb and a huge pile of charcoal is put on top of that and lit. When that pile is consumed, the whole thing is uncovered and the lamb is ready to be served. The gentleman who is the expert also prepares the Rosvopaisti in Finland at which they serve upward of a thousand people. He told me that the whole thing gets very hot and requires a good fireman's outfit including a mask and breather.

These pictures are from the celebration in 2006. If you are interested in the Winter War, check out the five-part serise on Youtube. Just type in "www.youtube.com/watch?v=-G59ilVg6ZE&mode=related&search="

Saturday, March 17, 2007

St. Patrick's Day in Lake Worth, Florida

A wonderful tradition here in Lake Worth, Florida, is combining St. Patrrick's Day with St. Baldrick's Day which honors St. Baldrick by having your head shorn for a donation of at least $100 (usually supplied by your friends). Men, women, children all participate with five barbers donating their time and talents to sheer the volunteers. The money raised goes to "Kids With Cancer." The young lady in the first picture starts to look quite different in the last picture.

Brogues Irish Pub was the place to be in downtown Lake Worth today. Starting with a parade and ending sometime tomorrow morning, this place will be jumping. Though Betty and I have never observed what happens after about 10 p.m., we hear that things stay pretty calm (with the help of the Lake Worth PD of course).

Friday, March 02, 2007

Winter Hiatus

We are comfortably ensconced in Lake Worth, Florida, for the next few weeks. It is a nice respite from the severe weather that the Copper Country has been experiencing lately.

Granddaughter Miranda, who lives and works in Copper Harbor, reports that reservations for the 2007 season of the Isle Royale Queen IV are coming in steadily. Of course this news makes us very relieved.

Since the Tigers were playing their spring training opening game on Tradition Field in Port St. Lucie, we decided to drive up there and take in the game. Here is the opening pitch by a youngster who wants to make the regular team. Unfortunately, with the arms they already have on the roster, there is very little chance for that.

For the record, the Tigers beat the mets 5-4. Most of the big-name Tiger players such as Pudge, Sheffield, and Ordonez were left back in Lakeland but those that did make the trip--Granderson, Perez, Casey, Thames, among others--played hard and well. For this 77 year old Tiger fan, that was good to see.

I have an interesting series of articles planned about our experiences from 1981-1983 when we owned a small coastal oil tanker, the M/T MacVie, in Curacao. We operated there under a time-charter from Shell Oil to deliver gasoil, gasoline, and propane fuel tanks from the Shell refinery in Curacao to the island of Bonaire, both being in the Netherlands Antilles.

But that will have to wait until we get home to Copper Harbor. Meantime, check out www.copperharbor.blogspot.com for a blog about Copper Harbor posted by one of my sons, Capt. Ben Kilpela.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Part VII: The Isle Royale Queen IV

And so we come to the latest (last?) ferryboat to sail between Copper Harbor and Isle Royale National Park: the Isle Royale Queen IV.

She was purchased in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and sailed to the Harbor via the Tom Bigbee Waterway , Mississippi River, Illinois River, and Lake Michgan. She made her maiden voyage to Isle Royale on June 20, 2005.

Fabricated of aluminum and powered by three 12v71 Detroit Diesels, she makes the trip in 3 hours flat and at 100-feet by 20-feet she is roomy, warm, and comfortable. The picture was taken as she left on a sunset cruise, somnething we do every evening after returning from the island. Inasmuch as I am retired from sailing, we alternate the responsibility of captain among our three sons, Captains Don, Ben and John. This year, 2007, starts the 37th year since we bought the business. None of us ever looked back.

We like to remind everyone that, "more people visit Yellowstone Natonal park in one day than visit Isle Royale National Park in a whole summer. Come...be alone with us."

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Part VI: The Isle Royale Queen III

In 1989, the Isle Royale Queen II was returned to the Vinette Boat Company to be lengthened to 81-feet simply by adding 24 feet to the stern.
The design was done by Naval Architect Timothy Graul of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. who also guided the Coast Guard testing and approval process. The vessel was re-christened the Isle Royale Queen III. The lengthening great improved the Queen's ability to take on high seas without diving and cork-screwing, a plunging motion which brough on a lot of seasickness resulkting in a variety of names: Barf Barge, Chuck Wagon, etc. The following year, the Queen III was repowered with twin Caterpillar engines.

The picture above shows her with a substantial "bone in her teeth." a phrase used by Great Lakes Captains to describe steamboats under full power. Like the Queen II before her, the Queen III was seaworthy; she handled everything Lake Superior dished up.