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.