Monday, July 13, 2009

"You Turned My Ship Into Scrap"

I was sitting in my cabin with the Lloyd's Inspector, Mr. Varmerdam, who, despite trying everything in his power to help us, had just informed me that I had to either replace the main engine crankshaft or bring in a crew of welders to repair the one in the engine. I was sweating profusely and wiping my forehead and arms with a rag. There was a tense silence in the cabin broken only when I uttered that phrase.

(The main propulsion engine, an 8-cylinder Werkspoor, made in Holland.
Chief Yarde kept the engine room and engines shiny and clean)

The day had started with a routine inspection of our main engine, the last inspection of our Continuous Machinery Survey (CMS). The CMS is an inspection that takes place over a 5-year period and requires that the vessel's propulsion engine be completely dismantled and inspected within the 5-year period and every 5-year period thereafter. To help vessel owners, the inspection is conducted a little at a time over the period. Inasmuch as nothing had been done on the MacVie for the past five years, her CMS was about to expire. Consequently, we were dismantling and inspecting the engine over a 4-week period, two cylinders at a time. We were now in the fourth week and dismantling the final two cylinders.

I had arrived back to Curacao from Hancock the night before. Knowing that the inspector was due, I was prepared for the worse as usual but then again the previous three weeks had passed without a fault so while wary, I was confident. However, when Captain Zack said that the inspector was to be Mr. Varmerdam instead of Verloop, I was so confident I didn’t bother to go to the ship for the inspection, something that would have been unthinkable has Verloop been the inspector. In fact, I would have been at the ship by 7 a.m. to make sure everything was ready for the scheduled 8 a.m. inspection.

So here it was about 10 a.m. and I was eating a leisurely breakfast—with Betty in Michigan, I was living alone in our house and I was very tired from my flight down the night before—after which I drove to the ship at the refinery. Arriving, I barely noticed the white Toyota parked nearby but went straight to my cabin to change into my work clothes and then aft to the officer's galley for a cup of coffee. As I sat there drinking my coffee, one of the crew walked by and I asked him whose car was parked out there.

His eyes widened and took with what can only be described as a fearful look. "The inspector is in the engine room," he said without smiling.

Surprised, I asked, "Did he just get here?" '

"No, he's been here all morning." A shock. This could only be bad news.

I jumped up and went to the door of the engine room. Though I was three levels above the engine room deck, I could see that a couple of men were on their hands and knees looking into the engine. Quickly I went down the accommodation ladder toward the engine room. Pausing at the second level and leaning over the rail to see who was down there, I saw that both men were kneeling with their heads inside the engine. One had one the traditional white coveralls of the Lloyds inspectors while the other was Chief Yarde in shorts and thongs. As I was looking, the chief drew back and looked up at me, a stricken look on his face. I knew immediately that there was serious trouble.

Because of the noise of the large generator flanking the engine, all of our communication had to be done by pantomime. Using gestures, I greeted Varmerdam warmly for he had always been fair to me and seemed to want to help us. I asked what was wrong. Varmerdam gestured for me to look into the engine at the crankshaft which, with the pistons removed, stood out clearly. As I looked, wondering what I should be seeing, Varmerdam sprayed the crankshaft with white foam, almost as thick as shaving cream. And then he waited a second and a tiny but distinct red line appeared on the foam. He wiped the shaft clean and again sprayed the foam and waited. The red line appeared again and he pointed it out to me. After he had done this experiment several times, I motioned that we should go out of the engine room to talk this over.

He followed me to my cabin where, sweating from the heat of the day and especially from the engine room, we sat wiping our heads and arms and hands.

"What was I seeing?" I asked.

"A crack," he said.


"Yes, the shaft has a crack in it. I wish I didn’t see it but I did and I can't pass this inspection."

"What do you mean?" I asked. I was incredulous.

"It means that you will have to replace the shaft."

"What do you mean by replace?

"Just what I said. You'll have to replace the shaft before we can let you sail."

"But that's not possible," I said, "I could never afford that. You're looking at maybe a million dollars."

"He said, "well, there is another option. You could fly in welders and have the shaft welded and ground. There is a firm in Miami that specializes in that."

"Those are my two options?"

(A picture taken one day in the engine room. L to R: a guest, me, and Chief Yarde. The accommodation ladder in the stern goes up three stories to the officer’s deck.)

"I'm afraid so. I just wish I hadn't seen it." He was genuinely remorseful and believe it or not, I sort of felt sorry for him. Had it been Verloop, I might have lost it and God knows what I would have done.

After a long moment of silence with the drone of the generator sounding in my ears, I looked at Varmerdam and said, "You've turned my ship into scrap."

Things happened quickly after that and in the confusion of the moment and the whirring in my brain, I heard him suggest that we bring in the drydock people to see how deep the crack was. Why throw away money now, I thought, but I consented thinking I wasn't going to pay for it anyway so who cares. I shrugged and said it was up to him.

Varmerdam left the ship and almost immediately I left too. I don't remember what happened right then but I do know that I went home to get my briefcase and headed for the Bank of America in downtown Willemstad.

Entering the bank, I signaled to the manager and he came up to see me. I told him that I was closing our account and wished to have all my remaining money in US dollars. He complied with my desire and delivered some thirty thousand dollars which I stuffed into my briefcase, shook his hand and thanked him for all the kindnesses he had shown me over the years, left the bank and headed back home.

Back at the house, I took all my belongings out of the drawers and laid my clothes on the bed in preparation for packing later. I was going home. I decided to end everything right there and then. I would get a flight out that evening and just leave the rented car at the airport and go home. It was over. I felt light-headed. Over, I thought, done.

I took a cool shower, dressed into my traveling clothes, and decided to go for lunch at the MacDonalds that was not too far away. As I sat there eating a cheeseburger and fries, my radio went off and I realized that Zack was trying to call me.

To get better reception, I went outside and called Zack.

He said that all the inspectors and workmen were at the ship and maybe I better come down. I said I would after I was through with lunch and I did.

Arriving at the ship, I saw the various cars and trucks parked at the ship and noticed that several men were departing the ship and going to their cars. The last one on the gangway was Varmerdam who, upon spotting me, put his arms out like he wanted to hug me and as I approached he did just that.

"It was a heat crack," he said with a broad smile.

"What do you mean," I asked.

He said it was a tiny heat crack and that the chief had emery-clothed it out and there was no more crack, that everything was okay, and we passed the inspection.

I think I muttered something about not knowing that was an option but before I could say much more, he and everyone else were gone.

I went aboard and thanked the chief for his work and saw that they were already putting the cylinders back into the engine and the tanks were being loaded for our next trip to Bonaire. In short, everything appeared normal.

I went home, got my briefcase and headed back to the Bank of America. Again I beckoned to the manager and said that I wanted to re-open my account. Without so much as a question, he did just that after which I walked down to the waterfront and had a cup of coffee in the outdoor café on the esplanade.

As I have written often, at best it is a shock business.

(And here we go, off to Bonaire, with a couple of the crew up on the fo’c’s’le
enjoying the ride through the center of Willemstad, Curacao.)

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