10 Days At Sea

I am now back in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk having survived 10 days or so on the Yuri Topchev.  I must start this post by apologising for the lack of photos: I might be able to get some from colleagues, but I didn’t bring a camera out with me, the main reason being that taking photos around live oil and gas facilities is seriously frowned upon for safety reasons, and it wasn’t until I was out on the ship that I realised I was missing out on some superb photography, far outside any danger zone.  I did take some pictures when I was on the Lun-A though, which I have been too idle to post.  I will do so shortly.

The Yuri Topchev is a 100m long icebreaking supply vessel, a photo of which can be seen below in the Sakhalin port of Kholmsk.

Yuri Topchev

It was built in Norway a little over two years ago, and for the large part is a lovely ship: the standard of finishing in the cabins, bridge, and walkways is top class.  Unfortunately, the owners hit hard times at about 90% completion and they ended up skimping on a few essentials which would have made her a world-class vessel.  As such, it has second-rate navigational electronics and an enormous winch which takes up a quarter of the hangar-deck and – because a relatively minor complementary part was axed from the scope – is utterly useless.

Since its completion, the ship had not really done any work, and appeared to be brand new.  Unfortunately, nor had a lot of the crew.  As soon as I arrived on board, I discovered that they had not filled up with nearly enough food or potable water for the number of crew and length of trip.  All we had to drink was gassified bottled water, kvas, kompot, and tea and coffee.  Then the coffee ran out, then the UHT milk ran out (fresh milk is rare onshore Sakhalin, never mind offshore) and we were onto powdered milk mixed in a jug.  I hadn’t seen powdered milk since the 1980s, and I discovered it’s taste hadn’t improved any in the interim.  Then that ran out and we were onto cans of condensed milk.  We ended up scrounging milk and coffee from one of the platforms we passed.  The ship had left port only about 3 weeks before I got on board.  Good job Russians weren’t in charge of supplies on the Mayflower.  Food consisted of pelmenii, varenikii, pre-cooked sausages in boiling water, and a seemingly endless supply of cold-cut salami and cheese.  A middle-aged Russian lady did most of the cooking and did a great job considering what she had to work with.  The head chef, a Russian man decked out in full cook’s regalia, appeared to do nothing more than stir the pot of pre-cooked sausages in boiling water.  Fruit, salad, juice, and desserts were as absent as they were in a 1990s McDonalds.  Eventually, two days before we arrived back into port, a container of food was craned onto our deck, which turned out to hold what looked to me like about twelve tonnes of potatoes and cabbage.  After that, the food did improve somewhat, but the Safe Astoria it was not.

I’d not really been on a ship before, and I found it all rather interesting.  Unlike on the St. Petersburg pleasure cruisers or the Singapore-Bintan Island ferry which have signs everywhere keeping passengers out of all the interesting areas, I was free to wander around the Yuri Topchev and talk to the crew, with the exception of the engine room out of which I got chased by a rather grumpy Chief Engineer when he caught me looking as though I was about to meddle with someting (I was).  As such, I spent a lot of time up on the bridge in one of the five driver’s seats (I’m sure that’s not the nautically correct term) first looking at all the controls, then waving my finger gingerly near the controls, and eventually fiddling with the controls.  I limited myself to the radar display, which explains why the Yuri Topchev was not lost with all hands.  During my wanderings, I noticed with some interest that there was a room marked “Survivors” and another, just along the corridor, marked “Deceased”.  The latter was locked, which made me wonder what was in there and made me look a bit closer at the fatty soup we were being served for dinner.

The ship was registered in Murmansk which served as its home port, and most of the crew were from the same place.  The Captain was a chain smoker in the strongest sense of the term, puffing his way through a packet of cigarettes every two hours or so.  He wasn’t the most confident of captains, and seemed to panic when asked to do anything other than drive his boat in a forward direction, and when asked to hold the ship in a certain position or align it in a fixed direction he’d wave his arms and moan about the strength of the currents, the wind, the alignment of the stars.  Everything was all a bit too difficult.  Aeroflot pilots are reknowned for their bravado in landing their aircraft in the most appalling of conditions; their counterparts on the water don’t seem to be made of the same stuff.  At one point he said it was much too difficult to follow in the ice-free wake of an icebreaker leading in front of us, and raised all sorts of objections as to why it couldn’t be done.  I went to bed as the argument was in full flow, and woke in the morning to find a deckhand – the lowest ranked man on the ship, who the day before had been sweeping snow off the deck – at the helm doing a fine job.

On the other hand, the Chief Mate was a chap called Oleg, aged 34 with a tattoo on his upper arm of a bear bursting between the Russian flag and the saltire of the Russian navy over a ship on the high seas.  He was very obliging, highly competent, and seemed to present his ideas before the Captain who quickly adopted them and issued them as his own orders, much to the amusement of all who had figured out what was going on.  I got on pretty well with Oleg, and he told me a whole load of stuff about ships, the Russian Arctic, and showed me a few dozen pictures of Murmansk and the areas around it.  He had attended a maritime academy in Murmansk and was continuing his studies in the hope that in 3 or 4 years he would make captain.  I hope he does.  Maybe we’ll bump into each other again on the Shtokman project?  Or at Yamal?

The rest of the crew were pretty good, and with one or two exceptions all willing to do some work.  The Bosun was an older chap called Vladimir who sported a neatly trimmed white beard around the bottom of his chin and up the rear of his jawline which made him look like he’d stepped off the set of Planet of the Apes.  For a bosun, it was a good look.  And the toughest man on the ship was a Russian with a round, pock-marked face who would stand on the deck at 3:00am in -18C with a howling wind, his face uncovered, with all the concern of standing on the beach at Yalta in July.

Incidentally, before I came on board I’d always assumed that normal attire for a ship’s crew included items such as heavy knitted polo-neck sweaters, woollen hats, and welly boots.  As it turns out, shell-suit bottoms, flip-flops, and an old vest do just fine. 

So what was I actually doing on the ship?  I was clearing the moon-pool of ice, lowering and raising the ROV cage, deploying and recovering the sonar beacon, supervising rigging, lowering and raising the USBL pole, conducting tool-box talks, manhandling acoustic shackles.

Still with me?

Transmitting ultrasonic signals, securing hatches, pressurising the moon-pool, making vents air-tight, and raising and lowering a clump-weight.  In English, I was supervising a group of Russians whose enthusiasm often took the form of suicide and it was my job to talk them out of it.  And I occasionally had the task of asking nearby icebreakers if they wouldn’t mind awfully smashing up some ice for us while we worked.  A 4,400 tonne, 91m long supply vessel performing 360 degree handbrake turns in under 20 seconds is worth watching.

So after 10 days at sea we arrived back in the port of Kholmsk on Christmas eve, in time for me to get back to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk for Christmas day and join a group of friends in devouring a whole pile of turkey dinner.  We’d had a 44-hour voyage to port from the Lun-A platform which took us around the southern tip of the island within a short distance of Japan and close to areas of Sakhalin which are hard to reach by car.  Most disappointingly the weather was awful and you could barely see the prow of the ship through the swirling snow, and when the weather cleared up a bit it was night.  But I had spent a few hours here and there watching the ship plough through the ice leaving a perfectly straight channel of dark water behind us, and looking out over the lily-pads of ice which had all fused together in a patchwork, and the sun rising and setting over the ice sheet, and it was at times well worth being there (frustrations over my not having brought a camera notwithstanding).  Almost worth having to stand on deck in freezing wind with ice forming from my breath inside my balaclava trying to avoid a swinging basket filled with rock and coated with a thick layer of ice from being dipped in the freezing seas over and over again.

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10 Responses to 10 Days At Sea

  1. Kolya says:

    Fascinating post, Tim. Interesting stuff.

  2. Alisa says:

    As always, I might add. Have a wonderful New Year, Tim:-)

  3. VAN CLOUD says:

    You really don’t understand how much others suffer when we don’t hear from you for so long, do you?

    Really enjoy your postings. Happy New Year. Van

  4. Marco says:

    I picked up your recent reporting from USA Today. Very, very interesting. Mind you I wouldn’t mind pelmenii, varenikii, sausages, cheese, kompot, gassy water and black coffee. The unlucky bit is that you weren’t on any of the Artika class ships like the nuclear-powered 150 metres Yamal and 50 Let Pobedy. You can see these ships in many Youtube videos. In icebreakers Russia reigns supreme.

    You basically are in the very centre of things. The Daily Telegraph calls the LNG plant in Sakhalin as a break-through in the establishment of a “Gas Opec”

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  6. Mishka Russell says:

    Mate,
    Crickey, I wished you had taken the camera, would have been fantastic. Well, you have joined another first. The last shutdown I led in Oz before heading Yuzhno was a FPSO major shut. I justifed hiring the Aurora Australis as the support vessel, unusual sailing an Ice Breaker into Darwin, and then into the Timor Sea, air conditioning was not quite up to cooling inside in the tropics, lol.
    Fortunately, being the company representative and team lead, I had the 2nd best cabin onboard, 5 seater lounge, table, fridge TV and Stereo, separate Bedroom with ensuite, heck of a lot diferent to my submarine days. The bad part, I was beneath the bridge, and rolling a lot.
    I would have swaped that trip gladly, to have been able to go on your voyage, some of the visions you have would be mind-blowing, but are locked to memory.
    Lucky Bastard, Mike

  7. David Duff says:

    A terrific essay – thanks.

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