The Big White Golf Ball

by : Ieuan Dolby

I remember well the first ship that I joined that had a Satellite Phone on it. I joined as Chief Engineer on this tiny little Research Vessel on a tiny little river in Papua New Guinea and I never saw the ship when I arrived at the wharf, all I could see was this massive white Golf Ball perched high on the top deck. Looked as if it was pushing what little there was of the ship down into the water. I remained in awe of that UFO for the first half of the trip and for the remainder I wished that I could afford the six-pounds per minute that it cost to use!

Yeah, satellites and all that went with them sneaked up on all ship’s staff without notice or prior warning. Once upon a time we could leave port and not be heard from, left to our own devices until the next port but now we are being constantly monitored and required to send daily reports through to the company. No longer is it “have a safe trip and see you when you get there", now it is “we’ll be watching you". Ah, long gone have those days when we where a team all alone on the high seas!

Engineers never really became involved with the Sat phones for many years. One day sunbathing on the Monkey Island and the next a UFO had landed on your favorite spot. And the funny thing was that nobody ever really talked about it at all. If it had been a new generator or a new ballast pump then everybody would have been discussing it for months before and after. “At last we are getting a new one", the Chief would say and the Captain would respond with “no more blackouts then eh"? Faxes and telexes would fly around and all would be posted for all to see, even the cook would become enthused due to the excitement surrounding him. “A new ballast pump eh?" the cook would say at dinner, “yep, 300m3/hour" the third would reply enthusiastically. The cook would then typically respond with “good, great, no more blackouts then, eh?" having totally crossed his wires. But the satellite remained a silent misnomer that was unheard of one day and then the next installed and running. I am never sure why this was as the whole idea and set-up far exceeds that of new machinery or anything else but there we have it. I would hazard a guess for the secrecy and lack of conversation regarding this advent – that of fear of such tremendous change. So new and so large an alteration in the way of life at sea, but this is only a guess.

And the Captains? Well, they all changed. Most became serious recluses (more so than before) and watched these phones day in day out, warding off Engineers and others alike from getting close. Padlocks and intricate codes were used to prevent usage other than by themselves, and those that could installed the phone in their cabins. It was a stressful time and lasted nearly ten years. Ten years of complete disintegration of any normalcy between Engineers and Captains and ten years of Engineers having to beg, borrow or steal to even get close to the Black Handset. I suppose it was such an advanced and sudden change that it took a while to get used to and become accepted as an everyday piece of equipment – just another one that may break down or require maintenance.

Of course over time everything got cheaper, the white golf balls became smaller and have all but disappeared. Handsets reduced in size from large and awkward monstrosities to those resembling typical household phones (except for the padlock that the Captains could never actually dispense with) and Engineers suddenly became necessary in the operation of the associated software. Why do I say that? Well, let me digress for a moment. When Engineers and Deck Officers step ashore in an unknown and distant port it rapidly becomes apparent that the Engineers are far more able to navigate their way back to the vessel. The same becomes clear when computers are involved. There is the Captain with a nice little sat phone and software through which he can do his departure checks, send daily reports, order stores, check his private email and on more advanced systems check the latest stock prices. But he has an ongoing problem as every time he presses “send" nothing happens, or he has lost his latest daily report to some unknown “chip with legs" inside the white box that hums.

Oh deary me! Scratching of the head ensues and attempts at throwing the computer or phone over the side are resisted. It is then that an Engineer happens to be passing by and that he notices that the Captain is suffering from high blood pressure. Then a couple of mouse clicks later the whole problem is solved, the missing file relocated or the email winging its way upwards or across the blue ocean. Yes, I have found that the majority of Engineers have an easier grasp or ability to understand computers and the software involved than have the Navigators. Not sure why and I am not going to get into this subject but believe me it is fact!

Satellite phones also changed the way of communication with the outside world. Before all communication from and to the ship went via the Captain. Every piece of writing could be censored or displayed at the Masters discretion but nowadays Chief Engineers, Mates and even Second Engineers are sending their own stores orders and emails to Head Office. Engineers talk directly to Superintendents about their mechanical problems, mates read incoming emails when alone on watch and all can be done without others being able to oversee or hear what is being said. The satellite phone has brought to the ship a sense of industry ashore, the ability to communicate and talk easily when and where you want without having to wait for a week or two or without having to use an intermediary to pass the messages along.

Nowadays a ship without some form of email/sat communication is improbable and all at sea are fully familiar with the system and expect to be able to use it when and where they want. All part of being at sea in the Modern day Merchant Navy one could say! Emails and mobile phones have become a part of life everywhere so why should seafarers be any different? Now with such systems being commonplace calls are cheaper and affordable. Emails can be written whenever the computer is free and sent at minimal cost, this cost often being carried by the company as pennies rather than pounds are involved.

Imagine the future, instant diagnosis of engine problems, expert advice at hand for the engineers. The Engineers have a serious problem and have broken down in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. They are scratching their heads as to what has gone wrong and the only people that can help them are 2000miles away in an Office unaware as to the drifting vessels plight. Today we can call these experts up and describe the problem and thus gain invaluable insight into what may be wrong or what they can possibly do to rectify the problem. The future gives them this: A mobile phone to take down to the work site, a video camera to send instant pictures of area and problems to Head Office, a recording of full conversation to replay later (for insurance and blame), instant download of possible solution or temporary repair of the problem and immediate advice from the expert ashore who can see exactly what is going on.

Yep, that is the future that we will look towardsPsychology Articles, a few years down the line we have gone from haphazard and unstable radio communication to instant and clear access anywhere anytime!

What will the next fifteen years bring? Whatever it may be just make sure that you have an Engineer at hand.

Ieuan Dolby
10th October 2002