Crew has cold feet on big ship

Most residents of Homer would say it’s been a mild fall. The grass is green. People are picking kale and herbs from their gardens. Unheated greenhouses hold tomatoes. Local kids sled down tarps unfurled across snowless yards. Temperatures in the last week have been in the 40s.

But the Chinese crew aboard the Zhen Hua 15, the 765-foot-long heavy lift vessel anchored in the bay in mid-November — a few days after hurricane-force winds pummeled western Alaska — had cold feet. 

Which is why Dave Lyon, owner and operator of Ashore Water Taxi, was maneuvering his 24-foot-long landing craft Blackfish alongside the ship as 5-foot waves rolled down both sides of its massive red hull. Lyon had 25 boxes of Kamik winter boots and 25 heavy-duty Carhartt suits aboard.

It was nasty out, by any measure. Winds blew 25 knots out of the east. There was a small craft advisory for Kachemak Bay. A charter boat captain towing a skiff across the bay to go duck hunting lost the skiff when his towline snapped. It swamped and then sank.

On his way out of the harbor, as the landing craft’s flat hull beat into the waves, Lyon had tried to raise the captain three times with no luck. Either the captain was ignoring the radio or the language barrier proved too much. 

Corey Schmidlkofer, a vessel agent from A&P Shipping in Anchorage, was aboard Lyon’s boat. The ship owners had emailed an unusual request to Schmidlkofer a few days before it reached Kachemak Bay: head-to-toe winter gear for the crew. After converting from the Chinese sizes—around 48 for the boots and 185 for the coveralls—Schmidlkofer had bought the gear and stuffed it in the back of a Chevy Tahoe for the drive from Anchorage. His other job was to facilitate paperwork for the ship. Lyon also brought a deckhand, Jason Herreman, because he knew conditions were going to be difficult. 

To take care of paperwork, Schmidlkofer needed to board the Zhen Hua 15. Lyon finally got the captain on the radio. One of the Chinese crewmembers threw a rope ladder over the deck. “It looked like something from a tree fort,” Lyon said. Corey climbed onto the Blackfish’s gunwale, which rose and fell with each passing wave. He grabbed the ladder and went up the dozen or so feet to the ship’s central well deck.

What came down from the deck next was a half-inch line with a monkey’s fist at the end of it. That wasn’t going to be any help in getting the supplies to the deck. Lyon tried to find a break in the wind on the other side of the boat while the crew tinkered with the ship’s boom. With the wind hammering and the shifting tide turning the massive ship, there was no real lee for Lyon to get into.

About a half hour later, Schmidlkofer, who speaks no Chinese, had negotiated the paperwork with the captain, who spoke decent English, and the agent had descended the ladder to the Blackfish. Lyon maneuvered his boat under the boom at the ship’s stern, where the hull swooped outward, making it hang over the surface of the water. With each wave, the hull came down at Lyon from above. He lowered his antennas. The corner of his cabin banged against the ship’s hull.

“Throw down a net!” Lyon called up.

“No net! No net!” a crewmember yelled back.

Designed in the 1920s to ship assembled locomotives to India when it was under British colonial rule, semi-submersible heavy-lift vessels move everything from hobbled warships to gas refineries and oil platforms around the world. 

The Zhen Hua 15 is operated by a Shanghai company that specializes in making and moving enormous things. This vessel dwarfs the tankers typically seen on the bay; it’s 165 feet longer than the Overseas Martinez, which regularly calls on Homer on its way to the Tesoro refinery in Nikiski. 

Finally a cargo net came down from above, hanging off a block and tackle that could have been a wrecking ball as the waves heaved the Blackfish around. Lyon could see that the net was not ideal. “It looked like something from the original Tarzan movie.” Herreman, the deckhand, set about sewing up holes in the old hemp net with lines scrounged from the landing craft. Sets of waves came down the side of the ship. They packed the first of two loads into the net, waited for a lull in the waves, and then sent it up.

“I almost called the whole thing off about three times,” Lyon said. A week later, the Zhen Hua 15 loaded the drill rig Endeavor by submerging its well deck so the rig could be floated over it. Then the massive ship set off for South Africa. The crew won’t need winter boots there. 

Author of “Tide, Feather, Snow: A Life in Alaska,” Miranda Weiss is a writer in Homer.