I remember well 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 ship when I arrived at wharf, all I could see was this massive white Golf Ball perched high on top deck. Looked as if it was pushing what little there was of ship down into water. I remained in awe of that UFO for first half of trip and for remainder I wished that I could afford 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 next port but now we are being constantly monitored and required to send daily reports through to 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 high seas!
Engineers never really became involved with Sat phones for many years. One day sunbathing on Monkey Island and next a UFO had landed on your favorite spot. And 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”, Chief would say and 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 cook would become enthused due to excitement surrounding him. “A new ballast pump eh?” cook would say at dinner, “yep, 300m3/hour” third would reply enthusiastically. The cook would then typically respond with “good, great, no more blackouts then, eh?” having totally crossed his wires. But satellite remained a silent misnomer that was unheard of one day and then next installed and running. I am never sure why this was as 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 secrecy and lack of conversation regarding this advent – that of fear of such tremendous change. So new and so large an alteration in way of life at sea, but this is only a guess.
And 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 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 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, 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 padlock that Captains could never actually dispense with) and Engineers suddenly became necessary in operation of 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 Engineers are far more able to navigate their way back to vessel. The same becomes clear when computers are involved. There is 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 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 white box that hums.