As chief mate, Mr. Kelly's duties include supervising the stowing of the cargo as it is brought aboard the ship. Standing on one of the cargo decks near a Patriot missile launcher, his hands covered with oil anddirt from handling the chains used to secure the vehicles to the ship's decks, Mr. Kelly did not seem very hopeful that he would get to see his wife and 6-year-old daughter for at least another month and half -- the time it would take the ship to sail to Saudi Arabia, unload its cargo and return to the United States.
"I'm waiting for relief. I don't know if I'll get it," he said. "I want to take this trip off because I'm exhausted. If they don't find anybody, I have no choice."
The Bellatrix is one of eight fast former commercial containerships bought by the government and converted for military duty. It has been a mainstay of the sealift to the Middle East.
Most commercial cargo vessels cruise at less than 20 knots; the Bellatrix and the seven other ships travel at 30 knots and are capable of 35.
The ship's speed allows it to deliver its cargo quickly and sprint back to a loading port for more. The average ship in the Desert Storm sealift has delivered less than two full loads, but the Bellatrix has made four voyages and is about to begin its fifth.
Ruggero F. Romor, the Bellatrix's captain, has commanded the ship on all four of its trips to Saudi Arabia since the buildup in the Middle East began. Rank may have its privileges, but time off is not one of them. Captain Romor has managed one evening away from the ship in all that time. Last Sunday, he took the short trip across the river from New Jersey to Manhattan to see a current movie, "The Awakening."
Staying on the ship doesn't seem to bother him. "I love to be here. I need to be here," he said, sitting in his sparsely furnished office in the ship's house.
What does bother him is the difficulty of finding qualified mariners, particularly officers. The ship is supposed to have a crew of 42, but just a day before he expected to set sail he was about 10 people short. Engineers, the officers who oversee the operation and maintenance of the ship's engines, are in especially short supply.
The ship probably would have to sail without the usual number of engineers, according to the captain, who said he expected to give the ship's chief electrician the title of acting third engineer.
The strain of non-stop operations and the lack of engineers i showing on the ships as well. One of the Bellatrix's two steam turbine engines suffered a partial breakdown on its last return voyage from the Persian Gulf. Instead of the usual 30 knots, the ship was limited to 26 knots. Repairs proceeded on the engine as the shore crews were loading cargo onto the ship.
The problems of keeping the ship running were evident down in the engine room, which Captain Romor termed "the inferno." It does look like something a 20th century Dante might have dreamed up. Rising several stories from the keel, the engine compartment is a jumble of pipes -- small and medium-sized ones clad in silver insulating material slither over under and around an immense dark green one perhaps 4 feet in diameter.
The ship's four steam turbines are powered by two steam boilers, the largest ones ever installed on a ship.
Keith S. Faulkner, 60, the Bellatrix's chief engineer, knows the function of all of the pipes, dials and valves. He is proud of what the ship's engines can do. "Half disabled she still makes 25 to 26 knots," he observed. That's faster than most ships travel under full power. "When we're broke down we still pass them."
Mr. Faulkner seems to genuinely enjoy life in the inferno. "I quit the deck many years ago to come down and get an honest job," he said.
There are real frustrations, however. Because of the short crews, "the biggest problem is getting time to do the repairs correctly," he said. "If we had full crews like we should have, we wouldn't have this problem."
Mr. Faulkner doesn't expect much help soon. He realizes full welthat not many people are interested in a working in the hot, dangerous environment of a ship's engine room, especially in time of war. It's a "dead-end job," he said, and the only ones interested in it seem to be "old buggers like me."
Short of help or not, he said, he'll keep the Bellatrix running and the war material flowing to the Mideast.
"It will get there; don't worry about that," Mr. Faulkner said. Thehe headed up the ladder, summoned by one of the other crew members needing help on repairs.