Friday, October 13, 2017

more of the same

Slogging through the second half of this 7-week trip, and it certainly is a slog. Morale is at a low ebb. We're seeing an uptick in cargo volume among the idlers, the clean oil carriers, while black oil is still moving like crazy. Those are all fine things, but pay and now benefits are are on the chopping block, while the workload is increasing, which is hard to swallow. Obamacare well and truly fucked us. There are so many unhappy people complaining that it is truly a depressing environment on deck just now and I find myself avoiding all but the people I truly like out here, which is not a lot of people. My company has a high proportion of nice folks for a maritime environment, but you can only have the same conversation so many times before it gets just boring and depressing as shit.  At the same time, somewhere in every conversation comes a 'well, we've still got a job, let's be thankful,' which, when you think about it, is an interesting juxtaposition. Lord, it makes the days drag by.

 Anyhow, in an effort to keep my chin up, I'm re-reading the Master & Commander series, which, if you haven't read it, you should. It's my absolute favorite book series. 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Being Nice to Other Sailors

I've learned through experience that it pays to be nice when working with foreign ships and foreign sailors.

 Quite often, we see the crew of foreign ships as being of lesser competence and not particularly good sailors in general, and while sometimes this may be the case, it's often enough an oversimplification of sometimes complex factors affecting our interactions; one thing remains clear, however: when working with foreign ships, being nice generally pays off.

      When I first started bunkering, I was shocked at how awful most ships were in terms of professionalism among their crew, when bunkering. We'd have to come alongside and blow the whistle, holler, fuss on the VHF, and hit the hull of a ship with a sledgehammer to get their attention. In all the years I was on a tanker, not once did a bunker barge, bunker tanker, water barge or lightering vessel get alongside of us without an AB to meet them, heaving line in hand, and a length of heavy rope thrown over the manifold to show exactly where they needed to line up to send their hose up to us to connect. Not. One. Time. did another vessel touch up to us without us being there.

 Foreign ships visiting the US, it's a different story. Maybe one time in twenty does an AB run outside trying to meet us while we're already alongside.
 It was frustrating. The rest of the world just doesn't operate on the same wavelength, but it's a mistake to conflate that with being unprofessional. They just don't give a shit.

  In the intervening years, after yelling myself hoarse at men standing often far overhead to hurry up, lift a line, throw down a heaving line, etc. etc, I just don't see it as neccessary, and eventually, I realized that for the most part, it's not helpful either. Generally, I rarely got aggressive or rude anyhow, so me yelling at some poor foreigner was generally a reactive event anyhow. As I've matured, I've come to view it as a mark of professionalism, anyhow. If I can respond to idiocy calmly or at a minimum with an aggravated tone, things tend do go more smoothly.
      Also, being shitty to an AB who is standing with a monkey's fist 50 feet over your head is a great way to get a concussion. Just saying.I've had to dive out of the way of a fastball thrown directly at me a few times after yelling at someone who wasn't moving fast enough to suit me.
      I've been on the other end as well. I once bet my watch partner $5 that I could knock the hard hat off a particularly mouthy tankerman when I was AB on the tanker SS MONSEIGNEUR. I dropped that rude coonass like a felled tree. Didn't knock his hardhat off, though. Turns out it had a chinstrap. Still, it kept him from getting concussed, and he ended up with just some road rash on his ear and cheek. They had great nonskid on that barge's deck.
 My attitude grew out of pragmatism. While I was somewhat mindful of trying to be professional early on, coming to grips with the idea that fostering a gestalt of smooth operating on board meant integrating all these concepts of professionalism, calm, efficiency and speed without being laissez-faire about getting the job done right frigging quickly took a bit of time.

 Last week we were coming alongside a tanker out in NY's Stapleton anchorage in the dark, and the tugboat deckhand who was with me was pretty gung-ho, especially as he's an older guy. A real square peg, though, as the guys's something of a donkey. At any rate, after we get the first line up and get us lined up with the ship at a point where my crane will reach his manifold, things usually run pretty smoothly. The deckhand kept being slightly rude and ordering the ships' AB's around, however, so I had to say "(Name), quit antagonizing the AB's. I have to work with them for the rest of the day." That was enough for things to settle down quickly... and it also meant I might not get some teeth knocked out by the monkey's fist, either.

      Generally, unlicensed crewmen on foreign ships are grumpy Eastern Europeans, timid Lascars or gregarious Filipinos. It's a bit of stereotyping to class them like that, but it's often enough the truth, viewed through my own cultural lenses, anyhow. Each ethnic group comes with caveats in terms of working well together across a language barrier. The bohunks, you have to be fast, quiet and direct. Lascars, you need to address the officers, not the crew, who will not break wind without a signed JHA and an officer's permission. Filipinos, you call them 'amigo' and 'my friend,' say please and thank you, and they'll absolutely do their best to do as you ask while laughing and talking... and while writing about these things is absolutely not PC, it's often enough the best way to get the job done safe and fast.

 I often think about what these ships' crews must think of us. I often enough find that our tugboat deckhands are rarely professional or cordial to ships' crews, especially, and this is not kind to say, those people who don't work here in NY harbor full-time. More than anything else, I tend to get defensive about our operation. I have to work with these guys. The tugboat deckhands emphatically do not. When we are all fast, they go back aboard their tug and leave. I get to live with the aftermath if they've been shitty to the ships' crew. If they piss off the bosun and I don't put a lid on it, the bosun will see to it that the flange on my cargo hose, for instance, might not be bolted down as tight as it could be, so when I lay it down on our deck at the end of a job, I'll come back out a few hours later and find a 2-foot diameter puddle of cold black oil on my deck, or maybe stick a rag in my cargo hose, which will clog one of our two pumps when it gets shoved into a tank the next time we load and discharge. These days I'm VERY quick to put a clamp on a tugboat deckhand who gets a case of the ass and tries to take it out on the people I need to establish a relationship with over the course of the next hours. Ultimately, it's my job to do exactly that... and that pisses me off more than a ships' crewman being a dick. Having a stranger come up on my deck and poison the well I'm going to be drinking from is extremely disrespectful to me AND to the ships' crew.
    I'm no angel; I've said some pretty rotten things to guys when I've lost my temper. I try not to, and beyond blowing up when things get truly unprofessional on the ships' part, I don't start fights with the people who are our customers. It makes my company look bad, and any sort of unprofessional behavior on our part usually gets met with the same, or worse, gets met with polite silence because the people getting yelled at can't respond because they're ordered not to by their own officers. There's just no angle in attacking a man who can't respond, simply because you're frustrated. Now, I'll meet rudeness with rudeness, and with gusto, across the barriers of culture and language. I speak pidgin english. It's how my wife and I communicated until we learned each others' languages when we were dating. I can make it known you're being a shit in almost any language.

 When I work over, on someone else's boat or barge, it makes me sad to see how rude some of my friends and shipmates can be. It's not pervasive, thankfully, but it's more common than it should be. It makes me mindful of whether or not I'm guilty of the same thing, and how awful it looks from up on the deck of a ship when the bunkermen down below are being vulgar or rude.
 "Man, that's guy's a real asshole." I've said that a few times to the mate on my ship when I was an AB. "Have the deck cadet piss in a can, and pour it over the eyes of the  bunker barge's mooring lines. He doesn't wear gloves."

 Being nice avoids all that. Sailors being sailors, debts get squared one way or the other. The only way to win is not to play.


Thursday, October 5, 2017

Better and better

Well,I'm back on board. It was an interesting 2 weeks of whoring around the better and worse parts of our fleet, but it's always good to get back to the HQ, where things are tidy, comfortable and familiar. I'm settling in, and it's been VERY busy in general. Things are certainly looking up for business, judging by how it's im-fucking possible to have a quiet moment to go for a walk or get groceries without someone bugging you to hurry up. Can't make much of a beef about it, I mean, they're gonna pay me, it's reasonable they expect me to work, but damn I miss the old days when I first started with this company at times, where you could get groceries and stop for a sandwich before having to rush home while fielding off 3 people calling asking why you're not doing whatever it is they want.

 Well, that's the face of the industry of late. Tighter margins= more stress. It's sure as shit not what I signed up for way back when, but so it goes.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

A slight case of the ass

It's been too busy too blog these past few days. I get up, I work, I shower, go to bed, repeat.

  Whatever the word from on high may be, this rotten little POS barge, my company's red-headed neglected stepchild, has been nonstop, and trying to keep it running is a nonstop business too. Pumps overheat, gens shut down if you look at them funny, oil just ends up everywhere and the accommodations are about on par with a Pakastani hospice.
 That being said, I'm doing well. I'm working over, so this is just money to be made beyond my salary, so that's nice, having it available. I was excited to have gotten a tugboat babysitting job, but my current home away from home away from home needed someone, of course. No one will voluntarily stay here, and it shows the worst of what a tankerman can do if allowed to go feral. Pots and pans put away dirty, decks and bulkheads unscrubbed, engines with unknown hours on the lube oil, etc etc... and it's a bad luck boat, too. Some career ending injuries... and today.

 This barge has 3 pump houses on deck. 2 amidships, and one more forward. We were alongside an oil tanker in ballast today, and 1/2 way through a small transfer. I had just gotten out of the bunk and was looking over the papers and computer while caffeinating, and hadn't taken the watch yet. The other guy on here is talking about what's happening, as we start the info exchange that comes with assuming a watch. He's looking out the porthole and says in a slightly alarmed voice "What the fuck?" 

 I look too. There's a ballast overboard discharge on the ship, about 8 feet above our deck level, and an 8-inch torrent of white water blasting out at fire-hose force, all over and inside one of the pump houses, which have a hatch propped open for cooling, unfortunately facing directly the ship.

     We both run outside, doing the pee-pee dance/shut down arm-wave semaphore and yelling, and the water slows down and stops after about a minute. The pump is running- as luck would have it, the stream was broken by the top of the hatch coaming of the pumphouse, so the engine deep inside didn't get hosed... but there was a foot of water sloshing around inside the pumphouse, which doesn't have drains, as it's also a containment zone for the engine, a big Detroit, which slings oil everywhere by nature... so now there's about a thousand gallons of seawater in the house.

 Luckily, a coolant leak the other day led me to get on hands-and knees and wipe out the whole deck of the pumphouse, so there was almost no oil sheen in the water.

 Since this barge has no permanent crew, feral tankermen behaving badly while away from their own homes get awful sticky fingers. Fuckers have left almost no pans or silverware, spares are nonexistent, and there's no portable pumps, so I cut an old piece of hose, make up a siphon, and dump the pumphouse water on deck, where I can watch for a sheen and also where we have means of containing any oil from getting over the side. Of course I get a mouthful of ballast seawater/oil traces/20 years of soot, footprints and what have you, too, and start gagging. It tastes like soap and shame. But I decant 90% of the water by simple siphon and there's no oil in it, it being under the surface of the skin of water still sloshing in the pumphouse, so that's a good thing. We have a draft load of oil to load tomorrow, which means the pumps will be cranking out overtime, and hopefully these prone-to-overheating pump engines will boil off most of that leftover water. Still, I expect I'm going to get steamed like a carrot when I check on the pump throughout that discharge.

 If it was a little colder, I'd be tempted to make Detroit Diesel Fish Chowder, but I don't like chowder when it's not below freezing outside. It's a winter dish for me. Still, if you want to make it, it's easy. You just need a Detroit Diesel, a metal coffee can and some ingredients.I don't make it on the HQ, because we have Cummins engines, which, obviously, just isn't the same.


Tuesday, September 26, 2017

+1skill, -2 comfort

Well, just a few more watches here, and then it looks like I'm going to go be a deckhand on a tugboat for a week, which will be something different for me. Despite working for a tug-and-barge company for 8+ years now, I know little about tugboats, really, beyond what I pick up in conversation with crew and having read a few books on it. Really, not the visceral stuff that makes the difference between a sailor and a tugboat sailor. So I have a chance to maybe address that knowledge gap, just a little.

   In the meanwhile though I've still got a couple of watches here and I can say that while I like gasoline service and the positives involved, like the cleanliness and predictability of moving from dock to dock to dock, I still prefer the ballet and conflict of bunker service. It's just more my speed. I'm pretty beat at this point. I have a lot of little bruises and scrapes from working with unfamiliar gear and the increased size of my current barge compared to the HQ, which is rugged but smaller and more manageable.

 I am finding that old skills and old training comes back readily enough. It's been 8 years since I did gasoline service on a similar barge, and the old knowledge does come back. The longer voyages are nice, too. Currently we're heading 6 hours away from the loading dock to anchor prior to discharging later today. It's peaceful and not at all the breakneck hectic rush that bunkering requires. When you have 10 minutes to print and fill out about 15pages of forms, that shit stresses you out. None of that here.

 Well, nothing too exciting to report. We'll see what happens mid-week.

Thursday, September 21, 2017


This week I'm 'working over,' which means that I'm on my scheduled off time, but am working anyhow. Since I took a week off to ride out hurricane Irma, I decided to work rather than go home on my regular time off. The work was available, and it gives me a chance to keep in coffers full.

      For whatever reason, I was placed on a clean oil barge, something I haven't done in I think about 8 years.

   Clean oil service is actually quite a bit easier than bunker work, which is my usual m.o. It's mostly dock-to-dock and closed gauging, which means that the tanks are physically kept closed for the most part, and vapors are collected and burnt off by the terminal when loading, so there's no pervasive and eye-watering stink that is associated with black oil. Good thing, too, as gasoline, which is what we're carrying, has far more VOC's (volitile organic compounds) that are hazardous or harmful, compared to the relatively tame but still not healthful vapors of bunker fuel. Both are dangerous and unhealthy. Gasoline moreso, so there's greater emphasis on containment of vapors.

     End of the day, it's much of a muchness compared to my usual work. Oh, it's cleaner, much cleaner work, and there's no ships and foreign ships' crews to deal with. The schedule is generally less breakneck and far less chaotic. It's actually pretty nice.

 Nice isn't high up on my list of things I have to have, though. Truth is, I could see this getting awful boring before too long. One week isn't very long, I don't have much to worry about there. Things are unfamiliar enough that I have to be more vigilant and mindful of the differences between what I'm doing and what I normally do, so my stress level is up, which is not  a bad thing. Increased vigilance. Still, it's not rocket science and there aren't a million charterer-specific rules that I have to parse when dealing with the half-dozen companies who own the oil that I normally carry. There's ONE charterer on board this barge, and they have their rules, which are mostly the same as everyone else's... and don't get me started on the paperwork! Oh, so nice here. 3 pages of documentation. Bunkering, each load produces a half-inch thick sandwich of tax forms, declarations, MSDS's, contracts, pro-forma declarations, etc etc etc. Wasn't always that way, of course. Bunkering required about 4-5 pages just 5 years ago. Progress, my aunt Fanny, I guess.

    I can't say as I know enough to really know what the next 6 days will hold. Either way, it's something different, and given my recent feelings of work getting somewhat dull, this is to the good.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Carnival! (NSFW)

Something to brighten up your day. Warm thoughts.