Monday, October 13, 2008

A Little Lightering

Quite a day today. We started off by preddying (think prettying) the deck prior to a Vetting. In addition to this, we also took alongside the Tug Paul T. Moran and barge Massachusetts, pretty much exactly as planned and mentioned in yesterday's blog. I got to say hi to some people I liked quite a lot, and point out some of the glaring differences between our two vessels to the guys here. All in all, a nice trip down memory lane, and the Chief Mate, who was busy readying for the vetting, let me run the show more or less while he got his paperwork in order. Granted, this isn't anything like two ships lightering, which is a delicate ballet. This was more along the lines of them getting alongside, and us getting hooked together for the cargo transfer. Still, it's good to be given a long leash. In my job, micromanagement is a hassle. There are some officers who see their Able Seamen as trained apes able to follow directions given in 30-second increments. Luckily, my own ship doesn't have that issue. We are mostly staffed by permanent crew (8 of the 9 officers are either permanent or frequent flyers, and about 2/3 of the unlicensed, as well), so in many cases, we are able to work to our strengths; mine being a burning desire to be left the hell alone to do my job, this forces me to do my job very well and build trust and a team spirit on deck. I figure that this will hold me in good stead when I can jump the hurdle of the 3rd mate's exam next year.

Speaking of which, I am now getting an occiasional passing grade on my Deck General practice tests! This is one of a whole battery of exams that will take 3-5 days to complete when I have the exam. Nothing makes me less confident in my knowledge base than taking these practice exams.
The combined US Coast Guard 3rd/2nd mate of Unlimited Tonnage exam carefully assesses one's knowledge of test-taking skills. Note that I did NOT say that it tests one's knowledge of seafaring skills. It does, a little, to be sure, but by learning how to take the test, one can boost one's grade up despite being a trained shoemaker versus an experienced sailor. Unfortunately, this is another government-issued standardized test, which is to say, the GRE it ain't. I spent my first 26 years in education. Private schools, college, grad school, all reliant on standardized tests of one for or another. Bullshit and rote learning will pass the test, but I prefer to think that I can master the material.
That being said, I'm buying the Capt. Murphy books just as soon as I can free up a couple of hundred beans this trip.

Oh, and the Vetting? If you don't know what it is, you don't want to experience one. Everyone's excitable, and everyone's organizing their paperwork. A Vetting is an inspection of the ship's organization, , safety systems and compliance with guides, policies and conventions that dictate how things get done. Basically, someone is getting paid to see that we're doing our jobs properly. This is a good thing, as it keeps the little guys (i.e., me) safe and our managers in compliance with rules that are designed to keep us alive. In theory. Now, after several years of this BS, and with the number of annual vettings on a steeply-curved rise, this ship takes pains to keep things to standard, which is to say that we don't run around and get in compliance 3 days before the vetting. If the vetter's can't do a surprise inspection and find the ship safe and compliant, then the ship is in a bad way. The vetters don't do surprise inspections, as, thankfully, there's paperwork to compile, and we've still got cargo to handle- pulling key people off the job requires planning and logistical arrangments so the staff can meet with the vetter. This is a pain in the ass but very necessary, as the division of labor makes specialists of us all.

For the unlicensed crew, it's a bit of a scam. We don't get asked about the things that are job-specific and for which we are responsible. We get drilled on our knowledge of people in the company who we will never know or meet, and the jobs they do. "Who is the Company Security officer?" "Who is the Designated Person?" Folks, if I need to call someone in the company, things are bad. There's 5 deck officers I will have to go through first in the chain of command. If there isn't an officer to punt to, than oh shit...I'm gonna be talking to the Coast Guard, FBI and/or Jesus first if we get to that state.

These are the questions we get asked, not "What are the positive and negative limits in PSI for a properly working PV valve to open up for?" That's the kind of shit that the deck gang should know. Our lives and livelihood depend on that, and our superiors can't be everywhere at once. We're not going to die if we don't know who to call in the office to report an oil spill. We don't call the office. We call an officer. This is spelled out quite clearly on virtually everything ever written about the subject. On the other hand, if, say, a PV valve starts vibrating and gasping, we know that there's a vacuum building in the cargo tank, and that if the valve was stuck, we could have had issues. Bingo, damage averted. Unfortunately, sometimes the people on shore do what they do for reasons never explained to the lowly sailor, and thus, an environment of mild and mutual contempt is fostered as a result. Fighting that inclination to believe that the people who are able to kiss their kids goodnight every night actually enjoy occasionally shoving square pegs down our round holes is a challenge.

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