Saturday, September 27, 2008


The bloggers in Ne England are all writing about the changing of the leaves, it seems. 2002 was the last time I was home between September and Mid-December. I miss the changing of summer to Autumn very badly. One of my favorite memories of this time was the ride out to the open ocean every morning with The Notorious B.O.B., cutting between Slate and Grape Islands in Boston Harbor, plus the pass through Hull Gut, where the trees on the eroded hillside of Peddock's Island would stand far above us. At that time of year, we were beginning to step the lobster pots offshore, which allowed for a lot of steam time and a longer ride to the gear in the morning, and consequently, a longer ride home in the afternoon. Long enough that I could get my head out of the bait bins and take a break from making up bait bags and enjoy the scenery.
The Islands of Boston Harbor, at least the ones that haven't been leveled, paved and neutered so that quadripelegics won't have to strain their wheelchair batteries, are what I would characterize ecologically as modestly disturbed- that is, there is a great diversity of trees, the ground cover is mostly made up of scrub trees such as Rhus and Betula sp. (alder and birch, to you), and the dominant species of trees aren't numerous, as the ecology gets mussed up periodically by weather, WWII construction, Civil War construction, WWI POW camps, etc, etc. The diversity of trees allows for a diversity of colors, which all are beautiful, especially in their Island location, surrounded by sea. Those memories of being a lobsterman when I was younger really stay with me... that and the ability to stick my head in a barrel of rotten bait and not barf.

I would guess that Hurricane Kyle is going to do for the foliage show in most of New England. Hopefully there will be something to see for you folks after that's over. Any blogger from home reading this, if you take some pics beforehand, I would be appreciative!

Why I don't trust the EU leadership

...wait, is that title serious? Sort of. Bear with me.

My second year in college was a busy one. The summer before my second year was spent in Maine working at a remote biological field research station. I had designed and carried out my first piece of original scientific research, and spent the next year learning how to write.
Let me tell you, scientific writing is challenging. The language used is precise and carefully devoid of any emotion or character. Papers submitted for publication follow a format unique in writing, specific to the journal where the material will be published. My research advisor and I worked on that damn paper for almost a year, him, marking the hell out of the drafts, and me, revising them once or twice a week. I learned there that actual university classes weren't the most valuable source of learning- in fact, they were a pain in the ass that took up my valuable time.
The end result of all this was that I had decided to present my paper at a small academic conference that was being hosted in Boston. This would be the candle on the cake, the litmus test that would decide if anyone gave a rat's ass about what I had done. Also, this would give outside scientists a chance to grill me and possibly tear my work apart if I had missed anything or failed to master the material. Heady stuff.
The conference went well. My research was more interesting than a lot of the other presenters, who were mostly focused on genetics and population biology... but then again, I'm biased.
There were several people from my department at the university who were also presenting reports, and those went well.
So, I went up and did my thing. Basically, my research was simple. I looked at how the environment around some creatures effected their ability to build up energy for breeding. I created a method for measuring the reproductive potential for a type of shellfish. What I also discovered was that the best places for food wasn't the best environment for breeding, although these best places did produce the most valuable individual animals (i.e, big and tasty for people to harvest), the smaller, low-quality animals in places where food was scarce so outnumbered the larger, that these poor quality animals so outnumbered the larger ones from the food-heavy areas that one could harvest at will from the big heavy individuals without approaching the maximum sustainable yield for that region.

Anyways, without boring you any further, this had a bunch of implications for fisheries science.

The thing is, I brought my 'A' game to the show. I answered questions, discussed the implications, and had the audience's attention.
This conference was also a contest. The best paper would win the Brooks award, a modest feather to be placed in the cap of a junior-level biologist. I felt like I was a contender.
Le me give you some deep background. I am NOT a genius. No surprise, right? Well, to be a biologist of note, one needs genius IQ. According to those bullshit IQ tests that we all took at school as kids, I fell 5 points short of the mark. Ah well. Anyhow, there is no doubt that at that conference, I was riding on the back of the short bus. BUT, I gave 100% for 8 months, and mastered the subject. On that day, no one could touch me, and, despite the fact that I had no Fourier transfers in my statistical battery, and my study broke no ground in genetics or biochemistry, I brought some serious meat and potatoes to the table, something that could be measured in dollars to people's lives. So I felt like I was a contender.
Anyhow, at the end of it all, there was a wine-n' dine, and it was a nice time. I was already the bull in the china shop that you all read about, so I proceeded carefully.
One of the other presenters was this Belgian girl that was in the Microbiology department at my university. We traveled in the same circles, so I knew her a little, and we were both in the same society of science geeks that infested my university. I didn't much care for her, to be honest. Loud and opinionated, looked like Olive Oyl, critical of absolutely everything, she was a classic boorish snob.
And while they're announcing the runners up for the award, she approaches me and says "Congratulations, you won. I overheard them talking a few minutes ago." Call me an asshole, but I was mad. I mean, she took away the drama, the anticipation, and the surprise, and I believe that she did it because I was the kind of guy who knew everyone, that everyone was friendly with, who never aced a thing but had to struggle to come out in the top tier, and who worked hard to excel, unlike herself, who made her way with no real friends and a trust fund.
I suppose I should be happy. I beat her ass. But I wasn't feeling very nice. So I did the mature thing. I made a face, but kept my mouth shut. Then I gave her the finger.
Anyhow, she avoided me after that, which was nice. But it put a little lead in my pencil for having dealt with that kind of superior attitude in the face of inferior talent... and that's exactly the kind of mojo that I sense whenever I hear proclamations from Brussels, the heart of the EU leadership. Loud, overly critical of things outside their purview, and, once one moves beyond a cursory examination, lacking content within their own bounds.

There, apropos of nothing, is my opinion. I hope that after this you'll have a mad-on for Belgians, too.

Friday, September 26, 2008

name that smell

So, today was trash day.

On a ship, plastic and oily waste gets segregated and stored, so that when it is convenient, we can dispose of the trash ashore. Jettisoning plastic into the ocean is NEVER done, and is one of the most well-adhered-to shipboard regulations...and today was the day when it was time to dump the trash. A launch came into our anchorage last night and dropped a couple of dumpsters off for us. We humped all the trash from the storage areas to midships- a bit of an event, as there are two flights of stairs and a 250-ft. walk involved. With 9 warm bodies, it did go quickly.
So my part in this affair was to hump the plastic bags and throw 'em down onto the main deck. Some of these bags will weigh up around 60-70 lbs, so I sling 'em over my shoulder and do a Santa style walk to the ladders... and, unfortunately, one of the bags leaked a little, but I didn't see it right away. No oil, thank God, but there was a little stagnant water involved.

So I'm walking with my bag, and I get this sulphurous smell assaulting me. Like rotten eggs, wet moldy laundry, a gym locker, and maybe a little poop in there, too.
Flashback: twice a year, we had to move the lobster holding tank on The Notorious B.O.B.'s lobsterboat, and scrub out the dead crabs, fishbones and mud that got under there. The smell was identical: ammonia and sulphur- well, hydrogen sulfide, actually- the smell of low tide, which is dangerous in enclosed spaces, so folks, don't be sleeping in any trash bags full of stagnant water, OK?

Anyhow, while I'm flashing back, this black water is dripping down my back, through my boilersuit, underdrawers, and my nether regions. I was pissed, but I have a sinus infection, so I can't smell too much. Everyone else could, though. I was, ah, unpopular there for the rest of trash time. One guy said I should shit myself so I smelled better for everyone else.

Let me tell you, a shower never felt so good.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Author's vain note: this picture was taken 2 years ago, in January. I'm not actually that fat. Couple of sweatshirts were on that day.

Also, for prying eyes: disposable camera w/ no flash. Intrinsically safe, yo. No electrical parts.

Well, with our second week at anchor well underway, the days are blending in together such that anything that happened since we dropped the hook no longer has a timeline... it's all just 'before.' Here's a great example. Here is pretty much how yesterday went:

0715: up and out, grab a can of diet pepsi to go.
0720: bowl o' oatmeal
0730: morning ablutions, check email.
0755: morning meeting
0800-1000. sort stencil kits, label valves on deck
1000-1030- coffee break
1030-1200. ospho wash front of house.
1200-1300- lunch, email.
1300-1500. Hydroblast port side of cargo control room.
1500-1530. Coffee break, email.
1530-1700. finish hydroblasting, rig a deck light for positioning on port side king post, clean up tools, sweep.
1700-1730 Dinner.
1730-1930. Overtime: prime hydroblasted areas.
1945-1950- laundry
1950-2200- finish Doom3
2200-2300-read, relax.
2300-lights out.

Just rereading that bums me out. I'm in a rut. Hope they get some cargo for this bucket!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Boogers, paint, fresh water...and not a drop to drink (from my sink)

As some of you know, after Hurricane Ike tossed our salads here on board, I got a sinus infection, as did about 2/3 of the crew. This happened because 50 years of dust got kicked up when stuff smashed through the internal walls all over the house. So it goes. As it happens, my sinus infection is 100% full-on strong.
But there's that booger/sleep thing. You know, where one side of your sinus passages remains sort of clear, and the other one is blocked off, and then you roll over, there's an itchy feeling behind your schnoz, and the clear/blocked nostrils switch places? I hate that shit.
SO today, like every other day this week, I've been blowing snot rockets over the side and jamming my nose into a kleenex and honking like a goddamn trombone, all to minimal avail. Cus you know how that shit goes. When you're busy, hankyless and in public, you're going to sneeze, and that will be the moment when, like the breakup of ice in the rivers of the Arctic, the gates are going to come off of the hinges, and one full quart of lung clams are going to rain out of your beezer, and you won't be able to stop it, cus, lets face it, it's either out your nose and down your throat, and, well, damn, that's nasty, and why doesn't this ever happen during the morning dump or somewhere private? No, it's always on the train, at church or in traffic, and there's not a snot rag within shouting distance.

Just a thought.

Things are looking up, sort of. With the cleanup from Hurricane Ike, well, cleaned up, my ship is looking better than ever. The powers that be, after five years of hemming and hawing, have invested in some new assets to get this old tub looking sharp again. A water blaster and a really high-end paint sprayer, to be precise. In a year's time, this place ought to be looking wicked shahp! There's a cost, of course. Overtime.
Most ships offer overtime for maintenance, and ours is no exception. By agreement with the union, our overtime rate is, to my Northeastern eyes, mighty low. One could make more money flipping burgers at McDonald's on the night shift, where I come from. Unfortunately, where I come from has a high cost of living, certainly a lot higher than, say, the South. So, there hasn't been much incentive for me to give up my free time to make less money per hour than I did when I was 15.
...Till now, when I'm a married man, and an extra couple of bucks means more to me than it ever did before. So be it. Anyhow, the senior officers got called to the carpet 'cus the ship was operationally very sound, but, sadly, ugly. As I've said in the past, I like a nice positive environment, and, with the rock solid guys we've got on the unlicensed side of the ship, working overtime isn't too bad, and with the gift of tools invented after the death of Christ, we can actually be efficient at putting some lipstick on this pig.

After a week sitting in the Mississippi, drinking water is getting a little scarce, however.
Here's what you need to know about our water: it's friggin' good. Since we're a steamship, the plant uses a LOT of water to make up for what gets burned off. To do this, we have two very large evaporators that distill sea water and deliver fresh water to our holding tanks. But, here's the thing. To have nice drinking water, we need clean sea water from the deep ocean. Any chemical contaminates in the water would make it into our drinking water supply. As such, we certainly can't make drinking water from Mississippi water. Ever heard of "The Dead Zone?" This is an area the size of Delaware at the mouth of the Mississippi where the water is so anoxic (read, oxygen free- a good indicator of pollution) that nothing grows there. So, yeah, we ain't drinking that shit.

To conserve water and stave off the horrific expense of a couple hundred beans for a water barge to come alongside, we have restricted access to drinking water. The water in our taps isn't the beautiful, tasty, better-than-anything-in-a-bottle water distilled from above the Abyssal Plain, but rather, non-potable water from the Big Muddy, fit for the boilers and showers and such, but not for drinking. We have to rely on the messmen, the cooks healpers, who lug big carboys of water up to the mess halls for us to consume. It's not precisely a hardship, but it ain't convenient.

Sunday, September 21, 2008


CLIMBING THE HAWSEPIPE is a euphemism for promotion from the rank-and-file to an Officer's position on a merchant ship. In the modern US Merchant marine, this is a very difficult task. I am about 3/4 of the way through that task. I started as an Ordinary Seaman, an untrained set of hands, and eventually learned to steer a ship and was rated "Able Bodied" after taking an exam and jumping through some hoops set up by the Coast Guard. Now, with almost 1080 days at sea as an Able Seaman, I am taking 6 months worth of classes, a few weeks at a time, and will, eventually, sit through a grueling examination to verify my test-taking, I mean knowledge of navigation, safety and ships and shipping. So, you're going to read about my complaining when I spend the next four months here on my ship, and then spend five months at school, taking classes and prepping for the exam. Sorry. I'll try to keep it to a minimum.

My dad's former ship, the USNS TRUCKEE, is on the bank at the breaker's yard, 40 years after my father's time on her. That's a pretty good service life for a ship.


Ever since my employers discovered my blog, my shipmates have been throwing suggestions at me: "Hey, Paul, put this in your blog!" "Paul, talk about this in your blog!" . Etc. etc. The thing is, these psuedo-serious issues come not from my messmates, but from the superior officers. This says a lot to me, as in some folks might think that this is a fine way to jam my opinion down the throat of my employers using the force of public airing of grievances, and this departs from my mission, which is to talk about the good and bad, the ups and downs of my days at sea.

Yes, we get bad food sometimes, as I have said. Take the steaks, for instance. The provisioner sends us the cheapest steaks possible, and collects as much as he can for it. That's business. The fact is, the supply chain has enough wiggle room that it's damn near impossible to stop at least SOME crappy freezer-burned meat from getting through. One thing is for certain: based on what I can tell, every month some farmer in Ohio is scratching his head, wondering why it is that he's got an extra cow but is missing a horse.


We've been getting a lot of new crew coming over from the now-scrapped Asphalt Commander. So far, they seem like good guys. Dinner in the crew mess has become a lot more lively. Of course, with Juan, our steward, everything tastes good, which goes a LONG way towards keeping people happy. Call me a bigot, but there's nothing like an Italian in the kitchen, and Juan's Italian heritage, coupled with his Argentianian upbringing makes for a nice combination. My Irish heritage is a real impediment in that direction. My culture believes that there are two ways to cook: Boil and Burn... also, there are only two ways to flavor anything: butter and/or salt. Period.

And so ends one full week at anchor in the Mighty Mississippi. I got some time off the ship last night, tagging along with Juan to the grocery store. This involved a ride in the back of a pickup truck in the rain, as well as a boat ride, also in the rain. I was able to secure a few cases of diet pepsi, so my caffeine crisis is, for the moment, over. Cancel the apocalypse. I'm hoping for one more nice quiet evening, so I can blow some shit up in DOOM 3 with the volume cranked.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Where am I?

You might notice that things have changed around here. Curious? Nah, me neither.

Shit trickles downhill before it falls en masse. Shit trickled downhill yesterday, causing some people on board to wonder what I have been writing, and in what kind of light I portrayed them... I've been honest here, inasmuch as my innate need to entertain allows me. I'll admit that at home, hyperbole and wild exaggeration are the tools I use to make a good story flow. An Irish storyteller never lets the truth stand between him and a good yarn. Here, on da interwebz, I am honest, as this blog is a diary, as well as a way to reach out to the world, especially the part of the world that contains those people I can't be with.
So, when I was able to ask why it was that some folks were looking at me in that way a toddler looks when they're soiling a diaper, I was a little taken aback at the amount of concern that my blog has generated.
I wish to be clear, and then we'll talk about this no more: I learned how to write by writing scientific articles than needed to be fit for publication in highly respectable journals that focus on pure research, and not hack magazines like Scientific American, but places like Biological Bulletin and Journal of Comparitive Physiology. So, when I write to entertain, I still write like a scientist, which is to say, clearly and dryly. I don't infer and I don't suggest. I spell it out. So when I get word that someone is inferring things in my past posts that very definately fall WAY outside what I was sharing, I get pissed off. I didn't spend the last three years to create a gossip column. I write about my life, which has always followed a path that leads down to the sea, and some people like that, from what I can gather.

I mean, I could write about ships with living conditions that rival a low-end Pakastani Hospice, but what does that serve? I prefer to focus on the dramiatic moments that bookend long intervals of tedium, and shed light on what it is that we do, and how we do it; things that no one sitting in a swivel chair in an office would tolerate.

So, as you can see, you can't see my old posts right now. Don't be mad. I still have them. One day I'll put back the posts about lobstering, poop jokes and revenge tricks. But not today.

I'm going to take this opportunity to make some changes to this blog, as I don't believe in looking backward for too long. As I age, it isn't just my waistline that's expanding. My life is changing, too. Marriage, a child, responsibilities and the end of five years of sacrifice, all different from when I started this blog. When I began, I was running away from something, making an escape to the deep ocean from a sometimes disheartening life. Now I'm here, and good or bad, I have a place set aside for me, and I realize that along the way, I stopped running from something, and started running TOWARDS something.

I hope you'll stay with me. It really helps me feel like I'm not cut off from the world. In the meanwhile, I'm through looking backwards. See you soon!


Friday, September 19, 2008