So, tonight, whilst I am...ah, under a slight influence of $280 worth of sushi and Scorpion bowls, one of those funny leetle truisms fell outa my mouth.
I was talking tonight with my sea-daddy Orlando, the guy who taught me how to do my job and how not to kil myself on the deck of my old ship. Orlando is working on my old ship whilst she is undergoing an unscheduled shipyard period to effect some necessary repairs. Tonight we talked whilst he was at a 4-star restaurant with much of the skeleton crew o' my ship. Sadly, my good friend and former shipmate Eldon J. passed on this week. That's Eldon on the left of the picture, and he was as fine a shipmate as any man could ask for- a good man to lead a discussion on religion, on married life, and on how to conduct oneself with honor on shore... and he made a ceviche out of Black-Tip reef shark that was to die for.
The remarkable thing about Eldon is the dpeth that the man had. I spent six years with him, and it's obvious that I was only touching upon the tip of the iceberg. Every now and again, at meals or during work. Eldon would pass on a bit of homespun wisdom or a bible verse appropriate to the situation when one of us would get antsy, or angry, or outraged, for that matter.
For my part, when we were tying up the ship or letting go the mooring lines, Eldon shushed or calmed me down on a few occasions when things didn't work as they normally did. Whether he spoke a few words in his singsong patois version of Honduran English, or spoke more directly in a formal tone, Eldon knew how to get the most out of an inexperienced officer, or conversely, how to calm an outraged or off-put sailor when the situation called for. Regarless, when Eldon was late or occupied during mooring operations, he was badly missed. I can't imagine what it's going to be like tying a ship up without him. I think that mostly, I will miss my friend, but beyond that. my old ship will be greatly impoverished for his absence. In the end, for those of us who agree to sail on this particular ship, we agree to sail for the company alone- the money involved is not part of the equation. Anyhow, when I spoke to Orlando tonight, I surprised myself. I said that so-and-so and so-and-so, and so-and-so were more than friends... that they were family, and I knew that they would feel the loss greatly, as would I. Orlando agreed, and we quietly said our words that will carry us to the next time we speak.
I miss my friend very much. More, I miss my shipmates strongly tonight. I have been happy in my decision to leave my ship, but now... I dunno.
"Well, you are listed as the next of kin, so if you wire me $1200 US to cover the service and transaction fee, I can begin the process of transferring the funds from your late uncle's Nigerian lottery winnings immediately! "
Hey, it takes a lot of work to pay for that fancy hat, and internet cafe time ain't free.
Forgetting for the moment that Nigeria is the principal source of global fraud schemes, and that political debate has classically been handled there via machete-to-neck, Thank God that someone is concerned that Nigerians have been negatively stereotyped in science fiction movies.
I hope that you will all join me in my efforts to promote peace, harmony and positive relations between Nigeria and the public. If we can ban internet access in Nigeria, one out of five people in the world will experience positive change in their life at some level! Whether it's freedom from scams, relief from the need to purchase costly personal firewall programs, or simply less spam in ones' email box, if we could just cut the phone lines for one week, everything would improve everywhere, at some level.
Or, barring that, maybe the dude in the hat could fucking prosecute criminals for fraud once in a while.
Oh, wait... without internet fraud, Nigeria would have no economy.
Here is another example of a tanker broken in half due to excessive hogging. I have no idea what the proximal cause was of this disaster, but I do know that it is sitting in the anchorage of the Suez canal, which is a bad place to have a broken ship. (Photo credit to Gcaptain.com)
This is happening a touch frequently for my taste.
The good news is that we didn't have a bunker job scheduled. The bad news is that my mild case of Bronchitis got a little less mild, and after a week of waiting it out, I had enough.
I called for help.
Getting a sick seaman to a medical office is a pain in the ass for all involved. You're in an area that is not home to anyone involved, for the most part, and the employer wants to get through the event with a minimum of fuss and bother, and at a reasonable cost... this means a visit to the doc-in a-box.
For those of you who aren't sailors and aren't in the construction trades, the Doc-in-a-Box is a broad term for an occupational health clinic. Think: dirty, unhappy people, cheap-ass chairs in a capacious but eerily empty waiting area, Workers Comp, and one underpaid (and likely untidy) doctor, a dozen nurses covering up for the sorry doc, and a full-time resistant case of scabies that gets passed to the patients after a visit like a joint passed at a frat party. That's the doc-in-a-box.
So, that's what I was expecting. Get some antibiotics thrown at what is probably a virus (viruses find antibiotics largely benign, FYI), probably get a rash from the last occupant of the hospital johnny they make you put on (I put it on backwards sometimes to make the nurses smile), and out the door to the local Walgreen's to sit amidst the baby boomers anxiously awaiting their painkillers.
That's what I was expecting. Confision, chaos, a long wait in a room where the air has a taste more than a smell.
The surprises started off fast. I make my phone call, and I get told that my request will be passed on. I get another call a few minutes later. It's the head honcho of the department that handles medical stuff . She's friendly, polite, funny, and efficient. I get told to check my email in 2 minutes, print out the forms I'm being sent, and that the driver is already waiting at the bottom of the ladder to bring me to a doc who's a good guy, and who incidentally has taken care of sailors before (good news if I was 10 years younger and had a wandering eye!). Surprise #2. We drive out of the industrial sewer part of Philadelphia where my barge was tucked aside, into a nice suburban town about 30 minutes from the city. The clinic is sparkling and sunny, and the receptionist, PA, and the doc himself are all locals, and all nice folks who wash their hands and everything. I get looked at, don't have to pull my pants off for a nice cough, and the guy takes a couple of minutes to tell me that a) I can't take the over-the-counter stuff I was taking 'cus it's playing with my blood pressure, b), give me directions to the local pharmacy, and c), document and handle everything for the company, no problem.
So, after that, it was kind of nice to get back to my barge and start my medication, but even so, I felt sort of like I had a reprieve. It was nice to go somewhere where the houses were clean, and there were green plants.
One of the best pieces of professional advice that I've received came in the form of an admonishment from a close friend/supervisor aboard my ship. I had failed to see a valve that was left open whilst we were moving cargo slops off of the ship. An engineer had opened a small valve to drain down a pipeline so he could change out a valve in the system, and long story short, I allowed wash water to recirculate into a tank, rather than transferring it, which cost us about 30 minutes of waiting time. After being chewed out rather thoroughly, we went over the valve lineup, and I was told that I needed to be more aware of where the cargo COULD go, as well as being aware of where I wanted it to go. The learning portion of this discussion came in the form of learning to think in terms of making suction, vacuum, and pressure waves work for me, to be aware that there is more than one way to do most things.
So, yesterday was a long, long day. I made a dumb mistake that almost caused an excessive ROB (Remainder On Board, cargo that gets left in a tank) because of a Day One style error. Essentially what happened is that part of this particular cargo order was a tiny little parcel of diesel oil (20 tons, which, in shipping, is just a sip), just barely enough to prime the cargo pump to move the oil. Because the cargo was mostly made up of a different product, I loaded us unevenly- that is, I loaded the other tanks evenly with heavy oil, and I put the diesel in a port-side tank, which gave us about one degree of list. Now, here's where I made an error. I work well with my partners on here, because we're always on the same page. Yesterday, I had a helper who was new to the barge- and he left one of the tank valves cracked open at the end of the load, to drain down our cargo pipelines... this happened to be the tank that was supposed to be empty, opposite the tank with the diesel in it. So, before I opened the diesel tank to prime the cargo pump, I walked around and made sure that the other diesel tank valve was closed. I gave it a quick tug, and it didn't move (turns out, there was a full turn left in that valve-the valve was just a little stiff), and I proceeded to prime the pump. When I engaged the pump, however, she kept grabbing air and losing prime. After a couple of tries to get the pump started, I discovered what had happened. About 8 tons of oil had crossed over into the empty tank. I found the sticky-but-not closed valve, and closed it, and proceeded to play games. Everyone has some tricks up their sleeve, things that can be done when push comes to shove at work... I used some simple tricks to finally catch prime on my pump, but I could only keep the prime for my active diesel tank- the other tank with the 8 (about 5-6 inches deep in the tank, if you're curious) tons sloshing around just couldn't pick up suction. So I did some praying to whatever saint is the saint of cargo operations, and proceeded to pump the living hell out of my one available tank, and made plans to fall on my sword and get R.O.B.'d for about 40% of the diesel cargo, which would create a serious black mark on my work record. Along the way, I started thinking about suction and pressure waves. Every time I opened up the valve to my slack diesel tank, I let another couple of barrels siphon put of my active tank, and gravitate into the slack tank. I started catching and losing prime a couple of times as I opened and closed the valve to the slack tank, each time praying that I could pick up prime again (very dicey!). After a half-dozen cycles, I cracked the valve to the slack tank just a hair, and proceeded to focus on my active tank... this would cause a trickle of diesel to leak through the valve, and, I hoped, eventually create little slugs of cargo in the pipeline between air bubbles. My thought was that there was a chance that the pump would get enough suction to compress the bubbles enough to maybe catch prime when I opened up my slack tank. When my active tank started running dry, I made a flying tank transfer- that is, I opened the valve to the slack tank and sprinted to the active tank to close it off, then waited... the pump wound out, losing prime, then caught a good slug of cargo, and started winding out again, and cyclically, stated grabbing and losing prime. I had a froth of diesel and air in my pump, but damn me for a liar if I didn't slowly get all the diesel out of my tanks... When it was done, I could smell the fear-sweat on me- you know that smell, where you catch a strong ammonia stink on you? I can't tell you how angry I was at myself. I got lucky, very lucky, and I almost cost my company thousands of dollars (in both lost sales and labor, as it's a big pain in the ass to get a cleanup crew and tanker truck to siphon out a tank that won't catch prime) for a stupid mistake. So why am I sharing? I dunno, maybe penance. I'm a big fan of going slow and doing a job properly. It's not my usual M.O. to skip or forget a step when dealing with oil. My chief mate/good friend/teacher that I was talking about was very open with his opinion of me- "Paul's not the fastest guy out there, but he's careful, and always does the job right." Sort of a double-edged compliment in a business that rewards speed. Anyhow, today I feel achy all over. I was so tensed up for the hour it took to get that diesel off, that I ache like hell.
I'm adding this photo to my blog purely because of the jolt that I received when I saw it. This is an undoctored photo taken from a helicopter. The tanker split in half because the crew failed to calculate hull stress incurred in loading cargo.
I don't know what in particular made this picture ring my bell, but if you could see inside my head, you'd understand that this is the stuff that nightmares are made of.
Also, imagine being one of those poor pricks in the lifeboat. Those things are miserable death traps on a good day.
Here's something I don't understand, and I feel that I need to tread lightly to explain... it could be very easy to piss someone off, should any of my coworkers both former and current actually read this, and my explanation be misconstrued.
My new employer has lots of brand new equipment. While the tug-and-barge industry is exploding in the US, the shipping companies are running in place for some reason, at least, if the media is to be believed. My former employer is building some gorgeous new ships; something remarkable to achieve, in all honesty, but I worked for a bit of a dark horse of a company; an unlikely a success story as could be believed, but one that exists perpetually on an uphill slope. Such pressure doesn't make for a dynamic relationship between the chiefs and the littlest of indians like me. In fact, drawing attention to myself only happened when I did something stupid, yet the truth of the matter is that the janitor from the service company that cleans the management office has greater input than the little guys in the labor pool.
Half of the pleasure I derive from my current job is that many of the people I encounter here really want to be here. The labor environment is radically different, while the labor pool is the same as it is anywhere.
Here's a good 'for instance' that might explain what I mean. As I said, most of the equipment here is new- 90% of the tugboats and barges are 3-4 years old or less. The company renewed and expanded tonnage long before I joined, which is absolutely the hallmark of the tug-and-barge industry in the US- lower construction costs, and standards that are meant to be attainable. Now, my unit is among the oldest pieces of equipment owned by the company. The tug is 20+ years old, and the barge, while older, is double-hulled. I inherited a while elephant- the last crew let the barge go to shit. No one wants this barge for those reasons- an antiquated boom-and-stay crane system isn't that popular either.
For me, however, it's no problem. I have no problem playing catch-up on maintenance and improvements. I watched the folks on my old ship, and how they did things, good and bad, and I've been given free rein to game things out and bring ideas to management for polishing up this marble. Perhaps this is a good lesson for me to learn- by feeding my ego a little, and giving me some space to work, management here has made me want to work. And my barge is starting to look GOOD. We've got less downtime, all PM's (Preventative maintenance) are current, and capital improvements are scheduled and, more importantly, OK'd. Many of the guys that are in my position on new barges don't have much to do when they're not actually moving cargo- they need no capital improvements, and maintaining new equipment isn't a full-time job like it is here. So, when guys raft up to us, or walk by on the dock, they stop to talk, and some laugh at seeing me out there on deck alone after dinner, rolling out paint or scrubbing oil sludge residue out of the containment system. The younger guys don't believe that it's part of their job. The older guys nod and tell me that my barge is looking better than it has in years. The truth is, I've had good training- the chief engineer and chief mate on my ship are counted among my friends- I watch and learn how do do stuff above my pay grade, but haven't been given the opportunity to try my hand at such things until now. Plus, the little sludge spots and stuff from messy sample collection? That's oil. It makes a sheen on the water, and making a sheen on the water now results in stronger punishment than, say, beaning someone on the head with a tire iron. How fucked up is that? Anyhow, I want no trouble, so I'll go into extra innings to avoid such. I'm sort of assuming that there will be a payoff here, anyhow. This winter, I plan on warming my chair vigorously when not employed in moving cargo. I'm hoping that well-maintained stuff won't want to break at the same rate it wants to under normal winter conditions. Besides, the payoff has already started, in all reality. By painting, polishing and scrubbing every inch of this bucket down, I've learned about all kinds of things, from the condition of the brackets that hold the hydraulic lines in place (excellent), to the scars of old repairs made when this thing was converted to its' current configuration; things that will need addressing at the next shipyard period a year or two from now. Out here, Boring Is Good. I want no surprises.
So, today is a sparkling, beautiful cool day. Good day to do some work, but I'm going to stand down a little and just do a few things. It's Sunday, the day of rest, and Labor day weekend, after all.
Week The Second, Day One: Where our hero has an uncomfortable conversation with a deckhand
"Dude, you stick your whole head in the tank top when you're stripping out number four starboard."
"I do not," says I. "Anyways, I don't like leaving a lot of cargo in the last tank."
"Yeah, well that russian guy on the other ship is taking pictures when you bend over to look in the cargo tanks." "WHAT!"
Bang. Sounds distinctly like the gong from "The gong show" when I was a kid. "Ow!" The back of my head shakes hands with the hatch cover that I've got my head stuck through. "Fuck me sideways!"
This scintillating conversation occurred two days ago when we were transferring fuel oil to a pretty little cargo ship. The russian chief engineer was warm for my form. He was a little dude covered in oil. I was a big dude covered in oil... who likes the ladies. So solly, Ivan. Nyet.
"Now that's downright common."
"What's that, now? " My head is back in the tank.
"I was asking you if you suffer from lightheadedness when you stick your head in the tank and breathe in the fumes, and you ignore me and stick your head in the tank."
"Dude, there's a diesel engine 10 feet away from my head, I can't hear anything with earmuffs on, and my head is not all the way in the fucking tank... and no, I don't suffer from it. I enjoy it immensely. Teenagers pay good money for a tube of model airplane glue, and I have to hold my breath, or my kids will come out with flippers."
"So you don't breathe it in?"
"NO!" Oh my God, do you?"
"Yah, sometimes. It kills brain cells, but the weak ones will die off first, anyhow. So if you don't breathe it in, why is your head so far in the tank?"
"My head is NOT in the fucking tank. Now let me strip this."
"You shouldn't talk like that. You're teasing Ivan."
"Yeah, well, I'm not putting out. I like innies, not outies."
I swung my ass 90 degrees, so it pointed at the bow, distinctly away from the other ship. Apparently the chief engineer then left the railing and went inside.
"I wouldn't have guessed that he was into foreign man-ass."
1). It's wicked nice out. As I type, we're passing under a bridge, heading up the Delaware river in the neighborhood of Marcus Hook, PA. I have just finished loading a banana boat up with bunkers down in Wilmington DE. The engineer on watch was one of the single creepiest people I've ever experienced. ________________________________________
2) I've noticed a lot of ads on facebook claiming that "Obama wants single moms to finish college," "Obama wants you to get a mortgage," "Obama wants you to get out of credit card debt..." the list goes on. As far as I can tell, if these ads are correct, there is only a short list of things that the President doesn't actually want for you. They include:
Improve crop yields Enlarge your penis (I bet the ad for this one gets posted later this week) Attract women with pheromones build this hovercraft eradicate the boll weevil
And that's about it. Everything else, you name it, and I can find an ad claiming that Obama wants you to...(insert issue here).
I'm just sayin'... enough. Jesus Christ. ________________________________________
3. I have discovered a secret to dream control: when the sour ass-like smell of Bunker Oil penetrates the bunkroom, brief nightmares are inevitable. I say brief because the smell is also not unlike the smell of a sick persons' bathroom, not to put too fine a point on it. Therefore, after brief disturbing dreams, the smell penetrates the conscious mind enough to wake the sleeper, who then awakes, wondering who, exactly, shit the bed.
4. I am frustrating my new watch partner because I say 'what's that?" a lot. He is 25, high strung, and mumbles. Not my fault at all, although I will admit that for the first few days, I really, really thought that my marginal-at-best hearing had turned the corner. In the meanwhile, the poor kid thinks that I don't listen to anything he says... not that I'm that attentive, either, but I do listen... sort of. I'm one of the only guys in our fleet who isn't addicted to "world of warcraft," so there is some truth that I'll listen to some conversations with only half an ear, leaving 1 1/2 ears to focus on, say, whatever's on TV. Heaven forfend I miss an important conversation over the VHF regarding so-and-so's level 79 Death Knight what totally got wasted by a troll or something.
______________________________________________ 5. I ran into a guy on a tug who wore his shirt collar flipped up. Apparently it's 1981, but only if you're under 25. Did you know that this was the style? Who watched 'the Goonies' this winter, saw Corey Feldman, and then thought that he looked cool? Yeah, stock up on Lederhosen now. The german 19th century look is going to come back any day now.
Anyhow, I was completely merciless to the kid with the 'popped collar.' I actually felt bad, but the poor guy... no one wants to see some nice young kid go outside looking like he was dressed by Stevie Wonder's pimp.
I am Paul B, and I spend most of my life at sea. Ships, Science, the life of a mariner, biology and (mostly) true stories of life among the best and the worst people in the world, the United States Merchant Marines. You'll find it here, maybe. You'll definitely find rants, raves and discussion on life aboard a merchant ship. Come back and see the Brazilian girls, too, who show up fairly regularly.