Monday, January 25, 2010

rambling, insults, and prognostication...

On Sunday morning, there was a nasty oil spill (11,000 barrels of crude oil) in the Sabine Neches river in Texas, in the Beaumont/Port Awful, er... Port Arthur area.

How to put this nicely? Port Awful, as I call it, is to Texas what the Paris sewers are to Paris. How's that?

That being said, one thing I like about Texas, aside from the people (the only truly good thing about the place- nice folks as a rule), is the can-do attitude of government there regarding resource extraction. Generally speaking, the attitude there is that people come first. Given that the principal value of the 2nd largest state in the US is the liquid that lies in salt-domes under the soil, one could argue that environmental policy in Texas is partially to blame for the blighted appearance of the place...
...But one would be wrong. Coastal Texas is not so attractive, for the most part... Flat and sere, which, to a person from New England is the antithesis of natural beauty. Not to say that it doesn't have its' attractions. I just haven't seen any of them, and I come from a green, somewhat hilly place. Flat alkali land just doesn't float my boat.

Anyhow, had this spill occurred in Washington state, California, Massachusetts or Delaware, the captain of the ship would be in Guantanamo bay by now, and the tug-and-barge unit operator would be undergoing therapeutic crucifixion while awaiting trial.

Texas is all about the oil, and, as such, is accommodating to a point regarding the odd oops. That being said, I've witnessed firsthand a governmental representative chewing a new ass into a ships' representative after an avoidable accident, too... deep in the heart of Houston (which, incidentally, also smells and looks like a midden heap, but is the critical port for American oil import. Trade-offs.),

No, my true point is that reality seems to rule in Texas. And this is where I make my prediction for what's to come:

My alter ego, Nostradumbass, predicts that this ugly and major oil spill will be handled in a businesslike fashion, and that no one will be going to jail for a year or two to await the potential future passing of some sort of law which they can then be charged with breaking retroactively.
Someone is going to get it in the seat, however; I predict that the odds of the responsible party, or most culpable contributing party getting the smack down (at some level) to approach 100%.

All jokes about the ugliness aside, the people involved in this mess stand a better chance of receiving fair treatment in Texas than in anywhere else in the US, and that's shameful to say.

...and then, if history serves as a guide, after all that, the US coast guard's administrative law pogrom... er, I mean, PROGRAM, has to find someone to throw under the bus.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Chapter The Next: In Which Our Hero Ponders The Loss of Technology

So while I was sleeping, the work computer died... or, more precisely, the screen of the work computer died.

My first reaction was, of course, a mild "Oh Nooooo..."

"Hey! Y'all remembered my name!"

In all reality, this is a minor bump in the road. I have my personal laptop, or as my wife likes to call it "Chour Tree Tousand Dolla Pono Matchine," which is neither here nor there, but keeps me connected to the world.
In the meanwhile, however, I'm forced to do loading calculations by hand, by which I mean using a calculator which is in my hand... all fine. Some extra steps, and some extra reading and writing, but OK, in the course of two cargo discharges and maybe one more load (the computer died after we started loading the cargo which I'm currently sitting on), I can handle it.
Still, this makes me mindful of how reliant I am upon technology to make my job more convenient and safe. I am performing calculations in series- nothing dramatic, but calculations built off one another. And I will be more prone to error than my computer, which means making a list and checking it twice... more work.
So here we sit, awaiting inspiration. In the meanwhile, that which I can't handle with a pen and paper, I can handle with phone calls. And such hubris, where I can be annoyed that I have to dial 11 numbers to have all my questions answered, but there it is. The pleasant insulation between myself and the office folk is worn thin, at least in a temporary fashion.
At least I like the office folk. There's that.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

the schmooze

Well, when I go home next week (!) I have a good-looking agenda. One, find out the status of my CCW permit with the local constabulary. Two, meet up with old friends and former professors and be rowdy and un-adultlike at our old college bar, and three, meet up with a dutch grad student and introduce him to lobstermen, scientists, retailers and wholesalers and policymakers in the lobster industry... old acquaintences, in other words, as I have friends and associates in all these places.
Maybe it pays to know people in so many levels of an industry, but it doesn't pay ME. At least not in cash. Still, I can pretend to know something about something for a bit, and that's nice for the ol' ego.
Also in the news is that I've been given a green flag by the Mrs. to go and visit my home-away-from-home, Eastport, Maine, come March. This is significant in that I normally don't want to be away from my family in my scant time off, but also my family doesn't want to freeze their buns off in Maine during mud season, either. So, I'm going to my old stomping grounds for a few days, and I'm excited, even if I have to go alone...

Finally, I've been given cargo orders that are going to make some poor tug operator completely bonkers. I'm taking on four cargoes from three refiners, destined for four ships, and the only way to make this work will require me to either list my unit over like a clubfooted drunk, and at one point put her down at the head significantly for a 10-mile steam between two anchorages.

Should be fun. Hell, I'm not driving.

An article worth reading....

This is a great article that focuses more on asking questions than in giving answers. I'm not sure about the final agenda of the author, but it is absolutely thought-provoking. I was a fence-sitter on the issue... now, however, I find myself swayed.

The issue is short-vs. long-term impact of subsidized grain shipment overseas, and the effect that this has had in receiving nations. I am going to see if the UN has any data on the effect on productivity later today.

See what I'm talking about here.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

wanted: one soapbox

This week has been significant, as it marks the date when I let my union membership expire. For about eight years, I have belonged to a maritime union. I have done well as a union member, but not that well.

I'm approaching the 11-month mark as an employee of my 'new' company. It is a non-union job in a different vein of the maritime world. As I often have to explain here "I come from ships," which, I think, makes me a more careful and well-rounded mariner than some of my associates. All the same, I work for a non-union company.
And you know what? Better insurance, no dues, and my pay is double what it was before. DOUBLE. No BS. Had I stayed in my union, advanced myself through studying and testing, in about 5 years I could be making what I make now, minus a couple of grand a year for union dues.

I've always been a pro-union guy. My dad was in a maritime union (reluctantly). My brother was in a laborer's union. Various friends are in the electricians, pipefitters, boilermakers, millwrights and carpenter's unions.
There's a place for maritime unions. There is a place for a lot of unions. There is a need in some places for them, in order to keep at least some craftsmen in the neighborhood of the middle class.
That being said, there's a reason why some places thrive despite their non-union workforce. Good companies have employees who don't need protection from management.

I'm going to go out on a limb here, so I'd appreciate it if no one goes bonkers when I talk about my employer, as they're a good solid example of a company with happy employees.
There are tugboat companies out there who are sacrificing safety in an effort to remain competitive- reduced manning, increased work hours, whatever... these companies survive parasitically- obeying laws on paper with the full knowledge that reality is quite different. These are the examples, publicized or not, that argue for the existence and necessity of unions in the maritime world.
Even among ships' officers, cost-conscious shipping companies will attempt to save money in labor cost rather than allow overhead to affect management costs (in some cases). Other companies attempt to treat their employees as a family, and, in doing so, to make more equitable changes to both office and afloat staff. This is neither here nor there in my opinion, as a deskbound employee still gets to kiss his kids goodnight even when staff in the office and at sea take a proportionate pay cut. All the same, at least it's something, but it's also extremely rare. More routinely we see contract renegotiations that simply start off sour.
Now, a couple of years ago, I took a job in New York harbor when I was home from my ship. I did this because I didn't have much money even after a 4-month voyage, but also because I wanted to see what tugboating was about. Within 2 hours of stowing my bags on my tugboat, I found myself being strong-armed by a union thug who told me that I had to join the union. This was a new experience for me, as the other maritime union I belonged to was staffed by retired officers, guys with shirts and ties on. This guy, in comparison, looked and talked like a panhandler, and, although it's unkind, had dental work that made him look like a jack o' lantern. Anyways, I gave the guy $100 to make him go away, and in return, I got a business card saying I was in the union.
Now, apparently, that union was a well-organized machine with a respectable track record... but my impression was NOT similar, and in the weeks that followed, conversation drifted continually to past achievements of the union, with little of substance regarding the present or future. When my tugboating experience was over, a few months later, my opinion hadn't changed much. The people I came in contact with would do just fine if they were selling fireworks out of the trunk of their car, but that's about the best I can say.
As I said before, I'm not making grand statements, nor am I an expert in the matter. I'm just giving my opinion as a man who was pro-union walking into the situation.

So, fast-forward two years, and here I am. My counterpart in New York harbor makes about $100 more a day than I do. But you know, that c-note is blood money. They have a union because at some point they needed one, but the costs are high, and I'm not talking about the dues. When I talked to the ashore staff in that job, I was a pain in their ass. When I called about my paycheck, phone calls weren't returned. When I... well, you get the idea. There was a disconnect between the organ-grinders and the monkeys, and for certain, that disconnect has roots in labor relations.

I'm aware that I work for an exceptional group, but damn me if I haven't earned my place, too. There's no strong-arming here, but there's respect and professionalism, especially when I require support services from the ashore staff. I'd rather be happy than stressed and a little wealthier. Not that it's perfect here, either, but the standards are higher, and there's a certain code of behavior that is absent, by all accounts, from the NY scene.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

meow meow

When I say meow meow, it's not a complement. It's said quietly, but not sotto voce. Just matter or fact, rapid fire, deadpan. Meow meow you're being a... well, animal that meows.

What I don't do is push people to hurry out here. I don't understand why in the name of the seven mad gods of the sea anyone would think it's acceptable to pressure someone to GO FASTER when working with oil. Really.
Watching a young guy working today with a middle-aged deckhand, the usual greenhorn and Sea Daddy pairing (increases the odds of the greenhorn living long enough to learn a little, in theory). I listen to the youngster complaining under his breath:

"Fat old fuck, telling me how to do my job... I know how to (mumble mumble)."

Me: "Hey, watch your footing."

Old salt: (Shouting from 50-75 feet forward). "Try to get a line around that bitt for a back spring!"

Greenhorn: "Yeah yeah..."

Me: "(quietly) Hey, don't throw that line yet..."
Old salt: "Wait! Don't throw the line yet!"

Greenhorn: "I can hit it."

Me: "What did I just say to you, exactly?"

This is me being unpleasant. This is also me being safe. The young idiot was about to attempt to throw a line as hard as he could... while standing with a bight of line around his ankle. However, being somewhat heated after listening to this asshat, I don't think to explain myself. A teaching moment. lost, I guess. The old guy, being an old sailor, and therefore a survivor, does a better job of shedding light on the situation.
"Look there at your shit-stomper, yung'un."
The kid looks down, shakes his foot, clearing it, and heaves the line mightily... I mean, he really puts some ass into it. It falls short of the bitt.
The old salt gathers up the now-soaking wet (and therefore twice as heavy) line, and explains exactly how he's turning his wrist WITH the lay of the line, until just here, where it's folded back, and making two small loops you just... he flicks his wrist lightly in a sidearm motion, and the line sails above the bitt, stalling out just overhead, and opening the spliced eye at the end of the line perfectly, the tossed line falls onto the bitt with a wet slap, perfectly.
The old timer doesn't gloat. He just looks at the kid, and tells him that four times out of five it doesn't fall that smoothly, but when you look at HOW it didn't work, it'll show you how to improve your second attempt.
The kid looks dully at the old timer. Personally, I don't think he's listening. It doesn't matter, really. When the pair return to their tugboat, the old timer goes first. It proves to be too much for the kid, who makes snide comments that I pretend not to hear. I am holding the ladder for the two men, being polite. When the kid gets onto the ladder, I give a small sideways nudge to the ladder with the slab of my palm. It skitters across the steel,just an inch or two, and the kid freezes in place, in the ladderm looking up at me intently, alarmed, to be reassured that I'm holding the ladder safe. I am.
I am looking down at him looking up at me, and it's too much to resist. Just as he gets off the ladder, pale now, I make eye contact.
"Meow meow."

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Low class, man.

I really have gotten trashy.

When I first returned to lobstering for a living, 9 years ago now, I stuck out like a black guy at a Merle Haggard concert. I knew the job from prior experience, but I never talked the talk. I spent so much effort in the years prior to speak like a scientist; although it didn't come natural to me, I had (I think) a good lecture voice- I could give a talk and stand in front of a critical crowd of Ph.D's and hold my own, but when I returned to fishing, I just talked like a fag.
After I had been fishing a little while with Chuck Z and The Notorious B.O.B, I learned how to talk the talk, after a fashion. In time, I stopped thinking about it, and, although I don't think I was ever 'one of the guys' in a scene where the average age was about 50, I got comfortable... didn't have to force it, I guess you'd say.
Sometimes, though, when I returned to the academic circle, I'd find myself parodying myself- I got more crude than I normally was, spoke a poorer brand of English (I still prefer to say "was" where 'were' is correct, i.e., "you always was a bit of a assbag"). I was forcing it, maybe in a defensive reflex to avoid being questioned on why I walked away from a perfectly nice career.

Anyways, now I have to reign myself in. I was inspired to write this blip just a few moments ago when I was handing off the watch to my mate, who is still a little green- "Remember to keep at least 10 feet of cargo in your last tank; God forbid, you sneeze or something, and shit yourself; even if you lose prime in the pumps while you're changing out your drawers, you'll have the head pressure from the last tank to flood the pumpwell."
After my mate grinned, nodded, and headed out on deck, I had the thought that I need to balance out my manner of speaking, even the way I write. There's no need to force other people believe that I'm pointlessly crass and crude. Being a savage may not be an act anymore, but I probably shouldn't force people to assume that I'm uneducated just to prove that I can change their opinion given time.

Monday, January 11, 2010

luck, chance or inevitability?

Will repairs completed, we're counting down the time to start our first job post-repair. We've had 5 1/2 days to effect repairs, repaint, and restock. So, now that we're painted up, welded up, stored up and grubbed up, it's just a matter of playing the waiting game until they're ready for us at the tank farm conveniently located next door from our lay berth.
In the meanwhile, something happened elsewhere that was a touch eerie at first blush. When we were involved in the accident last week, we were en route to a loading port to pick up a load of cargo that had been originally slated to be given to a black-oil barge. They bitched about their workload, and even though we don't normally do straight run black oil jobs (my barge is outfitted with segregated tanks, pumps and headers- we specialize in fueling ships that require multiple grades of fuel), someone shoehorned a job into our schedule, and then we got knocked out of service for damn near a week, and the original barge slated to do the job had to do the job anyways...
Now, the job that we lost to a competitor was supposed to be done right after we finished the ill-fated substitute job. As it happened, we didn't have the equipment to do the job, and thus another company got the contract. The lost job was carried out under our noses, literally; the ship was bunkered up 150 yards away from our repair berth.

Now, Will tells us that something happened over the weekend to that same ship. Judging by what Will says and what's on the photo here I would guess that a tank bulkhead or two failed, as the ship's got a list like a drunk on a barstool.

Now, my first reaction was that everything around the events of last week was cursed. But I've had time to think, and I think now that the answer was under my nose, too.
When I got a good look at that ship, (a chemical carrier, which is a complex tanker), I saw that her name was hand-painted on the bow. This is not a good sign- to me, it implies that she was both sold and purchased on the fly and/or on a budget, which implies a rapid sale and, since she is foreign-flagged (registered), probably a ramrod job with the pedigree paperwork. The odds of Something Bad happening to a ship subjected to such a degree of care are obviously increased, and considering that she's a chemical carrier, enhanced, as such ships are subjected to an increased variety of stresses, not the least of which is that she's got a normal-sized crew, yet an enormous amount of complex steelwork which must be maintained.
Ah well. New week, new jobs. We're going to take on very close to a draft load today- the largest I've ever done on this thing, and we'll be bunkering a very interesting ship... more on that later.

Friday, January 8, 2010

at home and abroad

Well, here at HAWSEPIPER's floating HQ, it's been an active and tense week, and the Office Folk (I almost said office drones, but the truth is the office folk here are all former mariners themselves, and good people) have really gone overboard providing us with warm bodies and materials for repairs and upgrades. We're out of service for a major repair (one which I won't go into, as someone got fired over it (but not us!)), so the opportunity was there to do repairs and some preventative stuff that should make life easier. All is well, though we've lost some bunkering jobs as a result of being out of service without a replacement available with similar capabilities. So it goes.

Anyhow, last night I got a blast from the past... the educational corporation who funded my overseas research when I was a student sent me an email. There is a Dutch graduate student who will be traveling to the US this summer to work on his master's thesis. He will be looking at effect of market infrastructure and regulation on the economics of the american lobster industry. This pretty much is a homerun study, for me. It touches on some research areas in which I have a deep personal investment: economic modeling, lobsters, commercial fishing, and politics.

After almost 10 years dormancy, my research skills are no doubt soggy and hard to light, and my vocabulary is in the toilet for sure, but I'm feeling the deep stirrings of intellectual curiosity, not to mention the need to catch and kill some of God's most ancient marine creatures. Plus, even though I'm no longer vice-president of my region's lobsterman's association, and I haven't pulled a lobster pot in 2 years, some of the skills needed are still in my muscle memory, and where they're not, it would be smart to touch base with the political, scientific and fishing community around New England again to keep my chops up.
Fuck it, I'll say it... I'm excited.

Perhaps this will be a nice way to fuse some interests- I can help out and open doors for this prospective researcher.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


Did you ever sleep through something very significant, and then feel sheepish because you wander out of bed later on, and people are staring because how the hell did you sleep through THAT?

Monday, January 4, 2010

small steps

According to the scale at home, my weight very briefly dropped under a milestone figure just before Christmas struck. By the time I returned to work, I was slightly over the mark again, but just for a little while, I weighed less than 260 lbs.
This is a good thing.

Without going into too many boring details, my recent diagnosis of borderline hypertension has been less of a millstone around my neck than I'd thought. When I got married, I weighed 295. I'm built like a cinderblock, so I just look dumpy, as opposed to obese, I guess. Anyhow, when I wasn't crash-dieting, the last time I consistently weighed 260 was about 10 years ago, so I'm moving in the right direction.
My doctor is awesome. Her advice was for me to try to cut out junk and fried food, and see what that did. Since I don't have a sweet tooth and fried food isn't really my favorite, this didn't do much. Increasing just slightly how much exercise I get, plus avoiding the aformentioned junk and fried food (and fast food, too), seems to be working well. In the past year, I dropped 35 lbs.
As I said, my doctor is awesome. She's a realist. She told me to get serious about my blood pressure before it became an issue that the Coast Guard would be interested in, and she told me to lose 25 lbs a year for three years or so.
And shit on me if it ain't working. The Mrs. had to cut a new notch in my belt before I went to work. While this isn't hugely significant (I had a 40-inch waist when I weighed 200lbs, and I had a 44" waist at 295), it still felt great. Anyhow, I'm hoping to be at 235 at this time next year.
I'm not trying to diet; I'm trying to eat well, enjoy what I cook and eat, drink beer, Scotch and Cachaca when I'm home, and not make that awful 'gruhhhhhh' noise when I get up from tying my bootlaces. So far, so good- in the last 90 days my blood pressure has gone from 'alarming' to borderline' according to my doc. Being a closet Type A doesn't help. I stress about everything, but feel the need to present myself as laid-back, which is stressful in itself.
Anyhow, work in progress.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Ever see a grown man cry?

What a tragedy! What a damn shame!

This afternoon I bunkered up a russian bulk carrier. She stank to high heaven (the ship, I mean). The ship was discharging about 20,000 tons of cocoa beans, which smell exactly like feet, as it happens. Imagine the smell of 20,000 tons of feet trapped in a steel box for 3 weeks. Yeah.

Anyhow, the tragedy came at the end, when the engineer gave me a little package along with my paperwork. Such 'gifts' are common everywhere but here in the US. In the package were three cans of coke and three extremely cold and impossible to import bottles of Bohemia beer, the good stuff brewed in Amsterdam which ain't exported.
Now, it would be impossible to give back such a gift without getting it thrown forcibly at my head if I tried. The engineer knew what he was doing. He knew that an American mariner would not bring beer aboard his own turf- this was a rare gift indeed- very thoughtful... and very dangerous for me.

Alcohol is strictly forbidden when one deals with oil. I'm pretty sure that the penalty for partaking is more harshly dealt with onboard than, say, if I were to fire a loafer at the Commander-In-Chief whilst he was visiting my neck of the woods.

Anyhow, I thanked the engineer profusely, and left the package on my after deck. When we backed out of the berth and pointed the pointy end towards home, I buried those beautiful beers at sea. The sun was setting, there were seagulls chasing our wake, and it was all very poetic as one by one, the unopened bottles took a swim.

You see, ever since the Exxon Valdez, alcohol and the tankerman have been a toxic mix. Like pop-rocks and coca-cola and drano. On the one hand, this has led to greatly increased professionalism throughout the industry, and a new focus on safety and the fostering of competency. On the other hand, I threw three perfectly drinkable beers in the water, and after being thrown into 4 consecutive 15-18 hour days, a beer might have been nice.

Karma does come with its' own rewards, however. After I said goodbye to my presents, I went inside and saw that our next job was put on hold. I was able to cook and eat a nice dinner, and now, if God is good, I'll go to bed and wake up on my own, when I damn well feel like it, and that's something.
You know the funny part? I haven't drank a non-diet coke in forever. I drank on of the ones that the engineer gave me. I got a sugar high.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Job #1

Well, starting the New Year off with a bang, we've got a packed schedule, and the first 2 jobs loaded aboard. I'm about to start the first discharge, and there's another scheduled right after the first. 1/1/10 is going to be a long-ass day.