Saturday, December 30, 2017

Frozen Fuel, Frozen Toes, Froze Froze Froze

Half the country is really damn cold right now, including myself.

           We've spent a lot of effort this past year to do better in winter with HAWSEPIPER's Afloat Global HQ and Detention Center. Living without running water every time the temperature went under 20 degrees was a good motivator, as was having water in our fuel, which stalled our pump engines. We've made great improvements on both those things.

 What we haven't done is make heavy fuel oil any less viscous at cold temperatures, and so we're still struggling, just like every other heavy fuel bunker tanker operating in single-digit temperatures.

        Heavy Fuel Oil, or #6 oil, is a glossy black, tarry oil, very thick and viscous (resistant to flow). It's like molasses, but more so. It needs to be heated up over 100 degrees to flow at a slow rate, and over 120 to flow moderately well. Generally, we like getting the stuff at about 130 degrees, but 120 is about the average. Wintertime, unless you have the capability of heating the product on board (we don't), you lose +/- 10 degrees a day, and the cold steel surfaces will collect a skin of congealed oil that won't flow, so no matter what we do, our retained bottoms (the sludge on the bottom of the tank that we can't pump) grows thicker by somewhere from our summer bottoms of about 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch+. Regardless, we try to keep it to a minimum by begging for hot product and also rolling and trimming the barge as heavily as possible to get the stuff to drain down. Generally, over the course of a few jobs, we can get heavy bottoms back to a reasonable 1/4" or 3/8" if we get a good shot of 130+ degree oil here and there.

 So, that's one headache we deal with. We got extra heat-trace tape laid onto our potable water system, and between that and running a block heater on our water pump, we seem to have solved the problem of frozen piping. Taking a shower does wonders for morale.
       Water contamination in diesel fuel is a pretty common problem, and we got ice dams last year at several places in our cargo pumps' fuel systems. We solved this by draining and scrubbing down the surfaces of our fuel tank and improving our procedures for thieving and draining off water bottoms in our fuel before they get far from the tank. So far so good there. We're also trying to stay on top of moisture getting into our air system, as well. We rely on compressed air-starting for our cargo pump  engines, and have had issues of water vapor freezing up our starters, which means injecting antifreeze into the air line behind the starters and blasting it into the starter, a crude and really dirty, messy solution that cuts the life of the starter down considerably. Hopefully we've avoided that, too, this year.

 So, with those things seen to, we've still got problems here. It's the damn oil.

 There is heavy fuel oil, and there is heavy fuel oil. We move several grades of fuel oil, separated by sulfur content (environmental regulations, as sulfur is a great lubricant additive and also bad for the environment) and viscosity of the oil. Ship's engines and boilers want certain viscosity fuels to run properly, and this varies with brand and age of the engine, newer engines being more versatile generally but also more sensitive.
   Most ship engines can run on heavy oil or lighter oils like diesel. Both fuels have advantages. heavy oil (HFO for short) being much less expensive. Diesel being more clean-burning and  energy-dense, but expensive, which is an issue when fuel consumption is measured in tons per hour (a large container ship can burn several thousand tons of fuel oil in a single voyage).
Generally, we sell fuel oil at 380, 500 and 700 centistoke density. Centistoke is a measure of viscosity (it's 1cm X 1 gram^-1  movement at a standard temperature and pressure, I believe, but let's just call it a measurement of resistance to flow), so the lower the number the better it flows at a given temperature.  The higher the number, the less it wants to flow, but the cheaper it is, too. New, larger ships do tend to like the 700cst fuel for economic reasons.

   Now, below a certain temperature (the Pour Point), gravity alone won't cause a heavy fuel oil to flow. It's like upending a bottle of honey after keeping it in the fridge, but again, more so. You need pressure to move the oil (squeeze the bottle), and pressure is an issue. We have limits as to how much pressure we're willing to crank up to before stuff starts blowing up. We'll hit our max safe pressure with our cargo pumps pretty often even in summer when pumping HFO to a ship, and that number is quite high.
      We discovered this year that 700cst fuel will set up like a glue at low temperatures, and resist flow to the point that things lock up. We're moving more 700 fuel because the East Coast is getting more super-sized ships now that the panama canal expansion is done AND now that so many ports have been dredged and had some low-lying bridges replaced or raised up. So this is new territory.

Well, if it cools down, it turns into a plastic-like substance, turns out.

Looking inside a fuel hose

reaching in and tugging on the fuel column at full strength resulted in this.

    So that's not nice at all. A bunch of us are dealing with that. 380 or 500cst fuel, at high pressure, will get pushed slowly, like a tootsie roll through a garden hose. Eventually, the warmer liquid fuel oil will start flowing, and dissolve the chunky stuff once it breaks through at some point in a column. Well, the 700 stuff is better than a cork in a wine bottle, turns out.

      Although working conditions here on the HQ have been pretty miserable with this deep-ass cold and the usual winter miseries of hydraulics and valves not wanting to work right etc etc, the plugged line issue is a new one for us, but thankfully, we've been able to keep the fuel going. Our plugged lines were in places where we could swap out hoses. We're in good shape for the shape we're in.

 Word is that we'll be almost at 32 degrees one day next week, although that's well below the pour point for HFO, hopefully between us and our less-lucky peers, we might be able to fix any cold-related issues at that point. We haven't missed any work so far, and hopefully won't have to in the future, too, but it certainly has been challenging.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

back at work and small boat update!

Well, back to work, and while I'm grateful to have a job, I can't say that I felt ready to come back, but here I am, and lemons, lemonade, etc.  Crew change went unusually smoothly, right down to the HQ being loaded deep so that it was easy to transfer all my crap right on board from the launch without much fuss.
 Holy hell, though, it's cold up here.


 It's been a fair bit since I updated on the progress to date with the small boat I'm building on my workbench. I hadn't been able to do much on it these past few months- gotta be home to do that, first, and last time I was home, there was a hurricane to prepare for, plus I'm not one to forego time with my family when I can get it, so I didn't get to sit at my bench much. So it goes. This time I had a fair bit of time to goof off around the garage, which was great.

soldering a safety chain to the brass rails- should have waited to paint!

forward ladder

Forward ladder installed with brass rails bent, soldered and painted

lifeboat- still under construction
Progress to date

built rugged enough that you can trust a tard with it!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

much too soon

Well, it's Christmas eve, and tomorrow is Christmas Day, with all that entails. I have to fly out tomorrow afternoon for work, sadly, which casts something of a pall over things, but I'm determined to enjoy the time I have.

... that's sort of been my theme this vacation. It felt hurried. I'm not going back to work rested, things were just too busy and hectic to make that possible. I got a lot of things done that were necessary, though, especially in the days I was up north, although that tends to preoccupy me now, and there's more legwork than I had expected after the fact, but that's OK.

The crowning glory has been my time with my family, and that's saved me in what has been a somewhat stressful holiday season. It's been wonderful to have them with me again, and I'd have been ready to stick my head in an oven if it wasn't for them. In the 9 days I had at my house, we put in a LOT of quality time, and so I'll be going back to work if not rested, than at least fortified and ready to work.

 The timing, though, jeez. My first Christmas off in 3 years, and I have to bug out after lunch. Grrrr. Career choices again. Well, so be it.

      I got a whole bunch of work done on my little boat while my wife and kid were at school, too. It really came along well. Pictures to follow in a few days.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

...and then he rested

After getting off the HQ, I had to go up north to start the probate process for my mom's estate. I spent a couple of days between getting things organized and visiting family and friends. It was actually a pretty decent way to cap off the visits I've been making this past year. Much less stress. Along the way I got to shoot a couple of rounds of skeet at a rod and gun club located south of Boston, which was a load of fun. I've shot trap before, but never skeet. Harder than expected, but just as fun as I'd hoped.

       When all was done, I made my way home, and I've been here for a little under 48 hours. It's SO good to be home. I'm having my first real quiet morning right now- family is still sleeping, and I overindulged last night on sriracha chicken and spinach dip,  not to mention the couple of glasses of whisky I downed over the course of the evening, so my guts had me up before the sun, but so it goes. By 7am I had breakfasted and recovered, and I'm currently sitting on my patio in shorts and a tshirt watching the bass jump. It's a clear, cool 68 degrees here in God's country. I won't have as much time here as I'd like, but then again, I never do.

 The past months being particularly onerous, Inappropriately Hot Foreign Wife went all out with decorating and knocking out most of the honey-do list herself, but today seems like a good day to break out the pressure washer and tidy up the concrete outside.

 Funny thing about Florida- you don't have to shovel snow, but twice a year you do have to pressure wash your driveways and walkways. The humidity leads to a superfine coat of mildew, and sometimes not too super fine.

This week I had had a license upgrade prep class set up for myself, to start preparing to knock the dust off my captain's license and up the tonnage. I've never, ever ever been a person to let personal issues get in the way of a job to do or a responsibility to uphold, but this time I made an exception and delayed the class. I *could* have done it, and not had time with my family or simply time to myself... but in good conscience my family needs me more than I need that class this week, and the truth is, I'm tired in a way that is entirely new to me. Fatigued is probably a better word. I'm fatigued. I've never felt this way for more than a few hours, but since my mom passed away, I've had nothing but obligations to attend to, and with rare exception, I haven't slept more than 5 hours in a given day. I feel... not myself, I guess.
 I'm not having a pity party here. I'm grateful that I now have the opportunity to re-center myself, and I'm surrounded by people who love me even despite knowing me pretty well. I have many things to be grateful for, but I haven't been feeling grateful recently, and that should change too, starting with this quiet house, a full belly and a pretty morning.
 I can work on my career after Christmas. For now I have a little time to sit back and enjoy the holiday.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Uncle Paul and the Young Salt

 One of the coolest things to happen to me out here is that I was able to get my youngest nephew a job as Ordinary Seaman on one of our tugboats, and we regularly get to work together. Even better, his watch officer allows him to stay on board and visit with me when time allows for it, when they're not underway. He's been here a little under two years, but this is his last tour with us for now. In a few weeks, he'll be starting college.

     My oldest brother lives an hour from the ocean, west of Boston, so my nephews haven't grown up on the water like I did. When T came aboard for the first time, at age 18, it was his first day working on a boat. Everything was new. By 18 I had over the 1,080 days at sea needed to be rated Able Seaman. I had a lot of advantages, and a bit of confidence from it. My nephew did not. At 6' 5" and underweight, he'd get knocked over by a stiff breeze. He was so fortunate in the next months to be trained by some excellent tug captains, and even though it was overwhelming, and he was still an overgrown child who wasn't used to an adult's job and an adult's environment, he was excited and motivated.

  My nephew came aboard the HQ this morning- his watch officer calls me 'Uncle Paul' over the radio, too, screwing around with me. We had a great visit, and when it came time to get underway, he was utterly professional, utilitarian and precise, acting as an extension of the mate's eyes and hands- and I was very proud of him. He's put on at least 25lbs of muscle, and speaks and acts as a man acts, not as a suburban 20-year old. When I woke up again before dinnertime, he was here again, and we had another visit. Looking at our schedule, it's doubtful I'll see him at work again.

     I often wish I had run away to sea before going to college, before impoverishing myself with a debt from grad school that would gag a goat and isn't worth jack shit to me while I'm on a boat. But the fact is that I DID do those things, and they may come in handy. I have options. If I lose a leg, I won't be homeless, hopefully. I choose to be here because I prefer to be here.
      My nephew might be back. We might have ruined him. He's a big, cerebral kid with a penchant for complex math and a warm personality- he'll do well in college if he treats it like a trade school. He'd do well on a tugboat, too. He knows enough to keep his mouth shut when his captain gets a case of the ass, and when to bark back, now, I hope. He'll have options, too, after this.
   And really, after working on a tugboat, college is going to be easy. Sit, take notes, study, drink, find interesting-looking women, repeat. He's going to have to deal with his peers being mostly kids. I'd imagine that'll be a touch lonely at first.
 Going to be lonely for me too. It was so nice to be able to have time with family out here.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

10 seconds

    It isn't that my job is boring, or that it's repetitive. It can be those things.

 It isn't the salary, or the stability, either.

    Despite my near-constant worry that somewhere, elsewhere, there is cool stuff going on and I'm missing it, every here and there I get a 10-second burst of "This is why I'm here," and it carries me through the doldrums.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Welcome aboard, new people!

If you're coming here for the first time from John Ringo's Facebook page, Welcome, and thank you for the spike in traffic! I am Paul B. I used to do something else for work, and could wear nice clothes and talk with nice people about interesting things... yeah, it was awful. Instead, I ran away to sea and have been a commercial fisherman and merchant mariner and hemidemisemiprofessional tankerman since. . I write about the things that happen, many of which are my fault. The last months have been something of a challenge, and blogging has suffered accordingly, but I have been up and writing again as I can.

Friday, December 1, 2017

signs of life

Today was a dock day here at HAWSEPIPER's Afloat Global HQ/Centres for Excellence in Breaking Important Mechanical Stuff.

         I went to bed after midnight yesterday, and after 30 minutes or so of reading, had slept for all of 30 minutes when Muscle Man, my OS tankerman, knocked and poked his head in my door.
      "Hey, cargo crane won't swing, man. I can't get the hose back."

   The part of me that stays conscious of sea state, pump and generator load and list and trim of the hull while I was sleeping told me that we were done pumping cargo, and that the hydraulics had been on for a while.
       When the swing motor doesn't swing, and there isn't an explosion of hydraulic fluid, I know that we sheared off the 2-inch thick short shaft in the swing motor unit on the crane. We've done this before. The crane was replaced with a boom 10' longer than the original that came with the base, and the increased torque this causes when there's a ton or of 100 feet of of oil hose hanging and swinging around 60' away can be too much on the swing motor's shaft, which acts as a brake when the hydraulic motor is not in gear. The swing motors last about 2 years. First time it happened to me, I was lucky enough that I had just handed off the cargo hose to a ship, and when they disconnected the hose sling from the headache ball at the #1 (the wire at the very tip of the crane), the boom swung rapidly like a giant propeller, completely unstoppable... only thing to do is to raise the boom vertical, take away the momentum.
     Last night, when I walked out on deck, and saw the hose leaning against the hull of the ship we wanted to sail away from, I knew we'd lucked out... and I got to make Muscle Man think I was either psychic or an insanely old salt. I told him to drop the #2 headache ball (which was holding up about a 25' loop of cargo hose), and listen for the clunk of the 25lb piece of steel scrap that would fall into the inside of the base of the crane when I swung the crane manually.

     Since I set the #2 whip about 40 feet from the base of the crane, there's a lot of leverage there, no matter how heavy the load on the crane. With a big loop of hose to drag on to, plus zero list on board, I dragged the loop of hose to the crane's boom cradle, and had O lower the boom and put the crane home. I heard the clunk of the broken shaft and the gear it was attached to as it fell out of the geared ring of the crane's base. Since we had no orders for later on, I just called the night guy and told him we were out of service until I could talk to a port engineer- we don't carry spare swing motors.
      BY noon we were all fixed and all was well again. The engineers used a shoreside crane to put the new swing motor up, and with access to the shore, it's given us a chance to get groceries, load up on supplies and offload waste and scrap, stuff like that. It's a rare chance- we don't get to the office dock more than once every 4-6 weeks, so since we're overnighting here tonight, too, tomorrow will be another dock day, too, God willing.