Friday, December 12, 2008


Nothing eats up the time on a coastwise voyage like a good 5-day grocery run from the US Gulf to the US east coast. We humped our way through marginal weather pretty much the whole ride- not enough to slow us down, but enough to keep the decks awash, the crew indoors (mostly), and the deck unsteady. I give it a 4 out of 10.

One of the more important factors that help pass the time is the compatibility between the mate on watch and his AB. Now, I've been in both positions (I've worked as a mate on limited-tonnage boats using my limited-tonnage license), and I know that it's not too hard to get along. The people involved merely have to work out a good professional relationship, then iron out their respective roles (some mates want more out of their AB's, and some just want them to sit in the window and keep quiet). I am used to a middle ground where there is some conversation. It is uncomfortable to sit in the dark with a strange man. The best thing to do is to get to know them a little, in my eyes, so 1). I can learn what they want from me, 2), what they're going to miss because they haven't been here as long as I have and 3) forming a bridge team requires efficient communication, and if I can't understand someone's communication style, I can't anticipate their needs or help them work through a problem very well.
So, hopefully, you will see and agree with me that forming a Big Picture about the skills, abilities and foibles of a bridge team member requires some subjective knowledge of that person.
In our day and age, many otherwise excellent officers fail to utilize their AB's to the fullest extent, merely because it is easier to take the onus of responsibility exclusively on oneself, rather than taking the time to assess and train a relative stranger to be one's assistant. This is a needless liability, of course, and one without a simple cause. The requirements to be rated Able Seaman are pretty watered down, too, believe me, I know. I was given an AB unlimited without ever having worked on the deck of a boat that wasn't catching fish. I have been extremely lucky to have had old-school bosun's as my watch partner on several occasions, so I would like to think that I've taken up the slack.

I wonder how many guys with unlimited tonnage mate licenses consider that their AB's assess their skills constantly? Not only do we occasionally have to ignore you when you give an order that will be unsafe or will be outright improper, we have to train you in ship-specific duties without letting you know that you're being taught, 'cus lord knows, some guys can't learn from anyone lower in the food chain!
In our modern era, the old command-and-control style of directing one's sailors is falling victim to improved communication skills. The fact is, with manning limitations, it's hard to form a good working team. Personally, I believe that every maritime academy should require a personnel management course be taken by anyone seeking a license. So much time gets lost when an inexperienced officer doesn't know how to 'get a little more squeal out of the pig', by using simple, verifiable methods that motivate and push ones' underlings. I personally have had the wind taken out of my sails a few times. The fact is, it's unprofessional, but the way in which we're asked to perform a task has everything to do with how well it's done.

Before we left the Mississippi, our two 3rd mates switched watches and I had to spend the midnight-to-four with JimmyJames, our new third mate. Now, I don't know if Jim just doesn't like me, or if he's not a talker at night, but it's been a long, long time since I just sat in window for four hours night after night without carrying on at least some rudimentary talk about something beyond what's on the radar. Nope

Makes me miss Thaddeus Maximus, who had a great gift for being able to carry on two conversations at the same time... one about the usual BS to pass time, the other about doing our job.

Like this:

"So I said to myself, hey, keep an eye on that guy to port, let me know if he tries turning, "Self, you're never going to be in Haiti again, why use protection?" Lets come left two degrees, we're getting set a little. "And no one on that island knows my name anyhow!"

Now, that conversation was made up by yours truly. Thad is funny as hell, not suicidal. You get the drift anyhow. He's gone to a better place. Home.
For my part, it's harder to stay focused on such a simple task as looking out the window without breaking the monotony every now and again with some sort of brief conversation. Out of respect for the guy on the pointy end, I kept my mouth shut, but those were the least pleasant nights I've had in a while.


Rich said...

Hey Paul -

Depending on the age and/or experience level of your third mate, a guy like you might be a little intimidating. I've gotta say, after spending a couple of years on tugs now, I've got a whole new appreciation of what you can do with a "limited" license. If you've spent any time in the wheelhouse, I can guarantee you know more about boat/shiphandling than the guy on the "pointy" end. Have a great holidays! back to the boat tomorrow.....

Paul, Dammit! said...

Hi Rich,

I go out of my way to try not to intimidate. I figure that my job is to support, and if my watch officer is cool, I usually try to work on my weak spots, which are many, and in doing so, I think it keeps ego out of it... hopefully, anyhow. I'm an AB to learn the job above me, after all.