Tuesday, March 31, 2009

"Heave away, boys, Heave away!"

I has an ouchie today. My fault. I hit the gym pretty hard yesterday.

To those of you who know me in real life, you know that I laugh at gyms. I believe in building strength through hard work and outdoor activity. Also, you noticed that I've gotten to be a fatass along the way now that I'm not lobstering anymore. Back in January I started trying to eat better and go for walks and stuff when I could, and about 6 weeks ago I started lifting weights again. 6 weeks of lifting weights is longer than I've ever stuck with it. I've been blessed with a large build, and have worked outdoors for most of my life, so I'm plenty big and strong, but from humping lobster traps, I hunch, and from not getting cardiovascular exercise at all in the past 2 years, my weight went through the roof. As of yesterday, I've lost 15 pounds in 2 months, and my eating habits, while not excellent, have improved. Work in progress, and things are looking positive.

Today, although I am a bit sore, saw us having a very productive morning. We kicked ass doing some sailoring. Our goals today included changing out some hawsers on deck and reslinging some of the tow gear hanging off the bow of the barge.
This barge has one 'ship line' a medium-diameter, 8-strand hawser that is twice as heavy as any other on board. It's the same as the hawsers we used on my last ship, which was 10 times heavier than this barge. The principal difference here being that on a ship, there isn't a need to throw the eye splice of a hawser onto a dock bollard from a distance... there are line handlers who meet you at the dock to do that. On a barge, very often, lines have to be 'flipped' off of bitts and bollards from a distance, and thrown on from a distance as well, to stop the barge. This is fun, and also very hard (for me).
Well, a ship line is not for throwing, unless you're Gene, the barge captain here, who is 6-foot 5 and 270 lbs. Even myself, at 6-foot and 270+ pounds (can't wait until that + is gone!), throwing that line is unpleasant at best. So this morning, we changed out some lines, end-for-ended others, and moved that damn ship line into a position where it'll be heaved on with the assistance of a capstan. Hopefully, no more aching backs.

As you were, then.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

"I so ronery..."

One of my former shipmates asked me if I had a difficult time taking this job as seriously as I did my last job, working on a much larger, more complex ship. My answer was, and has been and emphatic "No."

In a lot of ways, this job is a little scary for me. There isn't the manpower and mutual oversight that I grew used to. I am the watch. I don't have eyes in the sky and a watch partner to bird dog with me, to BS, to engage in debate over on-the-spot decisionmaking.
Why do I mention this? Today is my trial by fire. My first watch alone with this new company, with this new vessel.
I seriously miss automatic tank gauging. I realize that now. However approximate those reading might have been, manually measuring what's happening from on deck just doesn't give the same feeling of situational awareness that all mariners strive for.

Ah well. I was ready for this, anyhow. I'm comfortable with this sort of thing.

Non shipboard issues abound. I am happy to report that my wife, with the assistance of good friend Sir Spinach and one seriously primo lawyer, bested the miserable bitch who's been trying to bilk us out of money after claiming injuries relating to her totalling my wife's car back on September 11. I can write a little bit about the whole thing now, I guess, now that the legal aspect of things is over. Essentially, as some of you know, when my ship and I were getting our balls beat in by Hurricane Ike, my wife was involved in a fender-bender at a 4 way intersection. The other woman cut across my wife's car as they were both entering traffic. The woman claimed that my wife failed to yield, and, like a professional victim, she claimed all kinds of medical injuries except for false pregnancy, related to the accident, which occured at 15-mph or less combined speed. My wife's POS, which was worth about $2.75 at the time of the accident, was a total loss, naturally. Repairs to make it roadworthy would require a time machine and divine interviention.
Here's where it gets awesome: the other driver, who missed her calling as an interviewee at tornado/trailer park interactions, claimed that her car spun around 3 times, she was thrown all over the vehicle, and that my wife was going to leave the scene of the accident, but also, she was blacked out until the officer responding to the crash woker her up.
Unfortunately, our litigious society requires that any outlandish claims, when backed up by James Sokolov and company (you have to be from New England to get that one... sorry. It's our local lawyer mill), must be investigated, and thus we had threatening letters, numerous court appearances, and lots of stress. In the meanwhile, I was coming and going from home, my son is dealing with medical issues, we're dealing with the INS and my wife is standing in dead center dealing with the chaos.

Well, it's over. We came out on top, sort of. Still working on my son's health issues, but that's a work in progress, and goddam, kids are full of pestilence. Every week he's bringing some new bug in from Kindergarten. I don't know what the other parents are doing, but damn, keep your sick kids home!

OK, ranting done. Thanks.

Friday, March 27, 2009

a pirate looks at 40 (feet in the air, that is)

Self Portrait- me hanging from the forward mast on the barge, after changing out the light bulb for the anchor light at the top of the mast, some 40-odd feet in the air.

That crease between my eyes isn't getting any prettier. I walked into the backswing of someone winding up for a hockey slapshot when I was in high school. Oops.

Today is one of those days that sailors dread... something very important is happening at home, and I... am not at home. I have to sit on board and wait for a phone call to see how things turn out. Grrr...

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Memory Lane: the five man Rave

I was looking at some old photos from my ship this morning, when I stumbled across this one.

I took this picture a few years ago. The guys in the pic are all my friends. On this voyage, these were my co-workers (Manny, the black guy, is one of my closest shipboard friends, and also my immediate supervisor).

The setting is the port side after athwartship passageway on the mess deck. The weather looked like this outside:

With the seas washing across the deck at knee to waist height, and so much flying spray, there isn't anything to be done out on deck other than lashing down anything that might threaten to work free. After a short while, with boredom threatening, we look for indoor jobs.

On this particular day, we decided to tear up the tiling on deck and lay down a new tile floor.
The old tile floor, being 45+ years old, was nas-t, and lumpy. Tearing it up with sledgehammers and crowbars was dirty and difficult on the back... thus the scruffy looking people in the top photo.
Now, if you look on the left side of the top photo, you'll see the odd corrugations in the wall- these extend all the way to the floor, so you can imagine that the tiling required a lot of custom cuts to make everything fit. To do that, we had Brad, shown here:

Brad is a classic old-school sailor: a little crazy, very clever with his hands, and with a background in another industry... carpentry, in his case. (FYI, I took this picture with a disposable camera that had no flash- totally mechanical- no danger of explosion)

Brad was our custom cut guy. He sat on a milk crate, and with him he had a laptop blaring bad european techno versions of classic rock songs. Brad's job was to cut and fit all the tiles that required odd cuts with a razor to fit in place.

SO... now you've got the idea.

After half a day of of working on our hands and knees, we all took a break, amid much groaning and stretching. I took the opportunity to snap that picture of the other guys. We were all working together and bullshitting, and it was a day full of laughs- it's rare to get five guys working together who got along so perfectly well as this crew. Outside of Brad, who is also a nice guy, we spent almost every night hanging out after hours, too.

Anyhow, right after I took that pic, we decided to check on Brad, who was in another passageway. The passageways on that deck form a square, and we split up to go check on Brad, so when we found him, two of us were in front, and two were behind him. Well, he was working away to the sounds of the most horrific assaults on the ears, ever: a techno version of 'Sweet Caroline.'
I don't know how it happened, but the planets came into alignment, and without even looking at each other, and without any planning, we all burst into our best attempt at Eurotrash rave dance steps- you know, pretending like we had lightsticks in between our fingers, stupid intertwining hands flying, all that dumb shit. We surrounded poor Brad at a distance of about a foot, who, with his butt on a milkcrate, had four crotches in his face, and hands and feet flying, we all busted a move briefly, then fell around him laughing like idiots before heading back to our work area.
Brad looked mystified and disturbed, and why not? No hetero man likes having five swinging steaks within inches of his head.
Anyhow, such was the tenor of our days. You can imagine that our superiors were happy to have the seas subside and get us out of eyeshot.

Friday, March 20, 2009

la Vida Nostra

Wow, that doesn't even look like me. I got a buzz-cut.

So far, so good. We started off at the relatively civilized time of 0630, shifting at the dock. When we arrived here at the lay berth, we had tied off to the outboard side of another barge which was itself tied to the dock. This morning, however, the other barge had a job, so we had to shift off the dock- essentially, a tug took us on the hip, and swung us out into the river whilst the other barge took on its' own tug, cast off and got underway. We simply laid to against the dock and tied up. By then, it was time for breakfast, and that's about it for now.
One of the most significant differences between being an Able Seaman on a tanker and a Barge Mate is the autonomy and responsibility. Being responsible for a 300-foot barge vs. following orders from on high, I guess.

Anyhow, here are some pictures for you. I should mention here about my camera- in order to take pictures whilst on the deck of a tank vessel, I use one of Kodak's Intrinsically-safe cameras. This is a no-nonsense machine designed to document accident photos and creating evidence-quality photo records. It's the Dodge K-Car of cameras, except that it's explosion-proof, which is absolutely necessary out here.

Living quarters, outside view- obviously, we live on a half-deck, recessed into the hull of the barge.

Manned barges are a little rare nowadays, but there are great advantages, not least the insulation from distractions. This layout allows the tankermen to do their job without too much interference from the tug captains. The barge and tug crews work together during maneuvers, which seems to be a nice arrangement. The atmosphere on the tug allows for a degree of freedom, as there aren't conflicting priorities. The tug pushes and pulls, and the barge operates within the Byzantine framework of regulations governing the movement of oil on the water. I find it difficult to believe that a man can be a tug captain and also maintain operational responsibility for the health, well being, efficiency, operation and legal compliance of a tank barge and her appurtenances. For that reason, I am under the impression that separate co-management of a tug and a barge under a 'barge captain' and a tug's master is the way to go, when the tug and barge aren't made into a composite unit, anyhow.

Aren't these the cleanest-looking tugs around? The angular design isn't as pretty as the classic curves of a traditional model-bow tug, but the beefy, rugged and beamy hull has it's own pleasing look.

View from the house- one of the most pleasant discoveries I made is that the valves are high-quality and the wheels are ergonomically-designed. Makes it a LOT easier to turn than what I'm used to.

Anyhow, I won't be including much in the way of photography from the barge from here- Explaining to numerous well-meaning parties that my innocent-looking camera is actually quite safe to use takes too much effort.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

2 fer Un

I don't live at home just now.

Well, duh, I guess. My ass is parked on a 300-odd foot barge awaiting orders, so I guess I'm being obvious...

But, really, no, this picture is pretty, huh? It's about 30 minutes from where The Boy, Inappropriately Hot Foreign Wife and I live. This island idyll isn't actually an island, but rather, is a nice peninsula conveniently located within commuting distance to Boston. It's also where I grew up. In fact, I can pick out my parents' house almost smack dead in the middle of the picture.
Here's the rub, and, ultimately, the reason I have been sleeping poorly these past few nights.
This place is home. My parents' house, the neighborhood where I grew up. You know, it's such a quiet place that my parents don't even have a key for the house, as far as I know.
My folks are aging. They can't keep up the house anymore. My family has sort of imploded recently, which hasn't helped. We've been being fruitful and multiplying, but external factors have gotten in the way. Now, I have had a dream of purchasing my folks' house for a couple of years now, and we've talked about it, but in this economy, and with my career being at a jumping off point where I need to invest some serious down time to advance further, it just hasn't been in the cards.
This past week I've been feeling keenly the need to get my ass in gear if I want to get Home any time soon. My internal clock has been chiming incessantly at about 11pm, every night, and it makes my whole head ring whilst I'm trying to rack out.
My new job has potential, but I took it with the mindset that as soon as I got bored, I could jump back to my 'regular' career as a tankerman on ships. Truth be told, if I played my cards right, I could advance into an unlimited-tonnage mate's job by Christmas, and some good bank could come my way.
Thing is, there's good bank to be made right here, in the next month or so. More than good bank, really. There isn't the prestige of having a job where I don't get dirt under my nails, though. Sometimes, I get tired of being stinky for a living. This job is more rough-and-ready than a ship, but it's also a more independent atmosphere, a place more suited, probably, to my weirdness.

So, the conundrum. At some point, I'll have to decide to tell my regular employer that I'm not coming back, if that's the way I go. I can stay here and make my own way, and make a decent living, and spend at least part of every month with my family in the house and neighborhood I grew up in, or I can go back to my ship, and continue living, when I am at home, in a transition town, where people and commerce are literally camping on my doorstep. I'll never be the captain of a ship here, though, although I'll be a captain well enough, and that should be enough for any man, but is it enough for me?


My God, it was gorgeous out yesterday. Here in the Schuylkill (pronounced 'Skoo-kul') river basin, it must have been 60 degrees. With no cargo orders to keep us moving, we took the opportunity to do some maintenance on the barge.
I'm the type of guy who enjoys working alone when I can. To my surprise, the other two guys on the barge are the same way. I suppose that I ought not to be too shocked; the nature of tank barge work is that there are usually two guys aboard, and each guy works 6 hour shifts opposite each other. This would be the ideal job for a loner, except that I've seen that the guys who do this job, when idle, tend to be very social.
Even so, we immediately split up yesterday. I ended up tinkering and doing little odds and ends like greasing valves, and the next thing I knew, three hours had gone by and it was time for lunch. After, the same thing. I set up to seal up some leaky fittings, and Poof! the day was gone and it was time to knock off.
Good times, when a man can lose himself in work with no pressure, and yet be productive as hell.

One odd thing though; I woke up, and the palms of my hands are broken out and itchy as hell. Either I got some residual gasoline on them (I am allergic after being overexposed to gasoline in my career), or my mom was right, and I'm going to start growing hair on my palms after all. Both are hazards of a life at sea.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Old stress, new stress.

Yeah, that was one of the longest no-blog stretches I've ever not written in.

Hmm. After a quick re-read, I've decided that I need to keep up my writing chops. The interesting word usements are struggling.

The last week has been one of the most stressful of my life, and of the four things weighing heavily on me (that I'm writing on... there are others) that I had a chance to work on, three are either fixed, finished or progressing nicely. Three out of four ain't bad. Progress.

Perhaps the most exciting and momentous thing that happened was that Inappropriately Hot Foreign Wife and I had our big interview with the good people at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and my wife is now a 100% permanent resident, as in she got a green card.

So yeah, the implications of that? Was my wife an illegal immigrant? No, but she was in a gray area. Was. As in... past tense now.

Also, hours later, my wife received a learner's permit, so after next week she'll be able to drive legally.

We failed to make progress on a BS legal issue that is not immigration related, but is wholeheartedly annoying. A woman faking medical injuries has been harassing us, and I am going bonkers that despite the fact that this person is obviously a professional victim, things are at a stalemate. Our insurance company is refusing to talk to the woman, so she is attempting to rehash things in court. Grr. The worst part for me is that I was able to schedule a court appointment for last week when I was home to take care of immigration, drivers license, and health care issues with The Boy, and the court appointment was cancelled due to a clerical era, so the next appointment will go on while I'm out here. Grrr.

Anyhow, it has been an incredibly stressful time for my wife. Imagine being in a foreign country, with a serious language handicap. and having to take a test at the DMV in a foreign language (which you don't speak), meet with immigration officials on one hand, and facing a courtroom while involved in a spurious case, all within 48 hours, and all the while your son is dealing with illness and the prospect of surgery in the near future.

Amazingly, my wife did not explode. She did break down and cry when she got her green card, though they were very, very happy tears. Good to see.

If anyone is curious about the immigration interview, they ask questions to verify whether a couple is really married. At the end, the couple is required to disrobe and make love in front of the interviewer.

Hah! Just kidding! My wife did NOT think that that was funny.

We WERE asked questions about how we handle bills, our lives together, insurance, our home, etc. I forgot my wife's father's first name, however, which provided some entertainment. He passed away a long time ago, and my wife doesn't talk about him much. The interviewer told me, afterward, that the fact that I forgot something so important was a good thing, as it showed that I was nervous, and that I hadn't memorized a list of facts before we walked in the door.
So, the Immigration office is a mini-UN, which is to say that the employees were a melting pot full of disparate people united by indecipherable accents. Seriously, I asked for directions twice in the course of 50 feet, and could not understand the people who were trying SO hard to help me. It wsn't for lack of effort.
Proving once and for all that Walt Disney was correct and It's A Small World, the interviewer, though posessed of a flawless midwest accent, was from my wife's tiny city in Brazil. He was very prim and proper (he asiked my wife in english if she needed to reschedule to bring an interpreter, at one point, despite their common primary language), but also easy to talk to. It went well.

But, like all good things, it had to end. On tuesday evening I made a perfect drive to Philly to pick up my barge/home for the next month, and thus, here I sit, missing my family. Vaguel satisfied with progress, but also feeling distinctly peaked. It was a long week.

Oh, and here's a nice picture from Brazil. Just a little thank you for reading my BS. No, I am not married to either of these women.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


My goodness, a barge being pushed has the weirdest motion. We're rolling slightly, I guess, but it's coming across as more of a swaying motion. Absolutely right awkward, but quite comfortable.

Anyhow, at 0300, with the wind and seas falling nicely, we headed out on our next leg; in order to minimize flying spray and thus heavy icing, we had to wait out the weather a little. This is wholly a good thing, as it would otherwise require a considerable amount of time and effort with ice axes to free up the gear necessary to move cargo, and NOTHING pisses off dockmen more than an unprepared deck. They get downright cranky when things don't pan out.
Anyhow, I got to work out the discharge plan for this cargo, which will be split between two docks. What I find interesting is that we have to discharge in reverse order from what I'm used to. On an oil tanker, you completely discharge as many tanks as you can, and then you finish up in one set of tanks, drawing them down to a cargo height that gives you the proper amount. This way, you only have to really work with the ullage tapes (sort of like tape measures that tell you how many feet and inches of cargo are in the tank) one time, and minimize the number of tanks that have partial loads of cargo sloshing around in them, which can REALLY fuck with stability.

On a barge, however, every tank doesn't have it's own pump- rather, there are two pumps located on deck, which means that maintaining suction is an issue. SO, what we have to do is to pre-figure all of our volumes, accounting for temperature and density of the cargo (which will make the cargo expand or contract), draw down one set of tanks using the tapes to get a specific partial volume out of the tank, and THEN run some tanks dry. In a way, this is cool, because the action that requires intense scrutiny happens at two different times- the cargo stops happen early, and then the stripping of the last drops of cargo out of the tanks at the end. Hopefully this will keep things interesting.

Monday, March 2, 2009


Well, today we're anchored to wait out some weather. In the last 48 hours, I travelled a grand total of 300 yards to our loading port. We topped off, and went to anchor out in the Delaware river. By the time we dropped the hook, the snow was swirling around us in true nor'easter fashion. Ah well.
Anyhow, the night ended on an easy note. We ended up tossing snowballs at the tug that is tied off to us, which roused the mate on watch enough to open the door and step outside. Big mistake. The barge captain on here bombed the guy perfectly, shattering a big ol' snowball right next to the guy, completely fragging him. Perfect shot.
While we were sleeping, one of the tug guys peed on our door. That wasn't an awesome surprise, but the yellow snow was funny, anyhow. I guess we're even. We ended up staying up late to watch a movie, so whoever marked their territory did it in the darkest hours of the night.

It looks like we're going to have to wait out the wind here for another day, which means that I'll be heading home from our next port, about 100 miles to the south. My truck is in Philly, so someone has to cart my ass back here so's I can drive home. It sounds like Wednesday will be a long day.

And, finally, today's Brazilian: