Thursday, February 24, 2011

Piracy issues

From the comfort of my armchair, I've never been one to run from (the discussion of) imminent danger. I've been an advocate of the employment of aggressive policies in response to the issue of piracy, ever since the number of attacks reached the threshold sufficient to warrant international attention.
Here in the US, far from the action but still the terminal end of so much maritime commerce, we've had cause to gloat- like a well-played round of the game 'Mortal Kombat,' our one skirmish with modern piracy ended with the tinny computer voice cheering 'flawless victory,' and the blood and brains of some nameless pirates to be scraped off some American shoes.
I doubt that this week's tragedy will be a game-changer, but all the same, I have been particularly troubled by the death of our four sailboaters who didn't survive the rescue attempt aboard their boat.
Having taken a little time to look around, I've seen a lot of sound bites and questionable information being passed regarding these events. There's word of friendly fire being again responsible for their death (something that is accepted but not talked about so much). The US navy says that they attacked based on small-arms fire having been directed at their shadowing vessel... others say the US Navy attacked at the sound of gunfire aboard the sailboat. It's doubtful we'll know exactly how it all happened, and maybe it's not germane, as the one thing that absolutely is not happening is anyone claiming that mistakes were made, and this, to me, is the most troubling issue.

Again, from the comfort of my chair, I've been echoing the voices around me who say "Kill 'em all and let God sort them out' and 'Give no quarter, for none will be given.' I've even heard an otherwise reasonable voice say "as far as I'm concerned, the hostages are already dead once they're taken.'

Again, I'm troubled, but not surprised. These are mariners, the hostages, and most shamefully, almost none of them are American, though many of them do, ultimately, work for American interests one way or the other. The knowledge base of the American public on the issue is simply the knowledge that our one exposure to this issue ended in perfect action-movie fashion. There were snipers and navy SEAL's involved. No one ever talked much about the savage and increasingly more savage beatings and torture of sailors that seems to be becoming a negotiation tool, so, thus, the American public is largely unaware or uninterested in what some largely foreign, largely non-American people are experiencing an ocean away.

What is obvious to me, and has been for some time, is that we're headed down the wrong path in our increasingly violent localized responses to pirate attacks. I've surprised myself, as a hawkishly-minded individual, in coming to this conclusion, but above all, I'm a pragmatist-I see rules of engagement in dealing with piracy that vary widely from those employed in other situations. And seriously, I do not like what I see.
First off, anti-piracy measures as they exist today are mostly about security theatre: providing a visual impression of security without actually providing security. This is blatantly obvious in the massive failure of international naval patrols to reduce the number of attempted attacks. There is no method of prosecuting pirates- no laws exist in most places to actually handle such things, and no one is actually suggesting that laws be enacted under the half-dozen maritime treaties that contain sufficient mandate to be used as a starting point in forming a legal framework to prosecute pirates. This leaves just three responses to piracy; find loopholes to prosecute pirates somehow, some way, do not prosecute, and, finally, summary judgment and execution.
Of these three, the last option troubles me. The Russian navy has made a badly- kept secret policy of ensuring that pirates don't survive any attempt to surrender. In business terms, this dis-incentivizes pirates from surrendering peacefully. Superficially, I'm sure the idea was meant to provide incentive to leave Russian interests alone, but the rule of unintended consequences has to be considered here, for it's certainly being observed in action- negotiations have evolved such that the blood of sailors is being spilled in the normal course of action.

I'm ashamed to say that I've kept my opinion to myself on this issue for the most part- I'm not the first sailor to say that it's time to Knock This Shit Off. Some things I've been considering:

1). There's a systemic distaste for creating the necessary laws and authority to combat piracy- issues of sovereignty and other concerns are absolutely involved, as is the cost of action vs. the cost of inaction. Anti piracy-related business is profitable by greater than an order of magnitude when compared to the actual cost of piracy.

2). Ransom. There is no law that touches on this subject, and there is a massive variance in the types of people involved- ergo, it is unlikely that there will ever be anything approaching a quorum of sufficient rigor to control the payment (or not) of ransoms. Personally, I believe that they should never be paid. When piracy was limited to stealing the food and the contents of the captain's safe, this was the case.

3). Downstream effects. Philosophical discussions of morality aside, escalation of violence has had no positive results whatsoever- there are more pirate attacks, and more sailors are being injured, tortured and killed in response. Hostages are not surviving as frequently as they did even last year.

4) Containment. Piracy is spreading, as is the reach of pirates. Little or no effort is seemingly being made to combat piracy uprange. Rather, response is where anti-piracy measures are being made, rather than in prevention. This is both counterintuitive and counterproductive. You don't protect kids from a vicious dog by sending them to school in a padded suit. You chain the dog. We don't need to invade Somalia to do this. We need to prosecute the pirates' international partners and employees. It's an open secret that Somali pirates have to have contacts in Europe to get shipping schedules and routing plans, yet there is no mention of hunting down these networks. All we get is a show of force that rarely works out well for those being victimized.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

bliss on tap

As part of my ongoing effort to spread joy, maritime awareness and cultural understanding, I give you this month's photos from Brazil.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

All the poop about poop.

Some oil barges are equipped with incinerating toilets instead of the more traditional water-filled standard toilet. This is done because marine plumbers (known as 'turd chasers') are expensive and about as rare as a $2 bill at the grocery store, but more realistically, a sewage system that doesn't require putting sewerage in the water or in a tank doesn't require permitting, EPA involvement, or monitoring how and when the system gets emptied in order to keep within the very strict confines of the law, and doesn't require anywhere near the level of maintenance that a standard marine septic system needs. I hope you'll believe me when I say that the septic system on a commercial vessel is, after the propulsion and electrical system, one of the most complex and incident-prone systems on board.

Now, long ago here I told the story of 'Peanuts' the 3rd assistant engineer, a young kid fresh out of King's Point who had to flush out one of the holding tanks on my ship. With a fire hose. A fully charged fire hose. As you may remember or may guess, there was a, ah... backdraft from the tank. The kid got splashed. I was cutting through the engine room at the time, on my way to the bridge of the ship, and, almost tripping over a fire hose, saw the action. Well, after the hose was put away, I approached the engineer, who was, it turns out, under the assumption that he missed being hit by ass shrapnel. I accidentally spilled the beans (sorry), by pointing out that he had something in his hair. A peanut, it turns out. Without a word, the boy bolted upstairs headed for his shower, and ran into the captain, himself cutting through the top of the engine room on his way to lunch. Seeing a wild-eyed boy running full speed up a catwalk, the captain must have been slow to get out of the way. The boy yelled "Fucking Peanuts!" and I swear shot by the captain on the narrow catwalk like a watermelon seed pinched between two fingers.

Well, after that, Peanuts was pretty much this guy's brand to own. In fact, I don't remember his name at all.

Hopefully, you get the idea. Dealing with the most comfortable seat in the house is something of a burden when you're afloat. Now, the incinerating turd burner is not just an ideal way to take care of Big Business, either. In fact, it's both a tool and a political bargaining chip.
Let's say a tugboat fetches up against you, hard. After a long, long day, just as you're dozing off, with only a few precious hours of downtime, you get blasted halfway out of your bunk when some heavy-handed cowbow smashes his tug against your hull. This causes an adrenaline surge, and pretty much kills the impulse to sleep for about an hour. Now, if said bump was caused by inattention (as opposed to weather or poor maneuvering room) or heavy-handedness, the electric super bowl now becomes a weapon. Once the tug is in place, and, if the wind is right, it's time to fire up the turd burner and send a smoke signal to let the operator know that, hey, there are people here. People who need rest in a bed that doesn't act like a mechanical bull. This is called 'voting with your ass' and it's a hell of a lot more satisfying than calling a 900 number to tell Simon Cowell what you think of this weeks' American Idol contestants.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Plans and planning

After something of a slump, crew change today also brought in some fresh orders. We're turning the barge into something of a submarine tonight with a massive cargo destined for one of the behemoths of the sea- a post-Panamax container ship running in the far east trade.

As always, after a lull, there's a lot of fresh energy on board- aside from dusting cobwebs off my forebrain, I also was in deep discussion with Inappropriately Hot Foreign Wife on a happy subject: travel.

If the filthy fatherless thieves in the Massachusetts Department of Revenue don't completely ruin me next month when I file my taxes, The Family B is going to plan a trip to Brazil this summer.
This will be my first opportunity to meet my mother-in-law and my wife's 60-something cousins. Although I've traveled a fair bit in my past life as a student and later as a scientist, this will be my first actual vacation outside the US. Every other visit was for a purpose or a paycheck... anyhow I'm pretty excited.
Although my wife doesn't know it yet, I am mixing some business with pleasure on this trip. Since we decided to plan to retire in Brazil, hopefully when I hit 60 or so, I've been thinking about buying a rental property in one of Brazil's swankier locales- something I can use for drinking money when I'm old and bald(er) and living in a pair of flip-flops and a speedo.

In that vein, with the contagious festive mood coming from over the phone earlier, I was inspired to make a simple Brazilian dish- Arroz e frango , chicken and Brazilian-style rice with vegetables and a little farinha (coarse manioc flour) mixed in for texture. This is one of the few of my wife's dishes that I can put together without shaming myself. I've got a new secret weapon in store, however-

Maria's cookbook (a fantastic reference for anyone interested in Brazilian cooking) is available HERE ...and I'd recommend any of the dishes within- I've managed to impress with some of my new repertoire of skillz, and the editor of the cookbook even went to far as to research and forward a recipe to me that wasn't even in the book- which I suspect will by my upcoming Magnum Opus of cooking attempts, but more on that later.

Monday, February 14, 2011

killing trees at sea:NPDES: we heart redundancy

Note: this is an opinion-based editorial, and does not reflect the views of anyone but myself (and every thinking mariner out there).

Marine Log: USCG and EPA cooperate on NPDES

(That's the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System, to you).

I read this at about 0430, and almost immediately flash-digested my breakfast bagel from the acid that suddenly made itself known in my digestive system.

Some tofu-eating, hairy-footed hippies sued the EPA a few years ago, and created a horrific bureaucratic nightmare whereby the EPA was suddenly forced to get involved in oversight of ship-related pollution, something which the Coast Guard has been dealing with for some time, in fact, and the EPA had not, beyond at least, the legislative level. What followed has been the largest single joke at sea since the MARSEC security program. But the joke is on everyone, you see- this one isn't funny to anybody whatsoever (unlike the MARSEC program, which was a laugh riot to some dockside security guards, whom I remember vividly fantasizing about hitting with a shackle, as they gleefully turned away our incoming and outgoing mail for Christmas a few years ago, effectively canceling Christmas for about a dozen families).

With the advent of the NPDES paperwork nightmare- and it IS a nightmare for shoreside and afloat operations- a foot-thick pile of paper is generated each year for every commercial vessel over 78 feet in length. At the operational level, this translates into two additional items for on-scene staff- look for sources of pollution, and write them down if found. For the manager, this means that it's necessary to track and monitor the fixing of these problems- something that already gets done, in fact, for insurance purposes and also to maintain compliance with safety management systems that are already mandated under international law.

Redundancy is the name of the game. The EPA is running scared that they'll get sued again, so they kick the shitpile downhill. So it goes. In the process, more paperwork is generated.
I'm lucky in that I don't have to worry about whose mandate gets fulfilled first in these games. The Coast Guard are the gatekeepers for the afloat staff in the oil biz, but forget to carry out or log the weekly NPDES inspection, and the EPA throws around a magic money figure of $10,000 penalty for each day you fail to log the inspection. This is neither here nor there, however, as the EPA does not actually exert inspectorate authority over the matter! The devil being in the details, the only way the NPDES penalty could conceivably be levied is after an incident, when the paper trail goes public, and the horse is not only out of the barn, but has jumped the fence, fallen in a ditch, and plugged up the drain running under an overpass.

This isn't to say that the unwieldy NPDES paper train is a paper tiger- no, point in fact it's yet another monster to be appeased by throwing precious sleep hours into a furnace, and another source of indigestion to yours truly (I make a habit of checking the inspection log every other day, fear of missing a date being a source of anxiety that robs me of sleep).

Now, what grinds my gears is that this is another example of performance theatre. Like maritime security in general, the EPA has to be seen as doing something, or they'll take it in the seat and have less money for brainstorming insane carbon-trading schemes (and stifling actual pollution prevention in the process). So now we've got yet another redundancy to deal with, whereby multiple agencies have multiple identical reporting, monitoring and tracking responsibilities, and punitive power. So, instead of the Coast Guard hovering over us and watching our every move- and doing their job in the process, we've got the Coast Guard hovering over us and watching every move like always, plus a hopeful buzzard circling not to high overhead in the form of the EPA, waiting for the Coast guard's activity to wrap up and the opportunity to tear off a piece of whatever scraps are left behind.
This serves no true purpose, in my eyes- the waters are by no means made cleaner by the EPA in this effort- and I make no bones about saying that I enjoy the visibly less-polluted waters that have come to pass in the nearshore in the last 20 years- but, instead we've got a parasitic bureaucratic program that feeds off the blood of the herd, and truly provides no benefit whatsoever in the process. No ship's deck is cleaner than it was before the NPDES regulations were passed- the Coast Guard and assorted state agencies already saw to that; no, through an impossible situation, the EPA had to fend off Environment, Inc, via a wonderful dramatic reenactment of pollution prevention programs already in place, and, as always, everyone else pays.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

remote operation

I've sort of been phoning in my posts here these last few weeks- I generally do that when I'm at home, but, having made a respectable dent in this voyage, I guess I've been preoccupied. I've been struggling to make arrangements for things at home, and feeling keenly the impact of 'not being there' for basic but important issues; I know I'm being vague here.

Tomorrow is Valentine's day, the Day of Atonement for the American male. I made my arrangements there- V-day is not a particularly difficult holiday to miss, in my opinion. In fact, this is one holiday that I'm happy to phone in. I've been able to do a good job at doing my part with Inappropriately Hot Foreign Wife. Valentines' Day isn't stressful there, for the most part.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

1,2,3,4, 6...ummmm

Crap- I've got a good piece of maritime dirt to share, and I can't share. So, in the spirit of trying to distract myself with something shiny, I give you the gift of laughter. Warning: NSFW.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Like my old captain used to say- "Rule #1 of safe navigation: look out the goddamn window."

Also, this:


Saturday, February 5, 2011


As Doctor Steven Maturin said to Captain Jack Aubry more than once in the Master and Commander books (20 something novels covering 20-something years, and well worth the reading, I might add), We must all acquiesce to the demands of Anno Domani.

On waking up this morning, subject to the rare treat of the prospect of a watch that is free from bunker duties, I stumbled around the bunkroom a few minutes getting dressed, and shaking off the weird dreams that plagued me all night- I blame the cheese I ate before bed, btb.
One of my dreams, however, bubbled to the surface of my mind's eye, backburnering the others in the process- a crystal clear recollection of a childhood moment that I hadn't thought of in perhaps 25 years.
My father and I were down at the beach on our street, watching one of the locally built LNG tankers leave the shipyard for sea trials. In particular, I was looking at the odd bubble-shaped tanks bulging out of the deck- my father, who spent his career in the engine rooms of ships, was more interested in the high number of ship-assist tugs that were escorting the big ship through the miserable twists and turns that make up the channel of Quincy bay.

My dad had a deep, strong voice when I was a kid- as age and disease weakened him over the next 30 years, his voice receded along with his height and mass. I hadn't thought of the way he used to sound when I was a kid- when I think of him now, it's of a gray senior citizen with a raspy quiet voice and a mellow mood- not the booming voice of a fit man with the ability to be heard across an engine room. At this point in time, my dad's career had already ended- he had been forced into retirement when chronic back pain brought about by scoliosis couldn't be managed through any means- being unable to walk more than a few steps in a day killed his shoreside post-shipping career.
My father simply said to me at that moment that if he had to do it all over again, he would have focused on becoming the engineer on a tugboat, rather than working his way through the engine room of ships. I wasn't much interested in that- the idea of the scale and scope of the independent and lonely life of a ship was too interesting to me to be bothered with the obsequious tugboats around our area.
Now, fast forward 30 years, to this morning, and my epiphany (occurring whilst putting schmear on a bagel, of all the times) before breakfast.

I can see where my transition from shipping into tugs and barges was so pleasing to my dad now. I spent 36 years living adventures at sea through his eyes. Robbed of health and the ability to scratch the itchy feet that we both shared, I never realized that my dad was living through my stories at the end. Maybe they weren't so dramatic, and not so hilarious, but they were sea stories, and before the end of his life, I made the jump that he wasn't able to. It didn't occur to me until this morning that we had switched roles. I hope that I was able to do a fair job in telling mine.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

grande arrival

There was no avoiding the unpleasant drive from Boston to New York last night, so I ducked out with evening traffic, following the herd through the ice and snow at a rockin' 15mph through Massachusetts and RI- I broke out of the first weather system just as the roads cleared up and managed to get my ass to NY in one piece before the next weather system closed in- A quick nap and here I am at 5am, throwing salt on deck to mitigate the effects of the freezing rain. Hopefully this isn't setting the tone for the next 4 weeks, but regardless, after the 6 hour white-knuckle marathon last night, I'm just happy to be here.