Thursday, October 26, 2017

looking ahead

Well, I'm entering my last few days of what has been an emotional tour here at the HQ. Rage is an emotion, shut up.


 So, hopefully I'll be headed to my own house after a few days up north, there to enjoy my own family, who I have missed terribly in all this, notwithstanding 20ish years of being practiced at dealing with difficulty while away. As I said, it was an emotional tour.

 Some new and interesting things are happening at home. Inappropriately Hot Foreign Wife is in classes during the day for the next few months, so I will have my house to myself for the most part. I've got a honeydo list longer than my crank to deal with, so I'll be able to handle some of that, and after 8 years of sitting on my ass, I'm going to up the tonnage on my ticket, too, for work, come December, so I have to study for that. I'm just rusty as hell there. Not much call to practice navigation plotting when you spend as much time huffing oil fumes as my work requires. So that'll keep my busy.

 I've got my model tugboat to work on too. I should have time to get a lot of that taken care of, which is a good thing, as I've got another lined up for after, and I find the whole creative process fun, especially as it gives me  a chance to work on fine motor control issues, which is a thing for me. Courtesy of having gotten my hands crushed as a teen, and having lived with persistent infections from lobstering for so many years with open cuts on my hands, things like writing my name are pretty painful, which is why I type so fast. Needing sub-mm accuracy is challenging to me, but it's also helpful, as my shaky and sometimes weak hands do well in response to fine work. Not that my work is super-fine, mind, just that the discomfort goes away.

The pace at work continues to be very rapid. We're still running almost all-out, and I'm still not used to it. Finding time to handle maintenance isn't an issue. I can get up early to do things that I can't get to in our occasional off time while we're waiting for berths or a tide. Coordinating shoreside engineers and mechanics to come aboard and handle things I can't do myself isn't as cut-and-dried when you don't know where you're going to be 12 hours from now. I guess the days of having our schedule set up three days out is long gone, now. Things change constantly. I don't like or do well with chaos, so it's a burden, but one that is going to be lived with now.

 I feel as though there are changes that I need to make. What's that line from the poem about Provisions must be made... and I have made them... something like that. Except I haven't made them yet.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Father Goose

It's been a busy damn week here at HAWSEPIPER's Afloat Global HQ/ Center for Second Thoughts About Career Choices.

      While I'm still working through my own family issues related to my mother's health, my right hand hand man O had to extend his time off to deal with a health emergency involving his own mother, who, thankfully, is now on the mend. He came in last night, but in the meanwhile I had 5 days of fill-in tankermen.

 The HQ is about the best designed bunker platform I can think of. Though not perfect, of course, her design represents the pinnacle of a balance between usability, safety, utility and ease. She's a one-off, having been rebuilt and altered at the deck level from a common design that my employer had built 10-12 years ago and still uses. My employer gets a lot of use out of us, and our safety and job completion record shows that she's a right good 'un, and our injury and lost-time injury record is a testament to her fine ways, too. 
    Not to say she's idiot-proof. We are known as the Hose Slayer of New York;  at least our port engineer calls us that.  Blind spots at our crane controls, and catch hazards on deck when working at low angles means that we've killed off more cargo hoses than most. At $5,000 a section, we went through 5-6 hoses in our first two years aboard, and although it's been a couple of years, it can still happen. But she's comfortable, I believe she's the most user friendly barge that my employer owns by a wide margin.
   ...If you know her little ways.

 If you don't know her little ways, the HQ is a handful. The cargo crane can turn a heavy fuel oil hose into a wrecking ball or a grappling hook, and does, to those who don't know. A seemingly-perfectly lined-up position with a dock or a ship ends up being way out of the crane's ability to spot the hose, necessitating a phone call, bringing a tugboat out, sliding one way or another and adjusting or resetting mooring lines, and then being slut-shamed by dispatch, the tug crew and the people on the other side waiting for the hose.

 Unfortunately, most bunker tankermen, when they get off their own barge, want NOTHING to do with a strange bunker barge. They know better. In the search for warm bodies to put meat in the seats, our crew scheduling ladies take a perverse pleasure in putting gasoline bargemen on board to fill in when a bunker tankerman is out. Think about what happens if you put a taxi driver behind the wheel of an 18-wheeler.

      I was fortunate this past week to have two nice and experienced gasoline tankermen come aboard for ballast to satisfy the COI. SInce I deal with 6 different fuel suppliers each with differing policies and needs and charter agreements, the devil is in the details when it comes to making them happy. Like Burger King, we believe our customers should Have It Your Way.
 Unfortunately, we've also been getting nastygrams from our pimp daddy saying 'quit fucking up the paperwork or you're going home' aimed in general to everyone working in the region. So I can either encourage our visitors to memorize a matrix of 50 procedures across 6 companies (and the ancillary paperwork requirements for each), or I can do the work and paperwork myself, mostly. There's no real choice. You can shave a chimp and make a tankerman out of him. Making a good tankerman takes time, and weeds out the monkeys with tails and also about half of the clean oil tankermen. Making a competent one takes more. Making an experienced one takes even more. You see where I'm going. It's not going to happen, and trying to teach detailed procedure and policy won't work if you're working for 3 different charterers in 36 hours, WHICH WE DID.
   So, I got to work with guys who took time to do their job to the best of their ability, which was actually pretty nice, except that they didn't know enough for me to really rest. I had to do that sort of sleeping where you stay aware of the heading, the state and RPM of the generators and pumps, and the trim and list, which means no REM sleep, so it gets tiresome, at least, if you give a shit about your job. In my own way, I was very fortunate to work with fill in guys who left their ego elsewhere, were pleasant and polite, and could make the oil go where it was supposed to go, and not where it was not supposed to go. I just couldn't sleep much. I believe that if I either gave less of a shit, was better at teaching or was a more sociable person, it could have gone more smooth, but overall it was good.
...and this is not to toot my own horn, either. I've gotten to the point where I have to restrain myself from lashing out when my comfortable ways of doing things have to be changed. I like the systems we have on here, and how well we all work together as a team. I am extremely fortunate to work with fantastic shipmates who are also good friends of mine, too here on the HQ, and to have a good relationship with the core group of tug crews who charioteer our ungrateful asses around. I can't take credit with any of that, as had they had to get to know me recently, they'd likely not be over fond of me. I am not what I was, in terms of being pleasant to be around. Too much shit happening on shore for me just now. I'm working on it, and I still basically like most people. I just don't want to interact with them.
       So it was with great joy to me that O, my right-hand man, flew in last night, and I slept the sleep of the innocent... well, actually I had bad dreams all night, but I was sleeping deep enough to have bad dreams, so that's progress. I'm looking forward to catching up on sleep over the next few days. We're working at about 90% of our maximum, getting a couple of hours off between jobs, which is somewhat more sustainable than going nonstop, as paperwork, filing and basic maintenance can be carried out. I still have a week on board to go.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

When the world can't shrink down

When I get stressed or when there's a lot of things going on, I tend to compartmentalize. One of the ways I cope with stress in general is to shrink my horizons. Eyes In The Boat, like the old saying goes. I tend to try to work on things piecemeal, manage events and issues as they come, rather than doing so holistically. It works for me.

    Sometimes, when things happen that are not in our control, but which we are unable to cope with easily, it makes it harder to put ideas and issues, and feelings, too, in neat little boxes.

 My mom is getting ready to pass on. She's at the point where she'll soon be making the decision to stop fighting a progressive series of illnesses and age-related end-of-life challenges that are starting to add up faster than her ability to deal with them and enjoy a minimal quality of life. That time we all know can come for us who live long enough.

... and it's something that most every child of an older parent has to deal with. So many people have, and that includes me. I remember very clearly the day when my father decided that he had gone as far as he could with medicine, that it was time to go home and enjoy the time he had left.

 So why the hell am I sharing this? It's pretty private, even though I know some of my family reads this stuff. I guess I'm still wrapping my head around all of it. I'm saddened but not traumatized by it. Anyone can understand the desire to have time to surround themselves with loved ones and have a quiet, dignified death free of the indignities that sometimes come with life-extending medication that requires sacrificing one's awareness or ability to enjoy the last days.

 With all this, we don't know exactly what will happen and when, and that is where my being at work on the water, and my living 1,500miles from my mom gets second-guessed. I could have worked for the fucking aquarium or run a ferry boat or something. I pray I'll have time to be there, and that I'll be able to ferry my family north to do the same.

 At any rate, I'm not writing to collect sympathy, just to clear my own thoughts. Without being able to keep my mind in the boat and my eyes in the boat, it's not as easy to juggle the million little things we all juggle. I rely on my time at work to center me, I guess, and it's not working.

Friday, October 13, 2017

more of the same

Slogging through the second half of this 7-week trip, and it certainly is a slog. Morale is at a low ebb. We're seeing an uptick in cargo volume among the idlers, the clean oil carriers, while black oil is still moving like crazy. Those are all fine things, but pay and now benefits are are on the chopping block, while the workload is increasing, which is hard to swallow. Obamacare well and truly fucked us. There are so many unhappy people complaining that it is truly a depressing environment on deck just now and I find myself avoiding all but the people I truly like out here, which is not a lot of people. My company has a high proportion of nice folks for a maritime environment, but you can only have the same conversation so many times before it gets just boring and depressing as shit.  At the same time, somewhere in every conversation comes a 'well, we've still got a job, let's be thankful,' which, when you think about it, is an interesting juxtaposition. Lord, it makes the days drag by.

 Anyhow, in an effort to keep my chin up, I'm re-reading the Master & Commander series, which, if you haven't read it, you should. It's my absolute favorite book series. 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Being Nice to Other Sailors

I've learned through experience that it pays to be nice when working with foreign ships and foreign sailors.

 Quite often, we see the crew of foreign ships as being of lesser competence and not particularly good sailors in general, and while sometimes this may be the case, it's often enough an oversimplification of sometimes complex factors affecting our interactions; one thing remains clear, however: when working with foreign ships, being nice generally pays off.

      When I first started bunkering, I was shocked at how awful most ships were in terms of professionalism among their crew, when bunkering. We'd have to come alongside and blow the whistle, holler, fuss on the VHF, and hit the hull of a ship with a sledgehammer to get their attention. In all the years I was on a tanker, not once did a bunker barge, bunker tanker, water barge or lightering vessel get alongside of us without an AB to meet them, heaving line in hand, and a length of heavy rope thrown over the manifold to show exactly where they needed to line up to send their hose up to us to connect. Not. One. Time. did another vessel touch up to us without us being there.

 Foreign ships visiting the US, it's a different story. Maybe one time in twenty does an AB run outside trying to meet us while we're already alongside.
 It was frustrating. The rest of the world just doesn't operate on the same wavelength, but it's a mistake to conflate that with being unprofessional. They just don't give a shit.

  In the intervening years, after yelling myself hoarse at men standing often far overhead to hurry up, lift a line, throw down a heaving line, etc. etc, I just don't see it as neccessary, and eventually, I realized that for the most part, it's not helpful either. Generally, I rarely got aggressive or rude anyhow, so me yelling at some poor foreigner was generally a reactive event anyhow. As I've matured, I've come to view it as a mark of professionalism, anyhow. If I can respond to idiocy calmly or at a minimum with an aggravated tone, things tend do go more smoothly.
      Also, being shitty to an AB who is standing with a monkey's fist 50 feet over your head is a great way to get a concussion. Just saying.I've had to dive out of the way of a fastball thrown directly at me a few times after yelling at someone who wasn't moving fast enough to suit me.
      I've been on the other end as well. I once bet my watch partner $5 that I could knock the hard hat off a particularly mouthy tankerman when I was AB on the tanker SS MONSEIGNEUR. I dropped that rude coonass like a felled tree. Didn't knock his hardhat off, though. Turns out it had a chinstrap. Still, it kept him from getting concussed, and he ended up with just some road rash on his ear and cheek. They had great nonskid on that barge's deck.
 My attitude grew out of pragmatism. While I was somewhat mindful of trying to be professional early on, coming to grips with the idea that fostering a gestalt of smooth operating on board meant integrating all these concepts of professionalism, calm, efficiency and speed without being laissez-faire about getting the job done right frigging quickly took a bit of time.

 Last week we were coming alongside a tanker out in NY's Stapleton anchorage in the dark, and the tugboat deckhand who was with me was pretty gung-ho, especially as he's an older guy. A real square peg, though, as the guys's something of a donkey. At any rate, after we get the first line up and get us lined up with the ship at a point where my crane will reach his manifold, things usually run pretty smoothly. The deckhand kept being slightly rude and ordering the ships' AB's around, however, so I had to say "(Name), quit antagonizing the AB's. I have to work with them for the rest of the day." That was enough for things to settle down quickly... and it also meant I might not get some teeth knocked out by the monkey's fist, either.

      Generally, unlicensed crewmen on foreign ships are grumpy Eastern Europeans, timid Lascars or gregarious Filipinos. It's a bit of stereotyping to class them like that, but it's often enough the truth, viewed through my own cultural lenses, anyhow. Each ethnic group comes with caveats in terms of working well together across a language barrier. The bohunks, you have to be fast, quiet and direct. Lascars, you need to address the officers, not the crew, who will not break wind without a signed JHA and an officer's permission. Filipinos, you call them 'amigo' and 'my friend,' say please and thank you, and they'll absolutely do their best to do as you ask while laughing and talking... and while writing about these things is absolutely not PC, it's often enough the best way to get the job done safe and fast.

 I often think about what these ships' crews must think of us. I often enough find that our tugboat deckhands are rarely professional or cordial to ships' crews, especially, and this is not kind to say, those people who don't work here in NY harbor full-time. More than anything else, I tend to get defensive about our operation. I have to work with these guys. The tugboat deckhands emphatically do not. When we are all fast, they go back aboard their tug and leave. I get to live with the aftermath if they've been shitty to the ships' crew. If they piss off the bosun and I don't put a lid on it, the bosun will see to it that the flange on my cargo hose, for instance, might not be bolted down as tight as it could be, so when I lay it down on our deck at the end of a job, I'll come back out a few hours later and find a 2-foot diameter puddle of cold black oil on my deck, or maybe stick a rag in my cargo hose, which will clog one of our two pumps when it gets shoved into a tank the next time we load and discharge. These days I'm VERY quick to put a clamp on a tugboat deckhand who gets a case of the ass and tries to take it out on the people I need to establish a relationship with over the course of the next hours. Ultimately, it's my job to do exactly that... and that pisses me off more than a ships' crewman being a dick. Having a stranger come up on my deck and poison the well I'm going to be drinking from is extremely disrespectful to me AND to the ships' crew.
    I'm no angel; I've said some pretty rotten things to guys when I've lost my temper. I try not to, and beyond blowing up when things get truly unprofessional on the ships' part, I don't start fights with the people who are our customers. It makes my company look bad, and any sort of unprofessional behavior on our part usually gets met with the same, or worse, gets met with polite silence because the people getting yelled at can't respond because they're ordered not to by their own officers. There's just no angle in attacking a man who can't respond, simply because you're frustrated. Now, I'll meet rudeness with rudeness, and with gusto, across the barriers of culture and language. I speak pidgin english. It's how my wife and I communicated until we learned each others' languages when we were dating. I can make it known you're being a shit in almost any language.

 When I work over, on someone else's boat or barge, it makes me sad to see how rude some of my friends and shipmates can be. It's not pervasive, thankfully, but it's more common than it should be. It makes me mindful of whether or not I'm guilty of the same thing, and how awful it looks from up on the deck of a ship when the bunkermen down below are being vulgar or rude.
 "Man, that's guy's a real asshole." I've said that a few times to the mate on my ship when I was an AB. "Have the deck cadet piss in a can, and pour it over the eyes of the  bunker barge's mooring lines. He doesn't wear gloves."

 Being nice avoids all that. Sailors being sailors, debts get squared one way or the other. The only way to win is not to play.


Thursday, October 5, 2017

Better and better

Well,I'm back on board. It was an interesting 2 weeks of whoring around the better and worse parts of our fleet, but it's always good to get back to the HQ, where things are tidy, comfortable and familiar. I'm settling in, and it's been VERY busy in general. Things are certainly looking up for business, judging by how it's im-fucking possible to have a quiet moment to go for a walk or get groceries without someone bugging you to hurry up. Can't make much of a beef about it, I mean, they're gonna pay me, it's reasonable they expect me to work, but damn I miss the old days when I first started with this company at times, where you could get groceries and stop for a sandwich before having to rush home while fielding off 3 people calling asking why you're not doing whatever it is they want.

 Well, that's the face of the industry of late. Tighter margins= more stress. It's sure as shit not what I signed up for way back when, but so it goes.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

A slight case of the ass

It's been too busy too blog these past few days. I get up, I work, I shower, go to bed, repeat.

  Whatever the word from on high may be, this rotten little POS barge, my company's red-headed neglected stepchild, has been nonstop, and trying to keep it running is a nonstop business too. Pumps overheat, gens shut down if you look at them funny, oil just ends up everywhere and the accommodations are about on par with a Pakastani hospice.
 That being said, I'm doing well. I'm working over, so this is just money to be made beyond my salary, so that's nice, having it available. I was excited to have gotten a tugboat babysitting job, but my current home away from home away from home needed someone, of course. No one will voluntarily stay here, and it shows the worst of what a tankerman can do if allowed to go feral. Pots and pans put away dirty, decks and bulkheads unscrubbed, engines with unknown hours on the lube oil, etc etc... and it's a bad luck boat, too. Some career ending injuries... and today.

 This barge has 3 pump houses on deck. 2 amidships, and one more forward. We were alongside an oil tanker in ballast today, and 1/2 way through a small transfer. I had just gotten out of the bunk and was looking over the papers and computer while caffeinating, and hadn't taken the watch yet. The other guy on here is talking about what's happening, as we start the info exchange that comes with assuming a watch. He's looking out the porthole and says in a slightly alarmed voice "What the fuck?" 

 I look too. There's a ballast overboard discharge on the ship, about 8 feet above our deck level, and an 8-inch torrent of white water blasting out at fire-hose force, all over and inside one of the pump houses, which have a hatch propped open for cooling, unfortunately facing directly the ship.

     We both run outside, doing the pee-pee dance/shut down arm-wave semaphore and yelling, and the water slows down and stops after about a minute. The pump is running- as luck would have it, the stream was broken by the top of the hatch coaming of the pumphouse, so the engine deep inside didn't get hosed... but there was a foot of water sloshing around inside the pumphouse, which doesn't have drains, as it's also a containment zone for the engine, a big Detroit, which slings oil everywhere by nature... so now there's about a thousand gallons of seawater in the house.

 Luckily, a coolant leak the other day led me to get on hands-and knees and wipe out the whole deck of the pumphouse, so there was almost no oil sheen in the water.

 Since this barge has no permanent crew, feral tankermen behaving badly while away from their own homes get awful sticky fingers. Fuckers have left almost no pans or silverware, spares are nonexistent, and there's no portable pumps, so I cut an old piece of hose, make up a siphon, and dump the pumphouse water on deck, where I can watch for a sheen and also where we have means of containing any oil from getting over the side. Of course I get a mouthful of ballast seawater/oil traces/20 years of soot, footprints and what have you, too, and start gagging. It tastes like soap and shame. But I decant 90% of the water by simple siphon and there's no oil in it, it being under the surface of the skin of water still sloshing in the pumphouse, so that's a good thing. We have a draft load of oil to load tomorrow, which means the pumps will be cranking out overtime, and hopefully these prone-to-overheating pump engines will boil off most of that leftover water. Still, I expect I'm going to get steamed like a carrot when I check on the pump throughout that discharge.

 If it was a little colder, I'd be tempted to make Detroit Diesel Fish Chowder, but I don't like chowder when it's not below freezing outside. It's a winter dish for me. Still, if you want to make it, it's easy. You just need a Detroit Diesel, a metal coffee can and some ingredients.I don't make it on the HQ, because we have Cummins engines, which, obviously, just isn't the same.