Friday, September 28, 2018

smelling home

I mentioned in my last post that the black oil we carry has a powerful sulfur smell that is unpleasant. Over the past 10 years, I've grown accustomed to that smell, and desensitized, too, which I sometimes worry will burn out my sense of smell. Perhaps it has. I used to have a damn good nose.

        One thing about working around the ports of New Jersey, there sure are a lot of chemical plants. They produce some weird smells. Some bad, some... good actually.

 Not that a nice smelling chemical plume is necessarily good for you. The chemical class known as esters often have strong smells- some very pleasant. I always hope that that is what I'm smelling. In the past few days I've had burnt toast, and tonight, fresh-cut grass.

The fresh cut grass smell was really nice. I hope it wasn't something carcinogenic I was smelling, lol.

        I miss green things when I am at work. When I fly home to S. FL, and walk out of the door at baggage check, I get hit by a wall of humid, tropical air that smells of humus- clean dirt, rain, and fresh green leaves- and a touch of cut grass too.   That smell is the smell of coming home. It's the heartbreakingly beautiful smell that days-of-sail sailors used to get when they were just over the horizon from certain islands like Bermuda.  It doesn't make my heart ache, but it does create a dopamine dump in my endocrine system- I get that warm, pleasant feeling like after you take a sip of good cognac.

 So, out on deck on the HQ, with cargo tanks venting on deck, that sulfur smell there and being ignored, a gust of wind brought that smell to me, and for just a second, I wasn't on deck anymore. I was sitting on a bench outside of baggage claim, seeing my wife's car come around the corner.

 It was a truly nice few seconds.  After it passed, it was back to work for yours semi-truly, but a little of that feeling lingers.  I've got the weekend on here, and Monday Monday (nah nah... nah nah nah) to get through. After that, I'll be there again in that one moment, smelling home.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

white shirt/blue collar

Like just about any lower-middle class kid, my parents hoped I'd end up wearing a white shirt to work, to do better than they did, to go to the middle-middle class or higher. They gave me every opportunity to choose to do so.

   Somewhere along the way, I did. I ended up in a white lab coat, and for fun and profit I did dirty work that was fun to me, being a fisherman. Sure, I pumped gas, pulled concrete forms, cooked at a pizza place, unloaded trucks and went through more than one pair of workboots a year, but I was also putting on my white shirt for my career job, presumably which would happen more and more as school wound down.

     I learned VERY quickly in grad school that people in the administrative and political side of science are mostly scum. Politicians, two-faced, self-serving assholes. Where law degrees become more valuable than scientific knowledge, I got out of my depth. My career arc was heading towards a NOAA job or equivalent administrative position after I realized that pure research as a person who doesn't want to teach wouldn't pay shit.

 Turns out, that's just politics.

 As revolting as that was to me, it was enough to cure me of any tolerance for politics. The muddy, dirty and muscle-sore shit-smelling awfulness of being a fisherman was CLEAN in comparison. I could wash that stink off. I think it was this realization that let me have my course correction, when I realized how badly my life was off-track, when I decided that I had to quit pretending to be a fisherman, and go be a fisherman. Eventually, it lead me here.

 My job still is stinky. I have to shower after most watches to get the sweat, dirt and smell off my skin.  Heavy fuel oil smells SO bad that to those not used to it it has similar effects to a near-miss with pepper-spray- not enough to blind you, but enough that your eyes can't focus from all the tears.

A month on board the HQ and the smell gets inside me. My wife hands me a big glass of scotch when I get home and we sit outside so I'll sweat out most of the smell. The sour stink of whisky sweat washes off in the shower, and takes away enough of the bunker fuel sulfur stink that I don't ruin the sheets in my bed.

Seeing the Senate hearings yesterday, I know I made the right decision . What truly awful, awful people. I did the right thing, putting a beach between me and them. I can't claim to be a better or worse human being than any other, I suppose. But I do know that however filthy I get in the course of earning a paycheck, I am not dirty like those people on TV.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Swallowing the Anchor

I had an interesting day yesterday.

         It was for the most part a completely ordinary day. We were loading a couple thousand tons of RMK-500, (heavy fuel oil meant for ships) and a quick splash of  LS-MGO (Low Sulfur Marine Gas Oil, a type of diesel) at a large terminal in New Jersey.

 The largest terminal in Bayonne NJ has a couple hundred people working there. Of them, only about 30 work the docks.  The rest handle internal transfers, pipeline movements nationally, and rail cars. It's quite a complex, takes about 10 minutes of driving to get to the main gate from the docks.

 I've been coming to this terminal since 2001, and in my current job, we come here about twice a week. I'm on a first name basis with some of the dockmen, and know most of the rest by face. There isn't much turnover.

 In the last month, a bunch of guys have started retiring, all guys I like. They're of that age- early/mid 60's, where the physicality and repetition of the work becomes an issue.

 Yesterday was Wayne's next-to-last-watch.  Today is his last day. Tomorrow he will be a retiree.

       As part of our procedures, before we start an oil transfer we have a pre-transfer conference with a shoreside representative, where we go over the specifics of the transfer, safety issues, contingency planning and communication. This is why we get to know the dockmen. However many people are on a vessel, however many dockmen are connecting the hoses or working the loading arms, at the end it's the man in charge of the watch on the ship or barge and the one dockman on the dock who are at the heart of the transfer. Since I do know some of these guys pretty well, we'll chat and catch up during and in between checklists, forms and the pro-forma part of the process.

 The dockman watches over the shoreside connection, connects hoses (which requires physical strength, use of a chainfall and or/a crane), or swings loading arms, and turns the dockside valves. And in speaking to Wayne today, he told me that he had just one more watch after this and that was that. Retirement.

      I congratulated him, of course, and we talked about his plans for the future.

 For sailors, going ashore for work or retiring is often referred to as 'swallowing the anchor.'  Since I've never made serious plans about working ashore, I haven't much thought of it, but I spent yesterday, and today so far too, wondering about what it will be like for me.

   Times have changed so much for working/middle class labor. Most of the dockmen I work with have already retired after 20+ years in another job and have a defined pension there, and have built up a 401k in their current job, pensions not being very viable anymore, and these guys will retire with a very decent income stream.   Those of us 20 years younger don't necessarily have a pension, and thus the IRAP rigamarole becomes more important.

      I dunno. I'm still sorting my thoughts out. Financial planning and life changes and getting older and holy shit I've only got about 20 years and then I have to deal with this shit too. It's a bit jumbled in my head still.

 It was interesting to watch the war of emotions on the dockman's face when he discussed all this. Hope and happiness when he talked about plans for enjoying himself, and finally having the time to see who he wanted to see and do what he wanted to do. Worries, for what retirement means in the arc of our lives- a major step towards the end. Sadness, or maybe wistfulness is a better word, about not having a routine, about laying down a burden that helped frame his middle age, about not getting up and producing as he once did every day.  

 It's a complex thing. Foofoo people can talk about the tapestry of our lives and other metaphysical bs, but I suspect at these moments words would fail anyhow.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Pro vs Amateur vs happiness on the water

 These past six months I've been laying the groundwork to make some changes professionally and personally, to give me more options in life, like where and how I work, and how much free time I want to have and what to do with it.  In past years, I've done 2-3 extended tours at work each year, adding up to somewhere around 290-300 days at sea a year on average, which is way too much.This year, I'm doing just one, which is one more than I had planned, but is still better than 2-3. I currently have two weeks to go before I can go home. Almost finished, finally.
 Thing is, I'm rarely out of sight of land. It's not the 'at sea' I most enjoy.

 That nice salt air smell you get isn't actually the smell of the sea. It's the smell of the land, the smell of a soup of bacteria and planktonic life as it lives and dies. The real sea smell is just clean air. The turbulence of the water's surface churns the atmosphere close to ground level, and the interplay of heat and other physical forces drives the weather.

 I know this stuff because it's important I know this stuff. My job. Well, part of it, though currently not a terribly important part. I spend more time agonizing over a calculator and legal niceties associated with carrying oil, when I'm not swinging wrenches or sitting for extended periods with my head in a cargo tank hatch trying not to breathe.

true story

      One of the things I'm trying to learn more about is the practical joinery in boat construction- the sweeping fair curves of frames, carlins and sheer lines that make boats beautiful. I can build a boat, but I've never done so purely in wood, and the idea has appeal to me, and in general, I truly appreciate the artistry involved- and the math.  Fiberglass and sanding and grinding covers a multitude of sins, and I do commit my share. As such, the expensive and unforgiving nature of boatbuilding in wood represents a pinnacle of artistic ability in my book.
 So, this being the longest tour aboard of the year, I've been watching a lot of wooden boatbuilders online. This has also led to watching a bunch of sailing videos from people who travel all over the world in their little sailboats and run about having fun while going from A to B.

   I've probably watched two dozen different boatowners documenting their trips.  Many of them are producing videos capitalizing on the scenery and scantily clad wives and sweethearts to drive views, paid for with private funds and supplemented by crowdfunding.

Seriously, there are people getting paid to have fun on their boats, in exchange for narrating their good time and providing gratuitous shots of their significant others in various states of dress.  What a world we live in.  Some of them seem like very cool people. Others just seem like spoiled rich dick suitcase pimps.

        As I went on watching these videos, I'm deeply distracted by all the unsafe and sometimes outright dangerous shit these folks do. Sleeping while underway. Wearing a lifejacket inside the house. Unsafe wiring. Messing with the structural supports of a stressed-skin design.  Sailing without charts, without local knowledge and without consulting the available sources of information. Not having and knowing how to use safety equipment- well, you get the idea.  Thing is, most of these folks are carrying out normal pleasureboater habits and practices, and they sure seem to be having a lot more fun than I am, and spending less time in their own heads worrying about the things that I worry about. I'll say it, knowledge is a double-sided bitch at times. All that safety-mindedness and drilling these past 20 years has taken much of the joy out of working on the water for me. I don't spend nearly as much time admiring the sunrise or the color of the sea anymore. Perhaps this is an artifact related to my location and current occupation more than anything. I was trained to expect that I would have less time to enjoy the things that attracted me to this work in the first place as I advanced. However, I'm convinced that I can recapture some of that wonder, and will do so with some changes. I'm truly looking forward to it. 

Look at this next picture. Moonset at sea, predawn, midwinter. 15 years ago already, and I remember that morning like it was yesterday. A few minutes later I climbed up on Monkey Island with a hot-water wand to rinse the bridge windows off for the morning. 
  I can't remember the last time I watched the moon set over the sea. I do know that it will be sooner than 15 years, though!

Monday, September 17, 2018

8 weeks down

... and two to go.

         When I started working on ships, we didn't even get a paid ticket home until we had completed 90 days of our voyage. Standard trip length was 120 days. Everyone had their up and down days, where the trip seemed to be moving along briskly or just dragging on to death.

     These days, working in brown water, I don't get that sort of extreme. Patience is inversely proportional to convenience. Where before we'd all gather on the poop in ports and places where we could get a cell phone signal and catch up with people at home, today we are in touch about 95% of the time here at the HQ.  New York harbor has a dead cell zone in the middle, strangely enough, but only during the day. I don't know why that is, but at our mooring buoy, we can't really get a call through, and email is super-spotty, even though we're within a mile or so of Staten Island, Manhattan AND Brooklyn, where, what, 10+ million people live? Dead zone.

      Being offshore away from cell phones and the mundane cares of the world used to not be a bad thing. Today it is emphatically bad, because it is temporary and we are connected, and expected to be reachable. I get pissed off when I can't call home, and my wife gets pissed off when she expects to be able to talk to me and can't.  It isn't like when we were first married, and I'd tell her I'd call in 3 days when we passed Miami, maybe, or in a week or two otherwise. With the expected gap, life was set up such that that was just the way it is. You'd think that having just a daylight blackout on the phone at one anchorage would be a callback to that time, but no, you'd be wrong. It's horribly inconvenient. Times change, I guess. I'd be amenable to losing my cell signal for offshore sailing again. I'm sure I could set up the infrastructure of my life accordingly... but you know, I really like saying goodnight to my wife and kid every night. It's not as good as being there, but it helps.

  So, we developed a hydraulic leak in the cargo crane that needed some attention. Turns out, the swivel fitting that allows our hydraulic hoses to well, swivel, has taken an early retirement. So, a simple 360-degree swing of the crane got us back to where we need to be, and we can address the swivel when it hasn't been raining 17 of the last 20 days, with no end in sight. Since we use an environmentally less-harmful light oil, containing a fair bit of vegetable oil, cleanup was a matter of mopping up, splashing a couple of gallons of mineral spirits, wiping down, and then bombing the deck spots with toluene and rags. So, a few hours on hands and knees, and it won't even leave a sheen.  'Not one drop on deck' used to be our watchword on the tanker I worked on, and I do try to follow that today.

    At any rate, I'll be home in 2 weeks. I don't have a lot of fun projects set up this time. Mostly I'm just going to decompress, see where things take me. I might make some sawdust and glue my fingers together here and there, hopefully, but I don't have the relish for that  after too much time away from my family. I mostly just want to see everyone.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

lost post

Blogger can eat a dick. I lost a good hour of writing tonight after their website failed to load completely in my browser- I got to type a bunch of shit out, but it didn't save when I hit publish. WTF?


 Well, you didn't miss much. Stuff happened. I wrote some curse words. There was probably a dick or fart joke in there somewhere. You know, the usual.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018


 Now that I've joined the ranks of middle aged men who are suspicious of new technology, I'm slowly embracing older new tech now that the bugs are better worked out. So, yeah, I watch YouTube videos now.

 It being impractical to make things in fiberglass and wood while I'm at work, I am living vicariously through the hard work of others. So today I want to introduce you to Peter Knowles and Geordie, his dog. Peter and Geordie restored an old Land Rover pickup and an Airstream trailer and traveled North America before settling into the pacific northwest to move aboard and restore a beautiful old wooden boat.  The videos are a view into the process of restoration, materials choices, envisioning changes and carrying them out. Many updates end with a beer rather than an view of the finished shot, but you see the work of the week before in the background of the next project.

This guy talks about being anxious and worried about some of his more ambitious projects, but you'd never guess it because he does beautiful work without agonizing about it (on camera, at least). Dude must clank when he walks, because it takes some brass to cut and modify woodwork built with artistic curves from an age gone by. The videos have a humble humanity to them- while maybe the weather and good editing can explain why he doesn't look cramped, hunched over and covered in sweat and dirt, (which is the M.O. of anyone who works on boats), at the end of the day he often does look like he just combed his hair with a firecracker.

 The appeal to Peter's work is that he's not able to be a perfectionist, given limitations of time, practicality, budget and the fact that he's essentially working on his home and has to live in a construction zone. These limits make for a fun pace and his editing makes sure that the videos are not pedantic or boring at all.  And damn, what a pretty area he lives in, too.
Check it out.


Sunday, September 9, 2018

On Diaper Rash and the Day of Change

Well, I sure do wish it wasn't raining, because it went from 90ish degrees, where it's been hovering for the past month, to 58, here at HAWSEPIPER's Afloat Global HQ/ Home For Those Afflicted With Terminal Diaper Rash.

 I'm not kidding, 2018 was the Summer of Swamp Ass.

      The weather on this part of the coast is rarely what one could wish for when it comes to working on the water. The wind blows all winter, and in the summer, it just... stops. It's the southern portion of the Northeast, but from Mid-July to early September it's hotter here than at my home in South Florida.

 This summer was particularly wet and humid, and there was a lot of diaper rash affecting many of us. Hot and humid days, clothing that doesn't breathe well, sweat and dirt, well, chafing becomes an issue, as does repetitive exercise, so the chafing doesn't have time to heal.

 Now, I grew up commercial fishing. My ass and parts were cold and wet half the year, and hot and wet the other half of the year. If it wasn't for all the moving around, mold and mildew could have set in. I absolutely had a budget for athlete's foot powder and antifungal spray. Athlete's foot may be bad, but Lobstermen's Balls is also a thing.  Think dropping some plums out of a grocery bag and having to retrieve them after they roll all the way down a particularly long driveway. And across a street.
Unfortunately, once chafing does set in and you don't have time to sit with your knees at 10-and-2 for a weekend to air out, real intervention becomes necessary. When I was 16, I was introduced to Bag Balm, udder cream for cows.

Life immediately got better.

 If you're not familiar with this golden panacea, it's a medicated grease that soothed and treated cracked and chafed udders on milk cows, but some enterprising soul discovered that it also worked great on butts and nuts.
 At any  rate, for the next 20 years, there was one of these cans on board any boat I ever worked on. The feeling of, well, being greased up from the waist to the knees takes some getting used to, but when you're facing the prospect of walking like an arthritic cowboy for the next two months, walking around feeling like you just buttered your bread is a small price to pay.

 Also, your walking pace on deck picks up by like half a knot. Less friction.


 Everyone who lived somewhere where the world is still sane, where people still live by necessity with an awareness of nature, knows that the turning of the seasons comes with a changeover day, where the gradual and graceful transition into new weather patterns goes through an abrupt and obvious upheaval. This is far more obvious in the untamed places where the subtropics meet the temperate, or where the temperate meets the boreal, but really, anyone who lives in rural areas can see the signs if they look.Those who live in the transition zones get ice-out day, when the frozen lakes and rivers start pinging and crackling and a few days later come free in a thunder that can be heard for miles. There are also the bug hatches in warm weather, or pine pollen day, or the turning of the trees.

 Today marks the death of summer, I think.  It's the day when the temperature dumps 30+ degrees and the smell in the air changes. It's there, under the smell of warm soil or wet and scorched pavement for you and UV-damaged paint and steel for me. Something has changed, and the darker mornings we've all noticed for the past few weeks are getting darker, and the animals are getting unsettled, and the plants are just exploding with a last rush to bloom or throw pollen.
 It's actually  a nice time to be someone who appreciates nature and studies its' cycles. Though I do miss green things terribly while I'm at work... but I live in a place of perpetual growing season, where you've never seen so much green, which helps.

 It's the end of a long, hot, and difficult time to own testicles and work outside. We'll have Indian Summer probably, although with this rainy summer it might be muted, too, but I'm sure we'll get a couple more ball-burners, but the wheel has turned and God in his mercy has stuck a fork in summer.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

blessed, blessed anchor watch

 There are few things I value more than unhurried watches. 

 I guess that's a dumb statement. I mean, everyone who works on a boat likes not being harried and under pressure. Given my job and the nature of the work we do, my work cycle is unpredictable. Maintenenace, both regular and unscheduled, has to be shoehorned around work... and that's normally fine, until it isn't. During cargo watch we're on, well, cargo watch, and not supposed to be doing  scheduled maintenance, or anything, really, that distracts from cargo ops. When things get busy, we have to forego sleep to do maintenance. So it goes. There isn't anything brutally time-consuming about our scheduled PM's, so it's fine, and unscheduled stuff is unscheduled by nature. If we can fix something in-house, we fix it. If not, we call in shoreside support. If it's something that shuts us down... well, we shut down. Since we're a 24/7 operation, we really do try to get the mail delivered, you know? 

 This past winter and spring was just brutal, time-wise. We were all-out, with very little downtime. Inevitably, little things get put off until a delay or other snafu gives us time to sort out the things we weren't able to do when we wanted to do them. 

 This makes a quiet watch not so quiet, really, but there's something VERY positive to be said to have the ability to sit and look at a job project, plan it out a bit and then do it, tidy up and move on, without having to rush rush rush. In these circumstances, changing a serpentine belt on a generator or changing the oil on a pump or putting on a harness and going up a ladder to change light bulbs becomes unstressful, just a thing to be done, and not a giant monkey wrench thrown in the gearbox. 

 And you know, the past few weeks have been exceptionally hot. I've been on the verge of overheating a few times. Being able to stop and go inside while working on a project can be a luxury, but it's one I have when we're not rushed for time.I have about 3 hours worth of stuff to do tonight. In a pinch, I could do it in about 2 hours. That extra time is a treasure. 

Saturday, September 1, 2018

The Critical Thinking Gap

So, while dinner's in the oven, here's a quick one.

 I set out on Facebook to see where I could find examples of critical thinking skills at work in people's reposts... I sort of found what I was looking for- well, by that I mean I found where critical thinking skills are lacking... which is a lot more common than where they actually, you kow, are.

 The difficulty with critical thinking is that given the impact that Dunning-Kruger theory has (to summarize, the more stupid someone is, the more likely they are to overestimate their intelligence),and how the internet has given a voice to a billion people who really, really should just shut the hell up, critical thinking is hated while groupthink is praised. I've long believed that the results of group thinking is based on the average intelligence of the lowest-intelligence cohort in the group. If you have 10 people working on a project, all pushing for inclusion in leadership, the quality of the output will be based on the intelligence of the 3 least intelligent people in the group.

 Life is hell. And so is the internet.

 Critical thinking, on the other hand, often makes you keep your mouth shut when people are talking, because you have to assess what they're saying, and arguing with an idiot is sometimes not worth the effort. Ever read the comments of a Vox or Mother Jones article?  I could eat scrabble tiles and shit out a more intelligent comment... and at other times, you gain perspective on an issue you really don't like, and having to take in good information that runs against your natural bias is HARD. And that certainly can be a challenge, but to think critically, it has to be done.

  People don't LIKE being told they're wrong. If a bunch of assbags get into a circle jerk of self-support, they get downright hostile when you tell them they're wrong, or misled, or whatever kind way you have of telling them not to be a bunch of fuckin' chumps.  It's like listening to a Reiki practitioner. You think any of them actually believe that shit? Of course they don't, except for the one poor sap who has synesthesia and sees shit when they hear shit. They actually have a reason, however wrong, to believe that they actually do see something. I mean, they really do see colors, it's just that they're seeing shit that doesn't actually exist.
 And fuck, you can do that too if you poison yourself right and cause visual hallucinations. Drink a bottle of whisky after running 5 miles on a summer day. You'll see colors too, before you die I mean.

 Just to prove a point and provide some fun trivia about the value of critical thinking, and also the disdain for critical thinking that so many posess, Let's look at ancient Chinese medicine... which in reality dates back less than 100 years.
 Yeah, that ancient Chinese medicine shit? It's fake, about 99.8%. Most Chinese remedies available in the west are Asafetida or other strong smelling plant with some sort of other green leaves added and some sort of water-medium protein or chalk added as a binder.  Chicken broth concentrate is popular too (it's Jewish Penicillin!). A few things work ok- not as good as lightning-in-a-bottle discoveries like the value of Willow bark (aspirin) and Foxglove (digitalis), but stuff like St. John' Wort, which sort of helps, some, unless it kills you, of course. I'm sure there are some things that work a bit, but, say, going out and eating all the yarrow off your lawn's weed spots can get you to vomit if you want to vomit, but the western way, sticking your finger down your throat, works better.
Look up Mao's 'Barefoot Doctors' and not the bullshit fanboi Wikipenis entry, but the critical "Give them faith in their weeds and dirt because there's too many to treat with real medicine," of the Mao regime. Greatest scam of the last 500 years.  And it still works! How many people spend $40 on 'Cleanse' or 'Detoxify' pills.  Yeah... Cleansing? Kaolin or an equivalent baby laxative, and maybe some bentonite, a mineral that expands massively and makes a rubbery gel when it gets wet.  So you take your pills, and you get either a touch of diarrhea or take a massive rubbery dump that you spent $40 on but which you could have copied with a couple of tablespoons of mineral oil at about 20 cents, and now you need to go out and buy a new plunger, too.

 Well, at least they're not placebos. Detox and cleansing pills may be a scam, but they really will make you shit yourself empty. I'm not going to get into the detox myth too much, since others have done better already, and if you're a true believer in psuedoscience, you won't like me telling you otherwise anyhow, which is my whole point. 

 Oh, and Acupuncture? Also completely fake, and less than two centuries old, except that like eating dirt and sticks and bugs, the Placebo effect is a thing, so it can work... until you know that it only works via the placebo effect, when it no longer works. Like believing in Santa.

 So, I just ruined acupuncture for you forever. Hahaha. Sorry.
 See? My point is that Critical Thinking is powerful, and people don't like it.