Tuesday, April 30, 2019

last watch

Well, another one will be in the books in a few more hours. I'll be home tonight, God willing. I have so much to do, blogging will certainly be light. I'm gonna be sore for sure, with all the labor involved, but I'm excited to get moved into the new house and out of the old.
  I hope to have the time to do the prep work to building my shop space up. I have to get an electrician in to get 220 and another two breakers for the 110, but no way I'll have time to do that. The space itself, aside from being the staging area for all the heavy crap in the move, is a bit nasty, and needs lighting, paint and a good pressure washing. I'll be content to make any progress there, whatever can be done with the time I have.

     It's been a good last week aboard. I got to walk in Brooklyn a few times, and that's not so common these past two years, so it was appreciated.  My fill-in guy is a real worker bee, and it's made me feel guilty that every day he outworks me in terms of tidying up, but regardless, he's been a pleasure to work with, between being perfectly competent and pleasant company.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

shoreside visit

 I've gone on here about how important it is to me to have a good relationship with our shoreside management.

  I am on a first name basis with our support and management staff, and I have found this very helpful in keeping the HQ in compliance and running like, well, if not a Cadillac, than an old Corolla, anyhow.

    A few weeks ago we had a dockside day where we performed various required tests on board, stuff that has to be done periodically. It was also a good chance for a walk-around with the office staff. Like always, a fresh set of eyes can see things that I might gloss over, subacute issues. Let me explain.
    To borrow the term from the US Navy, we have gripes about the conditions of equipment on board. There are 'up' gripes, where we identify sub-optimal things that will need attention but not immediately (wear and tear, upcoming expiration dates, things like that), things that will not affect how we do our job, and then there are 'down' gripes, things that need attention now, or that have the potential to create trouble.
         A walk-through with our local shoreside staff- my vessel supervisor ashore, and the port captain), will usually include discussion about my list of gripes, and we'll go over options in seeing them addressed, and discuss opinions on when and where we can address these things or do better in monitoring them.  This is good for everyone, as it's easy to get complacent on my part, or to make assumptions, and for our shoreside support, they can see overall conditions, and also bring fresh eyes aboard. Sometimes they DO see things I don't, which is always disconcerting but also welcome. A rust spot under the plastic sheathe of a safety cable, things like that, which I might not catch but which could become a problem.
     I suspect that it's a two-way learning process, as well .I know enough to know, for example, that I have 2 1/2 full turns left in the stuffing box of  one of my cargo drop valve stems, and that valve has only needed its' stuffing box nuts tightened down 1/4 turn in the past three years. So when asked about it, I talk about it, and my rapport with the port captain is such that he knows I'm already aware, and he trusts my judgement. In such ways we reassure each other that we're watching everything for mutual support.

 So yesterday one of the health and safety inspectors from the Main Office (as opposed to the local office), the HQ, came down for a walkthrough, basically doing the same thing with a fresh set of eyes and a slightly different perspective. I know the guy a little bit, and he knows the job, but he doesn't know the barge, or me. Somewhat different process as a result, and while it was professional and cordial, it wasn't the same, which is both positive and negative. He doesn't know, for example, whether or not I know the last time the cargo crane cable was cropped, or whether or not part of our deck containment system chafes certain mooring lines. Without the assumptions made about situational awareness, having a fresh perspective can sometimes provide positive insights.

 It can be a little annoying though.I've said before that you can shave a monkey and make a tankerman out of him, but the difference between competent and good is a pretty vast gulf. Thing is, the safety guy from the HQ doesn't know me, and doesn't know which camp I'm in, as far as whether I  lick windows or do crossword puzzles in my leisure time, so it'd be rude of me to hurry the guy along. And in the end he did find something good, something we could be doing better. AND, hopefully, in talking through things with him, he can bring that with him to his next job.

 Well, 6 days more, anyhow. I've got channel fever pretty bad this time. I have SO MUCH to do when I get home, between finishing the move out of my house and moving the last of the stuff into the new house. I'm ready to get the hell started so I can finish up.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

ignorant but fast vs smart and slow- The choosing of Able Seamen

Our last cargo brought up and interesting question for me.

       It was a pretty standard job for us. Fuel for an Old Panamax container ship. A medium-sized cargo parcel for refueling a ship. 2,900 tons of Heavy Fuel Oil (bunker fuel) and 250 tons of Marine Gas Oil (diesel).

 Eastern European crew, turns out. When we were alongside, the crew met us  very quickly- sometimes we have to wait 20+ minutes for the crew to show up on scene. These guys were there. I had an issue with language when I asked where their fuel manifolds were- they weren't readily visible. The guy pointed to where I figured they'd be, then yelled something and pointed forward. So I repeated my question. Pantomime works, usually. These guys, monoglots or not, are used to travelling the world, but I wasn't getting something. Eventually I figured out that the guy pointing at shit was more interested in telling me where to tie up than where the manifolds were. This is odd, as where we catch lines depends on where my manifold is relative to the ship, where our tugboat needs the line to be, and what direction we, the ship, and the wind and current is coming from. So where we catch lines? That's on us. Me and the tug captain. Eventually, I just stopped everything until it was made clear that we all were on the same page.  The AB's (Able Seaman, an experienced deckhand) on the ship were fast and efficient, and responsive to my requests, orders and direction. This is unusual and kinda nice.  No common sense, sadly, but we were tying up two boats, not building them.

 The ship's Chief engineer was a contrast to this. Intelligent, decisive and flexible. Quick and effective guy. We got the cargo transfer started quickly and I went to bed.

 This morning I woke up in time to finish the discharge. When it was done, again, with efficiency, the Chief and I had our post-transfer meeting, and he signed and stamped my papers, and I did the same with his, wished each other a safe voyage, and off we go. The weather was shitty, blowing about 20-25 and rainy, but so it goes. Our tug came alongside, and we made up the tug. When the tugboat deckhand came on board and we talked about what was wanted and needed, I waved to the AB's on the ship, and pointed aft towards my stern line, where they could shelter under a container and stand by until we were ready to cast off lines.

It takes a few minutes to get all the ducks in a row before we can sail- I'm still making small talk with the deckhand while the tug captain is taking a leak prior to getting in his chair to get us off the ship.  As it happens, the ship had a slight list as it rolled- three container cranes were taking three containers off the ship at the same time, and the ship rolled a fair bit, putting some slack in all my mooring lines. The ships' AB's immediately threw the two stern lines off and into the water.

 This is bad. With no stern lines and a fair bit of current,  we could dent or hole the ship by going metal-on-metal my hull against his. Our fendering is on fixed slides that lower hydraulically on the parallel midbody of my hull, so if we are not parallel to the ship, my bow or stern will contact his, steel on steel.
  Now, everyone knows you don't throw off lines until everyone's ready. That only makes sense, right?

 The tug captain happened to be getting into his wheelhouse at the moment this was going on. He just jumped on the radio, said "Oh, well, fuck it, let 'em go." and we made a silk purse out of a sow's ear, casting off while the tug got us square to the ship again.  Working at jogging pace, we got lines in much faster than was strictly optimal, but it worked.

 This got me thinking, though. Those AB's were fast. We DID cast off, and it didn't take 10 minutes as it sometimes does. Everything they did, they did fast. And, truth be told, there's room for AB's with more balls than brains. Ideally, you have both, but provided a firm hand can keep an AB with a strong back working correctly and safely, the job can get done.Granted, you can't leave guys like that to use their experience to make good decisions. Micromanagement might be needed. But you know, we saved at least two hours on that job because whoever was in charge of the cargo watch on that ship sent Mongo and Lenny to do as I asked. I made an assumption that they'd know enough to do so in the usual way, and I guess that's on me, assuming that they guys would ask for confirmation when you order them to stand by a line to be cast off... but you know that assumption is the mother of all fuckups too.

       Now, I wouldn't actually want to work with a window-licking level deck gang if given a choice, of course, but it does grate on me that so often getting foreign AB's off their ass requires kissing it first. So it was refreshing not to spend 10 minutes having a yelled conversation with cries of 'My friend!' every other phrase, to get them to do 10-15 second's work. We got lucky nothing went wrong on cast off today, but you know, it was kinda nice to get the hell out of there so quickly too.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Sailboat sailors and commercial sailors' cognitive bias

I'm not overly respectful of small sailboat sailors.  

 Well, I'm not overly respectful of most pleasureboaters in general, to be fair, the same way a cabinetmaker looks at an Ikea nightstand.

              My general opinion does a disservice to some fine and knowledgeable non-commercial boaters, I know, but I'm not much of a pleasureboater. I, and my friends, are commercial guys. We focus on safety and seamanship, not on having a good time.

... when we get a good enough cell signal, I watch Youtube videos of all sorts. Among others, I enjoy watching 'Sail Life" "SV Delos" "Sailing Project Atticus" and "Learning the Lines," all sailboat videos.

    I'm not a sailboater. The technical prowess necessary to sail a boat well is not in my skills. I did go on a sailboat twice in my life, though. It was neat. That's about it.

          My encounters with pleasureboaters in the course of work have never been all that good. Granted, if a pleasureboater is doing a good job, They'd have no reason to encounter me, either. No, I run into them only when they run into me, which is a thing. Wedging themselves under our bow while we're at anchor, bouncing off the side of our hull... while we're at anchor, or at a dock... things like that. Assholes self-select themselves for encounters with us.

    Over a long enough timeline we get cynical, like so many cops, as well. We've all gotten pulled over by a cop who looks at you like you just robbed a bank when you accidentally swerved because you farted and it turns out it wasn't just gas going on downstairs. You know the drill too. You don't want to tell the cop you just sharted, but you also don't want to have to do a sobriety test right now, and be walking around after you just buttered your bread. So out comes the story, and the dirty look gets replaced by a smothered grin. Your ass just broke the tension. 

        Some sail videos, I see people making decisions using bad seamanship that just make me cringe. These same folks come out of the experience and can be separated into two camps- the willfully foolish who don't learn from the experience, and the ashamed, who do. Of the two, the latter group is more fulfilling to watch, as over time you see someone in a small boat become actually a pretty decent mariner. The former group? Well, it's like looking at a car accident on the other side of the highway. You just want to see the carnage. That's entertaining too. In the end, though, the people who grow become more interesting to watch and the floating shit shows get repetitive. Thus you see the shows I watch above, which are deeply varied, but all are good examples of people with skillsets that improve with time. If nothing else, it's good to have my faith in other people restored a little, and to make me more aware of my own biases.

Monday, April 15, 2019


Well, our trainee is back this week.

    I wrote back in Feb/March that we had a trainee on board, super nice guy, but that given the interruption to our routine, lack of adequate space in our berthing, and the distraction of having to work AND train, I was pretty pissed off as I had made it clear when I joined this company 10 years ago that I wanted no part in teaching. That is a skillset from my last career, the one I chose to leave, and it's not one I wish to foster or reengage in. I felt guilty about it, and I was very clear to the guy that he absolutely wasn't at fault, and we were able to cram a lot of knowledge into him, and after he went home and came back, he was put elsewhere to round out his training, and landed with some great guys, friends of mine, and learned well, and fit in well. Good guy, like I said. He'll do well.

 BUT, I still don't want trainees. My boss came to us last week and asked us about our opinion on a situation. It seems our former trainee after finishing a second training tour, was placed elsewhere again to finish his training, giving him 3 vessels of varying type to work aboard. After a few days, he requested to leave, knowing he might have doomed himself in the process.  The 2nd tankerman, not the lead tankerman,  on his final training barge was utterly hostile, beyond the point where it was possible to learn anything.

   I've encountered the guy in question. Garden variety hardon with a reputation as a loudmouth and not real bright... I wouldn't know, I've never encountered him except for catching lines from his barge once or twice. He wasn't polite, that's about all I remember. Apparently he didn't want a trainee aboard either, but he made a point about letting everyone know.

      What surprised me was the supervisor's reaction, the lead tankerman/barge captain's reaction. Either he was too dull to notice that his second man was being a shit, or he endorsed his attitude. Either way, as a representative of our employer, he gave a real black eye to the trainee's  impression of the sort of people employed by our company.

 I hate a bully. Look, you can shave a retarded chimpanzee and make a tankerman out of him. What I do isn't rocket science. It just takes a certain personality type. On the positive margins, guys with managerial and leadership skills make up the top tier. The rest, if they can do the job adequately, can be labeled as a known quantity and given simple tasks to do, and that's enough. Have I ever been completely and utterly engaged cerebrally in the course of my duties? Oh my God, no. But there are  challenges that keep things interesting, sure.

 But as I said, I hate a bully. There should be no place for it, and I don't know the man in question well enough to speak about him. His supervisor, however, I know pretty well, and have worked with. I'm truly disappointed in what I heard about the environment he fosters aboard. I dunno. It might have something to do with the trainee being an immigrant, too, and not from the Chesapeake Bay area where a disproportionate number of people in my company seem to be from.

 Well, three sides to the story and all that. And I don't actually care all that much, but we were sympathetic enough that we agreed to take on the trainee again to further his training. He makes a good shipmate, although we're of course a little stressed from the crowding and lack of privacy.  There's a contrary part of me that wants to make him permanent crew with us just to make a point to the guys who drove him off, though.    

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Under Pressure

Well, we're headed to the home dock for the day today. Just pumped off a small cargo parcel, and headed to the barn for the annual pressure test.

         Once a year, maritime vessels engaged in oil transport have to have their hoses and pipelines pressure tested. Now, our maximum operating pressure is 100PSI. WHen we're pumping into a small diameter pipeline, we'll sometimes reach 100psi of back pressure on our pipes and pumps, and that will be our maximum for the transfer. For pressure testing,  the staff will flood the piping with fresh water, and run the internal pressure in the pipelines and hoses up to 150psi, in our case, and then go looking for leaks and check as to whether the pressure stays stable over time. It takes a few hours to do. The idea being that it's better to find leaks or have a catastrophic failure under test conditions than when, say, pumping oil.  There has been at least one catastrophic failure in the past few months locally, where an oil transfer hose blew out mid-transfer, putting oil on deck and in the water. Wasn't us, anyhow.

 So, part of my job is to walk the pipeline before and during every load and discharge starts, and do a visual inspection, look for dings, nicks and drips.  The guy on watch will do the same thing constantly throughout the watch. Most often, drips come from the packing gland around valve stems, and literally involved  a few drops of oil getting forced out, which gets remedied with a wipe with a rag and a 1/4 turn on the packing gland bolts. Takes about 30 seconds, and happens maybe once a year or so. Aside from it being our job, oil on deck, or, heaven forfend, in the water, is an utter shit show, and to be avoided like herpes, through vigilance,  caution and proper risk management.

 Anyways, it's usually also a chance to stock up on supplies and go shopping too, so while it might be a long day, it's usually a good one.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Making stuff

One of the surprising upsides of moving to Florida was that I rediscovered that I like to make stuff.

After I got married, I quit lobstering, ended up moving a couple of towns away from the ocean too, to an apartment in an ugly suburb that had a large Brazilian population so my wife wouldn't be lonely. I was miserable there, never got over being away from the ocean. Every single day I was home I would either drive the 30 minutes to a beach or go to a bar. It helped. Thankfully we ended up moving to Florida, and everything changed.

   A side effect of aging and living in a place I actually like has been that I gravitated towards making and fixing little things again. My little wooden model boats, fixing the cheap elderly vacuum cleaner that should have been thrown out during the Bush admin, making little doodads, things like that. It filled my days in a way that the bar never did, and the beach... well, I live in south FL. The beaches are awesome.  Along the way, I've made connections with buying quality wood, and my skills are improving. My hands... my hands are still not good.  Too much damage from when I was younger, and that limits my ability plenty. It's hard to make a straight cut when your hands shake from the effort of holding a skilsaw. Hard, not impossible, though. Before house-hunting took up my time, I was working on making nicer curves in wood and improving my raw ability- I can sand out errors as much as the next guy, but I spend a lot of time sanding. So I'd begun experimenting with joining curved cuts, where I couldn't rely on sanding off shitty work. My little drunken cutting boards have been a lot of fun to make.

         My new house has a 3-car garage that will become my new shop space. It's got about the same square footage as my old apartment when we first got married. I'm going to be upping my game. I think I can do better than making cutting boards now.  Starting with making a shop for me.

 Then end goal? I'm going to build boats. I'll be turning 45 when I'm home next. I have drawn out 3 boat designs I want to make- a dory, a rowing shell, and a small sailboat. I learned the basics of lofting and drawing out boat plans in my 20's and never did much except dream about making them. This past winter I started relearning the skills I picked up when I still had patience, and hair, too. The designs are done, more or less.  All requiring 100+% of the abilities I have at the moment to be made well. I anticipate killing a lot of good wood in the process of upping my skill.

 One thing at a time, though. I still need to finish my current model while I'm upping my skills. I have to build the shop space, bring in an electrician, make cabinetry, things like that.

 I think I took this picture like 6 months ago. I haven't done much since then. Some fairing of the house, and I roughed in the bulwarks, which need to be faired.

 I have to move my existing shop when I get home next too. It'll be summer before I can make headway in the new shop, but on a rainy, shitty night like tonight, thoughts of making a space to make stuff help pass the hours.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

when it's right

There are a handful of moments where I've felt like everything was exactly right, where I was aware that something important and good had happened that would change everything for me.

  I think the first one was the first time I was ever in a rowboat and looked over the side into the water. I was scared to death, being unable to swim at the time. I might have been 5, I dunno. About 5 minutes after I got in the boat, still unhappily nervous, I realized I was going to be making my living off the ocean in some form.
   About 2 years later, I swam out to a swim platform about 100 feet offshore by myself. I still didn't really know how to swim with my head above water. I put on a mask and snorkel, and spastically kicked my way to the platform. I was so tired I could barely get onto the little raft. I knew something important had happened. I was no longer afraid. Perhaps I should have been, but it was a moment for me. A few months later, I'd be swimming for hours every day.
 Insanely stupid of me but I wasn't a particularly smart kid when it comes to self-preservation. The winter before, I had fallen through the sea ice after a friend and I walked about 1/4 mile offshore. I was lucky enough to pop back up in the same hole I made. I nearly died of hypothermia walking home. I got frostbite on my hands and ears, woke up fully clothed in the shower with my parents yelling at me.

 The first time I stepped onto the lobsterboat, a year later, I knew something special had happened. I was enraptured, just absolutely with child to go fishing. When the old timer who taught me to fish sold the boat, 10 years later, I kept working on it with the new owner. It still felt just as right and exciting as it had when I was 8.

 I was walking across a dam at a local pond a few years later, and stopped to look down and watch the fresh water fish swimming through the plants. I was taking my parrot for a walk. He never learned to fly, so he liked riding on my shoulder while I walked in the woods. I had always liked tending to animals. At that moment, with the sun angled just right so I could watch the fish, and my bird whistling nervously about me leaning too far forward for his comfort, it was a near-perfect moment and I wanted to be a marine biologist.

 I never did get that perfect moment as a scientist or a science student. I did have one, up in downeast Maine, when I visited an offshore salmon farm with a class. I was way more interested in the animal husbandry side of it than the hard science- the moneymaking, and the practical part of it- how the pens were built, how the feed was acquired, the economics of it all. Watching guys flinging buckets of feed to the penned salmon, I knew I was seeing something exceptional. About 18 months later I was living in Scotland and talking to the salmon farmers there peer-to-peer.

 The moment I stepped on a ship for the first time as a mariner. The smell of musty old ship and scorched oil. That was maybe the strongest moment I ever had where I knew that everything had just changed for me forever.  . I think it has something to do with situational awareness, the coincidence of happy accident and ignorance, when I realized that had stumbled into something that would change me forever.

 I wonder when or if it'll hit again? It could be when it's time to retire, I dunno. I'd imagine that last walk off a boat would be a significant moment.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Back at work

Well, THAT was a fast week. A good week though.

 The closing on my new house went well, I think. It went through on time. I got to spend a little time in my new place, put together a punch list of projects that'll have to be seen to in the next months, and I rented a box truck and moved two truckloads of stuff over. I actually only moved about 10 miles away, so it was pretty straightforward, and I didn't move anything terribly large or heavy with the exception of my beer fridge from my old garage, which is one of those 75% of full size fridge/freezers you see in efficiency apartments, senior housing, places like that. It had casters, which helped. I have my current house until the end of next month, so I could split the move between two voyages at work- this gives Inappropriately Hot Foreign Wife time to do some decorating, and give the house the Brazilian treatment- no, I don't mean getting the underside of the tables waxed, but rather, the deep cleaning which is a standard there- You ain't seen clean until you've seen a Brazilian house clean. 3-4 ladies will descend on the house and 3 12-hour days later, it will emerge spotless. N0 BS, even the AC ducts will get fully routed out.

 At any rate, we managed to get a lot of family time together in a VERY short and busy week at home, and even managed to get out one night for some grown-up time at a wine bar, which was nice, although honestly wasted on me, as I'm not a wine guy, but the company was lovely. It's been mostly up with the sun and to bed at somewhere close to midnight. I'm pretty beat, and I've spent more money at Home Depot this past weekend than in the past year. I'm looking forward to some rack time tonight before taking my first watch in the morning.