Sunday, April 24, 2022

Shipboard Hazing and Is It All In Good Fun?

 I edited this quite a bit today after posting an earlier version.  

 The US Coast Guard recently released their findings after an administrative law judge suspended a container ship captain's license after a complaint was issued on his ship regarding hazing and assault of deck cadets. 

    You can read a good synopsis here:

    read the synopsis. I am writing on the issue, but don't take my word for it- my point is ancillary to the events that happened, and I wasn't there. 

As my partner B noted:  This shit is just unprofessional, period. It gets worse. 

 Now, I read about the work environment on that trip before, months ago.  The officer sailing as 2nd mate also complained to everyone he could think of that he was being harassed by the chief mate. At the time, on first reading, to be honest I saw his point but I also tended to be sympathetic to the chief mate.

      As information got released, it became obvious that the 2m had been a source of discord on several ships, which, again, I wasn't there, but also suggests a pattern. The manner in which the 2nd mate conducted himself afterwards alienated pretty much everyone, to the point that any sense of legitimacy to his complaints were dismissed from what I could see. Guy was his own worst enemy, and after, he doubled down, behaved erratically and in my opinion, being an asshole to everyone around him  (he was later accused of harassment against women he was claiming to be white knighting for), and finally shooting himself so thoroughly in the foot that it looks as though nobody in industry or in the Coast Guard wants to deal with the man. True to form, he inserted himself into a discussion on the events (under a pseudonym) on an industry website's forum listed above.  Aside from being a major distraction from the central issue, which is a legal matter of seeing cadets (not licensed officers) get safely trained aboard ship, the man in question just keeps trying to make the damn thing about himself and not the cadets. 

      This is an interesting challenge when dealing with advocacy. What happens when a self-appointed advocate is not welcome and whose presence becomes a harm to those they claim to wish to help? 

We know exactly what happens

 I'm not going to link to the guys' website now that he of course has a non-profit. Is it fair to compare the 2nd mate to notorious race hustler Al Sharpton?    Well, I also could have chosen Joss Whedon or Harvey Weinstein, so I was being kind. Well, kind for me, anyhow.  

    I'm treading on unfamiliar ground here, but there was an anecdote that someone was chewing on pens in the ship's chart room, and after the chief mate complained of having wet hands covered in saliva a few times and asked the junior mates to stop, the chief mate walked around the bridge with one pen clenched between his butt cheeks, then put it back in the pen cup and left a note about what he had done, in a variation of Russian Roulette to encourage the offending mate to stop sticking communal items in his mouth.  

  It's not my place to render judgement, but I found that hilarious, and in keeping with the sort of light hazing that I have encountered in male-dominated workplaces over the years. Is it profession, though? No, of course not. But still, the response to something so juvenile and gross in a remote working environment is not to go catatonic and reach for the phone to call famed Spanish workplace psychiatrist Dr. Takea De Summeroff for PTSD. 

It's hard to tell the difference between
burning bridge and burnt credibility

 The second mate appears to suffer from aggrievement on a perpetual basis, and decided to monetize his feels as a source of income (again calling to mind Al Sharpton) by forming a non-profit (to keep pens out of butts, I guess) and, given what fell out over the years, I discount much of his input, except for noting that the cadets accounts of things that happened partially corroborate the 2m's account. I don't think the issue people had was ever about the events, but his conduct after the fact. 

   Oh, dammit, here I go again. I'm going to stop now, this isn't about the 2nd mate, which I'm sure disappoints him. Much as in the real world, I'm getting distracted by the damn drama llama 2m and away from what is important... the cadets. 

          Unfortunately, the deck cadets on that ship didn't find other events nearly as funny, if you read the summary and initial comments, and it was the deck cadets' experience that was the problem that got a court involved.

Look, adult me is not a deeply sensitive person in the workplace. I have been hazed at work, and I found it to be a pathway to acceptance, taking mild abuse with good humor and returning it proportionally. Men have done such a fair bit, but my experience was subjective and it's risky AF to act out when there's a YMMV variable in the reception of hazing. 

  Younger college-aged me was considerably less worldly and far more quiet and sensitive, and hazing in almost any form would have been hurtful at that point and time. I was fortunate not to experience it until I was mentally and emotionally prepared for it. 

 So that's my perspective. I am sympathetic to both sides, to one degree or another.  One one hand, I would probably get along great with the chief mate in question, but I'm a giant child in a man's somewhat lumpy body, and spending time as a commercial fisherman in my college years and beyond made me insensitive to, shall we say asymmetric power and labor management styles. 

      Then again, I wasn't hazed while I was in the process of coming out of my shell. The cadets in question didn't have that luxury, and weren't just deckhands, they were deck cadets- their career to a fair degree will be defined by their experiences and interactions with management-level officers during their cadet shipping times. Having said that, the testimony regarding movie night on the ship made me want to vomit. Any goodwill I might have towards considering some of the actions here, like drawing a dick on the cadet's hard hat, or making the cadets use the mate's callsign 'daddy' over the radio,  however humorous, casts everything in a far more dark and sinister light. 

    Proportionality and no skills in Reading The Room were two concepts that I thought of here initially. Taking things too far. But such a subjective value assignment is far too slippery a slope.  While I'd laugh my ass off on hearing that a cadet was walking around with a cartoon dong on his hard hat for weeks, and would have taken such a thing in stride, even as a point of pride in not letting others see me ashamed, I never got hazed in that critical period where I was finding my feet.  Were I as unsure as, say, 19 year old me, trying not to whine at being worked too hard while hauling lobster pots, I might have been poisoned against working on boats forever. Who knows?  By the time I was the butt of practical jokes, I was already accepted and liked by the people involved. Imagine the impact that getting harassed by someone could have if you are unhappy, uncomfortable, inexperienced and unsure. 

 Anyone who says 'toughen up' is something of an asshole, IMO, when there is an issue of proportionality involved. A heretofore protected kid who hasn't built up emotional callus isn't being served by being harassed when he's incapable of responding without risking punitive and career-limiting results...  I'm as inclined as anyone else to game out an 'if I were there' scenario in my head, but that's again a subjective thing. Am I fostering a positive work environment? That's an extremely easy metric to stand on.  Hazing should never have evolved past the point of mild teasing to test the cadets reception of edged humor... there is plenty of room for officers who are sensitive and slow to engage in conflict just as much as anything else, provided they can lead by example. 

    I have witnessed proper good-natured hazing aboard, it's true. Cadets were built up with experience and support, confidence instilled in the learning environment on deck. Good natured sarcasm, establishing friendly boundaries without being egalitarian, allowing the cadet time to establish friendly relations with unlicensed and licensed crew alike, and then gradually increasing expectations while taking the kid gloves off, allowing the cadet to find his/her feet.  I think it says a lot about the chief mates and captains I worked with that so many of our cadets worked to get themselves their first job as on officer with us, specifically, on our ship. That by all appearances did not happen here. It's also a real hot potato of a subject. How can I accept the concept of hazing just because I personally enjoyed it? I can't advocate for hazing because the potential for harm is too damn high. 

   I find myself truly in a strange country here. I, a man who takes opportunities to appear unprofessional superficially as a means to disarm and entertain (when not actually working), believe that the only way to fairly and optimally deal with shipboard behavioral problems is to maintain a professional environment. Deviating from that as a teaching tool requires trust, tact and enormous risk, but can be done... but can you codify that without risking exactly what happened? 


Every mariner can see where the Shellback line-crossing ceremony can be a meaningful and fun bonding experience, or can be taken too far. As such, it is not something that shows up in a company ops manual. For good reason.  That doesn't mean that it should be a taboo subject, though I am unequal to a reasoned discussion, partly because I don't care too much (being honest here) courtesy of it not being something in my purview, but also partly because I'm writing extemporaneously here, and that should be obvious in how disorganized my writing normally is. Maybe there's a pearl or two in all the pigshit I shovel but I'm not going to swear on it. 

   From what I can see, the punishment handed down by all appearances seems equitable.  Armchair quarterback opinions seem to range from  'cadets need to toughen up' all the way to banning the then-mate for life from the maritime trade.  Obviously the judge advocate, a position not known  for being kind or lenient in judgement, felt that the issue could be used as a teaching tool without torpedoing a senior officer's career. 

Friday, April 15, 2022

screw change & oil change (Part VII of IV)

 The other day we had the last crew change for this tour where I wasn't participating. 

 This is week 9 for me. It's been a good if long tour- medium paced, and I was in good spirits despite working overtime, something I have had ZERO interest in doing the past few years. 

 The value of the dollar dropped enough that working OT became necessary for my plans this summer. And I did well with it until this week. This week I'm feeling the effects of being away from home for far longer than normal. It's getting to be a bit of a slog and the quality of my sleep has gone in the toilet. 

    Time to go home and recharge. Less than 2 weeks to go. 


     There has been a big surge of fuel contaminations in the global bunker fuel supply. Singapore, the largest bunkering port in the world, has had major issues as they distributed a lot of bad fuel to a lot of ships. 

    You know, driving your car on the highway, if the engine dies, you pull over and call AAA. Driving your ship, your engine dies, you call a bankruptcy lawyer and maybe a priest. 

          Houston, the US's largest port for oil, has also had, (and possibly has, as in present tense) issues with this. 

   It's an issue of shit ingredients, whether intentional or unintentional, and disruptive regulation forcing rapid change (in my opinion) without concurring planning and quality control measure implementation. 

      3 years ago, we supplied 2 types of bunker fuels- 2 1/2, if you count the stuff we thinned with diesel for old ships than could no longer burn the heavy stuff, and certain cruise ships that power their propulsion  with diesel generators turning electric motors. 

 These days we carry... lets's see... *counts on fingers, removes one boot, (muttering) 'carry the 5..., where's my abacus?*...  

We carry a lot of fuels. Some of which suppliers don't carry, but we get sent recipes to make by blending several grades of oil together in a custom mishmash, right in our tanks.  Now, I hate blending fuels on board, because it's a pain in the ass and the folks who make us do it the most rent their tank space from a tank farm that is run like a halfway house above a Turkish bazaar...  I actually like the process and the challenge, but it can be stressful if the shoreside guys are dicking off.  

 Still, point being that fuel issues are obvious coming from multiple sources. There's so much variability in the base components of something so generic as heavy fuel oil-  It's not like gasoline, where the ratio and blend of hydrocarbon molecules by type is tightly controlled. HFO is made up of residual hydrocarbons, long chains of carbon atoms strung together. anywhere, in any ratio- it's residual oil, the shit left over after you refine out the more in-demand hydrocarbons to make gas, diesel, kerosine, jet fuel, naptha, etc.   You might have a lot of 25 carbon atom molecules, or a lot of 50 carbon atom molecules, and a smaller amount of molecules from every possible number between 20-50. Or an even amount of everything, who knows. No one looks to check. They also don't look to check if other things are mixed in there too, say if a supplier dumps waste motor oil in that tank, or some dink got rid of a couple of ancient buckets of aircraft parts cleaner that were found but which are no longer legal to use. In they go. But hey, turns out that stuff sometimes causes engines to stall, or when the oil is heated a bit, it gases off and oh, yeah, it's carcinogenic in vapor form. 

    Heavy fuel oils smell different all the time because the base ingredients are different all the time- it's mostly a matter of cutting the fuel with other fuel oils to make it have the quality you want. 

   Some days my eyes burn so badly from the vapors that I have to put on a respirator and goggles. Some days it just smells like egg salad farts. 

      My employer has to keep us alive to keep working. They're pretty good at risk mitigation, but this is a new wrinkle. 

 The industry has noted finally that companies sometimes  slip in unwanted chemicals, some of which are dangerous, in heavy oil. Some bunker suppliers buy their feedstock from waste oil processors.  Some COC's, which are chlorine-containing hydrocarbons, are EXTREMELY toxic to humans... and hey, more importantly, turns out they can also cause fuel issues in ships. I mean, fuck the people who have to handle this stuff, right? They volunteered, but who gives a fuck about what it does to people, it's not good for ships! We better think about doing something to control that... someday soon. 

 And yet, COC's aren't normally tested for. Because normally they shouldn't be in the oil. But sometimes they are. Environmentalists don't care about people, we know that. They care about the environment to the extent that it causes subjective pleasure to their sense of personal well-being  and aesthetics. Sulfur... is the devil when it comes to oil. Nox, Sox, carbon diox, Greenhouse Gases are  Literally Hitler. 

Shit that isn't a greenhouse gas, in your gas, OTOH, getting anyone to care is an economic battle. 

   When I am the benevolent dictator that the world so desperately needs, maybe I'll look into doing something beyond trying to not die of cancer personally. 


   Think of modern car engines. They can run on straight 87, midgrade, high grade, even avgas... or they can run on 10% ethanol blended in the gas Or 85% ethanol. Or 100.  We also know that the mileage and weird shit that can happen vary based on the ethanol content. Imagine if you didn't know if you were getting good ethanol in your gas or some watery shit that some rain got into, and then that got thrown in your gas. I mean, you can add a bottle or two of acetone in there, make the water gas off somewhat, but what's that going to do over time?  Turns out, it ain't good. Brazil uses a lot of ethanol in their fuel. Starters don't last as long  in Brazilian cars compared to American, because they are used more. It's normal for engines to stall at every traffic light, even in newer cars in Brazil. 

 Ships, well, it's not that easy. A stalled engine is more than a matter of pressing the pedal and turning a key, but the analogy holds. 

Monday, April 11, 2022

 On finishing the last cargo discharge for the weekend, we headed for the pier at the company HQ, which allowed me to go get groceries. I went to my usual go-to, which is relatively accessible for a guy who relies on a car service to get around NY. 

 3 packs of romaine lettuce, 2 gals of vinegar, a bulk pack of boneless chicken breasts, a 4lb sirloin cap (picanha), diet soda, a case of water, vegetables, eggs, bacon, some spices, dish soap and  some 1lb blocks of cheese. 

$224. New York prices +inflation= ouch. 

    The store I go to has me conflicted. Now, fat as I am, I don't eat processed food, rice or pasta. I'm into cooking my own real food. And I'm pretty good in the kitchen.  Problem being, protein is expensive, and also, greenstuff is too now. Worse, in NY, by the time you get fresh vegetables into your hands, they're 3 days from going bad. It's not unusual for me to buy lettuce and find that it's gone bad the next day, being a slimy brown mess.  I have a couple of 2gal square plastic containers, and so I can get 2 Romaine heads in each, and soak them in cold water in the fridge for a few hours, and they'll rehydrate and stay fresh for 7-9 days. I tend to pickle onions so they'll last for weeks rather than days... and that's fine. 

 $224 bucks, though, is easily double what it was last year. Sadly, my company-provided food allowance hasn't kept up. The guys who buy absolute trash and live on hot dogs and Hot Pockets are doing ok financially with the spike in prices, though. 

Friday, April 1, 2022

 I know that as time goes on, I use this blog more and more as a place for my id to go potty, and there's less maritimey things in here. It's my pressure relief valve. 

 I'd like to think I'm not a prima donna, but I'm less flexible than I used to be, and a bit more grumpy. This is in odd contrast to the fact that I feel that I am a more fulfilled person than I used to be. Perhaps that is an effect of me drawing more of my self-identity from my home life and less from my job as I age. 

 Maybe it's just age. 

 So, last night was pretty damn welcome. I had the watch off. 

     I had a very tolerable 2 weeks of working OT on the former HQ. One big positive is that I am familiar with the layout and the idiosyncrasies of running it. Knowing that #4 port fills up faster than #4 starboard tank, but #2's load evenly, little things that aren't really thought about, but which are impactful in terms of managing the deck while loading and being proactive about the whole 'work the boat, don't let the boat work you' thing.  I also knew about the former HQ's small quarters, which would have been fine except that there were too many bodies in there, which is something I wrote about before, my  inability to come to terms with trainees as someone who isn't willing to quit (yet) over being forced occasionally to train people. 

   Anyhow, that's something I wrote about before. Sufficient unto the day to say that I found the living conditions stressful, but tolerated it well until the last 3 days aboard, where I started getting claustrophobic to the point that it distracted me from doing my job optimally. 

    So, much like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer, it felt so blissful to stop. 

     Last night we were moored at a lay berth, it was pouring rain, and I got to mostly sit inside in the dimmed lights, and relax. Now, I had had a few hours to do just this the night before, prior to starting cargo ops, so I was already in my right mind, but lordy, short of a stout glass of whisky and having my wife to hand, that was a great way to unwind. 

    I'm continuing to read Nick Cole and Jason Anspaugh's works.    They are a hell of a literary team. I got a couple hours' reading in before I felt assed enough to do a bit of PM's.  Turns out I had to add 40 gallons of hydraulic fluid to the reservoir, and show a little love to the air compressor, and I laid out my  marlinespike seamanship kit, as I have some hawsers to splice this weekend. I certainly wasn't going to ruin a nice night by working outside if I didn't need to. 


Tasty Tasty Seed Corn

 Well this is just stupid. 

     The .gov is releasing 1 million bbls of oil a day from the strategic oil reserve, to help contain gas prices. 

    Meanwhile the .gov canceled the majority of planned oil lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and on federal land this week too.  Drive down the cost of gas for 2 weeks, then drive it up for 3 years.