Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Finally... nothing.

 I've been home a week, and finally today I'm all done with the shit I had to get done.  So today I officially can do whatever I want to do. 

     I started off by doing nothing for 3 whole hours. It was awesome.   Just read the news, looked over the blogs a bit, etc etc. 

    This was the first year where I remember hanging the Christmas lights was a bit of a slog. I sort of go pretty hard on my Christmas lighting. I enjoy Christmas, but this year it was work  to put the lights up. Maybe because I am not going to be home anywhere near the holidays.  I'm grateful to have gotten home in time for Thanksgiving, but the Christmas lights will be long down all over the next time I am home. 

 Still, I can't complain too much. I have all day today to do what I want. That's a rare thing. 

 Headed to the gun range. 

Friday, November 25, 2022

Happy Thanksgiving!

 I flew home the day before Thanksgiving. You know, the OMG busiest travel day of the year we're all going to die etc etc that we've all read about ad nauseum for years? 

 Yeah it wasn't bad. Little busier than normal, and I mean, I flew out of JFK in New York. That place is a dumpster fire on a good day. It was fine. 

 So yeah, my kid picked me up at the airport, as for the first time ever, Inappropriately Hot Foreign Wife couldnt' get the night off from work, and so I didn't see her until mid-day on Thursday. 

 I ended up cooking Thanksgiving dinner. Roasted a big turkey, threw together corn, stuffing, balsamic glazed carrots, rolls and I made a cheesecake with strawberry glaze from scratch.  I got my sister to handle the mashed potatoes.   It was a weird one, just 5 of us for dinner, which might be the smallest Thanksgiving ever for me at home, but it was a nice day. 

 Plus, I mean, I'm home, too, and that's awesome. 

 I got up at oh-dark-thirty and I'm writing this to kill time as I have to go get blood drawn for my annual physical next week.  I dunno, maybe it wasn't a good idea to schedule that for the day after Thanksgiving and a day of eating too much and killing off probably half a bottle of Jamison over the course of the day and night. I certainly don't feel hungry yet, that's for sure. 


Saturday, November 19, 2022

Ugly and awesome

 We had a pretty average week here since last I wrote. Work 2 days, rest one, work 2, rest one.  And by 'rest' I mean we didn't have cargo so we'd take half of each watch and do work , so 12 hours of maintenance and projects got seen to, and 12 hours of leisure time, which was welcome. 

       Demand for bunkers is pretty steady this week, and one supplier in particular got the bulk of the jobs. This company charters some of our tonnage, but even working all out they have more work than they can do with existing equipment reserved for their use. 

       Enter guys like me, who run equipment that works on a 'spot' basis- that is, we're not on charter here on the HQ, but rather, we CAN work for multiple companies when they need us, on a short-term basis. In a given week, I'll usually have jobs from 3-4 major suppliers, companies you've heard of and some you wouldn't too. 

    So this week with work so steady and the temperatures cooling, some of our tugboats were out of town running longer-distance jobs out of state. My company chartered a tugboat from another company to be available as needed, and that tugboat was the ugliest and weirdest-looking tugboat on the East Coast. 

     Some guys call it 'the wedding cake tugboat' for sort-of obvious reasons. 

            So, this is a pusher tug. It's got two cushioned 'push knees' on the square bow to shove stuff around without causing point loads.  The knees are watertight compartments, so they dont' drag the bow underwater. The house, way, way up high, offers unbelievably good visibility. She's got a modest 3,000hp of power, but must be turning big wheels, because she doesn't have a lot of speed but she's got a LOT of 'ass' which is to say torque. 

 Oh, and the push cables that hold her against the hull of a barge being pushed? They're on automated spools. Push one button to tighten, another to loosen.  Normally, messing with push cables, getting them positioned and tensioned, is one of the most common evolutions where tankermen get injured on the job.  Shoulders get torn up, and fresh handsburger gets served up with a side of  I screams.

 So, push knees, lots of ass and low-strain making up. This tug is as ugly as an ape's foreskin, but she's a a pleasure to work with. It really helps that the crew have been polite, friendly and hard working too. We've had a good week working with them. 

  With the push cables in place, you can see they're made of Dyneema, which in the commercial boating world is called 'Spectra."  It's a synthetic rope that is far stronger and lighter than steel. Push cables have to be screaming tight to be effective- Sadly, it's also enormously expensive, but no bullshit, one guy can pick it up and return it to the tug without much effort. A steel cable of similar strength would be familiar looking- you see them on suspension bridges, and they're far, far beyond what mere men can pick up and walk around with. 

 Edit: I should be more careful and note that while mariners use the names dyneema and spectra interchangably, they are actually different. Dyneema is made by a Dutch company and Spectra is made by Americans. Chemically, they're identical, although both companies vary in what other fibers they include in their lines, as neither company usually sells lines made of the pure material, instead adding other fibers like aramid (kevlar) or nylon, polypropylene or other low-weight high strength synthetic material.  It should be noted that Dyneema and Spectra are braided differently, which makes them easier to differentiate, and this makes them behave differently. All ropes have Creep- initial elongation as the braid tightens as loads are applied for the first time. This is not stretch or elastic modulus or anything like that, just the braid 'fetching up' or 'shaking hands' as they tighten. Spectra has more creep than Dyneema, just because of the lay of the braid, which means that it might be necessary to retension it as it settles into use the first few times. 

Monday, November 14, 2022

That Boy Ain't Right

 We were rafted up at anchor the other day and I got to catch up with some friends. 

  My old captain on the tanker NEW RIVER used to say that "AB's (Able Bodied Seamen, mariners who are rated as more skilled than baseline mariners) are like seagulls. They eat, squawk and shit."  

I mean, yeah. 

 The squawking part is doubly true for tankermen. We talk. A lot. Even a quiet guy like me, who treasures blessed silence most of all, won't shut up once there's a few of us catching up. And the other day this happened out at anchor, and after greetings and pleasantries, the gossip started along with the complaining.  Now, because this particular group was made up only of core guys who have been here for 10+ years and none of us under 45 (I think I was the youngest at 48), we're of an age where the natural course of doing this job comes with aches and pains for us, and so who was sore where was a pretty hot topic, but moreso we all took the opportunity to bemoan the state of the talent pool for help aboard. 

     I'm going to bet that this has been a discussion ongoing on boats and ships since Jesus was a greenhorn on his friend's boat (good guy to have on board when the weather turns foul) and maybe even before. You know Noah had a shitty crew. He ended up running aground, on the top of a frigging mountain. There's running aground, and Running Aground, you know? 

         Still, I'm going to bet that in the golden days of sail, there were crusty sailors and officers too who bitched that there weren't the same quality of sailors coming aboard these days as there were 25 years ago. I mean, complaining on a boat is an evergreen subject, where every day a bottomless mine of raw material is discovered.  I'm sure that in the distant past, and maybe even not so distant, somebody talked about me and said 'Jesus, look at what we have to deal with. How can we make a sailor out of this sow's ear?' 

    Anyhow, we were in a group, like I said, talking, which means complaining, really, of course, and up comes a particular tankerman's name. Almost as one, we all said the same thing:


     What followed was 20 minutes of stories of ridiculousness, things we experienced while working with this particular individual. In discussion, I realized that a pattern was revealed. The man in question, a real soup sandwich, if you know what I mean, had been placed at some point with all of us, and rejected, not because he's bad at his job (he is minimally competent, we agreed, able to work under modest supervision), or a bad person (he's not), he's just too weird for us, too Borderline Personality Disorder, where the disorders he's walking the line on are paranoia, autism and schizophrenia). 

     Do you know the type? Someone who's not insane or inane, but 'not quite exactly' as the old timers used to say. Depending on the severity of being not quite exactly, it can be lived with, or not. 

 So we realized that the man in question had been forced on all of us at some point, in the hopes that we'd settle him down and find a home for him, but this never happened. 
     I know several minimally competent tankermen. These are guys who have to be monitored carefully to ensure they're doing their job, but who can be trusted to do basic tasks. Often these are men who are universally liked, truly nice and kind, champion human beings, who are just not able to rise beyond where they are. These men rarely move around the fleet. They find a home and are best kept there for their own sake, but are pleasant company and know their limits, and not the sort to get into too much trouble. In the case of this man in particular, he was very much like having a flu on board.  Unwelcome, likely to be passed on to someone else as soon as possible.  
        One of the most universal statements to be found on any boat is "It ain't like we're normal; if we was right in the head we could work on land."  Weirdness is tolerated, even enjoyed if the weird person is skilled at their job. "That guy's insane. I like him." You hear that sometimes, too.  But there has to be something to hang your hat on.  
    The conversation widened out into other people who we had issues with, and was a laundry list, as it often is.  My partner B and I have been working together for 12 years or so now I think. We know each other, and as we're close, we can argue and be honest with each other, and so we own our own shortcomings, which makes it unnecessary to have to bitch about each other to 3rd parties. We keep it in-house. We're blow off steam and talk to our other partner, Big E, of course, and often it becomes humorous. I know I'm a messy eater, for example. I'll get crumbs on the ceiling after I eat lunch, I swear. I try to not let it impact my shipmates. 
        Listening to my friends talk about their personnel issues on board, it makes me very much appreciate what I have.  What we have on the HQ, our shortcomings and complaints, are a deep well mostly of humor that refills on every tide. Even when we have a problem child on board, like our former partner who liked to microwave fish at 2am and make the entire house smell like a brothel in a leper colony.  
    And on that delicious note, I'll sign off.  

Friday, November 11, 2022

Veteran's Day

 Today the US marks Veteran's Day.   I am one of the few shameful exceptions in my family who didn't serve. My dad was in Korea and was ramping up to go to Viet Nam when his heart gave out and ended his career. My uncles, every single one of them on both sides served.  My oldest brother, my sister, one of my oldest brother's sons, and now my nephew who broke the mold and became a marine, and who just started Force Recon school. 

 Today also marks the 5th anniversary of my mom's passing. Time moves so fast once you're over 40, my God. I'll always be grateful for the wonderful graveside service that they gave my mom at the National Cemetery on Cape Cod.  It being Veteran's day then too, the grounds were lovely and the honor guard was putting in that extra 2% that makes such a difference. 

 I'm profoundly grateful for every person who served. 


Thursday, November 10, 2022

Light falls on Marble Head

  Sometimes the dumbs hit me hard. 

        I finished writing a comment elsewhere on complaints about safety standards on US ships... specifically that some government and the oldest of the old rotten merchant ships that the US allows to still trade are not required to have enclosed lifeboats.  Open lifeboats have a 0% chance of saving anybody in severe weather, which is when old rotten ships often get in trouble.  There's a Grandfather clause that allows cheap and immoral owners of old and superannuated ships to not invest in enclosed lifeboats which might save some crew on sinking ships in bad weather.  Enclosed lifeboats are required for everyone else, pretty much. It's a real dick punch to anyone who is guilted into working on old rotten American ships. 

 While I'm bitching from up on my soapbox, an email comes in saying that we now have to carry out a formal New Crew Safety Orientation on board the HQ from here forward, and there's a form to fill out... and me, hypocritical me, my first reaction is to roll my eyes. 

 Thankfully my second reaction was to read the form... and it's actually a really good idea. Anything that keeps fingers on hands, meat in the seats and increases the number of vertical mariners at off-going crew change is good... and common sense safety things, to me, are of greater value than pencil-whipped paper shielding for appearances' sake. Something as silly as '...and here is where the fuel shut off is in case you dont want to end up looking like a hot dog that fell through the grate in the grill'  is one of those obvious and helpful things to hear early on in your trip to sea. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

You've got (hate) mail!

 It's been a while since I got a nastygram in my comments. I really regret deleting it now, as it was actually pretty funny and I should have let it post. 

    Look, I realized that my last post was a real skim job of a serious subject. I am not a serious person on this blog. It's one of my relief valves while I'm greasing relief valves and doing other boat things here on the HQ, since I can't drink, shoot guns, chase my wife around the kitchen or parse datasets (too many distractions here. Yes, I actually do still keep my hands in as a scientist at home, mostly helping out others with low and mid-level analytics).  So I engage in dick and fart jokes and absurdum ad reductum on serious issues like, for example, safety systems on big metal boats. I like to hide the odd pearl in the pig byre. 

        SOMEBODY got awful assmad that I had opinions and didn't put in enough effort to fully flesh out the issues I was kvetching about in my last post. My reasons for not doing so are both significant and nuanced; because I didn't want to and I got bored writing.

    I make no excuses; my writing is not expert nor professional here. You want that, pay me. I can be assed to write properly about serious business, and occasionally do, but fuck me, I get bored writing my own writing, never mind reading it. Juvenile humor and piquant observations are not mutually exclusive, and the hope that I can entertain both my readers out there, and that one Indian call-center scammer who is still trying to get me, well, that's fun for me. 

 So, dear hater, thank you. I realize that in the real world you're probably someone I was rude to or dismissive of, and I hope, if so, that it was intentional on my part, because it isn't always, and I feel terrible about it when it's brought to my attention, but when I do intentionally insult someone, it sure is fun. 

Saturday, November 5, 2022

Let's all talk about my gas problem

 So last week I mentioned that I have a...difference of opinion an issue with one aspect of how my industry handles oil. 

  Ships moving oil must inert their cargo tanks- that is, they pump oxygen-free gases into the cargo tanks so that the oil can't catch fire- you can't have fire without an oxygen source.  Usually, when discharging cargo, gases with low-to-no oxygen from engine or boiler exhausts are pumped into the tank, so that as the oil level in the tank is lowered, the gases fill the vacuum, rather than plain old air.  The end result is that with oxygen levels ideally around 1% in the void space in the tank, it gets really hard to blow up the oil during the course of the day. 

   IG systems come in all sizes but generally just one or two general shapes. Once you know what they look like, you can spot the deck seal and on-deck portion on any tanker, just forward of the house. Sometimes this is referred to as 'The R2D2' for its' shape. 

HERE's A GREAT article on how they work 

   It's an idea so good, it's now the law. 

  You can't 100% fill an oil tank. Well, I mean, you can, but you really, really don't want to. Oil changes density based on temperature, surprisingly a lot, with small temperature changes. As an example, we have to be VERY careful monitoring temperatures in my cargo tanks- and they're quite small compared to, say, those of a big ship.  We can gain or lose tons, literally,  of weight, with just a degree and a half error in temperature when calculating volumes at the end of a load. That adds up when you've got 10 or 12 or 14 tanks.  So you need to leave room to expand in a tank when you 'top off.'  I like 95%, as a round figure. Mostly because at 96% a shrill alarm goes off and it wakes up the sleepers and causes loose bowels.  98%, the red lights come on and the louder 'end of the world' alarm goes off, and at that point it's fine to just go ahead and shit yourself, because it usually means you're seconds away from getting in the news and needing a new career.  

    But I digress.  So ever since the introduction of inert gas in oil tanks, the number of tank vessels that blow the fuck up has reduced enormously. 

 But, oh, wait, sometimes in your local news you hear about a company with red tugboats whose big almost ship-sized oil barges go boom, kill the people on board and make a mess, right?  Hell, right in NY harbor, years ago, and Texas just a while back... and the little barges from other companies on the inland waterways, every year or two, also, they up and go snap crackle and pop here and there as well! 

 Barges don't need to inert their tanks. It's not legally required as it is on ships. 

      Boy howdy wasn't I discomfited by this when I went to work for a tug-and-barge company. Not only are IG systems not required, NOBODY has them and less than 1% of barge tankermen know anything about them, as there's a dichotomy between ship and tug crewing and less crossover than you might think. I'm a rare bird, I guess. 

          I don't know the reasoning beyond it being expensive and requiring running water, which barges don't always have. I know I don't like the reasoning, being as I am a huge raging fanboy of going home alive, but so be it.   For me, I avoid high vapor point cargoes like gasoline or naptha and the like, the really volatile stuff. I work black oil, the smelly, tarry gross thick stuff that is hard to light on fire either accidentally or on purpose. That's my personal risk mitigation. 

 Sure, it's definitely possible to safely move volatiles by barge, un-inerted. Odds of blowing up are up there with winning the Powerball lottery. But you know, people win that fucking Powerball sometimes. On a well-run barge in a well-run company, it's vanishingly rare, of course, But some companies like the red tugboat people cut corners and pay really well, or used to, in the case of the red boat people, until they blew up one too many tankermen lol, I mean they cost an oil company too much money, and got run out of business.  Nobody cares about crewmen, of course, that's silly.  People think SOLAS came about because the Titanic killed too many people. The Titanic cost too many life insurance companies too much money by killing the rich ones and so we got SOLAS.  Thanks heaps. 

        Anyhow, those of us without red tugboats to work on are pretty safe if we use our heads. But still, I don't like it, and I don't work gasoline, personally. I have lived among the upper-crust, the shitbox, rotten rusty old tankers on shoestring budgets that still had IG systems that worked just fine. Like the song says,  How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm, once they've seen IG?  

   So it's a personal thing for me, I don't have support beyond my feels as far as my preferences go. People in hell want ice water, and I am not a crusader for expanded IG use.  And I don't speak as a rep for my company, or in criticism of it. Just giving my opinion as an overopinionated and undereducated asshole, and you know what they say about assholes and opinions. 


Friday, November 4, 2022

Brown Greens and other New York delicacies

I say a lot of negative things about New York for a guy who doesn't live there. I mean, the last few years I've spent 8 months out of the year in the harbor pretty much, and that means I spend time flying in and out of the city, staying in hotels for crew change, plus going ashore and to the office about once every 10 days or so for food and supplies and such. So I spend some time there. That is why I hate New York so much. Because I spend a fair bit of time there. 
       I appreciate that people used to love it here. And some of the older folks, they have a lot of memories here that have deep meaning to them... and there are people who are attracted to the lifestyle New York offers. Great, more power to them. 
   Positives for me? I can find whatever ethnic food I want here. OK, that's actually kind of cool. And hey, all the people means that I have a steady job here. 
 Now, some of the containers on the ships that I'll bunker are refrigerated containers. So that means they're bringing food in, but I see a LOT more food being moved on the reefer ships in the Philly/Delaware City area, where there are refrigerated containers on deck, more than you see in NY, and the holds of the ships themselves are refrigerated, so palletized and breakbulk food AND containerized food is kept fresh. The cold storage warehouses in the Philly/ Del City area must be numerous and massive. 

  Still the millions of people here in the city, by the time the food gets to them, the shit's old. 
    Fresh lettuce purchased in NY lasts between 2 and 6 days, at least from what I've experienced these last 10 years. After a bit of time, it turns brown.  At home? 10 days to 2 weeks.  
    Back to the positive column, all these people means that there are many fresh produce stands and markets, and the smell there... is divine. Seriously, that's worth the price of admission right there. One of the few positives- I tend to do a quick pass through a couple of fresh produce markets on my walks through Brooklyn, although I no longer get to do that very much. 
      So, long story short, after 10 days aboard, I am waiting for a ride ashore to load up on green stuff. We've been doing without for about a week and I'm tired of frozen vegetables and canned shit. 
   In a lot of ways, I expect living in NY is a lot like living as I did in Boston as a kid. The suburbs were nice, and far enough away from the insanity of the city as to make it pleasant. I suspect that our shoreside and office staff here, out on Long Island and in the NJ suburbs, live just fine as is, in a manner that would be similar to where I grew up. And really, that's not too bad. I wince at the thought of a daily 2 hour ride home, but I did that plenty of times in the Boston area. There were days when I fished out of the Cardinal Medieros dock in South Boston that it took me 20 minutes to drive in before the sun came up, but 90 minutes to get home, and I survived just fine. Well, I hated it and yelled a lot, but I tolerated it. I think part of the reason I chose a less well-traveled path in life was to avoid traffic.  
     At home now, with the post-covid migration into nice places, we've got a LOT more people, mostly from the northeast, moving in. Traffic has definitely increased. Jokes on them, though. You should see the northerners white-knuckling it when traffic is bumper-to-bumper and everyone's going 80.  It is funny that I bitch about traffic jams because 95 was slowed down to 70mph with all the lost refugees from NY. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Dog days

 Today is the first of two dog watches I'll stand during this tour.  We move to short watches to allow some sleep when we make the switch from nights to days. Normally night watch is quieter than day watch, but that wasn't the case. Oh, there' no phone calls from the office on night watch, which is nice, but workwise the first week was steady busy for me. Luckily we're at anchor today so when we made the watch switch, even with shorter sleep we had a nice easy day. It takes about 5 days for me to get fully adjusted to working nights, where I can get 7+ hours of sleep, so I only get a day or two of good sleep before it's time to upend my circadian rhythm and go back to normal. 

   I'll do the same thing in 2 weeks again, switch back to nights. But the upside of the 2nd dog watch is that it means it's almost time to go home. 

    With the day at anchor, I went out on deck with a grease gun and a couple of tubes and did the monthly lube circuit on all the grease fittings.  It takes about 3 tubes to see everything all slicked up. The big thing is that this gives me a reason to really go over the deck cranes up close and personal, to really eyeball everything, look for wear, etc. And I did find that the brake to stop the #1 hoist from two-blocking 

had slipped a bit- there's a 75lb steel weight that gets moved if the #1 block gets within bad-breath distance of the head of the crane, and on moving, a wire attached to it slacks off, tripping the brake and shutting down the hydraulics to the #1 hoist. And so I saw that the wire holding the weight had slipped a few inches, and I was able to reset it and crank down on it to prevent further adventures... so that's a way of saying I got to spend 45 seconds turning a wrench and prevented an annoyance later in the week, and at any rate, it's good to eye-bang a crane's bits and parts on the reg anyhow, but going over it with a finer scrutiny is not to be despised.