Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Jack Whistle

The jack whistle, or "peep" whistle, is one of two whistles on many tugboats. The ship's whistle -- the big, deep-throated horn, is used to signal other vessels. The jack whistle, on the other hand, is used to communicate within the vessel.

The jack whistle may "peep" or "toot," and it can be heard on nearby vessels and docks, but it's really all about that particular boat.

Two "jacks" is for the engineer: fire-up the engines, or come on up to the wheelhouse. One jack let's the deckhand know he's needed on deck to put up a line or take one in. Three jacks means "all finished with engines." And so on.

It seemed like a good name for a new blog about working on tugboats. Seeing how I've stretched this one way beyond crewboats.

Anyway, if you're interested, drop in for a visit.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Hello .... and Goodbye

I have started this particular entry half a dozen times now and remain uninspired. Writing, just now, feels like a slog.

Maybe because this blog has reached its logical conclusion. The heavy lifting along the hawsepipe route is done (from here on out, with the exception of some periodic STCW training, it's automatic upgrades with sea time). 

The oil patch is done, too, for the foreseeable future.

I've enjoyed writing the blog over the past three years (143 posts!). I'm grateful for the 53,000 page views, all of the kind and supportive comments, and even more for the five or six friends I've made through these pages.

Before I close it out, I’ll do my best to bring you up to date. It will be workmanlike. Just the facts. And a couple of pretty pictures.

Push-pull (and the occasional powered indirect)

Upon receiving my big(ger) boy license, I started submitting applications and resumes. A couple of the oilfield service companies, including my most recent employer, replied with congratulations, but no job offers. Most didn’t even bother to reply.

A couple of years ago, the ticket I now hold (plus the $6,000 worth of DP courses I also took) was worth an easy $650/day. This year there are many more qualified deck officers than there are working vessels to put them on.

The towing industry, on the other hand, is steadily growing. The pay has never been as good as in the oil patch, but the benefits are typically better and the schedules way bet
ter. Since my upgrade was always about being able to make a decent living while having a family life, towing seemed to be the way to go.

“Towing” is not one thing: it’s pushboats and barges on rivers and other inland waters; it’s bunkering in harbors and anchorages; it’s long ocean transits in the notch or with a massive ro-ro cargo barge on the wire.

It’s also getting container ships, tankers, bulkers and ATBs safely onto and off of docks, helping them make sharp turns and keeping them from going aground.

I’m now learning how to do those last things, working on a harbor tug on the upper Texas coast.

It’s a whole ‘nuther world, and I feel like my head is about to explode at least once a week. I’m learning to navigate four different ports, how to work with pilots, and how to effectively and efficiently use z-drives – all at the same time.

I work with a good mix of academy grads and hawsepipers, nice guys all and really good at their jobs and incredibly helpful. And for reasons I don’t entirely understand, my first boat (and the one upon which I’m completing my Towing Officer Assessment Record, or TOAR) is – as New England Waterman put it – “one of the dopest rigs around.”

It’s all kind of awesome.

So that’s that. Maybe I’ll start a tugboat blog.

In other news …

I had intended to write a day-by-day account of our adventures on the Gulf of Maine, where my wife and I joined another couple for an 8-day trawler charter. I was going to write about appropriately-named BAR Harbor, and Frenchboro, and Stonington, and Somesville, and – probably my favorite stop on our 118-nm itinerary – Isle au Haut.

It was a terrifically fun and relaxing vacation. The scenery was magnificent, though the seals were shy. The company was first-rate. We had a few, minor, emergencies that were effectively contained.

We ate lobster, climbed a mountain, saw some amazing sunsets. Here – have some photos:

I’ll be sure to let y’all know if I gin up a new blog. Until then, keep the dry side up.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Hope had mourning on

Hope had grown grey hairs/Hope had mourning on/Trenched with tears, carved with cares/Hope was twelve hours gone.*

For 33 families, hope officially died tonight.

Earlier this evening, at sunset, the U.S. Coast Guard called-off the search for survivors of El Faro, a 790-foot, 42-year-old cargo ship that now, we must be certain, sank in 15,000 feet of water near the Bahamas sometime late last week.

The complete loss of a large cargo ship in domestic service is not something one expects to hear in 2015. 

Weather forecasts, real-time communication, lifesaving technology and training all have conspired to make mariners’ lives magnitudes safer now than ever before in the ancient history of seafaring.

How the hell did this happen?

We know a couple of things, and can make educated guesses about a couple of others.

We know that the storm that became Hurricane Joaquin was precocious and unpredictable. It strengthened rapidly between the time El Faro left Jacksonville, Fla., and the time the ship was lost.  Forecast tracks were all over the place.

We know that the ship lost propulsion at some point, and we can guess – based on the master’s last known communication to his office – that the vessel was taking on water.

We know that a vessel of that size and type, dead in the water and at the mercy of 100-knot winds and 40- or 50-foot waves is liable to lie beam to those seas and roll profoundly, perhaps catastrophically.

We can guess that a 42-year-old ship, heavily laden, might break-up given sufficiently violent environmental forces.

Investigators will, in the coming weeks and months, definitively answer many of those questions. The Coast Guard has a pretty good idea of where the ship went down. That agency and the National Transportation Safety Board, with whom they will share the investigation, have the means to retrieve El Faro’s Voyage Data Recorder, or VDR (a ship’s equivalent to an airliners “black box”).

It is the most natural thing in the world, for all of us, to want to know a reason and even more than that, to be able to lay the blame for such a tragedy at the feet of someone: the captain who shouldn’t have sailed, the shipping company that should have provided more modern lifeboats or should have let the schedule slide (Tote Maritime, the vessel owner, has to all public appearances, behaved laudably during this tragedy), the National Hurricane Center forecasters who should have better predicted the storm’s path.

Let’s not, okay?

Merchant shipping does not come to a standstill for weather. It does routinely route around the fringes of a storm. From all accounts, the ship was in good condition and had recently passed both Coast Guard and ABS safety inspections. 

There is ample evidence that the master of the vessel was well-trained, seasoned, and not a jerk.

The meteorologists in Miami are keenly aware, I’m sure, that lives depend on their getting it right, and they typically do a damned fine job.

It is cold comfort to 33 families and countless friends, but the investigation will provide answers to both the why and how of this disaster. Those answers may drive changes that make the always-risky** business of going down to the sea in ships just a little bit safer.

It is only because of previous disasters that we now have load lines, EPIRBs, survival suits and the Coast Guard’s rescue swimmer program.

Speaking of the United States Coast Guard, from everything I can see, they (and the U.S. Navy and Air Force and merchant mariners aboard company-chartered tugboats) did a hell of a job under very difficult conditions.

They gave everything they had – literally risked their lives in those early hours -- to try to find the crew of the El Faro. When they suspended the search this evening*** I am quite certain that their frustration and disappointment was second only to that felt by the families of the missing.

Merchant mariners, a pretty gripey lot to begin with, especially love to kvetch about the Coast Guard in both its regulatory and lifesaving functions. We say they are either too picky in a safety inspection or not picky enough because owners are exerting their influence.

We complain that the licensing scheme is a Gordian knot of red tape and the evaluators at the National Maritime Center a bunch of nincompoops. We huff that sectors are too slow or too clueless to do more than direct or repeat radio traffic when there is a casualty.

Those are some of our complaints, a few of which are based on real challenges facing that overburdened and underfunded service. Not least of which is the diversion of critical search and rescue funding and assets to dubious “homeland security” missions.

But tonight and without reservation, hats off and thank you to those brave men and women.

For the families of the men and women of the El Faro, tonight my heart breaks for you. My prayer is that you will find peace and comfort and that your mariners will be remembered with love and admiration.

Crew of the SS El Faro as provided by TOTE Maritime:

Louis Champa
Palm Coast, Florida
Roosevelt Clark
Jacksonville, Florida
Sylvester Crawford Jr.
Lawrenceville, Georgia
Michael Davidson
Windham, Maine
Brookie Davis
Jacksonville, Florida
Keith Griffin
Fort Myers, Florida
Frank Hamm
Jacksonville, Florida
Joe Hargrove
Orange Park, Florida
Carey Hatch
Jacksonville, Florida
Michael Holland
North Wilton, Maine
Jack Jackson
Jacksonville, Florida
Jackie Jones, Jr.
Jacksonville, Florida
Lonnie Jordan
Jacksonville, Florida
Piotr Krause
Mitchell Kuflik
Brooklyn, New York
Roan Lightfoot
Jacksonville Beach, Florida
Jeffrey Mathias
Kingston, Massachusetts
Dylan Meklin
Rockland, Maine
Marcin Nita
Jan Podgorski
James Porter
Jacksonville, Florida
Richard Pusatere
Virginia Beach, Virginia
Theodore Quammie
Jacksonville, Florida
Danielle Randolph
Rockland, Massachusetts
Jeremie Riehm
Camden, Delaware
Lashawn Rivera
Jacksonville, Florida
Howard Schoenly
Cape Coral, Florida
Steven Shultz
Roan Mountain, Tennessee
German Solar-Cortes
Orlando, Florida
Anthony Thomas
Jacksonville, Florida
Andrzej Truszkowski
Mariette Wright
St. Augustine, Florida
Rafal Zdobych

*Wreck of the Deutschland, Gerard Manley Hopkins

** 23 fatalities per 100,000 – twice as high as police officers (11.1 per 100,000) and three times higher than firefighters (7 per 100,000). By comparison, loggers and commercial fishermen rank at the top of dangerous occupations, with fatality rates topping 100 per 100,000.

***In all likelihood, the survival window for many of the victims of the sinking closed some time earlier. The Coast Guard uses a sophisticated modeling program, developed for them by the U.S. Army, called the Probability of Survival Decision Aid, or PSDA. The actual computer program is not, so far as I know, available to the general public, but some good technical descriptions of how it works are, here and here. I note with some personal satisfaction and relief that fat guys do far better than skinny guys when dumped in the ocean.

Monday, August 3, 2015

A Hawsepiper's Guide to Applying, Studying and Testing for Master and Mate 500/1600

Now that I have had a few days to decompress and recover, here is my best advice for anyone working on that next upgrade.

Pre-requisites and Approval to Test:

The very first step in this process is to submit an application to the U.S. Coast Guard (National Maritime Center, via your Regional Exam Center). An evaluator at the NMC will determine that you have the required sea time on appropriate tonnage and routes and that you have completed all of the required endorsements. (Find the quick-and-easy guide to any license or rating in the NMC checklists).

At a minimum, and only prior to Dec. 31, 2016*, this will include: Bridge Resource Management, AB (Special, Limited or Unlimited)/Able Seafarer-Deck; Lifeboatman (the qualifying course is called Proficiency in Survival Craft or PSC-Lifeboatman), Rating Forming Part of a Navigation Watch (RFPNW) Assessments, Radar Observer Unlimited, STCW Basic Safety Training or Basic Training and Advanced Firefighting.

You have choices for these courses. For instance, if you take Basic and Advanced Firefighting together, you don't need to repeat two days of Basic Firefighting in the STCW Basic Safety Training.

Most schools will offer a discounted rate and allow you to take only the segments you need -- in this case, Personal Survival Techniques (Water Survival) Personal and Social Responsibility and CPR/First Aid (if you do not already have a current certification, and most working mariners will).

If you have a special circumstance -- for instance naval sea service, service as an Army Watercraft Operator or sea service on a submarine -- it may be worth your while to hire a license consultant. A search for "license consultant" on will yield a handful of names of folks who have done good work for mariners in the past.

Apply for every permutation of the license you believe you may be entitled to.

For instance: if you are shooting for Master or Mate OSV, check your sea time and see if you might also qualify for Master or Mate (non-trade restricted). Master 500 or 1600 will get you STCW II/2, but  Mate requires assessments**. (Master will too, once they are published).

Your evaluator will approve you for only what you ask for (and sometimes not that, if she's not paying attention ... or at least that's my experience).

Also consider this: If you qualify for Master 500 or Master 1600, you also qualify for Mate of the same tonnage. Apply for both, because there is no path from Master to 3rd Mate Unlimited, but the Mate 500/1600 test is the same test for 3rd Mate and if you pass it once you can upgrade with only sea time on appropriate tonnage.

Other advantages of knocking-out Mate while testing for Master (or vice-versa, if qualified) include:
  • the material is largely identical, only presented in different proportions and with a different emphasis; study once, pass both.
  • as noted, after Dec. 31, 2016, the pre-requisites for either license become considerably more onerous (and expensive).
  • mate upgrades with seatime to 1600 GRT or non-trade restricted 3000 GT after one year of sea service (upon application, of course); master takes two years.
Regardless, your first (and probably second and perhaps even third) billet with the new license (whether you hold master or mate or both) is, with a probability exceeding 95 percent, going to be as a mate.

To save on evaluation and issuance fees, you may submit your AB application simultaneously with your application for master or mate (or both) and request the NMC to issue it all at once. Another tip for saving on fees: make the new issuance your renewal.

Once you have your Approval to Test:

Congratulations! Your letter is good for a year. If you haven't been studying, it's time to start.

Lapware, Captain Joe's, Hawsepipe, Murphy's books, Upgrade U ... where to begin?

The biggest problem with Lapware (which a lot of folks have used very successfully) is that it requires a good internet connection, which might be a barrier if you are studying during your hitch.

It's also expensive, $150 for the first month and $100 per month thereafter. Captain Joe's ($89.99 one-time purchase) offers reference materials and comes on a CD, so that's a pretty good, comprehensive option. The Hawsepipe ($94.95 one-time purchase, good for a year) thumb drive, likewise.

My advice: keep it simple and keep it accessible. For IOS users, this means Upgrade U ($29.99), which is comprehensive and easy to use and available for both iPads and iPhones.

For Android users, you'll have to cobble together several apps to achieve the same result. The ones I used were: CaptainQuiz Deck ($4.99) for Deck General, Deck Safety and Nav Gen, and Rules of the Road Pro (99 cents) for Rules (also includes tips and some reference materials).

Note that the CaptainQuiz does not include reference materials -- it is current questions and answers only, from the Coast Guard database. This is helpful, but to understand the material you'll need either hardcopies (or digital versions -- usually free) of the CFRs, Bowditch, etc.; or you'll need to purchase one of the other prep packages (such as Captain Joe's or Hawsepipe, or Upgrade U).

Speaking of reference material, familiarize yourself with CFRs 33, 46 and 49. You will use these your entire career, and you also will need to know how to find information in them in the test room (where they are provided as "available resources").

As soon as you have your approval to test letter, or even before, begin using the applications of your choice above to study rules, deck general, deck safety and nav general.

Mastering Terrestrial Navigation:

Terrestrial Navigation, or T-Nav, is the big, ugly strainer that filters-out those who would like to run bigger boats and those who will be allowed to try. The module itself is called "Navigation Problems: Near Coastal (or Oceans, as applicable). T-Nav problems also show up in the Nav General module.

As I may have mentioned in an earlier post, it involves some math.

I know a couple of guys who taught themselves all or some of the t-nav calculations and formulae; my hat is off. Sincerely. For the rest of us mere mortals, I strongly recommend a prep course or a tutor. If you would like to know who I used and how to get in touch him, e-mail me or send me a message.

Because he absolutely rocked, and he didn't teach answers, he taught theory and process -- processes I can use for the rest of my career.

Plan on spending $2000-$3000 and three weeks, including evenings and weekends, learning and practicing.

Your plots will include t-nav problems, so plotting should be part of your test prep and is usually included in a prep course. Plotting, like most things in life, gets better with practice, so practice. A lot.

Your t-nav test prep course probably won't include a whole lot of rules, deck safety, deck gen or nav gen (though my instructor did spend a couple of hours reviewing each and teaching things like stowage factor, dewpoint and relative humidity, and stability -- and we completed a rules test each morning). So, again, study that stuff before you get to class.

Here's what you'll need for t-nav and plotting:

American Practical Navigator (Bowditch 1981, Vol. 2). Get the larger, hardcover version if you can find it (used is fine!); it's the one that will be in the test room and, for my middle-aged eyes, some of the tables were much easier to read. Everything else, including page numbers, is the same in the soft binding.

The 1981 Nautical Almanac, and 1983 Reprint from Tide and Current Tables and 1983 Reprint from the Light Lists. All available here, and elsewhere.

It should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway ... for the purposes of testing, and for test prep, you must use the 1981/1983 versions of the publications listed above. In practical application, the current versions work the same way, but all of the Coast Guard's test questions are based on the years above, and they continue to be reprinted for only that purpose.

Navigation Rules, August 2014, available here and elsewhere. (This really isn't a t-nav specific resource, but you should have it anyway.)

TI-30XA Calculator (some scientific calculators are not approved for use in the test room; this one is), available here.

Plotting tools: Parallel rulers (15-inch or 24-inch really are handy); triangles (if you don't know how to use these, learn, because they make life so much easier and angles so much more accurate); two ultralight dividers (one for use with a pencil lead, one for use with divider points only); draftsman's erasers; mechanical pencils.

A set of training charts (Block Island Sound, Long Island Sound and Chesapeake).

Maneuvering boards -- two pads,probably. Available here.

Other useful items include: Post-It Notes, sticky page tabs, several college-ruled notebooks, and 4-color highlighters.

Scheduling a Test and Testing:

Mariners are free to schedule exams at any Regional Exam Center. I tested at REC Houston, and while I assume most RECs are similar in layout and procedure, I can only vouch for my experience.

You may schedule the exams anytime after you are approved to test (within 12 months, obviously). You may do this online at the NMC website, or simply call the NMC (1-800-IASKNMC) and a customer service agent will schedule it for you.

The Houston REC was open 0700-1500, and we were discouraged from starting any module when we had less than two hours to complete it (i.e., after 1300).

I noticed that online, you are offered options to schedule up to three days. These are actually "start" days -- the RECs know that you will have a minimum of six modules.

You must complete two modules per day, in any order you desire. If you fail one, that module goes to the end of the line and you may retest immediately upon completing the other modules or anytime within 90 days. Fail three and you must start the entire cycle over again.
If you decide to test for both master and mate, as I and several others did, you may begin with either master or mate, but must complete that entire cycle before beginning the next one. One useful strategy with regard to this arrangement is to save deck safety and deck gen for day two (or three) of your first cycle, and begin with deck safety and deck gen of the next cycle the same day.

Our examiner allowed us to review the exams immediately after grading to see what we missed. I strongly recommend doing this if you do not score 100 percent on any given module.

The exam room is chock-full of reference materials, which you are free to access for any module other than Navigation Rules. Many of the answers to questions in Nav Gen, Deck Gen and Deck Safety are in these references. Give yourself time to look them up. If you are familiar with the CFRs (and Bowditch, the Light List and Pub. 102) when you go in, this will speed things up for you.

When completing your plot, be sure to use the Light List to verify that you are plotting bearings or ranges to the correct light or feature. Each plot (for mate, anyway) usually has at least one question that is answered in the Coast Pilot, as well.

Once you have successfully completed testing, your examiner will email the scores to NMC and your new license will be issued without further action on your part. If you fail any modules, again, you have up to 90 days to retest those modules (the ones you passed, unless you failed three or more, still count).

Take advantage of the time to brush-up on the subjects you had trouble with and go back confident that the second time is the charm.

Of course we all want to master the material and nail the exams on the first go-around, but nowhere, on anyone's merchant mariner credential, is there a section that shows your test scores or how many times you repeated a test. Just like the guy who was last in his class in med school and squeaked through the boards is still called "Doctor," you will still get a credential and a shot at proving yourself in the wheelhouse.

A last note on the REC: I suppose it might be respectful to show up in long pants and real shoes, but most of the guys who tested at the same time I did wore shorts and flip-flops. This is partly because it was July on the Texas Gulf Coast. But no eyebrows were raised, and it wasn't a problem. Be comfortable -- those hours in the exam room are like dog hours; a full day feels a little like a week.

Near Coastal or Oceans?

The difference between the Near Coastal and Oceans licenses is a matter of celestial navigation, which is an additional module, and different Nav General (and possibly Deck General -- I'm not clear on this) modules.

T-Nav gets you about halfway to C-Nav, from what I can tell, and it makes sense to build on that -- immediately or later. I initially thought I would do it immediately, but belatedly decided that following the advice of some friends to add that route later was the better part of valor.

My navigation tutor used an example from antiquity: the dog who saw his reflection in the water and decided he wanted *that* bone, too, so dropped the one in his mouth to grab it and ended up with nothing.

From a practical perspective, it doesn't matter at all for most oil patch jobs -- by default, nearly all of the domestic billets will be on vessels operating within the 200-nautical mile limit. Likewise for harbor tugs.

Where it would make a difference is in working foreign, in some jobs in the Pacific Northwest, or in ocean towing, so it's worthwhile to consider for those reasons.

Finally ....

Hawsepipin' aint easy. If you're doing it, you already know this.

If I had it all to do over again, knowing what I know now, I would have got myself to one of the maritime academies right out of high school.

If I knew then what I know now, and it had been available a little later in life, I might have opted for MITAGS-PMI Workboat Academy, which by all accounts is a terrific program.

As it stands, I've been able to make a decent living and I've learned a lot of practical and boat-handling skills doing it this way. It's taken a little longer, but at the end of the day I took and passed the same test academy grads take with a just year more invested (and zero student loan debt -- well, from this experience, anyhow).

It will take me a little longer to receive the same license the academy grads get, but from a practical and experiential standpoint I feel like I'm ahead of the game.

Still, I am mindful that the credential -- the license -- only says "You May." It says nothing about "You Can." It's just a ticket to try.

I'm looking forward to trying.

*This applies only if you began qualifying training or sea service prior to March 24, 2014. That means one day of sea service or training for one endorsement prior to that date. If you don't have this, or are testing for your upgrade after the beginning of 2017, you will, at a minimum, also have to complete courses in ship handling, stability, meteorology and search and rescue.

**The assessments are a bit of a catch-22 for most hawsepipers, or at least those taking the wheelhouse-wheelhouse route: they require an STCW-endorsed officer (500GT or better, usually) to sign-off on them, but prior to upgrading, guys coming from the 100-ton world usually won't have access to such a person for the length of time needed to do the assessments. Add the OICNW endorsement later, post-upgrade, or spend a week and $1300 getting them done in the simulator at Marine Professional Training in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

And ... Done!

A couple of the problems in terrestrial navigation deal with the concept of slip -- the difference between one's theoretical and actual advance. All you need is the pitch of the propeller (feet per revolution) and RPM (revolutions per minute) so know how you're doing.

When one falls short of the theoretical distance traveled, we call that positive slip (though it's really a negative).

Negative slip is a good thing -- you're moving farther or faster than your RPMs indicate.

Slip can result from any number of conditions -- a foul hull, set and drift, draft, whatever.

Anyway, there's a nifty "per line" operation to calculate slip -- or distance traveled, or just about anything else. It's kind of magical.

Reflecting on the 5-year journey to the successful completion of my mate and master exams this week, it occurred to me that I am about a month behind the target date I set three years ago.

Just one month. Or positive slip of about .027 percent.

Given that there were months of classes (that weren't always scheduled during my time off, or didn't always have available seats) for endorsements that cost something on the order of $10,000, lots of sea time on appropriate tonnage and routes, and the fact that I believed myself to be functionally innumerate until about three weeks ago (and learning to navigate the old-fashioned way involves algebra and trigonometry), that's kind of amazing.

Two children under five and a teenager: really, no one is more surprised than me that I got this done.

The utterly unsurprising part is that I didn't do it by myself. 

There was a grand plan that involved decisions about what we, as a family, would spend money on and where we would live; the work my wife would do, the times I would need to be home to take care of the littles, the sacrifices she would make while I was away.

We called-on grandparents, who graciously stopped some gaps for us. We weathered some pretty rough days and weeks during long (28-day and more, sometimes) hitches, because that's typically what 100-ton captains work in the oilfield, and that is typically not conducive to family life.

A couple of friends who climbed the hawsepipe ahead of me reached down and gave me a hand up with advice, study materials and encouragement.

Believe me when I say I will pay that forward.

This past month I and two other guys engaged the services of what must surely be the smartest, most efficient and most passionate teacher of terrestrial navigation in these United States.

We rented a house together in Galveston, and studied and practiced 10 and 14 and sometimes 18 hours a day for 21 days straight.

It was a mountain of material. And I didn't know anything about the scientific part of a scientific calculator when we started. "Okay, next, find the sin of d ...."

Uh ... where's the "sin button?"

At one point someone mentioned we were doing trigonometry. I began hyperventilating.

The thing is, not only did I learn the stuff well enough to pass the tests, I even began to understand the why and how of it all. Some of the calculations we use to solve navigation problems are downright elegant.

Anyway, all this to say: thanks. Thanks to my family for the  incredible support on this journey. Thanks to my friends -- the ones who went ahead of me, the ones making the journey with me, and the ones just a few steps behind.

And a huge thanks to Andy, our instructor and coach this past month. E-mail me if you want his contact information or the dates of upcoming classes.

One of the frustrations -- and also the joys -- of the career I've chosen is that the lessons never end. There's always another endorsement, refresher or raise-in-grade to knock out. On the boat itself, nearly every hitch brings something I haven't seen or had to do before.

So, really, I'm not done at all. Just done with this step and taking a short breather before tackling the next rung of the ladder.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Azimuths and Amplitudes ...

Now in the last week of the upgrade prep course, and just six days out from testing at the Regional Exam Center, I can't quite believe how much material we've covered.

Holy crap, it's a lot of stuff. And a lot of math, which -- if you had asked me beforehand -- I would have told you I can't possibly do.

Except I can, apparently. Who knew?

About five days ago, faced with a small mountain of material I had yet to master, some of which gets me about halfway to celestial, I decided, regretfully, to change my route from oceans to near coastal.

That knocks two modules off my exam and makes a couple of others a bit easier.

Shortly after making the decision, I printed, signed, scanned and emailed a letter to the National Maritime Center asking for an amendment to my approval to test. That was at about 1030. At around 1400, I had the amended letter in my inbox.

Apparently you only have to call your congressman once to get continued stellar customer service.

I'll have covered enough by the end of this course that I believe I can probably swing celestial with just a little long-distance tutoring. Or maybe a lot of long-distance tutoring. We'll see.

The only reason I think it's possible, much less probable, is because our instructor is crazy good at this stuff.

He's not only good at algebra and trig, but really good at translating abstract ideas into actionable tools to solve problems.

And he's a fun guy, as are the other two mariners taking the course. Good thing, since we're all staying in the same house we're studying in, and the studying is averaging about 14 hours a day.

As you might expect, there have been a couple of study breaks.

One of the coolest things about this experience, for me, is the opportunity to get to know Galveston a little better.

I had a South Texan's prejudices about the city -- I still think the beaches are pretty crappy -- and have been happily surprised to find it endlessly fascinating. It's a tiny, old, very urban city.

I guess its history would point to that, but seeing it first-hand (other than driving in our out for work, or during a quick weekend visit) is something else.

Anyhow, that's the report from the waterfront. I'm underway making way this week.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Father's Day

Quite a few men I know are hoping they’ll be able to catch a cell signal or a few minutes on the sat phone to hear their kids’ voices while they are at sea today. At least one no doubt will be monitoring the SSB, hoping to touch base with a grown son on that man's Gulf shrimp trawler.

Others – too many others this Father’s Day – are home, but up early and worrying, perhaps parsing the household budget one more time, looking for that last tiny piece of fat to trim. They’re thinking about their kids too … wondering how they’ll afford a summer camp, a doctor’s appointment, a birthday party, a new pair of shoes.

The oil patch can be a lavish and exciting mistress, but ultimately she’s a fickle bitch.


Well, I’m still working the plan, which until I head out for a prep course and testing early next month, is all kids all the time. I. Am. So. Tired.

The 2-year-old takes a diaper change to be an invitation to beat some internal five-minute deadline to shit his britches again. The kid is a non-stop poop factory. He’s the sweet (and stinky) one.

The 5-year-old is a blur of tease and whine and questions and cuts and scrapes and bruises. If I had the money, I’d hire not a babysitter, but an umpire, to keep peace between the littles. He’s the smart one.

It’s a good thing they are both cute.

The teen – the inscrutable one, the strong one -- is here this month, and I’m working hard to keep some long-deferred promises to him. We just finished-up our PADI open water certifications as dive buddies … something I’ve wanted to do since I was his age and that we first looked into together when he was 10.

Our check-out dives took place smack-dab in the middle of a tropical storm and flash flood watch. Dive shops don’t use JSAs. Seriously, I was a little surprised there was not some formal risk analysis procedure.

Trying now to figure out how to schedule (and afford) flight lessons for Number One Son, among a dozen other more minor projects.

Sixteen years and three children into this fatherhood thing, here’s what I think I know:
  1. We are all making this up as we go along.
  2. And we’re all doing the best we can with what we have and hoping that passing grades are awarded for effort, nevermind results.
  3. Having a kid takes the paint right off a man, as my friend Jon Dee Graham sings. For more than a decade and a half I’ve experienced at least one brief jolt of terror every single day, usually upon waking. And, at home or at work, thinking about my boys takes up a significant portion of my mental and emotional bandwidth. Every. Single. Day.
  4. There are lots of ways to love your kids, and one of those is to get up and go to work day after day, month after month, especially when your work takes you far away from those for whom you are laboring. My own father taught me that. He’s about the workingest man I’ve ever met. When I was really young, he rarely had less than a 12-hour-day, much less a free one. Now, nearing 70, he has retired twice. His longest retirement lasted three weeks before he was back at work full-time.
  5. That said, money comes and money goes and there’s always more of it out there somewhere. Time … not so much. Now, in my 40s, I can’t remember much of anything my parents bought for me when I was a kid, but I remember well the fishing trips and camping on the national seashore and in the hill country and hanging out with the big ol’ crazy family at the grandparents’.
  6. If you are working 2:1 on the premise that you are making a “better life” possible for your family by stacking all that green, you may need to take another look at what they are missing – and what you are missing – when you are gone two-thirds of each year. Everyone’s circumstances are different, of course, and your mileage may vary. Still ….
  7. Having children might just let you relive the best parts of your own childhood.
  8. Before I had kids, I literally could not (accurately) imagine what that would be like. Now that I have kids, I shudder to think of what life would be like without them.
Anyway, here’s to all you dads out there, doing your best for the small people who may appreciate how hard you tried only long after your labors are done.

Keep on keeping on my brothers. Get some rest when you can.

And Happy Father’s Day.