Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Happy Boat

A workboat is a pretty small place to spend two or four weeks. It’s not only a workplace, it’s also home to four men from disparate backgrounds. Here are a few suggestions to make that time as pleasant and productive as possible. They also are notes to myself. It’s a work in progress; changes, additions or deletions may occur:
  1. As soon as you get on the boat, figure-out where stuff is and how things work.
  2. Do the job you were hired to do first, but learn someone else’s job in your spare time.
  3. If you’re not busy and someone else is working on something, ask if you can help.
  4. Pick up trash whenever and wherever you find it.
  5. Wash your own damned dishes.
  6. Stuff spills on boats, but it doesn’t wipe itself up. The deckhand is not your maid.
  7. Be polite, but more than that be kind when you have the opportunity; you never know what a shipmate has going on at home.
  8. Never eat or drink the last of something without asking.
  9. Love your boat and she’ll love you back.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

About my Boat

The boat I work on was built by C&G Boatworks in Bayou La Batre about 10 years ago. She differs from a lot of crewboats in that she has a high, fo’c’sle bow, much like a typical mini-supply boat.

She’s 145-ft long, and has a 29-ft. beam. We have a clear cargo deck 87 feet long and 25 feet wide. Maximum displacement is 380 long tons, and loaded-down she draws about eight-and-a-half feet. Gross registered displacement is 89 tons, though by international measurements she’s over 300.

We can pump water or fuel at about 200 gpm, and our two fire monitors put out 1000 gpm. We carry two 150-pound Danforth anchors.

Fully loaded, with as much as 300 tons of cargo, her five Caterpillar 3412s will drive her at about 14.5 knots. Light, she’ll do a little better than 18 knots, and I’ve hit 21 surfing.

So, we’re not quite as fast as a lot of traditional crewboats, but we probably can carry a bit more water and fuel. And we can’t carry quite as much as the utility boats, but we’re a lot faster.

The wheelhouse is more spacious than I’ve seen on other comparably-sized crewboats or utility boats. There are two helm stations, the forward, “point A to point B” station, and the aft station for close-quarters maneuvering, docking and cargo operations.

The wheelhouse also contains a two-seat dinette, a large chart table and nav station and two fairly comfortable helm chairs.

Down one deck from the wheelhouse is the lounge, on the main deck, where there is a head (bathroom, for you lubbers), storage, and airline-type seats for 64 passengers. Down another staircase is the accommodations deck, just above the waterline but deep in the aluminum hull, which makes it the most stable spot on the boat.

Accommodations include six, two-man staterooms (our entire crew is six, including the two not on rotation at any given time, so our stateroom assignments are permanent), another head with shower, a laundry room with full-size washer and dryer, a galley with residential-size refrigerator, stove and microwave, and a large dinette that can accommodate all of us at the same time.

Forward of the accommodations area is a watertight hatch that leads to the forepeak and bow thruster room. Ahead of that is a collision bulkhead and our chain locker.

Just aft of the galley is another watertight hatch that leads to the machinery room – freezer, work benches, tools and fuel tanks. Another watertight hatch leads to the engine room, and one behind that to the generator room, where ship’s service power is supplied by two John Deeres. The last compartment is the rudder room.

From the lounge on the main deck, a watertight door leads to the cargo deck. An overhang and crash rails protect the area immediately behind the lounge, and that’s where our walk-in cooler is, as well as a large storage locker.

A ladder on the port side leads to the fo’c’sle deck, where two watertight doors provide access to the wheelhouse. Another ladder leads to the top of the wheelhouse and gives us access to our EPIRB, navigation lights, radars and other antennas, and three spotlights.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


I said in the previous post that we don’t have a lot of bugs or birds in the field we usually work. I haven’t seen any noteworthy pelagic birds yet, but a yellow-billed cuckoo did land on the boat the other day.

I suspect that during the spring migration, in particular, we’ll get some neo-tropical fallout aboard the boat.

We’ve had some interesting moths hitch rides. Back at the dock, there’s a resident alligator and I’m told that in the winter there are lots of bald eagles along the Atchafalya and Gulf Intracoastal Waterway here.

Otherwise, the birds are pretty much the same we see on the Texas Gulf Coast – White Ibis, Great Blue Herons, Laughing Gulls, Brown Pelicans, grackles and mockingbirds top the list.

Out in our regular field, we frequently see large barracudas and the occasional shark around the platforms. Blue runners (hardtails) and Bermuda chubs are common on the surface. Dolphins (dorado, mahi-mahi) cruise through from time to time. Haven’t seen any tuna or billfish yet, but I’m sure I will.

It’s a pity the company has a no-fishing policy. I’m pretty sure our platforms are loaded with snapper, grouper and amberjack.

I’ve fleetingly glimpsed a few dolphins (the mammals) out here; I didn’t get a good look, but they were small and I’m guessing were the Atlantic white-spotted species.

The coolest critters I’ve seen so far are the flying fish. We have big ones and little ones. The big ones, which sometimes land on our deck, look a lot like mullet with wings. The little ones look just like grasshoppers taking flight from a field, and I’m pretty sure they occupy about the same ecological niche out here.

Debby does Florida

Well, Debby apparently decided on Florida, and what we thought would be a couple of valuable days at the dock with clear deck space (valuable because we would be able to get some painting done) ended abruptly when our customer called us back out to stand by in a field about 30 miles farther inshore (and 200 feet shallower) than the one we usually work.

It’s crowded here. Platforms and satellites everywhere Lots of bugs and birds, too, which we don’t see too much of out at the edge of the shelf.

Because a lot of these little satellites don’t have helipads on them, the guys in this field move around by boat a lot more. I accomplished my first six swing rope (think Tarzan with a hard hat)  personnel transfers in a side sea and 3-knot current today and only smacked one platform. No damage, thankfully.

Tomorrow sometime, certainly not before the field boss wakes up and maybe not until the end of the day, we’ll head in. As soon as my relief arrives, I head home. Anxious to see my boys and long-suffering spouse, wear flip-flops and sleep in a bed I can really stretch out in.

But, I’m also not dreading coming back to work. It’s not always fun, but it’s usually interesting and the rest of this crew has been good company so far.

No Service

So, I have unlimited texts and free roaming across the nation on my AT&T plan, except in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone offshore, where I have to sign-up for an international calling plan just to get 59-cent-a-minute calls and 50 free texts per month (after which they cost four bits each).

A company called PetroCom apparently has the monopoly out here, and coverage is actually pretty good. Except when we’re sitting right under a huge communications tower, as at this moment, when we have no service whatsoever.

Even when I can send and receive texts, picture mail is out, as is any other sort of data usage. When I hired-on, I was told that electronic logs are coming to our boats soon, and with them we would have e-mail. That would be nice.

We do have a satellite phone, but it only dials and receives calls to our office and answering service. Good in an emergency, but not much help finding out how the kids are doing.

One of our captains brought his own Sirius receiver to the boat, where it stays, so we can pick up radio news and sports and Channel 60 – “Outlaw Country” – out of Austin. That station plays a lot of Texas music – everything from Guy Clark to Gurf Morlix.

We get our weather either through NOAA Weather Radio when in range, or through our Navtex (weatherfax) system. Neither is optimal, and we’re collectively bargaining for a TracVision installation (so we can keep an eye on the weather, natch).

Some time ago the company offered to pay for the equipment if the crew would foot the monthly bill. It would come to about $100, split six ways. Sounds worth it to me.

Figuring it Out

Toddlers sometimes seem like little geniuses, because they learn so much so fast. Not surprising when you consider they come into the world knowing nothing.

I feel like a toddler captain right now – not because I’ve exhibited any particular genius, but because I have so much to learn.

It starts with how to handle the boat. A platform operator asked me the other day, before we began pumping water, whether we planned to catch a line or if I was “just gonna crewboat it.”

“Crewboating,” then, is the art and science of getting a 300-ton, 145-foot-long vessel to move sideways, forwards and backwards, or maybe just moving the stern a few feet one direction or the other.

Most boats with two or more screws will “walk,” or move sideways, to some degree. Large workboats, with as many as five engines and both left-hand and right-hand propellers, do it pretty easily. Lots of horsepower helps.

Wind, seas and current all play a role in how we make our approach and set-up the boat to transfer any kind of cargo. Boats can be moved and held by brute force, or gently coaxed in cooperation with the elements. The latter approach is more elegant, and easier on machinery.

However a captain sets-up his boat, he probably already has a bail-out plan – whether it’s to walk the boat off the platform, pivot away or pull away in forward. In contests between aluminum hulls and steel platform legs, the steel usually wins, so we try to avoid actual contact.

I spent the first two days on this boat just trying to figure out what stuff was called – which of the items on our deck were totes, which were baskets, which were crane boxes and which were grocery boxes. Then I had to learn the difference between a strap and a sling, a two-part and a four-part.

We have a crackerjack engineer aboard who is pretty good at explaining stuff; I’m trying to soak up as much of his knowledge about our Caterpillar 3412 engines as I can.

While all this is going on, I’m learning our field – which numbers go with which platforms, which platforms have decent crane operators and which ones I have to be extra careful with. And then there’s the Atchafalaya River – not the easiest harbor approach in the world, especially in the dark.

Did I mention the paperwork? We have four separate logbooks to update each day, voyage plans, safety meetings, job safety analyses and watch turnover notes. Oh, and every week we turn in a requisition form for supplies.

All the while, I’m familiarizing myself with company policies and trying to get to know the guys I work and live with two-thirds of the year.

There’s a new challenge every day and I haven’t been bored yet.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sh*t Captains Say

I love old captains. You know, the guys who started out on shrimp boats at age 13 and have ridden-out at least a couple of hurricanes. These are fellows who have bent a few wheels, put a boat or two on the mud, and can fix just about anything that floats. Maybe they don’t read a lot of books, but each carries an encyclopedia of common sense and hard-earned knowledge in his head.

The best are happy to teach, and people like me owe then a great deal.

They’re often judgmental, too, as in: “That right there is a no-boat-running motherf*cker.”

Or, as the captain of a boat (four miles away) said to me over the radio the other night as I was picking my way down the Atchafalaya River for the first time: “Son, that spotlight burns out you gonna be in a real mess, ain’t ya?” (My reply: “Nah, I got two.”)

On my first overnight solo watch offshore, the master’s instructions were pretty simple: “Just keep going thataway, and don’t run over any of them green dots (radar returns). You oughta be okay.”

Captains aren’t the only ones out here who say funny stuff. The other day we were sitting around in the wheelhouse and our engineer was speculating about where he could build some parts storage shelves in the forepeak. I recalled that I had seen the door to my closet stashed up there.

“I can just put that door back on, right? Get it out of your way?”

“No, you can’t,” he replied. “Training captains aren’t allowed to have closet doors. In fact, you’re not even supposed to have a door on your room.”

The excellent mariner's site gCaptain has a great member-contributed list of captains' witticisms here.

There's a Storm a'Coming

Debby is making her way northward and westward across the Gulf of Mexico, and today we began evacuating non-essential personnel from a couple of the fields off Morgan City, Louisiana.

Seas this week were running 6-8 feet; not impossible to work in, but not very comfortable, either. If they don't send us back out, and it doesn't pour on us, we may have a couple of days with a clear deck. That means it's painting time.

God (not to mention our port captain) knows this boat needs it.

At watch change today, the other captain on the boat offered to take over as I was backing up to a platform.

"I don't mind doing this one," I said, "Unless I'm scaring you."

"You ain't scaring me," he replied. "You're doing real good. You really come around okay."

Of course my first thought then was that such praise made it nearly inevitable I'd smack the platform.

I didn't, and the positive reinforcement was welcome -- especially coming from a 30-year crewboat veteran.

Why Marine Transportation

Well, there’s the money. Working on boats as a captain is a skilled trade more than a profession, but captains with high school diplomas (and often less) can make (annually) as much as many professionals with post-baccalaureate degrees.

Of course, pay follows the day rates for the boats, which operate on a pretty basic supply-and-demand system. So “down” years (for instance, when there’s a drilling moratorium) will see entry-level pay (and job opportunities) drop. When the Gulf is hopping, rates go up.

It’s important to understand, too, that most companies pay crews on a per diem basis – a certain amount of money for each day that employee is on a “hitch” or period of duty. A standard work year is 240 paid days, whether you’re working hitches of 28 days on, 14 days off, or 14 and seven.

Many licensed and unlicensed crew members sometimes work “over” or take extra time off for family commitments or schools, so actual results may vary.

Currently companies in the Gulf of Mexico (at least all the ones I’ve talked to) are starting entry-level captains (third captains or training captains) in the $250-$300 per day range. As captains move up to relief master (second captain) and master (first captain) – or move to larger boats, and sometimes larger companies – the pay goes up accordingly.

For a 100-ton license, the one I hold, I’m guessing pay probably tops out at around $400 per day right now, with the majority of first and second captains making between $300 and $400 per day (the Gulf still has not completely recovered economically from the BP spill, or the Great Recession, so many captains or still in the lower end of that range).

For mariners holding Master of Towing licenses, or 500- and 1600-ton licenses, $700 per day is probably the upper range (but it could be higher with certifications like Dynamic Positioning Operator).

Annually, that works out to a salary range of about $60,000 to just under six figures for a 100-ton captain. Break it down to an hourly wage, and it no longer sounds like a lottery windfall: a captain making $280 a day, working 12-hour watches, is working for about $23 an hour (and not getting paid for the other 12 hours he’s on the boat).

The larger companies – and even some of the smaller, family-owned operations – offer pretty good benefits, on par with many shore-based corporations.

There are other reasons to go to sea, of course: if you like being on the water, there’s plenty of the stuff out there. There’s also a certain joy in being part of a crew that works well together, and the pride that comes with a well-maintained and well-run boat.

Professionally, I suspect we all keep score on how well we can hold a boat at a platform or rig in big seas, how rarely we touch bottom in a treacherous channel and how often we can take care of a challenge without calling the office.

An old Army master sergeant once told me that “if you’re not building, teaching, growing or healing, whatever you’re working at doesn’t really matter in the long run.”

The way I see it, what I’m doing now supports all of that, one way or another. The platforms and rigs we service ultimately produce or make possible the electricity that powers the computer you are looking at right now, the fuel you burned in your vehicle today in Dallas and that powered a combine up in the Midwest.

They produce the raw materials that go into the milk jug in your refrigerator and the bandages in a New York City emergency room.

Everything from bowling balls to monofilament fishing lines to freezer bags starts right here, and none of that offshore production starts or continues without workboats.

So, if you’re of a philosophical frame of mind, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that this kind of work is important, in the grand scheme of things.

There is a downside.

The time away from home tops the list of caveats, and I’m still not sure how that’s going to work out for me. It can be really tough – especially for those of us with children, and especially for the spouses we leave behind.

Modern boats, while not exactly Spartan, are rarely as comfortable as our own homes, and entertainment and communication options may be limited.

If you are unlucky in your assignment of crew or captain, a two-week or four-week hitch can be downright miserable.

The work can be dirty, by turns freezing and sweltering, and sometimes dangerous. With increasing frequency, captains are going to jail or being heavily fined for messing-up on the job – something that doesn’t happen to your average teacher, lawyer or mechanical engineer.

If none of that scares you away, it can be a pretty good job.


At the age of 41, after a 20-year career as a writer and media flack, I pulled an Ishmael and quietly took myself to sea.

My grandfather was a bluewater mariner and also ran a little shrimp boat for a while. My father sailed with the Coast Guard on buoy tenders and medium endurance cutters for four years. I grew up on a peninsula on the middle Texas Gulf Coast and have been messing about in boats nearly my entire life.

I guess you could say it’s in my blood.

Blood doesn’t get you a paycheck, though, and it’s been an interesting journey, these past (nearly) two years.

There was the Coast Guard-approved course, then finding a boat less than 50 tons but over 32 tons to build time to upgrade my license; learning about marine diesel engines … figuring out the differences between operating a small boat for pleasure and a large boat for profit.

Three months on a 100-foot crewboat out of Texas nearly killed the dream: a first captain who was a perpetually angry dry dunk, a management culture that feared and openly despised its employees … it was a useful learning experience, but not a lot of fun.

This spring I hit the road and traveled to the heart of workboat country – Southwest Louisiana. Within three days I had two job offers (and have received two more in the three weeks since). At the same time, three other captains I used to work with running fishing trips and eco-tours in South Texas also landed workboat jobs here.

The work is out there for anyone willing to do some research and invest a little shoe leather.

Today I’m third captain on a 145-foot fast supply vessel working as a field boat on the outer continental shelf. We normally come back to the dock in Morgan City, Louisiana, once a week for about 24 hours I'm relief master (second captain) on a 165-foot fast support vessel working out of Port Fourchon, Louisiana.

This, then, is my running commentary on this fascinating industry. It will, no doubt, be a chronicle of my greenhorn mistakes as well as any success I might find. It is the point of view and impressions of one person who is not an expert and does not have a global view of offshore marine transportation.

I may not always be very specific, and names sometimes will be changed to protect the innocent (or ambiguously guilty). I’ll re-tell some stories I hear from others, and already I’m starting to understand that wheelhouse stories are kind of like fishing stories: I can’t vouch for their veracity if I wasn’t there.

Otherwise, I am not making this shit up.