Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Four Little Monkeys

Last week, I reported for my first at-sea watch as we were coming out of the Eugene Island Channel. We were floating over silvered glass, and between the full moon and the robin egg-speckled radar screens, I struggled with a surreal sense of vertigo.

The night was breathtakingly beautiful.

The first day of our week in the field, which begins in darkness late on Wednesday or early Thursday morning, is a long one: 110 nautical miles (that’s about 126 miles on a truck odometer) to the field, then offloading cargo and pumping water (and possibly fuel) throughout the day. For a captain, it’s 12 hours on tower.

The tempo usually slows by Friday afternoon, and over the shoreside weekend, we move equipment (and occasionally people) between platforms, pump more water and fuel, and begin backloading empty grocery boxes, fuel totes, trash and any equipment that is destined for the beach.

Downtime is devoted to radio and anchor watch (not that we ever actually anchor, but we tie-off to platforms), cleaning, maintenance and paperwork catch-up. I typically spend some of that time reviewing CFRs, tank capacity tables, our Safety and Environmental Management System manual, and the like.

The pace of backloading picks up Monday and Tuesday, which is the long day for the captain on the noon-to-midnight watch. We usually head in by 5 p.m. Tuesday, which puts us at the dock at midnight. Some weeks we get to go back earlier.

This week, for instance, we are spending Tuesday night in a different field operated by the same customer, but about 30 miles closer to shore. We’re covering for a utility boat that’s back at the dock, and the plan is to backload us with two large nitrogen tanks in the morning. Hopefully, we’ll then get an early release and head in.

Mid-week, after changing our secondary fuel filters, our engineer noticed a knock in the number one engine. Diagnosis: a burned (i.e., chipped, broken, effed-up) air intake valve. It’s possible we could have operated the engine the rest of the week with no real problems. It’s also possible the port outboard would have “had a baby,” resulting in $20,000-$70,000 in damage.

So, we locked it down and have been running on four engines the last few days.

On a boat with five mains, losing one doesn’t hugely affect speed. But losing an outboard engine does have a pretty significant impact on maneuverability, making it more difficult to walk the boat or hold it in place in some combinations of wind/current/crane location.

In that regard, this week has been a great learning experience for me, figuring-out different combinations of throttle and rudder to convince the boat to do what she did when that outboard engine was available.

As soon as we’re released in the morning, I’ll call our port captain and let him know our ETA at the dock, and Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday morning, we’ll spend about five hours installing a new valve and head on that engine, and barring any other surprises we’ll be back out here on time for my second week.

Over my first two hitches, I’ve had the midnight-to-noon straight through, which is a pretty good shift for a new captain; with our customer, 6 a.m. through early afternoon is when most of the cargo transfers occur so I’ve had ample opportunity to practice my boat-handling skills and learn the field.

Beginning Wednesday, we’ll go back to this boat’s regular schedule: the incoming relief takes the night shift, and the man in week two switches to days. That’s good for me, since it more closely matches my schedule at home. Plus, I’m having a hell of a time figuring out breakfast, lunch and dinner. Pizza for breakfast? Cereal for lunch?

I’ve seen some pretty nice sunrises out here in the last month, but precious few sunsets. I’m looking forward to those.

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