Thursday, August 30, 2012


Forgive me for saying so, but it was a pretty good hurricane, so far as those things go. For me, anyhow.

That's the status I posted on Facebook earlier today.

When I was younger, I took a guilty pleasure in tropical weather. As I grew older and began to understand better the utter devastation these storms often cause, my feelings changed. My complicated relationship with cyclones is chronicled here.

So, by virtue of not having family in harm's way of this storm, by the good fortune of not being stuck in Port Fourchon or -- God forbid -- offshore, I stand by my midday statement.

Turns out a boat is not a bad place to be during a hurricane, provided you have a good hurricane hole. The dock we chose on the ICW in Morgan City was a pretty good spot.

Double-up the lines, lash down the life rafts, stow the life rings, bind the cargo and make sure the hatches are dogged tight. Then, throw a peach cobbler in the oven. That's the routine, apparently.

We didn't have to worry about the electricity going out (it's always provided by our generators), we had plenty of good food on board, and when the water rose we rose with it.

The idle time gave our crew a chance to get to know each other better; normally, we are all awake at the same time only a couple of hours a day and then we're likely pretty busy.

The eye of Isaac, still a hurricane, passed about 40 miles east of us, which meant we never saw the calm in the center of the storm.

We got some serious wind, quite a bit of horizontal rain, and in fact as late as this afternoon we're still getting some bands that make us wonder if the storm really passed. Inconveniently, one of those squalls slammed into us just as I was about to put our boat on the fuel dock.

Morgan City is hosting more work boats than usual; eight of Seacor's pretty, orange and black crewboats are rafted-up down at the Halliburton dock, and a variety of utility boats and offshore supply vessels we don't normally see are in port.

The Coast Guard did not allow any of us to move until after 1400 today, when it began reopening waterways section by section.

The bulkhead at the dock where we usually load has caved-in, and the word is that we'll be offloading and backloading at a different location tomorrow morning.

Seas are still a bit steep out there, if the National Weather Service is to be believed, so I'm happy to wait.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Don't Forget to Turn Out the Lights


It's 0500 Monday and the latest forecast from our Navtex is headed: "Hurricane Warning."

Isaac is on his way, pushing across the northern Gulf of Mexico, bulking up on a steady diet of warm water.

AIS shows just two other boats in our field and only six within range (usually a little more than 20 miles). That's a stark contrast with yesterday morning when there were more than 30 boats on the display.

It's a little lonely out here.

The radios, usually at least sporadically alive overnight with chatter between boats and platforms, have been eerily silent.

Except for some wit, who just blasted a stanza from the Scorpions' mixed-metaphor megahit: "Here I am, rock you like a hurricane ..."

Ensco Rig 75 has gone dark, the derrick now lit only by a few flashing red lights. Many of our platforms are shut-in, and only a skeleton crew remains in the field.

There are three helicopters overnighting out here, and the word is that as soon as they are loaded up with the last of the production operators, we'll be released to head in sometime after dawn.*

*Update: Our early morning release got stretched to "a couple more hours" and finally 1400. We were the very last boat out of our field, though we crossed paths with a jumbled fleet of crewboats, OSVs and ROV/dive vessels once we got close to shore -- they were all evacuating Grand Isle and Port Fourchon, headed for safe(r) harbor.

The Motion of the Ocean


Well. That's better. For most of the night a strong breeze out of the southeast has contended with an easterly current (winds are identified by the direction from which they blow, currents by the direction toward which they flow), holding our boat beam to the 3- to 5-ft. seas.

That makes the wheelhouse a pretty rolly place to be.

That current has been slackening under the wind's steady assault, and about an hour ago I moved our mooring line from the port stern bitt to the starboard side.

Most crewboats, unlike a lot of other vessels -- including many OSVs -- ride easier stern to the seas. It would be a real hassle to try to hold our huge, foc's'l bow into a head sea.

Anyway, we're hanging right now, and the motion has eased considerably. Might be time to climb up top and change a spotlight bulb.

Sunday, August 19, 2012


Coming to the end of a second consecutive week off; one of the reasons I’m pretty happy with my company and my boat is that we work out our own schedules, and the other captains I work with are understanding when it comes to family obligations. 

We’ve all worked “over” for each other at this point, and I’m sure each of us will again down the road.

Two weeks off this time because my “old lady” (boat parlance for wife/girlfriend/significant other) gave birth late last week to the newest member of our family: Aidan Ramon. 

Labor and delivery was a breeze (“That was FUN!” she said …. uh, what?!) and everyone’s healthy and happy and home.

Having a child is a life-changing event, an act of faith and hope, and a guarantee you’ll live with some amount of terror for the rest of your life.

More than one is a whole new kettle of fish.

A long time ago, before I was in the baby-making business, I thought that someday I’d have six kids. Don’t know how I arrived at that number, but it popped into my head and stuck for a while.

After the first, and the dissolution of that marriage, I was pretty sure I was done; partly because I couldn’t imagine living in the same house with children I loved no more than the firstborn who did not live with me full time.

Talking about this, gingerly, with the aforementioned eldest, my just-teenaged son rolls his eyes and says: “Seriously? You think I would be jealous?!”

Whether that’s what I think or not, whether it’s true or not, as the father of three boys I do wonder about how to balance my time and divvy-up my attention.

It’s a good thing, I guess, that love is a positive-sum game – just because there are more objects of my affection doesn’t mean that any one necessarily gets less. 

The rest of it is just time management, and that’s something I can work on.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Sea Bag

I used to work for a guy, an Air Force two-star, who was fond of quoting a bit of wisdom he attributed to his father, also an Air Force general and one of the original Tuskegee Airmen.

"When the train of opportunity pulls into the station, you have to have your bags packed and be ready to jump aboard," he'd say. And, sometimes: "Luck is where preparation meets opportunity."

We recently added a fellow to our crew who has had his 100-ton master's license for two years. After nine-months of after-watch stick time, and repeated promises that he'd be the next one jumped-up to a third-captain's position, he finally figured he'd try his luck elsewhere.

He applied to our company as an "engineer/captain," and that particular day we had a need for an engineer. He seems competent in all respects, and easy to get along with, so at the first opportunity I put a bug in our port captain's ear and now, hopefully, he's on a "training captain" track.

He has a lot more experience on crewboats -- and in the oilfield -- than I do, and that got me to thinking: how did I go straight to the wheelhouse from a completely unrelated career?

I've come up with a couple of possible answers, and I'll share them here in the event they will be useful to someone else.

1. It wasn't an accident; the wheelhouse of a crewboat or OSV was always my goal, and I took the time to research the steps I'd need to take and go after the experience and training that would get me there as quick as possible. That meant spending a year making not-a-lot-of-money on small passenger vessels of the appropriate size.

2. Luck of the traditional kind: I was just at the right place at the right time. This is actually pretty important and probably accounts for at least 50 percent of how folks get jobs in the Gulf.

3. My winning personality: Okay, not really. But I do interview pretty well. Three days of office visits netted me four job offers. It helps to know the basics (dress well, be polite, shake hands firmly and make eye contact), I refer you to the excellent post by a fellow gCaptain forum member on the subject.

4. Honesty: I was up-front about being new to the industry, but I was also frank about what I thought my strengths are -- quick to learn, not afraid to try, not afraid to ask questions, and willing to work.

5. Confidence: not to be confused with arrogance or cockiness ... but in fact I was confident I could do the job, and that confidence grows all the time and hopefully will contribute to me keeping the job.

I was putting things in my bag -- my sea bag -- for years, and much of the time didn't even realize it.

The Army taught me a lot about how to handle "hurry up and wait" situations, which are exceedingly common in the oil patch, and also how to live rough and to adapt when a plan falls apart upon contact with the enemy.

Live interviews on TV and radio and in print, having to talk off the cuff about natural disasters and boating fatalities and child abuse and all the rest of it, taught me a lot about thinking before opening my mouth and thinking quickly under pressure.

I learned a lot about being a (variously): survivor, team player and supervisor from working in large bureaucracies. Believe it or not, there are office politics on a boat, and in boat companies, too.

All of these are the sort of "soft" skills that are hard to quantify and catalogue on an application or resume.

I've heard more than one person say: "A boat's a boat," implying that if you can drive one boat you can drive any boat. Well ... yes and no.

No, because every boat -- even boats from the same designer and yard -- has its own personality; little quirks that affect performance. Boats of different types sometimes handle in vastly different ways given the same control inputs.

Yes, because some things truly are nearly universal. A lot of the hard skills -- the stuff that really helps on any boat -- came not from what I've done in the past two years as a captain, but the stuff I started learning back around the Bicentennial.

Things like: how to read water (color changes, wind shadows, seas, currents, etc.), how to control yaw and steer a straight course, how to listen to a boat to tell what she's doing ...

Believe it or not, a racing sailboat is an excellent place to acquire all of those skills in spades.

I have been fortunate to have had a lot of good teachers over the years -- right up until this very day, on the boat I now work on -- but none more profoundly influenced my ability (or at least my belief that I have the ability) to do this job than my Uncle Bob.

An ex-Navy man and boat builder who finally let his own master's license lapse on the fifth or sixth issue, he was tough, patient, and extraordinarily generous with his time and knowledge.

So, thanks Uncle Bob, for giving me some stuff to throw in my sea bag.

For anyone reading this, I'd love to know what experiences or skills you picked up along the way help you today.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Comfort Level: Increasing

Well, a couple of months into this thing and I now know a couple of ways to do each of the things I’m asked to do out here. I can hold the boat at a platform with a high degree of confidence and can show the new guy which valves to open or close to pump water and fuel.

I’ve even figured-out how to tell a platform boss, crane operator or dispatcher “no” when asked to do something I don’t think is safe.

I’ve made a few mistakes, dealt with a couple of minor emergencies, and the field is still pumping, the boat’s still afloat and no one’s dead.

The learning hasn’t stopped, and I haven’t faced all (probably not even most) of the situations that will crop-up. And with the exception of one week, the weather has been pretty benign. I suspect winter will be a whole ‘nuther ballgame.

The work of getting this boat “turned around” continues.

Getting a stable, steady crew onboard will help. I think we’re almost there.

What are we Doing Today?


This boat replaced two utility boats as a “field boat,” supporting nearly a dozen manned production platforms on the outer continental shelf. That means we bring the groceries and haul the trash, pump fuel and water, and move stuff around the field.

It’s a pretty active field, pumping lots of oil and gas. There’s also still some post-Katrina and post-Rita cleanup going on. Today a succession of four deep thumps reverberated through our hull: underwater explosions at a salvage site.

At the same time a new platform is going up in the middle of the field and there are several drilling rigs on workovers.

With all this activity there are a ton of boats out here. Dive boats, ROV boats, construction boats, tugs, derrick barges, crewboats, and shrimp boats dragging the bottom for junk.

And with all these boats, we’re busier than ever. The past two days, we played construction boat, moving equipment and workers from platform to platform. For 24 hours, we had a 7-ton tool shed taking up a big section of the back deck.

More of the same tomorrow, the boss says. And maybe we’ll start our backload for the beach.

Pre- and Post-digestion


Boat cuisine is what you make of it. Sometimes it’s sandwiches; sometimes it’s a slow-roasted whole chicken stuffed with onions and peppers that just falls apart on the fork.

Sometimes it’s microwaved burritos or a quick bowl of cereal.

On this boat, we get $375 every week to purchase food, drinks and some of our cleaning supplies. Some companies offer more, some less. One company I worked for gave us $250 (also for four people) every week, which meant a lot of white and blue Great Value packaging.

This week I did the grocery shopping. As I was mulling the meat choices, the butcher walked out and said: “Baby, what you looking for?”

“Steaks for the boat,” I replied.

“You want steaks, don’t look out here, just tell me what you want and I’ll cut them for you.”

Well, damn.

Lip-on ribeyes were on sale, so I got four, inch-thick slabs of beef for $24 or thereabouts.

We grilled them on the back deck today and served them up with baked potatoes and a cucumber-onion-tomato salad.

Last week, in a fit of self-indulgence, I inhaled three bowls of Captain Crunch “All Berries” cereal. Don’t know if you’re familiar with this stuff, but basically it’s sugar and corn-product puffed into garish red and blue balls. They tear up my palate (the physical structure on the roof of my mouth, not my refined taste).

Turns out they do something else.

For three days I sh*t green. Not baby-poop green, but a bright, neon green not found in nature.

C’mon, I know I’m not the only person who looks at his crap.

So I’ll tell on myself.

At about 0300 one morning this past week, three things were happening simultaneously: I had an actual interwebs connection (on our customer’s guest router, from the very, very back of our deck), the wind shifted and the boat was swinging in toward the platform we were tied-off to, and I really, really had to take a Pelosi.

It wasn’t exactly a bridge resource management moment (or maybe it was), but it was a good example of three, very important, competing priorities.

I had just pulled-up email, and the National Hurricane Center site (long enough to see that the next one is called Ernesto, and should be in the Yucatan Channel Tuesday), when it became clear I was only a couple of minutes from smacking the platform, and maybe less than that from crapping my pants.

I abandoned the laptop where it was sitting, dashed to the wheelhouse and fired-up the engines. Our newest (of four, in the past three weeks) deckhand asked what was going on.

“We have to move the boat, but I really have to sh*t. Get the pump and blowers on and get that line off as quick as you can!”

As soon as we were clear, I goosed the boat away from the platform, did a quick scan of the radar plot, put the engines in neutral and hopped, cross-legged, down the stairs to the nearest head.

I didn’t quite make it.

And I wasn’t sh*tting solid, either.

I won’t go into the details of the cleanup, except to say that should any of my Texas friends find a pair of size 32 boxer briefs, gray, on the beach – those are mine.

Okay, I’m kidding. You thought that was for real?! Ha!

They’re really size 36.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Notable from SiriusXM Ch. 60

Outlaw Country, which is only maybe 70 percent country music, still entertains. At the moment, listening to Fraternity of Man's "Don't Bogart Me." (In the best steel guitar dancehall waltz tradition: "Don't bogart that joint, my friend/Pass it over to me ....").

There's also been a pretty good smattering of James McMurtry and Robert Earl Keen Jr. this past week, along with Johnny Cash's "Sunday Morning Coming Down."

A little while ago, Alejandro Escovedo followed David Alan Coe. Where else can you get that sort of a playlist? Well, KUT-FM ... the old KGSR, maybe. But I can't get them out here.

There's an NPR News station on SiriusXM (122), but I can't figure out if it actually streams Morning Edition or All Things Considered. Haven't heard them yet, though Talk of the Nation and Fresh Air come up at odd hours.

Speaking of Bogart, I picked-up a four-film disc week before last; it includes three seafaring tales. Haven't peeled it out of the plastic yet ... maybe this week.

Stop Work Authority

Stop Work Authority is all the rage out here. I have a sense that it was implemented by the majors – maybe after the BP blowout -- and has trickled-down through the industry. Many boat companies, including the one I work for, also now have formal Stop Work Authority policies.

What it means, basically, is that anyone not only may, but is obligated to, call a halt to any operation immediately if he or she sees something potentially unsafe occurring or about to occur.

I used it earlier this week.

Friday night I woke up and thought: “Man, it’s awfully calm. It’s too calm. Wonder what’s going on?”

I stepped out on deck and discovered we were at the dock with a massive engine bound to our deck. When I say “massive,” I mean locomotive-sized.

A few minutes later, the other captain on board fired-up the engines, I relieved him and we headed back down the river.

When we arrived at the platform to which we were delivering the compressor motor early Saturday morning, I was quietly pleased to see the new deckhand carefully inspecting each shackle and sling on the manufacturer-supplied rigging.

Until he tugged on one cable, and it snapped taught, crushing his hand between the wire and the engine. Because there was a 150-pound spreader bar on the other side of the engine, he was stuck until I could run down and take the tension off.

Ice, sodium naproxen and a rest break followed while the swing man took over rigger duties on the back deck. After completing a JSA and running through the job with the crane operator on the platform we were all set to offload the beast.

When the crane began hoisting, it was clear that one of the legs of the rigging was tangled around the spreader bar; must have happened when the dock crane set it down. It was also clear that one deckhand could not, by himself, re-rig the lift. That’s when I stopped work, and the platform sent down an additional rigger to help-out.

Turns out whoever originally rigged the engine also had the spreader bar backwards (small end toward the flywheel, for your future reference). We eventually got it all straightened-out, had a good team-building exercise and got to chat face-to-face with one of the guys we supply weekly.

We also got a “Wonderful job, cap. Thank you,” from the platform. That’s always nice.


Have you ever had a morning like this? You sleep through the alarm, have to rush out the door without your coffee and traffic is stop-and-go. You discover – after you’re at the office – that you’re wearing one blue sock and one black sock and you forgot to shave.

Some hitches start out like that, too.

Supplies we’ve been waiting on for weeks did not show up before we left the dock, our first stop was at a platform we rarely visit on the far side of the field, and then we backloaded an already-crowded deck and made some field moves.

Most weeks, we head to the heart of the field and start clearing the deck, dropping off groceries and jet fuel, parts and other supplies. On a good day, we fall into a rhythm that lets us offload well over half our deck cargo before noon.

So, this week we were a little off-kilter to begin with.

Add to that a fresh breeze from the west – the “wrong” direction for the crane side of many of our platforms -- one less-than-skilled crane operator, construction boats everywhere, and we were slowed-down even more.

Our crackerjack engineer is home with the family (a well-deserved break), and we have a new hand on-board. Nice kid who so far is doing a good job; I hope he stays.

So, all that to say, it was a long first day.

We typically operate with a certain amount of uncertainty – often we don’t know where we’re going next until we’re leaving where we are now. Practically speaking, it doesn’t really matter so long as we make it back to the dock for crew change.

Bottom line is we’re out here to serve the customer and every hour pays the same, so it really doesn’t matter.