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.


  1. love that analogy are wise beyond your years...and sort of sounding like Captain Ahab or at least in the are such and earthy,kindred spirited kind of always have been and that's what I remember about you..yes..this was evident even when we were 18...stay safe and enjoy your ladies...yes the ship and the ocean...Mama Cocha as the old ancient tribes of Peru would say :) kind regards always my friend..tu amiga siempre, Milagros

  2. Great points! I think luck is the definition we give things we don't want to take all the credit for. And chance does help that sometimes.

    I've been in boats as long as I can remember and every trip is a learning experience for me.

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