Wednesday, October 31, 2012

More Wx

And here's the NWS forecast for our offshore area the rest of this week (it looks really nice):


Today: West winds 10 to 15 knots. Seas 1 to 2 feet. 

Tonight: West winds 10 to 15 knots. Seas 1 to 2 feet. 

Thursday: Northwest winds 10 to 15 knots becoming light and variable in the afternoon. Seas 1 to 2 feet. Slight chance of light rain. 

Thursday Night: Northwest winds near 5 knots becoming southwest in the late evening. Seas 1 foot. 

Friday: South winds 5 to 10 knots. Seas 1 foot. 

Friday Night: Southeast winds near 10 knots. Seas 1 foot. 

Saturday: Southeast winds near 10 knots. Seas 1 to 2 feet. Slight chance of light rain. 

Saturday Night: Southeast winds near 10 knots. Seas 1 foot. Chance of rain. 

Sunday: East winds 5 to 10 knots becoming northwest late in the afternoon. Seas 1 foot. Slight chance of showers and thunderstorms. 

Sunday Night: Northwest winds 10 to 15 knots. Seas 2 to 3 feet. Slight chance of rain. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Small World

A shout-out to my compadre from Florida who sherlocked his way through this blog and correctly deduced not only what company I work for, but what boat I’m on and what field we’re working. Of course, he’s a captain on a sister ship for the same company.

Anyhow, thanks for reading.

More proof that it’s a small world … I’ve been puzzling over why this damned norther just keeps blowing and blowing after the front passed through. Navtex delivered the answer this afternoon:

High pressure well NW of the area is combining with the large wind field of Hurcn Sandy to produce fresh to strong NW to N winds behind the front. These winds will persist thru early Mon over W portions of the Gulf … and linger to the E. Winds will diminish basin wide Tue and Wed as high pres builds SE across the Gulf ….

And here I thought that the late-season hurricane that barely brushed the Gulf was a mid-Atlantic and Northeast problem, one that wouldn’t affect us at all. I looked at the projected track last week and dismissed it from my mind.

“Fresh” and “strong” are adjectives with specific meanings in marine meteorology; they correspond to Force 5 and Force 6 on the Beaufort Wind Scale, or 17-21 knots and 22-27 knots, respectively.

So, thanks Sandy, for the extended cold front. And my very best wishes to the mariners who must deal with the comparably much worse conditions up the east coast and in the Atlantic.


Winter in the Gulf of Mexico comes like a freight train, frequently but on no set schedule. Blowing through, shaking and rattling and roaring, then gone.

This particular cold front has dropped temps to the “chilly” mark – we’re all staggering around the boat in jackets – and a low moan of protest has been emanating from the rigging on the boat the past 24 hours.

An aluminum crewboat – especially one that has pumped-off about 150 tons of water and fuel and been relieved of its deck cargo – bobs erratically like a cork in a maelstrom. Not usually to the point that the vessel’s seaworthiness is endangered, but it’s damned uncomfortable.

Navtex showed “6-9 ft” seas for Saturday, and that was pretty close, though I didn’t see many six-footers.

My watch turnover notes directed me to a platform about 5 miles distant at daybreak to offload a crane box and three crane weights.

I’m not sure what they’re using the crane weights for – pedestal cranes like the ones on the platforms out here don’t need them as counterbalances – but we’ve been toting the 11,000, 13,000 and 14,000 pound (respectively) hunks of iron from platform to platform since we got out here.

I was skeptical about getting the crane weights off the deck – lifts that size require the big block, which is slow -- but figured it wouldn’t be much of a problem to fastline the crane box up to the platform.

We ended up getting all of it off the deck without taking-out a deckhand, deck plate or a crash rail, but when the call came to pump water at another platform, I declined.

I did call the field boss on the phone and explain the hazards of trying to do much of anything on the windward side (almost all of our cranes out here are on the NW sides of their platforms) in these seas and 25-knot winds.

He dug it. But he’s also about to be out of water, so we’ll have to figure-out something before too long. The weather report says this sucker will blow itself out in the next 24 hours … I imagine we’ll be running and gunning again by tomorrow.

Today, though, may be another day at the buoy.

Logs are all caught-up. I can work on next week’s grocery order and the next iteration of our perpetual requisition order, and then it might be hammock-and-Kindle time. There’s not a lot of outside work we can get accomplished in this stuff.

Back at the fuel dock last week I got word that the jerk dispatcher at our dock was no longer employed there, a fact later confirmed with a grin by the logistics manager. That was happy news. Everyone else there – including the other “new” guy brought over to help run the construction boats – is just peachy.

Our port captain brought a couple of parts down for us. Two of them – a stop solenoid and a fuel priming pump – are intended to cure the a.) engine won’t stop from the helm station and b.) engine won’t start from the helm station problems.

Because Caterpillar makes at least three versions of the stop solenoid for three different electrical systems, but all three have the same part number, I was careful to specify that we needed a 12-volt solenoid on the requisition. Of course we received the 24-volt version.

The other day the first captain on the boat brought up the notion of going to even time, if the other captain agrees and we can find a fourth. Finding the fourth captain is not a problem – I called a friend I used to work with down south (he’s now working out of Fourchon) – and he said he’d be game if we could start after the holidays.

Like me, he’s the father of a toddler and is missing the kid time.

Anyway, our port captain said running even time is not a problem if we all wanted to do it. My fingers are crossed that we can all come to an agreement here on the boat.

It’s less money, because we each end up working 180 days rather than 240, but with day rates being what they are, we would all still probably make enough to pay the bills.

For me, anyhow, money isn’t everything. I figure I can always make more money later, but I can never get back a first step, a first word or any of a hundred other things I’m missing.

And not just with the toddler – I’ve been home just three weeks of Aidan’s first three months, and even if my 13-year-old doesn’t think he needs his dad right now, he probably does, and his dad definitely needs him.

Not to mention a several-times-weekly glass of wine and long talk on the porch with my wife, throwing the ball for the brown dog, attending Wednesday Night Church Services down at the Continental … I guess that, after a month-going-on-five-weeks on the boat, I’m missing home.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Above and Below the Waterline

Things have gotten better since Saturday. We swapped some watches around on the boat and had some good crews on the platforms out there. Altogether, not a bad Week Three, at least the second half.

I am feeling a distinct sense of loss. Like there's a big hole in my life, suddenly. I'm sort of at loose ends, not sure what to do now.

That is to say, the wheelhouse painting project is DONE!

Man, between weather and dew and running, I thought I'd never finish. But it's done, from the top of the mast to the deck.

Oh, I have a couple of antenna mounts to touch-up, and the ladder up needs another coat, but really it's finished.

In other news, a Common Yellowthroat hitched a ride with us for three or four days this past week. Cool little bird.

This morning, another little warbler flew in through an open door, hopped onto my arm, and then began hunting all of the cracks and crevasses in the wheelhouse.

Not sure what species this one is -- if anyone knows, shoot me an email or leave a comment.

We threw a line at one of our distant platforms day before yesterday and received a very welcome surprise visitor -- a juvenile whale shark.

I say "juvenile" because the fish was only about 20 feet in length, and the world's largest living fish can grow to twice that.

It was the middle of the "night" for me, but I sure am glad one of my shipmates ran downstairs and woke me up for the event.

The big fish hung out with us for a couple of hours, swimming lazy circles right next to the boat. I suspect he may have thought we were mama.

One cool thing about these fish -- probably any really large marine organism -- is that they appear to be entire ecosystems to themselves.

This animal supported or attracted a pretty diverse variety of fauna, including barnacles, various remora-type suckers, ling and more.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Tension and Contention

Things have been a bit tense on the boat this week.

Not sure why – could be I’ve been a bit peevish; dirty dishes in the sink and dead fish on the deck three days running when I come on watch, well it begins to annoy. As does being one of just two people (of the five on board) actually grinding and painting with a shipyard deadline looming.

So maybe it’s just me. Maybe everyone else is fine. Anyway, not a huge deal, just not optimal.

This week has introduced a couple of firsts. For the first time I became really, really angry with someone associated with our customer.

I woke up Friday night to the smoothly-surging-forward feeling of the boat cruising hooked-up across flat water, and deduced (correctly, as it turned out) we were headed for the dock. Checked with the captain on watch and found out we’d been sent in to pick up equipment and some passengers. 

Cool. I wasn’t able to get a card in the mail before we left Wednesday, so this will give me the opportunity to place an Internet flower order to be delivered on my wedding anniversary.

About an hour-and-a-half after we get in, our deck is packed. I’ve already been ignored once by a new dockhand when I told him those full totes need to go on the port side, not the starboard side, and argued with the new crane operator about where a 5-ton generator should go.

The aforementioned, plus another rigger, troop up to the wheelhouse to bring me cargo manifests, and one says: “Your radio ain’t working? Man at the office been trying to call you for the last hour and a half.”

I check the company set: yep, it’s turned up.

“It’s working,” I say. “Tell him to call me on the company set.”

The man at the office did, and proceeded to dress me down for not checking-in on VHF 19, implying a.) I don’t know how to use a radio, and b.) I don’t know my job.

A couple of problems with this: First, his tone – whoa buddy, slow your roll! Second, for the 13 months this boat has been on the job, no one has ever asked us to communicate with the dock on 19. Third, we have three VHF radios installed on the boat, and in the port environment monitor three separate channels for regulatory and safety reasons. Fourth, I wasn’t even on watch when we got to the slip.

I decided a face-to-face discussion might be more productive, so donned my hardhat and walked the 100 yards to the dispatch office.

Turned out not to be more productive after all, and ended with the dispatcher threatening to call our company’s sales manager (I’ve since given him that individual’s mobile number and invited him to call any time).

This particular dispatcher is new to our dock, came over when the logistics company added our customer’s construction boats to its production boat business. 

Over the past two weeks, he’s handed-down one contradictory, problem-inducing edict after another (An earlier one was that we could only take on as much fuel as we had when we came on charter, which is about 6,000 gallons less than we typically bring to the field. The field bosses weren’t too happy with that one.).

I get the sense this guy is ex-military. Also that he’s about to be ex-where-he-is-now. 

I’m out here to do a job and support my family. And, if feedback from the customer and our company is to be believed, I do a good job. I’m certainly not here to be insulted, browbeaten or talked to like I’m the Army’s newest basic trainee.

I’m confrontation-adverse in general, so the whole episode fell on the unhappy/tiresome end of the human interaction spectrum.

We finally embarked our passengers at around 0600, got clearance from traffic, and headed downstream to the Gulf.

Along the way I encountered some patchy fog, but didn’t begin worrying about it until visibility dropped to less than a quarter mile. 

When I couldn’t see the stern of the boat or the next set of markers, I sent my deckhand to wake-up the senior captain.

“What should I do now?” I asked.

“Hell, you need to turn around and head back to the dock,” he replied. And then, after ascertaining our position – very nearly out of the river: “Or maybe push up on the mud.”

Since we were just off a point that I figured had a pretty steep bank, I opted for the latter, and there we sat for most of the next hour, broadcasting security calls and watching a diffuse sun rise as Saturday’s fishermen materialized out of the fog and zoomed past us.

Our company has a “Zero Visibility” policy, which is vaguely enough worded that I’m not certain if it prohibits running in zero visibility or if it just gives captains the discretion to not run in zero visibility. 

I’m also not certain if zero visibility means I can’t see anything past 100 feet, past the bow, or past the windshield.

I already knew that one of our captains typically sits-out the fog, and another will happily run through it (especially if it’s crew change day and our destination is the dock).

Anyhow, conundrum solved by asking a question, and I learned a few things, too.

The rest of the trip out was a slog, kind of like running with a fire hose on the windshield the entire time. 

The design of this particular boat, with a fo’c’s’l bow, gives it more interior volume and more clear deck and – possibly – an easier ride, but it also makes it extremely wet.

Week before last a captain from another boat called me on the radio and asked if I still needed a periscope to run the boat. 

Turned out he had trained on an identical hull, and remembered well the constant deluge. I told him that if our windshield wiper ever went out, that would be a no-sail.

The truth of that statement became evident towards the end of my watch when a utility boat materialized off my port bow. A quick check of the AIS showed a closest point of approach of 0.13 mile. I called the boat and asked if he intended to hold his course and speed.

“Sure, cap. I ain’t gonna bother you none,” was the reply.

About a minute later, probably due to a course correction by one or both of us, the CPA had dropped to 0.00, and my  Mk I range-finding devices (eyeballs) agreed that a collision was imminent.

I called again, and informed the other boat that the CPA was now showing zero, and that I would alter course to port to pass behind him.

Thing is, that was his job, as the burdened or give-way vessel. Until he didn’t do it, when it became my job.

Reading up on the practical assessments for some of the STCW endorsements required for my next license, I saw that one of the standards (I think it was for Radar Observer Unlimited) is to maintain a CPA of three miles with other vessels.

Given the number of boats in our field, that’s not practical. 

But given all the open water out here there’s also no reason anyone should get as close to anyone else they don’t have business with as that utility boat did to me.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Boat Life

Living on a 145-foot boat with four or five other guys is a trip, even when we’re at the dock.

It’s part office cot, part college dormitory and part your brother’s room (no, you really don’t want to know what lurks beneath his bed). 

Some days it’s part summer camp and part hunting camp. Usually it’s pretty campy, altogether.

Despite all that – and mostly because our deckhand works hard every day – the boat stays reasonably clean. Mixed in with the reading material you wouldn’t want your mother to see are attempts to recreate Moms’ recipes and some of Dad’s rules.

We tend to put stuff where our wives or girlfriends told us to at home. When we remember. Then, when we get home, we spend at least a few minutes remembering which cupboards and drawers we really keep the coffee mugs and forks in.

We’re just a bunch of boys out here with minimal supervision. It’s a tribute to … something, I guess, that the whole situation doesn’t devolve into the Lord of the Flies.

I suppose that’s at least partly because work and the exigencies of keeping our little island afloat and running gives some structure to our days. And because we know we will in fact go home, eventually.

First Week of October

I figured my birdwatching would be curtailed nearly 100 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. And while it’s true that I have no 50 or 60 species days out here, I continue to see interesting birds. Only a cuckoo has been a quick and easy ID.

Apparently, this is wren week out here; I’ve added two to my list – a Winter Wren, distinctively tiny and dark, hopping about the deck with its tail cocked-up, and (tentatively) a Marsh Wren, which took up residence in the wheelhouse last night.

Both are winter residents of the Gulf Coast, and perhaps farther south. Whether these are migrating birds that decided to take a break on one of the many platforms out here, or resident coastal birds that went astray, I don’t know.

I do know a production platform on the outer continental shelf is no happy place for a wren; not a lot of bugs out here, and the platforms themselves have galvanized steel grating on the decks. That means there’s not a lot of fresh water.

On the boat, we have moths and the occasional cricket that ride out with us, and there’s usually a puddle of freshwater somewhere on the deck.

As I write this, the field is coming alive with radio traffic – helicopters up and flying personnel from platform to platform. I’m thinking we’ll probably stand by on our buoy today, as the seas are building in the wake of a front that blew through about two hours ago.

Our dispatcher knew it was coming and had us finish our backload yesterday.

With seas running less than two feet and a couple of hours of standby time at the far south end of the field yesterday morning, I continued work on the top of the wheelhouse; got the handrails whirewheeled and primed, scrubbed the entire surface and put another coat of white on most of it.

The midnight-to-noon watch is a tough one for getting boat projects done on the deck; not enough light to easily work the first half of the watch, and too busy running the second half.

The other watch got our two new deck lights up a couple of days ago, and yesterday evening replaced one of our old Carlisle & Finch searchlights with a brand-new, but not much brighter Perko light.

If the sky clears, I’ll try to finish up the top of the wheelhouse and get our sidelight boxes painted this morning. We also have half a cable of 2-inch polypro that needs to be made up into a couple of mooring lines.

Last time we were at the dock, we received a large pallet of really useful supplies. It’s nice to be finally getting some of what we need.