Friday, July 20, 2012

Going to Sea (Part I)

Reprinted below, with the kind permission of the author (a 500-ton Master, Oceans, and fellow Austinite) is probably the single best primer on how to get started in marine transportation. Originally posted to gCaptain, an interwebs forum for mariners.

Reality Is Nothing Like The Dream

So you got it somewhere in your head that a life at sea is for you. The constant adventure, interesting port calls, the mesmerizing sunrise and sunsets on the water, the never-ending sea stories to tell those back home are all you can think about.

You’ve watched too many movies. Those days, if they ever really existed, are long dead.

The United States no longer has a robust blue water shipping fleet. Military Sealift Command and NOAA are the closest one gets to blue water shipping and the disadvantages far out way the advantages for most of us mariners.

The majority of jobs are now on tugs and oil field vessels. While these jobs offer their own challenges and rewards it’s not what you have seen on TV. This is a serious business and we have no time for guys come out here with romantic visions of shared hardships and gallant struggles.

We bust our ass to make it home to our families and the hope for a better life for them and ourselves through our paychecks. At the end of the day that’s all that counts too many of us.

If you really want to know what life is like on a work boat visit the link below for a real run down of what life is like for a deckhand. While it’s geared more for the navy, 95% of it holds true for the commercial side.

Are You Sure You Want To Do This?

Still not scared off? Then sit down and ask yourself the following questions and see if you are really ready to commit and make the sacrifices needed to start working.

1- Can you go weeks if not months without talking to anybody at home? I mean this, NOBODY, not your parents, not your friends, not your wife, not your kids. If you are married can your family live without you for the length of your hitch? Do you have small kids and can your wife handle being essentially a single parent for 6 to 9 months out of the year? 

Your world while at work can consist of a very small boat for weeks at a time, with as few as 3 other guys onboard that you will more than likely have nothing in common with and the only time you step on land is to take the garbage to the dumpster while at the dock. There are no quick runs to the store, no nights on the town, just the boat.

2- I don’t care how old you are, what your background is or how educated you think you are. You know nothing the first year at sea. You are now working in a heavy industrial environment with the added fun of inclement weather and confined spaces. I don’t expect you to know everything, but I do expect you ask questions and listen.

Good rule of thumb is if you don’t know what something is or what it does ask about it, but until then do not touch. This means you are going to have to put your ego in check and expect that you are going to be chewed out over something eventually, multiply times actually. You are going to be expected to do the tough dirty jobs that have to get done. Your days are going to consist of long hours of boredom separated by tons of cleaning, painting, and working on deck.

3- You need at minimum a Transportation Worker Identification Cars (TWIC). This cost $150 plus the time to it takes to go to whatever office is closest to you TWIC. Once to apply, once to pick it up. If you want a better chanc,  a Merchant Mariner Document (MMD) with your Basic Safety Training (BST) as laid out by STCW can help. The MMD along with physical and drug screen will be around $300 and your BST is another $500 to $1000. This plus the cost needed to go find a job can add up so best to have some money saved up.

4- Chances are if you found gCaptain then you have some aspirations of being an officer. That’s fine, but realizes that it will take years of sea time and weeks of classes to even get your Able Seaman (AB) or 100 ton master license. If you want 500/1600 ton mate or masters then even more years of sea time and month of classes.

All of this outlined by the Coast Guard and they change the rules all the time. You are never really done as every five years when you come up for your license renewal you will have to take some refresher courses. Sadly none of this will be done while you are at work but done while you are on your off time.

It is expensive to take these classes and while sometimes you can get your company to pay for the classes, room, and board, don’t count on it. Also these classes are only held in certain parts of the country so unless you are extremely lucky to live close to one of these schools count of more time away from your family.

5- This industry is EXTREMELY cyclic. We go from boom to bust literally overnight. If a steadfast job security is important to you look somewhere else.

Look Mom I’m An Ordinary Seaman!

So you’ve taken some time and thought about it and are still interested in starting a career at sea but don’t know quite how to start let’s see if I can help.

Start here. Find your nearest enrollment center, make an appointment and go get it. Takes about 6 weeks for it to come in. You cannot apply for your MMD until you have applied for your TWIC,

2- Get a Psychical using Coat Guard Form CG-719ke. Print it out and hand it to your doctor, make sure they sign it when they are through filling it out.

3- Don’t forget your drug screen. Here is a list of CG approved place to go along with the form that needs to be filled out when submitting everything to the CG.

4- Find a BST class close that you that you can afford. Go to the pull down menu and select Basic Safety Training and the approved course throughout the country come up. 

If you see a course being offered somewhere but do not see them on this list ask to see their certificate from the Coast Guard. It will have the name of the course on it with expiration date on it. Make sure it’s for the class you want and that it hasn’t expired.

5- Ok now you’ve got everything together fill out the application for you MMD get all your copies of forms and certificates and submit everything to the nearest CG office and hopefully in 2-4 weeks you will get a packet from Martinsville WV with your MMD in it.

Going to Sea (Part II)

The following post is Part Two of the excellent "going to sea" primer by a member of the gCaptain community. Re-posted with his kind permission:

Time For A Road Trip!

Now that you busted your ass and spent several months getting your MMD, or years getting your Third Mate license, you feel like you deserve a job from the first place you think is lucky enough to have you.

Hold up and put that ego in check. Sad to tell you that you are not a special and unique snowflake, there are hundreds of guys just like you looking for that first job, and even more with experience looking at any one time for their next job. You might get lucky and have a job fall in your lap, but don’t count on it.

The industry is just starting to turn around and while an experienced guy can find work pretty easy, it’s harder for somebody with no experience. Hopefully these few tips will help:

1- What to pack in your sea bag. All you really need are steel toe boots, helps if you can also get a pair of steel toe rubber boots also, enough cloths to last a week mainly long pants and t-shirts, whatever medicine and stuff you need for the bathroom.

If possible bring more than enough if you end up working over. Not exactly a pharmacy right around the corner out here. Keep this in the back of your car on every interview. We are not kidding when we say have your bags packed when interviewing. What you think you are being hired for your sparkling personality and witty conversation? The reason they are hiring you is they need somebody RIGHT NOW! All you are is a warm body to them.

If you can’t leave right that second to get on a boat the HR guy is just going to wait 5 minutes for the next guy to walk through the door with his bags packed, and thus give that guy a new job.

2- What to wear to a job interview. You can wear a suit and tie, but don’t be surprised if you are better dressed then the guy interviewing you is. It’s a very informal industry. That said I have seen people show up looking for a job in flip flops, shorts, and a tank top. Please don’t be that guy, and if you are don’t complain that you can’t find a job.

I keep it simple, blue jeans, tennis shoes, and a button down shirt tucked in. I have long hair and keep it in a ponytail. Also if you have facial hair, keep it neat and trimmed up. The reason I wear the above is that when I get that new job and have to go to the boat I don’t have to worry about changing out of my suit in the bathroom someplace. You also don’t want to wear something that you are afraid to get stains on or snag on something when getting on a boat. Also boats are smelly and you don’t want your nice suite to smell of boat when you get home, do you?

3- How to actually get that first job: I work in the Gulf oil fields on supply boats so this next section will mainly apply to finding work in the oil patch. I’m sure other places are the same, just the locations are different. Don’t waste your time with online applications or constantly calling on the phone for your first contact if you have no experience.

You are going to have to get in your car and drive down to where the boat companies are. Most of them are located along Hwy 90 between New Orleans and Lafayette, with a high concentration of them along LA-1 towards Golden Meadows. If I see another thread in the Jobs section from somebody complaining that they cannot find a job and they have not gotten off their ass and made multiply trips through southern Louisiana I am going to scream.

I live in Austin, TX it’s a 10-hour car ride down there so I get that the trip can be expensive and time consuming. It takes a week to seriously hit most of the boat supply boat companies, and you are more than likely going to have to do it multiply times.

So plan to take at least two weeks. The first one to see everybody you can and the next to go back to the ones you liked and showed the most promise. I’ve had to repeat this several time over the course of several months to find a job before. To find where to go in Louisiana type “Supply Boat Companies In Louisiana” or any such variant in Google to get their address.

4- The Interview: Most importantly besides having your bags packed for work it to have all your documents together. I have a file folder to keep them in along with receipts and any other work related stuff I want to keep together. Also it helps to have your Social Security card and your passport, if you have one. When you walk in, go to the receptionist and ask to fill out an application, look smart and bring your own pen, she will hand you an application and ask you for your documents so she can make a copy to go along with your application.

Be nice to the ladies at the front desk, they are the gatekeepers and are just as important to you getting a job as the HR man. Make small talk with them and use lots of please and thank you with them. After you fill out the application and hand it back to the receptionist ask if they are seeing anybody toady.

Hopefully they are and she’ll either give you your documents back or keep them for the HR man to look over. Go sit down and wait. If she says they are not seeing anybody today ask when the best time might be to stop by and see someone is and come back then. If she says that the HR guy only sees people by appointment, thank her for her time and move on to the next company.

When the HR guy comes out get up and shake his hand look him in the eye and introduce yourself and what job you are looking for. You guys will then take a few minutes doing the usual interview thing; he will then offer you a job or tell you that they have nothing available right now. If that’s the case then get up shake his hand and tell him that you will check back with him in a few days.

And so with the next company and the next. The thing to remember is that you want to make a good impression because you will more than likely be talking to him over the next few months as you keep looking for a job. He will start to remember you and it you just might get a call one day looking for a deckhand because he remembers you and knows that you’re serious about working.

In Closing

Did I mention if you have questions please do a search first? Any general question you can think of has been asked and answered numerous times. If you search and can’t come up with an answer to a specific question then go ahead and ask, but please include as much information as possible and put some thought into how you are asking it.

We are constantly answering the same question over and over, and this has caused a few members to equip them selves with pointy sticks and others to get even bigger ones. So to save your self some embarrassment do a search. This also keeps the number of threads asking the same questions down so that when someone does a search they don't get page after page of related threads and then you have to dig through all of them to find the information you are looking for.

You will find discussion about the use of head hunters around the forums. Avoid the ones asking you to sign a contract stating that if they find you a job you will pay them an amount equal to 14 days of work. Don’t sign on with those blood suckers. Along with taking your money they give kickbacks to whoever hired you to use them.

So you are essentially paying the HR man to hire you. What they are doing is technically illegal, but have yet to be brought to justice. There are a few companies that don’t charge you and they try, but I have never had luck using them. I’ve always found my jobs the old fashioned way, with the employment agencies calling me a few days after I get my new job with job offers.

Every now and then a guy looking for a spot on a yacht gets lost and ends up on this forum. If you haven’t figured it out yet we are commercial- oriented and can give little if any help outside of questions related to license upgrades.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Just lately we’ve been trying to knock out a few projects on the boat every day. Today was spotlight day: the aft light was frozen in place, and the forward light on the starboard side was dim and diffuse.

A lot of elbow grease, some actual grease, a few power tools and a little ingenuity later, Bill had the aft light operational.

My job was easier – I just replaced the mirror and cleaned the inside of the housing on the faltering forward light. While on top of the wheelhouse, I fixed a broken antenna mount (we have 11 antennas atop the boat – but so far as we can tell, only nine electronic appliances requiring antennas … guess we need to trace those wires at some point) and began polishing our air horns.

I replaced a couple of deck lights and we tested all the high-water alarms, as well.

Yesterday we tested all the engine alarms (oil pressure, gear lube pressure, water temp), replaced two sending units and rewired one control box. We also made up two new 80-ft. mooring lines, spliced and whipped.

Meanwhile, the deckhand on the night shift has been grinding and painting on deck – a process I intend to continue on the next hitch, beginning at the top of the mast.

Well before we go to the shipyard for our Coast Guard hull inspection in November, everything we can reach should be good to go. The shipyard will take care of the hull – which badly needs a couple of fresh coats of paint.

A lot of this is deferred maintenance, and some of it is just the sort of stuff that we need to do periodically. One thing I’m sure of is that we’ll never run out of things to do – this is, after all, a boat.


It has long been assumed in our family that Cajuns will eat just about anything. This opinion may arise from stories my Thibodeaux cousin told about hunting, trapping and fishing on the bayou as a boy.

Or it may originate with an anecdote about one of my uncles’ colleagues – another biology professor in Louisiana – who would eat all manner of roadkill, if it was fresh enough.

Protein is protein, and whether or not we’ll put a particular form in our mouths probably depends a lot on culture and early conditioning. In some places, chili- and chocolate-dusted grasshoppers are considered a tasty snack (they’re not bad, but the little legs kept getting caught between my teeth). Other places, grubs – toasted or fresh – are frequently on the menu.

Rattlesnake tastes a lot like chicken, and I’m told iguana is pretty similar.

Our engineer was telling me about long-ago trips to the “camp” in the swamp with the old man who helped raise him. He looked forward, he said, to the “pot” hunt at the end of the day: a rabbit, a marsh hen, and a grobec – all thrown into the same pot and simmered.

“What’s a grobec?” I asked.

“It’s a big gray bird, kind of has a funny shape in its neck when it flies,” he said.

Me: “Makes a sound like this? (and here I do my best raspy heron croack).

“Yeah, that’s it,” he said.

“Seriously? You guys eat herons?”

“Yeah man, that’s some good sh*t. Illegal as hell to shoot, of course, but they’re good!”

*A grobec, a quick web search tells me, is a “gros bec,” or “fat beak,” and typically refers to a yellow-crowned night heron.


Both of the other captains on my boat are good guys – people I’d drink a beer with back home, or spend a day fishing next to. And they’ve both been running crewboats for two decades or more.

One of them, let’s call him Mack, was the captain on the boat at the beginning of my first hitch. He’s also my official “mentor,” the person who at some point will sign-off on my ability to handle the boat, the paperwork, and the customer.

When that happens, I’ll be taken off Short Service Employee status and trade-in my hi-vis orange (“may be a danger to himself and others”) hardhat for a glossy white one. That’s when I’ll also be eligible to get a raise and, and, when the opportunity presents itself, move up to a master or relief master position.

Mack told me last night he doesn’t see any reason it will take the six months our personnel manual suggests.

He’s one of those old school captains I wrote about earlier. Been there, done that, and lived to tell about it. I learn a lot from the telling.

The other night he told me that in the wake of the previous third captain being fired with immediate effect at 0530 the day I was supposed to report to a 130-foot utility boat, he called the office and said: “Send me someone, I don’t care who, but I have to have another captain down here. Just send me someone with a license who can drive from point A to point B – I can handle the rest.”

Then, he said, I showed up and told him I had just three months on crewboats, none of it in the oilfield.

“Well,” he said with a wry smile,” at least I know they were listening to me.”

My official mentor isn’t the only person teaching me stuff on this boat; our engineer, we’ll call him Bill, makes a point of running through one of the systems each hitch. He’s also the guy I can go to and say: “Hey, I’m a little rusty on my eye splices. Can you walk me through one real quick?”

Bill told me he was fortunate, as he was learning his trade, to run across people who were happy to answer his questions and show him what he’d need to know to be successful. He is, he said, just paying it forward.

I look forward to doing the same someday.

Bossman Blues

One of the things that comes with a master’s license is supervisory responsibility, and it’s the part of the job that the CFRs, International Rules and USCG-approved courses don’t do much to prepare you for.

In my first captain’s job, I fired a deckhand off the boat about five minutes before a trip. I had asked him to do something, for the third time, and he looked at me and said: “F*ck you.” My response was just as direct: “Get off the boat, now.” He did, management backed me up, and that was that.

In the past two years, though, that sort of experience has been rare. Much more common is working with a crew in which everyone knows their jobs and does them without complaint and without being prompted.

Unlicensed crew members who have been doing their jobs for years can be great resources for relatively new captains, like me. It can be a fun, productive and collegial relationship.

This isn’t my first rodeo as a supervisor, and because I’ve been on both sides of that relationship I try to be smart about the way I manage people I’m responsible for. I’ve lived by the “praise publically, correct privately” dictum. I go to bat for my guys, too: whether it’s getting someone a long-delayed pay raise or the supplies he needs to do his job – I consider those things to be part of my job.

And I grind and paint and lend a hand with engine oil changes.

A lot of my opinions about leadership come from my experiences -- both good and bad -- in the Army. On the positive side, I had one commander, an academy grad who today is a friend, who exemplified good leadership: He was the first one up, the last to go to bed, the last through the chow line, and he wasn’t afraid to get down and dirty in the field with his troops. He was fair, but decisive.

And more than anything, we knew he had our backs – when sh*t rolled downhill, he’d put himself between the giant ball of dung and us.

So, I try to live up to that example. I don’t always succeed, and I’m still learning as I go.

A long time ago I put one of my best friends on a formal performance improvement plan and then, when he didn’t come through, fired him. I felt righteous for about five minutes. It destroyed our friendship and caused untold hardship for him and his family. Was I justified in firing him? By the letter of the law, sure. Was it the right thing to do? Absolutely not; it was like employing a grenade in a fistfight.

This topic today because last week things came to a head with one of the deckhands on my current boat. Nice enough guy, I thought, who started the same time I did. We’ve worked through some issues, mostly arising out of his opinion that a.) he’s “basically a captain without a license,” and b.) apparently, I’m so new at this I can’t possibly make a good decision without his input.

I thought we had agreed that if he ever saw me – or anyone else – about to do something unsafe, he’d use his Stop Work Authority (as he is obligated to do, under our company policy). If there were three or four safe ways to accomplish something and I chose an option different from the one he preferred, he could tell me about it later but in the moment he just needs to do what I tell him without arguing or offering alternatives.

Well, during an offload at the beginning of the week, it didn’t go quite that way. Without going into the dreary detail, there were some issues with PPE (not worn), with communication (not effective) and rigging (unsafe), and it culminated with him throwing a radio on the counter in the wheelhouse and “bowing up” on me – trying to get in my face while I was at the stern controls holding the boat at a platform.

Everything was correctable up until that last moment.

After I calmed-down, and after we completed the evolution, I decided to offer him a choice: I could write him up and he could take his chances on keeping his job, or he could find another boat. Before I could even voice the options, he told the more senior captain on the boat he wanted off at the next crew change.

I still haven’t decided how to handle this. The captains swapped watches mid-hitch, as is the routine on this boat, so the deckhand is working opposite me right now.

It is my nature, I guess, to wonder what I could have done differently to change the outcome in a situation like this. And running someone off seems like an admission of failure – if I was smarter, or more patient, or communicated more clearly, maybe we wouldn’t have gotten to that point.

On the other hand, some guys are just knuckleheads and nothing I say or do will ever make them stop being knuckleheads.

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.

Plus and Minus

Going through some of our paperwork the other day, I found the 2010 survey for this boat. The value was estimated at $2.6 million. With a full load, and at current prices, we carry about three quarters of a million dollars in fuel, and – I’m guessing – anywhere between $500,000 and $2 million in other cargo and equipment.

For half the day, every day I’m out here, I’m responsible for about $4 million in stuff and four lives. Not to mention civil and criminal liability should I really mess-up.

A text from home tells me the power has gone out again in the middle of the night and it’s not even storming and the youngest son has another ear infection and is crying for me.

Days like those, and when seas are running 6-8 feet and everything’s rolling and crashing on the boat and something important isn’t working right and I didn’t get enough sleep the night before … well, sometimes, I think there’s no way they pay me enough for this.

Other times, as a sunrise pours molten gold across a sighing sea, or off to port I see a pack of big jacks or school of tuna savaging hardtails bunched on the surface, or a pod of dolphins cavorts off our bow, I’m in awe.

Then, there’s Sirius Channel 60, Walt Wilkins singing about sitting under a tree or Ray Wylie Hubbard reminding me that days when my gratitude is greater than my expectations are good days, and I have an hour to sit at my computer or bury my nose in a book and there’s a cold Dr. Pepper close at-hand, and I think: “Man, I can’t believe I’m getting paid for this.”

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Weekends and Evenings

Workboat schedules sound pretty great if you don’t think about it too much: “What? I get FOUR MONTHS off? That’s a pretty good vacation schedule!”

Except it’s also your evenings and weekends. In fact, if you’re actually standing 12-hour watches, you end up averaging almost eight hours (7.89 hours, to be exact) a day every day of the year. And with the rest of the time you’re on the boat, you end up spending two-thirds of your time at work, as opposed to the one-third a 9-to-5 Joe pulls.

I’m not complaining. I have several cousins who spent the majority of the past two years deployed to war zones, and they didn’t get to come home and hug their kids every two weeks. My brother, a cop, works four days on, four days off, and during his four days on he doesn’t see a lot of the family.

These days, more and more men and women are working two or three jobs just to keep food on the table. And lots of guys do shift work that makes it difficult to make Little League games, band concerts and the like. They’re just happy to have a job. 

So am I.

My phone rang at about 9 this morning; it was our crewing coordinator calling to confirm crew change at 6 a.m. tomorrow. I assured him I’d be there.

It’s been a good week back home at the Casa de la Selva. I somehow lucked into a break in the 100+ degree temperatures, we had a nice rain shower, and a constant stream of houseguests (old friends all) came through.

My wife was kind enough to have the lawn done before I got home (at 1.5 acres, it’s a big job). I got lots of kid time, and even stole a “date day” with The Old Lady.

The last company I worked for was such an unhappy place I’d spend my entire week off stressing about going back to work. This time around I haven’t even thought about it much (other than: “Oh yeah, I need to take that back to the boat.”) until this morning.

So, near the end of my first week off and on the eve of my second hitch, it’s going okay.