Tuesday, December 31, 2013


As 2013 draws to a close, I count the things for which I am thankful.

I am thankful for my family: my hardworking, long-suffering, beautiful wife and my three cool kids. I’m hoping that in 2014 I’ll be able to spend more time with them.

I am thankful that my folks are still around, and that my siblings are relatively nearby and we are able to hang out from time to time.

And even though this career has put a damper on trips back to Mayberry-by-the-Sea, I remain thankful for the rather extraordinary Cousins Club, of which I am a member, and for the continued health of my mom’s siblings and their awesome spouses.

Growing up, I never really knew a distinction between the aunts and uncles I was related to genetically and those who got roped into our crazy family at the altar … still don’t.

I’m thankful for the old friends I now don’t see nearly enough but who stay in touch anyway … it’s getting to be time to catch-up in person over breakfast in Houston, beers at the Co-op, lunch at some South Austin greasy spoon … something.

Soon, fellas.

I am thankful for the opportunity to work, and to learn, alongside some pretty cool guys in a vital and booming industry.

This week, on my fourth boat of the past eight months at this company, we are working out of a dock in Port Fourchon alongside two other boats I’ve worked on. 

There’s a lot of visiting going on back and forth between the vessels.

By my reckoning, I’ve accrued about 270 days sea time this year. Some tweaking is in order – especially on the schedule side – but I still count myself lucky to be able to do this job.

Life is all too short, folks. To lift a marketing slogan I actually believe, if ever you get the opportunity: “Do what you love, love what you do.”

Happy New Year, y'all.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Happy Holidays

Holidays are the bane of any mariner's working life. Holidays also are referred to as "misses," "skips," and "voids."

Holidays are the small areas left uncoated after applying new paint.

They also are the religious and civil observances, the gatherings of family and friends, that sailors often miss while at sea.

After two consecutive Thanksgivings and Easters underway, countless birthdays and a couple of anniversaries, this was the year I was supposed to be on the boat for Christmas. 

Some last-minute shuffling at the office moved Tuesday crew changes to Monday, and Wednesday crew changes to Thursday, and me to a different boat this hitch.

Suddenly I'm driving back to Louisiana Chistmas night rather than Christmas Eve.

We planned Christmas based on my previous schedule and celebrated with the family this past weekend. 

It actually worked-out better for getting folks together, and I'll never be ungrateful for a few extra days at home.

My buddy over at New England Waterman posted a brilliant, literary post on Christmas at sea. Check it out when you get a chance.

Meanwhile, I fooled around with an homage to a Christmas classic. It still could use some work, but here's where it stands on Christmas day:

'Twas the night before crew change, when all through the house
Clothing and gadgets and books bewilder my spouse.
The bags still empty soon will be stuffed to the gills
Remember the razor! Remember the pills!

The children were nestled all snug in their beds
I crept 'round the toys and kissed their sweet heads.
And mama at the Keurig hands me a cup
While I carry my bags out and load them all up.

The truck is all fueled and I guess I am too
It's time to get going, to get away from this zoo!
Like the cat at the door, I can't quite decide
If I want to be on the in or the outside.

On the boat I am missing the joys of my home
The children, the wife, the time spent alone
Little things too, like a walk on dry land
And a pint of dark stout, snug in my hand
At home I am wond’ring how is the crew,
Are the seas heaped-up high, the wind blowing too?
Is the AIS working, is the new anchor on board,
Did the oil get changed, or was it ignored?

No matter right now; I’ll know soon enough
Here in the driveway I think: do I have all my stuff?
I check the list in my head for the very last time
And hold my wife in my arms as the midnight clock chimes

Pulling out of the ‘hood I settle in for the drive
I don’t need to go fast, I just need to get there alive
Down Seventy-One to Interstate Ten
Five hours through Texas, five more through Lousiane

Now Bastrop! Columbus! Now Sealy, now H-town too!
Come Beaumont! the border, Jennings, and Cajun country true!
Past the edge of my state, into the deep south!
I retool my vocab, put some drawl in my mouth!

As the sky becomes bright I stop for gas and some joe
Rough men throng the counter in fire-proof clothes
At last at the office, I greet shipmates and staff
As I load-up the crew truck we gossip and laugh

Meanwhile back at the house the tree’s all aglitter.
The children race between gifts in a gift paper litter.
Mama sips at her coffee, then turns to her phone.
“Merry Christmas my love, can’t wait ‘til your home.”

One advantage to going to a different boat this hitch is that I'll be back in Port Fourchon, and in fact I'll be working from a dock just across the slip from the boat New England Waterman is on. 

He reports that the cabin of the boat I'm going to is in a state of undress and suggests I bring some painting clothes.

No problem. And I will do my very best, these coming weeks, to avoid any more holidays.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Modest Proposal

This fog-shrouded aluminum asylum has got me thinking: what if someone built a crew(boat) company?

Newcomers to the industry, if they are paying attention, at some point will marvel at the quirky cast of characters surrounding them.

You realize pretty quickly that it takes a special kind of person to spend two-thirds of the year on a boat. And when I say “special,” I mean “strange,” or at least estranged.

Quirks range from the amusing to the annoying to the downright … what the hell did he just do?!

You spend more time with these people than you do with your spouse or significant other. You spend more time with them than you spend with your besty, your kids, or your parents. And for 28 days at a time they are always right there.  You can’t get away.

Think about it a little more, and you realize that you are pretty special yourself, or you wouldn’t be here.

There is, at this moment, a lively discussion on gCaptain in response to a prospective mariner’s question about how to start or maintain a relationship or a family. The comments run the gamut from hilarious to heartbreaking.

My response would be that it depends on what kind of relationship you have or want with your significant other, and what you are willing to sacrifice – not just for your family, but of your family as well.

My wife, for instance, is an independent professional who doesn’t feel the need to be welded to my side all the time. Like the Gipper, we have a policy of trust but verify.

She’s busy, I’m absent, and we try to make the most of the time we have when I’m home.
Still, we miss a lot, and miss each other a lot. I didn’t marry her, after all, to be away from her eight months of every year.

My 3-year-old takes a photo of me off the wall every night and carries it around until he goes to bed. My 1-year-old, last time I was home, called me “Mama” for an entire week.

I asked him: “Where’s Daddy?” He turned and pointed to a picture.

True story.

Clearly this is insupportable in the long run.

The old lady and I keep telling each other: think of it as a deployment; we’ll suck it up until I upgrade and get a bigger boat and a better schedule.

In the meantime, there is this boat, and every boat I’ve worked on to date, which brings me back to my modest proposal.

If you browse most boat companies’ web sites, you’ll find pages of information about the vessels in their fleet and very little about the mariners who operate those vessels.

In the 100-ton world, at least, crew members – even captains – are largely seen as interchangeable.

I’ve  actually heard these words from one company’s operations manager: “Deckhands are a dime a dozen. It’s a McDonald’s job. We can get a new deckhand any time.”

I have yet to see a formal career ladder, continuing education or meaningful retention plans anywhere I’ve worked.

And so the mill churns, people come and go, things get lost in the shuffle and other things fall between the cracks and that inanimate boat the company is so proud of never operates at maximum efficiency.

If I owned a boat company, I wouldn’t be writing this. But if I did, knowing what I know now, I would consider doing these things:

1. Make building crews a priority over building or buying boats; take the time to put together six or eight people with complimentary (not necessarily identical) abilities, sympathetic outlooks and ambitions, etc.

Do this one crew at a time and never, under any circumstances, disperse that crew. If another boat needs a key crew member, move the entire crew. 

I can imagine this would be extremely difficult and time-consuming. I also know it is possible. A friend who is a captain on another of this company’s boats – a boat no one would ever ask for – was telling me just the other day how great his entire crew is. “That is,” he said, “about 90 percent of the battle out here.

2. Even time: yes, I know …. broken record, right? It is insane to believe that anyone can maintain a normal or healthy family life on a 240-day schedule. It’s a good schedule for work-release. 

It’s a fine schedule for youngsters who a.) don’t have families of their own, b.)  want to stack some green, and c.) couch surf with friends or crash at mom and dad’s in their scant time off. Pay everyone just a little more so there is only an incremental  loss of income.(Consider: even at current, mid-range 100-ton rates, a captain could make $50,000-$60,000 per year on a 180-day schedule; pretty damned good for someone with an eighth-grade education. Pretty damned good for anyone in this post-unionized, post-manufacturing American economy.) 

Do a complete crew change every two weeks with an adequate (mandatory) handover meeting. This would mitigate any additional crew change costs. The only additional costs to the company would be benefits for two additional persons per boat. Man days on the vessel remain the same.

An additional benefit is that there would likely be a larger pool of people to work over if necessary, more time for customer-required or employee-desired education, and a fresher, sharper, less stressed-out and quirky work force.

3. Provide continuing education and a formal career ladder for entry-level employees. Maybe even partner with a reputable company operating larger vessels. The truth is, some people will – for reasons ranging from native ability or ambition to temperament to health to cost – never get off the 100-ton boats and move “up.” That’s okay.

But many people see the 100-ton boats as a stepping stone to an AB or QMED rating or a 500-ton master’s or mate’s license. Recognize that, help them out and get the best out of them while they are here.

On a practical level, a couple of days in the shop each year going over common CumminsK-19 or  K-38 or Cat 3512 issues, troubleshooting and onboard repair would probably save tens of thousands of dollars in third-party mechanics’ labor. 

Many of a crew boat company’s best and brightest will move on. Provide some incentives to stretch the service of those employees, and become the employer of choice for people getting started or folks who simply want to operate fast, aluminum hulls.

“Boat Company Boss for a Day” is a fun thought exercise … kind of like “What would I spend my millions on if I won the lottery?”

I’m about as likely to get to play the former as I am to spend the latter.

Out here we joke among ourselves that our office staff should be required to ride a week with us each year. Then, we grumble, they would understand.

The flip side, of course, is that most of us have little idea the sort of hell 20 boats are giving our crew coordinator or operations manager.

Illuminating my ignorance would only kill the dream, though. It’s nice to dream.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Seventeen Seagulls

The production boat in our field suffered the third mechanical breakdown in as many weeks Thanksgiving morning.

What that meant for us is that when we headed out on our normal daily run about 0500 Thursday, we didn't hit the dock again until late Saturday.

A good rule of thumb is that mechanical failures, family emergencies, sudden illnesses, falls from ladders and so on that occur on or immediately before holidays are suspect.

I'm not saying the other boat's crew (all of whom are local) went home for the holiday. But I wouldn't be surprised.

So, anyway, we took up the slack. Which was okay, because we had been sitting at the dock for five days, while that other boat rolled around in 10-14 foot seas.

And it's not like we were being fair-weather sailors; every morning the company man at our platform took a look at his weather forecast, took a look over the railing, then called us and told us to sit tight.

By the time we did get to the field, seas had subsided to an easy 2-3 ft. and our nights on the buoy were downright soporific.

Two nights in a row we had a flock of seagulls foraging beneath our deck lights: exactly 17 of them, both nights.

They were quiet, almost ghostly, and soared in and out of the darkness, flopping inexpertly into the water to pick-up their prey. I marked them down as first-winter birds, with blockier heads and less voice than Laughing gulls.

I suspect Bonaparte's gulls, which should be easy enough to identify if I think to look for a couple of distinctive field marks next time.

In other news, our boat has a new first captain, and it's not me. And that's just fine: the guy who was chosen has loads of experience with this company and has been doing this long enough to make his worst mistakes and learn from them.

More than anything I'm happy that we'll now have continuity across watches and someone to make final decisions.

Ever dreamed of working on a democratic boat where decision-making is by consensus? There is a reason that not even the Soviet Union operated a ship as a worker's cooperative.

It. Does. Not. Work.

There are usually about half a dozen ways to do anything out here, and two or three of them probably even work pretty well. Sometimes it just comes down to personal preference or habit, and that's okay.

There's some more shaking-out to do, and we'll see how that goes. I'm sure I don't understand everything -- the resume, the experience, the demonstrated knowledge, the communication skills, the management chops, the boat-handling ability, the maturity, the dues paid, the politics -- that factors into these decisions.

But the fact that the office folks got it right with our lead captain gives me hope, and quiets the turmoil of my thoughts enough that I can go back to counting seagulls.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Am I SAD, or is this SWD?

It's about that point in the hitch where I'm just feeling down. Tired, a little beat-up, disconnected from the family back home. And we're not yet halfway through. Which kind of sucks.

Of course, it could be the weather.

No easy slide into the season on the Third Coast; down here, it's binary: summer/winter. Very often within the same week. Sometimes in the same day.

Winter comes in spurts down here, sweeping down from the Midwest in a bluster or the Arctic in a gale that has us cussing and complaining for a couple of days, followed by high pressure, which we like.

Rinse and repeat through mid-March, at least.

At home, my wife notices cold fronts because they bring a little rain or the temperatures drop. Out here we notice the wind and the building seas.

"While you're feeling chilly," I tell her, "I'm getting bounced around like a ping-pong ball that escaped the table."

Sixty miles of fetch and a steep slope to the sea floor make for some nasty waves out where we work. It sucks.

On the days it's not howling or we aren't sitting under a ridge of high pressure, we often have low, thick fog caused by warm air wafting across the cooler water of the Mississippi River and the nearshore continental shelf. 

I'm reasonably adept at operating the radars, and endorsed to do so, but I do not like running in fog. I do not like it one bit. It sucks.

I'm working dark 'til dark, 1800-0600, which because of the season means I can go most of a week without seeing natural light. That pretty much sucks, too.

As the days become shorter and the weather keeps folks bundled-up and indoors, people everywhere begin to suffer from something called Seasonal Affective Disorder, or so I read.

I think I may be suffering a touch of that now, or it may just be the South Louisiana strain of Shitty Weather Disorder.

Saturday, November 2, 2013


When I was brand spanking new to this career, it was not unusual for me to show up to the boat with a milk crate full of books.

I would like to say I read voraciously, but in fact it's more like "indiscriminately." I read good books and I read crap books. Fiction and non-fiction. Escapist entertainments and prize-winning literature. Sometimes I read professional references.

One night a couple of weeks ago I overheard an exchange over the radio between a captain on one of the boats that also works for our customer and a captain on another boat. It was all about books.

That radio exchange resulted in the gifting of a large box of reportedly high-quality hardbacks to the boat that frequently ties-up next to us. I've been invited over to find something I'd like to read.

At some point over the last couple of years, I discovered the Kindle. It's magic. Bookstores are few and far between in South Louisiana, but with a 4G wi-fi connection, I can download the latest releases in seconds.

I still go to sea with dozens of books, but now most of them are on my e-reader and, sadly, not readily shareable.

Looking at my Kindle now, here are a few I can recommend:

Storm Front by John Sandford. This is the latest in Sandford's Virgil Flowers series, and like all of the author's Minnesota-set thrillers, a fun read.

Deceived, by Randy Wayne White. A spin-off from the Doc Ford series that features fishing guide and PI Hannah Smith. The writing is less consistently terrific than in the Doc Ford novels, but it's still good.

Never Go Back, by Lee Child. Jack Reacher is one of the great characters of recent adventure fiction. I refuse to see the horribly miscast movie.

I discovered Justin Cronin, a creative writing teacher at Houston's Rice University, through his science fiction stories. He has also written some literary fiction of note, including: Mary and O'Neil and The Summer Guest. I especially enjoyed the latter.

I think I'm all caught up on Martin Cruz Smith's (Gorky Park) Arkady Renko novels now. I recently read Wolves Eat Dogs, Red Square and Three Stations. Renko is another great fictional character.

Drive up and down Hwy 90 in South Louisiana long enough, and you'll see the name "Robichaux" pretty frequently. James Lee Burke's series featuring the Iberia Parish sheriff's detective by the same name blurs the line between genre entertainment and high-brow literature.

Burke's bio led me to the work of his cousin, the famed short story writer Andre Dubus. I just finished his Selected Stories and will be looking for more.

I find I have quite a few Jim Harrison books on my Kindle. I guess that's because, over the past 12 months or so, Harrison has become hands-down my favorite living writer, maybe my favorite writer period. Maybe you know him from Legends of the Fall.

Harrison is sort of Bukowski-Hemingway-Zane Grey all rolled-up together. Perhaps a bit more honorable than any of them, come to think of it. Start anywhere (the collections of novellas -- something like The River Swimmer would give you a good taste) but at some point also pick up his memoir, Off to the Side.

I recently finished the trade paperback version of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. The pace of this epistolary novel had been described as "elegaic," and I would say that's about right. 

It's almost a ... meditation or prayer, I guess. It took me a while to "get into" the story, but before long I found myself looking forward to the end of my watch so I could get back to it.

For recommendations on professional (or at least related) reading, I often refer back to a thread on the gCaptain forum called "Books in Your Library."

I can heartily recommend Max Hardberger's Freighter Captain and Seized. The latter has received more press, but the former is a better read, I think. It also happens to be available only as an e-book.

The Voyage of the Rose City by the late John Moynihan is a great read, and well-worth picking up. In the same vein, I am re-reading the John McPhee classic, Looking for a Ship.

In hardback, I've been carrying around (and sometimes even referring to) Nigel Calder's Marine Diesel Engines: Maintenance, Troubleshooting and Repair. Mechanics of any kind not being my strong suite, I take whatever help I can find, wherever I can find it. Calder's book is geared more toward yachties, and powerplants somewhat smaller than the massive Cats that drive my boat. 

Still, a diesel engine is a diesel engine and this straightforward book is helpful.

In hopes of getting a jump on celestial navigation, and upon the recommendation of someone on gCaptain, I recently purchased the paperback version of A Star to Steer Her By by Edward Bergin.

For the edification (and education) of the entire crew, I recently ordered the Sibley Guide to Birds and Hoese and Moore's Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico.They live near the chart table for quick reference.

My father sent me a copy of At All Costs: How a Crippled Ship and Two American Merchant Mariners Turned the Tide of World War II. I enjoyed it very much. So much, I paid it forward to a friend who works as a captain for another company. He was able to stern-up next to us in Fourchon long enough to take possession.

I'm a fan of Nelson DeMille's writing and looked forward all summer to The Quest, an expansion and rewriting of an early novel and the only thing I haven't yet read. It was an all-around disappointment and I can't help wondering if perhaps his best work is now behind him.

I enjoy the mindless adventure of Clive Cussler's books, and I'm not the only fan on the boat. I'll be taking a stack of Cussler and Hiasson and whatever else I can find that I think others might enjoy back with me in about 10 days.

In a milk crate, of course.

Friday, November 1, 2013

A Pod of Whales

Our regular run out to the field takes us nearly two hours, the first 45 minutes of which is through the Port of Venice, up and across the Mississippi River and through one of the river's many passes.

Black dots show sperm whale distribution.
When we turn out to the southeast, we show only about 10 feet of water under the keel. That number grows only gradually, until we reach what must be a pretty steep slope in the underlying shelf. The depth goes from about 30 feet to 125 feet in the space of a couple of miles.

The Mississippi Delta is a fascinating place for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that -- for reasons I haven't taken the time to discover -- sperm whales sometimes show up there.

Other whales are resident in the Gulf of Mexico as well, including pilot whales, pygmy sperm whales, right whales (a mother and her calf took a little side trip up the Corpus Christi Ship Channel a while ago) and even orcas.

My most common cetacean encounters though are with dolphins -- Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and Atlantic spotted dolphins.

So imagine my excitement early one morning a few weeks ago when a captain on another boat mentioned the pod of whales up ahead of us.

The other boat, a supply vessel, was also making its way out toward our field. In the pre-dawn murk, I called ahead and asked the captain if I could overtake him on "the two," that is, come around his port side.

"No problem, cap," he replied. "Y'all have a good morning."

Then, almost as an afterthought: "Y'all going around that pod of whales up there?"

Pod of whales? What?!

My first thought was: "Why are there whales in such shallow water?"

My second thought was: "How does he know there is a pod of whales up head of us in the dark? Does someone track them and then broadcast their location?"

My third thought was: "Does he have some sort of whale-detecting equipment on his boat? That's weird ..."

I called him back: "Say again?"

"I was just wondering if y'all are going to go around the north end of that pod of whales up ahead," he said. "I usually just go all the way around because they're so close together."

Oh. I see: pod of .... wells.

He was talking about the dense cluster of satellites on our course.

Later the same day, I tell the other captain on our boat the story.

He looked at me strangely: "But I saw a whale today," he said. "It had barnacles all over its back and a big ol' tail, which came all the way out of the water before he went down."

He then proceeded to tell me about other whale sightings.

Should I be so fortunate to see a whale, or even a pod of whales, I'm pretty sure I won't be going around them. I will, though, wake everyone on the boat so they can see them too.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Terror at Tiger Pass!

Somewhere off the coast of Africa this week, an Edison Chouest Offshore supply vessel was attacked by pirates and the American captain and chief engineer were kidnapped.

Elsewhere in the Pacific a couple of weeks ago, some poor ship somewhere was caught in the grip of a typhoon.

I sail on a small ship in a small sea. I suppose I am doomed to diminutive adventures.

I am reminded of the old veteran who was asked which war he served in.

“The Big One,” he replied.

“Oh, wow, I didn’t think you were quite old enough to be in World War II,” the other guy said.

“I wasn’t. I was in Korea, and it felt mighty damned big to me,” retorted the old soldier.

That exchange probably made more sense 20 or 30 years ago when I first heard it – back when Korean War veterans were merely middle-aged. But I digress, before I even get started.

Here’s what happened.

We leave the dock in Venice at 4 a.m. In a driving rain. A left takes us up Tiger Pass, and another left turn to take us north in the Jump to the Mississippi River.

About three-quarters of the way up the Jump, making a little better than 7 knots, I feel the engines suddenly drop out of gear. I pull them back to clutch, and then re-engage the throttles.

According to my gauges, they’re still idling, but there is no response to the controls.

I check my throttle selector -- a tiny toggle switch that moves inputs between the forward and aft helm stations. It’s where it is supposed to be.

Suddenly, my engine monitoring system shows “NO DATA” for two of the engines. The other two flicker in and out.

By this time I have lost all forward momentum and the river’s current is beginning to drag me back. I turn on the Not Under Command lights (red over red), make a security call on VHF 13, and run downstairs to wake everyone up.

Our progress, backwards, to the intersection of the Jump and Tiger Pass
The engineer and the off-watch captain tackle the problem, which we assume to be electrical. The deckhand helps keep lookout, and I man the radios.

There is quite a bit of traffic – supply vessels, crewboats, tugs and barges, shrimp boats --  through the Jump, which portions some amount of the Mississippi River into Tiger Pass and Grand Pass.

The current is not being kind to us, and begins to drag the bow of the boat – the most vulnerable section of the hull – towards a nasty group of pilings on the north bank of the Jump. It occurs to me, belatedly, that I do have control of one engine on the boat, one that is not hooked-up to the malfunctioning monitoring system.

I turn-on the bow thruster and use it to steer the boat. We pirouette gracefully off of the steep bank of a slip, and I flip the boat nearly 180 degrees, hoping to be able to catch an abandoned dock where the Jump meets Tiger Pass.

No one is more surprised than me that I’m able to swing the starboard stern to within a few feet of the dock. 
The deckhand catches a piling and makes us fast, and I use the bow thruster to ease us up against the dock, where we secure the boat.

We are no longer a hazard to navigation.

Meanwhile, the rest of the crew is troubleshooting at a rapid pace. We find a couple of wires melted together in a control box. We isolate and reattach them. We regain throttles for about a minute, before the whole system crashes.

Another crewboat that works our field – and whose captain holds a master of towing vessels – comes alongside to take us back to our dock. Back in the middle of the Jump, we are in the midst of letting go the other boat so he can come around to our starboard side when once again our throttles come to life.

“Let’s see if we can hold ‘em long enough to get back to the dock,” I tell the other captain. “But if you could shadow us back, that would be great.”

And … we make it. Two hours after our departure. We thought we had the problem beat, too, until we tried to leave the dock an hour later and the same thing happened all over again.

Turned out the problem was in the interface between one of the big Caterpillar engines and the aftermarket control system.

Or one of the problems was.

Regardless, it was fixed, and we’re none the worse for the experience.

It was a bit of an adrenaline dump that left me feeling wrung-out the rest of the morning.

And that’s my sea story for this hitch.

Monday, October 21, 2013

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil

Gerard Manley Hopkins was a reluctant Victorian-era poet who converted to Catholicism and became a Jesuit priest. His father was, among other things, a marine insurer, and one of Hopkins' best-known poems is The Wreck of the Deutschland.

I have been a fan of Father Hopkins' verse since my college days, for his use of sprung rhythm and alliteration as well as his keen eye for the natural world.

I suspect, though I have not confirmed, that industrial Britain in the second half of the 19th century was in some ways not so different than the Gulf of Mexico oil patch in the first half of the 21st century.

Many mornings on the boat, Hopkins' words come to mind:

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;        5
  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
  And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
  There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;        10
And though the last lights off the black West went
  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
  World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

"God's Grandeur," Poems, Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1918

Friday, October 18, 2013

Blah, blah, blah

I woke-up yesterday afternoon in time to finish a backload and bring the boat back in.

The shrimping must be really good on the east side of the delta between Main Pass and Baptiste Collette. There sure were a lot of shrimp boats out there.

We took on a little more than 10 tons of fuel and 20 tons of potable water. Changed the oil and filters on the port generator. Just a moment ago I finished tightening-down the stuffing boxes on all four shafts, trying to find that elusive 3-second drip.

At about five minutes after midnight, the engineer offered to head downstairs to wake-up the deckhand. When I finally saw him, at about 00:30, I said: "Look, being late for your watch is a write-up offense. I don't want to write you up. So don't be late."

He looked confused, so I reiterated what I had said the first night we worked together.

"Your watch is midnight 'til noon. I expect to see you 10 or 15 minutes before your watch starts so I can let you know what we have going on, help you prioritize if we have an interruption, or whatever."

He looked more confused, then asked: "But what if I'm not awake 10 minutes before my watch?"

I have a feeling the second half of this hitch is going to be a long couple of weeks.

Thursday, October 17, 2013


Thursday the 16th. Crew change day. Grocery day. The mechanics are coming on-board to wrap-up the repair on our steering pump day.

Thursday the 16th. The day our customer fires an entire service company and keeps us in the field until every single piece of their equipment, and all their people, are on our boat.

Our platform is ... well, I don't know if it's unique in all the Gulf, but it's certainly different than any I've ever worked before. There are two cranes, which is not unusual. They are pretty short cranes, which also is not unusual.

At both cranes, the crane operator cannot actually see the deck of the boat he is offloading or backloading, which is very unusual. I mean, not at all. Sometimes they'll post a flagger at the rail to relay crane signals. Other times I or the deckhand give the crane operator verbal signals over the radio.

At one point during the backload, the platform sent down a wireline unit that weighed maybe 15,000 pounds. It had three, really long taglines attached to it. For a deckhand with just one free hand who was simultaneously giving signals over the radio to the crane operator and giving me hand signals about where he wanted the boat.

A consequence of this very short crane with no visual communication between the operator and the deck is that he just hangs the load over the water, and I then position the boat under the lift where I want it set down.

Somehow it all worked out.

Well, mostly. For reasons of stability, I prefer to have heavy loads forward on the deck. So I have a hope of seeing the stern of the boat from the aft helm station, I likewise prefer to have tall loads up close to the house.

But I can direct the loading of the boat that way only if I know what's coming. The crane operator, for some reason, has it in his head that I should have heavy lifts on the stern and all the light stuff up front. We went back and forth on this over the radio, and by the time the heavy stuff started coming down, the front of the deck was already filled-up.

Two days in a row we've been back at the dock by 9:30 in the morning. Now, on crew change day, we don't leave the field until midnight.

Because we're heavy, and despite the fact that I've pumped off about 3,000 gallons of water, we'll now only make about 17 knots. In places, only about 15 knots, depending on the water depth.

At the dock, we have a cargo box of supplies and groceries, a couple of crew members signing-on and two very tired mechanics. On board, we have seven unhappy passengers and there is no clear path from the front of the boat to the back of the boat.

I'm no dummy, and I call our dispatcher about two hours out and explain the situation very clearly. I don't demand that he put us under the crane as soon as we get in, but I figure it should be clear that under the crane is where we need to be.

Not only was there a boat already under the crane, our standby spot was two-deep in crewboats.

Turned out there was a hole about 32-feet wide between their sterns and a 65-foot crewboat that spends the night on our dock. It was suggested that I stern-up there to let our passengers off and our mechanics on.

When I got to this boat, I was told that there is not room to top around in this slip (we back down out of Tiger Pass). And in many places -- due to barges, other boats, etc. -- there is not.

But by going to the very back of the slip and topping around in the "T," I was able to slide back to that hole and sort of twist into it using the bow thruster and the inboards.

It felt like a pretty nifty piece of boat handling to me, though I may have been the only one impressed.

Anyhow, all of this led to a delayed crew change, which meant the on-signers hadn't been able to get any rest, which meant that I needed to stay up later (not to mention we were changing the watch schedule), which meant that I had been up, and mostly operating the boat, for 21 hours by the time I was relieved.

Yesterday, of course, we were back at the dock by noon and we're not expected to have another run until Friday.

Apparently that sort of nonsense only happens on crew change day. On the sixteenth.

It's enough to make a fellow develop a phobia.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Prejudice and Pride

I've been on the new boat a couple of weeks now, and I'm happy to say it seems to be going well.

I really enjoy the guys I'm working with this part of the hitch, and that helps. A lot.

During Week One, I spent almost all my time -- all the time I wasn't actually operating the boat -- reading through the company's new Safety Management System manual, chasing-down and catching-up paperwork the manual says we should be doing, teaching the other captain (let's call him "Curt") how to use the computerized log system, and so on.

Curt's a terrific shipmate, and makes up for his lack of paperwork prowess with a fearless engagement of the engine room.

At some point in the past week, during a protracted watch turnover, we were discussing our previous careers, and I mentioned some of the office jobs I'd held.

"Well, that explains why you're so good at the paperwork and the computer," he said.

"I guess," I replied, "It's easy for me and something I can contribute, but I'd rather be known as someone who can run a boat."

"Oh, you do fine," Curt said. "I don't see any problems on that end."

Then Curt let slip that the only thing he'd heard about me before I came over here was that I was a "wheelhouse" captain. 

That may not sound so bad, but in this business it's a whole lot worse than damning with faint praise. It's something along the lines of a verbal sneer. It can be career-limiting. It also happens, in this instance, not to be true.

No matter; I'm pretty sure I know where that came from and why, and it doesn't have anything to do with my willingness to get down and dirty with the crew.


It does make one think, and during my Week Two here I've been extra conscious about helping-out on deck and in the engine room, and we've gotten some good work done on the boat.

The other night our dispatcher sent us straight over to one fuel dock to load water, then to another fuel dock to pick up some drums he needed for another boat at our dock.

I had never been to the second dock, and had to call them several times to figure-out exactly where I was going and where they wanted me once we got there. Another of our company's boats was lying along the outside of the dock, partially blocking the slip I had been told to stern-up in.

The captain on our other boat called me on the radio: "Hey Cap, I can slide back for you if you need me to."

"Nah," I reply. "I think I can get in there." He could see where I was going better than me and moved out of the way anyhow.

Now this particular slip is oddly shaped, kind of like this:

That boat-shaped thing in the middle of my bad drawing? That was another crew boat. The Jump? It has some percentage of the Mississippi River's outflow moving through it at a brisk pace.

Anyhow, I wriggled in and was relieved not to have crunched anything.

As we were leaving, though, the current caught my bow and started pushing me down on the other crewboat in the slip. I threw her into a full-throttle pivot, figuring I'd deal with my bow and the third crewboat, bow-in on the far side of the slip, if I managed to clear the one now behind me.

We did, by about two feet, which is too close for my comfort. And we made it out into the Jump okay.

I called-up the captain on our other boat, who may or may not have been watching the whole procedure.

"Hey, this is Curt on the _______," I said. "That slip's a little tricky, isn't it?"

We chatted a few minutes, and I signed-off.

Fortunately, this time my pride was the only thing that was damaged (and only privately, at that). I don't think I'm the World's Greatest Captain, but I'm a pretty fair boat handler, and stuff like that is NOT supposed to happen to me.

But sometimes, thankfully rarely these days, it does. And I suspect I'm not alone in this, that a lot of us out here have "Oh, shit!" moments we just don't tell anyone about.

At least not using our real names.

Part of that is ego, of course, but part of it also may arise from the fact that even though this is a booming industry with lots of jobs at the moment there also are about 100 tons of 100-ton captains out there. A "zero-defect" mentality prevails in some quarters, and fear of being replaced prevents an honest discussion and analysis of accidents and near-misses.

I read in the new SMS that a company steering committee will hold quarterly meetings to discuss accidents and near-misses and provide lessons learned to the fleet. I hope that happens.

But I'm afraid that, at least this one time, "Curt" will not be contributing.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Remembering Karen

Karen was a tease. Drawing ever nearer, then dancing away, then disappearing altogether. The days of unrelieved anticipation were eerily reminiscent of my late, unlamented dating career.

We wondered last week which weather system would win: the strong cold front bearing down from the northwest or the tropical storm wobbling north. I'm hardwired to bet on tropical weather.

As late as the end of my watch Saturday, we were still expecting at least a little rain and some 30-knot winds from a tropical depression.

My faith in the National Weather Service led me to scoff publicly at the old mariner's rhyme:

Red sky at night, sailor delight;
Red sky at morning, sailor take warning

I scoff no more.

I got up early Sunday to see the wind and rain and was instead greeted by blue skies and a northerly breeze.

Shoulda known better. That rhyme, after all, has been around for a while. The Good Lord himself uttered something very much like it in the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew:

When in evening, ye say, it will be fair weather: For the sky is red. And in the morning, it will be foul weather today; for the sky is red and lowering.

And, man, was it red. The sun was red. The sky was red in every direction. The air itself was red.

We headed offshore this morning, and the promised delight apparently has an expiration date, because it was pretty bumpy and windy out there. It's an early preview of coming attractions in the Gulf, I guess.

At any rate, Karen was just about a perfect storm as these things go. We got some down time to catch-up on maintenance and paperwork, no one got hurt and no one lost homes, vehicles or places of employment.

I'll take the tease any day.

This one was for New England Waterman, who was whining that I needed to update the blog. You'd think the guys who drive those big boats would have better things to do than bird-dog my writing schedule. And thanks to my colleague Shawn and quickmeme.com for the Hurricane Karen art!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho, Off to Sea I Go

Back at it on a different boat almost identical to the old boat working a new-to-me field out of Venice, La.

My only prior experience of Venice was a tuna fishing trip many years ago that featured lots of beer and very few tuna.

Working here now is just like that, minus the beer.

The boat is in good shape and the crew is about five kinds of awesome. Nothing really to say about any of that.

So let's talk about the weather.

The first weekend of the hitch brings a tropical weather system followed by a strong cold front. For a while it looked like Tropical Storm Karen might mature into a Category One hurricane before landfall.

For a while, it looked like Karen was going to track right over my boat.

Turns out Karen is both disorganized and unambitious. She's slowed-down, wobbled a bit more northward, and is sort of just falling apart. Karen may still be a minimal tropical storm when she arrives, or perhaps just an unnamed tropical depression.

Meanwhile, not much is moving in Venice. Almost everyone who works at the dock our customer uses has bailed.

The company man who rode in with us two days ago told me they wouldn't need us before Monday. We'll see.

For a busy boat, any downtime is a welcomed opportunity to do a little maintenance. Last night we worked four hours into my off-watch repacking the rudder shafts and resolving a bilge pump issue.

Today it's parts and equipment inventory and the supply requisition. Fun times.

Saturday, September 14, 2013


It’s 0600 on a Saturday and I’m not up early, I’m up again. Or still up. I'm not sure which.

The 3-year-old fell out of bed in soaking wet pajamas. I changed him and tucked him back in. He never woke up. I can't tell you how unjust that feels to me.

The 1-year-old has stirred just once tonight, which is down from four times a couple of nights ago. He’s probably wet, too, but I guess it will keep.

The brown dog has let me know he needs to go outside to pee or look at the stars or get some fresh air or something three times tonight. That’s about average.

Two nights ago I figured I had that beat when I just left him in the back yard (with his food and water of course), but it turns out he's scared of the dark and barks nervously ... all night long

Well-played, brown dog.

It’s 0600 and I’ve worn-out Wikipedia (I started-out trying to figure-out the relationship between the Norwegian, Danish Swedish languages and ended-up reading about Visigoths. How’d I get to Visigoths?)

The spousal unit gave up on me long ago, and I’m down to my last cold beer.

I hesitate to say it, but … well, I don’t want to … oh, hell: I kinda miss the boat right now.

Don’t get me wrong; I haven’t put on a pair of socks (or underwear, for that matter) in almost two weeks now. I’ve had Vanilla Porter for breakfast. I got to hear the little guy utter his first complete sentence. I baked bread. Shit is getting DONE around this house, know what I mean?

But I miss 12(ish) straight hours of downtime. The purr of those big Cats. The hiss of water along the hull. That gentle rocking motion ….

I’m sure I’ll get over it.

Just as soon as I get some sleep.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Garbled(a): The Words We Use

It's a few minutes after noon on Monday, and while my mother would like me to report that I'm having a cup of Joe(b), I'm actually on my second Vanilla Porter, because ... well, I can. What's the point in working a month straight with nary a sip of alcohol if I can't enjoy a day off?

It's merely warm here today, and I'm sitting on the patio of the local cafe surrounded by a decorative sampling of Austin's unemployed or otherwise idle.

Not quite everyone is taking a break. The fellow two tables down is conducting business. Something to do with platforms and developers and software. He appears to be speaking English, but I don't understand half of what he's saying.

It occurs to me that if he were a guest at my workplace, he might be equally in the dark.

As with many professions, seafaring has a language all its own. Some of it is traditional, some of it practical, some of it obscure, and much of it very useful.

As with all sorts of jargon, nautical terminology is used as a shorthand that permits a great deal of specificity (and efficiency) for things and actions that simply don't pertain to shoreside life.

It can be exclusionary; fluency in nautical jargon marks an insider, a member of the brotherhood. The opposite also is true. Get it wrong, and the old salts can get rather cranky(c).

The most basic convention a newbie should know is that in English all vessels (boats and ships) are feminine, even if they bear masculine names. Thus, the M/V Gary Rook or the U.S.S. John S. McCain, for instance, are both referred to as "she," as of course are M/V Lady Glenda and the U.S.S. City of Corpus Christi.

Why this is, especially in a language with largely gender-neutral nouns, is not clear. Some surmise that it dates to a time when ships were dedicated to goddesses, though I find this unpersuasive. Others say it is because sailors long considered themselves to be married to the sea, and transferred that relationship to their ships.

I would guess there is something to that: we certainly lavish a similar level of attention on our vessels as we do our significant others back on land. Or we should, anyway.

Many of us find a well-drawn vessel a thing of beauty, with curves that seem feminine. And as more than one wag has written: a ship behaves like a woman -- look after her, and she'll take care of you. Ignore her, she'll ditch you. You have to love your ship or she'll make you suffer.

While we no longer use miles and miles of cordage aboard non-towing commercial vessels, there is still a lot of rope on most boats. That rope is found in the form of dock and mooring lines, taglines, flag halyards and the odds-and-ends traditionally known as junk(d).

On my boat, when our dock lines become so worn as to be unservicable, we order rope -- usually it comes in a spool of a cable (100 fathoms(e), or 600 feet) or half-cable. It remains just "rope" until we've measured it and cut it and spliced eyes into the ends and employed it as dock line.

Rope is unemployed cordage; a line is a rope with a job.

With that said, it's not unusual in the Gulf of Mexico to hear someone speak of "throwing a rope," but I've never heard anyone say "dock rope, or "tag rope."

Sailing vessels have even more specialized lines: halyards, sheets, topping lifts, etc. They are, in every case, made of rope, though sometimes it is wire rope.

There is a a temptation to refer to the physical operation of a vessel as "driving," which is incorrect. One drives cattle, golf balls and trucks. A ship or boat is steered, conned or piloted, usually from a helm station. I personally prefer "piloting," as it connotes more than simply directing the direction of the vessel.To my ear, it includes things like coastwise navigation, radar observation and operating the radios.

Nonetheless, with a perverse pride in ignoring the proper terminology that only insiders are allowed, we sometimes speak among ourselves about "driving" the boat. We know we should say "steering," but because we know that we know, we can (with an appropriate feeling of irony) use the wrong term.

In the oilfield, I've run across some even more specialized terms. "On-tower," for instance, to describe being on watch. It's a drilling term meaning much the same thing and a carryover from the offshore rigs
we service.

One that puzzled me for a while (until a quick Google search revealed the answer) is the use of "Texas deck" to refer to the open deck aft of the wheelhouse.

I had guessed this had something to do with an innovation in crewboats or OSVs somewhere along the line, and I was prepared to be suitably proud that said innovation arose in my home state.

As it turns out, the term is a carryover from steam-powered river boats of the 1840s. Texas then was the newest -- and largest -- state in the Union, and the cabins on the deck aft of the wheelhouse were the largest cabins on the boats. Thus: Texas deck.

I have not yet discovered conclusive evidence, but I suspect that the use of the term "wheels" to refer to propellers also is a throwback to similar shorthand for the "paddlewheels" that drove the big river boats. Less happily, I admit that it could simply be an analogue to the wheels on a truck or a car.

Something I frequently hear new guys stumble over is the use of port(f) and starboard(g) for left and right, respectively. When referring to part of the boat, or when using the vessel as a reference point, port and starboard are the appropriate terms.

For instance: "... calling the vessel off my port bow," or "the third tire on the starboard side," or "I'll meet you port to port," or "today we're going to paint the starboard crash rail."

It's equally correct, though, to instruct a helmsman to "come right five degrees." But one could also say: "I'm altering my course to my starboard to cut your stern."

I've never had a problem with leeward and windward, perhaps because my nautical education began more than 30 years ago under sail, where knowing the strength, direction and effects of the wind are self-evidently important.

Surprisingly, in conversation I've encountered a few experienced captains who apparently aren't clear in their own minds that the lee side is the downwind side, and the windward side is the upwind side.

There is much more, of course. And I could have a field day(h) with the many words we use every day ashore that originated among sailors.

But I think I'll stop here for fear of seeming overbearing(i), or overwhelming(j) you, my gentle reader.

(a) "Garbling" was the practice of mixing worthless items or refuse with cargo, or the the practice of sorting-out the garbage from the good stuff. Today, of course, it means "muddled, mixed-up, distorted."
(b) Coffee, according to a U.S. Navy legend from Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson in the early 20th century. Among his reforms of the Navy were the introduction of women into the service, and the abolishment of the officers' wine mess. From that time on, the strongest drink aboard Navy ships could only be coffee and over the years, a cup of coffee became known as "a cup of Joe".
(c) Irritable. From the Dutch krengd, an unstable sailing vessel. 
(d) Something of little meaning or worth, useless, discarded. But the original meaning was discarded, well-used cordage.
(e) Unit of measure that equals six feet. When we say we can't fathom something, we originally meant we couldn't get to the bottom of it.
(f) The left side of a vessel, so-called because that was traditionally the side along which a boat or ship made fast to the wharf or pier in order to protect the steering board.
(g) The right side, from "steering board," or steering oar. 
(h) A time of extraordinary pleasure or opportunity, originally a day for military exercises or review, but commonly used to denote a day for cleaning all parts of a vessel.
(i) Unpleasantly or arrogantly domineering, but originally to sail downwind directly at another vessel, thus stealing or diverting the wind from her sails.
(j) Overpowering in effect or strength, but originally Old English for capsize or founder.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Adventures in Boat Hopping: Prologue

Early last week, early in the afternoon after a long morning watch, and after I had managed maybe an hour of sound sleep, insistent rapping on my door woke me.

It was our training captain: "Gotta get up, man, you're going to the ____." Huh? What?!

Turned out one of the captains on another of the company's boats had a family emergency he needed to get home for, but the boat had just been called for a long run. The plan, approved by the office, was for us to swap boats, with his ride picking him up from my regular boat later in the day.

The other boat pulled into the slip and we laid alongside. I threw my bags over the rail and followed, clambering across the tires.

As I stepped into the house, the other captain rushed down from the wheelhouse, shook my hand, and said: "Let me show you a few things." Steering: switch it here and there. This is where you're going (it's in the GPS). The engineer knows the boat really well -- ask him if you have any questions. "Thanks again!" and he was gone.

Only then did it dawn on my sleep-befuddled brain that not only was I filling-in for a captain on the boat, I was filling-in for the captain presently on watch. The 100-mile run? That was going to be all mine.

The 24-hour watch. Awesome.

As it happens, it turned-out to be a pretty nice week. 

This other boat is the largest in our fleet -- on of two 172-footers -- and has been retrofitted with a Kongsberg Dynamic Positioning system. I didn't turn it on.

Staterooms are large (desks, even!) and mattresses relatively new and comfortable. More importantly, perhaps, the galley was well-stocked with Dr Pepper and the crew was both pleasant and helpful. Not to mention entertaining.

Not that the week was incident-free: we had a generator go tits-up halfway through a run and another evening had a scare with the air conditioning. 

The other watch lost our gangway right before a run, but the engineer and I went fishing when we got back and were able to recover it.

Like I said, a pretty good week. It's always interesting to learn a different boat and a different job and to meet new people. Here's hoping all my relief captain hitches go as smoothly.