Monday, April 29, 2013

Illuminating the Fog

I've waited almost a month to post this. Mostly because I've been savoring the feeling of having put together information from various sources and all on my own coming up with an explanation for an observed natural phenomenon.

Okay, really? I've waited so long to post this because one of you will probably tell me my explanation is incorrect.

I've been inordinately proud of myself, and I didn't want to pop that bubble.

So here's the deal: Several times over the past six weeks or so -- most recently two mornings ago -- I've noticed some very localized fog over Gulf waters.

In the West Delta field, one drilling rig might be completely in the clear as the sun rose, while another rig two miles away is shrouded in gray.

On the previous boat we carefully logged the dewpoint, relative humidity and temperature each day; I assumed this was to aid in the prediction of fog during the coming 24 hours.

Of course those factors most directly impact the formation of radiation fog, which is mostly a land-based phenomenon.

Of greater concern to mariners is advection fog, or sea fog, which forms when warm, moist air moves across cooler water, causing the warm air to contract and condense.

My question was: why over here, and not over there?

Seawater, particularly deeper water in a relatively large basin such as the Gulf of Mexico, change temperature only slowly. It's one reason coastal South Texas enjoys more moderate temperatures year-round than, say, Dallas or even San Antonio.

One day as we were plunging into the gray, I noticed a "rip," or line of foam that denoted a current in the water. On one side, the opaque green of the nearshore Gulf; on the other, a silty brown. I thought about this, and decided that the brown stuff was Mississippi River water, floating on top of the heavier salt water.

It also occurred to me that these eddies or currents of river water were probably cooler than the surrounding Gulf water. (I could find nothing on the interwebs about river water in the Gulf, or surface water temperatures for the areas I was looking at, by the way.)

And sure enough, that fog bank started on the other side of the rip and appeared to cover only the brown water.

So, that's my explanation for localized advection fog in this part of the Gulf: river water which started as snowmelt in the continent's heartland remains cooler than the Gulf of Mexico as it flows into the sea, and fog forms over it even when the surrounding Gulf waters are not cool enough to support the phenomenon.

Did I get it right?

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Tragedy and Terror

As a merchant mariner, a sailor, a sea captain for chrissakes, I am ever mindful that tragedy can strike in an instant. I am vigilant. I am prepared. I have contingency plans and I’m always thinking two steps ahead.

When I’m holding the boat at a platform or drilling rig, I know what I’ll do and which direction I’ll go if the current or wind suddenly shifts. I know what to do in the event of a fire, or someone falling off the boat, or if we sink.

It’s part of the mystique of the sea, this rugged self-reliance we mariners own.

Then my Kindle went on the fritz.

It looks like my 2-year-old scribbled black crayon on the bottom third of every page of the book I’m reading. And on every page of all the other books in the library.

I used to carry a backpack full of books to the boat. Now all of my reading material is on this one, slim tablet. It’s how I put myself to sleep each morning. It’s my lifeline to my other life, the one ashore.


The Kindle folks, in their troubleshooting guide, say that this is sometimes the result of electromagnetic interference and offer a recovery solution which had absolutely no effect on my device.

So I called Amazon, and within about 20 minutes had a replacement winging its way to me, next-day (Saturday, even) delivery, at no charge.

It arrived today.


While all is well on the Kindle front, I’m a little worried about my deckhand. 

A few moments ago he told me that he had dreamt about Justin Beiber.

Really? Justin Bieber? My deckhand is 28. Male. Mostly heterosexual, so far as I can tell.

He's also from Mississippi, more farm boy than fan boy. He's college-educated, and prefers The Grateful Dead to teen pop sensations.

“Yeah, I had a dream that I was in his room and he was showing me his closet where he keeps all his douche clothes, and there were bunnies in the closet and the bunnies would choose which douche outfit he would wear each day, but he was mistreating the bunnies so I got mad and shoved him into the closet and the bunnies ate him.”

Y’all analyze that one.

Friday, April 26, 2013

In Which Not Much Happens, But We Enjoy Ourselves Anyway

I had the opportunity to move the boat twice thrice last night. THREE TIMES!

This is noteworthy because, a.) things have been really, really slow for us this last week. As the pool boat for our client we get construction and special projects. We aren’t supplying a production field on a regular basis, we’re not running for a drilling rig. And b.) I’m new to the boat, and to the port.

Here on "crewboat row," we squeeze 'em in tight. Sliding a 30-foot wide boat into a 36-foot wide hole with 20 knots on the beam is all sorts of fun.

The deckhands are grading me, and I’m told I’m averaging “A-“ thus far. I can live with that.

So, anyhow, the downside to running only every other day is I’m not getting a lot of wheel time, necessary to really be comfortable with my new boat. The upside is that when we do run, destinations and cargos are varied.

I did stay up into the day watch a couple of days ago when we caught a run just to see what Belle Pass looked like in the daylight. It’s always good to be able to match radar returns to a visual image.

And I’m not complaining. Soon enough, I’m sure, they’ll be running the bottom paint off this boat.

Boat or Ship?

Try to define the difference between a boat and a ship, and you’ll come up with all manner of criteria:
  1. Ships can carry boats, boats can’t carry ships.
  2. Boats lean in to a turn, ships lean out.
  3. When a ship sinks one steps into a boat; when a boat sinks, one steps into the water.
  4. Boats have only one deck; ships have multiple decks.
  5. Ships carry cargo, boats do not.
  6. Boats have operators, ships have crews.
  7. Boats are vessels under 500 tons, ships vessels over that.

Out here, we call most of the vessels boats – even the 280-foot platform supply vessels (like the 3,000+ ton Gary Rook, left) that are clearly carrying rescue boats under a davit on the weather deck. I suspect that a vessel of the same size, configured with a more traditional aft house, would be called a ship.

By many definitions, the modest 165-foot crewboat I work on could be considered a ship; it requires multiple individuals as crew, it has more than one deck, it carries cargo.

The boat I’m on could carry another boat – even a sizable boat, such as the 100-foot crewboat just down from us. I’m guessing too that whether a vessel leans into or away from a turn depends in great part on where the vertical center of gravity is on a given day.

Tonnage is tricky, as all sorts of smoke and mirrors (and doors and floors and machinery spaces) may obfuscate a vessel’s objective displacement.

I will tell you this: my boat feels really big at first, but looks a whole lot smaller when lying alongside a big platform supply vessel. And it positively shrinks somewhere between week three and four of a hitch.

Déjà vu, Sorta

The lead captain on this boat has been with the company almost a decade-and-a-half. I think I wrote in an earlier post that he was just over here filling in while the boat was re-crewed. 

Actually, this has been his boat for quite some time and he’s been trying to get to his new boat, currently in shipyard, and has been delayed while a suitable and stable crew is found for this boat.

Anyhow, he’s experienced, skilled and only occasionally grumpy. (Okay, really he has a pretty ready laugh and some great stories).

Earlier today, noticing his “Corpus Christi Harley Davidson” t-shirt, I asked him if he has a bike. Two, it turns out, with a possible third in the offing, and he not only told me about them but whipped out his phone to show me pictures.

Ah … sociability. It’s almost impossible to over-rate.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Things that Go Bump in my Head

I was pretty excited to hear the other day that Tylenol has been shown to ease existential dread.

I've been feeling fairly existentially fit the past few weeks, which puzzled and of course worried me, so I was relieved to be able to pinpoint the why of my relative lack of anxiety.

See, I take a couple of painkillers each day to keep the ol' ankle from throbbing too much, or to treat a back twinge, or sometimes just out of habit.

Only, it turns out the past few weeks I've been taking ibuprofen, not acetaminophen (the active ingredient in the Tylenol brand).


I was able to follow the Boston Marathon story more closely than I would normally as we do have satellite TV on the boat. With the older brother dead and the hunt intensifying for the younger man, I went to bed Friday morning figuring it would all be over by the time I got up.

Nope, but it sure was entertaining (in a horrific way) to watch the news channels fall all over themselves reporting complete conjecture and bullsh*t. First trumps right every time these days, I guess.

The denouement: police riddle the kid's hiding place (a boat) with gunfire, then approach in an amored personnel carrier with an RBCLD (remote boat cover lifting device).

Why did they have to do all that?

Didn't the home/boat owner walk outside unarmed and unarmored, lift the cover, see the guy, walk back inside and call 9-1-1?

One headline today read: "The Week from Hell."


The marathon bombing was horrific. The fertilizer plant explosion in West was tragic. And then there was that nut with the poison letters ... it's all kind of crazy.

But I'm pretty sure that most weeks in this old world are just as bad for someone, somewhere. Many have been much worse.

Maybe that sounds crass and unsympathetic. Oh well.

I opted-out of involving myself emotionally in most of these events a long time ago. Somewhere between a mass grave in Srebrenica and the squalor of a remote Ecuadorian village and a 2-year-old raped by her drunken father, I had my fill of strangers' tragedies.

I have only so much emotional bandwidth, and given the nature of existence I figure I'll reserve it for the inevitable frights and tragedies that occur in my life and in the lives of those near and dear to me.

But I understand how folks get swept up in it all. Twenty-four-seven global news just brings it all together and packages it neatly (or not-so-neatly, as the case may be) for us, and we sit there and drink it in, no matter the cost to our existential health.

Fortunately, we have Tylenol.

It's All Good

I have a songwriter friend who sometimes says from stage: "If somebody tells you it's all good, he's either a liar or he's just not paying attention."

But, really, six days into the new job and all I can say is: it's all good.

Corporate culture really does have an impact on employee satisfaction (which you can bet, in turn, impacts customer satisfaction) and this company appears to have the best culture of any I've run across out here so far.

It's not just the pay and benefits, but also an atmosphere of respect for the individual employee.

Because we have quite a few boats working out of Fourchon, I've had the opportunity to meet a few of the other captains.

Without exception they have good things to say about their year, four years, 14 years working here. Even the guy who just got demoted from lead on one boat to second on another for some unnamed infraction of the rules.

The boat itself is fine; plenty of muscle, but docile. No surprises on how she handles.

We haven't been terribly busy so far. I've made a couple of long runs out to the Eugene Island 330 field, where I worked production two boats ago.

It happened that my old boat came to the platform we were working and I got to see and talk with a couple of my buddies. They were even kind enough to throw across a cooler of fresh lemon fish.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Let's Do the Numbers ....

22: number of laps around deck that equal a mile.

115: boats within a mile, per AIS.

17: boats in our slip right now.

19: cranes I can see from the wheelhouse. In the dark. And not including any on boats.

49,000: feet of new wire and cabling required to convert a 172’ crewboat to DP-1.

26: days until crew change.

15-20: wind speed in knots, out of the south right now.

25-30: wind speed in knots, out of the northwest when the front passes through shortly.

4-6: significant wave height in feet, out to 20 nautical miles.

2: number of mooring lines on the northwest side of the boat after I doubled them up.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Fourchon, Finally ...

I've finally landed on a boat working out of Port Fourchon, and it's every bit as busy as I've always heard. Busier, maybe. Which is interesting. Especially with visibility of a boat length or so.

Damned fog.

But really it's been like old home week. A friend from Central Texas -- he and his wife were at my house less than a week ago -- was docked across the slip from me the other day.

Another captain (and engineer) I used to work with slid in next to us today. We got to visit as they got off after a long hitch.

The temporary lead captain on this boat -- he's training a new-to-the-oilfield captain and covering while the boat is re-crewed -- is from my neck of the woods.

As a matter of fact, one of his cousins was a couple of years ahead of me in school.

The engineer and deckhand know their jobs and are pleasant guys to be around.

In fact, everyone on the boat is pleasant.

My first day on the boat one of the passengers brought 30 pounds of hot, boiled crawfish aboard to share. He'd just won $9,000 at a truck stop casino on the way to work.

No complaints about the boat itself, either. It's well-maintained and comfortable, and only about two years out of a major refit of the 2001 hull. This morning we had a 90-something mile run to the field where I worked production, averaging about 20 knots in a 4-foot side sea.

Breaux Bays sure do ride nice. Well, for crewboats, anyhow ....

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Do as I say ...

There's a right way to do most things, and a wrong way, and sometimes the right way both feels right and pays off in the long run.

Sometimes the wrong way costs some money but makes you feel a little better anyhow and doesn't do any long-term damage.

That's the hope, anyway.

Those of you who are paying close attention, all one of you, will realize that my photo essay post includes a clue; namely, that my crew change is Tuesday night, not mid-day Monday.

Long story short: I walked off the boat. The call to the port captain was anti-climactic: Me: "I'm fixin' to put my sh*t on the dock and walk off the boat." Him: "(Sigh) I guess you gotta do what you gotta do. I appreciate you calling me."

He did ask me why.

"Because (his name rhymes with "Dick") is a jackass." And I elaborated. Which I won't do here.

He's gotten this call, or maybe been notified after the fact, six or seven times in the past twelve months alone. So I guess it wasn't a huge surprise.

Confession: I was making a point. Fact is, I had already decided to put in my trip notice. In fact, I already had another job -- the one I wanted almost two years ago -- lined-up. I had planned to at least see the current boat through the trip up the Atchafalaya River and the Coast Guard inspection.

I now report for my physical and drug test at the new place Monday.

The friend I came to this company -- this boat - to work with, had already given his notice. The lead captain on the boat had dangled "second" in front of him for the better part of the last year, and then told him and me that I would be the relief master because he was "too young."

That wasn't the reason he gave in his exit interview -- he talked about wanting to upgrade his license, move to bigger boats, having learned what he needed to learn there, etc., etc. All true. And he was going to ride another two weeks, give them time to find a replacement.

I don't think he minded working for me, though he knew the boat and job better than I did and had busted his butt for nearly a year. And as far as that goes, I didn't mind working for him though I helped train him on twin-screws a couple of years ago.

It was an integrity thing ... a social contract broken.

Anyway, with my buddy on the way out, I had zero incentive to stay on a boat with a lead captain with the personality of wet cardboard and a Napoleon complex to boot.

At least the boat didn't beat me. I was putting her in the slip and taking her out in clutch, holding her just fine at the rigs ... as I think I wrote before, she was very different from my previous boat -- reportedly the "hardest boat in the Gulf" (I kinda doubt it), but by no means impossible.

I have to say, it was a nice feeling, sitting under a pavilion at the marina next to our dock, drinking a cold beer while waiting on the Enterprise Rent-a-Car pickup driver to arrive.

It was, I judged, even worth the $250 drop fee for a one-way rental back to Texas.

I solved the problem of how to retrieve the truck four hours distant from the house by loading up the wife and kids in the rental.

I solved the problem of not having my truck key with me upon arrival there by calling a locksmith.

The sleep deprivation ... we're all still dealing with that.

And my buddy on the boat, well, for at least the next two weeks he's the highest-paid captain in the company; will his resolve to move on survive the bribes and blandishments to stay on? Time will tell.

It's funny, I actually called him and said: "Do as I say, not as I do." But of course he already had. One of the many reasons I'm proud of my friend, my colleague, half my age.

It was a good learning experience -- the boat, supporting three drilling rigs, the crew ... as I acknowledged to one of my cousins the other day -- he's a former USCG-licensed master -- one can learn as much from the bad examples as the good examples ...

At any rate, I'm excited about the new gig. Great boat, great company, great benefits, good schedule.

That's the assessment from the outside, going-in. If I change my mind later, well, maybe it's just my problem and it may be time to reconsider this career change adventure.

But man, I do love the work. And the view from the office.

Other Voices

I should say something, I suppose, about the other maritime bloggers out there. There are a handful, most smarter/funnier/more informative than I am. I really enjoy reading their posts.

Sometimes we talk to each other. Sometimes we just read on the sly.

I got an email the other day from a very articulate crewboat captain who had been thinking of starting a blog (I hope he does) and did a quick search to see if there was anything out there and came up with ... this. Turned out he was working on a boat with an old acquaintance of mine -- one of four of us who fled the tourist fun fleet in Deep South Texas.

Small world.

New England Waterman, with whom I sometimes correspond, works out of Port Fourchon on one of the big mud boats. He posts better photos than I do, and provides some good insights into the 1600-ton world.

A captain I work with turned me on to Chronicles of Crew Change, by an unnamed tug officer. He's much, much funnier than I am, and I find that many of his "you have to laugh to keep from crying" moments are familiar.

I guess mariners' misery is universal.

I just got back to Hawsepiper: The Longest Climb and I wish I could access the posts from before five years ago. I'm still catching up, but already I can tell you this dude is whip-smart, well-read and someone who would probably be pretty interesting to share a wheelhouse with.

The Hawsepiper also posts semi-NSFW photos of beautiful Brazilian women (BBWs?) from time to time. Bonus points. (Papa, I know you just clicked on that link.)

Anyhow, check 'em out. They're all linked above, and also in my blogroll on the right.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Drilling for Dummies

Being trash strictly of the boat variety rather than the oilfied type, I'm constantly trying to assign the correct names to the equipment we carry out to the drilling rigs, and often find myself asking rig hands and company men "what's that?" and "what does that thing do?"

My buddy over at New England Waterman recently posted this link, sort of a "Drilling for Dummies" primer. Cool. I think I'll go and read it now.

12:30, Monday, April 8

Today's blog post is a photo essay.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

An Open Letter

Dear Recreational Boater/Weekend Angler:

Please, for the love of God and the children who you need to get off your bow and into life jackets, help me help you be safe.

I know you’ve been messing around on boats since the Yankees recaptured Fort Livingston, but consider taking a boater education course anyhow.  It takes just a few hours, costs less than $20, and you can probably even do it online.

A boater ed course will introduce you to the Navigation Rules, from which you are not exempt simply because you trailer your boat to the water.

These rules include such concepts as privileged (stand-on) and burdened (give-way) vessels. You probably think of this in terms of “right-of-way,” which is not a phrase found in the nautical lexicon.

Among the most common situations you’ll learn about are overtaking, crossing and meeting.  Here are the basics: if we are meeting head-on, alter course to starboard as your default action. If we are crossing, and I’m on your right, you’ll see my red sidelight. Red means stop, or at least slow down or alter your course astern of me.

If we are crossing and I’m on your left, just keep doing what you’re doing and I’ll take the necessary actions to avoid a collision.

If I’m in front of you, I am the privileged vessel and you must ask permission to come around me. The primary means to do this is by use of a sound signaling device, but that’s cumbersome and most commercial vessels simply make arrangements via radio.

Radios are extremely useful, and I can promise you that commercial vessels will be both surprised and extremely pleased if you come up on the appropriate channel and let them know your intentions. Failing that, you can at least listen-in and hear what people are saying about you.

Inside the sea buoy, most everyone will be on VHF Channel 13. In the Gulf of Mexico, most folks will be monitoring VHF 16 in addition to working channels. It’s entirely appropriate to hail a vessel on the appropriate channel.

I know there’s a really deep hole in Barataria Pass where it meets Bayou Rigaud, but it’s doubtful that’s where most of the fish are. Regardless, it is illegal for you to anchor in the navigational channel. Please don’t.

A close reading of the rules also will indicate that vessels crossing the channel are the least privileged vessels on the water. Wait for everyone to get past before you jet over to the other side.

You should know that some large boats, including mine, are probably a lot faster than you think they are. Because larger objects appear to be moving more slowly than they are, among other reasons, you should think twice about cutting across (or under) a large boat’s bow.

You may be comforted by the observation that I have two radar transmitters spinning on top of my wheelhouse. What you may not know is that those radars are not all that good at detecting small fiberglass boats. They’re even worse at picking up plastic kayaks.

So, to recap: take a boater’s ed course, use the radio and don’t anchor in or cross in front of me in the channel.

I am all for you getting out and enjoying the fine weather. I fish, I paddle and I love small boats. I’m glad you’re out here. But you’re giving me a headache this weekend.

If we collide, chances are I won’t be injured at all, and you may even survive unhurt. My company’s insurance will probably buy you a new boat. But I’ll lose my job and very possibly my career. I may even go to jail.

So, please, help me help you be safe.


A Crewboat Captain

Saturday, April 6, 2013

'Man, They're Running the Sh*t Out of You ...'.

I've heard that comment four or five times from other boats this past week. The dock we work out of in Grand Isle has 15-20 boats coming and going at various intervals. Our interval is about five hours, give or take a crew change, a stop for production or a slow crane operator.

The logbooks show we were underway more than 19 hours a day two days this past week, and we logged more than 12 hours coming and going every day of the week.

All of this while a front stalled-out on a low pressure system and the weather turned to crap. Rain, fog, winds gusting to 40 knots ... good times.

This boat, as noted before, is a bit light in the ass. So light in fact that in 25-knot winds on the beam, it's a real trick to get her off the dock. It's an interesting challenge, but I'm ready (already) for something different.

It's a lonely boat, too. In the month I've been aboard, I have yet to see two of the crew members (including the coffeepot captain) crack a smile. There's not a whole lot of chit-chat.

On the other hand, it's been good fun to work with the buddy who was already here when I came over. He's really come a long way in the last couple of years and it's a pleasure to watch him handle the boat.

Well, we're getting loaded for the morning run. Back to work.