Monday, August 26, 2013

And Ye Shall Know Them by What They Carry

Back in the day you could tell the licensed officers (at crew change and in transit, anyhow) by the briefcases they carried.

This was not merely an aspirational affectation; it was, more purely, practical.

You see, the Coast Guard requires us to carry our credentials with us when we’re working.

And until just a few years ago, an officer’s license was an eight-and-a-half by eleven certificate that could not be reduced, laminated, photocopied or otherwise altered.

Nowadays our licenses, ratings, endorsements and internationally recognized seaman’s identification document are all combined into one handy, little red book.

Not a Mao-type Little Red Book, but a passport-type little red book.

In fact, it easily could be confused for a passport, which sort of brings us full circle back to the days when mariners in this country carried a “Seaman Passport.”

The passport-style Merchant Mariner Credential doesn’t require a briefcase for transport, though a lot of the older guys still carry one out of habit.

Others, including me, carry sturdy backpacks.

It has everything I might need to quickly lay my fingers on during the course of my watch or my hitch: the aforementioned MMC and TWIC (transportation worker’s identification card), navigation and plotting tools, my laptop, wallet and keys, a few tools, extra pens, highlighters and grease pencils … that sort of thing.

Digging through my pack at the start of my watch tonight, I discovered a few extra items.

Like the I Want to be a Firefighter book I recently purchased for the 3-year-old. And a diaper, the 1-year-old’s size.

No big mystery. In the course of our recent travails (er … travels) to Chicago, we ditched the diaper bag in favor of my backpack. I guess it didn’t get completely reconverted upon our return.

It does serve as a poignant reminder of my bifurcated existence: vessel operator/licensed merchant marine officer/oilfield-boat-trash/hermit out here … and father/husband/handyguy back at the house.

Friday, August 23, 2013

This and That

Back on the boat and we've been running hard the past few days.

This is my last two weeks as permanent crew on this boat, and it is a bittersweet feeling. 

Most of us out here, I think, like the feeling of having a permanent "home" at work. In an unpredictable business, it's nice (usually) to work with a crew you know on a boat you know on a job that is familiar.

I give a lot of credit to my company that I was able to have an extended conversation with the HR manager and VP about options that would give me a little more time at home with the family. From what I read and hear from other mariners, even broaching such a subject at a lot of companies is likely to land you on the dock immediately.

We weren't able to work-out a formal solution, but in a couple of weeks I'll become a relief captain here, a floater ... kind of like a turd in the giant toilet bowl of the Gulf.

The impetus for the change is this: I have a high school freshman and two toddlers at home. My amazing wife, who works about 60 hours a week, struggles to keep up with the little guys, the house and her job while still getting at least five hours of sleep a night.

The 3-year-old struggles with some other things because his dad is gone. The 1-year-old changes almost daily. And the 14-year-old, well, we have some things to work on.

And I miss all of them, terribly, when I'm gone a month at a time. But if it was just me missing them, I'd take the lump, because after all I did choose this work. And I love my job.

At this point, though, it's a matter of one kid's healthy development and my wife's mental and physical survival.

So, now, in a best-case scenario, I'll essentially work 14/14 with no guarantee of the 14 days on. It was like flicking a switch: I went from worrying about the family in my absence to worrying that I won't be making enough money.

But I'm grateful that my company will continue to carry me on payroll and give me an opportunity to work. And they say I'm welcome to come back full-time whenever I like.

Most guys I talk to - and I've actually conducted a poll on this topic - are very happy with their even-time schedules. 

Of course, all of the guys who have that schedule are on bigger boats at bigger companies and making 50-100 percent more per day than I am, which adds up to a pretty good living for 180 days a year.

That's my goal, too, actually, but it's still a year or two down the road, what with sea time and classes and testing.

In other news ...

On the professional mariner forums there is sometimes some back-and-forth about who are the better, or more professional mariners: the blue water shipping guys or the oilfield boat handlers or the towing gurus, the 1600-ton masters and mates or the 100-ton schmucks like me who have to live-boat everything.

As a broad generalization, I'll say that typically the folks with larger tonnage licenses seem to be a bit more on the ball. But I'm here to tell you there's good and bad everywhere.

Chalk some of that up to "we're all human," and "everyone makes mistakes sometimes." But it's also true that there are idiots everywhere......

Yesterday morning in the wee hours I found myself southbound for sea behind a supply boat with all of its deck lights blazing. Imagine driving down the highway with an oncoming vehicle in your lane with the high-beams on. It was sort of like that.

After several attempts (another boat chimed-in: "That's the Seacor Deaf-and-Dumb, Cap. Good luck.") I finally got the other boat on the radio and kindly asked the captain if she needed those lights or might she turn 'em off.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't even realize they were on."

She then proceeded to have a detailed conversation with someone on another boat about (her husbands? brother's? friend's?) appendicitis. On VHF Ch. 13. Which, in Port Fourchon, is not the channel to conduct friendly conversations, or even to think out-loud. 

It's busy, busy, busy here, and boats need to be able to broadcast security calls and make passing arrangements. Right now.

A little later, I noticed an odd set of lights just off the Martin fuel dock, and just ahead of a northbound crewboat. It was a kayaker, paddling up the bayou in the dark. He got bonus points for exhibiting the required all-around white light. He lost all of those points for also exhibiting a bright red light. 

He plunged into a lifetime points hole for crossing the channel ahead of a work boat and for not having a radio tuned to 13.

Or maybe he did have a radio, but just wasn't talking into it. In which case he would have heard himself referred to as a "retard," an "idiot," an "organ donor," and worse.

Compare and contrast with the captain of the pogey boat Vasco de Gama, who called me as I was approaching the end of the Belle Pass jetties, just to let me know he was holding-up before he crossed the channel.

Which he should have, but it's always nice to know that the other guy knows what he's supposed to do.

In the Northeastern Gulf right now, there's a low-pressure trough moving steadily westward over us. 

The National Hurricane Center says there's only a slight (10 percent) chance it will develop into a tropical cyclone, but we should expect thunderstorms, lightning, strong wind gusts and occasional heavy rain over the next four or five days.

We've had a wicked pretty moon over the horizon in the west in the mornings this week, and from the wheelhouse I can see "isolated showers" here and there across the Gulf. It's a pretty nice view.

One of my cousins asked an interesting question on Facebook the other day: "What's it smell like out there?"

It smells like the sea, but not like the beach, where there is more (often decaying) organic matter. It's a clean, briny sort of aroma, most of the time. Sometimes you get the sweet, mulchy odor of feeding or schooling fish. In the vicinity of those thunderstorms you can often smell ozone.

Less often you might get a whiff of diesel exhaust from the boat, or grease or oil or driling fluids near a rig.

But usually the wind is blowing over open water and it's pretty nice.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

I've been called worse ...

But in this case, these are my kids' initials.

The traditional or "old school" anchor tattoo once was the sole province of mariners but has recently become quite popular for one of its metaphorical associations -- stability, groundedness, and so on.

My particular anchor tattoo also is, not-quite-intentionally, pretty ... uh, big. I'd like to think it's because I'm just that bold and confident, but really it's probably because I wasn't paying all that much attention until after it was on my arm.

That's the wife's choice, by the way -- the location, I mean. The fact that I have it at all is the result of a four-year lobbying campaign.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Crew Change and Groceries

The headline encompasses the two most eagerly anticipated events in a mariner’s working life.
It would be nice if they were both straightforward and dependable.

On this boat, the office offers some flexibility on how and where we get our groceries; we can purchase from one of three sourc
es, every week or every two weeks, and choose our delivery times. We do have a budget, of course. Here it’s $100/person each week.

It’s an interesting exercise, attempting to juggle the wants and needs of four (or five) guys from different backgrounds and different parts of the country. I could survive on Dr. Pepper and Lucky Charms if push came to shove, and I still haven’t warmed-up to turkey necks or chicken gizzards.

Two weeks ago, on the eve of grocery day, we threw-out five gallons of spoiled milk. Okay, I thought, we’re ordering too much milk. So I ordered less for these past two weeks. We ran out five days ago.

Always, as the grocery order nears completion, there is a process of adding and subtracting, tweaking amounts, double-checking that everyone on the boat got at least one of his special requests while keeping it close to our allowed budget ….

Crew change for our boat is officially noon, but in practice more like 10:30 – if we’re at the dock. One hitch I waited in the truck for six hours as the customer sent our boat on a wild goose chase around a distant field.

No huge deal, except that I’d driven nine hours and had to go on watch at midnight. It was probably a bigger deal for the off-signers, who were delayed getting home.

The job we’re on now is a good one from that perspective; the dispatchers are helpful, and the run is pretty short, so a six-hour delay is unlikely.

The work boat that serves our rig also is at the dock; when that happens, our runs sometimes get cancelled in favor of loading everything on the bigger boat. With any luck at all, we won’t even move before the crew truck gets here.

Altogether, I don’t have any reason to complain. The tug guys get screwed-over almost every hitch. Just read this.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Let There Be Light, But Not Too Much Light

I've heard it said that we really earn our money at the stern controls.

Crewboats -- and most offshore service vessels -- have two helm stations: the forward helm station you'd expect to find on any boat, and an aft helm station with a sweeping view of the cargo deck and the stern.

That's where the close-quarters maneuvering takes place; offload and backload at rigs and platforms, personnel transfers, docking and undocking.

On a boat without DP, like this one, it can be stressful. Live-boating a two-hour water transfer to a production platform in 4-6-foot seas in the middle of the night; transferring deck cargo to a supply boat while fighting a 4-kt. current, 20 knots of wind and the other boat's wheel wash ... it can get pretty exciting.

It's also fun and interesting, and at the end of it all I sometimes feel a little drained.

That's one of the reasons that when we finish at the rig, I'm happy to punch in the numbers for Belle Pass and let the deckhand take the wheel while I catch-up the logs, grab a cup of coffee and take a smoke break on the "Texas" deck just behind the wheelhouse.

The other night as we settled on to our homeward course, I noticed a bright glow on the water. I looked over the railing and saw that the (mostly) blue deck lights ringing the house were on.

"Hey," I said as I ducked my head in to the wheelhouse, "turn those deck lights off, will you?"

"I have them on so these shrimp boats can see us better," said the deckhand.

This is a peeve I feed and groom on a daily basis: the navigation rules specify what lights a vessel must display. The flip side is that the same rules stipulate what lights a vessel may display.

Rule 20: (b) The Rules concerning lights shall be complied with from sunset to sunrise, and during such times no other lights shall be exhibited, except such lights which cannot be mistaken for the lights specified in these Rules or do not impair their visibility or distinctive character, or interfere with the keeping of a proper look-out.

Lights tell us a lot: they can tell us how large the other vessel is, which way it's going and what it's up to. This in turn tells me whether my vessel is privileged or burdened and whether there is a risk of collision, and dictates whether I need to talk to my counterpart on the other boat or make a course adjustment.

Rule 30 does allow that vessels of less than 100 meters may display working and deck lights while at anchor. This rule is frequently observed by workboats and crewboats moored to platforms in the Gulf.

It is confusing, then, to come rolling by what one assumes is a boat hanging on a satellite to discover, instead, the vessel is underway and the captain forgot to turn off his floodlights. Hopefully AIS or radar gave me a heads-up about that, but it doesn't always or there is so much information on the screen I haven't yet sorted it out.

But back to those shrimp boats. I hate 'em. I mean, I don't really ... I love shrimp, and that industry is an important part of the heritage and culture of my hometown. But I hate having to deal with them on the water: they rarely answer the radio, they always seem to be right on my course, and those damned work lights are blinding.

So blinding, in fact, that it's often difficult to tell at any distance which way the shrimp boat is moving or if it is underway at all. See Rule 20, above.

Aside from the glaring worklights, we know shrimpboats by the green-over-white all-around lights they display.According to Rule 26, those are the only lights they should display while engaged in trawling, but what are you gonna do?

They are probably relying on a fact that immediately came to mind when my deckhand told me he had the lights on so the shrimpers could see us better: they don't need to see us better, because according to Rule 18, vessels engaged in fishing are privileged over all other classes of vessels, except those not under command or restricted in their ability to maneuver.

Holding my boat at the rig or platform may be the more technically challenging part of this job, but I'm betting that if I ever have the misfortune to be involved in an accident, it's going to be on that boring, "easy,"point A to point B stretch.