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.

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