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.

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