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.