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.

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