Friday, October 25, 2013

Terror at Tiger Pass!

Somewhere off the coast of Africa this week, an Edison Chouest Offshore supply vessel was attacked by pirates and the American captain and chief engineer were kidnapped.

Elsewhere in the Pacific a couple of weeks ago, some poor ship somewhere was caught in the grip of a typhoon.

I sail on a small ship in a small sea. I suppose I am doomed to diminutive adventures.

I am reminded of the old veteran who was asked which war he served in.

“The Big One,” he replied.

“Oh, wow, I didn’t think you were quite old enough to be in World War II,” the other guy said.

“I wasn’t. I was in Korea, and it felt mighty damned big to me,” retorted the old soldier.

That exchange probably made more sense 20 or 30 years ago when I first heard it – back when Korean War veterans were merely middle-aged. But I digress, before I even get started.

Here’s what happened.

We leave the dock in Venice at 4 a.m. In a driving rain. A left takes us up Tiger Pass, and another left turn to take us north in the Jump to the Mississippi River.

About three-quarters of the way up the Jump, making a little better than 7 knots, I feel the engines suddenly drop out of gear. I pull them back to clutch, and then re-engage the throttles.

According to my gauges, they’re still idling, but there is no response to the controls.

I check my throttle selector -- a tiny toggle switch that moves inputs between the forward and aft helm stations. It’s where it is supposed to be.

Suddenly, my engine monitoring system shows “NO DATA” for two of the engines. The other two flicker in and out.

By this time I have lost all forward momentum and the river’s current is beginning to drag me back. I turn on the Not Under Command lights (red over red), make a security call on VHF 13, and run downstairs to wake everyone up.

Our progress, backwards, to the intersection of the Jump and Tiger Pass
The engineer and the off-watch captain tackle the problem, which we assume to be electrical. The deckhand helps keep lookout, and I man the radios.

There is quite a bit of traffic – supply vessels, crewboats, tugs and barges, shrimp boats --  through the Jump, which portions some amount of the Mississippi River into Tiger Pass and Grand Pass.

The current is not being kind to us, and begins to drag the bow of the boat – the most vulnerable section of the hull – towards a nasty group of pilings on the north bank of the Jump. It occurs to me, belatedly, that I do have control of one engine on the boat, one that is not hooked-up to the malfunctioning monitoring system.

I turn-on the bow thruster and use it to steer the boat. We pirouette gracefully off of the steep bank of a slip, and I flip the boat nearly 180 degrees, hoping to be able to catch an abandoned dock where the Jump meets Tiger Pass.

No one is more surprised than me that I’m able to swing the starboard stern to within a few feet of the dock. 
The deckhand catches a piling and makes us fast, and I use the bow thruster to ease us up against the dock, where we secure the boat.

We are no longer a hazard to navigation.

Meanwhile, the rest of the crew is troubleshooting at a rapid pace. We find a couple of wires melted together in a control box. We isolate and reattach them. We regain throttles for about a minute, before the whole system crashes.

Another crewboat that works our field – and whose captain holds a master of towing vessels – comes alongside to take us back to our dock. Back in the middle of the Jump, we are in the midst of letting go the other boat so he can come around to our starboard side when once again our throttles come to life.

“Let’s see if we can hold ‘em long enough to get back to the dock,” I tell the other captain. “But if you could shadow us back, that would be great.”

And … we make it. Two hours after our departure. We thought we had the problem beat, too, until we tried to leave the dock an hour later and the same thing happened all over again.

Turned out the problem was in the interface between one of the big Caterpillar engines and the aftermarket control system.

Or one of the problems was.

Regardless, it was fixed, and we’re none the worse for the experience.

It was a bit of an adrenaline dump that left me feeling wrung-out the rest of the morning.

And that’s my sea story for this hitch.

Monday, October 21, 2013

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil

Gerard Manley Hopkins was a reluctant Victorian-era poet who converted to Catholicism and became a Jesuit priest. His father was, among other things, a marine insurer, and one of Hopkins' best-known poems is The Wreck of the Deutschland.

I have been a fan of Father Hopkins' verse since my college days, for his use of sprung rhythm and alliteration as well as his keen eye for the natural world.

I suspect, though I have not confirmed, that industrial Britain in the second half of the 19th century was in some ways not so different than the Gulf of Mexico oil patch in the first half of the 21st century.

Many mornings on the boat, Hopkins' words come to mind:

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;        5
  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
  And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
  There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;        10
And though the last lights off the black West went
  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
  World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

"God's Grandeur," Poems, Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1918

Friday, October 18, 2013

Blah, blah, blah

I woke-up yesterday afternoon in time to finish a backload and bring the boat back in.

The shrimping must be really good on the east side of the delta between Main Pass and Baptiste Collette. There sure were a lot of shrimp boats out there.

We took on a little more than 10 tons of fuel and 20 tons of potable water. Changed the oil and filters on the port generator. Just a moment ago I finished tightening-down the stuffing boxes on all four shafts, trying to find that elusive 3-second drip.

At about five minutes after midnight, the engineer offered to head downstairs to wake-up the deckhand. When I finally saw him, at about 00:30, I said: "Look, being late for your watch is a write-up offense. I don't want to write you up. So don't be late."

He looked confused, so I reiterated what I had said the first night we worked together.

"Your watch is midnight 'til noon. I expect to see you 10 or 15 minutes before your watch starts so I can let you know what we have going on, help you prioritize if we have an interruption, or whatever."

He looked more confused, then asked: "But what if I'm not awake 10 minutes before my watch?"

I have a feeling the second half of this hitch is going to be a long couple of weeks.

Thursday, October 17, 2013


Thursday the 16th. Crew change day. Grocery day. The mechanics are coming on-board to wrap-up the repair on our steering pump day.

Thursday the 16th. The day our customer fires an entire service company and keeps us in the field until every single piece of their equipment, and all their people, are on our boat.

Our platform is ... well, I don't know if it's unique in all the Gulf, but it's certainly different than any I've ever worked before. There are two cranes, which is not unusual. They are pretty short cranes, which also is not unusual.

At both cranes, the crane operator cannot actually see the deck of the boat he is offloading or backloading, which is very unusual. I mean, not at all. Sometimes they'll post a flagger at the rail to relay crane signals. Other times I or the deckhand give the crane operator verbal signals over the radio.

At one point during the backload, the platform sent down a wireline unit that weighed maybe 15,000 pounds. It had three, really long taglines attached to it. For a deckhand with just one free hand who was simultaneously giving signals over the radio to the crane operator and giving me hand signals about where he wanted the boat.

A consequence of this very short crane with no visual communication between the operator and the deck is that he just hangs the load over the water, and I then position the boat under the lift where I want it set down.

Somehow it all worked out.

Well, mostly. For reasons of stability, I prefer to have heavy loads forward on the deck. So I have a hope of seeing the stern of the boat from the aft helm station, I likewise prefer to have tall loads up close to the house.

But I can direct the loading of the boat that way only if I know what's coming. The crane operator, for some reason, has it in his head that I should have heavy lifts on the stern and all the light stuff up front. We went back and forth on this over the radio, and by the time the heavy stuff started coming down, the front of the deck was already filled-up.

Two days in a row we've been back at the dock by 9:30 in the morning. Now, on crew change day, we don't leave the field until midnight.

Because we're heavy, and despite the fact that I've pumped off about 3,000 gallons of water, we'll now only make about 17 knots. In places, only about 15 knots, depending on the water depth.

At the dock, we have a cargo box of supplies and groceries, a couple of crew members signing-on and two very tired mechanics. On board, we have seven unhappy passengers and there is no clear path from the front of the boat to the back of the boat.

I'm no dummy, and I call our dispatcher about two hours out and explain the situation very clearly. I don't demand that he put us under the crane as soon as we get in, but I figure it should be clear that under the crane is where we need to be.

Not only was there a boat already under the crane, our standby spot was two-deep in crewboats.

Turned out there was a hole about 32-feet wide between their sterns and a 65-foot crewboat that spends the night on our dock. It was suggested that I stern-up there to let our passengers off and our mechanics on.

When I got to this boat, I was told that there is not room to top around in this slip (we back down out of Tiger Pass). And in many places -- due to barges, other boats, etc. -- there is not.

But by going to the very back of the slip and topping around in the "T," I was able to slide back to that hole and sort of twist into it using the bow thruster and the inboards.

It felt like a pretty nifty piece of boat handling to me, though I may have been the only one impressed.

Anyhow, all of this led to a delayed crew change, which meant the on-signers hadn't been able to get any rest, which meant that I needed to stay up later (not to mention we were changing the watch schedule), which meant that I had been up, and mostly operating the boat, for 21 hours by the time I was relieved.

Yesterday, of course, we were back at the dock by noon and we're not expected to have another run until Friday.

Apparently that sort of nonsense only happens on crew change day. On the sixteenth.

It's enough to make a fellow develop a phobia.

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.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Remembering Karen

Karen was a tease. Drawing ever nearer, then dancing away, then disappearing altogether. The days of unrelieved anticipation were eerily reminiscent of my late, unlamented dating career.

We wondered last week which weather system would win: the strong cold front bearing down from the northwest or the tropical storm wobbling north. I'm hardwired to bet on tropical weather.

As late as the end of my watch Saturday, we were still expecting at least a little rain and some 30-knot winds from a tropical depression.

My faith in the National Weather Service led me to scoff publicly at the old mariner's rhyme:

Red sky at night, sailor delight;
Red sky at morning, sailor take warning

I scoff no more.

I got up early Sunday to see the wind and rain and was instead greeted by blue skies and a northerly breeze.

Shoulda known better. That rhyme, after all, has been around for a while. The Good Lord himself uttered something very much like it in the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew:

When in evening, ye say, it will be fair weather: For the sky is red. And in the morning, it will be foul weather today; for the sky is red and lowering.

And, man, was it red. The sun was red. The sky was red in every direction. The air itself was red.

We headed offshore this morning, and the promised delight apparently has an expiration date, because it was pretty bumpy and windy out there. It's an early preview of coming attractions in the Gulf, I guess.

At any rate, Karen was just about a perfect storm as these things go. We got some down time to catch-up on maintenance and paperwork, no one got hurt and no one lost homes, vehicles or places of employment.

I'll take the tease any day.

This one was for New England Waterman, who was whining that I needed to update the blog. You'd think the guys who drive those big boats would have better things to do than bird-dog my writing schedule. And thanks to my colleague Shawn and for the Hurricane Karen art!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho, Off to Sea I Go

Back at it on a different boat almost identical to the old boat working a new-to-me field out of Venice, La.

My only prior experience of Venice was a tuna fishing trip many years ago that featured lots of beer and very few tuna.

Working here now is just like that, minus the beer.

The boat is in good shape and the crew is about five kinds of awesome. Nothing really to say about any of that.

So let's talk about the weather.

The first weekend of the hitch brings a tropical weather system followed by a strong cold front. For a while it looked like Tropical Storm Karen might mature into a Category One hurricane before landfall.

For a while, it looked like Karen was going to track right over my boat.

Turns out Karen is both disorganized and unambitious. She's slowed-down, wobbled a bit more northward, and is sort of just falling apart. Karen may still be a minimal tropical storm when she arrives, or perhaps just an unnamed tropical depression.

Meanwhile, not much is moving in Venice. Almost everyone who works at the dock our customer uses has bailed.

The company man who rode in with us two days ago told me they wouldn't need us before Monday. We'll see.

For a busy boat, any downtime is a welcomed opportunity to do a little maintenance. Last night we worked four hours into my off-watch repacking the rudder shafts and resolving a bilge pump issue.

Today it's parts and equipment inventory and the supply requisition. Fun times.