Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Weather Window

Christmas dinner was two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

In the past week on the boat, I’ve had just two hot meals, not counting a bowl of microwaved oatmeal. Mostly it’s been pretzels and crackers.

Weather, you know.

The Gulf of Mexico in winter, as I’ve written before, is a study in contrasts. There are, in any winter month, days of astounding tranquility and beauty. They usually come on the heels of a raging, blundering cold front that heaps the seas and generally makes us miserable for 24 or 36 hours.

In the day or two leading up to a cold front, typically we have a strong onshore flow that brings with it 20-25 kts of wind from the Southeast and moderate, but still less-than-comfortable seas of six feet or better.

Even in the wake of a cold front, it doesn’t get truly cold out here in the middle. This great basin is also a terrific heat sink (surface water temps in our area of the Gulf right now are averaging about 72 degrees); last winter we had snow flurries in Fourchon, while 100 miles offshore air temps dipped to maybe the low 50s.

We are still, for a few more days at least, working with the seismic fleet. Mind-numbing, 12-hour wheel watches. Headings and speeds dictated by survey lines, not the weather, which means wretched, broken sleep for the off-watch folks when the weather is crappy.

On the upside, it’s a job. And it’s good for the boat to have a job, in winter, when the price of oil is less than $60/bbl.

I’m also getting to see some of the vaunted deepwater projects out here: drillships and MODUs and LLOG's nifty Delta House Floating Production System, finished-out at the facility where my sister-in-law works back in Texas.

The long wheel watches cry out for some sort of stimulation; reading and television are out, which leaves strictly auditory entertainment (below the volume of the VHF radios, of course): Flogging Molly to Jon DeeGraham to The Trishas to sea shanties to J.J. Grey to Townes van Zandt to … Audible!

I downloaded the app, and a couple of books, before leaving the house.

Redeployment, by former Marine Phil Klay, is a thought-provoking punch in the gut.

Some of it resonates with my own (Army) near-war experience. All of it makes me feel more certain than ever that our political leaders must employ and deploy our military might only for damned good reason. Because that shit breaks people. Breaks them beyond repair, sometimes. And I’m just talking about our people, the ones who come home.

Something else I do to amuse myself out here is take pictures. Capt. Dean Thomas, the world’s best (and, quite possibly, most laid-back) kayak fishing guide recently turned me on to Snapseed, a Google app that easily turns ho-hum snapshots into dramatic images.

So, you know, I’ve been overdoing that.

There are a lot of things I see out here that I’ll probably never be able to capture photographically: the spray of stars overhead, the comb jellies and dinoflagellates scintillating in our bow wave, the lights of a drillship reflected from a low ceiling of cloud; a pumpkin-colored moon on the horizon.

Archimedes asked for a lever and a place to stand; I would need a fast, long lens and, also, a steady place to stand. Not terribly likely to happen out here.

I am reminded just now of another fun aspect of the job we are currently working … as I think I’ve mentioned before, the majority of the crews on the seismic vessels are European.

Most – at least the ones we deal with over the radio – have a fair command of English. Some speak an elegant and formal brand of the international maritime language, and all seem to be highly professional mariners.

This appears to have had, over the past couple of months, a salutary effect on both radio procedure and clarity of communication among the crews of the support vessels. Everyone’s just a bit more courteous, too.

And that ain’t a bad thing.

Monday, December 22, 2014

"Twas the Night Before Crew Change

'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 lube 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 Lousianne

Now Bastrop! Columbus! Now Sealy, now Houston 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 carryall 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.”

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

(Re)Mindfulness and the Wayback Machine

My dad got a new truck about a year ago. I don’t think I did more than admire the deep green metal flake exterior before last week, when he stopped by en route from my parents’ home in the Pineywoods of northeast Texas to an appointment with destiny at the very southern tip of the state.

My mom has long been encouraging a parental move back to the Coastal Bend, where they both grew up and where the majority of the extended family still (or again) lives.

Papa has been resistant, for reasons I’m not sure I entirely understand but have something to do with a love for tall, whispering pines that recall carefree college days and a deep-seated dissatisfaction with what his sleepy hometown on the coast has become (someone had the nerve to put in six – count ‘em SIX – traffic lights a few years back!).

The devious woman who gave birth to me has tried various strategies to get the move underway, including this rather blatant bribe: “Honey, don’t you think you should get a boat?”

He’s a guy who grew up in Rockport. A guy who worked on boats professionally for four years of his young adulthood. The idea took root, finally blossomed.

My brother and I went to work scouring YachtWorld and Craigslist for suitable vessels. There were several spirited debates about the type of boat that would be best, the price range, the power package.

In the end, we located an almost-new center console with a fuel-efficient outboard and high gunwales (for the grandkids, you know) and warranties on everything.

In San Benito, 546 miles from where the folks live now.

I already had a trip planned down that way with my oldest boy, to harass some snook and get a look at the USS Forrestal and USS Saratoga, currently being recycled in Brownsville. That trip fell through due to a couple of unmissable finals reviews for the teenager, so I shifted gears and planned the trip with my brother, who, fortuitously, was off work those couple of days.

That got nixed when his 5-year-old caught the flu.

Then Papa decided he wanted to make the drive and pick up the boat himself: “Can you go with me?” he asked.

Well, sure.

So it ended up being a father-and-son trip after all, with one of the same individuals but a different father and son. We shifted-up a generation.

My dad’s truck rides like a limousine and has so many bells and whistles that my father had to operate the electronics while I was driving.

Our route took us through the northeastern corner of the Eagle Ford Shale boom, through the King Ranch and deep into the Rio Grande Valley (yes, we know it’s really a delta, and it’s as flat as Ally McBeal, but we still call it “El Valle”).

Papa is halfway between 65 and 70, closing in on 70. In my own middle age now, I have more in common with him today than perhaps ever before. Or at least since I was his mini-me nearly half a century ago.

What surprised me, more than it should have perhaps, is what he has forgotten … his, well .. tentativeness, about things I figured he was comfortable with, because they are things he taught me 25 or 30 or 35 years ago.

For decades now he has deferred those simple pleasures in favor of work and more work … work that has financed kids’ educations and moves, financed kids’ boats and adventures … he’s still working, but he is finally getting to enjoy some of the fruits of his labor.

Like the spaceship truck, this week our wayback machine; like listening to Jimmy Buffet (something else he introduced me to, back when A1A was a recent release) with a fishing pole in his hand on his boat. And actually catching a fish.

It’s about damned time.

We even got to fish with my brother on the way home, all of us risking spousal disapproval by taking a little extra time to “try out the boat again” and also try out one of my brother’s top-secret winter fishing holes.

It was an excellent time, all around. 

It was time, life's greatest gift, and something I am more keenly aware of  every more rapidly passing year. Especially given my work schedule, which compresses the best part of my life into two-week vignettes.

That gift of time is enough, to be sure. And not everything in life has to be a teaching (or learning) moment or have some profound underlying meaning.

But our trip south last week also got me to thinking about the things I do with my own kids, the things I introduce them to or teach them as a matter of course that someday I won’t even remember. Things that may loom large in their eventual, complex understandings of how they came to be the people they will be.

No pressure, there.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

My Tropic of Cancer, a Paper Chase, and The Holidays

More exciting than my version.
Growing up less than 300 miles north of the by-God tropics, I spent many of my childhood days on a small boat under a big sun without, as it now seems, adequate protection.

My folks tried. But it was the late '70s, early '80s, and sunscreen technology was not where it is today.

SPF 8 was a big deal back then. And what 15-year-old boy wants to wear a shirt in the middle of summer on a boat on the bay?

My genetic bequest from the Mexican grandfather did not include dark skin and hair, as it did for some of my cousins.
Off-loading oysters in Fulton Harbor on Aransas Bay.

I got the Dutch-German-Irish allotment, and those early days are now coming home to roost. I also got lots of bad sunburns. Really, really bad sunburns.

Not in an awful-scary way, so far. Mostly just little basal-cell carcinomas popping up here and there, and mostly they can be scraped-and-burned or frozen off.

If you're going to get skin cancer, basal-cell carcinoma is the one to get, they say. It doesn't metastasize, and it grows oh-so-slowly. Worst-case, my doc says, is that it may eventually slide down into the muscle to the bone, requiring a more radical excision.

The eldest taking a turn at the tiller of the new-old
knock-around boat courtesy of his grandfather.
This last one had to be excised, that is, cut out, and ... damn. It kinda smarts. Eight stitches and a bit of bruising arouind the site, it sort of looks like I was in a knife fight. Felt like it too, when the doctor chopped a spot the lidocaine had not penetrated.

So, kids, my advice to you is use sunscreen. Lots of it, everywhere. Wear long sleeves. Especially if you are fortunate enough to spend your youth in the low latitudes.

The next round begins tomorrow, and I should be all tuned-up and healed-up in time for the next crew change a few days before Christmas.

Christmas Cheer

Screen capture of some of Ben's calendar pages.
Speaking of Christmas, if you are looking for a nifty nautical gift for the mariner in your life, you really should check out New England Waterman's workboat calendars -- pick a company, or order the generic workboat version.

So far he has a Hornbeck Offshore Services version, one for the boats of Edison Chouest Offshore, one chock-full of tugs in the Northeast, and I'm not sure what-all else.

Ben's photography is pretty damned good and he's uniquely placed to capture moments many people never get to see.

What I look like at the end of a
winter hitch.
Another option is Bowsprite New York Harbor's whimsical nautical art -- on cards, tea towels, playing cards and any other number of textiles and paper products.

I recently had the distinct pleasure of showing Christina and fellow maritime blogger Tugster (Will van Dorp) around our own Port Fourchon. Each is, as we say in the South, "good people."

Finally, if you'd like something wearable, may I humbly suggest my own WorkboatWear for nautical t-shirts, hoodies, coffee mugs and the like?

All the best designs come from the mad graphic genius of the MonkeyFist Design Bureau up in Maine.

Paper Chase

I call this activity "honoring my ancestors,"
the ones from County Down y los de Sonora.
It was helpful in getting through the paperwork
Part of my must-do list this extended time between hitches was to take the Rating Forming Part of a Navigation Watch (RFPNW) assessments and test for my AB-Unlimited. Not because I plan to sail on either document, though I could and they are handy to have, but because they are required for my raise-in-grade to master less than 500 GRT, Master OSV less than 3000 ITC, and STCW II/2 -- Master 500GT-3000GT.

Now, three years almost to the day after starting that upgrade process: Done.

I believe I've checked all the boxes. We'll see if the Coast Guard agrees. All 59 pages of application materials were transmitted through the ether last night.

Assuming the good folks in West Virginia and I are on the same page, in due course (probably about a month), I'll receive a letter approving me to test for the aforementioned licenses. Sometime in the next 12 months -- I'm shooting for June or July -- I'll plant my hiney in a chair in a brightly-lit room in Houston and spend two days attempting to prove I'm worthy of the wheelhouse of a larger vessel.

In the meantime, I'll be spending nearly all of my "spare" time studying. Some of the things I'll be studying have been covered repeatedly in training and testing I've already completed. Others I use on a daily basis.

Still others haven't been tasks common to sailors in this country anytime in the last 30 or 40 years, but what can you do?

I'll keep you posted.

And, wherever you are this month -- ashore or at sea -- Happy Holidays.

Monday, November 17, 2014

And now for something completely different

Well, we’re back on the job and I can’t decide if it’s the best job ever, or the worst job ever. My opinion changes with the weather, mostly because our heading and speed over ground do not.

We are one of a fistful of support vessels for a five-ship seismic fleet searching for buried treasure about a hundred miles offshore from south of Pensacola, Fla., to off of the South Pass of the Mississippi River.

Sometimes we act as a guard vessel, ahead and outside of one of the big boats, warning approaching and crossing traffic that we require a 7nm CPA astern and 3nm abeam and ahead. Other times we are chasing the tail buoys at the end of five miles of steerable streamers.

On yet other occasions, we act as the safety standby vessel when one of the survey ships launches a workboat to service their cables underway, or crew changes via helicopter. Sometimes they send us out ahead of the fleet to scout for reported obstructions or to provide current readings at a given location.

The planning that goes into something like this – both ahead of the project, and during operations -- is mind-boggling. The two seismic survey ships have dedicated navigation departments. I imagine them to look something like an Aegis missile cruiser’s combat information center.

Anyway, it’s good to be working after too many weeks pushed-up on the mud. An idle boat + oilfield slowdown = one nervous crew.

It’s hardly worth mentioning – but I’m going to anyhow (send the cheese care of my wife) – that with the new job came the promise of my third-in-a-row late crew change.

My first hitch I voluntarily worked-over for another captain and the customer then held us over in the field. I can live with that … weather, customer whims, emergencies – these things make our crew change dates and times a rough guide rather than an actual schedule.

At the end of my second hitch, we were off-charter and at the dock two hours ahead of the relief crew’s arrival. About 30 minutes before they were due to show up we got a call from the office informing us that one guy wasn’t going to make it, but a fill-in was on a plane, and we could expect them in “a couple of hours.”

Mmmmm … not so much. Twelve hours later I was actually, finally, on my way home, by that time going on 24 hours since I last slept.

This time we knew a good 30 hours in advance of our departure from the dock that we would not be back in time for our scheduled crew change. That, in fact, we would miss it by at least several days.

“If you need to get someone down here early, you’d better call your office now,” the company man said. I concurred, and listed the reasons, including the fact that the deckhand who has been on the boat 70-something days at this point had a ticketed international flight the day after we were scheduled to be home.

Anyway, I went to bed thinking it would be resolved through the chain-of-command. Didn’t happen.

I spent, literally, many hours scheduling everything I needed to do in my “off” time so that it did not interfere with the boat’s schedule. 

Two surgeries, two endorsements for my license upgrade and a week-long vacation with the family.

The procedures have been rescheduled, the vacay reservations amended.

And now I’ll have to take extra time off of work to make all this happen, and the company will have to find someone to fill-in for me. I am assured by my crew coordinator it won’t be a problem, but it’s still less than ideal for everyone.

There is no guarantee our crew coordinator could have found fill-ins on 24-hour notice, but he sure would have tried. 

The bottom line is that this little delay is costing the family thousands of dollars. Possibly as much as $6,504, depending on when I get back to the boat. (The $4 was the change fee for my plane ticket home.)

Waaaa, right?

But hey, we’re working. And that’s a good thing. It’s about to be an uncomfortable good thing – a norther blew through at 0552 with 40+ kts of wind. Seas are forecast to build to 10-12 with the occasional 16-footer thrown in for good measure. 

The entire fleet is running before the weather now.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Diversity in the Workplace

A workboat is a pretty self-contained and limiting environment. While the boat itself may touch down in three different states (or, alternatively, sit in one place) over the course of a month, the crew members typically don't leave the vessel.

Pink-spotted hawk moth, Agrius cingulatus.
Sometimes we have to to hike across a cement or gravel logistics yard to deliver paperwork to a dispatcher. But that's about it.

And for someone like me -- someone who has always been curious about the world around him -- that is sometimes a hard way to live.

My paternal grandfather was an enthusiastic taxonomist and amateur naturalist: plants, fungi, rocks and minerals, artifacts ... he enjoyed searching for, identifying and collecting found treasures.

My favorite activity with my father, as a youngster, was "going to the flats" (the tidal marsh across the street, on the banks of the Intracoastal Waterway) or to Padre Island National Seashore where we could find everything from horned lizards and king snakes to olive and sundial shells to glass fishing floats.

There are some professional taxonomists in the family as well, and they served to heighten my interest in the natural world over the years.

In college, exploring the Trinity River bottomlands when I should have been studying, I was delighted to find beavers on campus, in the heart of one of the nation's largest metropolitan areas.

Black Witch, Ascalapha odorata.
When I lived in deep South Texas I was charmed not just by the austere beauty of the Tamaulipan thorn forest and the vast Laguna Madre, but also by the rich procession of tropical species, many of which are found nowhere else in the United States.

I was so enthralled with the flora and fauna of South Texas that I enrolled in a program sponsored by Texas A&M University and the Corpus Christi Convention and Visitors Bureau and became one of the early certified wildlife guides in the area.

On the boat we spend a lot of time in South Louisiana, which is an interesting landscape, but aside from resident bald eagles and black bear crossing signs on the highway doesn't offer many s)urprises. That is to say, it's not so different from where I grew up: the same Gulf of Mexico, the same spartina and black mangrove marsh, largely familiar and predictable shorebirds and marine life ....

Banded sphinx moth, Eumorpha fasciatus
Being stuck on a boat for 28 days does offer two advantages, though: the first is a couple of 1,000-watt halogen work lights illuminating our deck.

The second is that for 27 nights in a row I have nowhere else to go and nothing else to look at, other than what those lights attract.

And what they attract are moths. Sometimes hundreds, sometimes dozens, sometimes just a handful, but every night it is not pouring rain, there are moths on the deck.

Often there are scores of tiny moths, "micromoths," that are probably intricately patterned or delicately formed, but are too much of a chore to identify with my 45-year-old eyes.
Tersa sphinx, Xylophenes tersa

Sometimes, maybe once a week or so, there are macromoths -- hummingbird- or even sparrow-sized insects that are intricately and beautifully patterned.

Until recently I hadn't thought much about moths. I was familiar of course with a couple of the large and obvious hawk moths from home, and I certainly paid attention to the occassional saturnids -- luna moths and imperial moths -- that came to a porch light.

But I always sort of assumed that butterflies, the daytime showboats of the order lepidoptera, where more interesting and glamorous than moths.

I've recently learned, though, that of the roughly 175,000 species of butterflies and moths, the former account for only about 18,000. All the rest are moths.

And while plenty are drab or vaguely patterned (the mostly nocturnal moths typically find their mates through pheremones rather than color and pattern, as do the diurnal butterflies), many sport incredibly beautiful colors and patterns, particularly on their often-hidden hind wings.

Ello Sphinx, Erinnyis ello
There are two fun groups on Facebook that I turn to for entertainment and education; the first is a group of working mariners and ship spotters called "Supply Boat History."

The second is a collection of amateur and professional lepidopterists called "Mothing and Moth-Watching." Both have active members from around the world.

Who knew?

The moth-watchers have been particularly helpful and encouraging, mostly confirming IDs (Mississippi State University has a terrific resource in their Moth Photographers Group site).

One morning a week or so ago, I was excited to post some photos of a new-to-me moth that I had proudly identified as a rare-ish Louisiana endemic.

Louisiana eyed silk moth, Automeris louisiana
A couple of hours later, the fellow who first described the insect back in 1981 was commenting on the photo. How cool is that?

Out here in the oil patch, it's mostly (though not exclusively) white men working on boats. And our view of the natural world, while sometimes stunning (especially at dawn and dusk), is necessarily circumscribed.

With that in mind, I can view the moths only as a gift, renewed every night under the aft deck worklights.

Sunday, September 21, 2014


Mariners working in the oil and gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico rarely undertake voyages. We have trips, and make runs, but – even though the Coast Guard and our companies may require voyage planning – we typically don’t think of them as voyages.

Or I don’t, anyway.

Maybe that’s because we usually start and end at the same dock in the same port: Point A to Point B and, sooner or later, back to Point A. Within the context of those roundtrips, we sometimes stay at sea for days or even weeks at a time, but that’s just “standing by.”

Sand Island Light, at the entrance to Mobile Bay.
A recent job took us from Port Fourchon, La., to the Theodore Industrial Port near Mobile, Ala., (two entire states east!), and then to Amelia, near Morgan City, La. Point A to Point B to Point C before returning to Point A.

It was something like 620 nautical miles round-trip. Days of the week changed while we were en route. It felt like a voyage. A short one, by most standards, but a voyage nonetheless.

There is history everywhere, but it’s more obvious in some places than in others. Coast Pilot Vol. 5 warns vessels to proceed at slow speed through the entrance channel to Mobile Bay so as not to disturb the wreck of the USS Tecumseh, a Union ironclad sunk when it struck a mine beneath the guns of Fort Morgan during the Civil War.

This impressive cumulonimbus cloud over the eastern
shore of Mobile Bay made good on its promise of a rain and
lightning later that night.
The Tecumseh is presumed still to have live munitions aboard, and the wreck is marked with a yellow buoy. I figure the danger is long past, but the government’s warning is an exciting note in a pretty staid publication.

When the ship blew up, the other ships in Admiral David Farragut’s flotilla began to turn back. This occasioned his famous order, today remembered as: “Damn the torpedoes (mines), full speed ahead!”*

Theodore Industrial Port is a tidy (and quiet) little deepwater facility that probably deserves more business than it apparently has. It’s about 20 minutes from the home of the other captain on the boat, and I had the benefit of his local knowledge and stories as we sailed up the Mobile Ship Channel.

Our deck cargo on this job came from
the Big & Tall section of the store.
We picked-up about 200 tons of reel-lay equipment and set out for Amelia. There are three possible routes to Amelia, but the Intracoastal Waterway route didn’t make much sense for our vessel or our schedule so we shaped our course south, back around the Mississippi passes and across the northern Gulf to the Eugene Island Channel.

I spent the better part of a year navigating the 50+ miles from the Eugene Island 1&2 up the Atchafalaya River to Morgan City, most often in the dark and sometimes in lousy weather. It is no one’s favorite approach, and it is burned into my brain.

The more direct route to Amelia, and one that would allow us to bypass both Vessel Traffic Service and the Bayou Boeuf Locks, is to take the cutoff up the Bayou Chene** just above the Horseshoe (or just above Crewboat Cut, if you come that way) not far north of where the river enters Atchafalaya Bay.

Unlike the river channel proper, Bayou Chene is haphazardly and indifferently buoyed (though if you can stay in the center of the channel, there’s plenty of water). The other captain hadn’t been up the Chene in 17 years, and I transited it several times last summer, so I got up early to keep him company.

We made it to the dock without incident, got unloaded before noon, and headed back downstream for our return to Port Fourchon.

'Murica! A pair of bald eagles on Bayou Chene.
In an episode that hearkened back to my days guiding birding trips in South Texas, I told the other fellows on the boat that there was a good chance we would see some bald eagles on the daylight trip back down the bayou. About a minute after I said that, an eagle flew across our bow.

I counted six between the ICW and the cofferdam --  I’m guessing they were three, resident breeding pairs, and no doubt will be joined by many more birds as we move deeper into fall.

This trip – this voyage, if you will – also gave me an opportunity to reflect on the state of our industry in the Gulf of Mexico. The signs are mixed, and troubling.

These two Seadrill drillships were anchored and idle. Maybe
waiting on customs or something else, maybe just waiting
for a job.
We saw two drilling ships anchored and apparently idle just seaward of the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (or LOOP facility).***

This comes a year after I read that the big oil companies couldn’t get enough drilling units into the Gulf fast enough for all the work they had lined-up. 

Day rates for the most advanced units last year were up around $675,000. Today the same units are going for just a little more than half that.

On the way back to Fourchon, we noted that the number of ENSCO jack-up drilling rigs – used on the shelf -- now stacked west of Belle Pass has risen to five. Last time I went by and counted, there were just three.

A Seadrill executive noted just last week that market conditions are bad are projected to get worse next year before stabilizing in 2016.

And one can’t help noticing all of the idle steel in Fourchon itself.

This is a busy port – in terms of vessel movements, it must be the busiest in the Gulf of Mexico and perhaps one of the busiest in the world. At any given time there are well over 300 targets showing on my AIS and it’s hard to get a word in edgewise on Channel 13, the VHF frequency used for bridge-to-bridge communications within the port.

Chouest and Gulfmark boats tied-up in Slip A in Port Fourchon.
Of those 300-plus AIS targets, a whole bunch of them represent boats waiting on work. On the west bank of Bayou Lafourche right now there are upwards of 30 boats pushed up in the mud. On the opposite side of the bayou, a number of large liftboats remain idled. Some have been there at least six months.

In Flotation Canal, I was shocked at the number of large OSVs tied-up three abreast on the pilings and in Slip A and Slip B. These boats belong to companies I usually think of as always busy with long-term contracts.

Meanwhile, some of those same companies (and a lot of smaller ones, too) continue to build new, larger vessels at a prodigious rate.

On the other hand … the past two years have seen record lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico, increased success in the deepwater and ultra-deepwater sector and a wholesale reshuffling of owners and operators in established fields on the shelf.

At the same time, the door has been opened to exploration in the nearshore Atlantic off the U.S. East Coast, and Mexico’s government has, at last, invited greater involvement of foreign companies in exploiting its rich fields in the Gulf.

So it’s a mixed picture, and one I don’t understand well enough to decipher.

Everyone else's boats pushed up in the mud north
of Flotation Canal, Port Fourchon.
Taken together, all of this looks like a major (but perhaps temporary?) slowdown in the Gulf of Mexico. 

That doesn’t necessarily mean my job is in danger – and nothing I've heard or seen at this company suggests that it is (we get mechanics and supplies and groceries promptly and without argument – there’s no sense that budgets are being squeezed)  – but if I understand the law of supply and demand,  more boats and less work means lower day rates, at the least.

And I’m guessing lower rates for the boats effectively caps or puts downward pressure on rates for the mariners who man them.

My impression – and it’s just an impression, not supported by any hard data – is that hiring has slowed and much of the company-hopping for ever-increasing day rates has pretty much come to a halt recently.

I’m happy where I am and not planning on changing jobs anytime soon. I also have the luxury – blessing, really – of a wife who has her own, very good career. So whichever way the industry is going the kids will still have shoes and we’ll still eat.

If I were just entering the field though, or a young man contemplating a first career, I’d be giving this some serious thought.

*What he actually said, according to the Wikipedia entry (which I read as I was at or near the spot where Farragut said the words almost exactly 140 years earlier – ain’t technology wonderful?) was: "Damn the torpedoes.Four bells, Captain Drayton, go ahead. Jouett, full speed."

**It’s amusing, how pedestrian – and repetitive – the names of waterways can be. If my slipshod translation is correct, Boeuf means “cow,” and Chene comes from the French for “dog” – So Cow Bayou and Dog Bayou, respectively. Near Theodore, three rivers or bayous enter Mobile Bay on its western shore: Fowl River, Deer River and Dog River. There probably are analogues where you live.

***Upon further investigation ... Seadrill's website says both of the ships we saw are under contract through 2020. So maybe they were just hanging out waiting to get started.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Three Plus Two Equals a Long Hitch (and other math)

Three weeks in shipyard, a few days floating around Fourchon, nearly two weeks on two different jobs.
I finally made crew change on the morning of Day 36 in Venice, the polyp on the rectum of the American Midwest.

It’s fun to poo-poo Venice (see what I did there?), but in truth it was sort of nice to be back.

When I got up for my first watch after we arrived, there on the boat sterning-up next to us at the back of Slip 2 was a fellow I had been in the DP Induction course with a few months back.

A boat I worked alongside last winter is still there, and I caught up over the radio with one of her captains. A boat working the same job we were on was captained by a mutual friend of several guys I’ve worked with in the past.

In Fourchon I got within waving (and photo) distance of NewEngland Waterman and enjoyed a quick visit with The Rocket Scientist. One night while running to a platform 70 miles offshore I crossed paths a good friend I’ve worked with at three different companies, starting back in the South Padre Island days.

Both he and another Texas captain stopped by to say howdy when we were in shipyard.

All of that got me to thinking about the “loose” connections some of us maintain out in the oil patch.

Those connections are useful in all kinds of ways; not least in alleviating the loneliness of those long stretches away from land and from home, but also in job leads and recommendations and in up-to-date local knowledge about passes or working channels.

Those loose connections also will get you a bag of sugar, a 12-pack of Dr. Pepper or a gallon of paint in a pinch.

It’s a commonplace that a sailor’s favorite ships are the last one and the next one. That said, I couldn’t be much happier with the boat and crew to which I was assigned.

Joining them in shipyard, well in advance of our various inspections, gave me the opportunity to spend some quality time with parts of the vessel I might not get around to messing with in weeks or months, normally.

It also gave me time to get to know my port captains, shipmates and safety guys, and to learn some of the paperwork routine before worrying about handling a more massive vessel with different propulsion than I’m used to.

I was nervous about that last thing: this is my first steel-hull vessel, and my first really big twin-screw vessel, and my first real DP boat. And before and after everything else, driving a boat (well) is what I get paid for.

Turns out that what friends who made that transition ahead of me said is true: workboats are easier than crewboats.

It’s different, for sure, but it’s mostly a process of subtraction: subtract two throttles, subtract about 3,000 horsepower, subtract a whole lot of maneuverability and responsiveness, subtract the expectation that you’ll get anywhere fast.

All of that math comes down to this: think ahead of the boat, not with it, and know that everything – including stopping – takes longer. Oh, and this: that bow thruster really isn’t optional in some situations.

The short week home has been all kids all the time, except for Wednesday, when The Old Lady and I attended Wednesday Night Church Services (aka, the Jon Dee Graham/James McMurtry double bill at the Continental Club in Austin).

I didn’t know how much I needed that until about the second verse of the first song.

I got to catch up a little with some folks I used to hang out with two or three nights a week. I was astonished to find out that the baby I knew one guy’s wife was expecting last we talked is now seven months old.

I was saddened to hear another friend’s mom died last week.

It was another reminder of the value of those loose connections, this time on land, where people I care about and with whom I have much in common but I too rarely see in person, also make me feel a little less lonely.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Some Days You're the Painter

And some days you're the paint. You just gotta roll with it either way.

I joined the new boat in shipyard: bottomside and classification society survey this week, followed by the topside (safety) inspection a couple more weeks down the road.

I was pretty thrilled that the shipyard guys sandblasted the hull and back deck and painted both for us.

I was less thrilled when they sandblasted the boat in dry dock right next to us immediately after pressure-washing our vessel mast-top to keel.

That's sort of the way it's been going: get the windows in the wheelhouse taped-up, then watch it rain for three hours. Start painting the wheelhouse, then quit and hope it sticks when a thunderstorm rolls in.

So it's good we have a little time. Apparently we'll need it.

Not least because there's ... well, there's a lot of paperwork with this company, and I'm still trying to wrap my head around the two daily reports, three weekly drills, the monthly and quarterly and 90-day (not the same thing as quarterly) drills, weekly trainers, the three separate monthly vessel condition reports, etc., etc.

The new boat is still under 100 GRT, though it's 170-ft. long. We operate with a five-man crew, which is better than the last crewboat's four, but probably not quite enough to comfortably handle all of the ISM paperwork we're required to do.

Still, great training for the next boat, which will (hopefully) be over 100 GRT.

This company's got them, which is one of the reasons I wanted to work here.

First impressions: good crew with the best kind of friendly, helpful and salty old captains; we don't have to twist anyone's arm to get the supplies we need (heck, we've had five mechanics on board the last week to completely rebuild our mains, generators and bow thruster -- and they're not even broken).

I feel a little like country mouse in the city, arriving on a steel hull from a crewboat. We have an icemaker. We have a pressure washer that is plumbed to fittings throughout the vessel. Our compressed air also is plumbed to fittings throughout the boat.

We have WiFi and satellite TV, and the company pays for it.

We have an honest-to-God satellite phone, and we can use it to call home when we're offshore.

So far, so good. I'm happy to be back at work.