Thursday, January 30, 2014


At sea, as at home, it often comes down to remembering to buy lightbulbs. And finding someone willing to actually change them.

Shenanigans (Part Three): Stupid, Lazy and Greedy

In part two of my mini-series about oil patch vessel shenanigans, I did a little griping of my own.

Sorry ‘bout that. It was mostly to hide my ambivalence about the next post. This one.

Not everything I’m about to write happened while I was on the boat, or even in the presence of people I consider friends; however,  I have some good friends who have done some questionable things.

They are still my friends.

I may not always have been a poster boy for how to things the right way myself, so far as that goes … but in the interests of protecting my Fifth Amendment rights, I’m also not admitting to a damn thing.

I don’t know if the sorts of things I’m going to mention in this post are widespread, or if they are more common on the smaller boats or just at certain companies. They range from stupid and dangerous to lazy and greedy to … well, let’s just leave the potential civil and criminal penalties out of this, shall we?

There was the time, for instance, when I awoke at 2300 for my midnight-to-noon watch and found the other three guys on the boat falling down drunk.

In fact, it may have been one of them falling that woke me up.

Now, I’m pretty sure that shipyard periods and, say, hurricanes, may be treated somewhat differently. But when you’re 100 miles offshore, on safety standby for a dozen manned platforms, it’s quite possible (even if not probable on any given day) that at some point the entire crew may be needed at a moment’s notice. It has happened.

Other maritime nations, and other industries, may treat on-board alcohol use differently. Cruise ships have crew bars, and some foreign navies historically have run as much on rum or vodka as on fuel oil or atomic reaction.

The U.S. Navy banned the consumption of alcohol aboard its vessels with General Order No. 99 in 1914. The U.K.’s Royal Navy did not follow suit until 1971, and then only in part.

In the U.S. it is a violation of federal law to operate a commercial vessel with a blood alcohol content level of .04 percent or higher, and the Coast Guard has an official policy of discouraging the use of alcohol and “dangerous drugs” among vessel crew members. 

Boat companies and their customers, at least in the Gulf of Mexico, positively prohibit it. Licensed officers lose their jobs, lose their livelihoods and go to jail every year for forgetting this.

Even “strict” captains often are indifferent to what their crew members do at home, though surely they will remind their crews about the possibility of random drug tests and drug tests following incidents (even those that clearly are the other guy’s fault).

And many of us, I can tell you with a degree of certainty, are looking forward to retirement and  ... let's call it the "personal freedom" that will come with it.

A deckhand who worked for me on one boat thought he was pretty slick, smoking synthetic “marijuana.” He thought, with absolutely no justification, that he was “cool” when he was high – that there was no obvious difference in his performance or appearance.

Granted, his performance was nothing to write home about even when he was sober. But when he was high, he was heavy-lidded, bloody-eyed and approached each task with all the ingenuity and efficiency of one of the walking dead. 

I actually had to pull out from beneath a crane twice one morning, run down to the deck and help him rig, before finally sending him below to wake up his relief.

It’s nothing like the “good old days,” or so I am told. Back then, a lot of boats wouldn’t leave the dock without a case of beer on ice and a quarter bag in the wheelhouse. Or so I am told. Must have been fun, those days.

I was mightily impressed with the first crewboat I worked on. Our bilges were clean enough to eat off of. Absorbent pads were cut to fit and placed under every drip. Everything from oil filters to greasy rags to what we dumped out of the Fry Daddy went into DOT-approved waste drums in a containment well on the dock.

We put less oil in the water in a month than a single tour boat I had previously worked on did in a day. I thought, for a few brief months, that was the standard in the offshore industry.

Sadly, it is not so.

I remember walking around the boat early one morning and, after admiring the colors in the sky, noticed the rainbow sheen that started in the vicinity of our hull and continued downwind for about a quarter mile. It could have come from the platform to which we were moored, but I’m thinking that Genius, the synthetic pot guy, had decided to get a jump on the day by pumping the bilges.

I digress, but I have to mention another one of his great ideas. This particular company had a policy of prohibiting fishing from its vessels. It’s a policy the crews enthusiastically ignored, and staying offshore a week at a time we frequently had fish to share when we got home.*

Anyway, the catching was easy when we were hanging off one of the platforms. But once our standby buoy was replaced in the middle of the field, we had some trouble finding some of our favorite reef fish.

The sea bed in the Gulf of Mexico is basically one big mudflat, and reef fish thrive best where there is structure. Oil and gas production platforms provide great structure. So does all the metal – gratings and ladders and tubing and pipe – that came down in junk iron baskets.

One day we sent up a new washing machine to a platform and received the old, worn-out unit to be taken to the dock, and thence to the landfill. A couple of us figured that a washing machine was good for three or four snapper, minimum, and decided it should go over the side at the standby buoy.

Knucklehead remembered about half that discussion. Later the next day, at the buoy, I looked all over the boat for that damned washing machine. Finally I asked Genius.

“Oh, I threw it over,” he said. “For fish structure.”

“Okay,” I replied. “Where?”

“At _____ (the platform number). Last night.”

“Genius, that platform *is* fish structure. We don’t need any more over there.”

Speaking of structure, many vessels I've worked on have shiny stainless or aluminum compression posts in the wheelhouse or accommodations deck. If you're a guy with certain experiences in your background and a little imagination, it's not too difficult to see these as the sorts of poles that are sometimes found in certain entertainment venues.

Problem is, overheads are usually pretty low, so to actually put these poles to use one would need to employ a rather diminutive dancer.

Yep, I'm talking about midget strippers.

We got pretty close a couple of times to having this all worked out. It never came to fruition, but the dream remains alive deep in the hearts of a couple of guys I know.

But back to MARPOL and the Clean Water Act and that sort of thing.

I heard about a guy at one company who instructed his engineer to wait ‘til nightfall to dispose of used oil filters. Over the side while underway. Every 250 hours, like clockwork.

I've heard that some folks pump (often oily) bilges offshore as a matter of course. Even if there is an oily water separator on board. I've also been given to understand that it's not unusual to pump the holding tank at the dock as a matter of course. Even if a boat is headed out the required 3 miles beyond COLREGS in a few hours.

All of this pales, though, next to a phenomenon known as “making fuel.” This involves something other than chemistry, or even alchemy.

I’m not talking about rounding errors or padding the numbers a few hundred gallons here or there to make sure it comes out right in the end.

A couple of boats I’ve worked on have belly tanks that run fore-and-aft, and depending on how the boat is trimmed fuel soundings can be off by as much as 500 gallons per tank. Guesstimates are employed, fuel adjustments are periodically logged. It works out.

No, I’m talking about making fuel for profit. Only a few people I’ve known have allegedly done this, and sadly, now I can't even remember exactly who they were.

The way it works in the Gulf of Mexico, the customer (i.e., the company that charters the vessel) purchases the fuel the vessel uses for the period of the charter.

Say a boat goes “on charter” with 5,000 gallons of fuel. At the end of the charter period, the vessel, if it has less than 5,000 gallons on board, will take on enough fuel to make up the difference at the customer’s expense. If it has more than 5,000 gallons, the boat will pump it to another of the customer’s boats or the value of the excess fuel will be taken out of the vessel’s day rate.

In the interim, fuel is accounted for on a daily or weekly basis.

It’s not all that difficult to fudge the numbers just a little (say, logging 1,400 gallons on a 6-hour run instead of the 900 you actually burned – 233 gph vs. 150 gph – both are in the usual range for vessels I’ve worked on).

A week of daily runs like that and you’ve accumulated an “extra” 3,500 gallons of fuel worth north of $12,000 at the pump.

The trick is to dispose of the “extra” fuel and bring the actual fuel on board back to what the logs show. And that, too, is not all that difficult.

I heard a story about one captain who actually filled a slack rig water tank with stolen diesel to hide it from the customer’s auditors before he had the opportunity to pump it off to another boat or a truck.

Reportedly, the going rate for a gallon of pink diesel is $1, whether the buyer is some guy who runs boats or a yard worker at some dock.

The first week on one of my previous employer’s boats in Venice, one of the dock’s riggers passed a question to me through our engineer: “He wants to know,” the engineer said, “if you’ll sell him some diesel.”

“We can probably do that,” I replied. “Does he need it for the crane or something? We’ll just have to get him to sign a ticket.”

“Um, no … I think he wants to bring a truck over, sort of do it under the table. He wants 300 gallons.”

“Um, no,” I parroted. “Actually, hell no. And tell him not to ask again.”

Later that night I held a meeting with the entire crew. This happened. I said no. I will always say no. I don’t know how you’ve done things on this boat before, but we won’t be doing that while I’m here. First, it’s wrong. Second, it’s bad business. Third, we now have 14 cameras on this boat, and they are constantly recording. Any questions?

I’m pretty sure, though I have no proof, that one guy I was briefly acquainted with “made” in the neighborhood of 10,000 gallons for his company one month. That was his boast, anyhow. That’s between $30,000 and $40,000 at the pump. That is, I’m guessing, a felony.

It’s also no way to do business. It’s not fair to the vessel crew you have co-opted in your crime, it’s certainly not fair to the customer who is paying for the fuel. 

And I would have thought that it is self-evident that artificially increasing your fuel consumption makes your vessel less competitive.

It’s also all of five or six days of charter fees. Why trade that long-term, legal income for a short-term gain that carries the risk of personal and financial disaster?

Greed is the only answer I can come up with. The same sort of greed that would lead a company to transfer close to a grand per month in healthcare costs to its employees and blame it on Obamacare.

*Some might call this “raping the resource.” I prefer to think of it as “resource assessment,” or “single-line sampling.” And I can vouch for the fact that snapper populations are healthy where there is structure 100 miles offshore.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Shenanigans (Part Two): Ain't No Drama Like Boat Drama

And I thought high school was bad. Let me tell you, it has nothing on a boat full of grown-ass men suffering together in collective isolation while fighting each other, the office, problems at home, the elements, mechanical breakdowns, clueless dispatchers and an uncertain supply system.

The whining, the bellyaching, the moaning … the recriminations and machinations and scheming. It’s a freakin’ soap opera.

Not on every boat, and not at every company.  But, generally, if a sailor isn’t griping, you’d best check for a pulse. Or maybe conduct a drug test (see Shenanigans: PartThree).

This week I got a call from one of the engineers I worked with briefly. He was just checking in, and venting a bit, and to sum  it all up he said: “This place is batshit crazy! I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”

My most miserable hitches were a pain in the ass mostly because of the people I was sailing with. Weather, customer, job, vessel maintenance – all of that is addressed in a pretty straightforward manner.

A former colleague who usually was surrounded by enough drama to qualify for a Golden Globe nomination called me on his way home from his last hitch. He had found out he was “let go” when he called the office and asked for his sea time letter, only to discover it was already in the mail. (He was okay with that, as he had just doubled his day rate elsewhere.)

“You know,” he said, “________ went to the office and said that you and I are racist.”

I was surprised, then upon reflection not all that shocked as I recalled: after four consecutive days of waking this particular young man for his watch; after four consecutive days of mostly calm, patient, focused, one-on-one counseling; after four consecutive days spending nearly my entire watch demonstrating that mopping is best conducted with two hands on the mop handle, not one, and that mops typically must be rinsed and re-wetted more than once per day; after all this, I finally wrote a formal disciplinary report and created a performance improvement plan.

It was then that the young man told me that I was singling him out, that I was treating him differently than everyone else.

“Oh. No. You. Don’t,” I remember thinking, almost willing him to play that card. I guess he did, finally, just not to my face.

But it was true. I was singling him out. Because I am, deep down (and the evidence of my own last hitch notwithstanding), goldbrickerist. He was the only one not pulling his weight. Others were having to get up early and stay up late to take care of the tasks he didn’t finish – or even start.

Still, it was days of drama, and in the end office staff who were afraid they would be sued if they treated this individual like everyone else in the company sort of left me dangling in the breeze.

Then there is the shuffling of licensed personnel because the lead captain feels threatened by another captain’s competency, or because boat handling skills aren’t up-to-snuff, or personalities don’t mesh, or someone is calling the office too often, or the customer doesn’t like the way a captain talks to the crane operator, or simply because there is a shitty boat and a shitty job somewhere else and one poor sucker hasn’t gotten the memo yet and blithely says: “Sure, I’ll help you out over there.”

On one boat, crew members complain because they have to carry their toiletries to and from the head (never more than 10 steps away on a crewboat, by the way). On the next boat, someone gets bent out of shape because there are too many bottles of body wash inhabiting the shower.

And the egos. Sheesh. I have personally met the World’s Best Boat Handler. All 27 of them. I have come to believe that one of the biggest problems with the much-abused U.S. domestic tonnage admeasuring system is that it never accurately accounts for the amount of volume a boat requires to safely contain those egos.

I’ve worked with a few guys who were hot shit on the sticks, no doubt. But for the most part the widespread notion that “I am better at this than anyone else out here” is a fine example of something called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which manifests itself in all sorts of other ways as well. 

The thing is, the murky swirl of rumor and innuendo and double-dealing that is part and parcel of life aboard some boats generally remains unilluminated because, well, there are some sneaky bastards out there.

But more than that, there is a prevailing notion that information is power. And we all know that one must never, under any but the most dire circumstances, share power.

This is, more than anything, a top-down problem and an organizational culture challenge at the management level.

Consider: on the last day of last year, the news that our company was merging not just sales and marketing efforts as previously announced but also vessel operations, HSE and HR (i.e., everything) with another, similarly-sized company was buried in a memo informing all crew members that “due to Obamacare” insurance costs would be increasingly transferred from the employer to the employees.

The specifics translated into a $963 per month additional out-of-pocket expense for me, and probably for a lot of guys with families.

And I’m betting it had very little to do with the ACA (last year we were assured our coverage was ACA-compliant and grandfathered and wouldn’t change) and a whole lot to do with the company trimming expenses.

That memo, by the way, was sent only to the boats, not to the one-third of vessel employees then at home. Kind of like the e-mail the day after Christmas that announced that, “due to a computer glitch,” payroll would be delayed by five days.

As my first crewboat mentor told me more than once: “When you mess with my pay, you’re messing with my feelings.”

As I almost got around to mentioning earlier, boat life is not “Lord of the Flies” all the time, not every company is completely awful at communication, and even from boat to boat within a given company’s fleet, the culture can be markedly different.

On one boat on which I worked, for instance, there were literally dozens of hardcore pornographic magazines strewn around the vessel; I had to move them to plot a course on the chart, or eat a bowl of cereal. On the next boat, there was not a skin mag to be seen, but lots of well-read actual books, the kind with words.

On one boat the list of deckhand daily and weekly duties ended with a threat: "If you can't do it, we'll find someone who can! "On the next boat, it ended with a note of encouragement: "You're an important part of the team, and we appreciate all you do!"

In the end, people make the difference, for good or bad.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Shenanigans (Part One): FNGs

Shenanigans abound offshore. Some are the predictable result of having six guys cooped-up in a smallish aluminum box with limited outlets for recreation.

Some are the result of laziness or restricted bandwidth at the management level, which shouldn’t tolerate such things (coming in Part Two). Some are pure criminality (see Part Three).

There is an entire seabag of tricks to screw-around with newbies. I probably don’t even know the best ones, but they include things like: sending the green guy to get a bucket of prop wash, replacing spark plugs on the (diesel) mains, tuning the radars ….

That last one involves having the new guy wander around the dock with a foil-covered hard hat, a metal rod of some sort and a hand-held VHF. It is … almost … plausible. And hilarious.

At the beginning of the last hitch, there was much discussion about preventive measures to avoid the dreaded “dickworm.” There was even an ersatz Wikipedia article about penile helminthes, and warnings flashed from new guy to new guy across the fleet.

All of this from an off-hand remark after the newbie wondered why chlorine tabs were being dropped into the rig water we took on at the dock.

New guys get f*cked with. A lot. Often to the point of counterproductivity. Recently the captain of one of our other boats was painting a dire picture of the chances of a romantic relationship surviving a deckhand’s new career. Jody was mentioned. At length.

That deckhand made it about a week before rushing home.

I’ve seen some captains call the office and demand a replacement for a newbie on the first hitch. Or state angrily that they’re not training someone without extra pay.

This is disheartening.

All of us started our workboat careers knowing nothing about the job. Every. Single. One of us. 

And training is a privilege that comes with a license, and with experience, and the last time I checked was part of the job description.

I was proud to be a temporary part of a temporary crew at the beginning of the last hitch. With two Short Service Employees (SSEs, or FNGs, if you like), the other captain and I collaborated to bring them up to speed as quickly as possible.

Five in-depth actual emergency drills in seven days. A near-complete review of the company’s new Safety and Environmental Management System. Pop quizzes. 

People staying up into the next watch to provide hands-on instruction. Extra folks on deck during cargo operations. Words of encouragement when a tired, overwhelmend new guy says dejectedly: “I’m never going to get this!”

It was pretty awesome. And it still left time for some people to worry about dickworms.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Full Circle

So ... this last hitch found me filling-in on a boat I'd never worked on, on a job that ended after two weeks and left us pushing mud. Standing by waiting on work on the banks of Bayou Lafourche sounds like a nice break, but it quickly becomes excruciatingly boring.

 And of course busy days pass more quickly.

Then came word that I'd be headed back to the very first boat I worked on for this company -- the boat I worked on longest and took through Coast Guard topside and hull inspections last summer.

It was a lot like coming home (minus having a 1-year-old puking on me and changing diapers and sleeping next to my wife ... and being able to drink beer and order pizza and do my own grocery shopping. But other than that ....).

I ended-up working with a captain from the company with which my employer is merging, and like the guy before him (another captain from that company was filling-in, too, the first two weeks of my hitch), he was a nice guy and competent boat handler.

The job, running cutting boxes to and from a drilling rig about 50 miles south of Port Fourchon, was pretty much non-stop.

Best of all, I was on the same watch with my favorite engineer, the first crew member I met when I went to work for this outfit. When I left this boat, he was studying hard for his 100-ton license.

In my last crewboat week, I celebrated with him as the interwebs informed us that his credential was received at the National Maritime Center, then progressed to medical evaluation.

Aside from the dancing and drinking, that celebration took the form of showing my soon-to-be-captain friend a few tricks on the sticks, and letting him move and hold the boat at the rig.

He's going to be just fine.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Visiting Hours

Port Fourchon is the center of the workboat universe. If you work on a boat in the oil patch, chances are you'll come through here at some point.

And since even the mental health ward has visiting hours, I have had the opportunity to catch-up with old friends and new friends at length the past couple of weeks.

It helps that our customer is operating a weather-constrained semi-submersible drilling rig, and the weather has been pretty lousy. We've mostly been propping  up the dock ... and visiting.

The ghosts of boats past are frequent visitors, including the best engineers and deckhands I've had the pleasure of working with. I've been able to catch-up with captain friends from Texas; working different hitches on different boats for this company, usually we see each other only in passing -- literally.

A fellow I met through this blog (when he was working on an OSV in Alaska) and with whom I've corresponded at length drove down to say hello after getting hired-on at Edison Chouest Offshore.

I even got to talk over the rail with the New England Waterman.

About halfway through this hitch, I decided it would be my last one with this company. Hopefully my last one on crewboats.

Bigger boats, and bigger boat companies, more often offer even time schedules and the pay scale that still makes a 180-day year financially rewarding.

New STCW rules (actually not all that new, but finally trickling down to U.S. mariners) will be implemented March 24 this year. Reportedly, that will make the leap to a 500-ton license a much lengthier, more expensive process.

So ... the next couple of months will be devoted to knocking-out endorsements and studying for the exam. I'll also take some time to reflect on what I've learned over the past couple of years. Stay tuned!