Thursday, January 30, 2014

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.

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