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.