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.