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.