Monday, November 17, 2014

And now for something completely different

Well, we’re back on the job and I can’t decide if it’s the best job ever, or the worst job ever. My opinion changes with the weather, mostly because our heading and speed over ground do not.

We are one of a fistful of support vessels for a five-ship seismic fleet searching for buried treasure about a hundred miles offshore from south of Pensacola, Fla., to off of the South Pass of the Mississippi River.

Sometimes we act as a guard vessel, ahead and outside of one of the big boats, warning approaching and crossing traffic that we require a 7nm CPA astern and 3nm abeam and ahead. Other times we are chasing the tail buoys at the end of five miles of steerable streamers.

On yet other occasions, we act as the safety standby vessel when one of the survey ships launches a workboat to service their cables underway, or crew changes via helicopter. Sometimes they send us out ahead of the fleet to scout for reported obstructions or to provide current readings at a given location.

The planning that goes into something like this – both ahead of the project, and during operations -- is mind-boggling. The two seismic survey ships have dedicated navigation departments. I imagine them to look something like an Aegis missile cruiser’s combat information center.

Anyway, it’s good to be working after too many weeks pushed-up on the mud. An idle boat + oilfield slowdown = one nervous crew.

It’s hardly worth mentioning – but I’m going to anyhow (send the cheese care of my wife) – that with the new job came the promise of my third-in-a-row late crew change.

My first hitch I voluntarily worked-over for another captain and the customer then held us over in the field. I can live with that … weather, customer whims, emergencies – these things make our crew change dates and times a rough guide rather than an actual schedule.

At the end of my second hitch, we were off-charter and at the dock two hours ahead of the relief crew’s arrival. About 30 minutes before they were due to show up we got a call from the office informing us that one guy wasn’t going to make it, but a fill-in was on a plane, and we could expect them in “a couple of hours.”

Mmmmm … not so much. Twelve hours later I was actually, finally, on my way home, by that time going on 24 hours since I last slept.

This time we knew a good 30 hours in advance of our departure from the dock that we would not be back in time for our scheduled crew change. That, in fact, we would miss it by at least several days.

“If you need to get someone down here early, you’d better call your office now,” the company man said. I concurred, and listed the reasons, including the fact that the deckhand who has been on the boat 70-something days at this point had a ticketed international flight the day after we were scheduled to be home.

Anyway, I went to bed thinking it would be resolved through the chain-of-command. Didn’t happen.

I spent, literally, many hours scheduling everything I needed to do in my “off” time so that it did not interfere with the boat’s schedule. 

Two surgeries, two endorsements for my license upgrade and a week-long vacation with the family.

The procedures have been rescheduled, the vacay reservations amended.

And now I’ll have to take extra time off of work to make all this happen, and the company will have to find someone to fill-in for me. I am assured by my crew coordinator it won’t be a problem, but it’s still less than ideal for everyone.

There is no guarantee our crew coordinator could have found fill-ins on 24-hour notice, but he sure would have tried. 

The bottom line is that this little delay is costing the family thousands of dollars. Possibly as much as $6,504, depending on when I get back to the boat. (The $4 was the change fee for my plane ticket home.)

Waaaa, right?

But hey, we’re working. And that’s a good thing. It’s about to be an uncomfortable good thing – a norther blew through at 0552 with 40+ kts of wind. Seas are forecast to build to 10-12 with the occasional 16-footer thrown in for good measure. 

The entire fleet is running before the weather now.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Diversity in the Workplace

A workboat is a pretty self-contained and limiting environment. While the boat itself may touch down in three different states (or, alternatively, sit in one place) over the course of a month, the crew members typically don't leave the vessel.

Pink-spotted hawk moth, Agrius cingulatus.
Sometimes we have to to hike across a cement or gravel logistics yard to deliver paperwork to a dispatcher. But that's about it.

And for someone like me -- someone who has always been curious about the world around him -- that is sometimes a hard way to live.

My paternal grandfather was an enthusiastic taxonomist and amateur naturalist: plants, fungi, rocks and minerals, artifacts ... he enjoyed searching for, identifying and collecting found treasures.

My favorite activity with my father, as a youngster, was "going to the flats" (the tidal marsh across the street, on the banks of the Intracoastal Waterway) or to Padre Island National Seashore where we could find everything from horned lizards and king snakes to olive and sundial shells to glass fishing floats.

There are some professional taxonomists in the family as well, and they served to heighten my interest in the natural world over the years.

In college, exploring the Trinity River bottomlands when I should have been studying, I was delighted to find beavers on campus, in the heart of one of the nation's largest metropolitan areas.

Black Witch, Ascalapha odorata.
When I lived in deep South Texas I was charmed not just by the austere beauty of the Tamaulipan thorn forest and the vast Laguna Madre, but also by the rich procession of tropical species, many of which are found nowhere else in the United States.

I was so enthralled with the flora and fauna of South Texas that I enrolled in a program sponsored by Texas A&M University and the Corpus Christi Convention and Visitors Bureau and became one of the early certified wildlife guides in the area.

On the boat we spend a lot of time in South Louisiana, which is an interesting landscape, but aside from resident bald eagles and black bear crossing signs on the highway doesn't offer many s)urprises. That is to say, it's not so different from where I grew up: the same Gulf of Mexico, the same spartina and black mangrove marsh, largely familiar and predictable shorebirds and marine life ....

Banded sphinx moth, Eumorpha fasciatus
Being stuck on a boat for 28 days does offer two advantages, though: the first is a couple of 1,000-watt halogen work lights illuminating our deck.

The second is that for 27 nights in a row I have nowhere else to go and nothing else to look at, other than what those lights attract.

And what they attract are moths. Sometimes hundreds, sometimes dozens, sometimes just a handful, but every night it is not pouring rain, there are moths on the deck.

Often there are scores of tiny moths, "micromoths," that are probably intricately patterned or delicately formed, but are too much of a chore to identify with my 45-year-old eyes.
Tersa sphinx, Xylophenes tersa

Sometimes, maybe once a week or so, there are macromoths -- hummingbird- or even sparrow-sized insects that are intricately and beautifully patterned.

Until recently I hadn't thought much about moths. I was familiar of course with a couple of the large and obvious hawk moths from home, and I certainly paid attention to the occassional saturnids -- luna moths and imperial moths -- that came to a porch light.

But I always sort of assumed that butterflies, the daytime showboats of the order lepidoptera, where more interesting and glamorous than moths.

I've recently learned, though, that of the roughly 175,000 species of butterflies and moths, the former account for only about 18,000. All the rest are moths.

And while plenty are drab or vaguely patterned (the mostly nocturnal moths typically find their mates through pheremones rather than color and pattern, as do the diurnal butterflies), many sport incredibly beautiful colors and patterns, particularly on their often-hidden hind wings.

Ello Sphinx, Erinnyis ello
There are two fun groups on Facebook that I turn to for entertainment and education; the first is a group of working mariners and ship spotters called "Supply Boat History."

The second is a collection of amateur and professional lepidopterists called "Mothing and Moth-Watching." Both have active members from around the world.

Who knew?

The moth-watchers have been particularly helpful and encouraging, mostly confirming IDs (Mississippi State University has a terrific resource in their Moth Photographers Group site).

One morning a week or so ago, I was excited to post some photos of a new-to-me moth that I had proudly identified as a rare-ish Louisiana endemic.

Louisiana eyed silk moth, Automeris louisiana
A couple of hours later, the fellow who first described the insect back in 1981 was commenting on the photo. How cool is that?

Out here in the oil patch, it's mostly (though not exclusively) white men working on boats. And our view of the natural world, while sometimes stunning (especially at dawn and dusk), is necessarily circumscribed.

With that in mind, I can view the moths only as a gift, renewed every night under the aft deck worklights.