I left the boat in a cold rain on the heels of a sad, strange scene in the main deck lounge.
The off-signers were soaked after carrying supplies the length of the vessel, and secretly hoping to be gone before having to do the same with the grocery order still on its way. The routine of quiet consideration and self-abnegation that makes for good shipmates sometimes gets stretched to an equally quiet breaking point, and this was one of those times.
We were anxious to be off the boat, to be on our way to our respective homes, to escape the two minor crises then unfolding.
Crisis one: the vessel’s master explaining that the unlicensed crew would have to go to 14/14 schedules or one of the guys would have to go to another boat in order to reduce our manning from five to four.
Crisis two: the mystery of the displaced hydraulic steering fluid … one guy, the one no one is allowed to gainsay, mistaking the reflection of a gunmetal sky in the deck wells for a sheen and insisting there was a busted hose on deck.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect, again, in all of its sly, smirking glory.
Another guy, the one with an extensive background in pumps and hoses and fluid dynamics, attempting a quiet interjection that all of the fluid was still in the reservoirs and that the mystery instead was that it had shifted from the port tank to the starboard tank.
We had been through this at least once before, but the memory had fled.
I left the boat with a cold that would make the drive home a nine-hour misery and my first three days with the family a blur of broken sleep and over-the-counter remedies.
In retrospect, it was, maybe, a blessing. For the past half year I’ve worked only the midnight-to-noon watch, and the exhaustion of crew change day – 12 hours of watchstanding followed by nine or 10 hours of driving notwithstanding -- getting back on the family schedule is usually a week-long struggle.
I left the boat questioning, yet again, if I’m in the wrong damned business. I have written, from time to time, about how much I love the actual work: the boat-handling, the age-old practice of seamanship, the mentoring of the younger guys, the interaction with the customers, the orderly grind of paperwork – yes, even the paperwork.
I have written, also, perhaps too often, of how heart-achingly lonesome the experience can be; of how keenly I feel the lack of adult conversation and the missing days with my family … the toddler’s firsts, the pre-schooler’s flashes of brilliance, the teen’s wry humor, quiet nights on the patio with the wife.
Here’s my secret fear: I will die on the boat, far from the people I love. Not in some dramatic disaster at sea – I worry more about my drive to and from work than anything that happens on the water – but as a victim of fried pork chops or cigarettes or not enough sleep.
During this last hitch, two near-contemporaries reached the ends of their lives.
One, a few years ahead of me in high school, was generous with his time and advice as I was contemplating a leap into the guide business. He was just getting out, then.
The other I knew not at all, but I attended college with his sweet and smart wife – now, astonishingly, his widow.
Both men were fathers, and I trust – I hope – they had time to teach and inspire and love their children in ways that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
In the quiet hours of my watch, the dark hours before dawn, more and more I find myself thinking that is the only work that really matters.
But of course we live in a world in which it is necessary for man (and woman) to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. That, too, I often reflect as I justify my long absences, is an important lesson for the boys.
This ambivalence about the legendary work-life balance is of course nothing new, and is perhaps near-universal in the western world anyway. The only people I know who have come close to negotiating it satisfactorily are self-employed and even that is no guarantee.
I left the boat two weeks early, in the middle of my regularly scheduled hitch. It was an opportunity that presented itself on the cusp of crew change.
With the price of oil half what it was six months ago, with exploration and production budgets being slashed across the board and day rates and utilization plunging, it’s no surprise that a couple of our boats are stacked.
The crews of those boats have not worked in more than a month. No work means no pay.
Cost-cutting at a boat company seems to go something like this: supply requisitions restricted to absolutely essential items, grocery budgets cut, manning reduced and vessel crew offered the opportunity (eventually mandated) to work even time (two weeks on, two weeks off; a month on, a month off).
That last strategy allows for one stacked boat’s licensed crew to be spread over three working boats, and everyone stays on the payroll, albeit making one-third less. This actually results in a marginal increase in payroll costs for the company: the same man-days, but a slight bump in benefits and travel costs, so it’s generally a good-faith effort to retain staff before taking more drastic measures.
Somewhere in the mix is a moratorium on raises, hiring freezes, pay cuts, and, when all of that isn’t enough, layoffs.
I am fortunate in that even time is a just-affordable option for me. My wife works, and we can make ends meet, most of the time, if I work a reduced schedule.
Some of the other guys … probably not so much. A month without work means the rent or mortgage goes unpaid, someone doesn’t go to the doctor or dentist or a worn pair of brake shoes or school shoes doesn’t get replaced.
So, not least because it was an easy thing for me to do, I was happy to give someone else my last two weeks.
But I left the boat angry. Seething, actually … a slow, steady burn. My efforts the previous hitch to get an evaluation out of the vessel master were rebuffed.
Between hitches, the office informed me I would need evaluations from both the master and the relief master. My two weeks with the relief master, I passed on that information, and he was willing.
But just as he sat down to fill-out the form, it occurred to him that he might ought to touch base with the old man, who is known to be a bit touchy about what he views as the prerogatives of his position (i.e., everything from micromanaging the work schedules of both watches to never working midnight-to-noon to keeping every drawer and locker in his shared stateroom stuffed with his personal items to pencil-whipping every single drill ever submitted to declaring the entire boat a smoking area).
Sure ‘nuff, the old man told the relief master it was not his place to fill out an evaluation for me and forbade him to do it.
Thing is, there was – ostensibly, at least as of a month ago – a pay raise riding on that. And personalities aside, I’m pretty good at my job. The other thing is, it’s his f*cking job – one he should have done a month ago, and one he should not prevent someone else, whose job it also is, from doing.
Of course, none of this was communicated to me directly, because among other things the old man doesn’t do is this: talk to me. I mean, literally, does not talk to me. He passes orders through the deckhands and engineer; he grunts in my direction sometimes, but that’s about the extent of it.
Either the wrong sorts of people routinely (maybe even exclusively) rise to the top in this industry, or I’ve had a run of bad luck, or God is repeatedly giving me the opportunity to learn a lesson I haven’t yet adequately absorbed.
If it's that last thing, and if I had to guess, it probably has something to do with humility.
In truth, the chances of a new guy getting assigned to a boat with a crackerjack master (as opposed to one who got his leadership skills – if not his license -- from a Crackerjack box) are slim. Those positions don’t often come open, because no one wants to leave those boats.
I left my boat, maybe, for the last time.
I said goodbye to her, just in case, and thanked her for keeping us safe through the winter. She’s not a bad old girl, and deserves better than she gets from us much of the time.
Leaving mad was impetus, finally, to ask the office for a change, a transfer to a different boat, when such an opportunity presents itself. As is often the case, my timing probably could have been better. We’ll see, I guess.
I left the boat without letting my wife know I’d be home early. We were on the phone when I jiggled the front door handle, so I got to hear her alarm at a possible intruder in stereo.
When she let me in, I was met with children literally jumping up and down with joy, a happy, licky dog and a spouse who couldn’t stop laughing through her tears.
A minute through the door and I was sitting on the kitchen floor and the 2-year-old was in my arms, head on my chest, murmuring: “DaddyDaddyDaddyDaddy.”
The 4-year-old was draped over my right shoulder and the 70-pound Labrador was attempting to crawl into my lap. My wife was still laughing. And crying.
At my lowest, and my lows are at least as often chemical as situational, I sometimes wonder if I don’t just gum up the works when I’m home, if they don’t prefer me gone.
This early homecoming put that question to rest, and for that, anyhow, I am grateful.