Friday, March 20, 2015

'Pre-loading,' Funny Math and Other Stuff

We are bobbing around just offshore of Dauphin Island right now, on safety standby as the liftboat we are working with pre-loads.

There is a really detailed explanation of pre-loading (and some other interesting liftboat stuff) here, but basically it means that the ballasted liftboat is very slowly and carefully making the transition from vessel afloat to work platform.

Meanwhile, we drift with engines idling. The wind is out of the southwest at about 8 knots, the current is headed southeast at about 3 knots, and we're hanging between the two, slipping gently astern at about one-third of a knot.

Every hour or so I put the mains in gear for a couple of minutes and point us back toward the liftboat.

Last hitch we spent the last 10 days or so transferring cargo and pumping water. By the time we got back to the dock for crew change we were so light I felt like I was back on a crewboat when I looked over the bulwarks. Our laden freeboad of about two feet was suddenly about six feet.

Back home we had a nice mix of warm, sunny days and cool nights. I got the lawn mowed, we celebrated the teen son's 16th with family, we had company, and then had company again. In the second round the daddies took the youngsters down to the river while the ladies got pedicures. Followed by a double-date for German food and lounge time.

All in all, it was  a pretty satisfying two weeks off work.

My wife sent along a link to a news story yesterday: 5 reasons why you shouldn't work too hard. It got me thinking about my job, and I did a little math: on this new, and hopefully not temporary, schedule working 180 days/year, I end up working 2,160 hours/year.

That's equivalent to a full year's worth of 40-hour weeks plus two more. And I spend a minimum of another two weeks commuting or training.

So, 56 weeks of work every 12 months.

That's a lot better than a 240-day schedule (28 days on, 14 days off or 14/7), which totals 2,880 hours per year, or equivalent to 72 weeks of 9-to-5 labor.

In the context of the Washington Post article linked above, I wondered for a moment if I work "too hard."

Probably not.

A 12-hour watch in bad weather or with continuous cargo operations or a difficult approach in zero visibility is as draining as any physical labor I've every done, especially when there is only broken sleep between watches.

Shipyard is pretty hard. But other times -- tonight for instance -- those 12 hours are mostly just tedious. I'm more likely to die of boredom than heat stroke or mental stress.

On the other hand, and to the point of that article, when I am off I am really off. There are no emails to check or answer, no teleconferences, no quick trips back to the office for a can't-miss meeting or last-minute report.

Talking to a friend, another captain, about this earlier, he said: "So, have you broken that down to an hourly rate?"

No. No I haven't. I decided not to do a little more math at that point, because I figured the answer would depress me.

Earlier this morning I came across another maritime blog I had not yet seen -- it was linked on Lela Joy's site. The blogger, who lives on the West Coast, is about my age and, like me, made a dramatic career change a couple of years ago.

One of his posts, from February of last year, is called "Maritime Reality," and in it he touches on some of the same topics.

I guess some facets of this career are pretty universal, no matter which coast you're on or segment of the industry you work in.

Anyway, it's a great blog: Back to Sea With Me -- definitely worth a look. In his latest post, the writer mentions that his application for mate is being evaluated and wonders how long that might take.

I was pretty pleased with the turnaround time on my raise-in-grade application over the holidays: about a month from submission to my approval to test. Only, my evaluator missed a couple of important (to me, anyway) items on the application.

Some were fixed with an email and a phone call. One, though, was not. I think I've written before that I applied for both master and mate and hoped to test for both the same week.

My evaluator could not at first understand why I would want to do that ("But Master is the higher license!" she said.) and then told me she would have to check with management to see if it was even possible.

My view: Of course it's possible. Maybe not routine, but there is nothing in the CFRs that prohibits it. And if I qualify to test for master, then surely I qualify to test for mate as well.

Actually, I didn't come up with this all by myself. The fellow who writes merchant mariner credential policy for the Coast Guard heartily recommended it in a public forum -- both for efficiency, and to take advantage of the shrinking window of opportunity to be grandfathered under the rules pre-STCW 2010 implementation.

The efficiency part is that while master and mate exams involve some different modules, much of the material is the same or very similar. And while the exam for Master 500 GRT Oceans will get me to Master 1600 GRT Oceans and Master 500-3000 GT without further testing, the Mate exam will carry me all the way through 2nd Mate all gross tons.

Anyway, it's been six weeks since I sent in my letter requesting reconsideration of that decision and still no answer. I checked back earlier in the week and I received an emailed apology and assurances that I would have an answer on where my answer is and when I might expect it.

If my request is denied, the next step is an appeal, and that goes to the same guy who suggested we do this to begin with.

Meanwhile .... the clock is ticking, and I really should be studying. Harder. Or ... at all.

I've had time to reconsider my strategy, and to weigh whether I want to take a terrestrial navigation and review course and ask the Coast Guard to amend my application to Near Coastal, or if I want to take that course immediately followed by an approved celestial navigation course and ask the Coast Guard to amend my application to accept the course in lieu of testing at the Regional Exam Center.

I'm now leaning towards the former, because I'll test sooner and get the credential I need this year and I can always increase the scope later. Plus, a couple of my captain friends may be able to take the same course at the same time. Which would make things cheaper, if we could share accommodations. It would definitely make it more fun.

Either way, nowhere in my plans is the notion that I'm going to walk into the REC and take the celestial navigation exam cold.

Figuring this stuff out is some sort of analogue to the time-speed-distance formulae we use in plotting. Only this is a time-expense-opportunity formula.

The opportunity part is important, because the oil patch slowdown is now in full effect, with several hundred boats cold-stacked. Things are tight, and I'm happy my boat is working. Even if this particular watch this particular morning is a little bit tedious.

Hey, I just noticed: 17 seagulls on the starboard beam. Why 17, and not 16, or 18, or three or 30? The mystery ....


  1. Great strategy taking master and mate. I'm going to ask for n.c. One of our relief chief mates teaches terrestrial / celestial at PMI and advised this route. Once the n.c. is in hand, take the celestial course, then there will only be a 20 question theory exam at the CG vs. a full module if you take it at the same time as your n.c.

    Hopefully, I described this properly. Either way, good luck, crack the books and keep the updates coming.

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  3. Thanks Todd. Glad I'm not the only one who thinks so ... and yeah, that's pretty much the same information I got. We'll see how it works out!