Wednesday, March 25, 2015

One down, one to go ...

Halfway through the hitch from hell and I am really, really looking forward to getting home.

Except that I won't get all the way home until just before I come back. A long weekend with the family at the folks', then back to Louisiana for more training.

These short hitches are nice, but this one already feels three weeks old. It's been one thing after another since just before crew change.

Some of it stuff I don't want to write about in detail here, now, though I do subscribe to Ann Lamott's dictum that: "You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better."

Stuff I will mention: downflooding, bilge pumps not pumping, electrical malfunctions, bad starters and 32 hours straight on DP ("...that ain't nuthin' ..." some of my buddies on big mud boats say).

The customer has finally released us from the site for the morning, and we've taken care of the other issues over the past week with no recorded downtime, and some things we didn't even know were broken are now fixed.

We fixed some stuff we did know was broken, too. Stuff that's been broken for months. And by "we," I actually mean someone else, but it happened on my watch. And I spoke words of encouragement, nodded my head sagely and affirmed good decisions.

Yay team!

And there's only a week more to go.

On the other hand ... I've spent more time than I would like this past week playing armchair psychologist, trying to understand a couple of things that cropped-up.

I'm no doctor, and  I have never even played one on TV, still ... I'm fairly certain that in the past ... oh, let's say 10 days -- I've had to devote some time to dealing with one individual who suffers from untreated schizophrenia, or a schizophrenic disorder, and another individual who almost certainly suffers from narcissistic personality disorder.

Either one of these is a terrible burden to bear, and I'm sympathetic (particularly to the former), but unless the affected individual is a family member or close friend, I'm not very inclined to stand in the line of fire.

Let me be clear: we don't worry overmuch about strange out here; we're all a little "different," or we wouldn't be on boats. When oddness becomes physically violent, or in some way a career impediment to someone else, then it's time to perhaps change the situation. Just sayin' ....

On the other, other hand (I have three) -- I'm sailing this hitch with a couple of guys I really like and respect, so that kind of blunts the drama trauma.

Talking to someone about all this the other day, she said: "Well, I guess it's not so different than an office environment ... you get all kinds ..."

True. But at least in a shore-based job you get to go home at the end of the day.

In other news, I just finished a great novel, Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel (on sale now for Kindle at $2.99). Even if you're not into post-apocalyptic, dystopian worlds, you'll probably still like this book. It even manages to poke some good-natured fun at behavioral psychologist business consultants. Which is what my sweet wife is in her professional life.

And J.J. Grey's new album, Ol' Glory, is out -- bluesy southern soul that's just about perfect listening overnight on a boat in the oil patch in the spring of 2015.

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 ....