Thursday, December 22, 2016

You Don't Have to be a Rock Star to Work on a Tug (But it Doesn't Hurt)

Commercial mariners are an interesting lot. We are, to my mind, skilled tradesmen who straddle the line between the knowledge economy and physical labor.

Some of us went to college to do this job, and others served apprenticeships.

We have much in common with each other, whether we are fishermen, deep sea folks, towboaters, tugboat drivers, or we work in the oilfield; navigation, basic seamanship, boat handling, vessel maintenance, endless paperwork -- we all perform some of the same tasks sailors have performed for hundreds, even thousands of years.

Outside of work, our interests and hobbies are surprisingly diverse.

I've met motorcycle enthusiasts, carpenters and woodworkers, gamers, golfers, ceramic artists, model ship builders, writers and photographers, lots of fishermen and a whole bunch of guys who live in anticipation of various hunting seasons.

We have, among us, some pretty damned fine musicians. A few bring their guitars or mandolins or ukes to work.

I've recently started tying flies, both at home and in quiet off-watch hours on the boat. It's demanding, creative, meditative work that maybe isn't a whole lot different than painting, sculpting, or, say, hand-loading rifle rounds.

Our schedules on tugs -- compressing 54 standard, full-time work weeks into just 183 days each year -- allow time for cottage industries, part-time jobs and a fair amount of entrepreneurship when we are home.

I work with men and women who were, in earlier careers, soldiers, teachers, truckers, marine biologists and factory workers.

But so far as I know, there was only one tugboater who was a bona fide rock star. And only one who held a Ph.D. in medieval literature.

And it was the same guy.

Tugboating Playlist

One of the things my watchstanding partner and I do to entertain ourselves on transits to and from jobs is attempt to find an appropriate song for the vessel we are sailing or docking. It amuses us, and sometimes when we play our selection over the PA, it amuses the guys on the ship.

The Buster Bouchard ATB might get this bluesy number. Or this silly ditty.

The bulker Daydream Believer is pretty easy, and a ship with a Panamanian crew (rather than just the flag) might be treated to some RubĂ©n Blades.

We have a wide-ranging selection of sea shanties, folk, rock and reggae in the playlist. Even some tugboat songs. From Theodore's theme song, to this funky Chucklehead bit, to this one -- which I also used as a soundtrack for a slide show I shared with the family.

One of our mates in Houston saw the slideshow, and commented how much he liked the song, and oh, by the way, did I know it was a tribute to one of the founding members of the Velvet Underground?

A guy who worked for my company in the 1970s and 1980s?

I figured he was pulling my leg, but just in case and because my mind is restless, I did a little internet sleuthing.

A book-toting, tugboating guitar hero

Sterling Morrison, co-founder (along with Lou Reed and John Cale) of the Velvet Underground, left the band in the early 1970s in Austin, where he had been accepted into a graduate program at the University of Texas.

His friend and patron Andy Warhol (yes, that Andy Warhol) told him to go for it -- it would be good for him.

At UT he secured a teaching assistantship to make ends meet, drank a lot of Shiner beer and gigged with some local bands, including The Bizaros. Summers he deckhanded on harbor tugs in Houston.

By 1986, Morrison had his doctorate, and his master's license, and was a full-time tugboat captain.

"We didn't know he was in that band for the longest time," one current employee who worked with him told me. "He didn't really like to talk about it. But I'll tell you this, he was the smartest guy I ever met out here."

One story I've heard, perhaps apocryphal, is that during a round of tough contract negotiations when the company claimed it did not have money for raises, Morrison went dumpster diving at the office and found balance sheets that showed otherwise.

"He enjoyed it," his wife Martha told one interviewer. "I know he liked the friendship, the guys, fishing off the fantail. They worked awfully hard."

Morrison would return to music, and his Velvet Underground bandmates, sitting-in with Lou Reed and touring with drummer Maureen Tucker's band. In 1993, the VU reunited for a triumphal European tour with U2.

Shortly after their return, Morrison was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He died at home in New York on August 30, 1995.

Velvet Underground co-founder Lou Reed, writing in the New York Times, had this to say about his friend and former bandmate:

“In these moments that only an artist can capture, I saw my friend Sterling: Sterl, the great guitar-playing, tug-boat-captaining, Ph.D.-ing professor, raconteur supreme, argumentative, funny, brilliant; Sterl as the architect of this monumental effort, possessor of astonishing bravery and dignity. The warrior heart of the Velvet Underground.”

I work with some really interesting people and learn something new from them nearly every week I'm on the boat, but so far as I know I haven't encountered anyone quite like Sterling Morrison


Friday, September 16, 2016

Well, dude, sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you.

Busy, busy week at the Home for Wayward Mariners South Texas Regional Office Afloat.

We have nine tugs in our port, one of which is a "break glass in case of emergency" pull-out boat. One is in drydock for a scheduled shipyard period. And one was down for maintenance this past week. All week.

That left six of us to cover the port and it was crazy busy. We ended the week with 42 hours of "premium time," the hours between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. when we get a little extra cash for having our beauty rest interrupted.

Looking in the mirror, I think maybe they should pay us more. Or let us sleep.

By crew change day, we were pretty worn-out. So were the pilots.

Two days after driving home, I'm still on my boat watch schedule; my family is not.

Highs and lows of the week included:

High notes:
  • We were busy
  • I got signed-off on my current class of boats
  • The crew had some really good discussion around our monthly safety packet
  • Cloud cover and intermittent rain kept the temperatures down.
Low notes:
  • We were busy
  • I broke someone else's mooring line when tying up alongside two other boats
  • Rain and the high operations tempo kept deck maintenance to a minimum
And that's as far as I got before we packed-up the family for some Labor Day fun on the coast.

The next week on the boat, though -- the one just finished -- was pretty much more of the same, so I'm going to just keep writing.

Except ... zero hours of premium time the first four days and 25 hours the last three days. Seven (!) trips across the bay (in a normal week, we make that trip once, maybe twice). And another incident report.

Let's talk about that last thing.

An "incident" is anything from a deckhand's sprained ankle to a stack fire to the sinking of the vessel. Most incidents require the completion of a company incident form; some -- the most serious -- also require the completion of a CG 2692.

From a risk management perspective, incident reporting is incredibly important. It allows the people at the company who are paid to think about these things to identify trends and to figure out ways to mitigate risk.

Incidents also serve as "lessons learned" that can be shared across the fleet. We're supposed to report "near misses" for the same reason. Given the monthly tally of each, I suspect that most near misses in fact go unreported, whether from embarrassment or from fear of consequences.

"No harm, no foul," is another way to describe that attitude.

To be fair, there is a time and energy penalty involved with reporting near misses. To sit in front of a computer and prepare a useful report is to take time away from operating the vessel, inventorying supplies, performing maintenance, conducting drills, correcting charts and publications, eating, sleeping, or any of a number of other things deck officers do to pass the time.

Last week's incident was very nearly a near miss. Which isn't saying anything, really, since all incidents are just a few seconds or few inches the other side of near misses.

In this particular instance, what should have been a relatively routine sailing was marred by a lack of communication from the pilot, an unexpected ship maneuver, and some non-routine orders.

All of this was compounded by the fact that the ship in question was extremely light, thus exposing what we refer to as a "nasty counter" -- something other than the nice, flat surfaces we prefer to work against.

The end result was that I had an "oh shit!" moment with an extremely high pucker factor and we traded some paint. Not so as anyone on my boat actually noticed we touched ... but, still.

So I had to write an incident report. Another one. Our company incident reports offer a finite number of choices for root cause, and "the pilot was acting like a jerk" is not one of them.

To give an example of how the office would like us to analyze root causes, let's take, for instance, a parted mooring line. It's tempting -- and common -- to list the cause of the incident as "equipment failure."

The office pushes back on that, logically pointing out that the failure of the line is not the cause, but rather the result of: failure to inspect or replace the mooring line, failure to inspect the bitt or bollard, application of too much power, application of power for too long a period, too much slack in the mooring line, etc, etc.

Fair enough, I guess. But, man, it's hard to call yourself out on something like that.

I attributed last week's incident to "judgment" and "inexperience," which hurt, but is probably accurate.

I had very little experience working with this particular pilot and had never sailed a ship from that dock; there are things I could have done to better anticipate what came next and to better protect the boat. I know what those things are, now.

As my boat-handling skills continue to grow, I expect I also will be able to push the envelope of what is technically feasible, for me, on a given day.

I'm struck again by the difference between this industry (or maybe this company) and the oil patch. Operating a fast supply vessel almost twice as long and three times as fast, I received very little formal, hands-on training or ongoing coaching. At least, after that first boat.

In my current job, even though I graduated from Mate-Training and Observation several months ago, the training continues and I receive regular coaching from a master who doesn't mind being awakened to look at a situation and offer advice.

It's a comfort, I tell you.

So much is going "right" in my work. My boss now routinely sleeps through jobs and the rest of the crew appears reasonably confident I'm not going to inadvertently kill them. My confidence is growing and I'm actually enjoying the technical challenges of some of the more difficult jobs.

I eat the bear most days.

But sometimes the bear bites back. Which may also be an opportunity -- not one I would seek, but one that may be to my advantage in the long term.

Something else I suspect but have not confirmed is that it's probably better to have a minor incident or two in the file than none.

The folks in the office want to know that we'll report mishaps, and they want to know that we can accept responsibility when we screw-up, and they're interested in whether we can do so in clear, adequately descriptive language.

So, I'm going to consider that box checked and endeavor to not check it again any time soon.

*The post's title was uttered by The Stranger in The Big Lebowski

Sunday, July 24, 2016

In Praise of Good Deckhands

Sitting across from the human resources guy at my first crewboat job, I was shocked to hear him say: “Deckhands are a dime a dozen. That’s a McDonald’s job. We can always find more deckhands.”

More than half a decade later, having worked with dozens of deckhands at several different companies, I’m even more certain that assessment was incorrect – plain wrong, even more than it was offensive to someone who busts his or her butt on the deck or in the engine room of a workboat.

It is true that “deckhand” is usually an entry-level position; that is, someone with no maritime experience starts his or her career as an ordinary seaman or a wiper (if a deck-engine utility).

Minimum qualifications are pretty much limited to being able to pass a physical and drug test and a willingness to do hard, often dirty, work.

A willing, green deckhand initially is a lot of work for the rest of the crew. He or she has to be shown how to do nearly everything. You worry a bit, about the new person getting hurt.

But most professional mariners see training these folks – often young people just beginning their careers – as an investment in the future that pretty quickly pays dividends in the present.

Conversely, a recalcitrant deckhand (riffing on the name of a popular local beer) is a drain on the entire boat, and may in fact endanger other crew members' lives or an officer’s license. I’ve written about that here, and here and probably a few other places.

What I haven’t written about lately – because I’m a perennial early optimist, and sometimes proven wrong and I wanted to be sure this time around – is how terrific it is to work with a cheerful and competent deckhand.

Not every deckhand I’ve worked with at my new (last) employer is pure gold, but a theme seems to be emerging.

There was the career AB (Able Seafarer, or Able-Bodied Seaman) on my first boat here; he patiently taught me to splice square plait, a skill I routinely, silently thank him for.

And then there’s the DEU on my current boat. He’s a product of Piney Point, and he is knowledgeable, both quick and careful, and a cheerful, accommodating shipmate. 

In terms some of my veteran buddies might understand, I’m the green El-Tee to his seasoned NCO. Technically I'm in charge, but it pays to listen to him.

The amazing thing is he’s really an engine room guy and only moonlights (often literally) on deck. We’ll lose his services on deck at some point as he moves up to assistant engineer.

I keep asking him: “Are you sure you don’t want to pursue a deck license?”

Anyway, about five times this last hitch (and the one before, and the one before that) I thought to myself: “Dang, life sure is easier with _________ on deck.”

So I thought maybe I should write that and let good deckhands everywhere – whether you’re a career AB or climbing the hawsepipe -- know that, for this tugboat mate anyhow, you are most definitely not a dime a dozen; your skill and experience are very much appreciated; and we quite literally couldn’t do the job without you.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

And I *Still* Can't Complain ....

Hitch number two is in the books and the boss tells me we'll be a 24-hour boat when I come back to work.

Getting signed-off on the class of boats I'm now working on will be a matter of months, not weeks, but apparently the master feels comfortable enough with me on the wheel to stay in his stateroom for all but the really unusual jobs.

That's good.

But let me back-up. I think I mentioned in a previous post that I finally completed my Towing Officer Assessment Record (TOAR) in Houston, and then promptly (shockingly, happily) landed a coveted transfer to Corpus Christi.

All that before the stars aligned and a port captain was available to "bless" my TOAR.

While the Coast Guard doesn't require that extra step, my company does. I'm told it can take the form of anything from a few tricky questions across the galley table to a full-on repeat of the towing portion of the TOAR.

In the Houston area, lately, it seems it has mostly been the former, probably due to the sheer number of tugs there.

In Corpus, in my case, the port captain rode along on a docking job and observed while quizzing me on everything from the arcana of our electronics to the rules of the road to what I consider the most important lessons I've learned from designated examiners over the past eight months.

I was a little, uh, nervous.

(An aside, for my oil patch buddies: in the OSV and crewboat world, port "captains" often are jumped-up office folks. At this company, they are actual veteran tug masters with current licenses who have gone ashore and actually write the evaluations of the masters of the vessels they are responsible for.)

Preparations for getting underway went well. I met an inbound tanker out in the bay and didn't go aground.

I came alongside smooth as silk at 10.4 kts, got the headlines up and managed to do an okay job of answering all the pilot's commands during the turn and docking.

That part probably saved the day, because I totally botched my landing, as witnessed by the crews of at least three other boats. And of course my master and the port captain, who both were standing over my shoulder.

Okay, not "totally." No one got hurt and nothing was broken, but I made my approach (landing alongside another tug on our dock) a bit too shallow and hung my stern on the other boat's quarter and got a little stuck about half a boat length from my destination.

It would have been funny if I'd been watching someone else from another boat.

A couple of guys, separately, later told me I simply failed to take into account the prop wash from the z-drive boats pinning a ship on the other side of the channel, and it's happened to everyone one time or another.

I'm pretty sure they were just trying to make me feel better. And I appreciated it.

Anyhow, I did enough right that the port captain gave me his blessing and said I could stand my own watch as soon as the master was comfortable.

Which, apparently, is this week coming up.

During the last hitch, as a 12+ hour boat, I got to do a wide range of jobs and started to learn some of the quirks of our 17 pilots.

Some ports, especially on the East Coast, have one pilot for crossing the bar and entering the port and another for docking the vessel. Here, as in Houston and Galveston, each pilot does both.

I was reminded last week of what I already knew: as is the case with tugboat drivers, pilots also have diverse skill levels and personalities.

Sometimes they ask us to do some funny stuff. Like put up a line center lead aft, over the transom, on a conventional boat. Which is actually kind of cool.

During the last hitch I also began to feel the weight of what it means to be a permanently assigned mate on a boat -- as opposed to a Mate-Training and Observation, who has the luxury of saying: "Oh hey, I don't mind doing chart corrections this week," or "Want me to write a couple of the drills this month?"

As mate, I'm responsible (to the master -- the master is of course responsible overall and to the company and the Coast Guard) for a pretty robust schedule of paperwork -- chart and publication corrections and updates, drills, inventories of medical supplies and stores, radio and visitor logs, new crew member orientations ... the list goes on.

I'm also responsible, as tradition dictates, for inspecting and splicing lines and the inspection and maintenance of life-saving and damage control equipment, -- which includes everything from making sure the life rings are properly and legibly stenciled to exercising the fire pump to chipping and painting fixtures to keeping up with expiration dates on extinguishers, life rafts and EPIRBs.

Oh, and I have to answer the phone and drive the boat half the day.

I'm not saying it's onerous, or that the work isn't enjoyable (at least in part) -- it is, after all, what I signed-up for -- but it's real, with real consequences. It's also a really nice mix of knowledge work and hands-on physical labor that makes this a pretty perfect job for me.

Anyway, let's just say I take a lot of notes and make a lot of lists. I'm sure it will get easier with time.

On a personal level, and as a quality-of-life issue, the new port and schedule are pretty much everything I had hoped.

When I head south tomorrow, I'll be taking the boys and the brown dog with me for a week-long stay at the grandparents while my wife heads up to Fort Worth for a four-day client engagement. The littles will be able to come down to the public dock and watch me work or just say hi if they get homesick.

This last hitch, at 7:30 in the morning on the day I got off, I had breakfast in Rockport with a high school classmate and dear friend who now lives in the Pacific Northwest (but was home visiting family), caught up on life and fishing with another old buddy in Aransas Pass, hung out with the folks and my nephew (and caught a quick nap) in Portland and still made it home in time for dinner.

My brother, who also works on the water in the same port, delivered burgers to the boat on day six last week. I get to see him, at least briefly, almost every day our schedules coincide.

Things are still pretty, pretty, pretty good.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Old Home Week

In the hall of my company's Corpus Christi office there is a photo of the USS City of Corpus Christi, which made her first port visit to her namesake in 1986.

I skipped school with a friend that day to tour the Los Angeles-class attack sub.

I sailed a ship last week from the same cargo dock at which I visited my grandfather aboard his Lykes Lines freighter in the 1970s, and across the channel from the company dock I can see the Coast Guard station that was home to the USCG Reliance, first of her class, from 1964-1975.

My father was a crew member from '66 to '68.

Other connections abound -- from captains who graduated from high school with aunts and uncles to memories of standing on the breakwater to welcome the replica Columbus fleet -- I steam past that same spot to meet inbound ships now.

The very sky and shoreline and shape of the bay are old friends, as are some of the people working on its waters.

If the pace of operations in Houston is frenetic, Corpus is more measured.

Three slow days at the beginning of the hitch morphed into two non-stop days at the end of the week, but in-between there was time to get to know shipmates and others in the fleet.

A live oak shades carpet grass between our office and the dock and mesquite trees overhang a creek teeming with redfish, trout and snook.

The company has thoughtfully placed a lighted fish-cleaning table next to the BBQ pit and picnic area.

The boat is a 96-ft. powerhouse, nearly as old as me.

Her twin locomotive engines put out 3900hp and spin 9-ft. propellers for a bollard pull of 60 tonnes ahead -- not much shy of the company's newest z-drives.

More importantly, she'll slide sideways at least half a knot faster than many of our twin-screw, flanking rudder boats.

A close reading of nearly five years of blogging about working on boats suggests I may be overly optimistic at the beginning of any new chapter, happy to give anyone and anything the benefit of the doubt.

So I'm not saying I've landed in tugboat heaven.

But it sure seems like a possibility after the first week.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Days Like This

"When it's not always raining there'll be days like this. When there's no one complaining there'll be days like this. Everything falls into place, like the flick of a switch, well my mama told me there'll be days like this ...". (Van Morrison, Days Like This)

I got some unexpected good news last week, and it seems like a fine time to stop and take stock. Not just of my career, but also of my life in a larger sense.

First the good news: our office approved a transfer down to Corpus Christi, which is as close to home waters as I can ever get on a harbor tug.

My folks live about 20 minutes from either of our two docks, my brother works in the port and about two-thirds of my rather large and historically very close extended family are just 30 minutes up the road in Rockport (RFHS class of '87, y'all!).

And the schedule is 7/7 -- crew change the same day every week, every other weekend off.

Corpus is a "quieter" port than Houston. With approximately 1,800 ships and 79 million tons of cargo per year, it's about a quarter the size of the nation's second-busiest port but still ranks in the top 10 nationally.

Anyway, folks who work on our boats in Corpus tend to stay there. I thought I was going to have to wait a couple of years before wrangling a transfer south. It feels like a gift, and validates the down-to-the-wire decision not to move to Houston.

A different port, a different class of boats and a different bunch of pilots means starting over on a couple of things, but I'm betting it will come quickly.

My new boss, the master of the tug I've been assigned to, has already called to make sure any questions I have are answered.

That's a first in my six years of sailing commercially.

("When no one steps on your dreams, there'll be days like this ...")

Much to the dismay of most (and no doubt the secret delight of a few!) family members, this does not mean we're moving back "home" to Rockport. But we'll be visiting a lot more often.

The truth is, after moving half a dozen times across the length of the state, the long-suffering spouse and I are really enjoying our life on the edge of the Texas Hill Country. 

There are deer in the front yard, and a river in the back yard (a canoe and kayaks in the garage), and we've begun making friends.

Georgetown is convenient to her several-times-a-month client engagements in Fort Worth or Dallas, close enough to the coast to make a weekly commute manageable, and with two weeks off each month I might actually have time to feed my saltwater addiction.

Significantly, I also have unfinished business in Central Texas with the first-born entering his senior year in high school. He's turning into a fine young man and I want to be around as much as I can before he flies ....

("When all the parts of the puzzle start to look like they'll fit, then I must remember there'll be days like this ...")

Elsewhere on the homefront, the favorite nephew just graduated from high school after an extremely challenging senior year.

I'm guessing a lot of kids would have thrown in the towel, or gone off the rails. He did neither. I'm pretty proud of him.

He has a contract in hand and ships out for Coast Guard basic training in September, where he will carry on a family tradition, is guaranteed his first choice of occupational specialty and will earn enough educational benefits over the next four years to see him through two PhDs debt-free, if that's his desire.

As he begins his last summer break, he's frequently at our house, often with friends. I'm kind of enjoying the sounds of teen-age boys playing video games, noodling on their instruments and engaging in fierce battles of Monopoly.

They may have broken the good brown dog, though, throwing that ball.

The littles are enjoying a vacation in Grammiland. We'll see if we can peel them away next week.

("When you don't need to worry, there'll be days like this. When no one's in a hurry, there'll be days like this ...")

Anyway, all this to say that all is well. Very well, in fact.

And I think it's important to acknowledge that from time to time, especially since too often I blog as therapy -- in lieu of punching somebody in the face or throwing small appliances overboard.

Challenges? We still have some. We're still trying to carve out adequate couple time. We still have some big bills to pay.  We're still not sure how we're going to match the energy of a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old over a long, hot summer.

But I'm hyper-aware I have friends and loved ones dealing with much worse, and I am so grateful, on a day like this, to be where we are as we tackle that stuff.

*cool Harbor Bridge photo by my brother.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Happy Dance in the Wheelhouse

Well, the designated examiner never did show up to the last boat. Five hitches with fill-ins and long days on the mate's watch, and I wondered -- not for the first time -- if I would ever be done.

The good news is that I got to work with some terrific guys, and I got to practice my boat-handling. A lot.

The better news is that this past watch I got shunted over to another boat, one with a DE (and a bunch of other cool guys), and on day three of this past hitch I completed my TOAR. In 20-kt (gusting to 30) winds.

It was nerve-wracking. And exhilarating. And a huge relief when I was done.

My company's policy is that a port captain comes down to the boat and quizzes me -- maybe even observes me work -- before making it all official. That still has to happen. But so long as I'm even halfway on the ball, that part is pretty much pro forma.

Even then, I'm not done. We operate six or seven different classes of boats, and I'll need to get signed-off on at least one, preferably more, before I can start building seniority as a mate. The first one (twin screw flanking rudder, where I've been the past six weeks) should go really fast, and I've already made a good start on the last one (the formal z-drive assessments).

So, there's still a lot to learn. But, now, I am completely confident that I can do it. More importantly, so is my DE, and he's been doing this for 35 years.

Getting my TOAR done, finally, was a great moment. There was an even better one, though, this last hitch.

I caught an inbound tanker, coming alongside on an unfriendly quarter in a narrow channel. It was a one-tug job as it was a smallish ship with a bow thruster.

There also was 20 kts. of wind on the beam, and then the bow thruster took a crap.

For me, that meant a lot of maneuvering, from push to pull at various angles, jockying the ship into position at the dock.

When we were done, the pilot called me on the radio: "That was a really fine job. Thank you. You're very easy to work with, and I hope to see you on the next one."

That. That right there.

After my number one priority of not getting any of my guys hurt, and my number two priority of not banging up my boat, getting the ship to the dock safely and efficiently without unduly worrying the pilot is what it's all about.