Sunday, March 6, 2016

And for all this, nature is never spent

Being both a native Texan and a lover of wild things is probably something akin to a gentle version of multiple personality disorder.

Texas is grand, and by that mostly I mean large. More than a quarter million square miles of forests (pine trees cover an area the size of New England), deserts (the Chihuahuan Desert is, according to the World Wildlife Fund, the most biologically diverse in the world), mountains (more than 90 over a mile high) and beaches (367 miles of them), plains, rivers, and lakes (more than 5,600 square miles of inland water, first in the lower 48).

Our beaches are not the whitest, our mountains are not the highest, and our rivers are not the most awe-inspiring ... I like to say we have a little of everything, but we don't have the best of anything.

Texas also leads the nation in crude oil and natural gas production (as well as wind energy) and refines about one-third of all the petroleum used in the country.

More than 80 percent of the land in Texas is in agricultural production, and the state leads the nation in cattle, horses, cotton, hay, sheep, goats and mohair. Mohair!

Six of the 20 largest U.S. cities (and three of the top 10) are in Texas. But there are still vast, unpeopled stretches.

In fact, the human population of the entire world could fit inside of Texas with almost exactly the same population density as New York City (scale-up Central Park, while you're at it).

All that to say, again, that Texas is big. And diverse. And well-used -- often hard-used. And despite that, wildness abounds in the most unlikely places.

Standing on the bridge deck of a tugboat smack in the middle of the Houston Ship Channel last week, I was reminded, yet again, of the words of the Victorian poet and Jesuit priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins. In God's Grandeur, he writes:

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

It's true. Thrill to the peregrine falcon, stooping on a dove above a grain dock. 

See the hooded merganser happily fishing the banks of the country's busiest commercial waterway. 

Allow your heart to leap with the bottlenose dolphins hitching a ride on a boat's bow pressure wave.

All of this, in spite of our disregard, and even abuse. Nature just keeps on naturing.

*Hooded merganser and peregrine falcon photos by Aaron Gralnik, used with permission.

Saturday, March 5, 2016


"Tore up" is idiomatic in certain parts of this United States for "wasted, drunk" or "messed-up" ... in short, "not right."

"TOAR" is an acronym for Towing Officer Assessment Record. By conflating the two, I hope you get a sense of how I feel about the latter.

TOARs are completed on real, live tugs (or, in part, on approved simulators) by candidates for mate or master of towing under the eagle eyes of Designated Examiners, or DEs.

DEs are experienced masters of towing with an additional Coast Guard endorsement that allows them to assess applicants for towing licenses on the Coast Guard's behalf.

In a nutshell, and probably glossing over some arcana in the parallel universe that is the Coast Guard's licensing scheme, there are two routes to a towing endorsement. One involves an apprentice steersman course and some ridiculous number of days working strictly on towing vessels.

The other involves a license of 500 GRT or higher, a minimum of 30 days training and observation on the appropriate route, and the TOAR.

It is generally considered the most direct route to Master or Mate of Towing, and the people who pursue that route are sometimes derisively callled "30-day Wonders."

But, "direct" is of course relative.

There are a number of ways to complete a TOAR. The time-honored, and probably most common, method is to start on deck as an OS or AB (with or without a deck officer's license) and spend most of one's off-watch hours in the wheelhouse with an amenable master or seasoned mate.

Some maritime academies offer cadets the opportunity to complete a TOAR before they graduate (they usually still have to do the 30 days of training and observation).

I've heard rumors of an outfit in Florida that promises a completed TOAR in a week, which sounds a lot like pencil-whipping to me.

And at least one company offers training and assessments on a real tug and barge on the Hudson River -- reportedly the real deal -- for a price.

A few of the (mostly larger) tug companies periodically post a handful of positions earmarked for "Mate-Training and Observation." These positions are meant to be filled by folks with the appropriate deck license but minus the TOAR and required 30 days of training and observation.

I was lucky enough to be selected for one of those; in other words, I get paid to train and am "the extra man" on the boat.

I was told during new hire orientation that I should expect the TOAR to take 3-6 months (no 30-day wonders here). With 40-something of my 77 assessments signed-off at the 11-week mark,

I'm hoping to finish in five months. But it will be a close thing. (*Update: I'm hoping to finish before I'm eligible for retirement.)

Partly because it's a lot to learn -- not just the towing part, but also a new propulsion system for me (z-drives) and the intricacies of "shipwork."

Also because the  master of the vessel I'm assigned to, my DE, is .... well, let's say he's thorough and has very high standards.

In the end, that's okay with me, because he is an excellent boat handler and really knows his stuff. He wants me to be an excellent boat handler and to really know my stuff. I can live with that.

A couple of quirky things about the TOAR: there's one for Great Lakes and Inland Waters (that's the one I'm completing), one for Near Coastal/Ocean routes, and one for Western Rivers.

There are common elements to all three, so to add a route requires only 30 more days on that route plus the assessments one has not already completed.

Some of the common elements are head-scratchers, like: plot a position on a chart, or use a VHF radio, or conduct a fire drill (all things anyone with the appropriate licenses already should be very familiar with).

Also, the towing portion is all about barges. And the towing I'm learning to do is all about ships.

Unless I change companies, I will likely never get close to a barge that is not an ocean-going unit connected to a really big tug, or a stationary bunkering barge I'm receiving fuel from.

Because the Coast Guard requires it, we do the barge part just for the TOAR.

And because the company I work for has learned a thing or two over the last 80-something years, there's a completely separate assessment for each class of boats we operate, one that covers things like demonstrating a powered indirect or transverse arrest or keeping the tug on a 90-degree angle while a ship is making sternway or headway.

It's a slog. I keep reminding myself there's cheese at the end.


So ... I started writing this post more than a month ago. In the time since then, I completed every bit of my TOAR I could on a z-drive boat (the actual towing, by local custom, must be done on a conventional boat).

I spent two hitches on a flanking rudder, twin-screw boat (with a master who is not a DE but a great trainer), and now I'm on a twin-screw tug -- actually the largest boat of any type in our fleet -- with the most experienced DE at our company.

I've gotten a few more assessments signed-off -- according to our crew coordinator, I was at "76.3 percent complete" before the most recent update. It's still a slog.

The Marine Corps, at the end of basic training, put recruits through a 54-hour field exercise (sleep deprivation is a key feature) called "The Crucible."

Make it through that, I hear, and you've earned the right to call yourself a Marine.

I kind of feel like that's where I am now. In the crucible.

And it's weird, and humbling, because I already earned "Captain," and that was it's own slog. I've managed vessels and trained crews and been responsible for tens of millions of dollars of equipment and dozens of lives.

Now I just want the title "Mate (of Towing)."

Not even for the extra $100 a day, really. Just stop cussing me, give me my own room and let me catch more than five hours of sleep every 24. That would make me happy.