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.
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.
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.