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

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