Sunday, September 28, 2008

Working the dream

The first weekend of fall in New England has arrived along with a hurricane and torrents of rain. The leaves here have just started to peak in red, orange, and yellow explosions everywhere you look. I adore the change of weather this time of year. My weekend was spent in the water attempting to learn how to surf. As I was getting worked over by head high swells thanks to Hurricane Kyle the smell of wood smoke hung in the foggy air, a reminder that soon my wet suit will have to be a lot thicker to manage in the cooling ocean and hopefully learn to get up on the board.

I received an email from the elder of my three younger brothers this week. He's been sailing as an AB on a heavy lift ship for the last two months and is returning from his second trip to Brazil. I couldn't be more pleased to know that he's employed and as he reports working with a good crew. Unfortunately his samba skills didn't stand up with the local guys and along with the cadet any attempts at dancing with las chicas were shot down. At least he had four to six hours a day in a crane cab to contemplate the previous nights social failures while lifting 300 ton locomotives above a deck teeming with stevedores.

It appears that my younger brother, who my mother used to pry half eaten chocolate easter bunnies out of his hands, has been appointed crane operator for the duration of his hitch. This means that he is involved in every heavy lift made on the ship. This honor gets him time and a half while he's on the controls but also bestows nightmares of accidentally compressing people beneath a train engine. According to him;

"Heavy lift ships are the most bad ass things ever to float on water. Just the operation it takes to load and discharge one of these girls is so terrifying I literally have nightmares about some balloon head stevedore getting in the wrong spot and me squishing him like a palmetto bug, Or screwing up and pulling a train into the crane's cab and squishing me. Or total equipment failure and squishing everybody. Mostly just squishing people is what bothers me. Theres just way too many people running around down there for someone not to get squished one day. Any way I'm gonna take a nap."

You can hear his enthusiasm. Unfortunately work related dreams are a common occurrence for people. I had a professor in college who told me he decided to swallow the anchor/give up sailing after repeatedly dreaming of running his ship aground on his watch. Personally I've had that dream numerous times while at work, it goes something like this; you're on watch, it's night and you are staring at the chart. You know the shoals are close but the radar image is confusing. The ship is going fast, too fast, and you want to slow down, anything to avoid the impending disaster, but instantly it's too late and blammo! The ship runs aground just as you wake up regretting that you didn't order the rudder hard over any sooner. Sound familiar?

Usually these dreams stay at work but just the other night I had a dream that my ship went aground in a channel and ruptured a bunker tank. The funny part was the kayaker in the water yelling up at me as I starred horrified from on deck at all the oil gushing into the water. Oddly I spent the prior week in a kayak.

This reminds me of one other dream episode I encountered working with a brand new third mate. I had been on the ship for a hitch all ready but it was this guys first trip. It was a rickety old chemical tanker with a young crew, very indicative about the operating company, and this guy could not go a night without breaking out in a cold sweat and waking up repeatedly from cargo related nightmares. I felt sorry for him knowing how much good sleep meant to our mutual success. The job was stressful though and I'm honest when I say that lashing rock crushers with chain is far preferable to topping up fifteen or twenty tanks of paraxylene as far as the dreams are concerned.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

New Medical Requirments

Here we go again; the requirements for a career at sea are once again getting beefed up. Now sailors can get in the same line at the doctors office as commercial aviators! I just received a notice from my employer stating that the U.S. Coast Guard Medical Guidelines "Could have a significant impact on your license renewal". Apparently taking a prescription drug, having any one of the 291 medical conditions (Including headaches and depression) listed along with the letter, or having a body mass index over 40 would require a medical waiver. The waiver of course means that processing anything with the new NMC in West Virgina could face "Significant Delays".

Lets be realistic about this. Anyone who works in the maritime industry knows that the average mariner is not a specimen of health. We spend great lengths of time in an isolated environment with high stress working conditions, wanting of sleep, fed poor quality food, encouraged and sometimes expected to work long hours with hardly any outlet for relieving the tension, loneliness, and fatigue experienced at sea. We do not get weekends off, nights at home with family, conjugal visits or even a beer after work. This environment can and often does lead to less than healthy lifestyles. Overeating and smoking is typical. Lack of exercise and replacing quality sleep with caffeine is commonplace. Who wants to spend time in the gym after a twelve or fourteen hour day when you can instead crash out until all hands is called in the middle of you're rest period?

We are not treated like jet pilots or compensated like them. But now we must have a waiver for anything less than optimum health. And who knows how long it will take the medical evaluators to grant those waivers each time we must have a piece of paper approved by the Coast Guard?

I do agree with some of the provisions of the new standards. Though flawed, the body mass index will provide encouragement for sailors to monitor their weight. My body mass index for being a modest 5'6" and weighing 160 pounds is 26, a number that comically puts me in the "overweight" category but well under a BMI of 40. I would have to pack 86 pounds on to qualify as "Extremely Obese". Not likely but on my last trip I worked with four people who were nearly at or slightly above a BMI of 40. Certainly that is cause for concern when you're at sea and relying on that person to don fire fighting gear and follow you into a smoky compartment. How people this close to being handicapped by body weight can be qualified as fit for duty over and over again is concerning.

In this way these new regulations may have a positive affect as long as the industry as a whole takes it upon themselves to provide a healthier environment for their employees and promote better living while at work and at home. What I'm talking about is preventative health care. Rather than the companies dealing with the outcomes of ill health like discharging crew for medical issues over seas or fighting lawsuits for back injuries the new physical standards can be used as a target. Having healthier employees would lessen injuries and sickness both of which are capital intensive but if the industry thinks they'll just wash out the overweight and sick think again, there won't be anyone left to hire.

Instead an approach of improving the health of the existing labor force might work. Perhaps the quality of provisions and the methods of preparing it should be addressed. Less frying in trans-saturated fat for starters. Maybe shedding pounds or investing time in exercise might be rewarded by the companies. A back injury is much less likely for some one who can carry their own weight up and down ladders and move loads without the aid of back braces.

I know it's a long shot given the nature of shipping companies. My captain for instance practically had to beg the company to purchase a single used elliptical machine for the ship, the only piece of cardiovascular equipment now on board. Besides, for those of us who do routinely work out at sea, aren't we sometimes looked at with disdain by other crew as we walk back to our rooms breathing hard and sweating as if we've just been sunning ourselves on overtime? (I always tell them to add up the time they take smoke breaks while actually on overtime and compare it to my forty five minutes in the gym).

Maybe we can take a cue from the Swedes. A company I am familiar with actually has an Activity Challenge where crew members record hours spent exercising, submitting them to a director ashore and then receive points for rewards and lottery drawings. Not a bad idea, perhaps a start at getting the dwindling pool of certified labor to meet the increasing physical requirements for a trade that does not promote low blood pressure.

It's either that or my employer needs to start hiring less experienced younger, healthier employees and start paying them like commercial aviators to staff the ships and offshore installations.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Short Seas Shipping one step closer?

Last night while having dinner with some friends in coastal Maine I mounted my soap box and started preaching my sermon on the necessity of Short Seas Shipping. This concept was a wholly new idea to my friends who had never contemplated a cheaper, more efficient, pollution reducing, infrastructure preserving means of transporting the goods of life apart from the tractor trailer trucks that clog I-95 and pollute New England's air. It seems that the the largest road block to getting our domestic cargoes on ships is peoples complete lack of information about this mode of transportation.
Above is my current fantasy dream job. Why should we have to drive to New York or Baltimore. Why not utilize coast wise ro/ro's like this ship in Northern Europe? Below is an excerpt from Professional Mariner magazine about an issue pertaining to the second biggest road block (The Harbor Maintenance Tax) in freeing up our aged highways and bolstering our Merchant Marine, shipyards and working ports and enabling my dream job:

BrownWater News
by Carlo Salzano

Bill would free coastwise shipping of non-bulk cargo from HMT

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) has introduced a bill that would exempt coastwise shipping of non-bulk cargo between U.S. ports from the Harbor Maintenance Tax (HMT). Specifically, the bill (S. 3199) provides that no HMT would be imposed on non-bulk commercial cargo “that is loaded at a port in the U.S. mainland and unloaded at another port in the U.S. mainland after transport solely by coastal route or river, or unloaded at a port in Canada located in the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway System.” Furthermore, the bill provides that no HMT would be imposed on non-bulk commercial cargo that is loaded at a port in Canada located in the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway System and unloaded at a port in the U.S. mainland. Strong support for the legislation was voiced by Charles G. Raymond, chairman, president and CEO of Horizon Lines, who said the bill would “eliminate both the tax and associated paperwork burdens that discourage shippers from routing U.S. cargo by sea. By removing these barriers, the legislation would encourage use of the fuel-efficient marine mode to move cargo along our nation’s coast, helping ease highway and rail congestion and the demand for imported oil.”

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


One of the most common ways I pass my time at sea is thinking about everything I'd rather be doing than standing a watch. I plan out my vacations to the minutest detail making notes on varied to do lists and setting down dates on my computer's calender. I envision travels to developing countries with weak currencies, journeys by car and bicycle around North America, diving trips in tropical waters on coral reefs and camping expeditions in my backyard.

Hiking is one of the first urges I want to fulfill when returning home. It's one of the cheapest adventures I can think of costing no more than a pair of good shoes, the gas to get to the foot of the White Mountains, and the food to fuel the trip up and down. Plus the closeness of my home to some of New England's best hiking means a simple trip without the need for tents, sleeping bags, and cook stoves.

It only took eighteen days on the beach to organize my first real hike up to the Presidential Range. Granted I've all ready chalked off white water rafting and a day trip to the lakes region this still was my first real hike of the year, its now early fall. Luckily I was able to find a friend, also an active mariner, to kill a Monday with me clambering up wet rock into the clouds. I had it in mind to go alone but in retrospect that would've been as foolish as drinking seawater in a life raft.

We made an early start and arrived at the eastern side of the Presidential range at eight o'clock sharp; the two of us being unusually punctual for being on vacation. The specter of a mountain's immense base loomed topless in front of us, the summit shrouded in a quick moving cloud bank. This did not bode well for a dry hike and good views from the top.After signing in at the visitor center we started our ascent excited to have made it to the mountain in good time giving us all day to hike. We were soon over taken by a pair of forest service rangers headed up to the cabins at the bottom of Tuckerman Ravine. I blamed our short legs for the difference in stride length as to why we were so quickly passed. The first half hour of gradual wooded trail brought us to the Hermit Lake shelters where we began up the head wall of Tuckerman Ravine.

Here the trail became more vertical than horizontal and we chased the receding cloud cover up the granite cliffs.Once on top of the ridge we were socked in by a wet fog. We stayed on the most direct route to the summit following closely spaced cairns until we could hear the auto road just above us. It was strange to see the headlights of a tour van coming around the corner after spending the last two and a half hours surrounded by the solitude of nature and shrouded by fog. The last two hundred vertical feet of the four thousand we had just climbed was aided by a wooden stair case pock marked by the more daring winter climbers wearing crampons.

After stumbling around the several buildings on top of Mount Washington we located the summit marker at 6,288', the highest point on the east coast. We also found a shivering and soaked back packer fumbling through a wet plastic bag of trail maps. As soon as he looked at us he asked where he was. We said that he was twenty feet from the summit and that the visitor center was another fifty feet further and that he should probably head down there. His state of mild hypothermia was given away by the fact that he was sitting in a wind tunnel of 65 knot gusts with a wind chill dropping the temperature to the low 20s just ten feet from the shelter of a large stone building completely oblivious of his situation. After ensuring he was again on his way we also headed down to the visitor center to dry out, warm up and enjoy the spectacular views we couldn't see.Mount Washington is renowned for having the worst weather in the world. The summit, where the highest wind gust on earth was measured, is usually shrouded in fog. The air temperature at the base, a balmy 68 degrees dropped to 40 at the top without the additional wind chill factored in. For this reason the mountain is known for claiming the lives of 140 hikers since the first recorded death in 1849. While some deaths have been are attributed to higher risk activities like rock and ice climbing or winter skiing plenty are the result of being unprepared for the exposure, even in summer months, to the high winds and low temperatures near the summit. The most recent casualty occurred this past January.

Lunch was eaten in a cafeteria crowded by not hikers but motorists who intrepidly drove the summit road in thick clouds to the top to eat gigantic whoopee pies and buy "This car climbed Mount Washington" stickers at one of the three gift shops. I wasn't really impressed by the tourist factor at the top of New England but I did enjoy the chance to dry off. If it was just the cog railroad dropping off a load of passengers as it has for over a hundred years that would be one thing, but driving? Come on...

The descent took much longer than the two and a half hours up thanks to the improved visibility. We decided to hike the western ridge as soon as we could see it. The views were absolutely stellar, especially when you turned around to see the observatory on the summit break through the clouds. The hike down gave me a good case of wooden leg syndrome which has lingered for two days after wards, helped in part by the surf lesson I took from my brother this past weekend. Despite the tender quadriceps days like this are the reason I still can justify seventy days at sea. Who really wants to sit in front of a computer when there are so many mountains to be climbed.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


One thing a mariner has to get used to in this modern age of endorsements, international competencies, and over regulation is the unending onslaught of certificates you must earn. These emblazoned pieces of paper, kept in the briefcase or back pack you wouldn't dare check with the rest of your luggage on the plane, are carried around the world with you. Without them you would never be able to prove that you are legitimately licensed to perform your job at sea.

Since I finished my four years of maritime academy college I've earned 17 different certificates, 10 of which were required for my upgrade from second to chief mate. Being a member of a union the training was provided at no cost but I have never been financially compensated for the travel to and from the schools nor the four collective months I've spent away from home attending these courses.

With that in mind I'm now attending one of the few remaining courses necessary to carry on my duties at work. Ironically the certificate I'm earning is for a Vessel Security Officer, a post I've all ready held at work for the last three years. Initially when I was designated in writing by the Company Security Officer as the VSO, I had never received any actual classroom training.

Over the course of that first voyage though I read through every scrap of security relevant policy on board and realized that my primary job as a VSO was to keep the paperwork in order proving that we were complying with our ship security plan. Actually carrying some of the security requirements such as roving patrols and pre-departure contraband/stowaway searches were things of pure fantasy given the limited number of crew and STCW work hour restrictions.

As with all overburdening regulatory requirements we face at sea I did the best I could with my security duties emphasizing the importance of being vigilant and prepared to the various crews I worked with. Operating in hostile waters, such as the Gulf of Aden, without arms, escorts, or any other tangible way of repelling boarders convinced me that even with the best security plan or lectured crew, we would stand little chance if ever faced with an armed and motivated security threat.

Of course this was all just on the job self training, a.k.a. experience, and had nothing to do with my actual legal ability to perform the duties of a VSO. So thanks to the coast guards implementation of mandatory VSO training I again find myself spending a few more days of my vacation taking more courses to do a job with added responsibility for the same pay. Added on to the hassle is the task of going to my local Regional Examination Center to apply to have the certificate "endorsed" on my STCW certificate via the National Maritime Center in landlocked West Virginia.

Of course it's not all bad. The class, the shortest I've had, is only two days, and getting a group of officers together for a week allows you to collaboratively learn how different organisations approach the same security policies and problems. It also high lights the differences out here between government funded or contracted ships and commercial ships, especially in the resources available to mariners who are responsible for making their vessel a "Hard Target".

Among the highlights of the course was having an F.B.I. agent guest lecture. I was surprised to learn how much jurisdiction the F.B.I. has on ships world wide. As long as the F.B.I. can prove that a single American is on the ship, operates the ship, or owns a single share in the shipping companies stock, the F.B.I. can investigate and prosecute crimes on board.

With over 12,000 agents worldwide the F.B.I. is the lead agency in dealing with terrorism attacks involving American flagged ships, even overseas. The F.B.I. is also actively vetting not only the names of every mariner, citizen or foreigner entering domestic waters, but also works with foreign crewing agencies to counter terrorism and human trafficking on ships.

All good stuff to know if you're responsible for discouraging terrorist attacks on your ship.