A steady cold rain bid me farewell this afternoon. Two hours after receiving my travel arrangements, a British Airways flight to Kuwait City, I was in a taxicab giving a brief lecture to the driver about what the American Merchant Marine exactly does. I had to make one stop on the way through town to hug my new yoga teacher goodbye and that was it. Home was just a powerless, lowered thermostat storage space emptied of food and people for the next three months.
Spending the last week waiting for travel to meet a ship on the other side of world was a little more stressful than I would have hoped. Had it not been for a port closure due to a winter sandstorm than I might have all ready been aboard. But the delay did allow for a boiled dinner with three generations of my favorite family in New Hampshire and one last barbecue plus plenty of exercise to keep my mind off the impending hitch.
Just as I contemplate the upcoming challenge of joining a new vessel in the Persian Gulf my brother, also a seafarer is leaving his first tanker in the Gulf of Mexico. When he got me on the phone this evening he was about to, as he put it, “Get my room just the way I like it”, that is “With none of my shit in it.” I know that feeling so well and it’s one of the best for a sailor. Nothing quite akin to that sense of impending freedom when all your gear is packed save for one open briefcase to stuff your discharges and payoff into before you drag it all down the gangway.
For me that feeling lies several months and thousands of nautical miles ahead but I could still share his excitement. I also appreciated his advice from the perspective of a seaman and not an officer. Having spent three years observing mates onboard numerous ships he has seen some of the best and worst traits in leaders.
Experiencing both happy ships and angry ships, that is ones with good morale and ones with no morale, he reminded me that the biggest thing to remember when managing a department is not to loose your cool. “Even if someone is screwing something up yelling about it makes you the failure.” I’ve worked with hotheads more than once and will surely work with more so I can relate. Once a sailor has been verbally berated for anything less than endangering their own or someone else’s safety that person tends to shut down and no longer cares to engage their mind until the affronted ego is mended which is rare.
That doesn’t mean he hasn’t lost his cool once or twice. My favorite anecdote is when he was working on a heavy lift ship in Saudi Arabia and was knocked off after his 20-00 watch. One of his duties, besides beginning the day steering the ship into port, then mooring and then working a solid 8 hours of overtime, was to ensure the break room water jug was filled before knocking off. Though diligently fulfilling his other duties that day he had neglected to fill the jug and received a phone call from the 3rd mate relaying that the Chief Mate had ordered him to come back out on deck and fill it.
My brother in proper family fashion quickly reported to the break room and proceeded to hurl the empty jug out the hatchway passing several surprised longshoremen and the watch on it’s long decent to the dock. According to my brother no one could believe that he had taken his IMO mandated rest period so personally and from that day on when he was knocked off from a 16 hour day unless it was an emergency there were no more wake ups until the next watch.
Speaking of egos he also dropped this pearl of wisdom: “We’re just the little guys man. Even the Captain is a nobody out here. We’re only sailors,” which I knew he meant as a warning against getting a big head which is a leading factor for developing a propensity to scream on deck and acting like an ass in the maritime work place.
Thinking about his words and why not to scream at the bloke next to me on the flight who had just spilled his orange juice all over my bum has made me realize that in three years of going to sea my brother has learned a hundred times more about effective leadership than I garnered in 4 years at a maritime academy. It’s also why both he and I know that he’ll make one hell of an officer if he chooses to do so, provided that the United States Coast Guard hasn’t completely prohibited hawsepipers from working their way up.
All of this is good subject matter for thought as I fly to join a crew that I have never met on a ship I have never seen besides passing her once at the anchorage in Singapore over Christmas. With all luck this ship will become my second home. I have no idea how much time I’ll have to write while on board. It’s going to be a little more challenging than working as the navigation officer on a cable ship and I’m pretty sure there won’t be any Internet to make things easier so don’t hold your breath, not that you would.