Friday, June 4, 2010

Human Resources

For the life of me I can't remember what it was I screwed up on my first noon slip. Observed distance? Speed made good? Engine slip? But I do remember the Chief Engineer calling the bridge at a quarter past noon, I had the 12 to 4, and asking me "What the fack is wrong with you? Didn't they teach you how to do a freakin noonslip at that academy?"

I was mortified. I had just gotten my ass chewed out by the old man for having two charts on the chart table at once and now a surly hick from Maine was yelling at me over the phone for being an idiot third mate. I didn't even bother defending myself against the daily heckling I received at coffee time and at meals. I might have been a green mate but I was ripe fruit for a seasoned crew's picking entertainment.

Crews come in all shapes and sizes and they are always changing. Since those first days at sea I have now worked with hundreds of different mariners. Some bosons, chief mates, chief engineers and captains I've spent years with, but the majority of co-workers, especially in the unlicensed department are never the same. When I left my first ship I crossed my fingers that my next old man and Chief Engineer would take it a little easier on me.

The cast of characters for this voyage is more colorful than ever. First there is my watch partner, A Yemeni my own age whose sweeping skills have improved. He is now my star cleaner mainly because putting a pneumatic chipping hammer in his hands is a dangerous affair. I'm pleased to have a Muslim on board for a voyage to the Middle East. Each day I ask him questions about Islam and receive spirited lectures in Muslim culture, values, faith and Arabic. In return I answer his unending questions which ever since lending him Knight's seamanship have become impressively relevant to standing a watch. He's figured out how the ARPAs provide range, bearing and closest point of approach for other ships on the screen and has a clear idea of what information can be gleaned off charts.

I had assumed that Mo's parents immigrated to Dearborn Michigan when he was a kid based on his thick accent and having children in the Gulf region but I was wrong. He's a third generation American with a lot of family who has served in the Armed Forces. It was unconventional to stray from the Navy or Air Force when he decided to join the Merchant Marine on Great Lake bulkers. This is Mo's first ocean crossing and his enthusiasm for learning about deep-sea sailing is an encouraging sign for tomorrow's mariners.

We do have one first generation immigrant on board, the Third Mate. Naturalized in his teens our medical officer is a young hawesepiper from Ireland making his first trip as a mate. He lucked out getting his license and then a job in short order and I lucked out getting a hawespiper on my rotation.

I am continually impressed by the younger mates I have worked with that began sailing as apprentice seaman and took the initiative to study and test for a third mate's license. Their education at sea brings a set of skills unattainable at maritime academies into the workplace. Any lacking knowledge in the theory of nautical sciences is amply made up for by a zeal to learn that theory while being able to run circles around academy grads on deck.

When I first joined the ship the Boson was in his early seventies. This made me wonder how many occupations in the world involving such brutal work as picking up chain lashings in a 90 degree cargo hold and anchoring ships in freezing gales retain employees into their golden years?

The first Boson began his working career in a carnival troupe decorating staging and props as a boy on his native Island of Trinidad. At sixteen he shipped on a Norwegian freighter where he learned the values of a good Boson at an early age. All I had to do was ask him one time at six in the morning and by seven at night everything on my to do list, plus his own, was finished, cleaned, stowed and secured with no oversight and zero bitching. He remained on Norwegian ships for many years before moving to Queens and becoming a United States citizen 30 years ago.

With more time astern than I have at sea he was one of the wisest, wittiest old school seaman I have met. "Nothing is impossible for God or a seaman" he would often say in his thick island accent when confronted with a difficult task. A saying he had learned from Norwegian officers in the fifties was as obvious as ever when working with him.

My new boson is not much younger with 35 years at sea, fifteen of those supervising the deck gang. While almost as self sufficient as his predecessor I heard some scuttlebutt the other evening that he had been told the officers were displeased with his performance. Showing an uncommon egotistical fragility he apparently broke down in tears in the Boson locker.

I was surprised this story made it all the way from the foc'sle to my ears and it made me yearn for my old boson that never showed a sign of weakness or emotion when dealing with officers. To do so would have gone against every fiber of his steel nerves. On the other hand this was a rare display of insecurity brought on most likely by a disgruntled and manipulative AB as no officer has reported anything negative about "Bobo". Nonetheless the episode required, without letting on I had heard anything, that I show my sensitive side shoring up his bruised ego, however unfounded, with a couple of sincere compliments.

The first Captain on board was preceded by a confrontational hard ass reputation. I was relieved to learn that he had grown up on Munjoy Hill, a neighborhood I frequent often in one of my favorite towns. He was no more than another loud mouthed Portlander with a massive ego, bigger than life laugh and a penchant for good times. The hill provided a common topic of discussion as I could name all the new restaurants and bars on Congress Avenue as he reminisced about his days of delinquency. Ironically his cousins ran the local convenience store and had contributed to my own delinquency selling me PBR tallboys on cold winter nights for years.

Since we had both grown up in Maine, the Captain and I had something in common with the First and Chief Engineers as well. I don't believe I've sat around a more entertaining dinner table than here listening to three mariners lambaste one another with the acidic sarcasm perfected by a lifetime in Maine. That lobster-pound sense of humor, which to the uninitiated must seem awfully abrasive and childish, more than once had me howling with laughter as the Chief Engineer abused the English language unnecessarily contracting words or adding syllables where they don't belong. Mainers just don't hold back, at all. I myself have been called out on my lack of an inner monologue once or twice.

Ironically that same Chief Engineer is the one who verbally stove my ego in over a noon slip long ago. Now that I've rose up the ranks a touch we sit across the table chiding one another, him for owning a Shetland pony nicknamed Rockstar (For his daughters) and me for driving a Jetta with New Hampshire plates. The same Chief who once reminded me so much of abusive upper classmen my freshman year is now helping me brush up on my welding and cutting skills in the machine shop.

Not everyone's hue is a rosy one. I have one AB who turned out to be one of the most trying and displeasing shipmate's ever. His tactics are based on a stern belief that he is the best merchant mariner in the world and involve doing anything to get the officers wound up. Since he's just biding his time as a watch stander studying for a license of his own instead of working overtime we don't see too much of him beyond watch.

Still he has managed to irk the officers one time or another and so far he's gotten two good ones over on me. The first was when he began asking for a pair of cow hide gloves. I told him that there were plenty of gloves in the Boson's locker which I had set out for the guys but no, he wanted the nice one's, the officer grade, and he knew I had them. Trying not to make him feel any more special I denied him the nicer gloves so he went right to the top on a coffee break telling the captain that I was "Screwing" with him. The Captain, having little patience for such trivial matters, gave him a pair of his own cowhide gloves. The smile on his face for the next two days really did get my goat but I did my best to hide it.

The second time I told him to pick up a piece of trash he threw into my utility truck when coming back from shore. He grabbed it and chucked it into a trash can as I had ordered and then went straight back to the Captain demanding an hour of over time for the job because he was off duty and taking orders from the mate. The captain, after telling him no, told me about it and I was doubly pissed.

Since then he's been quite the sociopath towards the officers and crew (He elects to stand his watch on the bridge wing) but is slowly opening up to the Boson. Hopefully I can get him to come out of his shell and see that he doesn't know everything even if he did spend 20 years fishing on the Bearing Sea. Soon enough I'll have a couple days of mandatory overtime in those 90-degree cargo holds. That should provide a good vantage of his own limits.

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