Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Years Eve

It was so close the crew could taste it. “Put on your dancing shoes” the Honduran Boatswain said as he passed by my office. It looked like a sure thing, New Years at the dock. As a coastal fog shrouded the Sabine River the chance of sailing was getting slimmer by the hour. Cargo had finished the night before and the stern ramp was all ready raised. All hands had broken foreign articles the day before and with the $10,000 the captain had distributed amongst the crew whom elected cash at pay off it could have been an evening of epic proportions.

Just as I was allowing myself to imagine what a beer or two would taste like and how different being in public around people I haven’t been working, eating and socializing with for the past ten weeks would be “Pilot aboard” came over the radio. More than a few crew’s shoulders slouched as everyone knew there was now not the slightest chance that anyone would be doing any amount of the Texas Two Step on New Years Eve.

The agent, a breed of people I am continually disappointed with, had obviously not been doing his job and provided no warning that the good pilots had decided they could get us down the river just as the fog lifted and before complete darkness settled in. My thoughts of walking on terra firma and allowing my mind to wander very far away from work evaporated as the engine was hurriedly turned over and the deck department rushed fore and aft. As the line handlers tossed our hawsers into the water a drizzle began and the emissions from a pair of nearby refineries blended more and more into the low gray sky.

Adding to the disappointment was the news that our load of 700 cars had been delayed and wouldn’t be reaching our next destination in Texas for two days. The inside story was that the pilots in Mexico, where the cars were manufactured, had a habit of getting into the tequila after dark and if sailing was scheduled any later than that they were routinely too borracho to take the ship off the dock. Because of their insobriety our schedule was now pushed back two days which for departing crew such as myself meant delaying vacation another 48 hours.

I wasn’t really surprised. There are very few breaks in this industry and New Years wasn’t going to be one of them. The last three days had been non stop work. Between discharging and loading cargo, facilitating the repair of hydraulics (Which could only take place after cargo operations ended at 2300) and the annual CO2 system testing, not to mention stores and garbage, it had been a full couple of days. Departing now rather than the following morning would mean another full night of work ballasting the ship and anchoring of the mouth of the Houston Ship Channel.

Sitting in front of the ballast control panel watching tank gauges slow fall reflect the massive amount of clean mid ocean seawater I’m pumping out of the ballast tanks and into the Gulf of Mexico I have a little time these last few hours of 2010 for reflection.

The first thing that comes to mind is I will never allow longshoremen to eat food in my cargo holds again. This could be considered my one and only New Years resolution and is all ready company policy but from time to time I have turned a blind eye allowing them to bring food onboard. It seemed fair for lashers and drivers working 5 hour shifts without a break to be able to eat while working but my sympathy, which as professor of mine oft remarked is found between shit and syphilis in the dictionary, has waned considerably.

This is due to the amount of trash myself and my mates found ourselves picking up over the last three days. Dozens of chip and peanut and cracker bags. Cans of soda and water. Candy bar and gum wrappers plus cigarette buts all over the stern ramp where they’re allowed to smoke. My department is 9 persons large and we are tasked with keeping a floating parking garage measuring in at over 40,000 square meters spread over ten decks clean. We try to pick up every bit of dunnage and even have a sweeping machine that brushes up dirt and oil absorbent. There is no way another longshoremen will ever watch me bend over to pick up their trash off my decks again after repeatedly telling them to use the trashcan. As one longshormen said when I was chastising his buddies for not picking up their garbage, "It's like talking to a dead dog man". Yes indeed, it's just like a dead dog.

Another reflection is that the more Texans I meet that don't litter, the more I like them. I have always found it comforting when a group of people bound by a geographic region display similar endearing traits and Texans are definitely included. They are a tall, humble and outgoing people, funny as hell, quick witted and polite. Of course I’m generalizing who is a Texan but I speak mainly of the river pilots and stevedores that I work with. They take their work seriously but not themselves and because of the industry that is pervasive in Coastal Texas have a better understanding for what makes the world go round and the lights stay on, more so than my compatriots to the North who feign locally importing gas, developing wind power or any other energy source that Canada will gladly sell to us.

Industry is always close at hand down here both on land and in the Gulf of Mexico. I had to carve out a little time over the last few days to read the entirety of the New York Times latest piece on the Deep Water Horizon and what I consider the most pivotal event in the maritime industry since 1989. While I dislike reading about disaster at sea while being at sea, at least recent disasters, this article was the best account of the event I have read in the media yet.

Much of the information is nothing new; the Captain chastising the junior DP watch stander for sending out a Mayday call when the rig was minutes from sinking, lifeboats being lowered without a complete muster of occupants, inaction playing a major role in what may have been a preventable sinking. What this article did better than the rest was to tie everything I had heard over the last 8 months into a succinct timeline explaining exactly what was and was not done in the short amount of time the crew had to react to the blow out of the Macondo well.

I highly encourage anyone involved in the maritime industry, especially the O&G sector, to read this article. It made me very curious to know what repercussions this has had in the safety culture at Transocean and other offshore oil drilling companies, especially because I now have so many classmates working in the same field. It is always startling when I put myself in the shoes of another mariner faced with a decision where no matter which course of action is chosen all have drastic consequences. I feel that the lessons of this event will unfold for years to come.

Work this past week has grown tiresome. Three days of cargo kicked my ass and my normal resilience is slightly depleted by the early onset of severe channel fever. I'm always anxious towards the end of the trip to get off the boat and on with my other life, a life filled with everything I've worked for and enjoy experiencing, but this time there is another feeling. It involves more longing and homesickness than I'm willing to admit to myself but it's there. It's something new and indescribable but completely welcomed and is giving me the feeling that 2011 will be a magical year.

With the ballast almost wrapped up I went to the bridge to hear the GPS chirp the new year in. Clearing the sea fog the anchorage at the mouth of the Houston Ship Channel was packed with delayed ships illuminating the overcast sky. Watchstanders, mostly Filipino with a few Texans mixed in, were wishing all stations a Happy New Year on the UHF. We too would soon join the throng waiting for our turn to enter Bolivar Road and our cargo in the dock yards.

Happy New Year!

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