Saturday, October 1, 2016

Remembering El Faro

The last few nights, while the crew has been eating dinner, as is Standard Operating Procedure, the television has been tuned to the local news station.  There have been plenty of things to report on; a train crash in New Jersey, a man saved by a Chinese cargo ship after being in a liferaft for a week, and, of course, all the political banter one could ever hope for. But when the local weatherman has been cued up to start his report, it gets very quiet in the galley. 

There is a hurricane in the Caribbean. 
A big one. 

At one point it reached Category 5 status, the highest category issued by the National Hurricane Center. It’s currently taking aim at the islands of Jamaica and Cuba. After that, the forecast is somewhat uncertain. It may head for the East Coast of the United States, or it may head “safely out to sea”. No matter what course it will take, one thing is certain, Hurricane Matthew is not going to be a storm to trifle with. 
Current forecast track of Hurricane Matthew
Exactly one year ago today there was another hurricane spinning in the Caribbean. Hurricane Joaquin, with winds in excess of 130 mph was battering the islands of the Bahamas. It was also battering a 790-foot long US-flagged cargo ship, the El Faro. On board that cargo ship were 33 fellow mariners involved in a fight for their lives against the powerful storm. 
The El Faro
One of those 33 sailors onboard the El Faro was an Engineer named Jeff Mathias. Jeff was working as a contractor preparing the ship for some work that was going to be done in an upcoming shipyard period. As the eye of the storm approached perilously close to their location, the ship lost power. With no ability to maneuver, there is no doubt that every member of that engineering crew, Jeff included, was using every trick in the book to get the huge engineering power plant back online and running. Unfortunately, the storm proved to be too powerful. So powerful that when the El Faro was located 15,000 feet below the ocean’s surface, the top two decks of the ship’s superstructure, including the wheelhouse, were ripped off from the rest of the vessel and found a half-mile away from the rest of the wreckage. All 33 sailors were claimed by the hurricane and the sea.
The wreckage of the El Faro
The wheelhouse located 1/2 mile from the rest of the wreckage
Two weeks ago, at the Homecoming celebration at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, they dedicated the Diesel Engineering Lab to Jeff Mathias. Two weeks ago was the celebration of my 20th year reunion of me graduating from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. Had he not been on the El Faro, Jeff would have celebrated his 20th year reunion as well. Jeff was a classmate of mine at the Academy.

Over my career, I have lost numerous good friends to the sea. During that same span, many mariners, though not personal friends of mine but still ones with a shared kinship, have been taken by the unrelenting waters as well.
So when I hear a local television weather personality say that a powerful and dangerous hurricane or storm is going, “safely out to sea”, you can probably see why this simple, unassuming statement causes me such ire. 
It is a pet peeve of mine.
I think reasonably so.

Alas, I’ll keep one eye watching the television personalities recite their forecasts, and I’ll keep the other one on the skies. A hurricane spinning off the coast of Cuba may not be a concern for many, but for me and my fellow mariners, it could very well be a matter of life and death.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Chance Encounters of the Tugboat Kind

I've mentioned before that my current locale of residence isn't really a hot bed of nautical knowledge. Sure I live next to a great big lake that provides for a multitude of summertime waterborne activities. But that fun and frolicking on a party barge doesn't really transfer into knowledge about the commercial maritime trades. The chances that you run into someone in my town who knows anything about the maritime industry, never mind the small world of tugboats, is pretty slim. Or so I thought. (insert scary theme music)

A few weeks ago my wife and I were doing our evening walk around our neighborhood. It's happens to be very good exercise for me for recovering from my second installment of back surgery. Plus, we get to check out any of the multitude of new houses being built in our development. That night we were headed into the wilds of "Phase Two". Being that our neighborhood is still under construction we have to be able to delineate the new arrivals in the development compared to the original settlers. A rumor had been swirling around that someone in Phase Two had also worked on tugboats. So on this particular evening we had made it our mission to try to narrow down what house this supposed tugboat person lived in. I was going on the premise that a mariner is required to have nautical things outside of their house. An anchor, red and green running lights, or at the very least, a replica of a lighthouse should adorn the yard. My wife was a little more practical. An older gentleman and his elderly wife would probably live in a one story ranch style home. More than likely correct. She’s smart like that. But I was on the search for nautical knick-knacks.
You call yourself a mariner but don't have one of these at the end of your driveway?
As we proceeded on our walk, one ranch style house seemed to stand out as the most likely of choices that an ex-mariner would reside. Unfortunately, no one seemed to be home at the time. Plus, it seemed kind of creepy to just walk up and knock on their door and ask if anyone there had ever worked on a tugboat. So we continued our walk around the development. On the way back home we once again were about to pass the suspected mariners house. Just as we did, a car came down the street and slowed just in front of our suspect’s driveway. The passenger side window rolled down and an elderly gentleman poked his head out. Then, with a markedly Scandinavian accent, the gentleman in the car asked if I worked on tugboats. Now granted I happened to be wearing one of the many t-shirts that I have made that said, "New York Tugboats" printed on the front. However, I don't think that mattered.

Tugboaters know tugboaters.

We can pick each other out in the grocery store, at the airport, or any other public venue. I'm fairly sure I could have been wearing a superhero shirt and he still would have been able to pick me out of a police line-up as a fellow tugboater. We proceeded to have a very nice conversation all about our current and former tug careers. This very nice gentleman worked for Moran Towing, the BIG tug company with the giant "M" on their stack, for many years. My current employer happens to be a very short stone’s throw away from Moran's tugboat yard. So close that one day I may have to take the short walk to their office to see if I can get some Moran tugboat swag to bring back for him. Tugboaters love swag. Promises were made to get together again sometime soon for coffee and the inevitable sea stories. And with that, we continued on our walk, armed with the knowledge that another merchant mariner, a tugboater at that lives not only in the area, but in our own development.

Small world. Smaller neighborhood.
A Moran Towing tractor tug

A few days later, another happenstance meeting absolutely blew my mind about how small of a world it is that we actually live in.

I had been looking to purchase a new handgun and was in the midst of doing my due diligence and research to find just the right one. I had compared prices, options, extras, etc. and was quite sure of which particular model I wanted to buy. But I wanted to physically inspect this particular one before I was ready to put my hard earned money into someone else’s pocket. The only way to do this was to take a leisurely stroll down to the local gun range in order to get my hands on the model I was interested in.
After speaking with the salesperson for a while, another gentleman happened to come over to where we were talking. Very politely he asked me, "Do you happen to work on tugboats?" Now normally I happen to be wearing one of the multitude of tugboat t-shirts that I make in my spare time. Such as was the case when I met the elderly gentleman in our neighborhood. However, this time, I wasn't. No tugboat shirt. No tugboat hat. Nothing with a logo. No nautical accoutrements whatsoever. Not a single distinguishing piece of apparel that would give me away as a merchant mariner. Somehow this gentleman was still able to pick me out of the proverbial police line-up of tugboaters. As we continued to talk, I slowly recognized the one single distinguishing feature that most tugboaters seem to recognize each other by as one of their own. His voice.

I have always said that whenever we go to a company meeting, I don't recognize anyone there. These are the guys that I've worked with together for years. Yet, the vast majority of them, I have never met. We are just voices on the radio. One wheelhouse guy talking to another wheelhouse guy over the VHF radio as you do the job from your respective boats. The joke I have always used, was that if I didn't recognize someone face to face, all they had to do was give a mock security call as they would over the radio. By their voice alone, I would usually be able to tell you exactly who they were, what boat they were on, and which crew they worked with. You recognize the voices, not the faces.

As it turns out, I should have recognized his face, not just his voice. The gentleman in question, in the gun store, in my newly adopted hometown, was indeed a fellow tugboatman. In fact, he and I both worked on the same boat, on the same crew, some 16 or 17 years before. He was the Chief Engineer and I was one of the deckhands. It had been a very long time since either one of us had seen each other. To say that I had gained a few pounds from the last time I had seen him would be a bigger stretch than if I were to try to fit into my pants from a decade and a half ago. A little bit more gray hair for both of us was also evident. But the one thing that remained the same. That one distinguishing factor for both of us, was the voice. I was stunned.
The tug in question upon which we both worked.
In a small gun shop, in a town far removed from where we had both previously lived, a decade and a half of time in between, a voice from the past was all it took. I'm still absolutely amazed that he recognized me. Unfortunately, our chance meeting was cut short by other pressing responsibilities. Kids like to get picked up when school gets out. However, I know it’s only a matter of time before we cross paths again. Two tugboaters who escaped living in the northeast that now live in the same town in the south who like shooting guns. Yeah, we might have a bit in common. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to foresee yet another meeting for coffee and sea stories.

Maybe the tide is beginning to turn (obligatory nautical reference). Now when I meet a new person who says they have never met someone who works on a tugboat, I’m beginning to think these people don’t get out enough. I met two of them in two weeks. In my own town. Meeting one of them didn’t even require me to leave my own neighborhood. It’s a big, brave new world. Get out and explore it! Or maybe it’s just that the older I get, the smaller the world seems to become.

Then again, tugboaters know tugboaters.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

An Act of Piracy

Along with my recent promotion, I was also rewarded with a different boat in a different locale. No more sunny days with the sparkling blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico. So it's back up to New York harbor and once again I'm working on a local harbor tug. Just in time for the cold northeast weather. Yippy. Now I have to buy pants. Pants! It's been shorts and t-shirts for years. I may even have to find a jacket.

It's a nice change from working on a tug and barge unit that essentially was just a small ship with a portable engine room. Now the work is more of what people would consider "traditional" tugboat work. It's the kind of work that brings me back to my roots. The type of stuff I've done on tugs since I started many years ago. It's fun. Everyday is something different. We do assist work. Move oil barges. Shift vacuum barges. Move construction equipment. Run crew changes for the other boats as they pass by. Provide fuel and water to the smaller barges. Standby other units as the tugs go to resupply, fuel, grub up, and take potable water. We do just about anything and everything.

One such task we found our self doing recently was running a crew member from a different tug back to the dock so that they could go grub shopping for their boat. It's a lot easier for our tug to be a waterborne taxi cab for them, than it is for them to leave their barge unattended. The other day we did such a task. And since we were standing by waiting for that tug's crew to come back for grub, we decided to go up and get some of the essentials that we needed as well. We go through a lot of eggs for some reason.

Arugula. Because it's fun to say. Arugula.
Our return from the grocery store was timed perfectly to coincide with the arrival of other tug's crew. We loaded up the grub onto the boat and off we went to deliver them back to their anchored vessel. Grub was transferred, pleasantries were exchanged, and off we went to go do our next job. It was only later that we noticed that some of the grub we had purchased was nowhere to be found on our tug. And it wasn't a bag full of things like canned peas, asparagus sprouts, or arugula. Those are the kind of things that we could probably live without. The bag that was missing was full of items that were IMPORTANT!

They took our bag full of Halloween candy!!!

Not cool.

Granted, it was a honest mistake. We went shopping at the same time and used the same grocery bags. When loading the grub onto the boat it was easily misplaced and simply went into the wrong pile of foodstuff.

And it wasn't that Candy Corn crap either!
However, when the other boat noticed that even though they had only bought two bags of Halloween candy, and they now miraculously had 8 bags of candy, we should have gotten a phone call with 10,000 apologies. Alas, it was not to be. Those pirates took our candy and went out of town so we couldn't even publicly shame them over the radio for all to hear that they were candy thieves.

We're not talking to them anymore. They can find someone else to run grub and crew changes for them. Canned vegetables are one thing. Halloween candy pilferage is a direct violation of the Law of the Sea.

I'm sure it is.

I'll have to look that up.

Sunday, October 4, 2015


At one time or another we have all lied. Whether they were just “little white lies”, a “wee bit of fibbery”, a “tiny bit of misdirection”, or as we in the maritime industry know them to be, “sea stories”. At one time or another we have all been on the wrong side of “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”.
Sadly, I have been living a lie for a number of years.

Of course, I feel as though I must explain.

As a whole, the general population knows jack-all about the maritime industry. With their information about boats gleaned from such reliable sources as Hollywood and television, it is easy to see why people just don’t understand what we do out here on the water at all. However, I too have been complicit in spreading disinformation to the masses about my job and the maritime world as a whole, all in the name of taking the path of least resistance.

Now the maritime industry runs counterclockwise to the rest of the world. In your house you have floors, walls, ceilings, a bathroom, bedroom, and a kitchen. But not out in the maritime fleet. Out there you have decks, bulkheads, overheads, heads, bunk rooms, and a galley. Left is port, right is starboard. You don’t go backwards, you go astern or aft. And if having different names for things on boats separate from the same things on land wait until you try to pronounce some things on boats the way they are spelled. Try telling a mariner that you are going to the “forecastle” just the way it is spelled and see if they don’t roll their eyes at you. (By the way: It’s pronounced “fohk-suh l”). Of course it doesn’t stop there.

Pilot Boat. Not steered by a Pilot.
In the regular world, a Pilot is the person who flies a plane. On ships, a Pilot is a seasoned mariner who has extensive knowledge of a local waterway and is hired by the vessel to provide their expertise in navigating a certain port or waterway. Easy, right? Not so much. There are different kinds of pilots. You have Bar Pilots, Federal Pilots, State Pilots, Docking Pilots, Harbor Pilots, River Pilots...etc. And it gets worse. If you work on a push boat, generally on the Inland Waterways/Mississippi River/Western Rivers, the person who steers the boat on the opposite watch as the Captain is called a Pilot. Same name, completely different job from a Pilot. Confused yet? Just wait.

River Push Boat. a.k.a Square boat. Steered by a Pilot.
Now I mention the Pilot on push boats to highlight just how frustrating titles in the maritime world can be.
The “Pilot” on push boats is usually called the “Mate” on harbor and ocean going tugs. Exact same job, completely different name. Sometimes on an ocean going tugs you also have a Second Mate. Then the Mate becomes a Chief Mate. Exact same job as the Mate, but slightly fancier title. Of course, even our own regulatory agency, the U.S. Coast Guard, has to get in to the act and confuse people even more. To them, the “Mate” sometimes isn’t called the Mate; they like to refer to them as the “Relief Captain”. Now, whether you call the guy the Mate, Pilot, Relief Captain, Chief Mate, or whatever other name you want to come up with, the fact remains, somebody has to work opposite of the Captain and steer the boat while the Captain is off watch.

Which is where the BIG LIE comes into play.

Where I currently live it isn’t really a hot bed location for maritime professionals to reside. Concurrently, the local population isn’t really up on their knowledge of the maritime industry. (To my local friends: Don’t feel as though I’m picking on you. When I lived in the northeast people didn’t know bupkis about the maritime industry either.) Naturally, when I meet new people and I (or more likely, my wife) tells them what I do for a living, I get the standard questions and answers.

“So you work on tugboats? So you push the big ships around?”
“You work in New York? New York is so cool! Where do you stay at night?”
“Where do you eat?”
“You drive the boat? So you’re the Captain?”

And there it is! That last question gets me to the BIG LIE.

I’ve been sailing as Mate (Chief Mate/Relief Captain…whatever) for more than a decade. I steer the boat when the Captain is off watch. To the inexperienced, the Captain drives the boat. “Hooper drives the boat, Chief”. (Jaws quote, I love that movie.) To try to tell someone who knows nothing about the Merchant Marine that, “Yes. I drive the boat. But, no. I’m not the Captain”, just leads to confusion. To them, it is usually cut and dry. The Captain drives the boat. End of story. Never mind the fact that at some point the Captain has to sleep. When they ask, “What do you do at night?” it’s usually a pretty good sign that they don’t realize that we work 24/7/365. We work, live, eat, sleep, everything aboard the boat. To try to explain to them exactly what we do so that they have a full grasp of my work life…well, no one has that kind of time. So, in order to avoid a lengthy discussion detailing exactly what I do, sometimes I take the easy way out.

“Yes. I’m the Captain.”


Except now I don’t have to lie anymore.

After many long years.
And many different companies.
And after working for many great Captains.
I can finally say, without lying to anyone…

“YES! I’m the Captain!”

And to be honest, it feels pretty damn good!!!
Because my wife is AWESOME! and a huge nerd. She got me this shirt.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Eight is Enough, Nine is..

Just going to step outside for a sec

It’s summertime here in the Gulf (and everywhere else in the Northern Hemisphere). So in addition to it being hot as Hades, it also means that school is out. And not just for the little youngsters in grade school. The Maritime Academies, the pipeline for fresh, young talent trying to muscle their way into the Maritime industry, are also out for the summer. That means that it’s “Cadet Season”. That time of year where the Academies send their best and brightest talent (and some real dipshits, too) out into the United States Merchant Marine fleet to get some real life maritime experience and rack up some of the required “Sea Days” that they need in order to test for their U.S. Coast Guard licenses.
Now normally our boat runs with a crew of 7. Proportionally, we have 7 staterooms. It’s a nice feature that everyone on the crew has their own room. Until the cadet shows up. Eight people in seven staterooms makes for at least one unhappy crew member.

But wait, there’s more!
My relief is currently out having surgery. That means unless someone new shows up to replace me, I’m stuck on the boat. Thankfully, someone new has shown up. However, in order to get familiarized with the inner workings of this fine vessel he has to show up a couple of days before we get off the boat so that we can show him all of the nuances of the boat before he gets turned loose all by himself. Our crew of eight, just grew to nine. We still only have seven rooms.

So now we have two unhappy crew members who were used to living in the lap of luxury in their private staterooms with roommates. It also adds two crew members to an already cramped boat. Mealtimes have to be done in shifts. Hallways are cramped. Somehow the grub manages to disappear at an exponential rate. Plus, having only two heads (bathrooms, for the non-nautical) makes for having to plan showers, shaves, and answering the call of nature into a well-timed experience. Especially when one head happens to be giving the Engineer fits and is not working properly.
Thankfully, “New Guy” (the cadet) and “New-New Guy” (my new relief) both seem to be stand up guys. It also means I get to go home with my regular crew at the regular time. So being a bit cramped isn’t really that bad. Plus, I’m one of the people that doesn’t have to share my room. Which is nice.
“New Guy” seems to be going for some sort of record on how long he can stay on the boat before he loses his mind. I fear he may be getting perilously close. The schools and the U.S. Coast Guard require 120 days of Sea Time in order to sit for your license. I’m not sure if he is trying to do it all at once or not. Truth be told, I’m ready to go home after a mere 14 days. 120 days on a tugboat is pure torture. He was going to break it up in 60 on/14 off/60 on. But we are well past the 60 days at this point. Good thing he is young. Us older guys would be sent to the funny farm weeks ago.
They always seem to leave this little activity out of the Maritime School brochures
*Note to the schools- 60 days on a tug is a long time (On a ship it’s a piece of cake. Size matters. So I’ve heard). If you want to turn off young people from joining the Merchant Marine, this is definitely the way to do it. I guess being young and not knowing any better has its perks.

My relief, the spot being taken by “New-New Guy”, happens to be his first steering job. He has risen through the ranks and gotten cleared by numerous Captains in order to get where he is now. Based on what I saw during our brief time on the boat together, he should do just fine.

I wish him the best of luck. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

A Break Because I Was Broken

If you noticed the lack of blog posts recently, #1. Thanks for reading #2. You’re right.

It wasn’t by choice. It was by orders of my doctor. Okay, my doctor didn’t specifically say, “You can’t write blog posts.” But since I was bedridden for 6 weeks and just the act of moving was a painful experience, I decided that banging on a keyboard wasn’t in my best interest.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, but in case I haven’t, I’m a moron.
I have a particular set of skills. Skills that get me into trouble. Skills that generally lead me to the hospital waiting room. Or surgery. Or both. At a minimum, skills that get my insurance company in a tizzy and me shelling out a co-pay.

My specialty is sprained ankles. Four times that diagnosis has been made for me (Officially. I won’t count the numerous times that crutches weren’t required.) Thankfully, I like to keep it even. Twice on each leg. I’m an equal opportunity injurer (Is that a word?).
However, my back seems to think that it needs to catch up with my ankles on the “take me to the hospital” scale. Which is what led to me being incapacitated for the better part of two months.

Way back (get it?) in the day, in 2001, I hurt my back. Badly. I believe I did it trying to move Jet-ski’s around. But it was one of those times that you pull a muscle in your back, it hurts, it’s sore, but eventually it goes away. This time it didn’t go away. It got worse. Much worse. Probably going back to work after the injury didn’t help. By the time I got home from my hitch on the boat, I was in excruciating pain.
In an effort to relieve the pain, I went to a Chiropractor. Some of my friends swear by them.
I swear at them. Witch doctors!
I’m not saying that all Chiropractors are bad. I just had a REALLY bad experience with my first one. After the fact, I learned that it would have never made a difference what the Chiropractor did; he was never going to be able to fix me. I found that out after going to a second Chiropractor. One MUCH better than the first. One that actually made me not hate them as a group as much. However, I still call them Witch Doctors. The second one at least took some x-rays, ran some tests, and poked and prodded me before trying any sort of adjustment. It was also when I learned that my medical history was somewhat incomplete.
“When did you break you ribs?” Chiropractor #2 asked.
“Uuhhmm. Never.”  I replied, somewhat confused.
“Ahahaha. Yeah. No. You broke your ribs.”
I’m a danger to myself even when I don’t know it. I think I remember when I did that on a boat. I just didn’t know it at the time. Hurt like hell to breathe for a couple days. Apparently, that is what broken ribs feel like.

Only a matter of time.
Broken ribs notwithstanding, turns out I crushed the disc between L4 and L5 in my lower back. I knew something was really wrong when the doctor kept asking me to stand up straight as she tried to take an x-ray. My reply was, “I am standing up straight.”
Whereas, I got another, “Yeah. No.”
 “Well this is the best you’re gonna get. Take the picture so I can sit down before I pass out.”

I spent Christmas that year lying on the floor at a friend’s house as they, and my wife, ate Christmas dinner in the other room. The highlight of my day being when I threw up in their driveway just as we pulled in.
A few weeks later, I had surgery to remove the cartilage that was pressing on the nerve and causing the excruciating pain down my left leg.

Fast forward 13 years and I did it again.
Same problem. Same pain. Same issues. However, no throwing up in the driveway this time.
I skipped the Chiropractor this time and went straight to the back expert. When you’re an old pro at this sort of thing you can skip the middle man.

It was like déjà vu all over again.
“Stand up straight when we take the x-ray.”
“I am. Trust me, this is all you’re gonna get. Can I sit down now?”
Just standing at the counter to get signed in at the doctor’s office was torture. Initially, I said the pain this time wasn’t as bad as the first time. I was wrong. Way wrong.
Can you spot the problem?
X-rays, MRIs, minor outpatient surgery to try pain relieving shots, and a multitude of doctors’ appointments later, I was back (did it again) in surgery.

Two and half weeks after surgery, I was back (I can’t help it) at work. Which is a REALLY short amount of recovery time. Too short. But that is another blog post. Hopefully, sooner rather than later.

So my back is back.
I’m back to work.
The recovery is going slow but smooth. I still have trouble knowing where my limits are.  But my newly repaired back is more than willing to let me know when I cross those limits. 

Fingers crossed I can make it another 13 years before I do something stupid again. At least as far as my back is concerned.
Although I wouldn’t put any money down on it.

This is where I profess my undying love for my wife and all the support she has given me over the years. At one point during this back injury adventure she was forced to sleep on a bench upstairs (I say bench, but it is really a twin sized 12-inch memory foam mattress reading bench that I built to fit under the upstairs window). Every time I found a comfortable spot where the pain was somewhat tolerable, one of us would move, and the ‘happy spot of little pain’ would be gone. Since I was in no shape to go upstairs (I did it once. Stayed there for 2 days) she volunteered to abandon our comfy bed for the (equally comfy) bench seat/bed. After surgery, she dragged a mattress downstairs and put it in the corner to sleep back in our room. The first night it took me 45 minutes to get out of bed to go to the bathroom. Turns out, even though I love our memory foam mattress because it cradles and conforms to your body, after back surgery, sleeping on a memory foam mattress is like sleeping in quicksand. Because it cradles and conforms to your body, when your back muscles have been ripped apart and twisting and moving are impossibility, you yearn for a bed made out of a sheet of plywood. She figured at least she could be closer so that when nature calls, at least she could be within earshot so that she could be my leaning post as I shuffled around. 

My family puts up with enough just based on my work schedule alone. They really were my rock during this whole ordeal.