Saturday, December 7, 2013

Corpus, You Never Disappoint Me

As frequent readers of this blog know, Corpus Christi, Texas is one of my favorite places to crew change. Although, I have recently declared Lake Charles, LA as our New #1, Corpus Christi has once again tried to claw it's way back to the top spot.

We all arrived for crew change at the Corpus Christi airport early. We had just spent Thanksgiving at home and wanted to make sure that we avoided the holiday crowds and got our reliefs off the boat and on the way home to their families on time.
The trouble started with them being anchored offshore. Normally, this isn't a problem (well, unless you count all the times where the weather conditions tried to kill us). For some reason, no one wanted to take us out to the boat in a launch. So even though we were hours early for crew change, we had to wait for the boat to come into the port and arrive at the dock.
So what do 7 guys do in order to kill a few hours with nothing to do? Naturally, you go to Walmart.
Also, naturally, this is a REALLY bad idea.

There is only so much to see and do in Walmart. Of course you also had to add in the Black Friday crowds as well. Nothing good could come out of this. And it didn't.
We looked at rice cookers. Checked the prices on all of the big screen TVs that were on sale. Bought some deodorant and shampoo. Wandered around the whole store checking out all of the 'Made in China' stuff they had. And made fun of all of the Walmartians and Walmutants that were out in search of bargains.
Eventually, we found our way over to the section that had Christmas clothing. This is where, by this point I'm sure, that the store security had every single camera in the store pointed at us. They had Santa hats. Some weird cow hat. T-shirts and sweatshirts. But what really caught my eye was this...
The Texas version of the Ugly Christmas Sweater.
I bought it.
Other members of the crew bought similar outfits. They also had this...
Silky smooth.
Which, in retrospect, it was a really good thing that no one bought. Because on a boat, a purchase like that can quickly degenerate into something like this...
It's a K-mart commercial. Look it up. It's funny. And disturbing.
Alas, you can only spend so much time perusing the goods available in Walmart. So we went to McDonald's. Conveniently located in the back of Walmart. And proceeded to order 21 double cheeseburgers. And 2 Holiday Pies. Which caused some funny looks. Which, I can only assume, was due to the quantity of Holiday Pies.

A quick call to the boat revealed that they were going to be delayed even more in their arrival at the berth. Unfortunately, we had exhausted our patience level in Walmart and decided a different locale would be a better place to wait a few more hours. It was decided that the lobby of  the local Holiday Inn would make an acceptable location.
You would think that a lobby of a Holiday Inn at 10 o'clock at night on the day after Thanksgiving would be a quiet place to kick your feet up, right? Wrong.
As we proceeded to grab a few spots on the couches at the hotel, a wedding broke out. That's right, a wedding. Right there in the lobby of the Holiday Inn. How romantic.
Best of luck to the new couple.
I told you Corpus was trying to edge it's way back into First Place.

After killing a few more hours at the hotel, we went back to Walmart to do our grub shopping for the hitch. We were going to take it nice and slow and kill some more time before we could get on the boat. That didn't work out so well either.
34 minutes to buy 2 weeks worth of food.
Damn it!

As we were checking out another quick call to the boat revealed that they were going to be even more delayed getting into the dock. More time to kill. But now with a van full of food. So off to the dock we went anyways.

When we got to the terminal, the rent-a-cop security told us that we couldn't enter the terminal until the boat arrived. So we pulled into the parking lot ( in reality, a grass field) to wait. Whereupon the driver, in one smooth fluid motion, managed to put the van in park and pull out his iPad immediately, in order to watch RED2 on, what can only be described as VOLUME LEVEL 9,684!!!!! I just wanted to close my eyes and take a nap.

Eventually, after more than 9 hours of trying to waste time, the boat arrived. The other crew sprinted by us in order to try to get to the airport in time to make their flights going home.

So much for getting to the boat early.

Well played, Corpus Christi. Well played.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Time to go Shopping

I lose my car keys at the house all of time. It’s a skill I have become quite good at. Losing things at home is no big deal. However, losing things on the boat IS a big deal. 
Patron Saint of Lost Things 

A few hours ago The Boss and I were sitting in the wheelhouse awaiting the arrival of the other crew. The conversation was about nothing in particular. But one subject that came up was leaving things behind. I mentioned that I have left my wallet behind on the boat before. Not having a driver’s license, credit cards, or money can be problematic for 2 weeks. Just random conversation. No big deal.

When the launch boat came alongside and just as we were leaving the wheelhouse I noticed that The Boss had left his iPod next to the radio.
“Hey, don’t forget your iPod. That would suck not to have for 2 weeks.”
“Yes, it would. Thanks.”
And off we went. 

When we got to the dock I opened my bag to get my ID, wallet, and my money so I would have it with me. It was then I realized my cell phone wasn’t in my pocket. It also wasn’t in my bag. A quick check of the memory bank determined that I had left it on the window sill of the wheelhouse. Your know, the wheelhouse where I reminded The Boss not to forget his iPod. 

Moments later, my suspicions were confirmed as the Chief Engineer laughed at me and said, “Your cell phone is calling me. Want me to answer it?” Crap.

So I have no cell phone
It’s alright, I was planning on buying a new one this time home anyway. 

Now I just have to figure out how to call my wife from the airport so I can get a ride home.

That might be a problem.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Good 'Ole Days

Technology sure has transformed the maritime industry. I could go on and on about advances in RADAR, AIS, GPS, SONAR, and a whole host of other maritime related acronyms. But what I’m really talking about is advances in communication devices, namely, cell phones. 

When I first started in the business there were no cell phones. If you wanted to talk to your loved ones, family members, friends, probation officer, or just a good divorce lawyer, the only way to communicate with them was a good old pay phone. Obviously, there are some logistical problems with using pay phones when you work on boats. Most glaringly, there are no pay phones on boats. Your only option was to wait until you get to a dock in order to use one. After a while, you knew the location of every single pay phone, at every single dock, in every single terminal, in every single port that you went to. Now just because you managed to figure out the location of all of the payphones on the eastern seaboard, you still had to deal with a bunch of other issues. 
The now extinct "payphone". For the younger crowd.
Namely, just because you finally were able to get to the dock and find a working pay phone, there was no guarantee that the person you wanted to talk to was going to be near their phone. Many a conversation was dashed to pieces by the phone ringing and ringing and ringing etc. only to fall on deaf ears. Back in the day some people didn’t even have answering machines. On occasion, even that didn’t matter. Case in point, even today, I call my parents and their answering machine has the ‘robo-voice’ greeting on it. I love technology. How my parents have not managed to embrace the technological advances in the world and yet still have me as a child is mind boggling. 

Another issue that I had concerning pay phones was that my wife was still in college when I first started working on boats. At the time, she didn’t have a private phone in her room. So I was forced to call another payphone that was in the hallway of her dorm in order to talk to her. After being at anchor for over a week, all you could hope for was that some kind soul would answer the phone and then attempt to find her so that we could talk. More often than not, it just rang and rang. Sometimes you would get someone. Sometimes they might even go look for her. Sometimes they just left the phone hanging off the hook. Sometimes you just listened to the conversations in the background of an off the hook phone just because it was all you had. Sometimes, on the very rare occasion, we actually got to talk to one another. In retrospect, I wouldn’t be surprised if they weren’t more than one mariner type relationship that had ended because of payphones.
“No, sorry. She isn’t here.”
“That’s too bad. Hey, what are you doing tonight?” Or something along those lines. 

For some reason, she stuck with me through the payphone days.
Then came the cell phone era. As with the beginning of most things, it started with one. 

One hitch, the Chief Engineer on a long past boat, came back with this new miracle of communication. It might as well have been a communicator from Star Trek as far as we were concerned.
"No Service"...Damn it, Spock!!!...
The cost per minute for using this new cell phone was absolutely ridiculous. The cell phone tower coverage sucked. It was ugly, unwieldy, and unreliable.
And we all had to have one!!!
The days of standing out in the snow and rain waiting for your turn on the only payphone within 50 miles was over!

It started with the Chief’s phone. A trip or two later the Captain had one. Then someone else bought one.
Eventually, when we sat down at the galley table for dinner, there was a pile of cell phones in the middle of the table. Should one of them ring, it was a mad scramble to determine who the proper owner of the phone was. No personalized ring tones back in the day.
Hello?... Hello?... Hello?...

Fast forward to today. Everyone has a cell phone. Most are smart phones. Most have more computing power then some of those early day RADARs, AIS units, and other assorted letter jumble electronics we have aboard.
Right up until it breaks.
Which is where we are today. 

My wife’s cell phone broke. Technical support (me) from a few hundred miles away wasn’t able to fix it. She is now cell phoneless. An absolutely horrible condition in today’s technological world. 

Calls to the house went unanswered. Messages left on the answering machine were ignored.
It was like being back in the old days of the payphone all over again. The horror!

A new cell phone is on order. In the interim, she had a friend give her an old phone that she had lying around. It might be able to send text messages. It might not. Either way, it is a phone. We can talk once again. Honestly, if she happened to look in one of our kids toy boxes she probably would have been able to find my original cell phone. It got retired on 9/11/01 after the terrorist attacks. I got frustrated, threw it on the galley table, and smashed the screen. Yet the thing still worked. Probably still does. Try that with one of today’s smart phones.
You never forget your first

With all of that being said, sometimes it’s nice not being in constant communication with the rest of the world. There aren’t any cell phone towers offshore. And some of the places we go, the phone and internet service is spotty, at best. It’s nice to be “off the grid” every now and then.

Then again, it is also nice to be able to talk to my wife and kids when I’m at work. 

Plus, it also means I get to look for a new phone when I get home. Why should she be the only one with a cool new cell phone?

Saturday, November 2, 2013

We Have a NEW #1!!!

"Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it." - George Santayana

It used to be that my favorite place to crew change was off Corpus Christi, TX.
For reference please see HERE and HERE
Alas, times have changed. 

Please welcome Calcasieu Pass Anchorage off of Lake Charles, LA to the top of the list for fun places to die in a horrible maritime accident crew change.

It started of innocently enough. A quick text message:  “Ok everything is set for a launch off lake charles. Take your Dramamine its gonna be 4-5 feet. Tug will be underway so they can make a lee.”
Now there is a long running rule in the maritime world that whenever you get a forecast from our friends over at the National Weather Service you take the forecast numbers, add them together, and what you end up with will be the actual wind and wave conditions. In this case, add the 4-5 foot wave forecast to get 9 footers. Not surprisingly, that was just about right. This crew change made the Corpus crew changes look like a piece of cake.
Our choice of launch boats for this venture was a 36-foot catamaran style police/dive boat. Think party barge on steroids. 
Pontoon boat. a.k.a. Party Barge.  
Considering the sea conditions it was about as smooth a ride as we were going to get. Except, of course, if you happened to factor in the 100-foot+ offshore supply boats that were tied up next to us. 
More appropriate?
If you add in the ton of grub that we bought, 7 of us going to the boat, 2 crew members for the launch boat, it could be said that space on board the launch was at a premium. Half of us were inside the cabin, the other half got to sit outside on the stern in the weather. Which, in retrospect, was kind of handy, had the Chief Engineer decided to lighten the load by getting rid of any food that he had eaten that day. I think we may have even made it out to the jetty entrance before the guys outside were soaking wet. 

Once outside the jetty the ride didn’t get any better. The guys outside didn’t get any less soaked. And the chatter about the Chief chumming for the fish seemed to diminish more and more the longer the ride went on. And when we got in the vicinity of the tug, the friendly banter ceased altogether.
It was immediately clear that this was not going to be an easy crew change. 

Even with the tug underway and trying its best to create a lee in the winds and waves for the launch boat to come alongside, we all knew that wasn’t going to happen. The tug’s rubber fendering was coming out of the water so high that if the launch came alongside it would have crushed the boat, and anyone that happened to be in the way, as it came crashing back down.  
Plan B was instituted.
The other crew then had to rig a pilot ladder over the side for us to try to scramble aboard the barge that way. Hats off to the pilots who have to do the transfer from a pilot boat to another vessel and vice versa every day. It is no easy task. Timing is everything. It might even be the ONLY thing. Because if your timing is off, and the boat surges at the wrong time, it is truly ‘GAME OVER’ for you. You are either getting crushed, going into “the drink”, or any other number of situation that can only end badly for you. It happens every year where pilots have been killed or severely injured in transfers to/from pilot boats. Our only hope was not to become one of those statistics. With 7 guys going on, and 7 guys coming off the statistics weren’t on our side.

I didn’t have a chance to observe the whole operation. My job was to get onboard the barge, scurry back to the tug, go to the wheelhouse to relieve my guy of steering the boat, and allow him to scurry back to the barge in order to get aboard the launch. All I know was that some arrivals and departures weren’t so graceful. 
Full disclosure: Mine was one of those not so graceful ones. The timing was right. The grip by one of my hands on the Jacobs Ladder was suspect. I swung to the right, holding onto the ladder with one hand and one foot, as the other foot and hand searched for something to grasp on to. I lost style points for that one. But, I managed to regain a solid grip and climb aboard the pitching barge without being mangled by the launch. Bonus points for that. 
One Foot? No!
One hand? Not how it is suppose to be done!

After that, for me at least, it was just trying to keep the boat pointed up into the seas as the other crew got aboard the launch. I heard more style points were lost during that procedure. Even more point were lost during the transfer of our grub and the other crew’s personnel effects.

When we got aboard the launch there was a GIANT cooler that we loaded all of our grub into. When we got to the boat and we realized that there was no way we were going to go alongside the tug we had to institute a new plan to get the cooler with said grub aboard the barge. The only way to do it was to use the barge’s crane to pick up the cooler and swing it onto the barge. Now, picture a small boat, alongside a larger boat, both pitching a rolling at different rates. Add to that a giant metal hook at the end of a cable at the end of a boom swinging at a completely different rate. Imagine trying to attach this giant metal hook to a cargo net containing a cooler with a ton of food without getting knocked out or killed with all of the aforementioned issues. It took more than one try. Once aboard, the food was replaced with the off-going crew’s luggage. Once again, a cargo net with a giant cooler, loaded with stuff, attached to a cable, at the end of a boom, was attempted to be surgically lowered onto a small pitching boat from the deck of a larger pitching boat. This too, took more than one attempt.

In a way, I’m happy I was in the wheelhouse and missed most of it.

I hate doing stupid things.

Even more, I hate watching other people doing stupid things.

In terms of stupid things, this crew change was way up on the “Stupid Shit-o-meter”!

Friday, October 11, 2013

3 Weeks

3 weeks on a tugboat is a long time. This last trip was an extended one so that we can switch around our work schedule with the opposite crew for the upcoming holidays. This way, one crew has the holidays off on one year and works the holidays the following year. Granted, it is only a week longer than our standard hitch. 50% longer for those of you who like math.  But, it seems to last MUCH longer than that. Of course, THIS didn't help either.
Apparently, we tend to get a little bit punchy at the end of three weeks. Not punchy in the way that you would like to hit someone repeatedly, although the Chief Engineer seems to take quite a beating on most days (I think he likes it). But punchy in the way that you just seem to find everything absolutely hilarious. No matter how small or trivial. Take this picture, for instance...

Mongo, our deckhand, and lasagna cook extraordinaire, for some reason, downloaded it onto his phone. He showed it to me in the galley just before we were suppose to be getting off of watch. I'm not really sure why.
Some say... it was because it was 0530 in the morning, or... that it was because we were 20 days into a 3 week hitch. All we know is... it was FRIGGIN' HILARIOUS!!!

If you don't get the previous reference, you MUST go watch some episodes of Top Gear.
It's okay. I'll wait.
And... You're Welcome!
Make sure it's the British version on BBC America. Not that crappy rip off on Discovery, or History channel, or whatever. That one stinks to high heaven.

So Mongo, shows me the picture and we both immediately start laughing uncontrollably. Reverting back to our childhoods and the joy that was Saturday morning cartoons.
"What about the part where he flies over the paintbrush with glue?...Ahahaha"
"Ahahaha...and the glue is labelled 'GLUE' just so you know what it is!"
This went on for over an hour. Well over and hour.
To the point where when the Redneck was getting ready to go to bed, he poked his head in the galley and asked if we were going to be wrapping this up anytime soon.
We weren't.
In fact, it continued on into the next watch.
Going as far as to involve the pilot we had onboard that afternoon.
He too was sucked into the utter ridiculousness that was that Warner Brothers cartoon.
So without further adeiu...
I present to you...
Bully for Bugs

Hilarious! Right?
It was released in 1953. A mere 60 years ago. I think it still stands the test of time.

At least it sure seemed to at the end of 3 weeks.

Nah. It stands the test of time. I still think it's funny.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Dose of Reality

Usually when I tell someone that I work on a tugboat the standard reaction is, “Wow. I’ve never met anyone that does that. That is so cool.” I then attempt to answer all of the questions they have concerning the maritime industry.
“What do you do at night?”
 “Where do you stay?”
 “What do you do for food?”
 “How long do you work?” Etc. Etc.

Two years ago, our new neighbors moved in across the street. After pleasant introductions, the conversation gravitated towards what everyone did for work. Once again, I prepared myself for the onslaught of the usual questions. 

Imagine my surprise when my new neighbor mentioned that he works for two weeks and then has two weeks off.
Someone works the same type of schedule that I do?

As it turned out, Kevin was a pilot. He flew anti-cocaine drug interdiction missions in South America. For once, I was the one with all of the questions.

For the next two years, Kevin and I worked the exact same schedule. He was home the same days I was and gone for the same ones as well. He missed the same holidays I did. He was around for the same birthday parties as I. We were both around during the day so we could go to the shooting range together. We could ride our quads late in the evening and not worry about having to be at work early the next day. A quick walk across the street to lend a tool or borrow a lawn edger was all it took. It was refreshing to have a friend that understood what it was like to be away from home and your family six months out of the year.
It was also nice to be able to say to your friend, “What are you doing tomorrow?”
And then laugh at all of those people who were stuck in their 9 to 5 jobs.

This last time that I was off from work we moved into our new house. Granted, we only moved 0.68 miles. Essentially, we moved from one side of the main road, across the street, to the other side of the main road. But it meant that Kevin wasn’t going to be my neighbor anymore. It meant I wasn’t going to be able to look out my front door and see Kevin doing something stupid on his ladder as he was trying to hang up his Christmas lights. It meant that when we need more chairs for our “Thanksgiving Three-Peat” I couldn’t just walk across the street to get more. It meant that babysitting services (for both houses) weren’t just a walk across the front lawn. 

Just before I came back to work, Kevin and his family came over to our new house to take the 5-cent tour. As they were leaving, Kevin and I shook hands and he said, “Hey, see you in two weeks.”
“Nope. Three weeks,” was my reply, “We are doing our holiday switch around this time.”
“Well that sucks. That means our schedules are going to flip. With you guys moving and now the schedules changing I’ll never see you guys again.”
“I severely doubt that.”

A few days ago my wife called me and left a message on my cell phone.
Two things were wrong with that. First, my wife never calls my cell phone when I’m off watch. Secondly, she never leaves me a message. Especially one that says, “Hey, give me a call when you can.”

The next day I called my wife back.
The exact details of the call I don’t recall.
But the one line I do remember, “Kevin isn’t coming home.”

Kevin was at work flying a mission. During the flight, his plane suffered some kind of mechanical problem and went down.
Kevin’s co-pilot suffered severe injuries in the crash.
Kevin was killed.

Once again, I’m at work and there is nothing I can do. I can’t be there to comfort his family. I can’t be there to help. I won’t be home to attend his funeral. My only solace is that if there were anyone who would understand that I’m stuck at work and the reasons why I can’t be there, it would be Kevin. And even that doesn’t help.

Kevin leaves behind his wife, two step sons, and his own toddler son. Just last week, my wife told me that Kevin and his wife are expecting another child. 
He was 39.

I miss my friend.

More than words can ever say.