Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Weather Beat Me


We all know that one guy. The one guy who wears shorts the entire year. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night, no matter what the weather is, shorts are that guy’s preferred attire.

I am that guy.

Growing up in the northeast, we experienced our fair share of less than seasonable weather. I also had my fair share of winter weather clothing as a youth. I put my snow boots on wearing Wonder bread bags. I had the pairs of mittens that had a string running up your sleeve that fastened both mittens together to ensure there was no way to lose just one mitten. You had to lose both of them together. I had the little pompoms on my winter hat. We always had the lined up winter boots melting snow onto the floor right by the back door. I knew that when you were snow blowing a driveway to always shoot the snow downwind, no matter the circumstances. I had the cold weather thing down to a T.
This is also an acceptable way to put on a Survival Suit. So it's nautical.

You may lose your mittens, but at least they will be lost together.

Now that I’m an adult (arguable), I’m done with snow. I moved to the south. No more blizzards for me. Sure we get a snow storm or two down here. But the worst thing that happens is that they close school for a week. Apparently, the south agrees with me that shoveling should be done by the sun.
Alas, sometimes my job keeps me up in the northeast during the winter. This winter has been no exception. The work has been steady and plentiful. But it has also been cold. Cold winters kind of go hand in hand with keeping busy. And as long as people keep using home heating oil, the work transporting home heating oil to those in need will continue.
This year hasn’t been particularly cold. We have had some cold snaps. But the weather usually turns warmer after a few days. There have been a few days where the temperature was below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. That magical number where water freezes and the weather personalities on TV lose their collective minds. Pipes freezing, wind chills, Real-Feel temperatures, wearing layers, exposed skin, etc. all ad nauseum on the news when the magic number appears on the Exclusive Accu-Weather forecast. But so far, nothing that would prevent me from continuing to wear shorts 365. Until 2 weeks ago.

I have a few weather related phrases that drive me crazy. First and foremost, “safely out to sea”. I loathe this one. Sure, the weather system is going out to sea, away from everyone on land. Except for us. Those of us that work out to sea are about to get an ass kicking. Thanks, weather reading bobble head. A close second is, “frozen tundra”. Tundra, by definition, is frozen ground. So saying frozen tundra, is really just saying frozen frozen ground. So stop it. And the third weather cliché, and the reason for this post, is the newly emerging one, “polar vortex”. It popped up a few years ago for some reason. And now anytime the mercury dips down low, some newscaster has to explain a brief dip on the thermometer as being caused by a “polar vortex”. I’m sure I have a social media post out there threatening the first TV personality to mutter “polar vortex” with irreparable harm.
Not all weather is bad. Look at that relative humidity.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Finally.
A few weeks ago, the dreaded polar vortex descended upon the northeast. Concurrently, we were also scheduled to crew change in the northeast. I flew in Boston’ Logan Airport decked out in my New England Patriots sweatshirt (it was a few days before the Super Bowl) and a trusty pair of shorts. A slight breeze was blowing and a gentle snow was falling as well. It was below that magical 32 degrees, but I wasn’t planning on spending a long duration outdoors, so I could still pull off wearing shorts and a hoodie. The boat was delayed getting into the berth so I picked up the Chief Engineer and we headed off to do a bit of grub shopping and buy some new linens for the tug. After wasting a bit of time in the local Target store we headed out with our cache of food and our recently purchased Star Wars and Avengers bed sets. As we loaded our items into the car, the temperature had taken a noticeable dip and the wind had increased substantially. “I’m still good”, I thought, wrongly so. We next made a stop off at the neighboring Wendy’s fast food establishment. Where the Chief got some food and I bought (wait for it)  a Frosty. We headed back out to the car to finally go meet the boat at the dock, which is when I made a fateful decision. I swung the car around and we headed back to Target.
“Hey, the guy with the shorts is back!” the cashier at Target greeted me. “What you forget?”
“Pants. Mistakes were made.” I replied sullenly.
The guy who wears shorts 365 days a year, had finally met his match.
In my hand was a pair of sweat pants and two pairs of gloves. My Engineer had bought himself a winter jacket during our earlier foray at this particular Target store. I, one the other hand, had bought a pair of flip flops. Our priorities were quite a bit different. However, the Chief had neglected to buy a pair of gloves. At this point, knowing that a pair of pants, even for me, as going to be required. I figured a $5 pair of gloves would be a welcome purchase. So $30 later, I walked out of Target with a pair of pants and two pairs of gloves.
It's colder than a witch's... Well, you know.

And never has $30 been so well spent.
When we got to the dock, the temperature had dropped to 2 degrees. The wind was blowing a steady 30 mph. I’ll let you do your own wind chill math. It was COLD. As we sat in the car blasting the heat and waiting until the absolute last minute to grab our purchases and make a mad dash run to the boat, one of our other crew was parked next to us. He cracked his window just enough for me to hear him.
“Are you wearing shorts?” he teased.
“Yes.” I didn’t tell him they were under my newly purchased sweatpants.

The weather had beaten me.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Jones Act

Kind of like that.
Have you heard about the Jones Act recently? Maybe caught a hint of it during a news cast. Possibly you heard about it from a politician running through their list of media talking points. More than likely saw it mentioned in someone’s social media post.

Social media has been alight recently with posts about the Jones Act, also known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920. Most notably about how this almost 100 year old law has been hampering the recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. Not surprisingly, most of it has been wrong. Very wrong.

Even so, I tried to stay out of it. Seriously.
I tried.
I really did.

The problem is, no one, especially the ones squawking about it’s effects on the current recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, know jack-all about the Jones Act.
 Here is where this blog comes in to help you navigate (you’re welcome) the mass of misinformation currently being spread about the Jones Act and what the law actually entails.

Let me get this right out there at the beginning. The Jones Act is a Protectionist Law. You will get no argument from me on that point. But there are plenty of reasons for it to exist.

But let’s start with a basic “Cliff Notes” version of the Jones Act.
The Jones Act of 1920 is a cabotage law that regulates the Interstate transport of goods by water. Any cargo that originates in a US port, destined for another US port, must be transported by a US made vessel, which is crewed by US citizens, and owned by a US company. This law includes not only the contiguous US states, but the territories of the United States as well.
Doesn’t seem that difficult to understand, right?
Yet, here we are.

This year has been an exceptional bad year for hurricanes that have made landfall in the United States. Hurricane Harvey lashed the area between Corpus Christi and Matagorda, TX with strong winds and tidal surge. The storm then stalled out and dropped more than 3 feet of rain (in some areas double that) over the vast majority of the US Gulf coast. Flooding was a major problem and entire communities were swamped. The relief effort was enormous.

Shortly after Hurricane Harvey came ashore in Texas, all eyes turned toward the Caribbean as the next hurricane formed. It steamrolled across the Leeward Island as a Category 5 and took aim on the mainland of the US. During this time, I boarded my tug off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida and immediately made the best speed possible northward and out of the path of the closing storm.
Our normal route (in red) vs. the predicted "spaghetti models of Hurricane Irma.
 And for good reason. My memories still fresh of the US flagged ship El Faro and it’s crew of 33, one of whom, Jeff Mathias, was a classmate of mine at Massachusetts Maritime Academy. Who had left the same port of Jacksonville just shy of 2 years previously on it’s fateful last voyage before getting caught in Hurricane Joaquin and sinking with the loss of all aboard.

At the same time I was heading northward. My alma mater was preparing the school’s training ship Kennedy to head southbound. Loading the ship with relief supplies and preparing it to set sail for the flood devastated areas of Texas. The United States Maritime Administration (MARAD) had activated the school ship to provide support to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), just as it had done in 2012 for Superstorm/Hurricane Sandy.  Also activated for the response was the Empire State IV, SUNY Maritime’s training ship, and Texas A&M University's T/S General Rudder. Together, these three vessels can not only bring relief supplies such as water and food, but also house over 1,200 relief workers, freeing up local hotels for displaced residents. All of the state Maritime Academy vessels not only act as training vessels, but are also part of the National Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF), a collection of ships maintained by the Maritime Administration for use in times of national emergency. All crewed by US Merchant Mariners, and in the case of the Kennedy, some of the crew are personal friends of mine.
The Training Ship Kennedy. Not as cool as the TSPS!
Just after the Kennedy and the other training ships set sail for Texas, Hurricane Irma slammed into the Florida Keys. The storm delayed the Kennedy in its voyage through the Florida Straits, but eventually it arrived with its relief supplies in Corpus Christi, Texas. Just in time for the next hurricane in line to bear down on the already ravaged US Virgin Islands.
Hurricane Maria destroyed whatever was still standing in the previously hurricane hit Virgin Islands and then took direct aim on Puerto Rico.

Which brings us up to speed.
Cue the reports that the Jones Act needs to go!

But here’s the thing.
The Jones Act isn’t having any negative affect on the relief effort in Puerto Rico. In fact, a strong US Merchant Marine is the reason why the island of Puerto Rico is getting the much needed support that it currently is.

One of the most visible groups in any response effort is the US military. A big, gray Navy ship loitering just off the coast is a pretty good cue that help is on the way. However, a US Navy ship is (as they love to say over the VHF radio) a warship. Guns, missiles, and things that go ‘BOOM’ galore. But as far as providing the essentials, like food and water for thousands. A US Navy warship just isn’t up to the task. Which is where the US Merchant Marine comes into play.

USNS Comfort
Let’s just take a very visible example in the response to Puerto Rico, the US Navy Hospital Ship Comfort. I saw a few social media posts from politicians up on high about how the government should activate the Comfort and send it immediately to Puerto Rico to assist. And it sounds like a good idea. Send the US Navy to help. It’s even right there in the name, US Navy Hospital Ship. Except it isn’t. 
Well, kind of. 
Which is where we lose a lot of people. The Comfort IS a Navy ship. However, it is crewed and manned with…wait for it…United States Merchant Marine personnel. The doctors and nurses are mostly US Navy and US Navy Reserve, but the ones who run the ship, are all US Merchant Mariners. Do away with the Jones Act, decimate the US Merchant Marine, and who is there to crew the vessel?
Navy Ship. Says so right there. Kind of.
 Truth be told, the Comfort is actually a “MSC” ship. MSC, is just another Navy acronym, which stands for Military Sealift Command. MSC ships operate hand in hand with the US Navy all over the world. They are the tankers, munitions, and supply ships which support the US Navy in their day to day operations. Take away the MSC support ships and the Navy can’t operate. Seriously. Who else can supply the aircraft carriers with aviation fuel? The destroyers with provisions? The landing craft with ammo? The Navy needs all of these things, constantly. And who mans the MSC ships? United States Merchant Mariners. Who do you think brought all of the military’s wonderful toys of destruction to them during the conflicts in the Middle East? Answer: MSC Ships. Many of them are prepositioned all over the globe ready to support the US military wherever they are needed at a moment’s notice. Every single one of them crewed by United States Merchant Mariners.
Navy ship? Nope. Military Sealift Command. Note the blue and yellow stripe on the stack.

Navy ship doing UNREP (Underway Replenishment) with a US Merchant Marine MSC ship.

Both Military Sealift Command. US Merchant Marine crews running both of them.

It is said that, “An Army marches on its stomach.”
The same can be said of the Navy. “The Navy sails on the back of the Merchant Marine.”

In addition, please don’t think that the US Merchant Marine is just the deep draft “Blue Water” merchant ships. It also includes the thousands and thousands of tugs, barges, ferries, passenger ships, ATB’s, and anything else that plies the coastal waters of the United States.The Jones Act specifically protects the Interstate trade of our country.
Jones Act ships being built in Philadelphia.

One of the many tug and barges that specifically supply Puerto Rico in the Jones Act trade.

Ocean-going Articulated Tug/Barge unit which is also a Jones Act vessel.

Perhaps a better example would be to use the airline industry. The airlines have their own set of laws that protect their own interests. It is completely acceptable for American Airlines to fly from Charlotte to Paris, France. Conversely, it is acceptable for Air France to fly from Paris to Charlotte.  But it is not lawful for Air France to fly from Charlotte to Denver. The airlines have protectionist laws against that. Nor could American Airlines fly from Paris to Nice. The French would frown upon our airlines trying to take over their own interstate transportation. 

The same holds true for US flagged shipping because of the Jones Act. It is perfectly acceptable for a US ship to go to Barcelona, Spain (been there myself). It is also acceptable for a foreign flagged ship to load in Dubai and come to New York. The ship can even discharge part of it's cargo in New York and then continue to Philadelphia to discharge the rest of it. However, it CANNOT load cargo in one US port and bring it to another US port. 

In reference to Puerto Rico, foreign flagged ships are more than welcome to bring their goods to the island anytime they please. Many times over the last few days I have heard that foreign flagged vessels that are going to Puerto Rico have to stop in the US and unload their cargo so that it can go to Puerto on a US flagged Jones Act vessel. This is 100%, categorically FALSE. The truth is, 70% of all ships that stop in Puerto Rico are foreign flagged. The Jones Act only affects cargo that originates in a US port. It is also true that most seafaring nations have a similar set of cabotage laws that protect their own shipping interests. Those countries are also interested in maintaining a strong maritime presence. They don't want to become reliant on another country's merchant fleet to deliver goods that they can transport themselves. And neither should the United States.

Believe me this post could go on for a quite a bit longer. The Jones Act is more than just the ships that call on Puerto Rico and the Hawaiian Islands. There is so much more to it than just that small sampling of what we do.

Sadly, if you destroy the Jones Act, you destroy the Merchant Marine, the Navy, the shipbuilding, the shore side terminals, and open up our interstate commerce to substandard shipping. There is the law of unintended consequences that will reverberate throughout the coastal states and the entire country.
Getting rid of the Jones Act is an incredibly short-sighted, bad idea.

So, please, before you listen to some politician’s social media post, or someone’s opinion based on a newspaper article, take the time to do your own research. I am more than willing to answer any questions or comments you may have.
I know the Jones Act.
It is my job to.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Tugboating Top Tips

Memorial Day. The “Unofficial” Start to Summer.
Pay no attention to all of that “remembering our nation’s fallen warriors” stuff. 

It’s time to get the hamburgers and hot dogs a grillin’, get all boozed up, and head out on the water in that boat that you haven’t even looked at since last October. Woo!
For us, the “Unofficial” start to WAFI and MAFI season is more like it. Interestingly enough, this week (May 20th to the 26th) is also called National Safe Boating Week. I submit that it should be renamed “Idiots with More Money Than Brains” week. It’s catchy. Not surprisingly, this weekend there was no shortage of a complete lack of nautical knowledge to be found.
Stupid hurts. And is a bit expensive.
So in an attempt to spread some nautical tid-bits of seafaring knowledge with the masses, I present to you: Tugboating Top Tips for the Woefully Unprepared Seasonal Boater (abridged version).

Tip #1: Radio Checks.
Stop it. Just stop it. Especially on VHF Channel 16! All summer long Channel 16 is clogged up with weekend warriors and their “Radio Check, Radio Check”. And all summer long the watchstanders at U.S. Coast Guard stations all over the country reply with “Radio Checks are conducted on VHF Channel Zero-Nine”. I get it. You haven’t even though about doing any maintenance on your boat since you put it away last fall. I’m sure the squirrels have had a glorious time nibbling on you radio wires in the dead of winter. But a simple check of your equipment shouldn’t have to be broadcast to the entirety of the nautical world on the one channel that is designated as an emergency hailing frequency. So cut it out!
It's okay. You can switch channels.

Tip #2: More Radio Stuff.
Here is another VHF Radio Top Tip. If you are trying to contact a commercial vessel on VHF Channel 16 (and this is especially important in the New York Harbor area and major ports with a Vessel Traffic Control system), don’t be too surprised if no one on that commercial vessel is listening. Now, stick with me for a second, as I’m sure some of you are confused. Most people assume that everyone is listening on Channel 16 all of the time, as well you should. It’s in The Rules. Here’s the legal stuff:

In general, any vessel equipped with a VHF marine radiotelephone (whether voluntarily or required to) must maintain a watch on channel 16 (156.800 MHz) whenever the radiotelephone is not being used to communicate. (FCC 47 CFR §§ 80.148, 80.310)

So there it is. Except when it’s not. More legal stuff:

In addition, every [commercial] power-driven vessel … (condensed to take out some legal mumbo-jumbo) must also maintain a watch on channel 13 (156.650 MHz) --channel 67 (156.375 MHz) if operating on the lower Mississippi River-- ; …(more condensing) These vessels must also maintain a watch on the designated Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) frequency, in lieu of maintaining watch on channel 16, while transiting within a VTS area. (See 33 CFR §§ 2.36, 26, and 161; 47 CFR §§ 80.148, 80.308-309)

So there you go. Simple, right? Here is the gist of it:

Commercial vessels are listening in on VHF channel 13 ALL OF THE TIME (channel 67 on the Miss. River). So if you need to get ahold of a commercial vessel, take a second and switch from channel 16 to 13 and hail them on that channel. Your chances of success on reaching said vessel on 13 are much better than calling on channel 16.

Case in point. In my wheelhouse I have 4 mounted VHF radios and a portable VHF radio at my disposal. While operating in a Vessel Traffic area, I have one radio monitoring Vessel Traffic, a second radio always tuned to channel 13 to monitor and communicate with any concerned vessel traffic, a third radio monitoring my company’s “house channel”, and the fourth radio monitoring our vessel’s “working channel”. Listening in on four different radio frequencies is a handful. At times, to help to try to limit “information overload” radios #3 and 4 might get turned down, or turned off. Based on the amount of radio chatter, you sometimes need to prioritize which radio channels need to be monitored. Channel 13 and the Vessel Traffic channels are at the top of the list. To add on monitoring channel 16 in a busy harbor just adds to the confusion. Hence, the “in lieu” provision in the above legalese.

So, to sum up the last couple of paragraphs of long winded babbling and to make this as simple and easy as possible:

Call commercial vessels on channel 13. There, easy.

Sidebar: Out to sea, chances are pretty good that you will be able to get a commercial vessel on channel 16, just don’t expect the same results in the harbor.
Mariner Multi-tasking.

Tip #3: Navigation Lights.
Squirrels like navigation light wires just as much as they like marine VHF radio wires. So before you head out in “Druken Engineer” (name of an actual boat I heard calling the USCG for assistance) for the first time this year, check to make sure your navigation lights work. Last weekend I heard a boat call a tug who was making up to their barge mid-stream say they were hard to see because their sidelights were burned out. Not smart. Also, not smart is displaying the incorrect navigation lights. I already dislike sailboats. What makes me dislike them even more is when some salty sailboat captain decides the way to best be seen is to put on not only one set of running lights, but two! Here is a nice little diagram that highlights what I’m talking about.
Please note the “EITHER” in reference to the running lights in the first picture. It means you can display ONE or THE OTHER. Not both! Don't be "That Guy".

Tip #4: Power driven vs. Under sail.
Since I’m already ripping on sailboats, and since pictures are worth a thousand words. Let me end with this flurry of pictures. See if you can spot the subtle differences between a sailboat and a power driven vessel. The Rules of the Road concerning these two types of vessels are quite different.

Not a sailboat. Power boat.

Power boat with a big aluminum lightning rod attached. Not a sailboat.

So there you go. Four simple Top Tips to help make your summer boating experience a bit more fun and a bit safer. But hopefully safer. Because if you're safer, that makes me safer. And I'm all for that.