Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Dangerous Job

A few years ago, back when the TV show ‘Deadliest Catch’ was the go-to reference for everything nautical, my wife and one of her friends were discussing how dangerous the maritime industry seemed to be. Of course, all information about the maritime world was obtained from watching Alaskan fishermen battle with Mother Nature in their quest to line their pockets in the shortest amount of time humanly possible. 

Dangerous and cold
Dangerous? No doubt. 
In way of comparison, tugboating seemed, and for the most part is, pretty tame.

Granted, mistakes still happen. We are, in fact, all human. Humans make mistakes. And machinery and Mother Nature could care less one way or another.

As it were, during the particular time that my wife was insisting that tugboating is relatively safe compared to Alaskan crab fishing, three incidents happened in less than two weeks that glaringly reinforced to me that my profession is, in fact, a dangerous job.

To start with, one of the companies that I had previously worked for had a tug sink off of Cape Hatteras. This particular tug had a classmate of mine serving as the Chief Engineer, who fortunately happened to be on his time off. Three men died.

Later in the week, a tug that I had served aboard as a deckhand not too long before, was maneuvering with a barge. The tow wire connecting the two swung across the stern of the tug striking the deckhand and throwing him over the side into the water. As far as I know, they never found the body.

The third incident, in less than ten days, happened even closer to home. The company I worked for at the time had two tugs. We were working in New York harbor and our sister tug was moving barges up in the Hudson River. They were shifting a couple of barges off of a dock when one of the crew members slipped on the deck and fell into a gap between the two barges. He had a portable radio with him and called back to the tug to relay what had happened. Seconds later, the barges came together with him being trapped between them.

In less than two weeks, 5 good men were lost in incidents on boats and for companies that I was all too familiar with. It was going to be a tough sell trying to explain to outsiders that my job was not a dangerous one.

Personally, I’ve been very lucky. I’ve sprained my ankle (twice) at work. Gotten a sliver of metal in my eye while installing new radar. Sidebar:  I do not recommend driving yourself to the hospital with a metal shaving in your eye. It causes your eyes to water and makes you want to close your eyes as well. Two conditions that make driving down the highway at 65 miles per hour a very sketchy endeavor. I’ve also been on boats that have had minor fires aboard. Although, in retrospect, there is no such thing as a MINOR fire aboard a boat. I’ve had to put on SCBA in order to go down into the engine room to shut down a generator that had filled the entire boat with smoke. Had to extinguish a stack fire after a shipyard worker left some wood cribbing next to the hot exhaust pipes. Little stuff. Stuff that (hopefully) your years of training and experience help to mitigate before the situation becomes unmanageable. Little stuff after which, life just continues on the way it was before.

The other day, we were gathered on the upper deck of the boat, mustered at our lifeboat station conducting a Man Overboard / Abandon Ship drill. All of us were looking very motley as we donned our Survival Suits (‘Gumby Suits’ as they are known throughout the industry) and inspected the accompanying safety gear. 

Easy to see why they are called "Gumby Suits"
Unknown to us, 1200 miles away, off the coast of Long Island, New York, the exact emergency, the one that we were at that very moment training for, had just taken place.
The Tug Sea Bear was heading back to New York harbor from a dredging job that it had been working on out in Long Island. Something happened. I don’t know the exact details and perhaps never will. However, for some reason, the boat started taking on water. Undoubtedly, the Captain ordered his crew to don their survival suits. As the situation worsened, it surely became clear that the tug couldn’t be saved. At which point the ‘Abandon Ship’ order was given.

In the warm weather and the calm waters of the Mississippi River near New Orleans, our ongoing drill was nonchalant and relaxed. In New York, the water wasn’t calm. And it wasn’t warm.

At some point, the four man crew of the Sea Bear was forced into the stormy, 30-something degree water of the Atlantic Ocean. Three of the four men were wearing their life saving Survival Suits. A thick layer of orange neoprene designed to insulate your body against the bone chilling cold water. Without one, your chances of surviving being in the cold North Atlantic waters are almost zero. The Captain wasn’t wearing one.

Why wasn’t he wearing one? I have no idea. It wasn’t like he was new to the industry. He was a seasoned mariner. I happen to know this first hand.

The Captain was Don Maloney.

I was his Mate at that two boat company in New York.

I still have his phone number saved in my cell phone to this day. We had kept in touch after that small two tugboat company went by the wayside. I would have sailed with him any day of the week. He was a great Captain, a fine man, and to this day I can still hear his greeting to me…

“Hey, Scotty-boy.”

I’ve been contemplating for two days on how to end this blog post with something refined and eloquent. How to say, “Fair winds and following seas…” in my own special way without it seeming like the standard canned response to someone’s loss.

Two days I’ve thought about how to say that I’ll miss Captain Don Maloney.

The only thing I’ve been able to come up with is…


  1. My condolences. I have lost a few friends over the years to retirements shortened by illness and poor health habits and a few from accidents and mishaps of the worst sort. It's never easy to absorb the idea that someone you've sailed with, taken meals with, drank, laughed, endured hellish weather with, would be gone in the blink of an eye. I can hear their voices in my head and still tell the stories of what we saw or experienced, usually in the most colorful obscenity laced language a sailor is known for. May he and all of our shipmates rest easy and set the nightwatch for when we meet again. Fair winds, Godspeed.

  2. Wow, I am so sorry for your lose! This post was really interesting to read
    -Jenna <3
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