Sunday, October 30, 2011

catch up post. Working at sea

One of the things that might make a person think that life out here is a bowl of cherries is the number of posts I have made throughout the years about some of the fun and mischief that goes on out here at sea.

From the posts I have made you would think that I ran away and joined the circus, but it really is not the case. I have posted a few of the more spectacular pranks that have happened out here over a lengthy career.

Out here this is pretty much a job where a bunch of men simply behave like men do when working together. There are quite a few that do not seem to have any time for dopey little things and there are some that probably have to be kept in check to keep the entire place from turning into a three-ring circus.

We are probably not very much different than our shoreside counterparts except that we are entrusted with the day to day opertions of some very expensive equipment and lives. We have to be responsible for it.

It should be duly noted that we are generally out of sight and sometimes totally out of communication with our shoreside supervisors for long periods of time. There have been times I have not seen a supervisor board a vessel for months.

You might think for a minute what kind of person they assign to a multi-million dollar piece of equipment, or at least in a supervisory capacity.

While I have seen (and been a victim of) a number of pretty spectacular pranks out here, they are nowhere as common as one might think, but from time to time, like topsy, they seem to occasionally appear out of nowhere. A few of them have been pretty elaborate.

There is another thing out here that is a bit over rated and that is the general attitude of what happens on the boat stays on the boat and to some extent that is true, but again it is quite a bit over rated as you should think for a second that when a ship's officer covers for someone (depending on the transgression) he is putting his job and sometimes license on the line.

While there are to be sure a number of small things that get glossed over with some regularity they are generally along the same nature of things that would be glossed over on any shoreside job. You have to remember that there has to be a level of sanity out here lest the entire place crumble into nothing. Still, some boats seem to have a mischievious air about them and the crews do seem to have a little more fun than others but when you get down to brass tacks even the boats with mischievious reputations manage to stay pretty professional.

Over the years there have been a number of attempts made by shoreside supervisors to try and crack the much over-rated 'what goes on here stays here' attitude because some of their imaginations have tended to run wild. A few of them picture a zoo scene of drinking and carrying on, unreported accidents and broken equipment which is generally nothing more than their imagination running wild as it really is pretty difficult to hide a whole lot out here. Word eventually gets out.

Still, a coworker recently related to me a funny story about how at his previous employer a new supervisor showed up and announced to the crew that 'The code of the boats' is over. He then passed out a bunch of little 'rat your buddy' out cards.

Men don't like being treated like little kids and the crew of that particular boat did just what I suppose I would have done in the same circumstances. Every one of the cards was filled out with stupid little things. "Bob put his shoes on the wrong feet one morning' or 'Larry walked past a piece of paper and didn't pick it up'. My favorite one was 'Curly doesn't comb his hair'. Of course, Curly didn't HAVE any hair to comb.

Then they sent the cards in over the supervisor's head and made a fool out of him when some higher-up looked at the cards. The supervisor had sadly thought that simply announcing that that 'the code of the boats' is over was going to change things. Fat chance.

I don't place my life in the hands of a shoreside supervisor. I do, however, place my life in the hands of a shipmate from time to time and when you think of it that tends to effect a person's loyalties. On the other hand when you place your life in the hands of shipmates you also tend to get picky about who your shipmates are. You do not tolerate substandard people out here.

This is an odd business, the only one I have ever been in where a man can be recommended for a position after having someone describe him with, "He's an asshole, but he's OK."

I ave actully used that term when recommending someone and I would not be surprised if I have been described as such. I can be annoying at times, but I do know my job.

While it certainly is my job to be loyal to my employer and look out for his interests I have to be sure to show a certain loyalty to my shipmates. They are human, too. The way that happens is that little problems are nipped at the bud and dealt with at as low a point in the chain of command as possible. Seldom is it necessary to bring a supervisor into something that can be simply and informally settled on board. The object isn't to subject a halfway decent member of the team to Draconian punishment as it is to prevent reoccurences.

A fellow captain had a minor problem to deal with once and I respect the way he handled it. An oncoming crewman came aboard with liquor on his breath. While he wasn't obviously tanked he was in violation of one of the more serious rules out here. There is no room for liquor or illegal drugs on board. The captain promptly put him to bed and 'counseled' him later that afternoon. He then put the incident behind him and said nothing to the office. It really didn't need mentioning at that point as he figured this was a good man and a one time thing.

A couple of trips later the same thing happened with the same guy and the captain simply picked up a phone. Adios, amigo.

I may tend to overlook a few small things like someone sneaking into a generator room for an odd cigarette or maybe one of the guys making up a line from the locker and giving it to a dockman to make his job easier. Much of this is nothing more than common sense good will and pays dividends in the long haul.

Smart supervisors know this and leave it alone.

Still, the basics are there and have to be dealt with. I am not going to cover up for buffoonery or incompetence because it is simply going to come back to me and haunt me. If a shipmate doesn't cut the mustard, he's gone and that is simply the way it is. I can't afford to risk a multi-million dollar piece of equipment because Little Jimmy thinks he is special so he doesn't have to leave his Bourbon ashore or thinks it's OK to smoke on deck while loading gasoline. Stupidity like that simply isn't tolorated.

These days I'm blessed with pretty damned good supervisors, thank God. Personally I think they are grateful that we do take care of small things out here and save them the trouble.

This past summer there were a couple of ten minute water fights between my vessel and another tied up alongside us at the company pier. Nobody said so much as a word about it because they knew that there was actually a positive outcome from it. Both crews were friends and it was really just a ten minute happy little venting of day to day frustrations. Besides, it was hotter than hell out and both crews were working outside on damned hot steel decks and a little hosedown also served the purpose of cooling everyone off.

As hot as it was that day you could consider a dopey little water fight to be in the interest of safety. No use becomming a heat casualty. Now that I think about it, it was more of a mutual hosing down disguised as a water fight. It was damned hot that day and we all needed it.

Still, to the average landsman that walks in when something like a dopey little water fight erupts, he gets the idea that the entire industry is a bunch of lunatics that do little work and party all day. Either that or he is envious of the easygoing ways among the guys that doesn't exist in his workplace. Quite often I think it is the latter.

One of the things that happened to me about fifteen years ago is a pretty good example of the latter.

It was a crew change morning and the crews of both a tug and barge were getting off to go home for a well deserved rest leave as soon as the barge was tied up. The reliefs for the barge were waiting on the dock and the reliefs for the tug were waiting at the company pier about thirty minutes away.

Unlike most times when a deckhand and a bargee would tie the barge up, the entire crews, both watches were out on deck of the barge. Everyone was a bit tired and probably a little punchy. I know I was.

Anyways, someone started singing a dopey little song. It was an old Dr Hook song, "Cover of the Rolling Stone". It caught on and the entire group was singing along and laughing. Spirits were pretty high and the barge got tied up very professionally in record time.

The barges reliefs boarded and the offgoing crew (of which I was a member) hopped on the tug and off we went back to the company pier where we were met and hauled up to the office. Seems some stuffy suit on the pier had called and after hearing the singing he decided the entire lot of us were drunk.

We got kind of lucky in that the supervisor was one of those with something useful between his ears. He took one look at us and discounted any illegal use of alcohol or drugs and asked us what had happened. We were perplexed until he said the report was that we were drunk and singing ragtime.

"Big deal," said one of the guys. "We're a little punchy and we were singing. So what? We got the rig tied up profesionally in jig time. What's the big deal?"

"What do I tell him?" asked the supervisor.

"Tell him he's not one of the guys and never will be. He'll always be a damned pogue!" shot the Chief Engineer. "He's just jealous because he has a job that sucks and a wife that doesn't!"

The supervisor looked at me. I shrugged, hooked my thumb and pointed it at the Chief. "He put that one into the X-ring," I said, simply. The supervisor nodded.

"I'll take care of it," he said and we were dismissed.

When I returned to work three weeks later I passed the supervisors desk. "What happened?" I asked.

"I told his boss what the Chief said," he replied, with a somewhat sheepish look. "That ended it then and there."

One of the things that people never get to see is true professionalism out here and in a way that is a shame.

Some time ago two of us cargo types were riding as passengers on a tug when it got hit by lightning.

My mate and I simply went into the galley and sat down and awaited orders while the crew started dealing with things. When they wanted us, we pitched in and when we did what we were told we returned to the galley for reassignment. We did this to get out of the way as we were not a part of the regular crew.

The crew went into action and it wasn't too long before we were up and running, even though we were running at reduced throttle with limited control. After everything settled down it was determined that we pass the barge onto another tug ours had limited manuverability. It had to be docked and it would be safer if another tug did this.

My mate and I were put aboard the barge and handled the our small part of the operation and were treated to witnessing one of the smoothest operations I have ever seen in my career out here. Nobody got excited, nobody get panicky, it was just another day at the office. I actually remember watching the sleepy-eyed Chief yawn as he went about his business. The barge was swapped from one tug to the other underway and the operation went so smooth and flawless that it looked simple.

I wish the shoreside suit that called the office on us for singing had been on board when that happened because we could have used a little comic relief. It would have been funny to have watched him panic. Hilarity would have been certain to ensue.

Then again, maybe it would have smartened him up.

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