Thursday, September 17, 2015

my 2 cents

A friend of mine contacted me the other day to ask what advice I would offer as he prepares to go on his commercial cruise next summer as a Cal Maritime cadet. I've learned a lot in the last five or six years that I'd like to pay forward; for the sake of brevity, let me touch on at least one topic that I value quite a lot.


This applies to everyone in my book, but here I'm talking to the ones sailing as cadets, whether you're at PMI, MITAGS, or HMTS with the Workboat Academy, or on a ship or tug putting in your 90 days for a traditional maritime academy. Although you aspire to be a mate or captain, you're not there yet; always respect your deck hands and your engineers. Chances are they're older than you, they've made a career out of what they do, and they have a lot of knowledge they can pass on to you if they so choose. You don't need to kiss anyone's ass but in a perfect world you'll be genuine and respectful and they'll be the same to you.

For me, the only time this goes out the window is when you're being bullied by another crew member. This is tricky: if there is someone on board that you trust, confide in them, especially if you're facing a hostile work environment, which I feel should never be tolerated. Just remember that gossip is everyone's favorite pastime and you may fuel a worsening situation. Sometimes the only answer is to put your head down and get tough. There may be shipmates in your future who will have a chip on their shoulder just because you're young and ambitious. There's nothing wrong with being young or ambitious, but you'll have to work harder to prove yourself. If it's the captain who is giving you a hard time, you're kinda stuck. Just remember that if you're doing your job well (be honest with yourself here), no one has any reason to pick on you and if they do, it's probably because they're dissatisfied with their lot. In the meantime, every trip eventually comes to an end, and chances are you'll learn a lot from that guy about how not to behave. And now for the tough love:

Stuff No One Wants To Hear

"I know"

I'm guessing that whatever is happening at the moment, you probably don't know everything about it. More importantly, if someone is trying to coach you or offer you advice, the quickest way to lose their support and respect is to cut them off with "I know". To refuse help or advice from someone is to take a serious risk. Your shipmates feel that what they've learned over the span of their career is valuable, and their advice may well be valuable to you. If you shut them down, you demonstrate that their knowledge is not important to you, and this can turn people off to helping you in the future (best case) and possibly offend them to the point where they are willing to let you fail, even in a potentially dangerous situation (worst case). To avoid situations like this, be receptive to coaching and advice, even if you think you already know something or you've heard it before, because you may gain a new perspective and, if nothing else, you'll reinforce the lessons you've already learned. A better alternative to "I know" is a sincere "thanks". You will also give someone the satisfaction of knowing that he was able to teach you something, which is worth its weight in gold.

"This sucks"

It's 30 below outside? You're stuck in a hurricane and going backwards? You're tired? No one wants to hear it. Two words: crew morale. Everyone on that boat is going through what you're going through. When you voice dissatisfaction, it brings everyone down just that little bit. It poisons the very air you breathe, and makes it that much harder to face your next watch. This has the potential to lead to disaster. I can promise that no one appreciates your complaints, so foster some positive self-talk and get on with the damn thing. You may not realize that your attitude has an impact, but every individual plays an equal role in keeping crew morale high.

"I want to go home"

To what, or to whom exactly do you feel the need to return? Mommy and daddy? Your girlfriend? Stop it. If you are going to make this your career, there's something you need to accept: you chose to do this, no one is making you stay, and from now on, "home" is exactly where you are at this moment. Whether you're on the ship or on land, you get nowhere by wishing you were somewhere else. Take control of your situation and make the very best of it, and you will thrive. And if they love you, the ones at home will understand.

So there you have it, my best advice gained from a few short years involving lots of proverbial blood sweat and tears. I hope my offerings help someone out there, and I wish you all the best of luck.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Queen Bee

"Do you view her as competition?"

I was asked this a few months ago with regard to my second mate, and I was caught off guard. Not because I could ostensibly feel that way about another woman on the boat (I might have felt that way years ago, before I decided to stop feeling that way), but because someone would want to know if it was true; not only that: they expected it to be true. Do women who work in a field dominated by men sometimes feel threatened by other women arriving on the scene? Yes, it happens, more than I care to admit. It may be residual of the tokenism of a bygone era, the sentiment that women are such a rarity that the guys should only really be expected to handle one at a time, that she's the ship's "mascot", not a legitimate team member. Such a view is ludicrous in this day and age, but I still see it happening from time to time.

I've seen a lot of men in the maritime industry encourage Queen Bee behavior. Let's face it: people (especially sailors) love a catfight. Drama is entertaining, it makes things interesting. It's no fun when everyone is happy and getting along. It seems to me that people aren't comfortable with the idea of women who work together in a male-dominated workplace actually liking each other. It makes more sense to them to see us battling amongst ourselves for status, rather than advocating for each other. In turn, this historically has led to women internalizing their perceived inferiority and feeling pressured to cast a shadow over the other women in their workplace; to feel threatened by others' success - as if it somehow diminishes their own - to sabotage others in order to protect their "territory" or their unique status as the lone woman of the group, one of the guys, because those traits are somehow more valuable to society. I've witnessed women bad-mouthing other women in the workplace, echoing the sexist beliefs of the men in the room to gain legitimacy.

I reject this behavior.

I read Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In the same month it was released. It quickly became my reference for navigating just about everything career-related, and put into words so many things I had seen and felt but hadn't been able to articulate. One of the things I was introduced to was Queen Bee syndrome; the phenomenon that manifests itself when the presence of another woman in the room signals a threat or competition, rather than a friend or ally, and sets us up to work against each other for recognition or credibility. This is such a huge waste of our energy. I was shocked, and somewhat ashamed, when I read about this and realized it was true, and that I was perpetrating it. I knew those twinges of jealousy in the classroom when another girl came around and I was no longer the only one in a roomful of men. Did she steal my spotlight, my voice? Not really. But I was afraid she would. I was one of the boys, I was special. I didn't want that to change. But when I finally realized how exhausting it was to maintain this stance, I started to understand how much better off I would be, how I could improve the lives of others, if I made the conscious decision to encourage and champion my peers, to offer them my support and guidance, rather than diminish them.

It's changed my life for the better, and I encourage women and men in the industry all the time to recognize this behavior and try to change it. Valdez is a unique place, in that there is at least one woman on almost every boat in the Crowley fleet here. It's a breath of fresh air to feel a sisterly kinship with the people I work with. This trend gives me hope that we can focus our energy on helping each other out, and I'm convinced we will all benefit as a result.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Fish Are Jumpin'

It's been the most beautiful night. It's actually starting to get a little darker around 2 in the morning, but by three, the light comes back into the sky and the mountains seem to rest pensively at the water's edge, velvety purple in the mist. On lonely mornings like this, when all my questions for the universe go scattered and unanswered, I can look at this place and let my mind settle into a quiet blue calm. Over the years Alaska has always taught me that everything I needed was right here with me, and I'm where I need to be.

This is day twelve of twenty-eight in our hitch; the end of the first week always seems to be the hardest moment for me to face, when I'm still thinking of the fun I had at home and I realize I still have three weeks to go. But after that passes I distance myself from home a little more and the loneliness fades. I've also realized It's been just over a year now since I came to Valdez - I can't believe it. It amazes me how much a year can change your life.

Prince William Sound has come alive with the fishing season - dozens of seiners and tenders are gathered in the Narrows and the Arm, their skiffs and nets scuttling out of the way to allow tugs and tankers to pass through. Salmon are jumping all over the place and seals and sea lions are feasting. Rafts of otters hold each other's paws to sleep at night, and they paddle around solo, munching on shellfish and crab and looking up at us with their curious faces. Kittiwakes and Oyster Catchers fly close over the water and scream at each other as they tend to their nests and raise their young in the marshes. It's a cacophony of life.

Now the fog is rolling down silently from the glacier stream and creeping westward over the bay. I'm nervous that the fog will keep me from flying out next crew change day; a week and a half ago it kept my plane from landing in Valdez and we actually turned around over the airport and went all the way back to Anchorage. When we landed at Ted Stevens, all the Crowley people scrambled to get on one of the other two flights of the day and I was the only one to make it onto the noon plane. Flying into Valdez on Tuesday night the way I usually do will be a safer bet in the future.

Later today we'll be going to McPherson Bay to relieve another boat, and we'll be out there for about a week. McPherson is on the eastern side of Naked Island and even though there is a cell tower just over the hill, the signal is terrible and you're more or less cut off from communication. Outside Bay is just to the southwest across a tiny strip of land and the signal there is fine. Go figure. But there will be enough to do, between paperwork (it never ends) and an audit to prepare for when we return to town.

I also have a bit of a personal project in the works: the day I came back to work, I decided to cut sugar, grains, dairy, and legumes from my diet (Whole30-style) and see how it would make me feel. My whole life I have had zero self-control when it comes to anything sweet: cake, donuts, cookies, candy; and the sugar withdrawal alone gave me a headache for a week. But the results have been promising so far - better sleep, more consistent energy (fewer sugar crashes, which were a part of my life that I had accepted long ago), and the best part: the power to pass on sweets. Once I started to accept that exercise alone wouldn't counteract the damage I've been doing to my body, it became easy to decide I just couldn't eat another bite of sugar. We are not built to eat like that, and I've had enough in my first thirty years to last a lifetime. It's hard to stick to the plan perfectly - an additive or two might sneak into a meal from time to time - but I can't have total control, and my cook has been a good sport about it. After several years of going to sea and eating sugary crap and processed junk food just because it's there and I'm bored, this change is allowing my mind and body to feel clearer and lighter than they ever have in my life. I encourage everyone I know to give it a try.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Stud Links

The last notable evolution we undertook on my latest hitch aboard the Hunter happened a week ago, when we swapped out the pigtail on one of our response barges. I was in charge on deck and things went smoothly, with exception of a bell shackle that was pretty well locked up with stinking marine growth. In Valdez they use a bell shackle instead of a fishplate to connect the bridle legs to the pigtail. We pulled off a half-shot and quarter-shot and replaced that will a full shot (90 feet or 15 fathoms) of 3-inch stud link chain. My fascination with towing gear continues: each link is 18 inches long and weighs about 94 pounds. A welded stud strengthens the link by preventing collapse and stretching; standard measurement is "length over five links" in inches (66" or five and a half feet for three-inch chain). The weight of a full shot is about 7,650 lbs. An open link at the end is required since a shackle can't be put through a link of chain containing a stud. Working with this gear reminds me that I do in fact miss towing barges sometimes.

On my way home, however, it became clear that I'm lucky not to have been on the ocean last week; I arrived in Anchorage Wednesday evening with a plan to stay in Alaska with friends for a couple days. By 9 pm I was stricken with horrible abdominal pain, but assumed it was food poisoning from lunch in Valdez and tried to sleep through the night. At noon on Thursday I decided I should probably go to the hospital, and after a long afternoon consisting of three liters of IV fluid, multiple doses of potent painkillers, and a CT scan, it was pronounced that I had an acute appendicitis and was going into surgery almost immediately. It was traumatic but I have to say that every person who took care of me at the Providence medical center in Anchorage was without exception sweet and kind and made the whole experience strangely pleasant, considering the circumstances. I'm also terrifically lucky it didn't go down at work, because I doubt I'd want to get cut open in Valdez and transportation from an outport in Prince William Sound to emergency medical care is a scenario I don't even want to think about. And to think that I didn't know whether I was getting relieved until the night before crew change...

Aside from this unpleasant interruption, the last four weeks have been excellent; with a group of happy, optimistic people to work alongside it doesn't feel like work at all. And getting back into life at home is an interesting study… at the end of each trip to Alaska, being back in the city feels like a new chapter. We are fully into the summer now, and walking around my neighborhood feels like walking through Europe: so vibrant, strange, and warm, the streets lined with charming houses and gorgeous flower gardens. So beautiful.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Dragging a Heel

One of my favorite things - the most fun thing in my opinion - about this job is of course driving a boat. I've gotten very little experience on conventionals (non-Voith, non-Z-drive, straight prop shaft) so far, but I've gotten lots of stick time in the last month. One maneuver I didn't realize was a thing until I actually worked on a conventional boat doing ship assist work is the split-sticks approach, or coming up to a ship with one engine turning ahead and one going astern. On a lot of boats, going ahead on even just one engine at minimum RPMs can still have you going upwards of 4 or 5 knots - you're not going to touch down on the sideshell of a tanker going that fast when you want to put up a line - you'd punch a hole in the thing. These tugs are so powerful that even with the throttles split you're still going to have headway; the stern thrust will be just enough to slow you down and give you more control.

When you're approaching in this manner, it's imperative that you be aware of how the current and wind are affecting you, and where the pivot point of your vessel is located, because up until the last minute you're using your rudder to compensate for the twist caused by your propellers. When you're ready to touch down, you go more on the backup to stop your forward motion but this will cause your bow to swing considerably. You have to anticipate this and know where your bow will end up when you touch down. And you never want to take your engines out of gear - leave them clutched in, because taking either the go-ahead or the backup out of gear will most definitely cause you to lose control. When you clutch an engine in, it takes several seconds for it to engage and so there's a dramatic delay from the time you put your throttle in gear to the moment you actually start getting thrust from your propeller. Everything can go sideways in those few seconds.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


So there's been some hoopla in Seattle involving a drill rig and lots of people in kayaks. Obviously my job now and for the last several years has either depended upon or involved the production of oil, so the more defensive part of me would be quick to point out that most of those kayaks are probably made from plastics derived from petroleum, and I'd venture that at least some of those protesters haven't even considered this. And they will probably get back into their cars to drive home, powered by gasoline or diesel; even if they ride on one of Seattle's partial-electric buses, they'll be running on electricity that was created by burning coal, or running water through a dam, or from wind pushing windmills in a windfarm somewhere in eastern Washington, all amazing feats of engineering whose ultimate success depended heavily on petroleum products. There's just no getting around it. 

That being said, of course I'm not all for drilling in the arctic. I'm very concerned about what's going on, especially after the fiasco involving Shell and their drill ship, the Kulluk, in the winter of 2012. We all need to be stewards of the environment, and so the people in kayaks are at least raising awareness about the issues, even if they know deep down no one is going to stop the gigantic oil companies from going for oil anywhere they can. I would go on to mention that Alaska has the strictest oil spill prevention legislature in place of all 50 states and the territories. There are locals in Valdez who work for the Alyeska pipeline and at the Valdez marine terminal who are extremely passionate about protecting this beautiful place from another disaster like the Exxon Valdez. There are oil spill prevention and response vessels doing drills out in the bay every day, preparing to go north and participate in the arctic drilling endeavor. 

I'm seeing posts about it all over facebook and I wanted to say something about it here rather than throwing out some brief and ignorant status on some social media, where I'm sure I'd get torn to shreds by my liberal friends and a pat on the back from my conservative friends in the mess of comments that would probably stack up beneath my original half-baked and likely passive-aggressive opinion. 

But if I had to commit to it one way or another, I'd say I support, with some reservation, drilling for domestic oil. More than once when I worked at a shipping agency in SF Bay I went to the customs house in Oakland holding papers for oil that had been imported from Iraq. People who are not in tune with the maritime industry often don't think about where their goods come from, don't realize that we need ships and oil for our economy to be at all viable, and that a lot of the oil we import still comes from areas ravaged by war and conflict. For now, I think it's better to keep it in-house if we can. The production and use of cleaner-burning liquefied natural gas is on the horizon, though getting to it also involves fracturing the earth and causing environmental damage. Although we all look forward to a future where we'll be able to run our world on solar and wind power, we will need oil to create solar panels and wind turbines and windmill blades, which I'm pretty sure will require at least some fossil fuels to produce and transport. I doubt we'll be free of petroleum use and production in my lifetime, but I'm hoping we can get there someday. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015


At the seminar last week I got to meet the west coast sales rep for Samson rope. It was my nerdiest dream come true; finally I could ask every question I ever had about the lines we use at work - and I have many. The rope most tugs use for ship or barge work is made of what's called HMPE, or high molecular polyethylene. Up close it's thousands of fibers as fine as spider silk, only stronger, twisted into the yarns that are grouped together to comprise each strand in the line (usually 12 to make a round 12-strand plait). These ropes - several inches in diameter - test at hundreds of thousands of pounds of breaking strength; if I remember correctly, many of our retired ship lines have gone back to the Samson factory in Ferndale, WA, for testing and broken at just over 500,000 pounds. The factory has a machine that can pull-test a rope at forces up to 1.13 million pounds.

The industry name for the material in our ship lines is "dyneema", and this fiber is used in what is probably Samson's best-known product, Amsteel blue. It's also in the lines we use on our tractor tugs here in Valdez to assist ships, a product called Saturn 12. Over beers last week, I learned that Saturn 12 and Amsteel blue are actually just the names of the substances used to coat the dyneema fibers to protect the lines and prolong their working life. Saturn 12 is orange and Amsteel is, well, blue. On the conventionals in Valdez we use another type of line called Quantum 12. I learned that spectra and plasma are a different product altogether: spectra is the fiber and plasma is the name of the finished product which is sold by Puget Sound Rope, not Samson (I have wondered about this for literally years). Plasma is usually purple and we used mainly plasma lines on all our ship assist tugs at Foss.

I learned about pick angle, or the angle at which fibers in a braided rope cross each other. A rope with a low pick angle is more tightly braided and abrasion-resistant, but not as strong as a line with a higher pick angle, which has more linear strength but because of the looseness and exposure of the fibers is more prone to abrasion and wear. You never want to tie a knot in this rope because the angles in a knot exceed the efficient bend limits in the fibers and weaken them tremendously. You also don't want the rope to twist; twists in a rope create lateral stress on the material which reduces its linear strength.

I learned that they anchor drill rigs with synthetic lines because the wire or anchor chain it would require to hold a rig on station in thousands of feet of water (in a place like the Gulf of Mexico) would break under the force of its own weight. HMPE is not only as strong or stronger than anchor chain, it is also considerably lighter and much more flexible.

At any rate, many if not most of these ropes are stronger than steel and will rip a bitt off a ship if the tonnage limit is exceeded. I managed to get my hands on a strand of dyneema from a retired ship line off the Tan'erliq last month and have yet to decide what exactly to do with it all. I hear they make excellent vehicle tow ropes. I also plan to take the factory tour as soon as I can make it up to Ferndale, something I've wanted to do for a long time.