Friday, August 31, 2018

The Relentless Weight of Tonnage

One of my unofficial fields of study since coming to sea has been management.

How do the decisions the captains make affect the wipers or ordinary seamen?  How does pressure from shoreside affect the decision-making of shipboard crew?  What can I do, at the bottom end of the food chain, to effect change upward?

It's a slow, experience-based observational tour through both the best, and the worst, of management scenarios.

One captain I sailed with called the entire deck department to the bridge and lavished us with praise, declaring us "the best he'd sailed with!" in all his years.  I was still an ordinary... I thought he was great! That same captain, on another ship (years later when I was sailing as bosun), was reviled to such a degree that "Captain [his name] is a douche" was painted in 5-foot-tall letters on the forward face of a lashing bridge in safety yellow.  I saw the chief mate gazing at it during a rare moment where the deck was clear of containers, exposing the epithet for the world to see, and he confided to me that he could ask me to paint it, but that he wasn't going to.

He gave me all the dirt... it was entertainment on a grand scale... and my opinion of that captain changed.

One of my foundational conclusions, arrived at painstakingly over time (the meat of which I will not really touch on), is that management isn't merely a simple decision-tree that leads to the best decision-result, but a recipe of personalities interacting in particular ways that creates outcomes, intended or otherwise.

The outcome I came aboard?  The ship I'm on is a neglected POS.  It was to be scrapped, but the profitability of an undermanned vessel was too alluring and so they kept it, even in her obsolete state.

The molasses tanks are unused and the pumps, pipes, manifolds, and valves are rusted artifacts littering the entire ship.  The ballast system doesn't work b/c the valves and reaching rods are rusted into inoperability. If we took on water? We might be able to pump it off. That's "might." We know there's a hole in there, somewhere.

It gets better.

In order to burn heavy bunker oil, the engineers need to use clean water, lots of it, and so they have purifiers (water makers) to turn seawater into usable water.  What the engine doesn't use, the crew gets.  None of that gear reliably works. We left the dock with only 12 tons of potable water for a voyage of three weeks... we use 7 tons a day for crew alone... I'd say do the math, but none is required to know two days of water isn't enough for three weeks at sea, particularly in light of our dodgy purifiers.

Purifiers which promptly failed after crossing the Columbia River bar.

Then the port engine was inoperable for almost a week; so we used one engine burning our limited supply of diesel, and we couldn't make water to burn the heavy bunker oil... if we ran out of diesel before we got the purifier online then we'd be dead in the water.  So the Captain and Chief Mate requested we put in in Hawaii for repairs before this happened. We are, by the way, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We had enough diesel to get to Hawaii, but not enough to get to Singapore.

The company denied the request.

The engineers got the other engine working... but both were then burning diesel, consuming our limited supply even faster.  We couldn't make water to burn heavy oil.  The laundry was "secured" (I couldn't wash my clothes) due to a lack of water, but we pushed on turning our screw with limited usable fuel and carrying too little water.

The toilets wouldn't flush, and often air in the lines would cause them to detonate whatever was in the bowl into the surrounding atmosphere. We couldn't drink the water. The ice machine kept making bad ice.

I've been in the dark my entire career in regard to these situations. I have gained an experience level where I am aware of these operational "challenges" and now I am asking myself: "Has it always been this bad and I just didn't know?"  Am I being astounded by truths I should have seen?  Did I take the red pill, like Neo, in The Matrix?

I don't think so... I mean... I've never been on a ship that ran out of water before.  I've never been faced with a job description that can only be classified as "shipboard crisis management," because I'm not much of a bosun when I'm down in a tank with all hands rigging pumps to get fresh water - non-potable, but fresh - so we can take a shower when we're done.  Or working through my 5th meal in a row because we're simply under-manned and the amount of work required mathematically exceeds the hands available by any calculus except that of a company man adding up how much blood it takes to reach profitability.

Am I merely being a "negative Nancy" or is this as precarious as it feels?

And it comes back to management... how did it get this bad?  How long can operational dirt get swept under the rug of bean-counter scrutiny before someone says "hey... what's going on here?"

The port and starboard lifeboats have serious defects with their davits. There are only two life rafts (different than lifeboats) on this thing, one up forward (a small one) and a big 25 man on the starboard boat deck that's on a rolling cart, to be used on either boat deck; anyone who knows how these things operate will quickly determine the cradle that holds it will merely float safely with the life raft once in the water, and the raft will never deploy. The ship would go down, and that thing would sail away, rescuing the cart it sits on, but unable to save a single life.

So this almost became the first boat I quit before I got started.

The only way I am still here is because the Captain and the Chief Mate, both who are on here for the first time relieving the permanent officers who allowed it to get so bad in the first place, have insisted we go to the shipyard in Singapore when we get there in a couple of weeks (this thing is soooooo slow!) to have every, single "no-sail" item fixed. They've been logging it so there's a paper trail.  Emailing photos of deficiencies far and wide. Requisitioning every failed item as fast as we find them, and they're all being approved.

And each day we search out more. Today I opened up ballast tank 2, ventilated it, put rescue air (SCBA) by our ingress, and each person going in carried an EEBD (portable air).  It's the same process each time... the Mate uses a device to analyze the air in the tank for toxic gasses, one man stands by at the head of the manhole with a radio, and in we go. All the way down to the keel, where the ballast and bilge pipes run... looking for our elusive leak. Logging problems. Taking photos.

Same as in the fore-peak tank and in number 1 starboard earlier this week.

I caught the old man out staring at that damned starboard life raft, and we talked through scenarios of what would happen should we find ourselves in a situation where it was supposed to work as designed. Every possibility was a failure. He requisitioned a cradle to be welded onto the deck and the boat be installed correctly. Then a second one to be installed on the port side, too... no more cart.

The engineers have done wonders to hold the systems together.  As of this blogpost the one working purifier just failed, so we're 0 for 2, again.  It's after 2200 hours and they're still in all-hands mode, trying to get it back to making water.

But if we go to shipyard in Singapore and the company doesn't back out of doing what must be done, then I'll stay on... If they fix the "no-sail" items then on to Africa I go. I haven't been on a ship like this before. I haven't sailed with as dedicated a crew before, either... or with a Mate as experienced and easy-going in the face of being humiliated by inanimate objects on a daily basis.

And now I've lost my train of thought, if ever I had one.  I am 90 days tired inside of three weeks of setting sail and it's time to hit the bunk.  Tomorrow this lump of steel is going to kick my ass again and I need every second of rest I can get.

1 comment:

  1. I was working on ish yesterday and sherry breathed in too many paint fumes after cleaning out the area where all the plumbing is (god that’s a god awful part of the bilge to work in)...
    And yet my misery (and sherries) pales.

    Tread carefully dearest. Some things are just not worth the risk. We will take and mitigate risk in our careers, I work in plants filled with toxic gas and as a result often have strict osha stds that those facilities must follow, yet I will never forget seeing a guy step from a vessel onto a unmanned platform and promptly go straight thru the grating and into the ocean. He didn’t look too good in the process... but it made u qu the entire metallic structure holding the toxic stuff in

    Early on in my career I was unaware of protocol and depended on those around me. Today I must be diligent and proactive about establishing boundaries of go no-go. It’s not that anyone can’t “stop work”, but stopping ain’t much of an option when ur options are go or drift.

    Not knowing your crew n cap I’m blind, but to have a donkey on their team is an asset “bar f-ing none”. Do not unestimate yourself here, stay the sanity and feel your limits, trust in self, think steps ahead, what if what if... rest!!!!

    Wish I was there to lend a hand, sing a song about tea and well help those chaps with the water makers. Missing you here immensely donk !, sending ur operation best of tidings and fortune !