Friday, May 16, 2014

GMDSS Implosion

Well, today I wrapped up week two of GMDSS with a nasty bang, indicating the implosion of my mind. I tested yesterday for my final assessments, missing a few steps and forcing a retake on a few things today. I studied all night, and again early this morning, feeling really good about the re-take. But when it came down to test time, my fatigue and fried memory from 11+ days of studying got the best of me and I dropped the ball on a few similar things, failing the test and the entire class.

It was probably the biggest academic disappointment of my entire life. I can retake the class, and there's no problem there, but the disappointment comes from having put SO much effort into something, only to fail in the end, something I'm not used to.

I'm not a "slow" learner and I typically pick things up fairly quick. I've spent a good portion of my life in classes from grade school up through radar school in the Navy, a Bachelors degree and through half of the Masters program at the CSU level. I've even spent a few extra years at the JC level for business development classes. During my undergrad time, I was on the deans list with 3.9 GPA and I'd like to believe that I have a pretty good handle on how to study with fairly productive study techniques. I will admit that yes, I'm older now and I have to assume that my mind isn't as sharp as it was 15 years ago, but I didn't see such a struggle on the horizon and was a caught a bit off guard.

This class didn't fall into any nice little box that prior experience would benefit me from. The material was interesting and applicable, but so damn language and acronym intensive, that I spent half of my time just trying to remember terminology, let alone general concepts. That, combined with too little time and an instructor who moves quickly from topic to topic, and I was left spinning around grasping for air.

I managed to pass the written test in week 1 with a minimal passing grade, but lab week was even more overwhelming and I couldn't commit to memory, the important steps and details of what was needed.

Over the 11 day period, I spent over 150 hours on the topic, studying after class, all-day on Saturday/Sunday, and it still didn't stick well enough to land me a passing grade. I even had numerous dreams about frequencies, vhf radio conversations and other class related topics. My point is, that I applied myself 200%, and that wasn't enough.

My other 4 lab classmates passed with similar effort, and my hat is off to them. 2 of our classmates from week 1 failed out during the first week, so I'm fortunate to have made it to lab week, but it still really sucks to end on such a bad note. I did manage to pass the Element 1 written test after I was done today, therefore qualifying me for my FCC license. At least I'll be getting something out of the class in addition to a headache and a few more gray hairs.

Frustration and disappointment is really an understatement, but that's life and we move on.

So, here I sit in an airport bar, enjoying an ice cold amber or 4, and waiting for my flight to take me home where family and sunshine will hopefully put the last 11 days behind me. I'll be back for more GMDSS, but not anytime soon. I have one year to take the class again, so I'm thinking somewhere out there around the 11.5 months-from-now timeframe should do the trick. I'm in no hurry to put myself into the hurt locker again that is called GMDSS.

Images from the class:

Typical Furuno GMDSS console
Small, yet stressful classroom
Standard Furuno VHF radios


Inmarsat-C terminal


Friday, May 9, 2014

GMDSS Recap: Week 1

Well, the past five days have been spent with my nose in the book, eyes in the notes, 5+ hours each night after class trying to grasp all the frequencies, acronyms, nomenclature and concepts of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System, or "GMDSS". It's not a terribly hard system grasp the basics on, yet there are numerous subsystems, requirements and processes involved that further complicate the learning. Essentially it's a worldwide network consisting of various systems that help the maritime industry with distress alerting and communications. Only larger ships (over 300 gross tons) are required to be compliant with GMDSS, and each of those ships is required to have 2 certified GMDSS operators onboard at all times underway, hence the class.

We had to learn all the various satellites that ships use for different purposes, and where these satellites orbit, what frequencies they monitor, their longitude and how to effectively use each one. There are satellites that circle the globe north to south listening for signals from EPIRBS and SARTS and others that stay in geo-stationary orbit to provide constant data access to ships for emergency alerting, weather and ship-to-ship or ship-to-shore communications.

.chart of INMARSAT's satellites coverage

A typical GMDSS console

The other half of this week involved all the radio communications for ships and emergency alerting. If you want to contact another ship, land station, phone number, email, fax, etc, you need to understand how each frequency works and which one to use depending on where you are, what the conditions are (daytime, nightime), or what the other station might be monitoring. You also need to understand the process for sending distress messages in each system, and where/when to send it depending on where you are and what the distress is.

Many freqs to memorize

In between all of that information, you have various systems that overlap and use both systems (radio and satellite) for various purposes like weather broadcasts, SAR broadcasts, navigational warnings, etc.

To pass the first week of the class, we needed to get a 75% or better on the first exam consisting of 100 questions, to be completed in 90 minutes. Once passed, we will be issued an FCC license and our GMDSS certification. The second week involves 5 days of lab, punching buttons and actually getting to use the equipment in a real-time environment.

Quite a few folks didn't pass the first exam, but are retaking it on Monday and should have no problem. This class is no joke, and if you are reading this as you enter the Workboat Program, or are preparing to take GMDSS at PMI, I will say this... Read the pre-study material and learn AS much as possible about the topics before class starts, otherwise you will not survive. Hardest class I've had to-date and I'll be one of many ( many) that has to unfortunately retake the exam on Monday.

So, my weekend will take me back to books and notes in hope of an easy Monday. For now, it's a cold beer, tasty food and a good night's sleep.


Monday, May 5, 2014

What it Looks Like From Land...

Since I've begun this path, there has been a fair amount of adapting to this travel/work lifestyle. Obviously I'm going to school and working out of town for long periods of time, so it takes some time getting used to coming home in short bursts and integrating back into "home mode" for sometimes only days. But there's a whole other side of things on the family front that I haven't really been privy to. My wonderful wife recently spent some time to write about the past year and learning experiences as a mariner's wife.

The family...

"Just as this has been a year of learning and new experiences for Mike, this has also been a year of learning for me. As one would expect the first few months were the toughest. They were BUSY – I was figuring out all kinds of things. Schedules, school pick-ups, how do you turn on the sprinklers? Is 9 too young to handle a weed eater? Is tonight recycling or green waste pick up? How do I make coffee? (don’t judge J) It was a physical sort of busy as well as mental. I felt like an air traffic controller wearing a blindfold. I knew the schedule of the “regular” things I had been doing, but all of the new stuff was buzzing the tower and I was just trying to keep things from crashing. Then Mike came home and I got a break. Whew! I made it. Then Mike left and I was directing traffic in a blindfold again. This time though some of the “new” things were actually already in my mental schedule. I had fewer items flying around in the dark. (oh, I do love a metaphor and yes, I will wring it out). So each time he came and went fewer items were flying around in the dark. Now, at a year, I feel like I can handle most things and the tower buzzes are fewer and farther between. Wait; is it wrong to use an airport metaphor on a sea blog? Oh well, whatever.

Not only have I learned to manage all the day to day household stuff. I have also learned a great deal of other things that are helpful in balancing our new lives:

• I freely relinquish extra duties when Mike comes home. I do not need to hold on to “my schedule” when he is home. When he is home we adjust and the schedule is ours – it is different from when he is gone. I don’t try to fit him into our routine. It just doesn’t work.

• Free time when you are on a boat is different than free time when you are home. He lives in a small space with the same few guys. He doesn’t have the daily duties of household stuff but he doesn’t have the daily rewards either. He doesn’t see the kids or hear about their day, watch them play basketball or check out a new skateboard trick.

• There is no cellphone signal on the water. The ocean isn’t really part of the AT&T coverage map.

• I am not a “single parent” when Mike is gone. I am in a loving and happy marriage and WE are raising our children together. Mike happens to travel for work a lot but his role as a parent or partner is not diminished.

• Never underestimate the power of compassion and empathy

• Loneliness happens at home or away and whether you are busy or bored. It is missing the ones you love, not how you are spending your time.

• Kids are much more excited about mowing the lawn if you let them use the riding lawnmower (wish I’d have learned this earlier rather than later)

• Towboating does not = cruise…ever…there are no shore excursions, no extra sightseeing opportunities, no open bar or dinner buffet.

• Having nothing to do on a Saturday when Mike is home is an awesome way to spend the day. Having nothing to do on a Saturday when Mike isn’t home kinda sucks.

• Absence really does make the heart grow fonder.

So it has been a year of learning for both of us. Mike has an ever growing binder of Certificates. I can now juggle 2 kids, 2 dogs, a full-time job, housecleaning, minimal yard work, training for a ½ marathon (+ a full marathon in a couple of months) and make a pretty good cup of coffee. We are getting there!"


Sunday, May 4, 2014

PMI, Phase 5. GMDSS, Meteorology, Adv. Firefighting

After a whopping 9 full days home following a month long hitch, I'm now back in Seattle to begin Academic Phase 5. It's hard to believe that it's been over a year since I began the Workboat Academy, and that I only have 2 sessions to go after completing this one.

The next 2 weeks will entail a great deal of studying as we learn GMDSS, Global Maritime Distress and Safety System. GMDSS is defined by Wikipedia as "an internationally agreed-upon set of safety procedures, types of equipment, and communication protocols used to increase safety and make it easier to rescue distressed ships, boats and aircraft". It works as a relay system to bounce safety broadcasts to other ships or shore based search and rescue stations. Most larger ocean going vessels are GMDSS equipped and require at least 2 officers to be certified. The only boat that our company has with GMDSS is the Phyllis Dunlap, which is the last boat I worked on for the Hawaii run. She's a SOLAS boat and therefore required to have GMDSS.

At any rate, it's a good certification to have under your belt as we enter the industry. My only fear is that I'll get placed on the Phyllis quite a bit after getting my license, but Hawaii isn't all that bad of a hitch as long as your bring tons of movies for the long transit to-from.

The class consists of two weeks, one classroom and one lab. I've heard that it can be one of the toughest topics that we will take due to its overwhelming content and required memory abilities. There's much to learn and memorize with regards to frequencies and protocols, so I'm guessing a fair amount of study time.

After these two weeks are done, I'll get a 9-day break and then it's back for meteorology, advanced firefighting and a few days of simulator training. I'm glad we are getting the tough stuff out of the way first.

I flew up to Seattle from Sacramento this afternoon, leaving blue skies and 75 degree temps, landing in Seattle with clouds and rain. Getting used to it, but much prefer the flip-flop and shorts attire vs. the goretex and pants. It's hard to leave home when the weather is so damn wonderful, but the greater good awaits. And with that, I head to bed to prepare my head for 2-weeks of "drinking from the fire hose".


Friday, May 2, 2014

Easter Eve

It's Saturday, April 19th and we are slowly getting closer to the West Coast. We've been heading about 050 for the past few days with pretty good weather and winds/swells off our port quarter, helping to push us along at a pretty steady 10.5 knots. As we approach the coastline, we will have to head a bit more north, so we could lose some speed depending on the wind and waves.

Tomorrow is Easter, and once again, I'm not home for the annual Upchurch Easter Egg hunt. I think the kids are probably growing a little old for that, but it's still nice to get up and lounge around the house in full holiday fashion.

To keep occupied out here, I've read about 30 magazines, watched numerous TV series and ridden the recumbent bike quite a bit. We decided to keep a running tally of our miles for the trip home and collectively we've pedaled a few hundred miles. I've put in about 50 and have been slacking a bit. After getting off of watch, I typically just want to chill and relax. It's easy to get lazy out here, especially when your confined to a 30'x60' steel box with a few portholes. I go out on the upper deck when it's nice and do push-ups or just zone out on the seas... Or think about home a projects and things I want to tackle when I get there.

I got sucked into a few TV series that I friend of mine gave me. One is Shameless and the other is Deadwood. Both pretty good shows and to be honest, I have no idea if they are still on the air, but it doesn't really matter as I've got e few seasons to keep me entertained while I'm bored.

I also watch Mini-series, The Pacific, which was awesome. That kept me busy for quite a few nights with all 10 episodes. I thought it was ironic that was sucked into this show, while transiting the Pacific.

At any rate, nothing really new going on out here... Just plugging away, mile after mile and counting the hours until were done with this hitch. We have seen a few rogue boats floating around out here, partially submerged (abandoned or washed out to sea from a nearby shoreline). The Captain said he saw about a 30' fiberglass boat floating partially under water this morning. It's amazing how much trash you can find out here, 1000 miles from shore.

I stared out at the water one day and counted a piece of trash (mostly small plastic pieces) roughly every 45 seconds. We see lost fishing bouys constantly, and occasionally they are attached to large tangled masses of nets, which can foul a prop extremely easy.

We've sucked a few things into the prop on the starboard side on 2 occasions so far, each time taking us a good 15-20 minutes to free up. All we can do is back down on it and run her back and forth until she frees up. The last one killed the starboard engine instantly and was a bear to free up, but eventually it did. You need to keep a sharp eye on the water, or plan on dealing with fouled props on a regular basis. Up in Southeast Alaska, you'll find huge logs in the middle of the waterways, some of which can do some serious damage. Occasionally we will hit them are awakened by the large bang against the hull. Other times we'll take on into the nozzle (prop) and stall the engine. It's all part of the game, and each time we find a way to free it up and carry on with the job of getting cargo to port.