Friday, November 28, 2014

Blue Friday

Yesterday was Thanksgiving and our cook did a wonderful job of putting together a Thanksgiving meal.  The winds and waves are still beating us up a little, but the meal came out perfect.  He’s been a cook at Dunlap for 20 years and has his technique pretty dialed.  It’s nice to see someone so comfortable in the galley for a change.  He put together a turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beens, rolls, cranberry sauce, stuffing, gravy, deviled eggs and more.  I couldn’t have planned a better meal at home.
Today, he’s baking lasagna and we are all excited about that as well.  Lasagna is one of my most favorite foods of all times.  The last trip I was on, we had a great cook but he wasn’t a red sauce fan and barely made anything with red sauce.  I’ve been craving Lasagna for over a month now and am really looking forward to dinner tonight.

The bouncy ride messes with my head a little and makes me want to just lay down in my off time, which then leads to sleep, and then over-sleep.  I think I’m averaging about 10 hours/day right now and it tends to make me feel groggy during the waking hours. I’ve finally acquired a chair for my room in an attempt to sit up and watch some shows vs. laying down, which will hopefully help cut down on the over-sleep problem.  I’m well stocked on TV shows and movies, probably enough to last me through the spring.  I’ve started a few new series in addition to the Sopranos that I’m still plugging away at.  If you are reading this because you are joining the merchant marines, one bit of advice… buy a big external hard drive, bring a laptop and get some good noise canceling headphones.  It’s the only way take your mind off the monotony and boredom of long trips.

I was up in the pilothouse a while ago, and I checked the “mileage to go”… which was well over 1000 miles still.  We’ve been underway for one week and we STILL have over 1000 miles to go at 8-9 knots.  oy.  This run certainly tests your tolerance, on many levels.

So, that makes today Black Friday, but the sun is out and the closest shopping is over a 1000 miles away, so today is blue friday for many reasons.  One because it’s sad to be out here in the middle of nowhere on a holiday period, and 2 because the water is becoming bluer each day as we make our way southwest towards Hawaii. The one saving grace is that we make double time on holidays, plus extra ATO. 

Capt seems to think that this low-pressure system that has been stalking us for the past few days is finally turning back north and we should be good to go for the remainder of the trip. 
The temps are rising and I’ve pulled out my cargo shorts since the boat is starting to get a bit muggy.

I got a few emails today from the family and it sounds like all is well and that Thanksgiving was a success as usual. Megan (daughter) has taken on the roll of making the pumpkin pies and that has me very excited.  I taught her a few years ago, so it’s nice to see that she’s finally got an opportunity to shine.  I guess she’s making apple as well, which is always a hit in my book.

Looking forward to getting home and laying down on a floor that doesn’t move.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes

It’s Tuesday before Thanksgiving and we are directly abeam (to the West) of San Francisco by a few hundred miles.  We are clipping along at about 9 knots and the weather is pretty calm.  Our first few days out of the Straights of Juan de Fuca were pretty crappy, but the last two have been better but still less than ideal.  It’s only day 4 of a long transit, but the seas are beginning to calm down and the water is slowly turning from dark greenish to a lighter blue.  I dare not look at the “miles to go” line on the chart plotter because it’s depressing, but I’m fairly certain we still have about 1800+ miles to go before arriving in Honolulu.

As the weather warms and improves, as does the morale.  Today, the engineer rigged up some outriggers for our hand lines so that the fishing can begin.  In a few days, we’ll start fishing daily for whatever the ocean will throw us.  They’ve been known to pull in some pretty large fish on this run and I’m really looking forward to learning the routine since my deep sea fishing knowledge if pretty null and void.  If all goes well, I’ll be bringing home some frozen Mahi or ?.

I got an email from home today giving me a quick recap on the weekend’s activities.  Erin and the kids hopped in the car and went down to Yosemite for a quick overnight and rented a little cabin in Curry Village.  It sounded really cool and I obviously wished I could’ve been there.  It’s tough knowing that your family is out doing fun things and you’re stuck in a 30’x60’ steel box on a boat in the middle of nothing with 5 other guys.  My off time consists of watching Sopranos (because I had never seen it) and a few other good series.  I just finished up True Detective and I dabble a little with “It’s always Sunny in Phillidelphia”, Criminal Minds, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, and the list goes on. There’s never a shortage of movies and TV shows to go around.  Everyone keeps a collection on the their hard drives, so it’s pretty easy to find something to watch.

Tonight, our cook came down ill with something and I offered to take over dinner for him…  (Nothing like watching a sick guy prepare your meal for you).  He ended up getting everything prepared and I just have to cook it up and clean up afterwards.  I then volunteered to work a double and take the overtime so that he could not have to worry about doing engine room checks as well.  It’s not like I had someplace to be or something better to do. So, I’m chilling in the galley on my laptop, waiting to see if the engineer is going to get up for dinner before I clean up the grub.  After that, I’ll probably just hang out for a bit before I get relieved at 19:45, then I’ll watch a show, grab a nap and come on watch at midnight.

tha tis all.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Difficulty in the Rear View!

GMDSS didn't go so well back in the Spring, so I did a retake this week on the lab portion and somehow completed the course.  It wasn't easy and the material wasn't as fresh as it was a few months ago, but it stuck enough to help me through.  Definitely a hard class and I'm glad to have it behind me.

In the process of GMDSS this week, I did a little research and met with the officials of the school regarding my sea time.  I had been told by various mariner friends that I "might" already have the needed sea time for licensing and that I just needed to finish a few classes and submit the application to the Coast Guard.  After a few emails and phone calls, I met with the school and we confirmed that I have indeed already met the requirements for testing as a "Hawsepiper", and furthermore, should be able to go for a bigger license than originally expected.  I was originally shooting for a 1600 ton Near Coastal and 500 ton Oceans Mate license, but because I spent all of my Navy time on vessels that were "unlimited" tonnage (i.e. huge), that I should qualify for the grand daddy of Mate licenses "3rd Mate Unlimited".  It means that I will need to step aside from the Workboat Mate Program to submit my application, but I'll still be a PMI Student and finish out my classes with all my class/shipmates and then celebrate graduation in the Spring.

So, once I return from this trip to Hawaii (leaving tomorrow morning), I'll be working towards getting my application together and arranging all my paperwork for submission.  If all goes well, I'll be sitting for my license in February or March.  Worst case scenario is that the Coast Guard gives me grief about "recency" with regards to Unlimited tonnage, but I can still sit for my 1600 ton and upgrade to 3rd later.  The actual testing with the Coast Guard takes about a week...  7 modules over 4-5 days. Oy.  I'm thinking at this point that becoming a lawyer might be an easier path.  :-)

At any rate, the light at the end of the tunnel is growing brighter each week and the stress loads are slowly lifting.  Right now, I'm sitting in a brewery, enjoying a beer to celebrate the completion of GMDSS and preparing my mind for another month at sea.

We depart Seattle tomorrow for a month-long trip to Hawaii, (2-weeks there, 2 weeks back).  It'll go quick and then I'll be home for the holidays with my family.  I'm REALLY looking forward to seeing my wife and kids.

I probably won't have any more posts for a few weeks, but I'll upload some posts once we reach Oahu.


Saturday, November 15, 2014

GMDSS Squeeze-in

I just finished up a 4-week hitch yesterday, hopped off the boat, grabbed a burrito and headed to my favorite coffee house in West Seattle for some studying.  Last May, I bombed the lab part of GMDSS and needed to retake it, (see May 2014) and there just happened to be one offered in between two work trips, so I signed up.
     So, it hasn't even been 24hrs since we docked, and I'm headed back to class for more punishment.  It's Saturday and we have a 6-hr class today that goes over the lab equipment and basic introduction, all of which I'm fairly comfortable with, but will obviously need some time to re-familiarize myself with. The class ends on Thursday (hopefully for good this time) and then I crew up on Friday morning for a month long hitch to Hawaii.  Every time I mention to someone that I'm going to Hawaii on a work trip, they say "ooh, nice!".   Not so much.   It's a 2 week crossing of the Pacific, 24-36 hours in port and then a 2-week crossing home.  It's boring, the seas can get ugly and we don't really have enough time in port to do much, BUT, it's work and I'll take it.  I need the sea time under my belt and the income is nice too.
      Bummed about being gone so long from the family, but this SHOULD be the last long one and then I can settle into a regular work schedule that allows a bit more home time.  When I get home from Hawaii, I will have been gone 9 weeks and before that, it was a quick 10 day visit after my month long class.  Essentially, Since the start of September, I've been home for 10 days.  All I can do at this point is focus on that homecoming date and spending time with my wife and kids for Christmas.
     I don't have class tomorrow, so I'm going to probably do absolutely nothing.  I haven't had a day off in over a month, so I may just stare out the window and drool.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Radar Fritz and Nautical Beatings

So, we spent about 5 days in Prince William Sound, waiting for better weather in the Gulf before heading across.  While we steamed around in circles and waited, a few things kept us busy.  The first one being the small search for a missing boat that I wrote about in a prior post, and the other was our radar taking a dump.  Since Radar is our most important navigational tool, we had to comprise a plan to get it fixed. We have a required secondary radar, but it’s old, outdated and has had some issues on this trip to the point where is wasn’t reliable. The closest port was Whittier, so after our engineer decided that it was beyond his abilities, we got on the Sat phone and made some calls.  The end result, was a trip to Whittier, where we met with a radar tech from Anchorage and he got us going again with some new brushes.  We landed the barge in the late afternoon and had a few hours of downtime and dinner.  During that time, 3 of us took a stroll into the bustling community of Whittier where very few lights are even left on, let alone businesses open.  It was 8 in the evening, so we didn’t expect much, but the only store in town was open until 9 and we were in luck.  I think the tiny asian woman thought we were there to mug her, but we quickly put her at ease with our magazine purchases and toiletries.  It was then back to the boat, and underway.

A day or two after Whittier, it was evident that the weather wasn’t going to get much better, so our captain decided it was time to make a run for it before things got any worse.  There was a big super-storm brewing out in the Aleutians, and I don’t think he wanted to stick around and see if it was going to head our way. I knew that night was going to be nasty, so I popped motion sickness pill as a precaution, which in retrospect, I probably should’ve popped 2.

We decided to head out the main entrance to Prince William Sound, which is the main traffic lanes for ships heading into Valdez.  The currents and wind through there are typically a challenge on an average day, and we were already beyond that point in the weather.  About 2 hours into it, we were taking 25’ waves straight ahead and winds exceeded 45 knots.  That combined with some large swell from the south and we were taking a nasty pounding.  When I got up for watch around midnight, all I could hear was stuff crashing around in the galley that was fairly well secured, or at least we thought.  I staggered out to find books, condiments, DVD players, napkins, coffee filters, playing cards and much more, strewn all across the deck of the galley.  It was awesome, but my inner ear didn’t agree and soon I was feeling the effects pretty bad.  I knew it was nasty when our seasoned engineer comes in from the engine room with the same look on his face that I had.  His accent made it even better when he said “jeezus, man, this come nasty shit!”.  He too wasn’t feeling well and immediately headed off to his room.  All I could do was hang on for 4 hours until my watch was over.  I wedged myself in at the galley table with a bucket nearby and watched the time click by.  It was bad and probably the worst seasickness I’ve endured.  I still managed to do my rounds, collect trash and so forth and I kept a good attitude despite the level of suckiness.  The next day got better and I felt much better, the day after that, I was good to go.  I typically only get seasick if the transition from calm to nasty is short.  If it slowly ramps up over a few days, I tend to adapt fairly well.  I know that others have experienced rougher conditions, but this was the nastiest I’ve seen on tug so far to date.  It’s a great way to lose weight quick and start a new diet.  ;-)

So, we made it across and are now on the inside passage near Ketchikan, heading south towards Seattle.  We should be in port sometime Friday and then I get to head straight to class for a GMDSS Lab makeup.  After that, I’ll be hopping onto a slow boat to Hawaii for a month.  I’m certainly not fond of having to be gone so long right now, but if I want to get my license, I need to jump at the opportunity to get available sea time and income between now and next Spring.  The short term pain is worth the long-term gain and soon I can fall into a better schedule of being home in between trips.  School is out soon and so it’ll just be sea time to deal with.

Today, I sat down with our Captain for a few hours and went through my TOAR (Towing Officer Assessment Record) and he signed me off on a bunch of it.  It’s basically a document that says you are ready to be an officer on a towing vessel.  I was glad that he took the time to help me out because the TOAR is a big chunk of assessments that must be done before you work as a mate on a towing tug.  Getting there…

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Hunt For Big Johnson

Yesterday, we overheard the Coast Guard putting a call out for an overdue fishing boat called the “Big Johnson”.  It was 27’ Hughescraft, which is an aluminum fishing vessel, and apparently the owner’s son called the Coast Guard because he was concerned that his dad and the crew aboard didn’t have enough fuel to make it all the way into Whittier.

The CG did get ahold of the vessel and the the skipper said they were aiming for a hunting lodge in a small bay near Knight’s Island Passage, which is where we’ve been driving around in circle for the past few days.  They were planning to get some fuel there and continue on with their voyage up to Whittier this morning. So, it seemed that everything was good to go.

This morning, the Coast Guard tried multiple times to contact the Big Johnson on Ch 16, but no luck.  The Coast Guard knew that we were in the vicinity and asked if we could get closer to where the lodge is reported to be and see if we could see a vessel or any activity.  We re-routed from our “busy”, scratch that “extremely boring” day of round turns and went to investigate.  We couldn’t get into the bay because of the shallow depths, but could make out a few things via binocular that appeared to be where a lodge might be hidden, yet no boat.  The visibility was good, but we were still sitting about 3-4 Nm’s off the beach and couldn’t be exactly sure. Finally, after repeated attempts of the CG calling “Big Johnson” on the radio, we offered to give it a try, thinking that maybe that the boat couldn’t hear the CG, and to our surprise, they answered.  Apparently, they stayed the night, found some fuel at the empty lodge, and were just about to get underway towards Whittier.

So, all said and done, we got to play SAR for an hour or so and it certainly gave us a break in the mundane vicious circle of round turns. The best part of the whole ordeal, was hearing the female CG watch officer put the call out for the “Big Johnson” repeatedly for quite a few hours. I think we’ve been stuck here too long, because it sparked many inappropriate jokes about boat names and CG calls.  Sometimes you just have to laugh and be silly.

The weather might be offering us a slight break in the next 48 hours, so we might poke our heads out into the Gulf and make run for it.  It’s going to be nasty and we’ll get beat up quite a bit, but it shouldn’t last for more than a few days and then we’ll be back on the inside of Southeast Alaska where hopefully it’ll provide some shelter.

If all goes well, I’ll be feet dry before Saturday 11/15 and I can take the rest of my GMDSS class before shipping off on the Hawaii run, 11/21.  Looking forward to getting all this stuff done so I can tone it down a little and actually see my family a little more often. I “should” be home for Christmas and a few weeks following before we take our last class session at PMI in the 2nd week of January.  ALMOST DONE!

It’s 17:07 and I’m 7 minutes late for dinner..    gotta run!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Anchorage, Nikiski and more

Well, it’s been a good trip so far.  We towed a fairly light barge, yet lightly loaded, up to Anchorage, offloaded its contents and then popped over to Nikiski, about 50 miles away, to pick up a random load that consisted of a drilling rig that had been broken down into about 60 pieces.  Because the tides in Cook Inlet are so drastic, we had to break tow and send the boat away for about 6 hours, leaving 2 of us on the barge to help load cargo through the night in freezing temps.  We started cargo ops around 9pm and quite around 7am.  The next day, we returned to finish up the load, but had to break away again for tides.  All in all, we got it all done an were out of there by the end of the 2nd day.  Between Anchorage and Nikiski, I logged about 38 hours of cargo, which is a pretty good amount. My body ached, mostly from from the cold, and I couldn’t stop eating for a few days.

After we left Nikiski, we had to pop into Kachemak Bay to hide out from the winds and logged another 5 hours of cargo time on the barge, double lashing and fixing a few things that were rushed in Nikiski.  After about 24 hours there, we popped out into the Gulf and headed over towards Prince William sound where we are now, waiting for the weather to die down.  Winds in the Gulf tonight are supposed to be in the 40 knot range, so our captain thought it be best if we sit tight out of sight.

So, we’ve been comparing music, watching movies, reading, playing guitar, etc.  until it’s go-time.  I’m just about to go on watch (midnight), and nothing really new to report.  We’ll probably run out of bottled water due to the detention and round turns, but there’s plenty of rust colored tap water to tap into.  yumm  We have a desalinator, yet for some reason, the water the fresh water goes into an old tank and picks up some nice color, so we drink bottled water.  We plan to fill our bottles directly from the desalinator once we officially run out.  Hopefully that goes well.