Tuesday, July 15, 2014


Generally speaking, being fit and healthy and working on small oceangoing vessels do not usually go hand in hand. On tugs there are space issues that tend to limit the possibility of bringing workout equipment to work and storing it onboard, and unless you are particularly dedicated to calisthenics or bring a jump rope or weights or something, there aren't many options. Down south I took to walking the deck in the evenings and doing sit-ups in my room. One night while doing push-ups and planks I pulled a muscle in my ribs and a few hours later on watch the pain sent a wave of nausea over me so intense I curled up in a chair for the next twenty minutes, unable to move. It was perfectly clear that a) I was more out of shape than I've ever been in my life and b) I have no idea how to work out efficiently (warm up? who needs a warm up when you're doing planks?). As someone who had been involved in team sports most of my life, I was desperate. 

    Stern deck spin class: green mountains and jumping salmon make for a lovely view...

Then I came up here and ta-da!! No more will I boredom-eat junk food and skip meals trying to make up for it! No more will I mope around when I go home because none of my clothes fit me. I'd be lying if I said one of the biggest draws of Valdez wasn't the fact that they have workout equipment on just about every boat in the fleet. Add to that real cooks who are dedicated to serving healthy, balanced meals (I'm talking kickass salad bars and not a deep-fryer in sight). We have a lovely stationary bike recently purchased by the company for this boat, and I've been trying to use it daily. It's the worst when you're so out of shape that you want to quit ten minutes in because your heart feels like it's going to explode... But you have to start somewhere. Allow me to encourage other mariners to stay on top of their fitness, even though it's really hard when you're going to sea. The poor diet and lack of exercise tend to compound with bigger problems, and you don't want to be dealing with health complications ten years down the road!

Friday, July 11, 2014


It's hard to believe how much has happened in the last few weeks. From a new physical and work test to multiple drug tests (I had to submit hair for a drug test for the first time - I thought they'd need a few strands but turns out they want a whole lock of hair. When the girl in the clinic came at me with a pair of scissors I freaked out, not gonna lie) to the flight over the mountains, looking down at the tops of glaciers, and walking around Valdez at 9 pm and thinking it was the middle of the day, I got what I expected and a whole lot more. 

On crew change day we got on a giant Voith Schneider tractor tug called Tan'erliq which took us out to our boats in the outports where they stand by several response barges for days and weeks on end. I was in love with the Tan'erliq but it was short lived, because after we made the crew change on the Sea Voyager in Port Etches (the bay just north of Cape Hinchinbrook) we headed up to a little spot called Outside Bay on the southern side of Naked Island in the middle of Prince William Sound, where two boats called Guardian and Bulwark are at the moment babysitting an oil spill response barge and a lightering barge, respectively. I'm on the Bulwark now which is an Invader class tug just like the boats I've been sailing on out of Jacksonville. They might be the same type of boat but the feel here is totally different. It might be the wood-paneled bulkheads and carpeted state rooms or the absence of acrid fried food smells (already I've met two amazing cooks - both ladies - who have brought back my belief that it's possible to eat healthy at work) or the fact that when I look outside I'm met with evergreen forests and wraiths of fog, but this little boat feels more like a cabin in the woods. It's what I remember of working on tugs in Alaska a few years ago. It's where I came of age, and just being here makes me feel safer somehow. I'm happy to be back. 

It's definitely quiet out here and boredom is a hazard. But I have plenty to do and a lot to learn because even though it's still Crowley, the way they do their paperwork is quite different and I'll have to get used to a different style and work schedule. But hopefully soon we'll go into port to do some tanker assists and I'll get the chance to run a line boat! 

Friday, June 27, 2014

Comfort me with mountains

I tried, truly I did; tried to like Florida, to tough it out like I promised myself I would. But at the end of the day I'm just a western girl - there's no fighting it. Nothing could describe the flood of relief that came over me when I finally said "enough" and decided to initiate the transfer to Valdez. Part of it felt like quitting, but another part of it felt like I was giving myself permission to stop wearing myself down for this job, and that was definitely good. In a way the little a/c nightmare was the last straw. I will trade the heat, humidity, swamps, sand and gators for mountains, snow, cool air and orcas. When I fly up to Valdez in two weeks, I expect it will be warm and dewy (but not hot) and the sky will stay light all night. It will be a good time to start because I can learn the operations of this new division without having to endure extreme cold right away. I will work for four weeks and then have four weeks off, a regular schedule with little guesswork as to when I might be off or when I will have to drop everything and get on a plane, and even the pay will be less sporadic, because they operate on an ATO system where the same amount is disbursed every pay period whether you're on or off the boat. And best of all, no more Jacksonville. No offense to Jax natives, but it's just not my bag.

I had a little guilt when I let my bosses know I was leaving. They are definitely struggling to keep people; I'd wager it has something to do with the 2/1 schedule, or the fact that they keep saying that new LNG-powered ships are going to replace the Jax-based boats and barges by 2017. But some of the best career advice I ever got was from a friend of mine in SF bay, who essentially said "you don't owe them" - you must look out for your own best interests. You earned that license, your company didn't give it to you, you need them more than they need you. I appreciate all the opportunities my employers have given me, but this advice has helped me to avoid feeling guilty when I find I need to jump at a chance to make my own life better. I don't think that this change will mean the end of all my struggles, but I do think I will be a lot happier.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Tugboat Camping

The air conditioning got fixed in San Juan but it was only temporary - three days from Jacksonville the pipes broke again and we had no more spares. It was so hot in my room I could barely breathe, much less sleep. What was left for me to do but drag my entire bed out on deck?

Sleeping under the stars and waking up to the brilliant columnar clouds and blue horizon was more enjoyable than I expected it to be. In the end, an extremely unpleasant situation yielded something really beautiful. 

When we reached the dock at last, we were planning to switch over to the Defender, but when the engineer fired up the generator - the AC there didn't work either! It might have been that he couldn't figure out why it wasn't starting because he was somewhat punchy - we were all totally sleep deprived, nobody had been sleeping except for between sundown and sunup. They had us slated to work all day yesterday but the captain refused. Instead they put us in hotel rooms to get some actual sleep and cool off. They tore out and replaced the entire AC system, including the air compressor, so that it won't shake itself to pieces again. We crewed up early this morning to take the Adventurer to the fuel dock and since I was off watch I got to go back to bed once we were on the boat. Being cool and dry while sleeping is a luxury I will never take for granted again. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

The heat

I literally slept on the deck last night. After we got to the dock and shut everything down, I layered some old raggedy blankets outside on the deck just forward of the wheelhouse and cuddled up on my pillow with the most delicious breeze washing over me. What I wouldn't give to be at home under the icy early-summer water of Lake Tahoe today!

Unfortunately, the fact that the AC is out doesn't just affect our comfort; the compressor on the freezer down in the forepeak is starting to give out. It's so hot down there and there is so little ventilation that the compressors on the refrigerators can't handle it and they overheat. So goodness knows what else will need fixing before we get out of here. But I'll say nothing more - we're getting paid by the day so as long as it takes to get fixed up is fine by me. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Conked Out

The AC broke down in a cloud of freon two days ago and it's about 90 degrees in my room right now. Guess that's what happens when you live in a steel box powered by two locomotive engines floating on the southwest North Atlantic where it is 85 degrees and 100% humidity twenty-four hours a day. Finally, we're off the coast of Puerto Rico and I'm trying to nap before we go into Bahia de San Juan at midnight tonight. The only way to sleep is with a fan blasting slightly-less-hot air straight at me and the door wide open. They'll get the air conditioning fixed tomorrow morning (at least I hope so - I swear I'll never complain again about the boat being too cold) otherwise it'll be another brutal week of just sitting around pouring sweat. It's so hot I don't even feel like eating; all I can do is hydrate. At this point the best place to be inside the boat is the wheelhouse with both doors open and the trades blowing cool air through. Papers and charts go flying but really, who cares. Anything for a little relief. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

1600 ton Master

Last week I passed all required exams and am unofficially a 1600-ton master, oceans. The license should be in the mail soon but I doubt I'll have it in my hand before I go back to work this Saturday.

My week of testing was long and circuitous; I knew I wasn't completely ready, but I also don't like to wait around to start something when I'm as ready as I'll ever be - I want to dive right in. On Monday (also Cinco de Mayo) I passed Rules of the Road and Deck Safety right off (these were the two "Murphy's books" I actually spent a month on the boat reading), but failed Deck General (by two questions!) along with the dinky 20-question, increase-in-scope Nav General. My big weaknesses were stability calculations, intercept problems, hurricane maneuvers, ocean currents, and pretty much the entire "Ship's business" section of Deck Gen. So I was resigned to spend the rest of the week studying for my re-takes. But first I had to clear another hurdle: Celestial Nav Problems.

For any mariner with a limited-tonnage license to be qualified to sail as an officer on ocean routes, the ocean problems module of the exam will be a given at some point. Some schools offer celestial courses that culminate in an in-class exam to qualify them for an oceans endorsement on their license without ever having to go near a REC. I opted to take the test in the Coast Guard exam room. Since it had been a year since I'd taken the class and I had forgotten just about everything I'd learned re celestial navigation, I chickened out and settled for a near coastal license when I sat for my mate's in Oct '12. My current company requires that I hold an oceans endorsement and aside from that it's just good practice to go for the highest grade license for which you are qualified.

So I went back for another round at PMI in March and it's a good thing I did because there would have been no getting out of that exam room alive had I not had all those skills still fresh in recent memory. I didn't have most of the tools I needed (1981 Nautical Almanac, plotting sheets, star finder) to practice celestial out of my school books when I was on the boat last hitch, and I slacked off considerably when I hit land in late April, but I found it difficult to study for the ocean problems exam regardless of how much time I'd had to prepare. I just needed to go into the REC (regional exam center, here located in the Federal Building at 1st and Madison in downtown Seattle) and take a look at the test. When I went down there last Tuesday morning, I fully expected to fail. I went in with the plan to look at the problems, knowing I wouldn't remember how to work any of them out, and hand back a blank answer sheet, saying I needed more time and I'd come in for a retake later. It's embarrassing really, knowing that this was the exam I'd skipped out on before and I was still dreading it so badly I was afraid to walk in there and just sit down and try. I'd given up before I got started, and I want to tell everyone I know: never go into a challenge with that kind of attitude. Or maybe do. Because when I sat down with that exam in front of me, I thought - ok, I'll just see if I can remember how to do this first question. Slowly, everything started coming back to me.

I don't remember the order they were in - I know the first three were the sailings: parallel, mercator, and great circle - initial course & distance, latitude & longitude of arrival, etc; there was latitude by Polaris, a 2-sun-line fix, time of local apparent noon & meridian passage, zone time of sunset, a 3-star fix, and the last two were star finder questions, which ended up being downright fun. On my 3-star fix I got the longitude of my position dead-on and was .4 nm off on the latitude. There were two problems that I never learned how to do, which were gnomonic chart plots and something about the longitude at which a great circle route will cross the equator; I guessed on both and got both wrong. On the other 13 problems, I worked them all out and got them all right. The moral of that story is don't give up before you start, and also there are tons of resources for passing the ocean navigation problems exam to be found in Bowditch and the nautical almanac, available in the exam room. It might have taken me from 8 in the morning until 1 pm but I was elated when I walked out of there. The celebration was short, however, because I still had two tests to take for the second time, and you only get three chances to pass each module before they make you wait 60 days for another attempt.

So I sat in front of my computer and surfed LAPware for two more days, grinding through stability calculations and intercept problems and generating numerous practice tests with their handy template tool. The thing I always find funny with regard to how I approach math is how much I expect to hate it, but when I get into it I actually kind of like it... a lot. I like math when it applies to the physical world because that's when it makes the most sense to me, which is why I always especially enjoyed physics, geometry, and trigonometry. Long story short, I went in on Friday and passed Deck Gen, then Nav Gen, paid my issuance fees and walked out into the sunshine - the first call was to Unit Mike, to tell him he is welcome to refer to his little girl as Captain Simenstad.

For prospective mariners considering going through a program like the workboat academy at PMI and MITAGS to get a limited-tonnage license, I just want to stress the fact that I went from ordinary seaman to 1600 ton ocean master in four and a half years - these programs are an incredible fast-track to the wheelhouse and while it might be tough to put in so much sea service in such a short time, it is doable and in my opinion well worth it. So good luck and see you out there soon.