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 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 in place 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. 

Saturday, May 16, 2015


This week started off with a mates seminar in Valdez, and I had a great time getting to know other chief mates and barge mates and hanging with some office folks. A lady was here from Jacksonville to help us out with some computer and payroll business, and I remembered her from the last deck officers seminar I attended there more than a year ago. It brought back some memories of how much fun I really did have towing barges to Puerto Rico; at the end of last hitch, with most of my confidence pretty much shot, I was sorely tempted to go back. But now I'm spoiled with wifi and exercise equipment and mountains and a ton of airline miles, so I think I'll stay. 

It's already off to a good start this spring. I was walking through Valdez on Tuesday night before crew up, and looked up to see green lights vibrating in the sky. Those lights never cease to fill me with wonder. It's light until midnight now, with the darkest time around 2 in the morning. With some useful training at the seminar, I came back to the boat armed with more confidence and a clearer idea of how to go about establishing myself in my new position. I got a call the other night from a friend of mine on another boat here, just to chat, and I was startled to realize that I've been focusing on the negative interactions I've had lately and forgetting that there is a whole group of people in Valdez who have my back. It's up to me to do my best, but I don't have to feel so alone. 

The three and a half weeks I had at home were amazing; between safety training for work - where I got to know some of my favorite coworkers a little better while donning gumby suits and jumping into a pool - and Opening Day watching the races and boat parade at the Montlake cut and seeing old college friends in the very cooperative Seattle spring weather, I took some time to get away from the boat and remember what's really important (i.e. being happy and grateful for the good things I have). 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Learn Your Shit

I would like to say this hitch was a success but there are quite a few things that need tuning. When I decided to say yes to staying extra and filling in for another chief mate in February, the offgoing mate left me a turnover letter that ended with "Learn your shit, or they'll eat you alive". File that away with best advice I've ever received. There is so much time to walk yourself around the boat and memorize it, but sometimes when the work is slow it gets easy to sequester yourself in the wheelhouse and just do the basics. It also makes it a bit more difficult when you're still greeted with some degree of skepticism when you walk onto a new boat. Ouch. But no one knew everything on their first day; the only thing you can do is smile, just smile at 'em, and learn everything, absolutely everything about your job and become excellent at it. Then no one can say anything re what they think you do or do not know.

So I know what I'm up against and I know what I need to do when I go back to Valdez. Other than that the last month was amazing. My roommate - my 2nd mate - was also a woman and her company was nothing short of a treat. It's nice to be able to talk to someone at work about things that might make a man run from the room with his fingers in his ears. The learning curve was steep and the boat was a very special one. Winter is almost over; the air was starting to smell like spring as I boarded the Q200 from Valdez to Anchorage last Thursday morning. I was annoyed that for some reason I had gotten a later flight from Anchorage to Seattle, but it turned out to be perfect that I did because as I was walking through Ted Stevens airport, someone called my name and I turned around to see my favorite person from the PMI years sitting there finishing up breakfast at a table in the cafe. We walked the length of the building several times, but it didn't yield enough hours to tell all that's happened since the last time we saw each other. It's for good reason I recognized at once, as we sat around a table for our little workboat academy orientation years ago, that he was on my level.

Day after day at work this hitch I thought of stories I should share but it was enough to keep my head above water without talking about it. Next month it will get easier, I have a good feeling.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Team Black Bear

Frankly, I'm amazed. The last two weeks went about as well as they could have conceivably gone. Turns out the paperwork isn't impossible, and I've actually learned the ins and outs of the Tan'erliq better than I'd thought. The days have passed with what I can only describe as efficiency and good vibes thanks in great part to my watch partner, a lifelong Alaskan mariner and fisherwoman. She is hardworking, kind, and smart, and has been very supportive while I've struggled to keep my head above water. She has daughters my age and she seems to relate so well because of her life experiences. My captain has also been a great influence; he's never afraid to let me know where I stand, which is something that always helps me to stay focused on work, rather than wasting energy trying to navigate the murky social etiquette of finicky shipmates. I'd like to believe that my effort quieted the naysayers a bit; I'll win them over yet.

I've never been quite as immersed in work as I've been this hitch. I woke up this morning from a dream in which I was alone and adrift in a turbulent and icy sea, feeling acutely disconnected from myself and from the things that I used to hold dear. I don't relate to friends my age who are buying houses and getting married and having children - I can't see myself doing any of these things for a long time. I wonder how long this phase of my life will last, and what kind of person I'll be when I emerge on the other side. But I can't think so far into the future right now, there's no point - the only thing to do is enjoy living in the present moment, and grow at my own pace. It's still a new feeling for me.

So we have an 8 am escort on Wednesday, crew change day, which means I'll need to change out with a mate on another boat tonight or early tomorrow morning if I'm to make my flight out of Valdez at 1 pm tomorrow. I hope things go according to plan, because happy as I am here, my 4-week-turned-6-week hitch has been quite enough for me and I'm ready to go home. Since I stayed over extra as a favor, I'll get less than two weeks off at home. But I'm told that when I come back I will go to the Hunter, one of the invader-class conventionals, as regular chief mate which I'm sure I'll love. The conventionals here do some towing, some ship assists, and a lot of standing by in Outside Bay. Since the Tan'erliq and Nanuq are inspected vessels who do tanker escorts as well as stores runs and crew changes to the outports, life on the Hunter promises to be much quieter and I think I'll be able to gain experience in a more relaxed atmosphere.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Blue Light

I'm on the mid-watch once again, but since July I'd been on the six to twelve, and when I had my time off in the afternoon I usually took a nap. We're gaining five and a half minutes of light every evening so the bleak winter is already giving way to gold; but there's nothing I loved more than that gentle blue light filtering into my room, cool and serene and infinitely soothing in its quietude. As every year turns I look forward to sleeping in that light again. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Move On Up

Yesterday was my first official day as chief mate. The regular C/M on the crew opposite mine got injured at home and personnel asked me to stay on two extra weeks to fill in for him; I couldn't say no. A lot of friends here and back home are very happy for me, but I've come to find that there are some people here who don't like how I took this position so quickly. They feel there are others who have been here longer who deserve it more than I do. To my mind it's less about deserving and more about qualifications and timing. Few people here have much concept of what I've gone through to get where I am, and so I guess it could be easy to assume I haven't worked hard enough to deserve this. I can't say I'm surprised, but it is a bit of a shock to be resented so bitterly. 

The truth is that my choices and the path I've taken over the last few years are the reason I was given this opportunity, and I can't apologize for that - I won't, because it would be unfair to others who struggle to attain goals similar to mine. In the end, wonderful as it is, this is still simply a job and I'll do it proudly to the best of my abilities. I can't let someone else's reality become my reality; that just wouldn't make any sense. No one has the right to dictate your life and the ones who try are wasting their breath.