Friday, August 26, 2016

the book of everything

I've got two cloth bound notebooks that I use for keeping maritime-related notes. The Class Book and the Dirty Book, They're each about 20-25 years old. The Class book has notes on everything I've ever taken a class in for work- everything from marlinespike seamanship to celestial navigation, cargo handling and damage control,  to clamping off a cut blood vessel and calculating dosages for medication.
 The dirty book is just that- it's a smaller pocket-sized book with coffee and oil stains, paint, handprints, blood, all sorts of contaminants on it- it's a book with notes for reference when I'm doing dirty work, which includes GPS and LORAN coordinates of bottom features in Boston Harbor and Massachusetts Bay, the numbers and bearings between buoys to get into several ports (for navigating in fog with a stopwatch and compass and no electronics or maybe just radar ), lists of taxi companies, the better sort of nudie bars in various ports, the phone numbers of people I've met over the years, directions to stores from docks all over the world, as well as notes on how to mix paint from scratch, start an inert-gas generator and troubleshoot the same, strip high viscosity oil from a ship using Framo pumps and nitrogen, valve sequences to isolate multiple fuel tanks across a mixmaster manifold, a list of bookstores all over the world, the numbers of different dockside phone booths, from the days before cell phones, the names of bartenders and managers at restaurants, things like that- the sort of knowledge that you need right away when you need it at all.

 Combined, this represents the  sum knowledge of reference-worthy knowledge that I've learned after 35 years of messing around in boats.

 ... and now I'm starting to make a 'clean' copy, something written neatly, and it's hard. 

 My hands ain't right, and they haven't been right since my early teens. Between getting my hands utterly Borked at 14, and both hands having a deep and persistent infection for 25 years (I am deeply allergic to fish oil, (yay, contact dermatitis!) and the resultant split open skin from being exposed to it all the time allowed for an infection that stayed with me, up until about 3 years ago and took over a year of hard work on the part of a doc to fix).

Well, anyways, my dashed hand-modeling career aspirations aside, I'm really unhappy with the discomfort when I write with a damn pen. I type very fast, up there with what a good secretary can do, which has been a great way to forget that writing sucks for me. Good training, anyhow.
   'Good training' refers to anything that sucks at work. "Dammit,the shit tank is overflowing into the bilge, and the shut-off valve is behind a waterfall of poop water!"  "That's some good training, there."

    Still, all in all it actually IS good training- as a result of my taking up the mantle of scrivening my own work, I'm reviewing rules, tricks of the trade, laws and skills, many of which I no longer use in my current job- skills and minds rust as surely as metal.

 Some head scratching too, from my notes. Why the hell was I so worried about rules regarding lighting on Dracones?   What the fuck is a Dracone?

         Well, there's some stuff like that. I can only guess that it was related to something we were doing in class.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

winding down

The last 2-week tour of this voyage is underway. Tour #5 since I last saw my family.

 I don't have channel fever or anything like that, but I'm VERY aware that I've been away from home for too long. After 7 years here, I'm no longer able to contemplate 90, 100, 120+ day voyages dispassionately. In fact, after I think 8 months of not working any extra, I've absolutely gotten used to that. I can see why coworkers think I'm fucking nuts to be out here.

 Something I've noticed, where working extra can mean between $5,000 to $30,000 more income per year;  at the end, I don't have all that much to show for it- the intangible benefits are there, but the cost of not being home eventually outweighs the benefits to the nuclear family.

 I see that now. So I tend not to work extra. But it happened that I wanted to make some extraordinary purchases this summer and fall, so I sought out the extra work and am grateful for the opportunity.

 Now that the money is in the bank, and I'm down to like 12 days to go, I wish I had just gone home.
 It seems I'm not longer fit for my self-appointed role as workhorse. I'm not hungry enough anymore.

     Mostly, getting older thus far has meant aches and pains and very slightly diminished capacities that weren't there before. Thank Christ, some Wisdom has finally manifested. I'm absolutely cool with that.

It's interesting, though, that so many little changes have happened for me to notice this voyage. OT, part time Hulk and our new full-time crewman, has made me realize how much I took for granted the gestalt of living and working here on the HQ, including how I contribute while I'm just doing the things I do the way I like doing them- having to have a conversation about how I never like having more assistance than I need was... sublimely retarded.
          Anyone can understand that some people just enjoy and prefer working alone where and when possible- but having to tell a perfectly nice and perhaps even better-socially-adjusted person NOT to volunteer to come help me and not to feel guilty about it was a pretty hard sell. I'm pretty sure the new guy thinks I don't like him. The truth is that Big B and I have optimized the HQ for our own maximum efficiency given the idiosyncrasies of the HQ's deck layout and the operations that we carry out. There are times when having two PIC's (Persons In Charge) is more efficient, and those times we will call out for help when needed. But mostly, so long as it doesn't cost time, big B and I like working on deck solo when and where we can.
 I was warned before I took this job that being a tankerman can make you more of a loner, and 'a little fuckin' weird' was the phrase used.   It's held out to be reasonably accurate, but I was a little fuckin weird long before I was a tankerman, which may be why I'm so comfortable with the job.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The things we did, and the things we do

A series of facebook posts by New England Waterman  focused on his family's visit to one of the more remote and beautiful hidden gems of Cape Cod, a locals-mostly spot that was shown to me back in 1997, when I had just returned from working in Scotland on my first real grown-up independent study to take up residence at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA, which is pretty much the Graceland, Harvard and Bedlam of ocean sciences. 

 The spot I'm talking about is a stunningly beautiful glacial drumlin that stretches out into the ocean. Lovely place. Just as it was introduced to me, I brought my fellow techs, interns and assorted underpaid geek friends there on the regular with my piece of shit truck. Woods Hole and nearby Falmouth, MA, where we all lived (Woods Hole being much too expensive for anyone short of a tenured professor, of which MIT had many living in the damn community). MIT are the owners of the Oceanographic Institute, which is a separate organization from the Marine Biological Laboratory, but which shares the same area and often the same poor employees and interns like yours truly. It is to the credit of the Falmouth police department that they never once pulled me over when I had 10-20 people in my truck, mostly in the back. We were a very law-abiding bunch, though, even when drunk, which was often. 

       It wasn't just the cops who were cool. My neighbors were, too. 6 of us rented a gorgeous summer house, and I know of at least one current university professor from CalTech, and another from UGA who passed out drunk and spent the night sleeping on my front lawn to be woken up by early beachgoers who walked down my street to get to the gorgeous and somewhat famous beach at the end of it. Not one complaint from the neighbors, minus one guy down the road who did complain that my motorcycle was noisy at 5am, when I headed out to the lab on early days. Since I was fishing back home on weekends, I brought him live lobsters a couple of times, and he made nicenice after that. 

      Even the Coast Guard was cool at Woods Hole. When I accidentally misread a formula for making tracer dye for measuring turbulence in flowing water (this is a thing), which was supposed to be something like .1 grams per 5 gallons of water (in my defense, the stained and faded card said 'add 1  to 5gal, injected at 5 ml/min' so I added one 10lb can to 5 gallons of water, used only about a quart's worth for my work, and dumped the other 4.75 gallons into the seawater systems' drain, and it dyed the estuary around the outlet pipe bright red, including the plants, the gelcoat on the many sailboats anchored there (Woods Hole is a tourist destination, as well as being the transit port to go to Martha's Vineyard), and also the concrete and wood of the decks of the local restaurants and yacht club and marina. 

       Well, they found me because a helicopter spotted a fire-engine red streak of water miles out to sea, followed it back to the Eel Pond estuary, figured out that my lab building had a drain for our seawater pumping system, and burst into my lab in the basement, giving me a lecture and a warning, but no more than that. 

That's it, off to the right. Bright. Red. Also florescent, if anyone had a black light. 
        There was a lot of that shit. Being dumb and often lazy, some July mornings, I'd ride in on my motorcycle in shorts, a tank-top shirt, and flipflops, and kept a change of clothes in my lab,  under my giant flume tank, a 60ftx9ftx6ft aquarium tank that I used to do things like learning how lobsters use their sense of smell and current flow to find food. The tank was elevated because the piping and pumpworks were underneath, and there was a great spot there to keep a backpack full of clothes, not to mention a refrigerated seawater tank used to house rare deep-sea creatures behind my flume, that cohabitated nicely with bud light and diet soda cans in the tank. Icy cold on hot days. 

 The Food Buoy, the local deli/convenience store, had a girl there that wore nothing but daisy duke shorts and tiny t-shirts. I learned quickly which sandwich items were located deepest in the food cases. I was in my early 20's after all. 

               The Captain Kidd was a bar that my dad used to drink at when my parents lived in Falmouth. My father worked for "The Oceanographic" for years, when they were doing the real new, badass shit with the ALVIN, their submarine (the one that found the Titanic in later years). The Kidd tolerated a lot of BS from the  interns and techs, but by no means was a college bar. It was a townie bar, exactly the kind of bar I like and have always liked. Even so, I had to keep a low profile and didn't go in there for a while after I dyed their back yard bright red. 
      I once talked a friend out of a fistfight there. Guy has 2 doctorates, which he got at the same time, and was one of the most mild-mannered people you'd ever meet, but someone got his Irish up, and I got to defuse the situation, which ultimately got me laid with one of the interns from Estuarine Ecology, so, win-win, I guess. 
    I packed a lot of living in just 16 months there. I also figured out that I wasn't happy as a scientist there, but it took me a couple of years to get it through my thick skull. 

Friday, August 19, 2016


Yesterday was one of those days where just nothing went right at all. Some frustrating setbacks unrelated to work, too hot to even go for a damn walk around deck without incurring diaper rash, and every single cargo movement came with breakdowns, delays, paperwork snafus, etc.

 Just a bad day, you know?  Inappropriately Hot Foreign Wife nagged some details out of me, where normally I just summarize and tell her I'm having a shit day, and while she's sympathetic, she's also pretty good at getting a laugh out of me. "Honee, you hev you period today? I think so, yes."

 If that was my period yesterday, I'm looking forward to male menopause.

 Today dawned bright and early- at 2345 last night, really, when I got on watch. My turn for the midwatch. We're loading up a car ship, and while mooring alongside this particular ship is a shit show, the crew are a bunch if nice, friendly guys, helpful. Hearing guys laughing while working together to wrestle my diesel hose in place was pretty soothing.

 I don't tend to stay in a bad mood for too long. While I didn't sleep very well on my off-watch, I woke up ready to be happy, and so far it's working. By the time my watch is finished, we'll be headed for our anchorage, and are scheduled to swing on the hook for the rest of the day, which, God willing, we'll do, and which should lend itself to a decent sleep and maybe a chance to get caught up on exercise and reading my book.

 Also, I'm kind of looking at a 3d printer. Does anyone know anything about them? What I know about CAD/CAM stuff is slightly more than nothing at all.

Monday, August 15, 2016

"If this Catches Lobster, Bob, I Quit." Final Part: Hauling Back

 You can read Parts 1-3 here:  


"Oh, Jesus," I said, "I can't look."

The buoyline made its usual growling shriek as the first pot came off the bottom.

I was standing at my usual spot, about 5 feet behind Bob at the port rail, just aft of the hauling station. I was leaning against one of the four barrels of bait that we had aboard. If the salmon skins didn't fish, we were going to be in for a long day of slinging the glop overboard, then refilling the bags with our pleasant-by-comparison slightly stinky salted herring bait.

Photo courtesy of the World Wide Web

The first lobster pot broke the surface of the brown, muddy water. There was a flash of dark orange and brown in the middle of a whole mess of spider crabs. "Larry!" Bob shouted.
Larry the Lobster was a children's book character. We'd shout his name whenever one showed up unexpectedly, which, in mid summer, was every damn pot.
"Looks short," I muttered.
"Mah! That's a keeper"
I started flinging crabs out of the pot. Broken spider crab bits flew; we tend not to be very careful with them. They're a pest species.
When I had a clear path to it, I grabbed the lobster by the carapace (the head segment), spun it in my palm to look for eggs on the underside (eggers go overboard, gently, with a little v-shaped notch that we cut in her tail to tell other lobstermen that she's a breeder, and not to be touched), and gauged the size. One end of the gauge went gently into the empty part of the eye socket- the other to the back of the carapace. The gauge fell short of the end of the carapace segment.

Photo courtesy of the world wide web

"Keeper." The pleasant clunk of the lobster being dropped into an empty bait bin followed.

"Nasssssty," Bob said, holding the old bait bag up for my inspection.

And it was nasty. The crabs and lobsters had plucked many of the skins half out of the little meshes in the bait bag. It looked like someone had tried to make a wig out of a mop. There was mud and black goop that must have been pockets of bacteria.

"Hey, it don't smell bad at all!"
And it didn't. The bait bags full of salmon skins had retained the smell of salmon, but the smell of corruption was gone. "Throw some fish in there and we'll fish the skins again." We were going to recycle the salmon skins by adding a herring or two to each bag and putting them back in the traps.
The next trap came up empty. Strangely empty. Only one or two spider crabs were in the pot. Even an empty pot will come up full of spider crabs when you're fishing their territory.
Inside the pot was a bag with five pounds of salmon fillet. "Guess the fillets (prounounced 'fill-its' when you're a fisherman) don't fish."
"Lobster repellent, Bob."
"Glad we didn't use too many."
The next trap came up empty again. This one had a salmon skin bait bag.
"Well, shit, I'm kinda relieived. That bait was fuckin' disgusting."
Bob dumped the bait bag's contents over the side. About half stayed. He then spent about 20 seconds picking the bag clean. "Oh, ain't this some shit! We might be fucked, buddy."

The next trap came up. "Deuce!" two lobsters, damned rare in mid-summer.
"Jeeezuss... two hardshell males... quarters." Two high-valued lobsters, full of meat, and decently sized. Also rare in mid summer. Lobsters take time off in the summer to shed their shells and grow... While they're 'soft' the shell is hardened after a few days, but there's not too much muscle underneath yet- they haven't grown into the new shell... so they're not worth as much money, being made up of more water than hard shells.

When all 25 traps were up, the final count was 10. About 1/2 a lb. per trap. Not bad for the time of year.

"OK, so the skins fish. And they're free."
"Yeah, Bob, but we're going to lose a lot of time fucking with the bait."
"...which is free."
Sigh. "Yes. Free."

The next trawl started only about 100 yards from where the last one was reset.
"Larry!" A keeper and a short lobster in the first pot. The short went over the side in a arcing toss.

"Deuce!" Another double in the second pot.

"Larry!" a single in the third.

"Oh, Shit! Three Bagger! "

The next trap came up with three very fiesty, big lobsters. All keepers.
"Oh, shit, Bob..." At about the same time, a slow grin began to creep onto both of our faces. We sat there smiling at each other like a couple of idiots. Bob was the first to speak.
"Salmon Skins!" said quietly, but with emphasis.
"Big money!" I said, copying the tone.

That trawl averaged out at a pound a pot. 25lbs of lobster, when we were expecting maybe 8 or 10.

As the day wore on, we worked our way out into Quincy Bay. The catch was as good as any October day, when the fall 'runs' of lobster bring in the majority of the annual income of a lobsterman.

Any time another lobsterman swung by to say hello, we stopped hauling. We weren't ready to share the secret, or the glory, just yet. We didn't want anyone to look into our traps and see the cannonball of salmon skins in the bait bag, and the lobsters it was bringing up. Now that we were out of the estuaries, the spider crabs were gone. Instead, we were bringing up the occasional small green crab- a pest that is annoying only when in great numbers. The two or three green crabs in each pot we left alone- they're too small to bother even throwing out of the trap. Now, the only thing coming up was seaweed, little crabs, and lots and lots of lobsters.
By noon, the bottom tier of the holding tank was full. I had to stop the low drain in the tank so the seawater level in the tank would rise.

And the catches kept improving. We were up over 1.5 lbs a pot out in the bay. By the end of the day, the holding tank was full- something I had never even seen before. We were both exhausted. The extra work involved in dealing with all the lobsters, plus the unwieldy nature of the bait, which was still making the deck slippery as hell (though strangely this was no longer important, it being a smasher of a day)... we were burnt out.
When we were both completely, utterly burnt out, we called it a day. Bob called ahead to the lobster dealer, to make sure that he was in.

The next day... same thing. Big, crazy numbers. We had cycled through all the gear once, now. At the end of the second day, we sat down on the pier and started drinking the beer that was waiting in the bait cooler. Bob's father always made sure that there was something in there for us at the end of the day. Most days, Bob's dad would have a beer with us, if he was there, and Bob and I would have two beers each... sometimes three. And, sometimes, seven.
This day was a seven beer day. We toasted the salmon skins, retelling stories that weren't even a day old yet. Chuck, a lobsterman I had worked for when I was in grad school, came by.

"Heard you guys had a slammer yesterday."
Bob and I grinned at each other again, but it was a sickly one.
"Cat's out of the bag, now, Bob." (that was me.)

"What, did the dealer tell you?"

" I heard about it in Scituate when I was getting bait."
"Jesus, Bob, we're highliners!"

Highliners are big money fishermen, the top earners, famed among fishermen. Bob and I had earned temporary fame for bringing in quadruple what anyone else did. Scituate, several towns over, is well outside Boston Harbor, and a world apart, stylistically. Different fishing, different markets, different bait sources, everything... and word was out.


We were never able to get a big consignment of salmon skins again. The skins that became available were snatched up, such that no one that I know of ever found them in bulk like we did again. Perhaps they're not shared equally, but shared enough that no one I know of ever did what we did. But they fish, goddammit. They fish.
Bob and I, in all our years together, never had another set like the salmon skin set. We had a fall run one year that culminated in a big day where we caught more lobster than the day of the salmon skins, but it didn't match the excitement. It was fun, sure, but it was the fall run, and didn't come out of the blue like the salmon skin adventure.
Of all the stories of our time together, that day stands out as among the happiest I've had. The lighthearted avariciousness of the whole situation has to be exactly what gamblers feel when the're in the middle of a roll. Being a highliner for a day was fun for the ego, but mostly the day was about doing our job, and the unexpected nature of being rewarded for years of patience.
Good times.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

... go out in the midday sun.

 Sweet lord, it's hot as hell outside. I felt vaguely guilty that we moored next to one of our mid-size barge units yesterday, and they were busy as hell, getting ready for a year-long contract in the Caribbean, loading stores and spares, overhauling all the engines, renewing lines, etc, etc.  All in the awful new coveralls that my employer is insisting that people wear.

 I went outside, spliced new eyes into a pair of heavy mooring lines that parted while I was away, and was pouring sweat. Beyond taking on a pallet of stores yesterday, that was the extent of what we did while the sun was up. Sun went down, we got some stuff done, but it was hell on productivity.

 Today we were up earlier, but done by 10am. Rinse, repeat, until the heat breaks. I'm swimming in ball soup out there. Walking outside is like walking into a hot wet blanket. After sundown, I'll do something productive, and be thankful that we had this break when we get back to work shortly after.

My marlinespike seamanship skills are rusty. While I can still splice 12-strand single braid line quickly, I made up a monkey's fist for one of our heaving lines, and it took a couple of tries. It's been a while. On the upside, it's something I can make while sitting in the AC at my desk. Once it was done, I treated it by dipping it whole into a gallon can of white paint, submerging it and letting the bubbles come out for about 20 minutes, and once it stopped bubbling, hung it over a trash can to dry. It'll sit there for a day, baking in the sun, then tomorrow hung from a mast to truly dry out over the course of the next week. Dipping it adds weight (I don't like to add a core to my monkey's fists- it's a good way to brain someone if you knock the hat off their head) and makes it more visible in low light.

Ask me for anything but space

Well, I crossed a milestone. I've had a building project in mind for a while. Problem is, it ain't practical.

 I like building boats. Repairing them structurally, too. But I have no space, currently, as the '2 car garage' in my house, ain't. It's 1.5 car garage.

 I've been wanting to build a full-displacement hulled boat for some time- a beefy, seakindly hull, old school. Problem is space.

 I live in a fancy gated community. I love it, for the most part. Only downside is you can't build boats and shit in your yard or driveway, and you can't even keep a pickup truck. No shit. No pickups. My inner redneck withers on the vine.

 At any rate, I solved the issue of space, and not being able to keep a truck at my house, but I will be building a boat as soon as I get my new shop fully in order again. I'm not going to stay at my current house for more than another year or two, as I want a full shop space and I'd like my own dock with access to the ocean, but I don't want to wait that long to start on the hull that I've wanted to build for the past couple of years.

 I bought the plans and paid for the wood for the hull framing yesterday.