The difference between a sea story and a fairy tale is said to be that a fairy tale always starts with “Once upon a time”, and a sea story always begins with “No really, this is no s**t”. It’s no secret that fishermen are known to exaggerate just a bit when talking about the one that got away, the tugboatman is somewhat different in that although the story sounds too impossible to be true, in many cases it’s as true as a carpenter’s square.
The urge to tell your story is an ancient impulse. Our ancestors painted cave walls and tribal shamans spoke parables by firelight. Most of these stories were not told merely to amaze, but to share the knowledge and wisdom needed to survive day to day. The fact that they were entertaining was a fringe benefit. The lessons contained within the content of the story pointed to actions and reactions as they led to a conclusion, either successful or fatal, and there was always “the moral of the story” attached. This can be said to exist today as “root cause analysis” and fodder for “lessons learned”.
Storytelling on a tugboat serves as a valuable teaching aid to pilothouse hopefuls and veteran boat handlers have a wealth of stories regarding close calls and incidents to relate. It’s a useful exercise considering these tales since it shows either how the event was survived in spite of the gravity of the predicament, or how and why it came to an ugly end. We use these stories to reinforce the lesson and to drive home a point when the issue may not be as clear-cut as we’d like. Teaching a guy how to approach a berth with certain prevailing circumstances is a dry exercise, color it with the “dark and stormy night” and it takes on meaning, especially if the next time the berth is approached, it’s dark and stormy. Telling the tale of how Old Joe Tug messed up his approach and took out a pipeline and walkway with the bow of the barge gives the advice a little more weight, action/reaction.
Whenever Mother Nature, human nature, inertia, and great mass are combined, things are going to happen. (Physics are a bitch.) That doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t try to minimize equipment failure or operator error with well thought out maintenance plans or procedures, it’s just that the odds are inescapable. The more you do it, the more exposure you have. And it’s not a matter of if it’ll happen, it’s when, and you can be certain it will happen.
You can’t become a boatman unless you’ve dented a little steel or made a few splinters. The sea stories serve as a teaching aid and by relating our experiences we can analyze the events leading up to the moment things went wrong and identify the “tell” in the future. What follows after the dust has settled is the sea story.
Once you get a boatman talking about his “history”, the conversation gets somewhat long-winded, heavily laced with blue language, and descriptions that’ll seldom be politically correct. It makes for a very entertaining and educational evening. Some of my most vivid memories of my Dad and his friends are the backyard parties and the stories that would come out as the refreshments were consumed. It wasn’t so much they were trying to top each other’s stories, but the more they told, the better they got. It wasn’t until I had a few stories of my own to tell that I realized they weren’t really exaggerating all that much, the facts alone were amazing enough. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
In the wake of a recent incident a fellow I work with became quite depressed. He had his first notable incident and felt as though the event had marked him. He owned up to the error in judgment he made in trying something that was well above his pay grade and its subsequent failure. The interviews and discussions after the fact had him at a loss. This of course was our cue to cheer him up. We related enough stories about things we did or survived that his issue quickly dimmed in comparison. I think afterwards he felt somewhat relieved but at the same time perhaps a little chagrined because his story wasn’t nearly as hairy as the ones we told.
In the general scheme of things it’s easy to understand that even seemingly mundane events can be extremely expensive. Some outfits recognize the reality of “Tow Biz” and will absorb these incidents as a cost of doing business but it’s not realistic to expect frequent damages to be tolerated if a trend seems to be forming. A wheelhouse trainee has a very small number of reportable events in the bank when he starts steering, his mentor can mitigate some things by catching bad situations before they develop but the trainee is not always the perpetrator, it could be any of us. The most skilled among us have plenty of stories to tell when it comes to mistakes, big and small. You can’t claim to be a boat-handler who’s never had a damage, we know it’s not possible. Tagging the side of a ship, shattering a dock stringer, crushing a railing along with properly denting a barge or hitting the wheel on some “unknown” underwater obstruction, and of course, the classic “Bell ringer”* to name a few. And if by chance you get two or more tugboat men together in a relaxed (ahem) social environment, the stories will raise the hair on the back of your neck, unless of course you have a story or two of your own. In the natural course of events we hold these truths to be self evident, Shit happens.
*[ A " Bell Ringer" refers to when the tug makes a contact so hard it causes its own bell to ring from the impact. Generally attributed to poor timing of the throttle. Usually there is a time delay (4 to 8 seconds) that needs to clear before the engines can be reversed, mis-time it and one may not be able to slow or stop the boat in time, this is customarily followed by a red-faced apology to all concerned.
Every one of us has a "bell ringer" story or two. It doesn't matter if you're talking about the wheelhouse or the engine room, everyone has a story to tell as Chief Engineer Bob Mattesson does here in a fine piece of writing from a tugboat engineer's perspective . It illustrates error and redemption in a great story.]