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As you may have read in previous posts I wanted to try the “online experience” for my radar renewal.  It did not go well.  I signed up paid $225.00 and received my study material and then proceeded to work myself back up to a passing proficiency for rapid radar plotting.  I took a couple of months, made an appointment at the nearest Prometric Testing center and believing I was ready, scheduled and sat for my renewal.   All went well up to this point.  The facility is clean, well organized and strict.  I arrived early and was processed quickly.

The exam was straightforward enough.  Once you get settled in at your exam station, the computer program is loaded and a timer promptly begins with your radar scenario.

There was the first part of roughly ten questions regarding theory and then the plots.  I had no difficulty with theory and scored 100%.

You get two shots at the plotting section.   It’s a normal three target screen, you need only identify the “most dangerous target” and proceed with your plot.  I must add the timer is a bit unnerving.  If you fail the first time it gives you the opportunity to select and proceed with a second chance/ different set of plots and you fly or fall at the end of the scenario.

I failed both my attempts on the exam and felt more than a bit embarrassed seeing as I had never not passed what we’ve all come to see as a less than useful skill since the advent of A.R.P.A. and modern radar systems.

I must admit that the failure was likely my fault due to my time management (or lack thereof) and perhaps a careless error.

The plots are “time sensitive” and you’re only allowed three minutes to solve for NTCPA and new course.  I overran the time limit first time out.  After the exam I noted in the instructions on this particular exam that there was no specific time for MX expressly indicated.  The instructions for MX or “time of execution” were included in the practice instructions but absent in the actual exam instructions.

This isn’t an excuse, since after the fact I  found the instructions in the practice material clearly indicated that the exam’s execution point was to be at 12 minutes.  I missed that somehow.

Okay, so I failed.  I was more than a bit upset, I have never failed this recert but I guess there’s a first time for everything.

No amount of post failure negotiation was sufficient to convince the proctors of the center to help, and the online school was adamant that in order to retest I’d have to pony up another $225.00 and reschedule.   I didn’t elect to take them up on it.

Instead I called SUNY Maritime and scheduled my one-day renewal at a “brick and mortar ” school.  I paid the fee ($325.00) and practiced the material they sent and showed up in the Bronx for the recert like I’ve done in the past.

The experience was easier in that I had an instructor on site that understood the material.  He could see which of us in class were comfortable and possessed the skill set and helped guide those who were a bit shaky during the morning practice session and boosted their confidence level.  That alone means a lot to anyone who’s uncomfortable in exam situations.

You’re not handed the cert,  it’s challenging and you earn it.  But that said, having the class in a place where it’s a familiar curricula helps.  Online courses are fine, but you’re strictly on your own at the center.  After you are scanned, frisked and asked to empty your pockets no one can or may assist you in any way.

I passed SUNY’s recert program as expected and left to deal with the gauntlet that is the NY area’s traffic to get home.

In closing, if you’re absolutely certain and speedy with rapid radar plotting you should give the online experience a go.  If you’re like me, go to a school where an instructor can kick you back inside the lines of competency and get you through this “every 5 year P.I.T.A.”.  I have a couple more times I have to submit to this ordeal and you can be sure it will be at a “brick and mortar” school from here on.

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I’m beginning my radar renewal process a bit early this time using the Calhoon MEBA Engineering School Distance Learning Program.
When I wrote the last article describing this new way to handle training and re-certification I said that I would be giving this a try as my renewal date approached.

I should say that my first attempt at finding and registering for the course was slightly side-tracked by the fact that I thought I would be using the Prometric portal.  Well let’s say that after a few calls to an endless loop of phone menu items and toll free calls including one to somewhere in southeast Asia, I found my way by calling  the Calhoon MEBA School directly and spoke to a nice young woman named Lisa Mc Neil.  (410-822-9600 ext 322).  I was able to ask all my questions and get answers from a real human being and I was set right in short order.

So here’s the deal as I understand it;

Any mariner can apply for their radar re-cert with this school, you do not have to be a member of MEBA.  Follow this link to their home page, hover your mouse over the “Online Courses” menu item and check out the drop-down menu.  Read everything then fill out your application, select your course and pay the lady.  You’ll receive an email with confirmation and then you’ll have to allow a day for processing the order.  You will receive an email confirming your registration and access to the study material and also (more importantly) your login and access to the instructors for any questions you might have (via email).

In the information link it states you have a month, but the conversation I had with Ms. McNeil made it clear that I could study longer if necessary and not have any problem.  Ms. McNeil can offer more info if you need more time.

Once you have registered and been accepted you will be given the key to the online course material and practice with it as often as you like.  The online course and testing material comes from the same source used at the Prometric Center on your exam day.
Clipboard01Okay so you’re ready to test.  The scheduling process is email based and finding the exam near your home becomes your next step.  Here’s where the Prometric System comes into play through the Calhoon website.  
Select “Locate a Test Center” and follow through the menu to filter it down by country, state, etc…

Select the course;

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Search the nearest test center;

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Select the center you want;

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Check for available dates

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So that’s what I’ve got so far.  I will report back after I’ve completed the process and let you know how it went.  So far I’m on track.

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It’s been a few months and the weather conditions down here in the Gulf of Mexico continue to offer a diverse experience from one voyage to the next. Here’s what we had to deal with for a day and a half just before the Thanksgiving Holiday.  What you’re watching is what an ATB is designed to do, ride weather that would keep a conventional tug and barge hove to on a slow ahead engine or weather bound all together.   We don’t necessarily enjoy this kind of ride, but the fact the ATB tolerates this kind of weather and is still able to make a respectable amount of headway is testament to the effectiveness of the design.

 

The Nicole L. Reinauer heading for Tampa, Florida on a stormy day…. from Bill Brucato on Vimeo.

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I found myself going through the “library” aboard and rediscovered an article written earlier this year for Marinelink regarding a “quandary” for AT/B’s, as the phrase was coined.  I thought it was just so much bullshit when I first read it and I had to every intention to comment.  The comment piece fell by the wayside for a while but I’ve renewed my interest so here goes.

It’s clear to me the term “quandary” was meant to generate a response from the industry and perhaps create a bit of drama.  And even though it has taken me until now to comment, I’d like to add my view and I offer my opinion as Master of one of the aforementioned “quandaries”..

Captain Jeff Cowan, (whose experience regarding AT/B’s remains in question for me) pontificates on the ill-conceived and imminently dangerous existence of AT/B’s in place of ships in the Jones Act trade.  He has drawn parallels that make a “sour grapes” spin sound complimentary.

I read with a good deal of glee the direct and articulate (see what I did there?) response from Mr Bob Hill of Ocean Tug and Barge, and thank Marinelink for publishing Mr Hill’s comments in their entirety.

I believe with all due respect, that Captain Cowan has missed the boat on this one (pun intended).  I have been working on one of Mr. Hill’s AT/B’s since 2003 (see the page header).  We were in the New England trade for many years and this last spring joined our sister unit the AT/B Christian F. Reinauer in the Gulf of Mexico to trade between Louisiana and Florida.  I have no illusions of what these units can and cannot do.

So let me address Captain Cowan’s assertions here;

My boat normally carries a 7 man crew, we have room for 10.

As far as STCW requirements; we are all STCW certified since the charterer requires it.  And yes Cap, we operate more than 200 miles offshore.  It’s a nearly 420 nm long trip from SW Pass to the Dry Tortugas on a great circle route, twice as long if you try to stay within twenty miles of the coast.  The inshore route is held as an option, though rarely used.

We moor with 8 lines, more if necessary.  A two man deck crew generally has it done in 15-20 minutes.  There isn’t any port/facility we call on that requires more than eight mooring lines.  I have witnessed one of the large Crowley 750 class moor and they take an hour or so with a dozen or more lines.  I can’t state with any certainty that’s the norm or the exception.

My company has had a Safety Management System in place since the late 90′s

We are S.Q.E. rated through the ISM Code and ISO 9001 and have been since 2004

We have 3 service gen-sets and one emergency gen-set all 99Kw, whaddaya think this is?

Since we’re talking Jones Act Shipping we’re not dealing with ISPS

Yes I will acknowledge the crew size could be larger.  The requirement for a greater number of people on board will have to be mandated by the charterers since the USCG and US Congress are unable or unwilling to force the issue.

I don’t have any illusions as to why this issue garners the attention it does from the “upper level license” community.  The Jones Act tanker trade is being somewhat eclipsed by AT/B’s, but not completely.  So let’s just settle down..

Since my AT/B unit was assigned work in the Gulf of Mexico I’m seeing a lot of AT/B’s working in the Gulf and I do mean a lot.   I’m seeing state-of-the-art rigs trading in Tampa, Jacksonville Florida, New Orleans and Port Everglades.  Bouchard (conversions), Reinauer (design-built and converted units), new Crowley designs, and OSG behemoths all taking bigger bites of the coastal trade away from tankers in the 350+ bbl range.  Crowley just completed building 17 new AT/B’s at a total cost of $1 billion USD, that ain’t small change.  AT/B’s are and will continue to be the future, but the tanker won’t be disappearing any time soon.

It’s true that for the most part we burn less fuel, we have fewer crew members (something we didn’t have a big say in), and yet we’re getting charters from the big guys on a regular basis. (As a point of order here; the majors don’t put their eggs in risky basket if you catch my drift.)

That’s not to say we’re not getting tons of rules; in addition to the rules quoted by Mr. Hill being satisfied to just build an AT/B, we’re tasked with tons of procedural and operational (ahem) guidance from our charterers.

We’re being inundated with terms we were more or less oblivious to a decade ago.  SOLAS, ISGOTT, OCIMF, SIRE, ISM, SMS, all these acronyms are in our daily lexicon and we’re subject to the same standards as ships in many cases.

A Cat 1 SIRE (similar to a full blown colonoscopy) is an audit that is generally reserved for ships, my rig has had more than a few of them so far.  We’ve tried to explain to the auditors that we’re not a ship with precious little success.

Here’s a Sample SIRE Report, how’s that for a fun-filled afternoon?

Captain Cowan cites the delays associated with tug and barge operations and the added time and costs that come with it, again I call b*llsh*t.  We are chartered with a clear statement of expected speed we’ll average and delivery times we’ll make.  The customer is well aware of what they are buying, if it was unacceptable we wouldn’t be so busy.

We don’t sail into storm systems, the customer wants all his cargo, not just most of it. We take a beating like everyone else if we get caught but we’d rather not.  Everyone knows it comes with the territory.  Ask anyone who has sailed through a hurricane and I’m damn near certain they’ll tell you to a man they’d rather not do it again.

The Scandia/North Cape was a single skin barge lost in a storm nobody should have sailed into.

The Valdez (with a crew of 24 plus) was not a total cargo loss, a large volume of her cargo spilled in Prince William Sound, but certainly not all of it….everyone seems to think the ship went away after the grounding.  It kinda did, the ship was towed to California, repaired, renamed and placed in service again with a different name.

Do we need to mention the Costa Concordia?

Those of us who are running these rigs are not breaking any rules, we’re doing our jobs.  And we’re doing it with “lower level licenses” in many cases.  Now I’m not particularly fond of the term but I can accept that there has to be a distinction.

Tankers run aground and spill cargo just like barges.  A detail frequently overlooked in this kind of argument is that a total loss means everything ended up in the water (and it’s a rare occurrence), let’s coin the phrase correctly shall we?  Double bottom technology isn’t perfect, but it’s helping prevent bad things from becoming disastrous.

With the number of disasters in the news these days concerning ships breaking in half, catching fire, sinking, colliding, and grounding; there aren’t many stories where I see someone claiming how much safer ships are.   The fact is that any vessel that puts to sea must assume risk.  Weather, training limitations and sometimes dumb luck are involved to make or break a journey.  We like to believe dumb luck has little influence on the outcome but anyone who has piloted their way unscathed out of a zero-dark thirty fog-bank in heavy traffic knows better.

I doubt that the ship drivers are worried at all, it’s the writers of blogs and magazine articles needing something to write about.  Nothing like creating a tempest in a teapot for a little entertainment.

If we’re going to discuss things in a constructive manner let’s agree that there’s little room for half truths.  After all this isn’t Fox News is it?

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Thanks to a book recommended to me by Kennebec Captain and my time spent reading it, I have found the words to express my frustration with Zero Tolerance Safety Programs with a couple of quotes.

“The point of risk management is not to prevent failure, for that is impossible. The point is to have a plan ready to manage and control failure when it inevitably comes.” 

“This may in fact be the real story of human and societal improvement. We talk a lot about risk management a nice hygienic phrase. But in the end, risk is necessary. Things can and will go wrong. Yet some have a better capacity to prepare for the possibility, to limit the damage, and to sometimes even retrieve success from failure.”

“When things go wrong, there seem to be three main pitfalls to avoid, three ways to fail to rescue. You could choose a wrong plan, an inadequate plan, or no plan at all. Say you’re cooking and you inadvertently set a grease pan on fire. Throwing gasoline on the fire would be a completely wrong plan.
Trying to blow the fire out would be inadequate.
And ignoring it “Fire? What fire?”would be no plan at all.”

These quotes are not my own, they are from a book (linked above) and a commencement speech.  I believe they illustrate perfectly what and how we should think about risk management as a practice.  The message we frequently get from management is the same old saw; “zero incidents, accidents, errors”.  While this has a nice ring to it and is a worthy goal, it’s not humanly possible and we know it.

Planning for failures that might occur however, is well within the realm of possibility.  Evidence of this kind of real world thinking is represented by our Vessel Spill Response Plans, salvage plans, voyage plans, operations manuals and training curricula.   These documents all articulate what to do “when” something happens or “if this happens, then”.  They are general in nature since it’s impossible to prepare for every possible permutation of events and write a specific procedure for each.  It’s left to our training and judgement after that.

High Reliability Organizations

A High Reliability Organization is one that while highly trained to avoid failure, is keenly aware of the cues that arise announcing an impending one.   The thing that makes them so reliable is that they are prepared and mindful enough to catch a bad series of events while they’re still “curable”.   But it’s not just their awareness, their resilience in the face of an event it’s how quickly they can get the situation under control and continue using the plans set in place for such an incident as a guide.

It’s not making a blanket statement of “incidents won’t happen because we don’t want them to”, it’s the real world.  The message is clear to me, coupled with proven safety procedures we need to recognize that, and prepare for WHEN things to go wrong.

The business of towing is full of risk, it’s why tug boats have fenders.  It’s a contact sport.  A sign on the bulkhead stating zero, zero and zero isn’t telling me how to accomplish it.  And you can bet Harry Potter’s magic wand is out of the question.

The ability to meet and assume that risk is tied to practical and relevant training standards.  The conflict between zero incident safety programs and reality is that if we were to eliminate all risk, nothing would get done.  Something in that statement seems to make some eyes glaze over and disconnect from the conversation.

Ships are safe in the harbor, but ships are meant to go to sea.”.

Someone has to take risks to make things happen.  Sailing across the ocean, space exploration, flying out of La Guardia Airport during bird migratory season.  None of these things happened because risk was eliminated, it was addressed and planned for.  If you think all risk can be eliminated and still see progress you’re kidding yourself.  By seeking that end you’ll find that you are paralyzed by every threat, real or imagined and taking a step ahead will never happen..

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11/7/12 The fuel terminals are slowly opening up more berths for transferring gasoline and heating oil to barges.  Limited function is available, vapor recovery is sporadic.  Electrical power to pump to barges is extremely limited.  Even though more berths are open, few in any are completely operational.  It’s downright eerie that the terminals usually brightly lit are dark and spooky with a minimum of lighting available.

As the Nor’easter begins to settle in around us, we are safely and securely moored in Carteret waiting to begin loading.  I think it’s safe to say we’ll be here for the duration of this weather event.

We took the long way around Staten Island from Bay Ridge Anchorage this morning and the destruction of the southeastern coast of Staten Island and the lower Arthur Kill was widespread and nearly total.  Any exposed marinas were basically wiped away.  Their storage yards had boats of all types scattered like a toddler’s toy box.  So many boats were perched on the bones of the old piers that line the lower Kills above Perth Amboy.  It looks as if they were skewered and up on pikes.  Debris, oil sheens and mangled unrecognizable structures were visible all along the lower end.  I don’t need to post pictures since you can’t escape the photo record on TV or any of the social media.

11/6/12 Very little refining capacity is in use, the suppliers are mainly relying on pipeline transfers from the Colonial and Buckeye pipelines and off-loading refined cargoes from ships at anchor here in the harbor. After laying at anchor since 0200 on the 3rd, we’re slated to get a loading berth tomorrow morning and commence taking on 105,000 barrels of gasoline for a New England delivery. We’ll be getting underway after things settle down and not before.

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