I have to admit I’m a bit of a tourist these days. My latest assignment has my boat trading between New Orleans and Florida. As I write this we’re waiting to get a loading berth in the NORCO terminal just above the Crescent City.
While I’ve been around tugs and tows my entire career I’ve never had the experience of seeing a Mississippi river tow built and then sailed by the massive towboats that navigate the lifeline of the mid-west. It’s busy work and takes a lot of blood and sweat to put together. It can take a day or two to build a “line tow” by small workhorse towboats that are in constant motion picking up, shifting and rafting up a fleet of 28 or more barges carrying anything from coal to grain to whatever. The towboats that move the finished tow are huge and wide with a good amount of horsepower in the engine room and the pilothouse.
Listening to these boats receiving their marching orders is interesting, the numbers and types of barges vary from boxes to rakes and keeping track of where they are placed and how they are delivered is complex but well understood. It reminds me of how my Dad used to get his orders moving railroad floats for the New York Central when I was a boy just riding along. The numbers of each unit are conveyed in a boatman’s shorthand, concise and exact.
The volume of traffic here is amazing. Ships, sea-going and river tows are everywhere. Huge cranes off-loading dry cargo, flotillas of barges are almost everywhere along the riverbank. The anchorages are along the river and tightly packed. Our anchorage here in Ama one of many. We set our anchor within a few dozen yards of the unit ahead of us and settle back. The river current is constant so we lay parallel with the bank. It’s a bit unsettling to be this close to the guy ahead of us and the one behind us, but the anchor holds and it’s kinda cozy.
The radio chatter is flavored with a bit of a patois and it’s amusing to hear some of the exchanges between the pilots and operators of the boats working here. Courteous and occasionally colorful these fellows use phrases that catch your attention. In a conversation between a couple of units this morning the dialog went something like this;”I’m up-bound approaching the turn, what would you like?” If you could hold up there I’ll be around here shortly”, “No problem cap, I can do anything but disappear.” You can be sure I’ll be using that one someday.
It’s not news to anyone that’s the least bit familiar with the western rivers that the “line tows” are massive floating collections of cargo larger and longer than any ship afloat. To listen to these units making their way is a study in “cool and calm”. When I encountered my first big guy, I was impressed with the way he seemed to manage his charges so effortlessly. I quickly recognized that these men were supremely gifted boat handlers and to underestimate them would be foolish.
For the time being, I’m going to enjoy the experience and absorb as much as I can from the mariners that work in this corner of the country. These people have a skill set that rivals any you might find in the Northeast.
During my first voyage here one of our river pilots came aboard to relieve his colleague who had met us at the entrance to the river eight hours earlier. As we shook hands and in a big voice he said “Cap, your day just got better”, better indeed.
More to come.
My first voyage to the Mississippi River was a fine fair weather trip around the Florida Keys and across the Gulf of Mexico. I shot a few pictures and learned a few things. More on that later. For now, some photos..
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.
“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..
This is a good piece of reference material for future safety meeting topics and just for general safety awareness. Thanks to gCaptain for forwarding the link.
”Again the Ghost sped on, above the black and heaving sea–on, on–until, being far away, as he told Scrooge, from any shore, they lighted on a ship. They stood beside the helmsman at the wheel, the look-out in the bow, the officers who had the watch; dark, ghostly figures in their several stations; but every man among them hummed a Christmas tune, or had a Christmas thought, or spoke below his breath to his companion of some bygone Christmas Day, with homeward hopes belonging to it. And every man on board, waking or sleeping, good or bad, had had a kinder word for another on that day than on any day in the year; and had shared to some extent in its festivities; and had remembered those he cared for at a distance, and had known that they delighted to remember him.” — Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
After a hurricane, an election, a Nor’easter and a nightmare we’re still hanging in there for the last gasps of 2012. The Mayans were wrong, some minister down in the Bible Belt was wrong (a couple of times) and now were preparing to leap from the fiscal cliff as soon as we croon the last notes of Auld Lang Syne.
Once again the schedule has me and my crew aboard for the holidays. Every other year we are aboard. We “swing the hitch” every year by putting in a three week hitch right around Thanksgiving that effectively reverses which holidays we’ll celebrate at home. We could do a week and a week, but the amount of traveling we’d have to put in at the busiest time of the year is prohibitive. Our crew change day is Thursday, and Thanksgiving (if you’ve been keeping track) is also and always a Thursday. We’ve looked at trying to swing the hitch at different times of the year but because of the Thursday crew change, it has to be around the Thanksgiving week. It doesn’t work any other time without forcing an additional disruption in time on and off.
It’s not difficult to put in three weeks, some guys work a three week rotation as a normal hitch, some work a lop-sided four weeks on and two weeks off. And some (I shudder) have no schedule, they work until they have to quit to get off the boat. Something that would make me consider an alternate career choice. Something like a chocolate chip brownie/cookie shop in Colorado next door to the local “smoke” shop maybe.
At any rate, I was home for Thanksgiving so that’s really enough for me. No running and driving and wrapping etc. And after three weeks of kicking back at home my Missus is sweet to say she ‘ll miss me when I go back to work. I’m almost certain she’ll breath a sigh of relief when she doesn’t have to deal with me bumping around the house messing up her “stuff”. She needs her alone time too.
The boys have got a beautiful prime rib dinner ready to go for tomorrow with enough pie and cookies to spike your insulin levels off the chart.
Operations continue as usual. We’re looking to be en route to Baltimore on Christmas day and so it goes…
The radios are chirping holiday greetings with each passing arrangement and we’ll be changing crew soon after the holiday. A few tugs are decorated with (illegal) holiday lights (shhh) and the harbor is still recovering from the hurricane’s impact.
My crew and I wish all a safe and warm holiday. May our next “trip around the sun” bring better days.