Archive for the ‘general seamanship’ Category

It’s exactly 18 years ago tonight as I write this that I took a swim without the benefit of a PFD, a witness, or any idea that it was imminent.  No, I wasn’t plowing through heavy seas and swept over the side.  I wasn’t sleepily standing at the rail, uh… relieving a biological need.  And I wasn’t trying to jump a distance that I should’ve reconsidered.  I was climbing down a ladder in the dark to walk up the dock and call home.

My boat (the Dragon Lady) was waiting orders in the old General Marine Shipyard, formerly the Jackson Shipyard in Mariner’s Harbor, Staten Island, NY.

It was just after the evening meal and the cell phone was not yet part of my standard equipment.  So up to the pay-phone I went.  I told the Chief I was going up and he was settled in watching TV as I climbed up and over the barge we were tied up alongside.  No one was in sight as I steadied the ladder and took the first three rungs quickly.  My world started spinning in a sick and twisted circle as the ladder collapsed under me and promptly sent me falling into the Kill Van Kull.  The four feet of clearance between the dock and the barge was enough for me to fall straight in and miss hitting my head on the dock by inches.  I went fairly deep, having dropped from about twelve feet or so ( the Russian judge posts a 9.5) and came straight up to the surface.  Lucky for me I was a fit 36 year-old at the time and it was high water slack.  I managed to keep my wits.  I was wearing a heavy coat and boots and  aware enough to quickly get a handhold on the first thing I was able to grab, a broken exposed bolt that once held a string-piece in place. This same bolt could’ve been the end of me had I made contact with it on the way down.

After a long few minutes I was able to pull myself up onto the dock.  As I sat and considered how close I came to meeting my maker, I spied the hole in the dock which the leg of the ladder had slipped into.  That ladder was set hours before and as the barge rose with the tide it shifted the ladder to within a few millimeters of the damaged deck plank.  My body weight was enough to send it the last bit and drop me on my way.  I stood and reset the ladder and took a very chilly walk back to the tug.  As I entered the galley to find the Chief still watching TV, his query upon seeing how “hydrated” I was, “What, is it raining?”.  A valid question but for the look that must have been on my face.  I told him how I just missed killing myself and elicited the requisite, somewhat sympathetic “Wow, that sucks”……

I am more than aware of how differently it might have turned out.  I wasn’t expected to be back in short order.  In fact if I didn’t come

back for an hour or so, it would have been assumed I stopped in the local pub across the street for a beer (in those days we could still grab a cold one when nothing was scheduled for a good bit of time).  If I had bumped my noggin on the way down, no-one would have thought to look for me for a good long time.  And time is not what you have when you’re in the water in December.

If I had been wearing a P.F.D., I would at least been on the surface and maybe been able to call for help after “coming to”,  hopefully  before I succumbed to hypothermia.  Or at least, my remains would have been easier to locate.

So, I know it’s a tired old song, but  crew members are lost over the side every year.  The winter temperatures allow no quarter and will sap the warmth and life from your core as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow.  Taking a moment to make certain the ladder or gangway you’ll be using is safely set will prevent an unexpected swim.  And wearing a P.F.D. will give you time to attempt a self rescue, or at least ensure that when you’re discovered missing, you’ll still be on the surface.

Lesson learned my friends.

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Erie Basin is home to the Erie Basin Barge-Port co-owned by the Hughes-Reinauer partnership.  It is a tight body of water surrounded by a man-made barrier islands and was home to the New York Shipyard, Revere Sugar Company, and numerous small barge concerns.  The property surrounding the basin is purported to be home of the most hotly contested real estate issues in the 5 boroughs.

The newest occupant is the IKEA Corp. which acquired the NY Shipyard property and built its newest Brooklyn facility there.  The New York Water Taxi calls this basin home as well as the being a holding berth for the Reinauer Shipping Company’s many barges and tugs.  The NYC Police department maintains an evidence impound yard here as well.  (Not a good place for a vehicle to end up.)

Traffic in and out of this small 240′ wide entrance is year round and large scale.  It’s not unusual to see small tugs with sand and trap-rock scows gliding through the “cut” as well as impossibly large tug and oil barge combinations headed for the tie up berths along the NYC Police vehicle impound yard.  It was once home to one of the many shipyards that worked here in New York.  Getting a ship in this cut was a daunting task for the pilot and assist tugs that had to shape up and then catch the big guy inside the cut and assist the turn.  Tricky stuff.  This link shows a photo of the basin from over 50 years ago and illustrates perfectly how busy a place it was.

This tiny part of New York’s harbor is one of the most challenging to negotiate with a tug and tow and is a defining skill of every Reinauer wheelhouse man.  The currents of the Upper Bay and the East River influence the basin’s approaches and make this a particularly difficult inlet to pilot.  Prevailing winds in the winter months are Northwesterly for the most part and will have a tendency to drive and inbound unit southeastward toward the long concrete bulkhead of its 240′ wide entrance.

The summer winds are generally southwesterly and present the north side’s collapsing bulkhead with its ragged profile.  The method I’ve used and prefer when towing alongside into the basin is to have the tow made up on the starboard side of the tug.  The reason I recommend this to my mates and anyone who asks is that the tow will almost always set toward the south wall, given the nature of the prevailing wind and the anticipated effect of the current.  Having the tow on the starboard side allows me to land flat along the south wall and take advantage of the installed rubber fenders that line the wall (thanks to Reinauer).   The approach for the opening is affected by crosscurrents flowing either north (flood) or south (ebb) and will require the inbound unit to have a good amount of steerage to safely negotiate the cut.  The approach is lined up well out in the upper end of Bay Ridge Anchorage in order to set up the entry and stabilize the slide as the entrance is neared.  On the south bulkhead one can see reflective markers that act as a range and will assist the inbounder with detecting the slide as the entrance is approached.  The addition of this homemade range was the result of the Reinauer wheelhouse men making a simple suggestion that made the situation a little better.

With a nod to the skills exhibited by the Reinauer workforce, there is a small cadre of men who earn the respect of every real boatman in the harbor as they transit this small cove in the heart of New York.  The men running the “Brown tugs” and the men steering for “Buchanan” can rightly claim to be occupational experts when it comes to negotiating Erie Basin cut.  These guys do it with loaded sand and gravel barges at nearly any stage of the current in almost any weather and do it every day.  It’s a regular thing to see the boys on the Thomas or John Brown taking a loaded scow or scows through the cut with only a couple of soft lines and nothing else as they glide into the bay from the inner berths of the basin.  It’s graceful and appears effortless, we all know it’s not.

There’s a special knack for handling scows on soft lines that only years of practice can refine.  The amount of boat handling these men do in a day outpaces nearly any other tug in the harbor.  They handle more scows into and out of more berths in a week than we in the petroleum transport business do in months.  This creates extraordinarily skilled boathandlers and deckhands.   It’s a real pleasure to watch them as they untangle a flotilla of 16 or so scows and separate them into various rafts for delivery.  These are the largest tows on the Hudson River anymore and are frequently seen transiting the East River for ports east or heading up the Arthur Kill and Kill Van Kull bound for the “stakeboats” in the upper bay.  Their “stakeboats” are the moorings on the Jersey flats that serve as staging areas for the empty trap rock scows headed back up north to Clinton Point and loaded ones just arrived and bound for construction sites all over the tri-state area.

Erie Basin is also the staging area for most of the city’s fireworks displays.  The Grucci family and others like them set up their pyrotechnic magic inside the confines of the Basin.  It’s a regular thing in the summer months to see the firing tubes of these displays being set up and arranged for an evening’s show.

The many operations that originate here are an integral part of the port that is New York Harbor.  It’s easy to dismiss this little hole in the wall as unimportant.  The next firework display you witness on the Fourth of July will be crafted here.  Your roadways and skyscrapers will be supplied by the efforts of the men who move their charges through this narrow portal safely.  The gasoline and heating oil that is delivered to your neighborhood is done by the tugs barges that wait patiently for the next order to be loaded and delivered to any of dozens of  terminals in the tri-state area.

It’s a big job starting in a small place, right in your backyard.

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Errors happen all the time.  Course lines are mislabeled, current calculations are left uncorrected for Daylight Saving Time and vital information can be overlooked.  It’s natural and human.  The many things that make up a safe transit are predicated on competent voyage planning, execution, and attention to detail.  These things are even more critical when the watch-stander is alone and conning the vessel while the rest of the crew is occupied with maintenance, cooking, cleaning or sleeping.  The crew depends, and yes takes for granted, that the wheelhouse watch is taking every measure necessary to negotiate the transit in a safe and professional manner.  So it would follow that it’s absolutely unacceptable to have one’s head buried in an internet search, texting frenzy, or passionate call to their significant other.

This “problem” is a progeny of the “digital age”.  A quick look around will illustrate what I mean.  We’re keenly aware (or should be) that texting, cell phones, and various other practices shouldn’t be part of the morning drive.  It’s illegal in most states of the Union along with the a multitude of studies available as to why we should be at least “hands-free” while we’re behind the wheel.  Yet, everywhere you look, the digital addiction is taking the eyes of drivers (on the interstate and waterways) when the focus should be on the road.  Every other person seems to have an irresistible need to be “in touch” at all times.

Any error can ignite the lethal chain of failure and it’s increased exponentially when we allow ourselves to be distracted from the primary concern of getting from “point a” to “point b”.  There’s no good reason for anyone to be checking their messages or email while underway.  It can wait.  Try this link to see how well you can do while engaged in a highway situation using your “Crackberry”.

Recent incidents have pointed out something all digital addicts should be aware of.  The authorities are zeroing in on personal digital evidence as we fondle our IPhones and Crackberries.  Of the first things being checked post-incident these days are the cell phone records and internet access logs of those unfortunate enough to have had any kind of incident and one can be sure it’s gonna be painful when you have to admit in front of an Administrative Law Judge that you were checking out your latest IPhone app or text from your mom when your tow went aground on a large rock and the pristine recreational waterway that once was, is now an oil-slicked Superfund candidate.  All because you couldn’t wait until you were dockside to check in.

I marvel at the oblivious self-involved fog that people allow themselves to become blinded with as they try to stay in touch at every turn of the day and ringtone of their cellphone (If I hear “She’s A Brick-house” one more time I’ll scream).  No one has that much to say and it’s dangerous to the rest of us while they say it.  “Facebook”, “Twitter”,  and “MySpace” have a place, after everything has been secured and long after the work is done.

I’ve said this before, if you’re off-watch you can talk, text, Skype, surf, and anything you’d like.   But when you are in charge of the watch, your eyes should be scanning the world outside the windows and monitoring the radios and devices that will assist with the safe delivery of your charge.  It’s derelict, irresponsible, and downright stupid to be anywhere but in the moment and on the job when you are the single watch-stander.

The cost of being so distracted could be more than just your career, it could be the lives of you and your crew.  It’s not unreasonable to expect a watch-stander to be professional and focused.  The job is challenging enough when one’s head is in the game, there’s little need to hobble your awareness with nonsense.

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I’m sure it’s every Personnel office’s dream that they could send any man to any vessel and have him become an equal member of that team on arrival.  If each man in the talent pool carries the same qualifications and experience from a broad range of vessels, it should be no problem at all, in theory.

I’ve been victim and witness to the practice employed that requires personnel to (necessarily) serve on many different vessels during the course of a year usually in respect to replacing an ill  and/or absent crew member.  So many different vessels that the lack of familiarity adds to the confusion suffered while the general alarm is ringing and our wondering (half asleep) which vessel we’re really on.

On top of that, many resist the idea of regular drills thinking its too burdensome or unnecessary.  The drills are required by law, but logic tells us that the drills are for us, not the authorities, the authorities are  generally a long way off when the shit hits the fan.

In 1982 I was serving as Mate on a small coastal self-propelled barge.  I mentioned to the Captain that we hadn’t had a drill in a while. He acknowledged my observation by ringing the general alarm that evening just as I was sitting down to my dinner.  Of course, the drill wasn’t a complete disaster but it could have been much better.  After the Master critiqued our admittedly pitiful performance I answered, “I thought that’s what the drills are for Cap, to point out what we need to improve, right?”  It is why we perform drills, and perform them until we know how and what we’re doing.

When I worked for the East Coast Branch of Exxon Shipping Company Inland Division (I know it’s a mouthful), it was not at all unusual to be told to “take gear” prior to departing the vessel on crew change day so you will have all your stuff when reporting next hitch to a possibly different vessel, it was referred to as a Shanghai.  On reporting for the next hitch one could have been assigned to any of 10 very different vessels.  They were all properly equipped, but they were all configured differently. Different enough that you really had to investigate and fix in your mind where everything was once you got aboard.

It was maddening, almost no time to get acclimated was allowed and the confusion that ensued during the initial drills made it obvious we weren’t safe.  It was advisable to keep crib notes in your pocket so you had a quick reminder of where you were.

The truth of the matter is, for a while and even if fully crewed, any boat is going to be shorthanded (operationally) until each new crew member gets it clear which boat they’re on.  The fog of confusion that greets a general alarm when it wakes you from a deep sleep lasts long enough that precious time can be lost as one gets their act together and responds in the correct way to the correct place, never mind doing it in the dark.  It’s a situation many of us deal with every hitch or so, there’s a new guy on board that will need some extra attention until he settles in.

It’s easy to understand the need for drills in the first 24 hours after crew change.  We need to get familiar in a hurry, an emergency isn’t going to wait while we work on being an effective team.  Professionals know and acknowledge the many hurdles we face when we get underway, our preparedness is not negotiable.  The way things work and how we muster to respond is fairly standard, we recogize the equipment and can adapt to slightly different configurations quickly but the longer we have served and drilled on a specific vessel the better we can respond to an emergency on that vessel.  It’s just natural, as one becomes more attuned to their environment the quicker an issue can be addressed.

Spend a certain amount of time with a specific vessel and crew and you learn to work as a team and are aware of the strengths as well as the weaknesses in the team.  Only after a period of time do we cultivate a solid team mentality and the ability to address serious issues effectively.  It comes as no surprise that the new guy is going to be a bit lost during the first few drill rotations, but with repetition and familiarity and practicing with his crew, he becomes integral and dependable.

The main thing I ask any new crew member to do when they’re coming aboard the first time is to locate every piece of safety gear on-board.  It requires him to climb throughout the entire boat and list each and every thing he can find that is safety related.   The ISM code and company policy require he be given an orientation to acquaint him with all aspects he will be responsible for and then some.  As prudent and practical as that seems it’s only a small part of what he’ll need to get up to speed when responding to an emergency.

He needs to bond with the crew and get familiar with the boat.  I found Joel Milton’s article “Know your boat” to be quite appropriate in this case, since it touches on a disaster that showed what can happen with a crew that isn’t intimately aware of their vessels limitations and capabilities.  So many stories revolve around the crew’s lack of knowledge regarding their stability (the Valour), or the limitations of nav gear.  The thing about it though, is that it doesn’t have to be that way.  More often these issues are being treated with at least an acknowledgment that moving crew members too often can have a deleterious effect on vessel and crew safety.

The tug Valour was a fatal example of not knowing your vessel.  It was also a wake-up call for us all regarding proper communication and procedures.  Understanding the limitations and abilities of the entire crew is part of the definition of being “sea-worthy”, and keeping a proper lookout.  In case you haven’t seen it, here’s the time-line and final report on a subject that is worth revisiting time and again.

Crews will continue to be assigned rotations to different vessels as necessary to fully crew a company’s boats.  It is incumbent on the crews themselves to get familiar as quickly as possible to deal with emergencies as they arise, and they will.


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When I come across someone’s story about how an emergency was handled I always try to keep the story in perspective since I know that even when we drill for an emergency, it will seldom follow the  course we expect.  Many decisions are made in the heat of the moment and only a well drilled team will overcome the tendency to shoot from the hip.

Reading these accounts is always enlightening but  most times it’s downright scary.  And even though the facts about hypothermia are well documented and the shortcomings regarding field treatment recognized, there is still a lot of mis-information regarding how to treat someone who has fallen into cold water.

The recently released newsletter from the N.M.A. contains a letter from a mariner describing a late night-cold water M.O.B. situation on a Western Rivers towboat and the efforts expended to recover a very large, cold, and wet individual.  There are many facets to the story but the ones of immediate interest to me included how the habit of many deckhands wearing a P.F.D. too loosely can have a dangerous consequence. Additionally, the lack of rescue training could have killed this man after he was safely back aboard his boat.We all regard a man-overboard situation as a priority emergency.

Time is always “of the essence”, cold water makes it even more so.  The small window of opportunity available to find, recover, and maybe revive a victim is quite small and training needs to reflect a higher level of awareness as to what can and cannot be utilized during a rescue.  The last thing we need is to manage the first three steps successfully and fail in the end because we didn’t follow the course of action that may have saved the victim’s life.

The N.M.A Newsletter’s story relates how a large individual (5’9″ at 260 lb.s) is recovered from 39*F water.  The efforts expended by 2 large men to pull this soaking wet victim from the water was nearly a failed effort due to the loosely fitted P.F.D. and girth of the man.  He was too cold to assist in his rescue, and more to the point, too heavy to be pulled from the water, he was waterlogged and the one thing that may have aided his rescue was in danger of slipping off.  Until more help arrived, this man was not getting out of the water.

As the story continues, the help arrives and he is pulled aboard only to be put into another life threatening situation by his rescuers.  He was stripped of his clothing and put in a shower to be rewarmed.  The absolute wrong thing to do! His next trip may very well have been to the morgue, the swift rewarming in the shower may well have caused a dump of the colder blood in his arms and legs and caused cardiac failure in moments.  This is not what should be done to assist a hypothermia victim.  The victim’s body mass may have protected his core temperature for a longer time, but his extremities were cooling quickly.

The link provided here has a few of the methods used by professionals when treating a hypothermia victim and none of the methods listed allow for a quick rewarming in any situation.  The most effective means includes warmed and moist oxygen and wrapping the victim in layers of blankets.  The method of sharing body heat from a rescuer is NOT considered the proper method to rewarm a cold water victim..

Basic First Aid training seldom goes far enough when it comes to hypothermia.  Beyond describing its effect and how to recognize it, there are too many remedies passed along like “old wive’s tales” that are potentially deadly in a real world situation.  Here’s a fact, if the cold blood in the limbs is dumped into the core by a rapid rewarming, a heart-attack is nearly guaranteed, regardless of the victims age.

The most important phase of treatment is the prevention of post-rescue collapse during the first 30 minutes following rescue, and during transportation to a medical facility.

Some recommended methods of treatment are difficult to apply in the workplace.  The lack of enough crew to actually pull the victim from the water.  Handling the victim to keep them oriented horizontally will be problematic since most victims will not necessarily be all that co-operative.  They may try to help, but in doing so will force cooled blood into their core and risk further complications.  Moving limbs will pump cold blood, this is a bad thing until the victim is properly rewarmed.  Warm sweet drinks (hot chocolate is a good one, not coffee) will help but the real answer lies in getting professional help as quickly as possible and minimizing the further cooling of the victim.  Wrap them in blankets, but don’t try to get them warmed up all at once.


It can’t be emphasized enough how we need to understand cold water immersion and prudent prevention and rescue methods.  The link to Cold Water Boot Camp was very useful for illustrating the effects of cold water, but it fell short when it comes to after the rescue.  If you’re going to wear a Personal Floatation Device, why wouldn’t you wear it correctly?  It takes 30 seconds to properly fit the device, and it will be of use when someone tries to pull you from the water.   Bear in mind that although Spring is here in the Northeast, the surface water temps won’t rise above “bone chilling cold” until August.

Mario Vittone, a name known to most of us these days has put himself into the water, suffered the effects of hypothermia and recovery in highly controlled experiments for our benefit.  The lessons learned have been freely shared and we can be grateful he suffered in our place for the cause of educating rescuers to the reality of the effects of cold water.

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No one does anything new in an emergency, there’s no magic bullet, and clicking your heels together 3 times won’t do more than provide counterpoint to the sound of steel screeching along a poorly approached and perhaps rapidly splintering berth.

He said; "I think I'll claim the fifth...."

It’s not the easiest thing to do and it shouldn’t be.  The skills required to safely pilot a tug and tow take a good deal of time to acquire under the best of circumstances.  Among the many difficulties the wheelhouse hopeful may encounter  while attempting this endeavor is finding the means to get on as many different towing vessels as possible to become familiar, and if possible, fluent in their operational procedures.  It can take as little as 2 years to as long as 5 years depending on the availabilities of openings for a trainee.   In spite of all the wishing and hoping, the one thing that can’t be done at this point is specialize the T.O.A.R. to allow a limited towing endorsement with regard to AT/B’s.

This is not what I would consider a bad thing.  The idea for completing a T.O.A.R. is to prove that one is capable of safely performing ALL the skills that will get the job done right.  The idea of creating a limited ticket for AT/B’s is abhorrent to me since I believe there isn’t any particular value in learning half the job.  The skills that may be drawn upon during an AT/B’s operation are no different than any conventional tug and barge.  Eventually, there will be a need to draw on a skill-set not normally utilized in the day to day operations of an AT/B and the operator will need to be able to perform that evolution.  We’re not necessarily paid for what we do, we’re paid for what we CAN do.

If a limited  T.O.A.R. is created, there will be little motivation for including the skill-sets beyond standing a sea watch, tuning the radar, and utilizing an assist boat at every turn.  The shortage of qualified people is not a good, or an especially prudent reason to “dumb down” the standard.

The experience one accrues during their training period is just the tip of the professional iceberg when it comes to the next phase of their career.  The completed T.O.A.R. means you’ve met the minimum requirements to be allowed to stand a watch,  it’s a milestone not the end of the road.  It’s your diploma and your ticket to the rest of your career.  Whether you’re an ace or  just scraping by with the bare minimum, you’re going to get the same endorsement.  Once the requirements are met, one’s skills need to be tempered with time and experience.  Half-measures are not what’s called for when you’re earning this credential.

The sheer lunacy and end result of the limited endorsement idea is that it creates an operator that will be the half-baked version of his colleagues on traditional tugboats.  It is guaranteed that he will be ill-equipped when the time comes that he’ll need to draw on a bag of tricks in an emergency and not have at his beck and call the necessary experience, judgment, or skill to pull the whole mess out of the fire.  I find little merit in the idea, and I don’t believe it to be a prudent method to alleviate the manpower shortage at this point.

There are any number of analogies I could use, but the one that comes to mind would be flying.

U.S. Airways had the good fortune of having a pilot and co-pilot with almost 40,000 hours of combined flight time at the controls of Flight 1549 last month. In the interviews that followed that incredible event, both Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and Co-pilot Jeff Skiles had each said that neither of them had ever suffered a double engine failure except in simulator-training.  That training and their experience prepared them for the day when it might happen.  But consider that if they had never trained for it, there would be a very different story surrounding that flight, 155 different stories. Sully went on to say in subsequent interviews how the sum total of his years of experience  coalesced at the precise moment he needed it.  It was there to draw upon.

It’s perfectly reasonable for the T.O.A.R. candidate to climb this hill.  Getting to ride all the boats you’ll need to complete your T.O.A.R. is daunting but it’s been done countless times by thousands of others.  There are still plenty of conventional tugs available to accomplish the task, it just takes a focused effort that includes a company’s personnel department and a corporate mindset dedicated to training and promoting people when they’re fully qualified.

So if the prospect of working the necessary variety of towing vessels has you thinking it’s too hard, step aside and let those among you who have the guts to keep at it play through.  We’re waiting for them.

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