Saturday, September 20, 2014

Things I Learned On Deck

As an apprentice, it is my lot to be switched between each of the three departments every thirty days. Tomorrow being my thirtieth, I will be moving over to the galley, an experience which promises to be not nearly as wretched as the Piney Point galley.

It doesn't seem like too much time has passed, and it has mostly passed through good weather and easy working conditions, but I have certainly learned some things.

  • The only knots you really need are the bowline, the clove hitch, and the slip knot. The other knots are apparently relics from the age of sail and clever party tricks. For anything these knots can't get done, there are always metal fixtures of various sorts and splices.
  • Never run on deck. Not even a little bit. Nope, don't do it. That little hop and skip right there, that was like running, and is dangerous.
  • Why are you walking so slow?
  • Anything comfortable gets sweaty and gross. Curiously, uncomfortable things usually don't get sweaty and gross. I would think, naively, that this is a function of how long I interact with comfortable vs uncomfortable objects, but the uncomfortable parts of the hard hat retain noticeably less sweat over the course of the day than the comfortable foam parts.
  • Nothing on the deck is particularly difficult, though doing it over and over again does start to wear a person down. The really hard part is the waiting. Waiting for loading to start, waiting for someone to get back with the right tool, waiting for permission from bosun or officers to do something everyone knows needs doing and everyone knows how to do. You would think that standing around for five hours in a nine hour day would be the easy part, and for some people I expect it is, but I don't like it much.
  • The most unexpectedly heavy thing is chain. Sure, you look at a thick iron chain and think, 'wow! I bet that is heavy', but it is even heavier than that. Even putting chain on a cart and rolling the cart up the deck is difficult.
  • The quickest way to piss someone off is to communicate poorly. The second quickest way is to do something unsafe with a system they are working with.
  • The main purpose of hard hats isn't to keep things from falling on your head, though they would help out in that situation, but for keeping you going after you bump your head on a low hanging piece of solid iron. The latter situation happens frequently, and there were very few times that the former was even possible.
  • Different people have radically different notions of what is and isn't safe, and it isn't a uniform scale. The guy who is very particular about line handling may be terrifyingly nonchalant around an obviously malfunctioning blowtorch (I told him that it didn't look safe and got myself the hell out of there).
  • I am really bad and judging expressions and emotions of people from non-American backgrounds. Particularly telling the difference between joking and angry.
  • Some people don't listen to themselves when they talk, and when you do what they said instead of what they were thinking, they get very upset and wonder why you weren't listening better.
  • This ship frequently doesn't know where it will be four days from now. Not just me, but even the first mate will tell me sometimes that we are just waiting for an order to come in, otherwise we might have to anchor at sea and just wait for something.
  • There is no real shipboard culture, because there are too few people rotating in and out too often for anything like that to form. What culture does exist is mostly working culture, and that is driven by the the captain, the three department heads, and two or three other important people.
  • As an apprentice, I am completely superfluous. They don't need me here, and are doing me a favor by letting me on, though of course no one would be so crass as to say it like that.
  • On deck, at least, it doesn't seem like anyone wants to be here. They don't mind the work or the co-workers any more than anyone does, but they really don't seem to enjoy living on a ship. Many people get off at every chance they can get, just to be off the ship, and in the galley some people count days (and the ones who don't usually have so many days left that it depresses them). Maybe I will get there some day, but today I like living here more than I like the job, and the job isn't all that bad.
  • People get very worked up about overtime and sleep. People also care about break time and lunch time. No one gives a shit about the eight hours of regular work per day, except in that they need to pass it (sometimes in as few as six hours) in order to get to the sweet, sweet overtime.
  • I learned that the company I am sailing for, American Steamship, is part of the transport conglomerate CSX. I don't see any practical effect from that, but I thought it was interesting.
  • I learned that people are serious about break time. They tell you about union mandated thirty minute breaks in Piney Point, but I had just assumed it was either a joke or a way the officers weed out the lazy people. But no, both crew and officers will get mad at you if you cut a break five minutes short in order to get back to work, even if you haven't been doing anything terribly taxing. More important in my mind are the rules that no one can work more than 16 hours in a day or 36 hours in three days (except in an emergency) that are, on this ship at least, strictly respected to prevent fatigue from causing unsafe working conditions.

Speaking of fatigue, I have galley at 6AM, so good night.

I have photos, but the internet is pretty weak, so maybe later.


  1. Congratulations on completing your first month of on-board training! JB

  2. Marine Traffic says you're headed to Green Bay - hope you can have some time to explore the town - especially Packers stadium. JB