Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Aye Captain

As was alluded to a few posts ago, Kintala is now crewed by Coast Guard approved Merchant Mariners; OUPV - Operators. It is the bottom of the totem pole so far as CG licenses are concerned, but it is enough for our purposes. Exactly what those purposes might be is still a bit of a question. But for now it is enough to have it done.

Apart from accumulating the required 360 days of underway experience, it took 2 months of effort to jump through the hoops. Six, ten-hour days of class spread over two weekends made up the primary effort. Then there was test day. Yes, we both passed with solid scores. Yes, Deb took less time than I did. And yes, she had the slightly higher score. She was (as usual) much more motivated than I. After years of government tests, all I really care about is scoring a “pass." It isn’t like they put the test scores on your license for everyone to see. Also, my long experience with tests issued by government agencies has led to the suspicion that much of what we were being required to know would have little to do with actually operating a boat in a safe manor. A suspicion that proved accurate. 

There was also the mandatory drug test, a physical, and another day given over to the first aid class. All I will say about the first aid class was that it was about 20 minutes of information crammed into a ten hours of instruction.

Oh, and don’t forget the effort to get a TWIC card. I had one of those as a professional pilot. For some reason that one doesn’t count for professional mariners.

We took a class rather than doing the course online for a couple of reasons. The primary one was of motivation. I have trouble with online stuff, quickly loosing interest. Having a room full of experience to share, as well as a set timeline to meet, was a better option. What came as a surprise was just how little experience there was in the room full of people seeking a Captain’s license. 

The class was large, 20 or so. Most were people who worked as deck hands on fishing charter boats who were looking to take up residence at the helm. One was a young lady who works as a deck hand on a big schooner doing day charters somewhere. She was working toward a 100 ton license. Only a few of us were gypsy sailors.

The first hint of just how thin the collective experience was, came early on day one. The class started out with the lights and shapes that commercial boats show when doing their commercial kind of stuff. There were also the rules on the lights all boats are supposed to show, and when they are supposed to show them. Our instructor asked how many of us had ever seen such lights out on open water. Three hands went up, two of them being Deb’s and mine. Class-wide there was virtually no experience with being under way or anchoring at night. 

As it turned out, there was very little experience with a lot of things. Virtually no one had any understanding of navigation that went deeper than punching a waypoint into a chart plotter. True as opposed to magnetic was a revelation to most, as was deviation as opposed to variation. Deb and I spent several hours tutoring those around us during the navigation practice sessions. I am fine with chart plotters. Kintala has nary a paper chart on her anywhere. But a deeper understanding of just what those chart plotters are doing in their little brain of chips is a good thing. Should that little brain go on the fritz it is likely some indication can be seen on the screen, so long as one knows the difference between what the thing is supposed to be doing as opposed to what it is doing, a situation familiar to anyone who has faced down the antics of a savvy instructor in a full motion simulator. Lest one believe that to be a "training only" kind of situation, it is also one I have seen many a time in an actual cockpit on a dark and stormy night. Yet there was not a single mention of using chart plotters or the various ways those things might lead one astray. It is a safe bet chart plotters are the only navigation anyone in the class is likely to use.

There was no mention of emergency navigation options, not even so basic as where Polaris might be found in the night sky, and what it actually means when one says, “The sun sets in the West.” About the most informative warning we got on navigation was to not trust that the position of channel markers as shown on the chart would be where they were actually located out on the water.

Yep. Got it.

I was getting a bit concerned about what would happen during the sessions on weather. Surely it was going to take days to cover the weather basics for people who likely had little clue. As it turned out I needn’t have been. The weather portion of the class consisted of how cold, warm, stationary and occluded fronts were displayed on a weather map. There was no discussion of what weather might be expected if one happened to be under one of those fronts as they passed through. Then there was a two minute review of the types of clouds, which wasn’t entirely accurate. That was it. There was not a single mention of isobars, lows, or highs. To be fair, the Coriolis effect was mentioned, but not a word was spoken as to how that led to air flowing in parallel to the isobars, with the result that air does not flow directly out of a high and into a low. Indeed, there was no mention at all of what a “high” or “low” was actually measuring. In a Captain’s class on weather there was not a single mention of the structure of the atmosphere, or how that structure evolved into the conditions we were expected to handle with aplomb.  

Though in Florida, there wasn’t any discussion about hurricane season or what powered those storms.  There was no mention of the NOAA hurricane center, nor of prog charts, marine weather via VHF, buoy reports, GRIB files, or any other source of weather information. Apparently OUPV - Operators are fulfilling their responsibility to their passengers by watching the weather forecast on the 6 O’Clock news.

Time was  spent on general boat issues. What seemed most important was how dangerous a line under stress can be. There was a video of body parts flying, it was mentioned many times in the review tests, and the actual test asked the same question about three different ways. Apparently a Captain getting a leg torn away by a parting dock or tow line is a true embarrassment. Maybe that’s why Captains are expected to stay in the wheel house and away from the deck. Another point of emphasis was that boats tend to back to port, and how to get a twin screw powerboat off of a dock. Apparently that is a “thing”.  (I wonder how one can garner 360 days of sea experience and not know that boats tend to back to port?)

Emphasized the most was navigational rules of the road. That seemed okay, but most of that discussion focused on whistle communications to set up passing scenarios for various situations. Interesting, to a degree, but two things occurred to me. The first was that a large percentage of the boats around us for the last five years were clearly being driven by people who had no clue that there were “rules of the road”. The second was that virtually everyone has a radio. All such whistle communications are optional so long as the crews involved talk on said radios. What are the chances that someone so unprofessional as to take to the waterways without a radio, is going to be professional enough to know what whistle signals are appropriate? In the half decade we have been full time on the boat, I have talked to dozens upon dozens of ships on the radio. Never once have I heard a whistle. 

All in all one might be curious as to just what filled those 60 hours of class time. Truth to tell, I haven’t a clue. We got through it. We passed the tests. That was the purpose of the exercise. So, was it worth it?

If nothing else, for several weeks we concentrated on little more that what it means to operate a boat in a safe and professional manor. Operating any vehicle safely boils down to two things. Know what is going on around you. Make the machine do what you want it to do. The details are less important than the attitude, the attention paid to the environment, and the commitment to get it right. A lot of the information was interesting, if not imperative. Some of it was archaic and mostly irrelevant. But all of it helped focus the attention on being the Captain, and not getting anyone hurt while doing so.

So yes, it was worth it.

But it could have been so much more useful, so much more informative. And it should have been a lot more interesting.  


Dharani Ishaya said...

I was just thinking about you two earlier today and how if I am ever to go sailing for a week I would ask to go with you and that blog is the reason why! I hope you guys enjoy sailing this spring and summer.

Phil Gow said...

I heard someone sounding a whistle (horn?) before backing their pleasure vessel out of their slip at my marina recently...I've heard large ships or ferries do that in accordance with providing a warning, but I was surprised to hear it at my marina! First time....

TJ said...

Phil, Rule 34 (g) [Inld} states "When a power-driven vessel is leaving a dock or berth she shall sound one prolonged blast." I think the 1% ers living in the multi-million homes around here would complain if every fishing boat pulling out early on a Saturday morning was sounding off. But that is what the rule states. I suspect the reference was actually intended for large ships pulling out. In fact I suspect most of the rules were really written with container ships, cruise ships, and tankers in mind.

We have one resident here in the boat yard that lets loose a blast every time he leaves. Fortunately he doesn't leave that often, and never seems to leave very early. To me the oddest was Rule 25 (e) "A vessel proceeding under sail when also being propelled by machinery shall exhibit forward where in can best be seen a conical shape, apex downwards. A vessel less than 12 meters in length is not required to exhibit this shape, but may do so. [Inld]."

I don't think I have ever seen that that one being complied with, ever. The only thing I can imagine is that some someone motor-sailing is just another powerboat according to the rules, so powerboat right-of-way rules apply. Showing the shape would be like turning one the steaming light while motor sailing at night, just to let everyone know which rules apply. But I doubt many power boaters would know what the shape meant, not that most of them would know what rules would apply anyway. So far as I can tell most of them don't know that there are any rules at all.

Phil Gow said...

Very interesting. Hadn't ever heard Rule 25 (e).

It's a shame the course wasn't more focussed on preparing folks for real world boating situations. My final year of college was a bit like that - something like, "we need to charge you for a bunch more credit hours, so here are some oddball courses to fill that up". Enjoy your time on the water, looking forward to reading some more cruising adventures from you two!

TJ said...

We are looking forward to having some cruising to write about again. To be fair to the school what you pay them for is to be prepped for the test, and that they do pretty well. Also, though the information seems out of date, one could look at it another way. For example passing the navigation part of the test suggests a pretty good understanding of the basics. With that, and a few hours spent with the operations manual, the chart plotter is the way to go.

Mike said...

Sea School? I attended their school in Bayou LaBatre, AL. Just got my MMC last week. Pretty cool to have it.

Deb said...

Congratulations, Mike! Even though our course was less information than we had hoped, it's still not an easy thing to achieve so enjoy the satisfaction.

s/v Sionna said...

You’ll be happy to learn (no surprise!) that the next license level (Limited Master of Inspected vessels under 13 passangers) requires no more practical, useful information than the 6-pack! I received mine in 2013 so I could drive the Yacht club’s 11 passangers launch. It was satisfying too, for all the reasons you mention.
Oh, and in addition to the power-driven vessel symbol, don’t forget the anchor symbol: A round black ball shape, suspended in the forward third of a vessel at anchor in daylight. There are, as far as I can tell, only two of those in the entire state of Florida, and one of them is used on Sionna every single day we anchor. All those fishing boats anchored in the middle of the ICW channel? Clueless. And interestingly enough, West Marine not only doesn’t stock them, not one sales associate in three different stores I checked even knew what it was. I finally ordered one from Maine!