Confessions From the Helm

Every mariner has a sea story. If you have been to sea long enough you will acquire a full spectrum of yarns, fish stories of all sizes. It is inevitable. To have not acquired, means you never left the safety of a sheltered port or enough days afloat. These experiences fabricated over time, the necessary lessons, good, bad, and ugly, to sustain a successful career or sink it. You find through the years, those that protect their lessons and experiences, in the attempt to advance their image as the flawless professional. Lording their title as Master, Captain as the ultimate authority upon the sea. Protector of some secret knowledge that can only be learned, by one as seasoned with as much salt spray as the Ancient Mariner. To those who have gone down to the sea. Soaked in her waters. Rode upon her waves. Sailed over the horizon. Know truly, and feel in their souls the meaning of Jimmy Buffett’s lyrics,” Mother, mother ocean, I have heard your call”. She is our church, temple, cathedral, a sacred place we go to worship. A place to heal and of pain. A confessional and we must confess.


Like the sea, a career of experience will have an ebb and flow. We will be set by forces felt and will drift by unseen circumstances. The observance of this flow, smell of the spray, taste of the sea and feel the rhythms provided by waves traveling unobstructed across a vast expanse, is best when shared with others. Confessed. I have shared these confessionals and will always cherish my time with other mariners, kind enough to share their confessions with me. Reviewing in my mind a warm spring day in Ft. Lauderdale, lounging in the cockpit of a 27’ Catalina off the Las Olas Isles. The “Ocean Cowboy” drinking rum and cokes, no ice. Taking in the stories of being underway, under sail, island hopping the Caribbean from seasoned mariners. The adventures to me at the time of exotic ports, a distant dream I wanted to achieve. Stories of their experiences, but always shared with the ugly, the bad as well as the beautiful. Lessons of close calls with death, meant to heed as a warning and not make the same mistake twice. Shared with me graciously, to never make the mistake for me the first time. Usually with laughs of, “oh shit was that a close one”. These early maritime mentors showed me great kindness in the sharing of their stories, time, and a cocktail or two. The only expectation to be, a lesson that I must learn and pass the sea painter line of knowledge. As well as a boat drink.


Command is hard. You have been tested and been found worthy to attain the credentials. Trusted to assume the responsibility of not only the material but in many cases the lives of passengers & crew. With this trust is the expectation of competency. A single mistake can create doubt in this belief and degrade the trust by all. A mindset that can slow the process of growth, through fear. Fear of someone learning, we are all flawed individuals. We make mistakes. In choices, judgements, evaluations, maneuvers, just F’ing Up. Captains F Up. But what comes out of these mistakes, is what is most important and long lasting. The Exxon Valdez the El Faro just to name some mistakes that triggered an after-action review, a study into how and why. They created change. A discussion. A confessional.


It would be nice, if Mariners where required to attend a self-help group of other deeply disturbed individuals, who have also found the sea calling their name. Well in most sea towns that would be the local AA meeting. Maybe get a twofer, AA and confessional of your maritime failures? That would never work. The mariners would end up getting the AA’ers back on the bottle. The problem is that not all mistakes are oil disasters and the loss of ship and crew. I would think 99% are close calls. The feeling of your heart in your throat. In the vast majority of the Holy Shit moments, how does the lesson get learned? Better yet past down. As you envision this in your mind, it probably is thinking of a massive vessel, but what about all the lessons on smaller vessels. The chance of an incident, lesson to be learned is far greater on a small vessel. Where is your group, how do you confess, as well as receive confessions to grow?


Most mariners usually make the joke to one another of those that have been aground and those that will. Never those that won’t ever. Why? Because that is the nature of having a life at sea. I am not talking super tankers, massive freighters, I am talking at some point with enough time at sea on some vessel, you will bump bottom. This is but one example of an incident that one will experience in a lifetime afloat. Let’s compound that by the multitude of other scenarios at sea that can go wrong, a lesson to learn. I used to advise vessel owners looking to hire a Captain, as well as when I was hiring a Captain to ask them a question at the end of the interview. “What is your biggest F’ Up onboard a vessel you were operating?” This works on some many levels. If it is they haven’t or some small petty little thing, they are either lying to you or don’t have enough experience. If it is something that they explain in detail and without asking, own their mistake. Even better, describe what they learned from it, you got a good one. They not only learned but was willing to share what they learned from it and will pass this knowledge on. They feel the relief of this mistake through there confession of sharing with others.
Confessing is not all about untethering a mistake, it is a review of experiences learned. It is a sharing of experiences, sea stories, no shitters. They are shared on the mid-watch, hot cup of coffee in hand, in a booth at the Southport Raw Bar, and while waiting on the forecastle at special sea detail. There is no special small room at the side of the church required to release your sin or concerns. Like the sea and its vast openness, all that is required is someone ready to receive knowledge and the desire to throw out the heaving line, pay out your experience.


I have been hard aground on two separate occasions. Bumped bottom on a couple of occasions. Rolled a vessel on her side in between two reef edges. Fire onboard, flooding, massive fuel leak out of the common rail fuel line, these are just a few of the issues I have experienced as a Master. Many more as a mate or deck watch officer. Lots of lessons learned while underway, maneuverings in close quarters. Not correctly anticipating handling characteristics combined with set/winds and drift/currents. Close calls. Lessons learned where I didn’t brief my crew or line handlers well enough, and they made mistakes. Upon review, it was my failure for not being clear, sharing my knowledge. The sin in this religion, a religion of the world’s watermen, drawn to the cathedral of the sea, is not to share a confessional. It is a Heaven or Hell decision, otherwise defined as Life or possibly Death.
Setting ego aside, leaving it on the wharf to set off on an exploration of your experiences. A discovery of value in learning from one’s experiences, to create an opportunity to share one’s story. These stories are not inclusive to experiences from the sea alone, but of life well lived. Captains, sailors, soldiers, coaches, teachers and most importantly family. A Ricky the Rope is a lesson shared. Although in a playful funny story, lesson about looking at the man behind the curtain. One that has value to seeing the world from a bigger picture or perspective. One not as funny, but still turned out luckily well.


I was a young father, new business owner and trying to provide for my young family. I didn’t have any margins to make a mistake. My young business was a company that did special projects, delivered yachts, and training called U.S. Powerboat. I could not afford an incident or mistake at this phase of my life, both financially and professionally. I was delivering a yacht from Ft. Lauderdale, FL to Annapolis, MD. It was on day 3 of the trip north, late in the afternoon traveling on the ICW passing Morehead City NC. I had just made the transition in the ICW between Morehead and Beaufort, under the road and rail bridges with Radio Island to starboard. Got clear of the No Wake Zone, got back on plane, looking with my binos for the ICW markers ahead. In the back of my head, I was already thinking of my end of day destination, hot meal, cocktail and a good night’s sleep. Scanning the horizon, I see what I believed was my next red marker. Set my course and was cruising along. As I was looking on my chart, this is pre-chart plotter on every boat, I had a bad feeling that the next marker was out of position. Before I could pull the throttles back to reevaluate, I heard and felt the worst grinding, violent and rumbling noise that every mariner dreads. Going hard aground. Heart in throat. I am screwed. A million thoughts running threw my mind. My family, I can’t afford to pay for this, how will it affect my family? My profession, can I work again in my profession? The vessel, how damaged, how do I get her off? On and on.


This is where years of listening to confessions and life experiences comes into play. Always, take a deep breath. I mean it. Stop, take a slow long inhalation, and let it out slow. Now, focus. But only focus on one thing at a time. First, the most urgent. The vessel. Problem solve. Look for any damage that could cause additional damage. Any leaks, taking on water. Flooding or fire. Good, next issue, how hard aground? What’s the tide, high or low, incoming, or outgoing. Can you be refloated at high tide and just need to wait or need to still be towed off at high tide. Contact SeaTow, discuss best actions and practice for getting you off. You work the problem one piece at a time, one evolution at a time till your safe. I got her off, no additional damage and was able to get her completely seaworthy and running to finish my journey.


So, many lessons. Let’s see, not 100% focused, in the moment when running the vessel. Assuming I knew exactly where I was on the chart when identifying a distant marker. When in question, I was moving to fast not providing the emergency factor of time to stop sooner. Running a vessel alone, without a second pair of eyes or interpretation. I do feel my decisions after going aground were good decisions, but I never would have had to make them if I had not had a lapse in decisions leading to the grounding. Since that time, I have told that story, my confession at least 6 times as I have passed that location to fellow mariners. In detail, passing the painter.


Please feel free to share my confession, I intend to share more-

“Wayfinding”

About a month before my first son Garrett was born, I started to look for a gift to give him at his berth, to commemorate this occasion. I was at an antique maritime store in Miami when I found the right gift. It was a lifeboat sextant. A small compact sextant that they placed in lifeboats for emergency, if stranded at sea. It is a really beautiful piece of form & function, brass & dials. I felt it perfect for my first son to begin his life with a way to find out where he was, where he wanted to go and how to safely get home. I had engraved upon it, “When’ever your lost, look to the heavens”.

We all aren’t so lucky to begin our lives or journeys with an internal sextant. Every voyage is one of some form of discovery if you are paying attention and looking for signs. Identifying these signs usually requires a teacher/master to point them out at first. Over time through lessons, one can pick them up without them being identified. Eventually you start instructing and passing on your observations as lessons to others. This is how we as humans became the only species to knowingly discover all the Continents, religion, science through teaching of lessons learned passed down through known history.

What has me puzzled and I am concerned about as we move forward towards the future, is all the modern technology actually better for us as a human race? Thousands of years traversing the seas and oceans with only the assistance of heavenly bodies, nature, passed down lessons and observations. The ancient Polynesians could cross vast oceans and hit a distant island with incredible accuracy, without the use of even a now outdated tool like a sextant? When I say outdated, I am only referring to how long mariners have relied upon them and their replacement, first Loran and now GPS. My concern and puzzlement is it is not aligned with the KISS principle (Keep, It, Simple, Stupid). It has added enormous amounts of complexities and reliance upon technology and it’s (tech) demands. Don’t assume that I feel modern technology and it’s advancement is wrong and all hurtful, I just have concerns of losing the knowledge, skills and lessons from the past that simplified the same final objective. To get from A to B, one place to another.

How many other day to day skills have become more technically complex and reliant to tech, that the basic objective was far simpler in it’s basic form? Close observations of nature you can see displays of adaptive and simplified actions, to stream line actions towards an objective. As humans in nature we simplified through time actions towards an objective, until we entered the industrial age. Look at the amount of actions required by individuals and resources to provide a once simple task. How much labor and resources it takes to create a tool to service a simple need, is not necessarily simplifying a process. Simplification of a process in nature could be defined as the least amount of energy spent to preform a task. Energy for a task, is the labor and resources expelled to achieve the task.

I spent years involved with companies manufacturing boats and yachts. Over time I witnessed these companies try to stream line manufacturing through processes like Six Sigma and Lean Manufacturing. Bottom line of these principles in manufacturing, was to expend the least amount of energy and resources to a task. Fewer labor hours and resources, greater profit margin. Isn’t this what nature has been doing for biological systems since the beginning? Path of least resistance. It could be quite possible that we are looking at things from the wrong perspective, over complicating the obvious solution to a problem or task?

A question I need to ask myself? If I want to sell t-shirts, hat’s, stuff to promote my Waterman Blog and Watermen Marine, what’s the process to expend the least amount of labor and resources? One would be, promote nothing. But I wouldn’t be expanding/promoting a process to highlight Watermen and their ways. So the next step is to define the process to KISS, “Wayfind” the minimal steps, impact, resources, transportation to achieve our objective. I will document my process in the hope that others if so desired, can use it as a pathway to “Wayfind” their on process to achieve their destination.

I hope you enjoy our journey.

-Tripper

“Hei Matau”

The “Hei Matau” to some people also called a Maori, Tahitian, Hawaiian, or Polynesian fishhook. I first came across this talisman while reading some sailing logs and books back in the early 1990’s, a symbol to the wearer of a safe journey while at sea. I found one made out of shell at a surf shop in Coco Beach Florida, while I was stationed aboard the USCGC Vigilant, out of Port Canaveral. I began wearing it as a symbol, to remind me that to have safety at sea, I needed to play my part and be prepared. I continued this tradition as I furthered my maritime career, next onboard the USCGC Munro out in the Pacific and aboard multiple commercial vessel commands in California.

There is deeper meaning and cultural importance to this symbol passed down from the Maori people of New Zealand. They hold that Maui the Demi-god used the hook to land a giant fish, which is now the North Island of New Zealand. If you have seen the Disney movie of “Moana”, Maui is the same Demi-god and his magical fishhook plays a huge role in this film.

Maui at SUNY Maritime NY (Empire State VI), the day I dropped Garrett off for his MUG Year, Fall 2018.

I have had a fondness for this symbol and back in 2008 my good friends Rich, David and I tried to get a Rum Company started in Palm Beach Florida, called “Watermen Rum”. Some times, timing is everything and it was just not the right time. I designed a “Hei Matau” to reflect our business model using a Polynesian fishhook design on one side with a whales tail on the other, forming a “W” for “Watermen Rum”. Our idea was to promote the Watermen lifestyle through our rum, to “Celebrate the Spirit of the Sea”. Still slowly working towards this concept, hopefully some day.

In 2017 when I left Hinckley Yachts and went to work on my own as a maritime consultant, I used my “Hei Matau” for “Watermen Rum”, as my symbol for my consulting business “Watermen Marine, Inc.”, to provide a safe voyage for my new endeavor and my clients marine assets.

What I really love about this symbol is what is represents as a time piece, a connection of the history of what it means to be a Watermen. Culturally passing down not only skills, but a passion for a life on, in, below this World covered by 70% water. Some people may never get it. The beauty of the worlds oceans and seas, the smell of salt in the air and the feeling of it on your skin. Part of being a Waterman is the passing of the art and artisan ways, of this passion and lively hood. Some of these artisan ways are dying off, some most likely are already forgotten. We need to capture these connections to our past and preserve these art-forms, cultural treasures. It is recorded in some anthropological papers that human kind has been spear fishing for 50,000 years, fishing with nets & traps for 40,000 years. Look back at ancient Sumerian, Egyptian pictographs and we can see documentation of this from 5,000 years ago, as well as fishing with hooks. Ancient navigators crossing oceans and seas, then returning safely, long before GPS. Vessel construction with hand tools, dugouts, viking long boats, proas, dhows, junks and clipper ships, long before modern day CNC machines.

Dhows on the Dubai River 2009

This is the beauty of being a “Watermen”, the passion for this art of a lifestyle of the sea. We need to capture these stories, to share with our future Watermen. If you know someone like this, an ancient mariner, Watermen or just a Watermen still carrying on an artisan skill. Please send me a way to contact them, I would love to find a way to interview and talk to them about their passion. Anything related to a lifestyle around the sea, (spear fishing, boat building, sail making, cast netting, surf boards, cooking, ANYTHING). If they are passionate about what they are doing in their Watermen Lifestyle, I want to talk to them. I appreciate any and all help with this project, please pass on my request.

As always, “I wish you fair winds and following seas.”

-Tripper

“The DUKE”

I always wondered what ever happened to “The DUKE”? You see I have some history with this CA paddle-wheeler. Not just any paddle-wheeler, but one with a historic and troubled past. Found this video on YouTube and will share my story and pictures afterwards.

You see, she wasn’t always called “The DUKE”, that was the name she was given when I came to know her in 1998. I was the Assistant GM and a Captain for a company called Western River Charters. At that time the company owned and operated a paddle-wheeler called the “Petaluma Queen” (later changed her name to the “Grand Romance” seen at top of page) operating on the Sacramento, Napa, Petaluma Rivers and Upper Deltas. “The Duke” had been purchased by our company after she had caught fire and burned to her main deck in downtown Sacramento. She was at that time called the “The Spirit of Sacramento”.

The owner of Western River Charters was an incredible “Idea” guy who could see value in things and wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty to make them come true. You see Bill Barker knew the history of the vessel and believed he could put her back to her glory, plying the rivers she had been operating on for almost 100 years. He also knew that she was once proudly owned by actor John Wayne after she was highlighted in his 1955 film “Blood Ally”. That is why he decided to rename her “The DUKE”. She started her career as an Army Corp of Engineers vessel, before private charter. After the film John Wayne used her for private charter before selling her into a career of sightseeing and dinner cruises.

When I fist came aboard her she had been towed to downtown Petaluma CA and was moored behind a steel company. Bill had replaced all her super structure that had been damaged during the fire and had actually improved upon her looks with his design. She was all steel and primer see pictures below. I did not spend a lot of time with “The DUKE”, because I was mostly managing the day to day operations of our other vessel and the office. Until….

I believe the date was 21 December 1998, a day my wife will not let me forget. I had driven to SFO airport to pick up by in-laws and brother-in-law, who had flown out to spend the Holidays with us from Florida. As I was driving them back to our apartment in Walnut Creek, I received a call from Bill that “The DUKE” had sunk in the Petaluma River. Apparently she had broke her mooring during the night and had come to rest beam to the shore at high tide. When the tide went out she heeled over on her starboard side and began to take on water, forcing her to come to rest on the bottom at a 30 degree list.

After I dropped my family off I raced to Petaluma as fast as I could. Upon arriving it was utter chaos, news teams, helicopters, USCG, just nuts. Somebody had the bright idea to get a semi-tow truck with winch, to try and straighten “The Duke” out. My first reaction was to confront the driver that the only thing he was going to do was get someone killed when the cable snaps and hit’s someone. I let him know that the vessel before being full of water and stuck in the mud weighted 750 tons and had he ever pulled that much weight? After hanging out for a couple of hours trying to help Bill, I finally left. I knew he had some big decisions to make and there was to many people causing confusion, I didn’t want to add on.

0530 the next morning Bill called me saying that the salvage company wanted $75K to refloat “The Duke”, what could he do, what are his options. I said let’s meet up and brain storm the situation. In our brain storming session he said he thought that at low tide, some of the main deck and hull were visible on the port side. If we could plug up the starboard side fills for all the tank-age which had been left open during construction. We could get some commercial high speed pumps down into the holds and at low tide let them start pumping away. They just needed a diver. Well he got his diver and this is were Leah wanted to kill me.

That afternoon I spent with Bill in a john boat lining me up along side the starboard hull, to dive done in zero visibility to cap off all the tank fills and prep the vessel for re-floating late that afternoon. It was tough work doing everything by feel in extremely cold water for about 2 hours and the vessel leaning over us at 30 degrees. But we were successful with this portion of the plan. The second I was done and before it was time to start the pumps I had to race home not to miss plans we had made months in advance with her family. Tickets to the Nut-Cracker at the San Francisco Opera House. Luckily I am stilled married today so I pulled it off.

I received a call from Bill later that evening that it was a huge success and the vessel was safely re-floated. I was sad to hear that she had sunk again just a few years ago 2016 in the Delta. It is a shame that such a historic vessel has had to en-dour multiple sinking and a huge fire that all most made her history. My greatest thrill as a Captain was to operate her sister vessel “The Grand Romance”, up and down the waterways of Northern California. Their is something magical about these vessels from our past, plying the waters today. I hope this is not the end to this wonderful vessel, I never had the opportunity to be her Master, but at that time in my life was looking forward to that day. Hopefully someday I can have a chance, to at least ride a river upon her.

-Captain Tripper

QB II sitting pretty at Old Bahama Bay.

The new Hunt 80 “Queen Bee II” safely moored at Old Bahama Bay, West End Bahamas.  It was a nice run across from Hinckley Yachts Stuart on Wednesday, the Gulfstream was a nice 6′ to 8′.  Had a nice time talking shop with Capt. Fred, a really good guy.  Best of luck to him and his crew this Summer.     -Tripper

 

Awesome video of Hawaii by drone. Looks like a lot of Watermen living the lifestyle!


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/156212670″>LANIAKEA – Hawaii by Drone</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/karimiliya”>Karim Iliya</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

 

 

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