The author running an errand in the ship’s utility boat in the port of Los Angeles/Long Beach. In the course of a summer, he made five transits of the Panama Canal and visited ports from Houston to San Francisco.
But in May 2005, at 0600 on my first day aboard the 620-foot Seabulk tanker, HMI Brenton Reef, I quickly came to the realization that my knowledge amounted to pretty much nothing. It was all book learning and precious little of that, if you were to ask any of the 20 crewmembers who politely checked me out as we were introduced. The realization of the true status of a cadet â€” which actually started forming in my mind the moment I arrived the night before â€” was making me feel more and more uneasy.
The taxi left me at the bottom of the gangway at midnight on a hot, humid night at a terminal in the Galena Park section of Houston. When you look up at a 600-foot tanker from pier side, you see nothing but the sheer bulk of the ship. There are no signs of people. Glaring industrial lights illuminate the whole area. You get a strong feeling that you don’t really belong there.
I didn’t even know if they knew I was coming as I started up the gangway by myself in the middle of the night. But there at the top was the ship’s boatswain, who politely introduced himself and escorted me to the cargo control room, also on the main deck, where he turned me over to the third mate, who was standing watch alone as the ship slowly took on cargo. He was polite, too. He showed me to the cadet stateroom and advised me to get some sleep, and that my life as a crewmember for the next 105 days would begin early the next morning.
It began about five hours later when the phone rang. The mate was calling to tell me to report to the cargo control room. After polite introductions, I was issued a hard hat, a radio, safety glasses and the rest of the personal protective equipment, and sent out on deck in the company of an AB to assist with the topping off of tanks.
The crew could tell I was feeling very unsure of myself and sending me out on deck was probably the best thing for me to calm down, look around and get some perspective with a little help from an AB. The officers all know that when they are topping tanks, it is no time to allow themselves to be distracted by the demands of an overly eager cadet.
In this case the AB was Frank. He was polite, too. Frank handed me a plastic suitcase and explained that we would spend the next few hours taking ullage in various tanks as they were brought up to full load. I thought I knew all about ullage from my book learning â€” it’s the amount of empty space in a tank above the level of cargo â€” but I had never laid hands on a hermetically sealed ullage tape, and thus my learning began.
Frank showed me how to attach a device to the ullage cap on each tank that was being filled. Our ship had 14 separate cargo tanks and we were loading several different cargoes. I knew that each tank could hold about 24,000 barrels of liquid cargo, which is more than a million gallons of gasoline, oil, chemicals or whatever â€” a fairly intimidating concept.
Like any modern tanker, Brenton Reef has a radar-based system for gauging the tank levels. The mate in the control room did not really need Frank or me to let him know when the tank was full. But as with all such systems, it helps to have a backup system using different technology. That’s where we came in with our hermetically sealed â€” closed off to the surrounding air so that no vapors can escape â€” ullage tape. Two or three other crewmembers were scattered about the deck doing the same thing. We would attach the device to the ullage cap, open the valve leading down into the tank and then we would lower the tape down.
When topping tanks you are dealing with fairly small increments, so measurements get fairly precise. It doesn’t take a lot of learning to know that if you overfill a tank nowadays, you are in big trouble.
Once in position by the No. 1 starboard tank, we checked in with the mate by radio, and he told us to let him know when the ullage was at 1.5 meters. So we dropped the tape down and set it to 1.5, and it was dangling there a few centimeters above the cargo level. As soon as the cargo level touched the probe at the end of the tape, it sensed the presence of liquid hydrocarbon and set off an audible alarm. Then we would get on the radio and report something like, “Third Mate, cargo tank one starboard is at 1.5 meters.â€�
The mate would then ask us to let him know when the ullage was at 1.3 meters, and so we would set it up and do it all over again. These guys have it all figured so that they know that at the desired level of 98 percent capacity the ullage should be at, say, 1.2 meters.
And that’s how I spent my first morning. It was a great introductory lesson.
At some point I went in for breakfast and was introduced to the rest of the officers, the captain and more of the crew. I ate with the officers, who took their meals in a separate room from the rest of the crew. We all had informally assigned seats, beginning with the captain at the end. Being both the new guy and the cadet, I did not say much except to answer questions as politely as possible. I could see that among the officers at least, particularly in the presence of the captain, my role was to always be on my best behavior.
There were plenty of times during the next three and a half months when my role was just to take a position against an aft bulkhead on the bridge or in the control room and to keep quiet. I have since learned that a cadet sometimes comes on board with the mindset that crewmembers are there to teach him, but that’s a mistake. The ship’s crew is there to do their job, and the cadet is really kind of a background character. It takes quite a while before they get to know you well enough that they can actually get some useful work out of you and be able to depend on you. To have a successful cruise as a cadet you need for that to happen.
The cadet naturally wants to be a part of every operation and to learn it all as fast as possible (that’s what the cadet should be thinking, at least), but in the beginning there’s really not a lot that he or she can do, and there’s almost nothing that the cadet can do alone. Everyone on the crew is happy to teach you and share with you whatever they can, but you’ve got to do it on their schedule.
By early August I was pretty much done. I was beginning to feel worn out from too much time on board and also feeling fried from 100 days in the incredibly hot summer climate of Texas and points further south. Working outside in Texas in the summer has got to be one of the worst experiences that a boy from Maine can go through, and whenever we were in port I was mostly out on deck. It was always in the high 90s, often over 100, and you are out there standing on a steel deck breathing all that wonderful air that envelops the Houston Ship Channel. I lost 20 pounds over that summer and I still haven’t gained it all back.
But I guess in many ways you could say that was my baby fat. At the end of 100 days, I was a completely different person. I changed more that summer than I had at any time in my entire life. Being on that ship can’t help but make you mature and develop, both as a man and as a professional mariner.
I spent the summer helping to move oil between Texas ports like Houston, Galveston, Texas City and Port Arthur, and on the West Coast. I made five transits of the Panama Canal, participated in dozens of dockings and undockings and came to know (slightly) the entire Houston area plus Los Angeles and San Francisco.
I completed all the requirements â€” so many loadings and discharges of cargo â€” for my tankerman’s certificate. I completed the requirements for a formal “cadet shipping,â€� as stipulated by the academy. I fell into a pattern of work, which I hope was of assistance to the ship’s crew. And I watched, observed, recorded and participated in practically every ship operation that goes on â€” except some of those things that go on in the engine room, since I was a deck cadet rather than an engineer cadet.
While at sea I was assigned to the morning bridge watch with the third mate and then usually some sort of maintenance work on deck for the afternoon. My summer-long project was to re-stencil practically every pipe and valve on deck, and that was a great way to learn it all. In pilotage waters, I was usually on the bridge, observing and assisting, and then helping with mooring lines as we approached our destination. Sometimes the officer in charge would have me stand back and observe, other times I would be in charge. There was always an emphasis on what it means to be an officer, to stand back and be in charge. Several times during the summer I was admonished for excessive fraternization with the crew. I worked with quite a few of the deck crew and got to know some of them reasonably well. I would joke around with them, and I took their teasing with a smile. But I did not go ashore with them, nor did I eat or watch movies with them.
My role was kind of like that of a midshipman on the old sailing ships â€” an officer in training. You don’t get that lesson in school. The ABs were all great guys, and they are out there doing their jobs and making a living, but you learn as an officer that you can’t get too friendly with someone to whom you will have to give orders. Someone has to be in charge and it doesn’t work if you are all pals.
It was kind of a symbolic finish when one night toward the end of my tour as we were finishing up loading cargo for the West Coast at that same terminal in Galena Park, I found that I had automatically slipped into the role of standing back and supervising. Earlier in the summer, I had been the first to jump up onto the manifold platform with a big wrench to help disconnect the flanges between our pipe system and the hoses coming from shore. I was standing there below the drip pan with one of the mates while the ABs took care of disconnecting the hoses. The mate looked at me and nodded as if to acknowledge that I had learned this lesson.
Two weeks later we docked at a pier in Los Angeles and I walked back down that gangway a changed person. I knew I had chosen the right career.
Jasper Walsh graduated from Maine Maritime Academy in May 2006 and now has an unlimited third mate’s license. He is the son of Greg Walsh, the founding editor of Professional Mariner.