Tuesday, December 30, 2008

What WOULD the Coast Guard charge?

Yesterday, we wondered aloud about the question of whether the USCG would ever actually charge for a non-emergency response to rescue foolish, or reckless boaters. I ended that post with "I wonder what the hourly costs for running a 47' MLB are?" The question somewhat rhetorical in nature, as I figured that the answer was buried someplace deep in a CG spreadsheet.

I forgot about the new, digital age where so much information is readily available. Even better is the participating in the new age of blogging, where sometimes information comes to you.

Charlie Meyer over at TowBOAT/US Lake Ozark sent me the link to this very interesting document. It seems that the USCG has published the hourly rates they would charge for all their assets like boats, ships, aircraft and personnel. Enclosure 1 (pasted here, click on it to see a bigger version) is titled "Hourly Standard Rates for Cutters, Boats & Aircraft" - how handy is that?

So, not only did my rehtorical question get anwered, but an even better number is presented here: how much would the USCG actually charge a non-government customer (like an insurance agency) for providing service. These are hourly rates, and they include the costs of paying the "normal" crew.

According to the chart, a 47' MLB is charged out at the non government rate of $4189/hour. The sailboat that was towed in from south of Block Island on Dec 19th was towed for 7 hours. Lets say 2 hours to get on scene, plus 2 hours to get back to base from Montauk (where they towed the boat); a total of 11 hours of service. That's $46,079! We are not even close to the total yet. The official report states that the CG also launched a helicopter from Sta Cape Cod. Figure another 4 hours for a HH65A at $9855/hr = $39,420 for the aircraft. So far, I'm up to $85,499 to find and tow a sailboat about 20 miles. That doesn't include any costs for the SAR center costs.

The sailboat from the story, the MOONSHINE, was a 45' Starratt sloop. Here is one for sale in FLA asking $39,000. Why is the USCG spending $85,000 to tow a $40,000 boat? Because they don't put a price on saving lives, and the act of towing this boat was their way to get these seasick sailors home. Okay, I get that.

Suppose, however, that the CG policy was to send a bill if it turns out that the rescue operation was necessary because the boater was reckless or negligent in his duty to conduct a safe voyage? Unforeseen circumstances are one thing, but leaving a safe harbor to begin an ocean crossing when a winter Nor'easter is bearing down on New England is acting with reckless disregard for the lives of everyone involved.

If the USCG started charging for services that were deemed 'non-emergency', what would that achieve? First, it would lower the burden on taxpayers (I admit, not much, but it's the principal of the thing) and shift the costs of non-emergency rescues to the boat owners and their insurance companies, where it belongs; 2) it would punish reckless behavior with a financial dis-incentive, and; 3) it would drive more boaters to use private sector solutions like our industry. The owner of the MOONSHINE could have hired an ocean tug out of Providence RI for $10,000/day

This marks the 100th blog post for 2008. 100 is a nice round number, so I'll make this my last post of this year. See you next year!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Will the Coast Guard ever charge for service?

Two news items caught my attention this week. First was this USCG story about the search and towing of a disabled sailboat just south of Block Island last week. [the story is also covered here with a picture, and here with comments; searching Google News returns more of the same] From the USCG news page:

BOSTON - The Coast Guard rescued four people aboard a storm-ravaged sailboat Friday, about 7 miles south of Block Island, R.I. The crew of the 45-foot Moonshine left East Greenwich, R.I., Friday morning, bound for Puerto Rico, when they were caught in an offshore storm, which ripped their sails and disabled their propulsion. They activated their emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB)....
Gosh, where do I begin? One common thread through all the eight separate news reports I've seen is that this boat was "caught in a storm," or even "caught in an offshore storm". That is total bull, as the Nor'easter that slammed New England on December 19th was well predicted; no competent sailor would have been caught by surprise by that storm, nor was it somehow offshore. It dumped snow all over Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Every account of this rescue says the boat left their marina on Friday morning. At 0607 that morning, the NWS issued this weather forecast for the area:

607 AM EST FRI DEC 19 2008

607 AM EST FRI DEC 19 2008



607 AM EST FRI DEC 19 2008


These weather forecasts alone are enough to establish that these sailors were not caught in a storm - they began their voyage in only one of two ways. Either they departed despite the forecast, or they never listened to the weather at all. It's hard for me to argue which of those two options is the more despicable. In any case, due to a raging blizzard and gale winds, the USCG performed admirably and towed these fools from the deep-doo back to safe harbor (atta-boys to the crew at PJ and he helo pilot, you know who you are!). Meanwhile, the family of the of the sailboat's captain claim that the MAYDAY was merely a result of a seasick crew [see end of this story] and there was nothing wrong with the boat. Photos of the boat after the tow shows what looks like a nicely flaked mainsail wrapped over the boom, indicate to me that the vessel was probably capable of making way on her own power despite the shredded jibs.

Bonus question: did the Coast Guard really tow that boat for 7 hours with the foresails hoisted like that, just flapping in the breeze?

Now, on to the second story, which is this article in the NYT : Those Lost in Wilderness May Find Bill for a Rescue.
In response to the multitude of hikers, cross-country skiers and others who venture unprepared into the wilderness, become lost and have to call for help, the State of New Hampshire is billing people for rescues stemming from their own negligence, like not taking a map on a hike, wandering away from a group or going out in dangerous conditions....
Since 1999, 20 groups or people have been rescued and charged, and the state — which collects only what it costs in equipment and personnel for a rescue — has recouped $47,000. Officials said only two people who were rescued have not paid. Those billed who do not pay could face civil charges.
I find it interesting that many of the private comments left by readers of the sailor saga mention that they should be charged for the Coast Guard's response. Count me in for that idea! Can someone please explain the difference between a mapless hiker and a clueless sailor? Who can argue that the master of the MOONSHINE hasn't acted recklessly, even negligently? Why should this guy get a free pass, yet a hiker with no map gets charged?

The irony here is that most hikers don't have any ready access to an insurance policy that would cover the costs of rescue and probably end up paying the bill out of their own pockets -- unlike most boaters, who actually have at least one, if not TWO (counting hull insurance and membership towing) sources of funds to help offset the costs of getting help. So if the Coasties started to charge for situations like the one above, the boater could probably send the bill to his insurance company.

I wonder what the hourly costs of running a 47' MLB are?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Area Maritime Security Committees

Found this item in today's Federal Register:

This notice requests individuals interested in serving on an Area Maritime Security Committee in any Captain of the Port Zone, nationwide, to submit their applications for membership to their local Captain of the Port. These committees advise the Secretary of DHS, through the Coast Guard, on matters relating to maritime security in their geographic area. The AMSCs shall assist the Captain of the Port in the development, review, update, and exercising of the Area Maritime Security (AMS) Plan for their area of responsibility. Such matters may include, but are not limited to: Identifying critical port infrastructure and operations; identifying risks (threats, vulnerabilities, and consequences); determining mitigation strategies and implementation methods; developing strategies to facilitate the recovery of the marine transportation system after a transportation security incident; developing and describing the process to continually evaluate overall port security by considering consequences and vulnerabilities, how they may change over time, and what additional mitigation strategies can be applied; and providing advice to, and assisting the COTP in developing and maintaining the AMS Plan.

Joining the local AMSC could lead to local security opportunities for your company. Even if your not interested in that aspect, being on the committee would provide a great way to meet and network with your Sector's senior staff on a regular basis. Instructions for applying are found on the second page of this PDF.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sunk Costs - by David Axe

Here a rather lengthy but well reasoned summary of the overall state of the USCG, and particularly the Deepwater Program: click here for Sunk Costs - David Axe (one quick quote)

The ultimate result of Deepwater’s travails is that a well-respected agency—the only one, in fact, to perform admirably during Hurricane Katrina—is now finding it increasingly difficult to carry out its core mission. Even before Deepwater sprung leaks, the Coast Guard was struggling to be both an overseas counterterror force and a domestic safety and law enforcement agency.
This is a pretty long article, but definitely worth the time.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Harbor Patrol funding in new economy

A recent item in The Log Newspaper (So. Calif's major marine news source) caught my attention. It's a story about officials of Orange County thinking that it may be time for some local cities to ante up tax money to cover the costs of operating harbor patrols. The news of budget cuts by the county supervisors scared the hell out of the Sheriff's department:

Shocked representatives from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department voiced their opposition to the county’s plan to abandon harbor patrol funding, emphasizing that move could interfere with the department’s ability to secure federal grants to ensure homeland security in the county’s harbors.

Read that part again: the sheriff department is worried that a lack of county funding will mean the loss of federal funding from DHS. OH NO! we can't have that. How telling that nothing is mentioned about actually helping boaters, or saving lives, or enforcing boating laws. Nah, it's just about justifying the funding.

Lest you think I have just cherry picked one quote to overstate my point, I urge you to read the entire story.

In fact this issue isn't new. Here is an LA Times story from back in 2006 about the very same issue. The difference now is that the all the local funding agencies (state, counties, cites) are out of money, having bet their future budgets on increasing tax revenues which have now disappeared. The one agency that may still have some funds is the DHS, which explains the OC Sheriff's quote.

Note to East Coast readers: In California, Sheriff Departments are funded and operated by counties. Many of the largest harbors in SoCal are patrolled by Sheriff Departments, even though the actual harbor is owned by a city...

You see, if the OC Sheriff isn't actually patrolling those harbors, then they don't qualify for harbor security funds. The DHS doesn't care a rat's patoohty about drowning surfers and boaters with dead batteries. Oh no, they give grants for side arms and .50 CAL tripod mounts and night vision equipment.

The county tax collectors (supervisors) are out of money, and can't continue their traditional subsidizing the city harbors that are within their boundaries, so they're attempting to force the cities to pay their fair share by either sub-contracting with the county for harbor patrol service, or face the costs of creating a city owned/funded harbor department.

BUT, if either of those things happen, then the county will loose the opportunity to apply for DHS funds. Obviously, if a city starts their own harbor department, then they are the agency that would apply for DHS security funds. But even if the city like Newport Beach sub-contracts to Orange County for harbor service, wouldn't it be the city who would is the overriding authority, meaning the DHS grants go through the city coffers first?

The OC Sheriff seems to imply that if they don't get DHS money, no one will, thus leaving the harbor unprotected. What nonsense. I don't for a second think that the DHS will stop the flow of harbor security money out to whatever agencies are responsible for patrolling each harbor. The money will just go to a city, or the state, or whoever is the authority in that locale. But, gee, the OC Sheriff may not get that new armored personnel carrier now...

I've been harping on this funding issue for years, asserting that the way to reduce the competition from the MUNIs and LEOs is to attack their funding sources, rather than trying to convince them to change their operational policies. Now, it seems, may be the perfect time to remind the politicians (not the sheriffs) that a private industry remains ready to help distressed boaters, and that a few less county boats and patrol personnel does not necessarily lead to more boater tragedies.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Good New Bad News, I guess

Crude near four-year low on demand concerns

Oil prices will stand at $43 on average in the first quarter of 2009 and $45 in the second quarter, the Merrill analysts wrote in a recent report. They also expected an average price of $56 a barrel in the second half of 2009.

The good news is that next summer's fuel dock prices are expected to be a lot lower than they were in 2008.

The bad news is that oil's dramatic drop in the past six months is a sign of the falling world economy. The sky is falling!

Caveat Emptor: the analysts quoted are from Merrill. Aren't these the geniuses who bought and sold a trillion dollars of credit default swaps?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Is that a Blog in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

The last time I posted, oil was at $123/bbl., and diesel at the docks was hovering around $4/gal. Sarah Palin was all the TV media talked about, the polls showed McCain and Obama were neck & neck., people were still buying shares of Citibank....ah, the good old days - last month.

Yesterday, I put gas in my truck for $1.55/gal. I'm thinking about burying a tank in the backyard so I can hoard a few thousand gallons at that price. Only problem is I can't even afford to buy shovel.

Anyway, I took a month off from RedRightReturning to rest my typing fingers and gather my thoughts. I had some surgery back in early October, and evidently the medications were still working when I thought I posted a heads up to my readers concerning my extended hiatus. Hey, you get enough Vicadin in you, all the keys look the same, OK?

So, the outlook for next year kinda sucks, huh? How did you do this past season? I hoped you acted like a scared squirrel and hoarded every penny you could. The next eighteen months are going to be like one long, bad storm, and as good sailors, now is the time to batten down the hatches, clear the decks, breakout the foulies and hope to ride it out. If you've got a safe harbor, double up the docklines and stay put. One could flog this sailor in a storm metaphor to death...

Here is my plan: due to rising Internet connection costs, and a frozen Visa card, RedRightReturning has petitioned the US Government for $700 to bail me out. Hey, if you do the math its a reasonable request. $700 is only 0.000001% of the $700,000,000,000 approved (so far!) to bailout the economy. There are 3,135,600 seconds in a decade, which means our government will be spending $2230 PER SECOND for the next ten years, just on the bailout! You would think, someplace in that time frame, they could spend a nano-second and send me a check, don't cha? So far, I haven't heard from the treasury...

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Dual Citizens, Part 2

I left off Part One with these questions:
So, some boaters have actually, voluntarily ponied-up double what the networks are charging. Can you imagine how many more might be sold on that price, if only someone would put some effort into marketing a membership product at that price?

Obviously, there are far more boaters who are shopping price on every purchase, and the marketing guys have to keep that in mind. But there is a nuance here that I fear has been lost. If you sell a product, and you that some of your customers are willing to pay double your price tag, what have you missed?

And now, to continue my thoughts: let me begin by affirming that a large majority of the boaters who are buying memberships are very price conscious and consider (indeed, even obsess over) the price of every single boat related purchase. Price, however, is not the only consideration for a final decision; perceived quality and brand name recognition also play a part in buying decisions. I have never, ever, seen a Boat/US Insurance ad that claims they are the cheapest insurance. And for good reason – you don’t want to be selling the cheapest insurance; you want to be selling the best insurance.

When your sales department focuses on price, Price, PRICE, they do so at the expense of things like brand name and quality. Please notice I said sales department, not marketing department. The two national brands do market brand and quality, but their marketing people don’t set the price, they just sell the product at the price they are given. This is the point I was trying to make when I said, “if only someone would put some effort into marketing a membership product at that price [of two memberships]…” No one has given the go-ahead to market the $300 card, so the Dual Citizens have invented their own.

For years the major brands have grudgingly proceeded with tiny membership increases, always afraid of losing customers to the other team. Why do I care? Because requests for increases in contract towing rates are generally deflected as beyond the capasity of the gross memerbship revenue.

The legacy of holding membership prices down has finally backfired, and now prices are so low (see part one for a discussion about adjusting for inflation) that boaters are actually buying BOTH, rather than choosing one over the other -- if only because they find the annual fee is so ridiculously cheap when compared to costs of non-member service.

I am not advocating we return to the multitude of "level/limit" cards like the old $150/$350/$500 days. No sir, what we need is the super, super-duper and Nuclear cards. The Nuclear card would come pre-authorized for the boater to use any tower he wants up to $5000 per incident. It's cost? $300/yr.

As long as we’re on the subject of marketing - I wish they would stop publishing ridiculously low non-member rates in the sales literature, as Boat/US has been guilty of. Phrases like “These charges average between $150 and $200 per hour!” are quoting the very lowest rates, not the national average. Towers in New England are all getting over $200/hr, some as high as $350/hr. Quoting unrealistic non-member rates makes it harder to sell the membership concept, not easier. The networks wouldn't have an agenda to hold the non-member rates down, would they? Nah....

Friday, October 3, 2008

Derelict Boat Issue Hits the Big Time

....as in Time Magazine, which printed an article titled America's Underwater Junkyard this week. Here is a snippet from that article:

Legislation is slowly beginning to change. Since 2003, Washington State's vessel removal program has led a crackdown on derelict boats, using ramped-up boat-registration fees as funding for the program, which has so far cleared 188 boats. "It gave us financial capability plus the legal hammer if we needed to use it," says Doug Sutherland, the state's commissioner of public lands. Other state officials have expressed interest in Washington's model. In September, the California legislature passed a bill to increase fines to owners of derelict vessels. And last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an act that
gives NOAA funds and authorization to remove abandoned vessels damaging coral reefs.
I've been harping about this issue since the second blog I ever put up way back in February of 2007: Derelict Boats create income opportunity.

So, two thoughts from me today:
A) I hope that C-PORT keeps abreast of this issue, as I predict that federal money earmarked for this kind of work will probably flow through the USCG, and we should ask that the funds be spent through competitive bidding to private industry, rather than just federal grants passed down to local and state authorities. If a few million dollars for derelict vessel removal ends up in the hands of places like Orange County, CA, you can bet our industry will never see a nickle of it.

B) I predict that in the next 10 years, derelict vessel retrieval and disposal will become a multi-million dollar industry, fueled almost entirely with public funds. A large portion of abandoned vessels are under 60' in length, and our industry has the resources to retrieve a bunch of those.

However, getting this kind of work will require determination and active particpation on your part, rather than just waiting around for the phones and radios to announce a job opportunity.

All indications are that next year will be a slow one for recreational boating, and that will mean less towing. If you have boats and pumps and divers and lift bags and manpower, you should begin planning to find alternative ways to keep those resources busy.

Here is one idea that I might try if I knew where there were derelicts in my AOR. I would go out and find these boats, take pictures, record the LAT/LON and the physical particulars like length, construction and condition. I would put all that into a database. Then, I would create a document that summarizes all this information and get that document into the hands of every single agency I could find.

Two things might happen. Someone might actually want the details, and I would offer to sell my data for a fee. Even better, decision makers at the agencies will probably view my company as one of the experts in this field, and that increases my chances of getting some of the work.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008


I use a service called FeedBurner that helps me keep track of how often people actually visit RRR, and manage the email subscription service. The graphic here shows the top six most visited pages for the last 30 days. (click on it for a larger view)

My post about Traveler's Insurance buying back their umbrella logo continues to be the most popular single topic, even though I posted that muse back in June. Gadzooks! (#1 and #3 on the list are just the home page links of RRR, and don't refer to any particular post.)

Based on my FeedBurner reports, I've suspected for months that a link to my post is being passed around the halls over at Traveler's, which is the only explanation I can think of to account for the continued popularity of that post month after month. I seriously doubt it is any RRR regulars, as most, if not all of you read that post way back in June. Is someone at Traveler's out to get me? Could they actually be passing links to my umbrella post around the office? I don't even own an umbrella, for cryin' out loud!

Go back and read my original post. I took a swipe at Traveler's for spending millions to get their logo back; a little poke in the ribs, nothing more. Yesterday, someone named "Jess" left this comment on that post:

i work for travelers in the flood claims dept...you may want to reword your article, only due that we follow regulations of the federal government...meaning that we have to follow certain rules in the entire insuring process

AHA! People who work at Traveler's actually DO read my blog. (Evidently they don't use capital letters, lack basic grammatical skill and generally speak in non sequiturs and sentence fragments - whatever...)

What the heck does flood claims have to do with marine salvage? Why are people in the flood claims department reading Red Right Returning? Is Jess a boat owner? What part of my post needs rewording? Did 179 people at Traveler's actually have time to read that post in the last 30 days? What federal regulations? What's going on here? WTF!?!

Can you say conspiracy? I think someone should call Oliver Stone!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Dual Citizenship

Am I the only one who is surprised by the amount of boaters who actually have more than one membership? This phenomenon is more common on the East coast, where the mix of national membership networks is for more equal than on the West coast. What I mean is, out west, many boaters have never even heard of Sea Tow, whose presence is pretty much limited to Southern California. Vessel Assist's (now Boat/US) market share out there is so great, folks pretty much figure there is VA and there is 'you pay'.

On the East coast, neither network enjoys that kind of dominance, and most boaters up and down the eastern seaboard would recognize both brands. They also know that, when you need help, if you can't get Brand A, you can almost always get Brand B. The reasons for this are varied; in part due to the geographical strengths and weaknesses each network has up and down the coast. If you're 100 miles away from your yellow harbor, you may find yourself in a territory with more red boats (and visa/versa). Furthermore there are areas where the market saturation has reached parity, and no one brand really dominates. In those kinds of markets, it's very likely that one brand or the other may have a long ETA on a busy day. Disabled boaters don't want to wait. They don't even want to take the risk of waiting, so they join both.

Let me repeat: they join both. This deserves some exploration, because it flies in the face of some common wisdom.

First, I ask that you stipulate that these dual members are informed boaters, as opposed to crazy fools. They have been around the bay long enough that they have gleaned the value of having an assistance membership. They have probably been a member for years, and they read the local and national boating publications. Perhaps they have even used the service. They are savvy enough to understand that Sea Tow and Boat/US are actually separate, competing entities, offering separate products. My point is the dual citizens weren't duped by some salesman pitching both brands (never happens), and didn't somehow end up with both through some ignorance on their part. They made a conscious, and in their minds informed decision on paying for two memberships.

Now, maybe you are thinking these are just belt & suspenders guys, boy scouts who never leave home without spare batteries and a full tank of gas. There is probably some truth in that, but consider the possibility that this customer has actually made a wise choice. What can we learn from this customer? Certainly not that Sea Tow and Boat/US have marketed the benefits of dual citizenship; we all know they do not.

Well, first of all, dual citizens obviously feel that the annual membership fee is so cheap that even paying twice for essentially the same service is worth it to them. They have evaluated the risks, and have decided that the upside is worth close to $300/yr.

I am willing to stipulate that dual members are in markets with high concentration of boats and long distances available for those boats to travel. Lake Watchacallit isn't likely to have any dual citizen, but Long Island Sound, Miami Beach and the Chesapeake Bay are. Ironically, these are the markets that constitute the very core of the towing memberships. How many dual citizens are there? Does anyone know? Is it one percent of the total members? Ten percent? Ten percent seems high, until you consider this – many boaters have a towing reimbursement clause on their hull insurance and still they join. (Which means that some of the boaters are actually TRI-citizens.) I will wager that way more than 10% of the members have this reimbursement, and yet they join. Have the networks been giving away the store at today's price points?

Every time the subject of the annual fees comes up, the response I hear from the networks focuses how price sensitive their customers are. My reply is: "Are they? How do you know?" The existence of the dual citizens certainly eases the dock lines on that argument, at least a little bit. Allow me to ease the price point barge off the dock even more; back in the 90's, VAAA had two membership levels – Captain's and Gold. The Gold Card was $139/yr, ten years ago, and more than 10% of the VA members were Gold level members. Adjusted for inflation, that card is worth $187/yr today, yet Boat/US markets the VA Gold Card in SoCal for $168 (less if you buy it on the internet) – same 100 miles coverage. Can anyone argue that the cost of providing Gold Card level service in SoCal has somehow gone down in the past 10 years? Then why did the membership? Examined strictly from an inflationary standpoint, the networks, if not guilty of giving the store away, are at least having a fire sale.

So, some boaters have actually, voluntarily ponied-up double what the networks are charging. Can you imagine how many more might be sold on that price, if only someone would put some effort into marketing a membership product at that price?

Obviously, there are far more boaters who are shopping price on every purchase, and the marketing guys have to keep that in mind. But there is a nuance here that I fear has been lost. If you sell a product, and you find that some of your customers are willing to pay double your price tag, what have you missed?

....to be continued....

Friday, September 26, 2008

TWIC Deadlines Approaching

Click Here for a link to the official TSA TWIC deadline web page.

Some of these dates are subject to change, but most are now set in stone. Once these deadlines are published in the Federal Register, they are law. Due to the 90 day publishing deadline, all the dates for 2008 are now fixed, and will not be changed or updated. So, find your general AOR (area of operation) in the list below and be sure you are TWICilicious. If your AOR isn't explicitly listed, figure the closest major port to your location.

It's a bit unclear if these are the deadlines to actually have a TWIC, or if these deadlines only apply to secure access. The difference between those two things has been the source of so much confusion, and the USCG has done very little to set anyone on the course to enlightenment.

These dates supersede any renewal dates on your credential. This means that you must get a TWIC before your credential expires if the TWIC deadline comes before your ticket is up for renewal.

My guess is that if you have applied for TWIC by the deadline, you will be granted some leeway, but don't risk it. The old way of doing things is over. Everything is now centralized at the National Maritime Center (NMC), and you should forget about appealing to your local Regional Exam Center (REC), 'cause its history! There may be some battles for us to fight in the future, but the TWIC isn't one of them.

Will there be a bunch of guys who don't comply with the deadlines? You bet. Probably huge numbers. But do you really want to part of the "test case population"?


fixed in stone:

October 15, 2008: Northern New England – Boston - Southeastern New England

October 31, 2008: Buffalo – Duluth – Detroit - Lake Michigan - Sault Ste. Marie

November 28, 2008: Corpus Christi - Port Arthur - North Carolina - Cape Fear River

December 1, 2008: Long Island Sound - Charleston - Savannah - Jacksonville

December 30, 2008: Baltimore - Delaware Bay - Mobile - Pittsburgh - Ohio Valley - Lower Mississippi River - San Diego


tentative deadlines:

January 13, 2009: Hampton Roads - Morgan City - New Orleans - Upper Mississippi River - Miami - Key West - St. Petersburg

February 09: Honolulu - South East Alaska/ Prince William Sound/Western Alaska - Puget Sound Portland(OR )- San Francisco Bay

March/April 09: New York - Guam - Houston/Galveston - Los Angeles/Long Beach - San

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Are You Fit for Service?

Checklist for license renewal:

  • Sea time letter(s): check
  • Application completed: check
  • Current form of identification: check
  • Valid TWIC card: check
  • Proof of drug testing: check
  • Physical exam completed by doctor: check
  • Checkbook to pay fees: check
  • BMI under 40: HUH?

Last week, the USCG issued NVIC 04-08, which actually references about 80 pages of new regulations concerning the medical requirements to obtain or renew a USCG credential (i.e. license). The 80 or so pages are spread out in eight enclosures, numbered 1 through 6, but including 3a and 3b (hence the total of 8. Confused yet? Me too...)

So, what's the beef? Actually, the question is Where's the fat? Thats right, fat, as in body fat, sometimes measured as Body Mass Index, aka BMI. Lets cut right to the chase. Enclosure #2 lays out the Physical Ability Guidelines. Paragraph 2 states in part:

If the medical practitioner doubts the applicants ability to meet the guidelines....and for all applicants with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 40.0 or higher, the practitioner shall require that the applicant demonstrate the ability to meet the guidelines.
Just down the page a bit, they provide a weblink to find out more about BMI. Well, I've done all the work for you. Just click here, enter your height and weight, and you can find out if your BMI is over 40.

Now, based on how many XXL and even XXXL shirts I helped Fiona sell at this year's C-PORT convention, I'm guessing there is a percentage of RedRightReturning readers who may tilt the BMI index a tad over that 40.0 benchmark. My personal BMI is about 34.

A BMI over 40 will not automatically disqualify you for service, but it will require your doctor to attest that you can climb ladders, crawl into small spaces, carry heavy fire hoses, that sort of thing. And, it will probably raise some flags when your application is reviewed by the examiner. A few too many doughnuts and next thing you know, they're checking for a history of dermatomyositis.

The list of ailments and medical conditions that could be an issue is so extensive, there is a 9 page alphabetical index [enclosure 3a] just to help you quickly figure out if your nerphrois is on the list (it is, condition #105). Ever had prostate cancer? That's condition #108. Ever had headaches? #162.

If you're really interested, see enclosure #3, which is only 32 pages long, and details 201 medical conditions (referenced in the index mentioned above), and the recommended steps for medical evaluation. If you had your cancerous prostate removed, is your bladder "competent"? There is enough stuff on this list, your entire family can play!

This whole thing is becoming more like the physical requirements that commercial jet pilots have to sustain to keep flying. My flight instructor now flys big jets for UPS, and you bet he has to keep in shape. Of course, he's making about one hundred Gs per year, so he can afford the Gold's Gym membership dues....whats in your wallet?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

All TWIC Enrollment Sites Are Now Open and Ready for Business

Press release:

Sept. 17, 2008
TSA Public Affairs: (571) 227-2829
WASHINGTON – The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) today announced that all Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) fixed enrollment sites are open and ready for worker registration. Port and longshore workers, truckers and others nationwide are now able to enroll in the Department of Homeland Security's TWIC program at any one of the nearly 150 sites.

[click here to go to the TSA announcment]

In case any captains out there still operate under the misunderstanding that they will not need a TWIC, here is a snippet from the official USCG
NAVIGATION AND VESSEL INSPECTION CIRCULAR NO. 03-07. (from page 7 of that document):
Also by (the deadline), all mariners will be required to hold a TWIC in order for their license, MMD, COR, or STCW endorsement to remain valid.

Without a TWIC, your license is invalid. Don't think you can wait. This whole program has been plagued by confusion, delays, and poor communications, especially on the part of the USCG, who at the local level are barely up to speed on this issue. I still see Internet forums with captains quoting local CG personel that they won't need a TWIC. Do not make the mistake of going to the USCG for advice about the TWIC. The USCG has made their official position very clear with the NVIC quoted above.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Are You Prudent?

Mariners speak of prudence all the time. What would the prudent mariner do? We criticize poor judgement when we say "he failed to do the prudent thing." This week, David Brooks of the NYT wrote a column about politics - completely unrelated to anything maritime. But he wrote two paragraphs defining prudence that are so concise and elegant that they deserve to be repeated here for all the prudent mariners reading RedRightReturning.

What is prudence? It is the ability to grasp the unique pattern of a specific situation. It is the ability to absorb the vast flow of information and still discern the essential current of events — the things that go together and the things that will never go together. It is the ability to engage in complex deliberations and feel which arguments have the most weight.

How is prudence acquired? Through experience. The prudent leader possesses a repertoire of events, through personal involvement or the study of history, and can apply those models to current circumstances to judge what is important and what is not, who can be persuaded and who can’t, what has worked and what hasn’t.

"It is the ability to grasp the unique pattern of a specific situation." That sentence sums it up beautifully, doesn't it? To recognize that something is different; either in what you expected, or that the event is outside your previous experience. I like that he connects the unique pattern to a specific situation. The prudent mariner must evaluate every situation on its own, and resist the tendency to be complacent when things get too familiar.

[read the entire column here] warning - this op/ed piece is decidedly and pointedly political and may cause some fans of RRR distress.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Less Than You Bargained For?

Face it, most of us struggle with negotiation. We like price tags. While we like to shop for a better price, we hate to ask for one. As the kids say these days: “ 'sup with dat?”

Perhaps we can chalk it up to the American distaste for negotiation in general. Travel to Europe, Asia or South America, and you find bargaining and price negotiation is a robust practice in shops and among tradesmen; price tags are merely a starting point. In the U.S., bargaining has become culturally unacceptable, as if there is something distasteful, immoral even, about trying to see how much your customer is willing to pay - opening a negotiation is seen more as the mark of a sheister, or at least a rude oaf, than a polite business move. One of my captains hated dealing with non-members and the issue of payments. It wasn't the customers, per se, but just asking for money made him uncomfortable. He loved doing member tows -- just sign here!

In a free and open society, negotiating is vital to the economy's existence. Even though you wouldn't think of haggling over the price of toothpaste at Wal-Mart, you can bet your life someone in Wal-Mart's supply chain negotiated a better price on your behalf. At the check stand, you may feel removed from the negotiations if it pleases you, but you were deeply involved, none-the-less.

Because we don't engage in bargaining much, I wonder if our industry's small business owners have lost an important skill just from lack of practice. One tower I know claims to send every invoice with an offer of 10% off for quick payment. That may be a good cash flow strategy, but it is not a substitute for negotiation. Rusty Shackle, VP for Mergers & Acquisitions at RedRightReturning explains it this way:

"Sending an invoice for service with an automatic discount is essentially negotiating against yourself. You have no idea of how your customers value your service if you're willing to play both sides of the negotiation. Maybe they would have paid the full price? You will never know. But, now they know that you don't value your service very highly, because your invoice says your service can be had for less. Maybe it can, but don't surrender that knowledge until you have to."

Rusty makes a good point; why would you offer a discount for no reason? Skilled hourly services are not commodities like pork bellies or toothpaste. If you are selling a commodity, there are many good reasons to lower the price, and offer volume discounts – products have expiration dates, and inventory represents capital investment that only turns a profit when it moves. But you don't have a bunch of unused tows going stale on a shelf somewhere. We provide a skilled and highly specialized service, and the value of that isn't subject to fluctuations in inventory, nor does it have an expiration date.

I'm not suggesting that you never lower your price. I'm known to give a guy a break for a cash payment on a quick prop disentanglement. And sometimes I stick to my guns and see if I can collect the full price after being asked for a discount. What I'm saying is that if someone asks you to lower your price, your first reaction should be private indignation. Then you calmly say “Okay sir, how much do you think my services are worth?” This immediately allows you to illuminate the gap between the two parties' understanding of the value of what you are offering.

Notice I didn't say close the gap between the two parties, that comes later. First, we have to define the gap – how far apart are we? This is why offering a discount at the beginning is negotiating against yourself; you haven't discovered what the other person thinks you are worth.

See if the customer will actually give you an answer in dollars rather than just hyperbole like “outrageous” or “too much”. You have told him how much you think your service is worth, and it's completely reasonable to ask him the same question. Shock and indignation are emotions, not offers to reach an agreement.

When confronted with the question “how much do you think my services are worth?”, many customers really have no idea, or they turn to other excuses and pleas for a break. Without any concrete numbers to discuss, the conversation focuses on whether you're being a nice guy or acting like a pirate. These negotiations are now about your character, rather than the value of your service. Always attempt to bring the discussion back to one about value and prices.

Perhaps his anwer is a realistic one, like an offer to pay with cash. At least he's not attacking your character. If a few dollars off here and there makes for quick payment and happy customers, why not? But that shouldn't be your default position. You do believe that you're worth what you charge, don't you? Then you should be willing to fight for what you're worth.

Which is another reason to pose the “what am I worth” question, it leaves you room to make a sales pitch to the customer who really doesn't understand the value of your service. Now we begin to close that gap. You can explain how much you have invested in equipment and training, and inform that customer that we often go days without a paying job, so the hourly rate is much higher than shoreside tradesmen. Or, you can sell the job by comparing the cost to how much the customer has invested in his boat: “So, what you are saying, sir, is that it's not worth $1500 to you to get your $100,000 boat safely back to the harbor?”

Learning to deal with price adverse customers is vitally important in this industry. A disabled boater is already having a bad day, and now he has to pay for his misfortune. This is one reason the memberships networks have been so successful. The membership card avoids all the distasteful and contentious bargaining – just sign here! This is a double edged sword though, because when members end up needing services that are not covered, they feel they are victims of a bait and switch. Never are good negotiating skill needed more than explaining why pulling a boat off a lee shore isn't a free service.

The skills required for negotiating the day to day jobs will serve you well when it comes time to negotiate larger deals, like salvage claims and service provider contracts. First, you have to know what your position is, and be able to back that up. Then, you keep your cards close until you discover what the other party's position is. Every negotiation should begin by defining the gap between the parties. Only then can you begin to move towards a settlement.

Rusty Shackle has a favorite saying: “Never begin to build a bridge until you know three things. 1), how wide is the river. 2) how deep is the water. 3) who owns the land on the other side.”

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

TS Hanna: yawn....

I've been busy plotting and accomplishing my short migration from Block Island back to the continental USA and my temporary home in Point Judith, RI for the fall.

The post Labor Day, end of season parties out at Block Island were all cut short as islanders hunkered down for a hammering from Hurricane Hanna (ok, tropical storm Hanna - but that doesn't sound as good). I sweated out exactly where to hide, and waited until late Friday to choose a mooring to ride out the storm.

For days, Hanna threatened, and the computer models had her pretty much coming right over the Great Salt Pond. At the last minute, she passed well north, and the mooring I chose was in a nice lee for most of the night as 30-40kt winds passed over the area. I didn't sleep well, but I wasn't up all night either; and I didn't have to get underway once during the wee hours.

At first light on Sunday morning, I circled the pond, checking for any beached boats. The only casualty I found was this poor little Shamrock, who succumbed to rain water and a loose bilge pump connection, still tied to her mooring, hoping for someone to come along with some pity and a pump. Someone did, and she is drying out on the hard.

Friday, September 5, 2008

USCG Commander keeps his job after collision with BI Ferry

Text of official USCG press release today:

BOSTON - The commanding officer of Coast Guard Cutter Morro Bay will remain in command today following the review of an administrative investigation regarding the collision between the Morro Bay and a Block Island ferry July 2, 2008.
Admiral Dale Gabel, the commander of the First Coast Guard District, presided over an Admiral’s Mast in which he determined that Lt. Douglas Wyatt will remain in command.
“After reviewing all of the facts of this case, I have confidence in Lt. Wyatt’s ability to command the Morro Bay and carry out the Coast Guard’s missions,” said Gabel.


....hmm, I wonder if they exonerated the captain of the ferry?

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Bad Doug!

Yeah, everyone who wrote and mentioned that I wasn't wearing my PFD while working off the North Reef at night is absolutely correct in pointing out my very poor behaviour and bad example. I should have had one of these on, which was hanging in my wheelhouse. I urge everyone to wear one, and I am guilty of not wearing it every single time....and I really should have had it on during that night on the nasty north reef. My bad.

I will strive to wear it from now on, promise!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

North Reef at Night

A few loyal readers have commented that they would like to see more video of my work out here at Block Island. Much of the footage I have isn't very dramatic, and frankly would bore most of the subscribers to RedRightReturning. But, they don't call me Captain Hollywood for nothing. I did find some video of a job I had last month. Before you watch this clip, let me set the stage so you'll understand what you are seeing.

The north end of Block Island tapers to a point, understandably named Sandy Point, and extending quite far out from there is the Block Island North Reef, which might have been more correctly name the Block Island Deadly, Narrow and Particularly Nasty Long Sand Bar. I guess North Reef fits better on the charts.

This sandbar is very narrow, and the west side is really almost an underwater cliff: it drops from ankle deep to twelve feet in less than a boat length. The east side is more like a traditional beach, with the depths gradually decreasing from ten feet deep about 200 yards to the east to the ankle deep bar itself. (This geography makes for some very strange seas, and even on this very calm night, you will notice some small breakers that look like they are coming towards my vessel, as if I was on the beach, when actually I'm in deeper water to the west the strand.) That long bar on the chart never really drys even at low tide. It lurks down there below the surface, waiting for the unwary boater or lazy navigator.

About 2100hrs one night, a sailboat calls Mayday and reports himself aground at the north end of Block Island. There was a bunch of thunderstorms rolling down Long Island Sound, but otherwise it was calm and clear. I was underway lickity-split, while the USCG directed all their rescue efforts to playing 20 questions with the mariner on the radio (they never did launch any physical assets to the area that I know of).

From the time I got underway to the time I arrived on scene was probably less than 10 minutes. When I had visual contact, I asked the boater if he had gone aground coming from the east or the west - the answer would make a difference to my approach and which direction I might pull him off. He thought he had come from the west, and as you will see, he was wrong. A boater who has run into an island at night is generally not your best source of reliable navigational information - but you gotta start somewhere...(look again at the chart, he was between the 9' and the 4' depths that straddle the reef just north of Sandy Point)

The video begins as I approach from the west (deeper and steeper side) of the reef, and I spin around in preparation to toss him a bridle. As you watch the video, you can actually see the reef just under my swim platform. In the backgound, the Block Island North Light blinks mockingly just behind the grounded boat.

I heard a few shells and stones rattling around in the jet, which is the boat's way of telling me it's time for Plan B. Fortunately, with the jet boat, running over hard shell and sand isn't the end of the world; it doesn't even really slow the job down.

I quickly zipped around to the other side of the reef. This eastern approach presents a few problems of its own. The depths on that side are very shallow, and when the current is running, it will set you towards the reef. As you can see, conditions were calm on this night, and I had no trouble backing up to his stern and practically handing him my bridle. The look on the faces of his family huddled in the cockpit tells a story about their experience.

As you will see, everything turns out fine, and we even beat those thunderstorms back to the harbor.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Underwater Clean Up

The Dockmaster and I decided that it was time for someone to pick up all the trash under the docks at the Block Island Boat Basin, where we tie up the Safe/Sea Block Island all summer. We filled two wheelbarrows with junk that we harvested from under just "A" dock, one of the four main docks here. The cell phone on the left is mine; I dropped it about 3 weeks ago.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

When Good Jobs Go Bad, Part 2

File Part 2 of this story under "I'd rather be lucky than good any day."

Here is a single frame of my video of the 3 boat raft-up adventure, just as I attempt to implement Modified Plan A. If you remember, this was the plan that sucked wind, and the guy's chain was just reeling out of the chain locker.

This little video clip begins just before the the towline gets sucked up into the port jet.

You can listen to me and the Harbormaster discuss the situation, and towards the end of the clip, my luck changes. Somehow, the anchor line that was fouled from the 4th boat magically get un-fouled, and I was able to tow the whole mess across the channel and grab a mooring. WHEW!

I pulled the 3 boats over to me, and then jumped in the water to access the damage. The guy's anchor was hanging about 8" below the grate of my port jet, still clipped in my snap hook! The chain had all run through the snap hook, and lifted the anchor right up to the bottom of my boat. (the launch boat with the fenders all around is the Harbormaster's boat)
The owners of the sailboats all showed up about this time, and they secured their boats on separate moorings.

I learned a long time ago that a job isn't finished until the boat is ready for the next job, so once I had the 3 boats secured on moorings, I still had to get the line out of my jet. Fortunately, a good friend and colleague of ours has a mooring service boat with a 2 Ton A-Frame crane. I had Ben from Edwards Marine meet me over at the mooring boat.

We had to lift the back of the towboat up about 15" to get the jet access plate above the water line, which was easily accomplished with a bridle attached to the D rings welded to my transom.

Once up in the air, we had the tedious task of cutting and hacking countless wraps of Amsteel and 3/4" nylon from the jet drive shaft. The Amsteel we use for towline is really cool stuff, until you have to cut it. We used 3 brand new knives making about 10 slices. Here is a picture of Ben taking a turn with the knife. And here is the remains of what we cut out.

So, this adventure began as a routine job and turned to total monkey dung, but the guardian angel of tow captains was on duty, my luck turned faster than a roulette wheel, and I made it to dinner before the kitchen closed.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

More Water Spouts in New England

Safe/Sea's own Captain Andy Casey spied this water spout chasing him down Narragansett Bay last week. I'm jealous because I've always wanted to see one. Click on the picture to see a larger version. This was taken with his iPhone.

When Good Jobs Go Bad, Part 1

File this story under: "Some days you're the windshield, some days you're the bug."

It all began quite routinely, as a thunderstorm approached Block Island on Wednesday. As this cloud passed, it started to rain, and the wind shifted from E @ 6 to W @ 15.

The weather caused a three boat raft-up of sailboats to drag anchor. At first, the Harbormaster and I sort of thought that they would fetch up, but it quickly became apparent that the three un-attended boats were heading for an innocent fourth boat anchored downwind, and we had to take some action to prevent a collision.

Sometimes, when a boat is dragging anchor, she is bearing down on other vessels, and there is no time to get aboard and haul her ground tackle - but you can't tow her with anchor still on the bottom. In those cases, a good option is to just hook on to her anchor rode with a big snap shackle at the end of your towline. When you begin to pull forward, the snap shackle will run down the rode and pull the anchor off the bottom, and you can then slowly tow the boat that way. In one quick step, you will lift the dragging anchor off the bottom, and create a makeshift towline to at least get the vessel out of a crowded anchorage to buy yourself some time and room to set up a more traditional tow. This technique is universally known as Plan A.

The trio of sailboats were all hanging on a single hook from the boat in the middle. Her chain rode was hanging over the bow roller, and I could see a nylon snubber off the starboard cleat. The chain hook on the snubber was a few feet below the surface, so I modified Plan A just a tad and opted to clip onto the chain at the bow roller, above the snubber - hoping to just pull the raft upwind a few yards and avoid the impending collision.

What's that saying? "Never change horses in mid stream." What happened was that the anchor chain was not secured in the chain locker, nor over the gypsy of the windlass, so as soon as I tried to pull, I was just pulling chain out of a chain locker, rather than towing the 3 boat raft upwind. Modified Plan A sucks wind. Now I was really running out of time, and I had to hustle back there and get a line on tout de suite!

I rushed back to the bow of the middle boat and quickly reconnected the tow line below the snubber, just as the Harbormaster informed me that the three boats were about to get T-boned by the bow of another vessel. With the tow line hooked up, time to get those jets in gear and implement Original Plan A.

WHAM! SCREECH! I cringed at the sound of my towline getting sucked up into my port jet, and wrapping around the impeller shaft at 1200rpm.....man, I hate that sound, don't you? Fortunately, it's a twin screw, so I can still maneuver. Maybe I can still pull this job off without too much drama....behind me, it looks like we've just missed that 4th boat, and I'm clear to implement Plan A, version 2.0 minus 1.

Except, as I pull the rafted boats away, the Harbormaster informs me that the 4th boat's rode is now snagged around the rudder of one of the boats that I'm towing.

Let's review: I've got one engine down. I've got a raft of 3 unmanned sailboats attached to my towboat in a manner that is probably not covered in the Hamilton Jet owner's manual, and I can't disconnect myself from the 3 sailboats because their anchor chain is now sucked up tight to my port intake. I'm not sure where the unmanned boat's anchor is except that it has to be somewhere between my jet intake and the bottom of the Pond (please, God, let it not be on the bottom!). And one of the 3 unmanned boats is now fouled over the anchor rode of yet a fourth boat. Did I mention that it's pouring rain and the winds are gusting around 20 kts. This job has pretty much turned to shit, don't you think?

....to be continued...

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Article 7

There seems to be a rash of salvage claims being challenged by insurance companies on the grounds that the entire contract is void because it was signed "under duress or undue influence" - i.e. the boat owner was compelled to accept a salvage agreement because he felt he had no other choice.

Perhaps the insurance companies are confusing the "duress" of actual bodily harm with "marine peril" and its potential for physical damage to a vessel. IF a salvor has threatened to leave a crew to die or get injured aboard an imperiled yacht, that salvor is probably guilty of using "undue influence" to force a salvage contract. But to ask an otherwise healthy and un-injured crew to accept that a yacht in perilous circumstances should be covered under a salvage contract is acting completely within the spirit of Blackwall and SALCON 89.

Lets have a look at what SALCON 89 actually says about the influence of danger. Salcon 89, Article 7 states:

“A contract or any terms thereof may be annulled or modified if: (a) the contract has been entered into under undue influence or the influence of danger and its terms are inequitable; or (b) the payment under the contract is in an excessive degree too large or too small for the services actually rendered.” (bold emphasis mine)

The word and in part (a) is a key to understanding what Article 7 is about. During any true salvage situation, there is obviously going to be some danger. Indeed, every salvage is contingent on the presence of PERIL. And everyone who is on scene at the time is certainly going to be influenced by the presence of the dangers involved.

The authors of Article 7 were not suggesting that any agreement made while in the heat of a dangerous situation would be automatically void. The intent of Article 7 is to link the danger to equitable terms - that is why the word and is in part (a). To make an equitable agreement, the terms should fit the situation, which if covered by SALCON 89, is by definition a situation that involves danger (Article 1, para 1).

To claim that the presence of danger somehow voids a marine salvage contract is constructing an argument based some very torturous logic. How can you toss out a contract to resolve a perilous situation because there was danger present?

Furthermore, the challenge to the contract based on the influence of danger almost always includes the additional argument that there is no salvage because the peril so insignificant that it didn't even exist at all!

This is where they shoot themselves in the foot and the entire argument falls apart. If you are going to challange an agreement based on the presence of danger, don't go on later in your plea to downplay the danger and argue that it didn't exist.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

TowBOAT/US Oyster Bay spies water spout

Mitch Kramer of TowBOAT/US Oyster Bay, NY, saw a water spout today inside his harbor. See the story here:
Photo by John McGrane

Monday, August 4, 2008

Bill to exempt some mariners from TWIC

Senator Coleman (R-MN) introduced the Small Marine Business and Fishing Guide Relief Act of 2008 (S. 3377) to amend title 46, United States Code, to waive the biometric transportation security card requirement for certain small business merchant mariners, and for other purposes. This bill, if enacted into law, would exempt from the requirement for a Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) merchant mariners serving on vessels the owner or operator of which is not required to submit a vessel security plan. The official text of the bill is not yet available, but an advance copy has been circulated.

Well, this news will throw a wrench into the works. I am skeptical about how far this bill might go. I think that the DHS and the USCG really wants every license holder to have a TWIC, but this bill could have a chance.

The TWIC has been rife with confusion, delays, extensions and completely unreliable deadlines since the beginning, so this somehow comes as no surprise.

If this bill passes, can I get my money back?

Thank you to John Fulweiler for bringing this to my attention.

iPhone replaces pencil

As I mentioned in a previous post, iPhones have become standard equipment onboard Safe/Sea towboats. The large screen and fast email technology has some advantages for high volume areas like Safe/Sea's.

Way back in the old times, I would have to get all my case information via a cell phone, or over a radio. In either case, that meant trying to scribble some notes in a noisy wheelhouse while driving the towboat, with all the attendant frustrations of asking for some info to be repeated, which usually went like this:

"What was the number again?"
"You're broken, say again?"
"Call me on the phone!!"
"I've got no signal..."
"Say again?"
"Standby, you were covered by the other radio."

Or, one had to go dead in the water and copy the info, but again with dropped cell phone calls or stepped on radio transmissions putting up obstacles to a quick transfer of information. And, even if I did write it down, sometimes I couldn't read my own notes!

Well, the iPhone bypasses all that communication confusion. Here is the standard procedure now at Safe/Sea:

As soon as Safe/Sea's dispatcher gets the basic case information, their computer sends a brief text message to my phone: DING! You have a case at xx location, please proceed to get underway. If I'm near the boat, I just get aboard and say "I'm underway" on our business radio; otherwise, I can reply to the text message with a simple K. Now the dispatcher knows I got the message, and I'm getting underway.

Within a minute or two, the iPhone gets an email with the following information:

Full boat description.

Operators Name, address and cell phone number. (the cell phone number is highlighted and underlined, so I just touch that number, and my phone calls his phone; no need to dial. This feature is fantastic. Who wants to dial while driving the boat?)

His location, with LAT/LON if useful. (The LAT/LON is also highlighted. If I click on the lat/lon, a Google Earth map comes up showing his reported position on a chart, right on the phone - very handy to verify that his LAT/LON match his stated position.)

Full membership details with coverage limits and expiration date.

What is wrong with the boat, and where he wants to be towed to

That's a bunch of data to collect, and copying it all down on paper would have taken a few minutes of my time, with the boat at idle, and the dispatcher's time to read it to me, and either good radio comms or a reliable cell phone signal. Safe/Sea has whittled that all down to just a reliable cell phone signal.

If the customer is paying for service, the email will include his credit card information as well. How many times have you had to ask for someone to repeat that sixteen digit number?

Many of the towers around the country will have no use for this technology, because their case loads and fleets are too small. A one boat operation captain sure doesn't need to email himself the information he just collected. But for the larger towers, with 4, 5 or 6 towboats all working at one time, the iPhone can be a time saver, and will definately reduce your communications load during peak hours.

Areas with a centralized dispatch, like Southern California, would certainly benefit from this technology.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Flotsam or Jetsam? Wrong either way.

Found this yesterday while on route to a job. I stopped, took a quick photo, pulled them in with my boat hook, dispatched the ballons with a sharp knife, and tossed the carcasses in my trash bag.

This kind of crap is deadly to a sea turtle, who can mistake a ballon for a jellyfish, which are part of the turtle's normal diet. Floating debris is hazardous to many seabirds and other aquatic life.

Over the years, I've passed lots of ballons out there. For the most part, I have just driven by, thinking myself too busy to stop and pick them up. From now on, I will make an effort to remove ballons from the ocean whenever I can.

For more information on the floating trash problem, see

Thursday, July 24, 2008

iPhone becomes part of my cockpit

Those who know him (most of my readers) know that the owner of Safe/Sea likes to stay cutting edge. If there is a new computer out, he's gotta have one. So of course, all the Safe/Sea captains and full-time staff just had to have iPhones. I mean, all you could do on those old Nextel phones was talk to someone. How pedestrian!

I'm a big fan of technology if it actually improves something, or makes my job easier. Buying the latest gadget just because it's new or cool is a waste of money, IMO.

The iPhone has a number of very useful applications for towers, and today I was very glad to have it along as this very nasty thunderstorm passed over Block Island.

Note: this photo was taken with the iPhone. While the built in camera has practically no options (no zoom, no flash), it takes beautiful pictures.

Ok, the camera is fine, but as the storm approached, I was able to bring up Wunderground's iPhone weather page on the phone's web browser, and watch the Nexrad radar image to see exactly where the storm was. Here is an image I took (with another camera) of the iPhone's screen. The little shape in the middle is Block Island, with a big red cell approaching from the south. Turning on "animated radar" shows the movement of the storm, and the images are only a few minutes old. (click on photo to see larger image)

Sure, you can get weather radar overlapped on your GPS plotter with an XM radio subscription, but can you carry that in your pocket? Or, you can see rain on your ship's radar; I was able to monitor this storm while standing in line for coffee and walking around the docks. I watched this front approach for over an hour, and I knew when it would get here and how big it was. I was able to anticipate the wind direction based on the storm's movement, and once it started pouring rain on the pond, I could see how long the storm would last.

That kind of information is more than just a gimmick. The iPhone allowed me to stay informed about an approaching weather system without being tied to a desk or TV or radio.

A few nights ago, I neighboring tower called me at 2300 and warned me about a large thunderstorm that had just passed over his harbor and was heading my direction. With my head still on my pillow, I pulled up the radar on the iPhone, and I could see that the storm would pass north of me. I turned out the light and went back to sleep.

More about the iPhone next week.

Monday, July 21, 2008

TowboatUS Sebastian/Melbourne Lands more derelict disposal work

After some very lucrative work last year [read my post here], Absolute Towing & Salvage of Melbourne, FLA has received another nice derelict disposal contract:

Derelict boats to be removed from Indian River : Indian River County : TCPalm

Job: Remove seven derelict boats left since 2004 hurricanes from the Indian River Lagoon in Indian River County
Contract award: $37,920
$38,000 to raise and dispose of 7 boats....not bad
(photo courtesy TowBOAT/US Mystic)

Friday, July 18, 2008

Boat/US Press Release on Salvage

Well, those who have known me for a while know that I've bitched and moaned about the way salvage is portrayed in the press, and in particular I've singled out some Boat/US literature as guilty of too much hyperbole with phrases like "be warned", or "avoid salvage" and "avoid the high fees".

It was always my view that the Boat/US position could be boiled down to "salvage: BAD - towing: GOOD".

Yesterday's press release on this subject was a refreshing relief from past notices on the subject. [click here to read it all]

I think this piece is, as they say, "fair and balanced". Here is a quote:

Salvage cases are usually covered by insurance – or out-of-pocket if self-insured – and are much more expensive than a tow. Salvage continues to be the way to award a rescuer who maintains a 24-hour state of readiness to risk life, limb and vessel for others, and often results in a charge based on the length of the vessel saved or a request for a percentage of the boat's post-casualty value. While it’s a reward for extraordinary service, the dollar amount awarded factors in the degree of peril as well as the risk to the salvor and their crew. (emphasis mine)

That is the first time I've seen Boat/US express the concept that a salvor is rewarded for the service, rather than leaving the impression that a salvage is just a really high fee to be avoided.

The other thing I'm glad to see expressed is that it's the insurance company that will pay a salvage reward. Previous literature would always imply that the boater would be "hit with a huge bill", but of course nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is it's the insurance company that will be hit with a bill, and it's great to see that misconception finally corrected by one of the county's largest boat insurers, Boat/US.

Thanks Boat/US for presenting a well informed press release about towing verses salvage.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

No Time for Losers

A guy buys himself a Rolex watch 40 years ago. He's fanatically careful with it, and even though its a dive watch good to about 180', he never wears it swimming, for fear of losing it. 3 days ago, he gently placed it on a cockpit cushion while he and his wife went for a dip off their chartered sailboat.

As they get out of the water, the cushion gets moved, and the Rolex goes overboard. Imagine his pain as he watched his watch sink in 30' of water...

This man is a diver, but away from home and on vacation, he has no dive gear. He is a part time captain for another tower, and he knows I'm out here, so he calls me within 20 minutes of the watch going overboard. But its now late in the day, and very overcast, so I know the light will suck down there. I tell him to buoy it off and we'll hunt for it in good light tomorrow.

Its been my experience that the chances of find small objects are greatly increased by a well placed marker. If you can drop a marker within about 5' of where the thing is, it can generally be found. I stress this point to the watchless guy, and he completely agrees, further stating that he is quite sure he put a mark very close to the spot.

The guy's luck starts to go from bad to worse while he is at dinner that night, and a very diligent harbor patrol spies a suspect fender floating in the mooring field, just off the transom of a transient sailboat. When brought to the surface, said fender has a large, heavy box wrench tied to it. That curious set-up is brought to the HarPat's office and secured in the evidence locker, in hopes of solving the great box wrench planting mystery of 2008.

The next morning, the watchless guy replants a second marker, this time a cement block, as close as he can figure to the spot where his treasured Rolex now lies. But, with the wind changes and swinging boat, the accuracy of this new mark is pretty suspect. At about 1100, I suit up and head down there to search.

The bottom here is pretty mucky, and the top few inches are silt. When diving down there, you have to stay just off the bottom, and every time the silt is disturbed, it becomes a cloud of dust, reducing visibility to zero. Without the dust cloud, I had 4' visibility at best.

Because Watchless Guy is a friend of a friend kind of thing, I'm on the "tryin to help a guy out" rate, so I tell him I give it my best for one dive.

There is all kinds of cool stuff down there! I saw three wine bottles, a huge boulder, and a lobster who came out of a Spackle bucket ready for a fight. I found this pair of RayBans, perhaps dropped by the same guy who drank those 3 bottles of wine.

Alas, I didn't find the Rolex. I fear the loss of the original marker has doomed our efforts.

Watchless Guy wasn't giving up that easily. The dockmaster had half a tank left from some other job, and he had quick look around the cement block, and then another diver spent 40 minutes around 2pm -they both came up empty handed. That afternoon, Watchless Guy heads into town and starts asking around about dive equipment. He is about 6'-2", so my medium wetsuit isn't gonna help, and the island dive shop closed down three years ago. What he finds is a guy who will loan him an underwater metal detector!

So Plan B is to begin the search the following day with the metal detector and a renewed optimism. By this time, I have retreated to the cheering section, offering only encouragement and maybe some dive gear. Secretly, I figure this whole operation is hopeless, due to the loss of the original marker and the bottom conditions.

By now, the story has spread through the marina, and everyone is pulling for this guy, who has not once complained, or bemoaned his luck. He has accepted every gesture of assistance graciously, and not once demanded a thing from anyone. He's everyman's optimist.

Once again, diver #3 heads down armed with the metal detector, but that operation fails, because there is a lot of metal stuff down there, and after sticking your hands into the muck a few times, you are lost in a cloud of thick, murky water.

But diver #3 is a larger size, and Watchless Guy is such a nice guy that #3 loans WG his wetsuit. WG is a dive instructor, and we round up another tank, my BC, some eles's booties...

Watchless Guy tries the metal detector, and quickly abandons that. But he move his cement block and searches, and moves the cement block, and searches....and feels, and searches.

Eventually, he's down to his last few minutes of air, so he surfaces and looks one last time at the transom of his boat, and makes one last, determined dive in the spot where the watch should be. He knows that watch is down there, ticking, keeping perfect time for a lobster who lives in a spackle bucket.

And there it was, right were he dropped it. Barely a half inch of the stainless band above the mud.

He returned to the dock to a hero's welcome, a man who's luck had made a complete about-face in just 48 hours. When I saw him on the dock, I don't think his feet were touching the ground. I suggested that he rush off to the casino while his luck was good, but he was content to just know what time it was.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Results are IN!

Well, the first annual Red Right Returning July 4th service survey is now complete. An exhaustively unscientific study of the results has been carelessly compiled by Rusty Shackle, VP of our market research division, who may have spilled some beer on the data before he had a chance to enter it all....

So, the overall grade for the 4th was about a B-, meaning that most markets experienced a "slow" 4th of July weekend. Not dead, not crazy busy. I think the best word for now will be soft. Business is soft, but boaters are going out, and breaking down. It will definitely be an off year, and no one is going to break any new records. (Except for, funny enough, my favorite bar on Block Island, which broke sales records 3 days in a row over the weekend. Rumor has it their profits increase when I'm not out towing boats...) To be sure, some areas are doing better than others, but the B- kinda sums up the overall. If your area was gang-busters, knock on wood; if your weekend sucked wind, take heart as there is hope.

SeaTow International released a statement today, which included this quote from JoeFro

Boaters across the country celebrated the holiday despite high fuel prices both on land and on the water,” said Capt. Joseph Frohnhoefer III, Sea Tow’s vice president of operations. “Reports from across the country indicate that boaters stayed close to home this year, however, that trend could be equally reflective of the unpredictable weather patterns that plagued much of the East Coast as it is of current economic conditions. [click here to read it all]

I think the "close to home" thing is right on, and distant harbors or island destinations like Block Island will probably suffer more during a soft year. For instance, the official boat count for Great Salt Pond was 1485 on Friday; 1800-2000 would be more typical numbers for a 4th of July. So, boaters showed up, just not in droves.

SeaTow also reported

While call volume at the company’s 24-hour national dispatch center was statistically on par with last year, it experienced a 30-percent increase in the number of requests for on-water assistance.

Wow, 30 percent increase over last year? The fuel docks would kill for those numbers...

Evidently, SeaTow's research budget exceeds ours here at RRR, because they go on with a bunch of impressive statistics about how many calls they did and exactly which hours were the most popular for their services and how many knots the entire SeaTow fleet tied in 24 hrs - that kind of stuff. [editors note: why doesn't BoatUS publish these kinds of stats?]

Now, a soft year should benefit the SeaTow business model, because if fewer members break down, the local franchisee keeps more of the membership income. But this dramatic report of a 30% increase doesn't sound like a soft year. Is there something about the color yellow that attracts boater who break down? With every segment of the recreational boating industry experiencing a slowdown, why would SeaTow be so busy?

Vicious Rumor: I heard a report that there were empty moorings over at Avalon, Catalina, over the weekend. I'm still contacting my sources to confirm, but it its true, that would be an unprecedented event.