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?