Friday, January 30, 2009

New on the book shelf: Salvage, A personal odyssey.

I received an interesting book for Christmas that you might like. SALVAGE, A personal odyssey by Captain Ian Tew. From the back cover:

Ian Tew joined Selco Salvage of Singapore in 1974, and spent over a decade on the front line. Already an experienced master mariner, he learnt the salvage trade in the busy waters of the Far East before rising to command some of the world's largest supertugs, eventually becoming a roving salvage master. In his odyssey he roamed the world, from the coast of Cornwall to the Southern Ocean, from the Gulf of Suez to the dangerous reefs of the South China Sea.

This is not a "how to" book by any means. Instead, this is a fairly interesting and well written account of Captain Tew's experiences during a his career as a salvage master. Each chapter is a narrative focused around the events of a particular salvage; what happened, who was involved and how it turned out. Captain Tew deals with foreign officials, bad weather, open forms, drunken crews, and reluctant salvage boat engines.

Captain Tew's memoir leaves you with a good sense of the life of a big ship salvage master; the excitement, travel and adventure and people involved, and his personal satisfaction of completing some very challenging jobs.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Salvagers claim they've found world's most valuable wreck

Google search sent this to me:
Salvagers claim they've found world's most valuable wreck

Salvagers claim to have found the world's most valuable wreck - a British ship sunk by a German submarine while laden with a 2.6 billion pounds worth of cargo that included gold, platinum and diamonds.

In a project shrouded in secrecy, work is due to start on recovering the cargo, which was being transported to the United States to help pay for the Allied effort in the Second World War.

The scale of the treasure trove is likely to lead to a series of competing claims. Salvage laws are notoriously complex and experts say there could be years of legal wrangling ahead.

This should be entertaining, to say the least. Hey, if this money was meant for the US Gov't, maybe it should be lumped in with the bailout funds?

Friday, January 23, 2009


WTF? I know, what the heck is that boat in the picture? That's a bad photoshop job, mostly. But it represents what this post is about: towers towing for more than one network. Now, before you get all freaked out and begin your mental list of all the reasons why that will never work, just hear me out.

Exhibit One: It is no secret that Safe/Sea is the contract tower for Boat/US, and they also sell their own towing membership throughout their state of Rhode Island. Contrary to what your intuition might think, this arrangement has been wildly successful for all parties: for Safe/Sea, for Boat/US, and for all their customers and members. Safe/Sea gets a reliable stream of assistance jobs that are paid for by Boat/US, thus keeping their boats and captains working and making money. They also benefit from direct calls to Boat/US that result in a salvage case.

This extra income streams has helped Safe/Sea build and maintain what is arguably one of the fasted and most up-to-date fleet of towboats in the business. This fleet of towboats helps Safe/Sea market their local membership, and contributes to their ability to retain qualified captains. Safe/Sea has had the same core group of 3 staff captains (4 if you count me) since I started there in 2003. Safe/Sea members get great service at extremely competitive annual dues. What they give up is nationwide coverage. Members who boat exclusively within state waters don't care about nationwide service, so they can save a few bucks on joining a local company.

Boat/US members in Rhode Island have access to this fast, modern fleet that is manned by well paid and experienced captains; this fleet is subsidized, however, by the Safe/Sea membership program. I don't believe that you could maintain this level of service if it was based on Boat/US income alone. This is not a minor point. Having a fleet of modern, clean and well maintained boats is a mark of excellence in this industry that both increases the marketability of your program and also leaves a lasting impression on members who actually receive service.

Customer service is the nexus of this symbiotic relationship. The reason both companies endure this situation is that it allows each company to exceed the level of service it could otherwise muster on its own.

Exhibit Two: Block Island, a small summer cruising destination in New England, about 12 miles from the nearest mainland port. Safe/Sea has had a seasonal presence there for many years (which means that Boat/US has too). Block Island is within the SeaTow RI area, but the short season and expensive cost of living out there has remained an obstacle to SeaTow's ability to station a yellow boat out there. I'm not trying to disparage SeaTow here; the brands could easily be switched around in other markets. The point is that I could probably handle all of the SeaTow member cases that happen within 5 miles of the island. Indeed, many of the assistance jobs at Block Island actually happen inside the Great Salt Pond, where 1500 boats are anchored, moored or at a marina every summer weekend. Most of the time, SeaTow members have to wait for a towboat to come over from the mainland, even for a simple jump start. Now, put aside all your issues of payment and contract rates and just think about this from the customer's point of view. He has to wait a couple of hours because the market he broke down in is too small to support more than one towboat, and his brand is the odd man out on Block Island.

Well, what I say is too small is not the market, but the pettiness of the networks and their adherence to contractor exclusivity. It's time to develop some policies that will allow more cross pollination in markets that can't support all these differently painted boats. You can't create a membership franchise on an island that only has about 100 registered boats. But how can you service your transient members who show up every summer by the thousands?

Lets figure out a way to build strong, sustainable towing companies that can flourish outside the traditional big coastal markets like Florida. As the economy gets really tight, the small market towers are going to suffer enough without having to endure having the local assistance pie chopped up into two, or even three pieces.

I purposely bring this up now, just a week before C-PORT, in an effort to stir the pot and promote further discussion while we're there.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Future Merchant Mariner Credential?

With the mandatory imposition of the TWIC, we heard some discussion about the future of the Merchant Mariner Credentials. Credentials are Licenses (like 100 ton or OUPV), Certificates (like STCW), Endorsements (like Radar), and the like. Basically, a Credential gives you the authority to preform certain duties, or proves your proficiency in training for certain tasks. Vessels can be documented, but a vessel's document is not a Credential. Merchant Mariner Documents (MMDs), on the other hand, are Credentials. Got it?

The USCG has been contemplating combining all your credentials into one place, and an idea that is gaining traction is a "passport" style booklet.

I got the monthly performance update from the Nat. Maritime Center, which you can see here. The update is just 16 page powerpoint style PDF that has lots of charts and nonsense that amounts to some self-congratulations on the part of the NMC.

Even a blind squirrel roots up an acorn once-in-awhile. On page six I found this very interesting little picture, a copy of which you see here. The graphic implies that this passport style Merchant Mariner Credential is the product of the NMC credential center. A sign of things to come?

You saw it here first (unless you saw it someplace else already...)

Upside: this will be much easier to carry around than the current 8x10 license.

The Boat Ballet

Bow thrusters? We don't need no stinkin' bow thrusters!

Don't try this with your twin outboards, or even your twin inboards! Single screw guys can only dream.

If you don't see the YouTube screen, click here to watch.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Weather, relatively speaking

My post on the sailors who where towed by the USCG after departing into some lousy weather received a number of comments, and I was surprised that most of the comments were to scold me for "being to harsh" in my criticism of the MOONSHINE's crew. (No one challenged the idea that the USCG might charge for services in cases like this.)

Too harsh?!? I should have gone on more about how astounding (arrogant? ignorant?) it was for a sailboat crew with plans to cross from Rhode Island to Puerto Rico to claim that some misfortune of bad weather had abruptly ended their voyage. The weather they encountered was a winter gale, with winds 35-40kts and seas 8-12'. Those conditions are certainly not enough to end the voyage of anyone who's planning includes even the most basic understanding of what one might be expected when, you know, you are planning to cross the ATLANTIC FREAKIN' OCEAN!

To put some perspective on the weather encountered by those sailors, I present the following video, taken by Steve and Linda Dashew [CLICK HERE TO WATCH]. As you listen to Linda's narration, you will hear her say that they have been waiting for gale force conditions, so they could shoot some video and test their boat. Their weather? Steady 35kts, gusting 50, seas averaging 15'-20' with larger swells. Watching this video, you might imagine that a nice hot lunch was about to come up the companionway ; knowing the Dashews, I'll bet it did.

Please don't bother to point out the differences between the WINDHORSE at 83' and the MOONSHINE, at 45' -- both boats are ocean capable -- the difference that separates the two stories is the crew. I don't think the crew of the MOONSHINE would even have been able to get the WINDHORSE to Puerto Rico. Had video of a Nor'east snow storm been their objective, I dare say the Dashews would have no problem sailing the MOONSHINE south on the very same day that caused the MOONSHINE's actual crew to call the USCG.

In some respects, bad weather is relative. Once you've sailed in 45kts of wind, 25kts is just another day sail; once you've been in 60kts, 45kts is just another gale. Weather that caused one crew to activate their EPIRB is an just an opportunity to shoot some good footage to a different crew. It is their experience that allows the Dashews to confidently wait for a good gale before heading into the Tasman Sea to take some video of gale force conditions. The MOONSHINE crew were completely out of their league and had to call for rescue just 25 miles into their 1600 miles voyage. It wasn't a "bad storm" that caused the problems for MOONSHINE, it was that relative to their experience, the conditions seemed like a bad storm to them.

The apologists point out that the MOONSHINE's engine failed and the sails were ripped. I believe that those issues are a matter of poor maintenance and lack of seamanship rather than a direct result of a fresh gale. A photo of the boat after she was towed clearly shows the mainsail furled on the boom, and it doesn't appear to be damaged.

Look, we all know what happened: this skipper's bad weather strategy was to lower the sails and motor. We see this all the time from inexperienced coastal cruisers. They either don't understand how to or are not equipped to reef, and can't control the boat under full sail, so they motor. Well, with 10' seas, its likely that the fuel was stirred up, fouled the filters with sludge and that was all she wrote. Remember, this boat was heading south with NE winds. You are telling me that he couldn't make way with a reefed main?

Here is where my ire surfaces: the fact that the captain of the MOONSHINE didn't have enough experience to understand what he was in for does not give him a pass. To say "Aw, shucks Doug, give the guy a break" implies that what happened was somehow beyond the control of the captain. To cut this guy any slack is to ignore the facts; that captain chose to leave a safe port, so he placed himself in circumstances that were completely within his control. He flagrantly ignored or disobeyed every tenet of prudent seamanship and to excuse his behavior as a landlubber is to insult the truly lubberly.

My brother has done a fair bit of ocean sailing, and when the subject of getting caught in bad weather comes up, he says "You can only pick your weather on the first day of any crossing."

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Now you know


In the beginning were the Assumptions.

And the from the Assumptions and idea took form. Thus from nothing, the PLAN was born.

And the Workers evaluated the PLAN. And they cried, "This Plan is a crock of shit, and it stinketh."

And lo, the Workers went unto the Supervisors and pleaded, "It is a pail of dung, and none may abide the odor thereof."

And the Supervisors went unto the managers, saying, "It is a container of excrement, and it is very strong, such that none may abide by it."

And the Managers went up high to the Directors, and claimed, "It is a vessel of fertilizer, and none may abide by its strength."

And the Directors conferred amongst themselves and forecast that "It contains that which aids plant growth, and it is very strong."

And the Directors went forth to the Vice-Presidents, offering their prediction that "It promotes growth, and it is very powerful."

And the Vice-Presidents climbed the highest tower and unto the President gave their prophesy, "This new PLAN will actively promote the growth and vigor of our company, with powerful effects!"

And the President looked upon the PLAN, and saw that it was good.

And the PLAN became policy, and it was implimented...

And that, dear friends, is how shit happens.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Diving Service Membership? Hmmm.....

I guess it was bound to happen. A company called Pier 88 is offering a $99/yr membership that covers underwater services like prop disentanglement, hull inspection and propeller removal services. See their web site here:
If you go to the "About Us" page you will find both a SeaTow and a BOAT/US logo at the bottom of the page. Each logo links to the respective company's web page. While not explicitly stated, the presence these logos suggest (at least in my mind) some kind of affiliation between Pier 88 and the towing networks. Indeed, their entire web site seems to use words like network and affiliate a lot. However, when you click on to the "locations" page, all you get is a tiny map with itty-bitty dive flags surrounding the coast of the USA.

UPDATE: The network logos were gone within 48hrs of my first post. Wow, somebody is reading RRR.

I admit that I suffer from a generally suspicious nature, so my first reaction is to point out all negatives and get all contrairian. But the more I thought about this, the less inclined I was to just discard it right off the bat. A few random thoughts:
  • Its always good to see the promulgation of the service-to-private-prepaid-members business model.
  • Its nice to see someone else re-reinforce the idea that our kind of work costs money, and that purchasing a pre-paid service contract is a good idea.
  • Do the divers provide proof of insurance to Pier 88? Does Pier 88 carry some kind of liability insurance?
  • Do the divers have to provide their own transportation to the disabled boat?
  • Does Pier 88 impose a time limit or depth limit on their divers?
  • Does anybody care that they display the aforementioned logos on their web site?
  • Now that somebody has actually marketed this idea, can we afford NOT to?
They claim "2500 members and growing" - that's a quarter million bucks per year in memberships. I wondered how much they pay the divers so, I emailed them and asked that question. I received a very polite and prompt reply that they pay whatever the diver's standard rates are. No imposed contractual discount rate and all that crap, just an honest "yeah, we pay the bill."

This an opportunity for our networks to create a similar, competing product, just as we have with the Trailer Assist concept, which competes with other over-the-road products. What a great way to increase the membership income! Couldn't SeaTow and BOAT/US offer "incidental diver service" for an extra $99/yr on top of the premium memberships to cover up to one hour of disentanglment, lost item retrieval, damage inspection - that kind of thing?

Oh, I hear all the objections out there: We're not all divers; we don't all have access to divers; the diver rates vary too much; we don't want the liability; I don't want my captains diving; I worked hard to build a relationship with my local diver and don't want to compete with him....blah blah blah. The objections are mostly logistical and can be overcome. A simple disclaimer of dive service may not be available in all locations would pretty much cover the bases. If, on the very rare chance that some member's problem can't be solved due to the lack of a diver, how hard is it to just offer him a refund of that extra $99?

On the other hand, who is the most logical industry to provide prop disentanglments and similar low risk diver services? Not only do we get those calls first, but we have years of experience overcoming objections and logistical hurdles like liability, price points, training. We have a huge customer base, a fleet of boats and many, many divers already among us. Just from a resource point of view, this makes way more sense than offering an on-the-road trailer towing service.

If the national networks could sell 30,000 or 40,000 of their members on the extra diver coverage, that would add $3-4 million to their coffers. Man, I could cut a bunch of lobster pot line for that kind of money.