Sunday, September 26, 2010

Tying Up a Cyclone

I don't usually read the stories that get incessantly emailed to me by, but something about the title of this one caught my eye.
The Navy has sidelined its fleet of coastal patrol boats operating out of Bahrain after inspections revealed "significant structural damage," and has limited the operations of five patrol boats homeported at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek.
Chris Johnson, a spokesman for Naval Sea Systems Command in Washington, said the Navy has ceased operating five Cyclone-class patrol vessels in Bahrain until they can be permanently repaired and restored, a process that may take months.
Inspections of the Little Creek boats are ongoing, and those patrol craft could be pulled from service, too. In the meantime, crews will operate them under certain restrictions.

The lightweight, 169-foot steel-hulled boats were built by Bollinger in the 1990s and expected to serve 15 years. With one exception, all have hit or exceeded that milestone.
Problems discovered in the boats' hulls -- warping and buckling of the steel frame, as well as corrosion in various tanks -- are a cumulative result of hard use and severe operating conditions, Johnson said. The extent of the damage was first discovered this spring, after two of the Little Creek boats, the Hurricane and the Thunderbolt, sustained some damage in a storm off Cape Hatteras in April while en route to Florida.
When engineers looked closer, they found pre-existing hull damage on those boats. A formal inspection process followed, which determined the damage potentially affected all the vessels in the class, including three that were transferred from the Navy to the Coast Guard.
Most of the repairs on the overseas ships will be done by shipyard personnel in Bahrain, Johnson said, although some U.S. specialists might be sent to help. Johnson said the work will take a couple of months, and said it was too soon to estimate how much the repairs will cost.
The 30-person crews of the Bahrain-based boats deploy from Little Creek and typically serve six month tours. The crews rotate, but the Cyclones stay in Bahrain.
Um, where do I start?

I guess I should start by saying that I'm no longer *on* a ship, and am not easily able to keep up with fleet news, not having access to my CG computer profile.  Last thing I really heard about the status of the Coast Guard's cutter fleet was that DALLAS and GALLATIN were in drydock for 18 months to repair significant structural damage. And honestly, I haven't heard if they actually made it out. Though reading GALLATIN's mishap about their drydock fire gave me the willies for the remainder of KISKA's time on the blocks. So, anything I say has the high likelihood of being out of date, if not out of touch.

But what does the Navy know that we don't? What is it about their Cyclone-class ships that is so significantly different from our Island-class cutters? I can immediately identify two things that are different, one which should help us, and one which might be worse.

First, and probably grossly simplifying some of the differences, the way the crews are managed between the Cyclones and Island-class ships are different. The Navy crews don't stick with one hull, they rotate between the various ships, serving six months on a ship in the NAG, and then rotating back to the states for 12-18 months (I think that's the right ratio) of training, etc. They remain together as a crew, but switch around on ships. From my perspective, that undermines the development of a sense of pride about their ship that encourages the crew to really care about what happens to the ship, spending those extra hours on maintenance, taking deep pride in doing what's right for the ship, because, hell, they're just gonna turn it over to someone else in a few months and then they won't have to deal with it. Like I said, gross simplification, but still significant.

On the other hand, the CG ships are already older than the Navy ships. Built in the 1990's and expected to serve 15 years, which they've already exceeded--sounds familiar...are we talking about WPBs or PCs? If I remember my dates right, USCGC MAUI (WPB 1304), second oldest currently operational hull in the WPB fleet, was commissioned in 1986. She's 24 years old. She was 23 years old when I served onboard.

I remember one patrol on MAUI, we were supposed to be going into drydock for a regular maintenance period, but because another ship (can't recall if it was WPB or PC) had a more immediate maintenance issue, our drydock was delayed by some number of days days to allow them time to complete repairs. No biggie, the schedule changed *all the time* out there, and we were all pretty used to it. But somewhere along the way, MAUI had picked up a small hole, maybe dime-sized, in the hull just below the exhaust port in the engine room on the starboard side. Below the water the engine room. Nothing about that made me feel good.

The shoreside DCs patched us up, and away we went. I had been pretty diligent about specifying my concerns with the materiel condition of the ship in our daily status report. I felt that as long as the weather stayed good, and we weren't pounding into the seas, we should be able to limp along and just get through the patrol and safely into drydock for more permanent repairs. It was February, so while it wasn't FAC like the summer months in the NAG, we also weren't taking the 24-hour ass-beating we had during the late fall, early winter months. Until our last day in theatre, and a shamal came winding up from the southeast.

Within the span of about four hours, the winds shifted around to the southeast and sped to 35 kts sustained, gusting to 45 kts. Seas built to solid 10-12 footers. Our tasking had us on an upswell, downswell ride on a track about 1.5 miles long. So, 20 minutes of a nice downswell ride, followed by a sketchy, sketchy turn to come about, and then 30 minutes of complete, 100% snot.

We'd been doing this for about 2 hours, when our tasking group came over the radio, and told us to head 14 miles away because they had a report of a Kuwaiti fishing vessel taking on water. I threw down a but, sir, recommending that one of the PCs might just have better sea keeping abilities in current conditions, and OH YEAH...they didn't have a HOLE IN THEIR HULL!!! And by the way, we were only making 7 kts into the swell so it would take us over two hours to get on scene because there was no *way* I was gonna try to speed up in that shit.

Thankfully, the taskers saw the wisdom in that logic, and make arrangements to send a PC. And fortunately, by the time the arrangements were made, another vessel had assisted the fishing vessel.

The weather stayed shamal-ly for the next 12 hours, and it was really weird once the winds did shift. Within 30 minutes, the winds shifted 180 degrees, but stayed up around 35-40 kts. The seas answered the winds, and for about two hours, it was a googly mess out there, as the northwest swell countered the southwest swell. But MAUI made it through, and we sailed safely back to Bahrain and drydock.

I did spend a significant amount of time second-guessing my reaction to the tasking. My operational commander had said the repairs were good enough to send us out to do the job. It's not a comfortable position to say that your ship is not safe enough to go out and potentially save lives. Are the lives of my crew more important than the lives of the unknown fishermen? Was there really a risk of us sinking? I assuaged my discomfort somewhat with the knowledge that there was another unit available and better suited to respond, but what if there hadn't been? Would I have turned down the tasking?

I think in some ways, a ship is more than just the ship. She's a triumvirate of the ship (the steel, the hull, the engines, the bridge), the crew, and the command. None can do without any of the others. And each has to implicitly and utterly without doubt, trust the others. I did not trust my ship in that case. I knew my crew would overcome whatever was thrown at them, but my poor, battered ship with a hole in her skin, she was having a hard time of it. And that undermined my confidence, which in turn undermined my effectiveness as the Captain.

So, is the Navy doing the right thing by tying up the ships? There's definitely an operational impact to what they're doing. I can only imagine what the scramble looks like to overcome the gap in coverage. And at least in the CG, we've got the FRCs on the way to replace the WPBs, so there is a long-term solution in the works.

But it's the meantime that worries me.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


I mean my own limitations. I've been trying to get the hard wood floors in my new (to me) house ready for refinishing. I pulled up the carpet, and pulled out as many of the nails and staples as I possibly could, with about 85% success. And the floor in the upstairs hallway, on the stairs and in the living room shone through with great potential (despite all the paint splatters that indicated some joker hadn't used a drop cloth for one of the paint coats). But when I got to the dining room, reality set in. There were two layers of gross old linoleum that had to come up.

Long story short, I'm finally done with getting up the old linoleum, including the glue that held the bottom layer down. The floor in the dining room now shines with that same great potential as the rest of the hard wood floors.

Except for underneath the two built in china cabinets, one on either side of the window. The cabinets were apparently put in some time after the second layer of linoleum, since both layers of linoleum are present underneath said cabinets.

Now, I don't need these cabinets there and I really want to take them out, not only to get at the floor underneath them, but also because taking them out will give me room for my dining room table and my bar in the dining room. There is some analysis behind the need/desire to get them out of the way.

And I'd really like to keep them mostly intact, if possible. They are in good shape, and I could take them to the Habitat Restore for someone else to use.

I tried my hammer. I'm limited on tools right now, not being in receipt of my household goods yet (waiting for the floors to be refinished before taking delivery...should be next weekend for the floors, so maybe two weeks for HHG - YAAY!). So I tried my hammer. I couldn't even get the angle on any of the nails.

I asked Lynn if I could borrow a pry bar, which she graciously supplied, while telling me that she wants to come down and help out on the house, but acknowledging that right now is *really* not a good time with October right around the corner. Totally understand, and think the offer is just so cool.

So this morning, I tried the pry bar. It was far more effective at getting at the support boards inside the cabinet. I took off the molding around the sides and top, so I could see better what I was dealing with. I pried, and I hammered, and I cussed, and I lifted, and I shifted, and I put a couple gouges in the wall trying to get the damn thing loose. There are nails going into the side wall that are huge and don't stick out enough to get an edge under. And they're in the corners, so I'm not sure I could get a good angle on them anyway.

And what I finally realized was that I couldn't.

At least not with my current limitations. If I had a sledge hammer, garrans I could get it out...might not be reusable, but I'd get it out. If I had another person with a little more strength, maybe we could get it out. But me, by myself, with my pry bar, I just can't do it.

What a weird thing to hear myself say.

But this isn't the first this week I've contemplated my own limitations. I'm taking a class called "Moral Dimensions in Public Policy." It's a really interesting class, a little grim at times, talking about just war theory and all the horrible things people do to each other. We're using the book Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, by Jonathon Glover (Yale University Press, 1999). The discussion is interesting, if difficult for me to follow. For you see, I am not a thinker. Sure, I can think, but I rely far more on common sense to get me through the day. Logical thinking, though, not so much. I never did well at geometry proofs and logical reasoning baffles me. I can get a step or two down the path, but then I get all baffled, and go off to look at the leaves on the bushes lining the path. This is why some of my posts bring up thought-provoking topics, but only scratch the surface of them. I know they're good topics, but I don't know what to do with them, how to expand on them thoughtfully.

So this class is gonna be hard for me. We have weekly readings for which we have to summarize a particular point and develop an analytic question based off what was said. Gulp. And we have a 20 page paper to write about the moral dilemma of our choice, exploring the basis and reason behind our position. Gulp. Gulp.

Of all my classes, this is the one that has me worried. It's not statistics or the calculus in microeconomics. It's that I have to think about human nature and reason through an argument.

So, I've decided to go to the professor's office hours next week and ask for help. I'm gonna tell him that what he's asking me to do is very difficult for me, and while I will try as hard as I possibly can, I am not expecting stunning results. Maybe I'm setting myself up for failure by not expecting those stunning results, I don't know.

When I was wrenching on one of the china cabinets this morning, I originally thought this post was going to be about asking for help, and how hard that is for me. Any one of the last two crews I've served with knows well enough what I'm talking about. They all, at one time or another saw me carrying something kinda heavy, or struggling with carrying too much, and offered to help. They were mostly all told, "no thanks, I got it," as I fumbled and strained and tried not to trip over my own two feet. It's just my nature.

I know well enough where it comes from. I learned it from my mother. She is one of the most capable people I know, and I learned it from years and years of seeing her struggle to raise two daughters and keep in touch with her son who lived far away. I was brought up with it, and I cannot deny where it came from, even if I wanted to. Which I don't.

I'm used to being able to do most everything for myself. It reminds me of the back-handed compliment a previous boss threw at me once (unfortunately in front of the other Department Heads and the Command Senior Chief). He said, "Not everyone is Wonder Woman like you." We were talking about physical limitations affecting weapons qualifications. I disagreed with his assertion that some of the small women just couldn't shoot because of their size. Granted, I don't like to shoot the shotgun because being 5'2" on a small frame, I have a hard time fitting the butt of the stock into my shoulder where it should be so I don't knock myself out with the recoil, but I have done it, and well enough to qualify on the weapon. It took hard work, determination, patience and a lot of stubbornness, but I wasn't about to let something like not being able to shoot a damn gun keep me from doing what I wanted to do.

Just for the record, I have no delusions of being Wonder Woman, despite what my former supervisor said. Though I did buy a WW costume that year for Halloween :)

I'm hoping it's a sign of maturity that I'm able to better recognize my limitations, physical and mental. And I do have a back-up plan for getting the cabinets out. I'm gonna ask the guys that come in to refinish the floors if they can help me remove them. But for right now, the cabinets are going to stay right where they are, and remind me every time I look at them that I can't do it all by myself.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Back On The Farm

I've been neglecting the blog. There's a bunch of excuse why, but in the end, they are just all excuses.

Side note: I remember as OPS having an ENS tell me "No excuses, ma'am," after not coming up with a safe flight course for a second time in a row. The first time I thought my head would explode when the ENS asked for a "mulligan." I think I calmly explained that there *were* no "mulligans" allowed in the real world when people's lives and safety were at stake. Ok, maybe not so calmly.

That's what I'm reduced to...telling sea stories about my days underway. Sigh.

But one of the things I've been doing with my time is going back to the farm I worked on when I was in high school and college. Larriland Farm is a 285 acre, pick-your-own fruit and vegetable farm in Howard County, about an hour away from where I live (For those of you in the DC/Baltimore area, I highly recommend a friendly, beautiful setting, stunningly fresh and tasty fruits and vegetables). I've written before about Lynn Moore, the President of Larriland, and the influence she had on me. So one of the things I was really excited about coming to DC was the opportunity to visit the farm again.

I went the first weekend I got to town. It was either that or rattle around in my empty house and likely go to Target and spend another $150 on stuff I may or may not have needed. On the drive there, I did the math and realized it had been 17 years since I had worked there. 17 years!! I'm not supposed to be that old! I started at the farm a couple months after I turned 14, worked there for six summers and falls straight, took a summer off, and then went back for my last summer when I was 20. I had been back to visit the farm once or twice in the intervening years, but not very frequently.

I rolled up on the Old Man, the noise of the exhaust shattering the early morning stillness that speaks to the essence of every farm I've ever been on, and set about finding a place to park. I wanted to get there in time for the morning brief. I saw Lynn from a distance as I was putting my helmet away, and she gave me a tentative wave as I walked toward her. It wasn't until I was much closer that she realized who it was. She said she couldn't figure out who it was driving around the parking lot, only that she knew she knew me.

We didn't have much time to talk right then. The farm rolls on and opening time was just a few minutes away. I had made it in time for the morning brief.

The morning brief on the farm is when Lynn tells the workers what's available for pick-your-own, what's available in the market, what should be coming up next, discusses any issues (crop failures or disappointments, customer behavior, worker behavior) and assigns duties for the day. The morning brief hasn't changed much in 20 years.

As I stood there listening, it was comforting to hear the same lectures on how to get customers to pick a ripe peach v. a green peach, how they have to lift the leaves of the raspberry brambles up to find the ripe berries underneath, and how corn will always have worms this time of year. And that customers can be frustrating at times, but they are what keep the farm going, so they must treated with respect. A few weeks later, I almost choked with trying not to laugh when Lynn did her signature customer puppet show, where she takes her left hand with her thumb between the first two fingers like a leeetle head, and then slaps it silly with her right hand...just like how you want to do to some customers sometimes when they are just not listening.

Don't get the wrong impression...Larriland is *all about* customer service. Some days it's just easier for the workers than others.

Another thing I realized during the morning brief is that I borrowed a lot of my public speaking mannerisms from Lynn. The broad, expansive hand gestures, the little quirpy (quirky + quip, it wasn't just a typ0) jokes, and the sense of purpose of getting through with the message.

I've had a delightful three weekends working there so far, and am completely looking forward to the madness that is October (hay rides, pumpkin fields, apple cider, straw bale maze, apple fritters, decorative gourds, scary cartoon figures on the pond). Some of the other workers wonder what on earth I'm doing there, though. I had one of the women who work there ask me, "so you're an officer in the Coast Guard, why are you working here?" And technically, I'm not working, I'm volunteering. I get free goodies (all the fruits and veggies I can pick for FREE!!).

I know it baffles the teenagers working there that anyone with a choice would go back, but there is a true sense of peace I find there. They are good people, with a beautiful farm, and delicious produce. After four years of fast-paced, high pressure jobs, going in and packing a 1/4 peck bag of peaches well is restful. I know the farm (or at least I remember the farm), I know Lynn's standards, and I know I can meet those standards without too much effort expended.

Lynn sent me out with her husband, Merle (see, the farm is totally a family affair), to update some signs in a field she didn't want people going into. Merle gave me a refresher tour of the farm, so I could brush off the dust about which fields were which. We got the signs placed where they needed to be, and then headed back to the market. I put the tools away, and filed the signs I took down where I thought they should go according to the labeling system on the bins. Lynn came in a few minutes later, looking for the signs we had taken down. She was ready to look everywhere but where they should be for them, and looked slightly surprised when they were put away, and I could find them quickly. We had a brief talk about expectations; how I knew what her expectations were, but how she had spoiled me by setting my expectations so high for what to expect from workers. It is *so cool* to be able to go back and have these conversations with someone who helped shape me as a manager.

Class is about to start, so I need to finish this up. I'll keep going back to Larriland as long as I'm welcome. Mostly because they're good people there and the farm is beautiful, but also some for that sense of ease, of knowing where I am in the world and that I can contribute to something I think is worthwhile.