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Maritime Musings: Working as a Captain of a ship in the oil industry

John Gregg knows what it's like to not have a day off. In fact, he works 28 straight days every other month.

The good news is, he gets 28 days off before heading back to work for another 28 straight days of work.

That is just one of the many interesting aspects as Gregg's job as a captain for a 190-foot, 1,500 ton vessel that provides supplies for offshore oil rigs. The company Gregg works for is GulfMark America's, which owns, operates and manages a modern fleet of offshore support vessels that include platform supply, anchor handling towing supply, fast supply/crewboats and specialty vessels. The company's primary business is marine transportation services in support of the upstream oil and gas industry.

While Gregg admits, most people hear about his schedule and focus on the 28 days in a row off of work, the schedule is only a very small part of the job, and something "you just get used to in this industry," says Gregg.

Prior to working in this position, Gregg spent 20 years in the Navy. He's currently a lead captain and has four years experience working in his current profession. As lead captain, he oversees all operations of the vessel and manages a crew of 12 workers. He is responsible for oversseing safety of the ship, planning and conducting safety meetings and supervising all staff.

He currently lives in Charlotte, North Carolina but is moving to Pensacola, Florida. But get this - he works out of Port Fourchon, Louisiana. According to Wikipedia Port Fourchon is Louisiana's southernmost port, located on the southern tip of Lafourche Parish, Louisiana, on the Gulf of Mexico. It is a sea port, with significant petroleum industry traffic from offshore Gulf oil platforms and drilling rigs as well as the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port pipeline. Fourchon's primary service markets are domestic deepwater oil and gas exploration drilling, and production in the Gulf of Mexico. Port Fourchon currently services over 90 percent of the Gulf of Mexico's deepwater oil production. There are over 600 oil platforms within a 40-mile radius of Port Fourchon. This area furnishes 16 to 18 percent of the U.S. oil supply.

"The main task for us is to support the offshore oil industry," says Gregg.

"Basically whatever is needed to drills and manage oil wells, we bring them. We travel out anywhere from 20 to 150 miles. The supplies we bring can be anything, fuel, water, drilling mud, pipe, casing, and even food or water for the other workers out there. In a way, it's like being a truck driver on water. We take a load out, and come back, and then take another load back, and repeat the routine.”

While truck drivers face heavy traffic on the roads and highways, dealing with traffic on the water is one of the key elements of Gregg's job.

"Vessel traffic is a big obstacle," says Gregg. "Safety is a major issue and we are always focusing on safety. You are constantly interacting and monitoring where other vessels are at. Especially coming into Port Fourchon, where vessel traffic is the highest. That and weather are our two biggest obstacles. On the way out, the Gulf of Mexico is just dotted with oil wells, offshore platforms and drilling rigs. It's never a straight line and we do a lot of dodging."

The co-workers Gregg works with have a diverse background. They have worked in the Navy and Coast Guard, and others who have worked in support of the oil industry their entire life. Some even have worked in the Alaskan fishing industry, and workers come from all over the United States and even Brazil, to work in the positions Gregg holds. No matter where you live, you are responsible for your own transportation to and from the job site.

"In this job, you are responsible for transportation to and from the job site," says Gregg. "In this case, I can live in Pensacola and drive three and a half hours to Port Fourchon before each trip to go to work. People know that getting into it so it's not something we really focus on. Actually, it's one of the beauties of the job, you can live anywhere you want to and still do this work. Our company doesn't pay any travel, it's pretty much our responsibility to provide transportation to the vessel.”

Gregg received training and experience to be a captain through his work in the Navy.

For those who are not in the military, there are educational opportunities through places like the MidAtlantic Maritime Academy in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where Gregg attended.

That is also where Gregg took the appropriate courses to get his captains license. The Academy also has prep courses for a person just starting out. Another popular educational option in this profession is the United States Merchant Marine Academy, which is located in Kings Point, N.Y. Others start at working on a vessel as a deck hand and learn all aspects of the job and working on a vessel through on-the-job training. This method is called the Hawespiper. Hawespiper is a maritime industry term used to refer to an officer who began his or her career as an unlicensed merchant seaman, as opposed to earning his Third Mate's license by attending a maritime college or academy.

The term derives from a ship's hawespipe, the opening on the ship's bow through which the anchor chain passes. A mariner is said to have "climbed up the hawespipe," a nautical metaphor for climbing up the ship's rank structure. However, to become a captain one must pass tests to receive a license.

What may surprise most people about this profession is just how much technology is involved. One of the systems on the vessel that Gregg runs is called Dynamic Positioning. According to Wikipedia, Dynamic positioning (DP) is a computer controlled system to automatically maintain a vessel's position and heading by using her own propellers and thrusters. Position reference sensors, combined with wind sensors, motion sensors and gyro compasses, provide information to the computer pertaining to the vessel's position and the magnitude and direction of environmental forces affecting its position. Examples of vessel types that employ DP include but are not limited to ships and semi-submersible Mobile Offshore Drilling Units (MODU).

"It takes about 210 days of training and education to get certified as a dynamic positioning operator," says Gregg. "If this fails, the consequences can be very high This is one of the hot ticket items in this profession. There are not enough operators with this certificate and those who do have it are in high demand."

It can take as much as five years experience working on a vessel to become a captain, says Gregg. Experience as a deck hand, handling all cargo, deck maintenance activities, handling lines, those skills must be mastered before having a chance to become a captain.

While Gregg currently works out of Louisiana, some other areas where this type of job and workers are needed include South America (Brazil), Trinidad, Mexico, the North Sea, off the English coast, and middle and east Africa. Gregg doesn't do it, but the people he works with could work in any of these locations for the same country they are currently employed for.

"After 20 years of traveling in the Navy, I want to be in one spot," says Gregg. "But for someone who wants to see the world and likes the travel, there is opportunity to do that in this job."

Besides the daily duties of being the captain of a large vessel, Gregg says it is hard being away from home for 28 days. The only cell phone contact is in port, and while they can send emails back and forth (if the service is working) it's hard not having contact with loved ones, family or friends for that long. The workers work 12 hour shifts and rotate when out for longer trips. While sleeping quarters can be tight, and some have to double up in a room, there are never two people resting in the room at the same time, because when one is working the other is sleeping, and vice versa.

"The job requires one to have a high level of attention to detail and task at hand," says Gregg. "A person working on the vessel needs to be able to stay focused on the task at hand to complete each evolution in a safe and professional manner. A person in this field should have a high level of fitness, ability to walk up and down flights of stairs, climb ladders and more."

More information:

  • Gregg says most people find their jobs by directly contacting the employers. Some through headhunter services, or on employment Web site..
  • Jobs are negotiated based on a daily rate and it varies with position/experience/location/supply and demand.
  • Most people still have a misconception about traveling to exotic foreign ports and the like.  There are still jobs out there like that, but for the most part, Gregg says it's important to remember “we are a service provider, and travel from a single port to and from the oil rigs.”
  • Be patient, and persistent. It takes a lot of time and study to acquire the appropriate credentials There is also lots of red tape and regulatory requirements (to deal with).