This story will be a little difficult. Mostly because the tentacles of the tale reach deep into the entire deep-sea maritime industry, and that is not where I want to go today. I will try to provide relevant context, but limit things to the specific event I want to talk about.
Saying cleaning the tanks of tankers at sea is dangerous is like saying trying to catch a bullet with a tin cup in your mouth is hazardous.
Okay…context…one of the first tankers I was on was out of Houston. A couple days out we were in the turquoise blue water of the Caribbean. I went out on the fantail at sunup with my cup of coffee. I looked out into our wake and as far as I could see was a trail of oil. I had been living on the ecology-minded island of Martha’s Vineyard for a couple years and (for those days) was pretty green. I rushed to the wheelhouse pointing out the aft window, “There is something wrong.” A little laugh and answer, “We are just flushing tanks.”
This is the process. They unload the cargo, then go to sea and flush the tanks with seawater. The cleaning is not complete. People have to go into those tanks to pump out and dry up the excess seawater/oil. Therein lies the problem. In the words of one really intelligent guy out of North Conway who no doubt is sailing as Captain now, “Every time you go into one of those tanks you are taking time off.”
The problem is the fumes. The will kill you silently and quickly and you will not know you are being killed. You will simply keel over and will be dead in minutes. In the old days what they would do is bring a canary into the tank with them. The deal was, if the canary stops singing get the fuck out of the tank.
Things have progressed a little bit. Now they have a wand that they spot-check the tank with – it is used to “certify the tank as gas free.”
The key words here are spot check, pockets of fumes often remain in the tank. One of the most horrific stories I heard was three guys were in the tank, one went down and the other two went for the ladder. The second guy fell off half way up and the third guy was two-thirds of the way up and knew he was not going to make it out. He hooked his leg into the ladder before falling over backwards. He was the only guy that made it out of the tank alive.
It was a dreary cold January in Maine. I was being flown out of Portland to join a ship in Singapore. A big smile was on my face as a bound up the back ladder of the house to take the ship out of port. There was a lot of sunshine and temps were in the mid 90s.
One day out, and we were cleaning tanks. The watch I was on met to relieve the men on deck. The Bosun came out and said, “Let’s go.” I was sitting on a bench legs crossed in Nikes and oil-stained tennis shorts. Everyone rose. I remained seated. At that time I sailed both Bosun and AB, but on this occasion had taken an AB job.
I pointed out on deck, “This is not the fucking way you guys are supposed to be doing this…” They all exchanged glances and I could read the unspoken words, “Ship disturber.” After a pause I said, “I will do it any fucking way you want, but for the record this is not the way we are supposed to be doing this.”
We were coming out of the "golden years" of the Reagan administration and both the wages and crew of merchant ships had been cut radically. Ships then sailed with what was referred to as skeleton crews. The only reason I agreed to proceed was I knew we did not have the people to do the job correctly in the time we had before the next port. The problem was they did not have someone standing by the top of the tank watching the people in the tank. This was vital for safety reasons, but also involved one person not engaged in the physical work.
So we proceeded in that fashion over and over again for the next few months. One sunny day at sea we are yet again cleaning tanks. I am working with my watch partner, and we are team-two. That is, two guys go into the tank ahead of us and pump off the standing water. We would then go into the tank and spot check it for pockets of moisture. We were carrying a split load of gasoline and jet fuel. Three across had the jet fuel.
We went into three port and began checking the tank. We had only been in it a minute or two when we looked at each other, and did not need to speak. We both knew the tank was gassy. I flashed a thumbs up let’s get out! We were back on deck, and I spoke the first words, “I will tell him.” I was referring to the Chief Mate who had certified the tank as gas free. He was in the shower. I pounded on the door and walked in, “Mate three port is gassy." He yelled out, “The other people did not have a problem with it…” “I do not give a fuck about the other people, it is gassy.” He answered, “Put the blower back on it and skip it.”
So I am up working on the forward tanks. My partner has knocked off to clean up for the wheel so I am by myself (really, really fucked up) I am pretty high from going up and down those ladders and breathing whatever mixture was in those tanks. I came out of one starboard and looked aft to see a crowd around three starboard. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was still wearing my trusty Nikes and stained tennis shorts and was holding a clean cloud-white kotex (a large square absorbent pad) I walked aft and it was like the Wild West. The crowd parted as I approached. I arrived just in time to see one of the guys come out of three-starboard in a basket. He had this clear jell-like discharge all over his face. I was thinking this is something the body discharges when it is preparing to die. I cleaned his face with the kotex, and began trying to revive him. He stayed out for 14-minutes.
He went to the doctor. Came back with a “fit for duty” and soon thereafter we found ourselves in a restaurant in Singapore getting ready to order. “Can I talk to you about something?” I looked up from the menu. “The other day I went into the paint locker for some paint.” When I bent over and began mixing the paint everything began echoing and went out of focus. It is like I was tripping or something.”
I put the menu down and after a second said, “I did not really want to get into this – I have enough battles of my own, but you have to get your ass back to the states and see your own doctor. That doctor who gave you a fit for duty has been paid off by the company. You have been hit and hit hard. You will not know how hard until you see your own doctor. You have to do whatever you have to do to make this happen.” He left the next day.
A few weeks later a replacement arrived. I asked, “How is that guy.” “They say he is all done…brain damaged.”
The captains were rotating out weeks later. Both captains and the chief mate were on the bridge. I was on the wheel. The relieving captain asked, “How could this happen?” I have never known when to keep my mouth shut and answered, “It happened because we were not following SOPs." If looks could kill I would have died that day.