Friday, March 29, 2013


Some days in the West Delta field a layer of silty, brown water floats on top of the Gulf's opaque green. It's outflow from the Mississippi River, several of the mouths of which are nearly in sight. Throttle up and the boat's propellers create a green "hole" in the muddy freshwater.

Old Man River carries all sorts of nutrients that feed small organisms that feed bigger organisms ... you know, that whole food chain thing. At Barataria Pass, the Gulf inlet through which we travel several times a day, strong currents from Barataria Waterway and Bay, Bayou Rigaud and the Gulf itself converge in a channel that in some places is as deep as 150 feet.

It is a smorgasbord for fin and feather.

There are dozens -- scores -- possibly hundreds of dolphins in and around the pass. Oddly, I have yet to see one longer than about 5 feet. They are noticeably smaller and darker than the same species in the Coastal Bend and in South Texas.

I've seen more brown pelicans here than anywhere in Louisiana, and there is a colony of black skimmers on Fifi Island, just across the bayou. There also appear to be some scattered black mangroves, which is interesting.

Herring and ring-billed gulls, along with my old familiars laughing gulls abound, and often soar along next to us at wheelhouse level as we come through the pass.

Offshore, there are quite a few northern gannets, members of the booby family. These striking birds are ungainly in the water, as on land, and it's apparently a great effort for them to make a long, paddling take-off.

Often I catch sight of them frantically swimming out of the way of the boat, tails wagging rapidly. *The Northern Gannet photo is courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Mighty Voice?

My friend Vince sent me the following the other day via email. It's by Lucy Maud Montgomery, a Prince Edward Islander (and author of Anne of Green Gables):

The woods are never solitary—they are full of whispering, beckoning, friendly life. But the sea is a mighty soul, forever moaning of some great, unshareable sorrow, which shuts it up into itself for all eternity…The woods call to us with a hundred voices, but the sea has one only—a mighty voice that drowns our souls in its majestic music. The woods are human, but the sea is of the company of the archangels.

Beautifully written, but I find myself thinking: Maybe ... maybe not.

I think mostly maybe not.

My experience is that the sea has many moods and many voices. At times the ocean roars mightily, but other times she whispers, sighs and even laughs merrily. For all that, the sea is vast and sometimes seems quite alien; it feels, to me, very much akin to the vastness of an unpeopled desert, the not-quite-emptiness of an unlit night sky spangled with other worlds.

It's a damned handy thing that homo sapiens is such an adept tool-maker.With 71 percent of the planet's surface covered in salt water, I find boats to be a clever and necessary adaptation.

In Which We Clear the Air, Encounter Reduced Visibility and Consider the (W)Retchedness of Passengers

I have a good friend who has just started a new job with a big consulting firm. He has been the number two guy at a smaller consulting company for years now, where he managed projects for one of the energy majors as well as a number of smaller organizations. It was pretty low-stress.

I asked him this week how the new gig is going.

"It's kicking my ass," he said. "The last two days I've worked 7:30 to midnight."

He told me earlier it's a steep learning curve, and moving faster than he's been used to in the past couple of years. It will undoubtedly, he said, get easier.

Not a lot unlike coming to a new company and a new boat in a new field working for a new customer.

The first nine days at my new job were pretty tough. The last five, much better.

A big part of that was a heart-to-heart with the first captain (post-g-d-coffeepot). Turns out he made some assumptions about what I was and wasn't willing to do on the boat and I made some assumptions about the way he wanted things done. We agreed to start over.

There's a lot to appreciate about this guy: he's an excellent boat handler and seems to be a very competent and knowledgeable mariner; he works and gets dirty with the crew; he has high standards and expects everyone else on the boat to meet them.

I'm sure I can learn some valuable things from him.

It probably helps our relationship that over the first hitch I didn't hit anything, didn't hurt anyone, and the job got done correctly and on-time. I stood my last five watches solo and without interference.

Over the weekend lower temps and higher dewpoints led do the development of patchy fog across our field. Fortunately, I didn't encounter any on my watch coming or going from the dock, but we were enveloped in the cold, damp, opaque mess one morning upon arrival to one of our drilling rigs.

At one point I had maybe a boat length of visibility. The answer: slow down, pay close attention to the radar, and use the radio a little more.

Monday, headed out on an evening run with six lifts and four passengers, I turned the helm over to my deckhand once we cleared the channel and ducked down to the galley for a cup of coffee.

On my way down, I noticed one of our passengers stand up unsteadily, sweat beading on his face. By the time I came back up the stairs he was loudly puking in the topside head.

I prefer passengers vomit outside, but this poor guy was non-stop and wouldn't have made it out the door to the back deck.

Through a process of elimination (he couldn't actually speak, just nod or shake his head between upchucks), I determined that he was going to a production platform and what his name was.

Unfortunately for him, drilling pays our bills and production is always the last stop. As the sounds of violent vomiting continued, I made some calls on the radio and altered course. We got him off first.

The deckhand and I did have some evil fun predicting which waves would set-off a new round: "Oh man, this one's going to get him ...." immediately followed by loud retching and the sound of the toilet flushing.

I've sometimes heard young guys boast they "never get seasick," as if it's some sort of test of manhood. And while I've never been more than a bit queasy myself, I'm pretty sure it has a lot to do with an individual's own physiology (the inner ear and all that) and not much to do with experience, courage or fortitude.

In fact, I know a couple of men who are career mariners and boat owners who have, all their lives, become ill in a light chop. They deal with it pharmaceutically and carry on.

The new boat is busy, busy. We run as much as 20 hours some days, and in the two weeks I was aboard we never ran less than 10 hours in a day.

That's a change from my last job working production for Apache, where we rarely ran more than 10 hours a day and often less, except of course for the long trip out to the field and grocery deliveries at the beginning of the week.

Apache production typically works only during daylight hours, too, while drilling is around-the-clock and some rig crew changes occur at midnight.

Busy is good; it makes the hitch pass quickly.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Goddamned Coffeepot

The wind has finally laid down some, a real favor to this boat -- a "big 135" with a measly 2,800 horses and no thruster. Not that I've ever used a thruster on a crewboat, but still ...

This morning, at our fourth stop of the run, the first captain came storming up the wheelhouse stairs, shoved me out of the way and said: "I'm going to school you ..." I was, he said, making the deckhands uptight.

The indictment read as follows: throttle jockeying, rushing from rig to rig, dumping gears.

Hey, it's his boat and he has the right to insist it is run the way he wants it run. But I'm no throttle jockey. And I sure as hell wasn't throwing the sticks down on the dash with an audible "clack" as he demonstrated; I don't even hold the throttles in a way that would make that possible.

I may not be doing everything exactly the way he wants on this boat yet, but I sure wasn't doing everything wrong, which was his strong implication.

A little later, he rushed up the steps again.

"This is the second morning in a row the coffeepot hasn't been set up. On this boat, you have to set the coffee pot up for the next watch."

"Okay, I got that," I said.

"Well, why wasn't it done? This is the second time. It was set up for you!"

"Probably because I'm still drinking coffee, and it's not even 1100. You come on watch at noon, right? Also, I've been driving the boat for the last five hours."

"It's got to be set up when I wake up," he clarifies. "If I get up before [the engineer], if that coffee is more than 20 minutes old, I dump it out and make a fresh pot for him. We don't drink old coffee."

"Okay, [his name -- rhymes with "Dick"], so what time do you usually get up?"

"It depends, but usually by 8 or 8:30."

"Okay," I say. "I guess I'll stop drinking coffee by 0700, just to be safe, and make sure the pot is set up for you."

"Look," he says, voice rising, "That's just the way it is on this boat, the way it's been for the past 13 years. If you can't get with the program I'll throw the goddamned coffeepot overboard!"

Alrighty then.

Oddly, that's the longest exchange I've had with this guy. The other day, in an effort to make small talk, maybe find a connection, I asked: "So, what kind of bike do you have?"

I got a one-word reply: "Harley." Then he walked away.

I could have guessed that much, given that he was wearing a Harley t-shirt.

Does it matter? <shrug> I dunno. In the end I'm here for a paycheck, and for the sea time. I'm always hoping to learn something new and improve my skills. It would be really nice if my weeks on the boat also were pleasant, interesting, or even (from time to time) fun.

After the goddamned coffeepot conversation, I was ready to go.

"Man," I said to a friend, "this just isn't going to work."

I decided instead to sleep on it, and now I just don't know. We'll see how I feel come Tuesday, I guess.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Quick Impressions

Day four on the new boat, and I'm headed off watch and to the rack. I lost most of my second day on the boat to a violent bout of food poisoning, or a stomach bug, or some such. It was a real bummer.

Here are a few quick impressions ....

The boat doesn't look 13 years old. She's been well-maintained and the owners continue to invest in her.

She also is, as advertised, under-powered, under-ruddered and under-wheeled. That doesn't make it impossible to operate this vessel (in 13 years she's been without a job just three days), but it does make this boat very different from my last boat.

So, I'm back in learning mode.

We're supporting three drilling rigs (with favors to production as needed) in the West Delta field, running out of Grand Isle, La. Grand Isle is very literally the end of the road. Well, the road ends in the state park, but I can see it from the wheelhouse.

Barataria Pass and Bayou Rigaud are a lot easier than the Eugene Island Channel and the Atchafalaya.

It takes us about an hour-and-a-half to run the 20+ miles offshore to our rigs, and we're back at the dock a couple of times a day.

My phone works everywhere here, and so far as I know none of the minutes I'm using are costing me $.79 ea. 

AT&T, you never loved me anyway.

As usual, I'm missing the kiddos. Especially Son Number One, who turns 14 tomorrow. Other than that, though ... so far, so good. More soon.