Friday, November 22, 2013

Am I SAD, or is this SWD?

It's about that point in the hitch where I'm just feeling down. Tired, a little beat-up, disconnected from the family back home. And we're not yet halfway through. Which kind of sucks.

Of course, it could be the weather.

No easy slide into the season on the Third Coast; down here, it's binary: summer/winter. Very often within the same week. Sometimes in the same day.

Winter comes in spurts down here, sweeping down from the Midwest in a bluster or the Arctic in a gale that has us cussing and complaining for a couple of days, followed by high pressure, which we like.

Rinse and repeat through mid-March, at least.

At home, my wife notices cold fronts because they bring a little rain or the temperatures drop. Out here we notice the wind and the building seas.

"While you're feeling chilly," I tell her, "I'm getting bounced around like a ping-pong ball that escaped the table."

Sixty miles of fetch and a steep slope to the sea floor make for some nasty waves out where we work. It sucks.

On the days it's not howling or we aren't sitting under a ridge of high pressure, we often have low, thick fog caused by warm air wafting across the cooler water of the Mississippi River and the nearshore continental shelf. 

I'm reasonably adept at operating the radars, and endorsed to do so, but I do not like running in fog. I do not like it one bit. It sucks.

I'm working dark 'til dark, 1800-0600, which because of the season means I can go most of a week without seeing natural light. That pretty much sucks, too.

As the days become shorter and the weather keeps folks bundled-up and indoors, people everywhere begin to suffer from something called Seasonal Affective Disorder, or so I read.

I think I may be suffering a touch of that now, or it may just be the South Louisiana strain of Shitty Weather Disorder.

Saturday, November 2, 2013


When I was brand spanking new to this career, it was not unusual for me to show up to the boat with a milk crate full of books.

I would like to say I read voraciously, but in fact it's more like "indiscriminately." I read good books and I read crap books. Fiction and non-fiction. Escapist entertainments and prize-winning literature. Sometimes I read professional references.

One night a couple of weeks ago I overheard an exchange over the radio between a captain on one of the boats that also works for our customer and a captain on another boat. It was all about books.

That radio exchange resulted in the gifting of a large box of reportedly high-quality hardbacks to the boat that frequently ties-up next to us. I've been invited over to find something I'd like to read.

At some point over the last couple of years, I discovered the Kindle. It's magic. Bookstores are few and far between in South Louisiana, but with a 4G wi-fi connection, I can download the latest releases in seconds.

I still go to sea with dozens of books, but now most of them are on my e-reader and, sadly, not readily shareable.

Looking at my Kindle now, here are a few I can recommend:

Storm Front by John Sandford. This is the latest in Sandford's Virgil Flowers series, and like all of the author's Minnesota-set thrillers, a fun read.

Deceived, by Randy Wayne White. A spin-off from the Doc Ford series that features fishing guide and PI Hannah Smith. The writing is less consistently terrific than in the Doc Ford novels, but it's still good.

Never Go Back, by Lee Child. Jack Reacher is one of the great characters of recent adventure fiction. I refuse to see the horribly miscast movie.

I discovered Justin Cronin, a creative writing teacher at Houston's Rice University, through his science fiction stories. He has also written some literary fiction of note, including: Mary and O'Neil and The Summer Guest. I especially enjoyed the latter.

I think I'm all caught up on Martin Cruz Smith's (Gorky Park) Arkady Renko novels now. I recently read Wolves Eat Dogs, Red Square and Three Stations. Renko is another great fictional character.

Drive up and down Hwy 90 in South Louisiana long enough, and you'll see the name "Robichaux" pretty frequently. James Lee Burke's series featuring the Iberia Parish sheriff's detective by the same name blurs the line between genre entertainment and high-brow literature.

Burke's bio led me to the work of his cousin, the famed short story writer Andre Dubus. I just finished his Selected Stories and will be looking for more.

I find I have quite a few Jim Harrison books on my Kindle. I guess that's because, over the past 12 months or so, Harrison has become hands-down my favorite living writer, maybe my favorite writer period. Maybe you know him from Legends of the Fall.

Harrison is sort of Bukowski-Hemingway-Zane Grey all rolled-up together. Perhaps a bit more honorable than any of them, come to think of it. Start anywhere (the collections of novellas -- something like The River Swimmer would give you a good taste) but at some point also pick up his memoir, Off to the Side.

I recently finished the trade paperback version of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. The pace of this epistolary novel had been described as "elegaic," and I would say that's about right. 

It's almost a ... meditation or prayer, I guess. It took me a while to "get into" the story, but before long I found myself looking forward to the end of my watch so I could get back to it.

For recommendations on professional (or at least related) reading, I often refer back to a thread on the gCaptain forum called "Books in Your Library."

I can heartily recommend Max Hardberger's Freighter Captain and Seized. The latter has received more press, but the former is a better read, I think. It also happens to be available only as an e-book.

The Voyage of the Rose City by the late John Moynihan is a great read, and well-worth picking up. In the same vein, I am re-reading the John McPhee classic, Looking for a Ship.

In hardback, I've been carrying around (and sometimes even referring to) Nigel Calder's Marine Diesel Engines: Maintenance, Troubleshooting and Repair. Mechanics of any kind not being my strong suite, I take whatever help I can find, wherever I can find it. Calder's book is geared more toward yachties, and powerplants somewhat smaller than the massive Cats that drive my boat. 

Still, a diesel engine is a diesel engine and this straightforward book is helpful.

In hopes of getting a jump on celestial navigation, and upon the recommendation of someone on gCaptain, I recently purchased the paperback version of A Star to Steer Her By by Edward Bergin.

For the edification (and education) of the entire crew, I recently ordered the Sibley Guide to Birds and Hoese and Moore's Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico.They live near the chart table for quick reference.

My father sent me a copy of At All Costs: How a Crippled Ship and Two American Merchant Mariners Turned the Tide of World War II. I enjoyed it very much. So much, I paid it forward to a friend who works as a captain for another company. He was able to stern-up next to us in Fourchon long enough to take possession.

I'm a fan of Nelson DeMille's writing and looked forward all summer to The Quest, an expansion and rewriting of an early novel and the only thing I haven't yet read. It was an all-around disappointment and I can't help wondering if perhaps his best work is now behind him.

I enjoy the mindless adventure of Clive Cussler's books, and I'm not the only fan on the boat. I'll be taking a stack of Cussler and Hiasson and whatever else I can find that I think others might enjoy back with me in about 10 days.

In a milk crate, of course.

Friday, November 1, 2013

A Pod of Whales

Our regular run out to the field takes us nearly two hours, the first 45 minutes of which is through the Port of Venice, up and across the Mississippi River and through one of the river's many passes.

Black dots show sperm whale distribution.
When we turn out to the southeast, we show only about 10 feet of water under the keel. That number grows only gradually, until we reach what must be a pretty steep slope in the underlying shelf. The depth goes from about 30 feet to 125 feet in the space of a couple of miles.

The Mississippi Delta is a fascinating place for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that -- for reasons I haven't taken the time to discover -- sperm whales sometimes show up there.

Other whales are resident in the Gulf of Mexico as well, including pilot whales, pygmy sperm whales, right whales (a mother and her calf took a little side trip up the Corpus Christi Ship Channel a while ago) and even orcas.

My most common cetacean encounters though are with dolphins -- Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and Atlantic spotted dolphins.

So imagine my excitement early one morning a few weeks ago when a captain on another boat mentioned the pod of whales up ahead of us.

The other boat, a supply vessel, was also making its way out toward our field. In the pre-dawn murk, I called ahead and asked the captain if I could overtake him on "the two," that is, come around his port side.

"No problem, cap," he replied. "Y'all have a good morning."

Then, almost as an afterthought: "Y'all going around that pod of whales up there?"

Pod of whales? What?!

My first thought was: "Why are there whales in such shallow water?"

My second thought was: "How does he know there is a pod of whales up head of us in the dark? Does someone track them and then broadcast their location?"

My third thought was: "Does he have some sort of whale-detecting equipment on his boat? That's weird ..."

I called him back: "Say again?"

"I was just wondering if y'all are going to go around the north end of that pod of whales up ahead," he said. "I usually just go all the way around because they're so close together."

Oh. I see: pod of .... wells.

He was talking about the dense cluster of satellites on our course.

Later the same day, I tell the other captain on our boat the story.

He looked at me strangely: "But I saw a whale today," he said. "It had barnacles all over its back and a big ol' tail, which came all the way out of the water before he went down."

He then proceeded to tell me about other whale sightings.

Should I be so fortunate to see a whale, or even a pod of whales, I'm pretty sure I won't be going around them. I will, though, wake everyone on the boat so they can see them too.