It occurred to me today that as we get older and time passes by, adventures we have had, seem to blend together until they seem like just one big blur. Getting older before you’re ready really sucks. I decided I’d better do something about it before all the memories faded away. So putting what I can still remember down on paper seemed like a good idea. I figured by now I would be writing my daily log from some far away island and reflecting on the great experience of the day and how they relate to the adventures of my youth. But we know how the saying goes…….. Shit Happens.
Things sure haven’t worked out in my life the way I thought they would, but so far, I still have the dream. I guess without our dreams, we would have nothing to look forward to. I’m currently living aboard my sailboat, waiting for the day I can throw off those dock lines and sail south, a date that seems to continually being pushed out. Moving onto the boat was actually very premature; however it has given me the opportunity to become more involved in learning what it will really be like once the dock is behind me.
I doubt I’m the first to find out that the dream of living on your boat changes once the move really takes place. You learn what you need and what you really don’t need. For anyone that doesn’t live aboard they really would find it hard to understand. Why would someone in their right mind purposely move into a space the size of a large walk-in closet? I guess this would be easier for you and me to understand if I was writing this from some secluded anchorage at a beautiful island closer to the equator.
When I bought Drifters Reef a few years ago, I thought she would be the in between boat. The boat to fix up and have fun with until the right boat for a couple to cruise on became a reality. Well, I no longer feel I need to be a couple to go cruising, just better equipped and prepared. Not that I don’t still have the dream of going cruising with a great woman beside me, just not sure I’ll meet the woman that is willing to give up all the ease and trappings that come with living on land.
I have no doubt the vessel can handle the trip if properly prepared, but the thought of going cruising solo, adds a whole new wrinkle to the endeavor. So for now, prepare, prepare, prepare and write the story I had planned. There will always be time to add the new adventures.
IN THE BEGINNING
At an early age my parents introduced me to the ocean. When I was only a few days old I was flown to my new home right on the coast of Newfoundland to live while my dad flew the artic circle; sea air is good for the body, and it may have had some lasting effects.
When I was a few years older, we moved south to Charleston. We had a next door neighbor that owned an old wooden motor yacht. I remember my first trip offshore. It was with our next door neighbors aboard the “SS Minnow”. Ok, it was probably a very good boat considering the year this happened. Fiberglass was still not very widely used in the boat industry. We went out for the day to cruise the bay and do a little crabbing. I'm sure it was a glorious day...just don't remember more than just going. I do know we caught a bunch of Blue Crab and my parents had a great meal when we got them home.
We soon moved to Houston and by the time I was in high school, you couldn't keep me away from the beach. Not that Galveston was much of a beach, it was what we had. Eventually I discovered Surfside, the hangout for all the 3rd coast surfers stranded too far from the jetties of Port A or Port Isabel. But the surf was usable, especially if you had the fortitude to hit it as a strong cold front came in or while a hurricane sat offshore.
This was about the time my Dad surprised me with my first boat. He was still flying in the Air Force and had shifted his operational area to southeast Asia. He had returned from a flight to the Pacific with an honest to goodness dug out canoe, complete with bamboo outriggers. It was honed from a single Mahogany tree and sealed with black pitch. What a site that boat was. It looked just like something out of a movie. We worked on that boat the best we could, just never could get ahead of it...and with what I know today about boats, what I wouldn't give to have that boat back today. That boat eventually got sold, as all boats eventually do.
Next he brought home a small wood runabout with a Johnson outboard motor, never will know how he talked my mom into that boat. We worked that boat over and finally the day came to launch it. We hauled it up to Lake Houston and wouldn’t you know it, we left the plug out and sank the damn thing. Don’t actually ever remember doing much with that boat other than cleaning it and getting it ready for the trip that never came.
Well, now we were getting to be pros at this. Next would come an Invader ski boat, what a chick magnet that was. This was way before the day of go-fast boats. It was a bow rider with a brown metal-flake paint job. After all, it was the early 1970’s. By now I was really starting to pay attention. No more sinkings for me, I read everything I could find about taking care of that boat. The last thing I wanted to do was have an incident in front of a girl. I didn’t even like people wearing shoes on the carpet. I remember dumping my girl friend at the time, because she burnt the seat with a cigarette, I didn’t smoke and she had to go! Never did get that seat fixed.
Once I started getting real comfortable on the boat, still not realizing how little I knew, I decided to try Galveston Bay. All was a fine cruise until a massive storm rolled in and everyone onboard was getting sea sick. The day started out beautiful, but soon turned beyond nasty. I learned a new lesson that day; check the weather forecast before you go into open water for the day, also that shallow water gets real rough in a storm. Not sure why that boat got sold, I guess interest just went down; was a great ski boat though.
I soon graduated high school and joined the Air Force and took a break from boating. Years later while bartending and going to college, I landed in Clear Lake Texas, and trust me, it isn’t clear. But I was living on the water and my room mate had a little go fast boat, “Wind Me Up”. What a way to live. A condo right on the water, a boat in a slip steps from your front door and hot and cold running girls, I hated leaving to go to work.
One day while I was out at the community pool, a guy I’d meet around the pool, sailed up and asked me to help him tie up at the dock. We were throwing back a few cold ones when he told me his dilemma. He was scheduled to be in a race on Saturday and his partner had gotten sick. He needed ballast. Considering my limited boating experience and my non- existent sailing experience, that’s about all I was good for. He did, however, insist that I learn the basics, just in case I had to pick him up if he fell overboard or bring the boat back to the dock by myself.
Well, I must say that was a life changing experience. I was hooked. That little Nacra cat hauled butt, and it only took one trip. We flew around that race course, sometimes on just one hull. How exciting it was for someone that had never sailed. We didn’t win the race, but you’d have thought we had just won the Americas Cup by the size of the party we had afterwards. I started hitching rides on sailboats any chance I could.
Before long the single, carefree life came to an end and marriage came into my life. The lucky thing was that my new wife loved boating, especially sailing. Things were a lot better than I realized at the time, she’s no longer my wife. Now, she owns a sailboat, it’s twice the size of mine and lives and sails in paradise. I guess I should have paid closer attention to what I had, but, we all get stupid sometime.
A few years before I was married, I had purchased my first sailboat, a Cal 20. I kept the boat were I had purchased it, Canyon Lake. I had gotten’ a hell of a deal from the owner, as well as some lessons to get me going. The boat was on a mooring and worked out great as a weekend retreat. My first wife, before she was my first wife, and I had sailed this little gem many times on Canyon Lake, but now married, moved it to Clear Lake, yes we decided to live on the water, were else.
She had gotten a job as an elementary school teacher in the local school, and I was going to start a marine repair business.
We would sail our boat once in a while, but now we had access to boats of all types. We would crew on any boat we could get a ride on. She sailed J-24’s in winter races, I’d sail the Wednesday night rum races, and our boating life was in full swing.
Shortly after we were married, I had started the marine maintenance business with her college roommates’ husband, one of 2 or 3 in the lake area. I was working at all the local marinas, hanging at the Yacht Club for happy hour and we were becoming part of the local sailing community. Everyone you met had a boat bigger than yours, but the access it created was incredible. Sailing on big boats became a routine part of life. Day trips on Galveston Bay or overnights up and down the coast, were the order of the day.
THE FIRST CROSSING
Sailing was now just part of everyday life. My first real offshore experience came when I was invited to fly to Ft Lauderdale to sail back to Clear Lake aboard a 36 foot sailboat I had commissioned for the owner of one of the local yacht dealers in Clear Lake. Seems he had sold it to a gentleman from Houston that had never been offshore, and was ready to experience the open ocean. Little did I know what crossing the Gulf, east to west, in January was like?
I packed a quick bag and headed to Ft Lauderdale, having no idea what to expect. My first trip to south Florida in many years was spectacular. As soon as we enjoyed a few days of Florida boat show parties, it was time to head home. The crew divided up a long list of provisions we would need and set out in different directions. After a few miss-starts, and a few return trips to the grocery store, it was time to go. Just before sunset we dropped the lines and headed for the jetties. We put the lights of Ft Lauderdale behind us, turned south and out into the dark Atlantic we went.
MY FIRST NIGHT OFFSHORE
The run to Key West took all night. We did our best to stay out of the Gulf Stream since it really got rough if you got too far offshore. Close to shore gave you better time over the bottom and a smoother ride, the better choice with a crew of greenhorns.
It was unbelievable. The sky was completely cloudless, we had a full moon and you could see the lights of south Florida. Jimmy Buffett was playing on the stereo and we had all the beer we could drink. Unfortunately we also had all the Mountain Dew we could drink. It seems someone misunderstood the term drinks, and only bought the type of drink they liked. So we had 10 cases of Coors and 10 cases of Mountain Dew. Till this day, I still can’t drink Mountain Dew.
We ran all night and I don’t think I shut my eyes once. Earlier, the new owner’s wife had prepared some dinner, and it wasn’t long before the smells coming from the galley just enhanced the experience. You have no idea how good a simple dinner can taste until you eat it in the cockpit of a sailboat, under moonlight, miles offshore.
After dinner and a few cold ones, the new owner’s turned in, but not me. I wasn’t going to miss one glorious moment of this night.
MY FIRST LANDFALL
We made the turn to catch the Key West channel just as the sun was coming up, what an amazing experience, my first sunrise at sea. It was even better than the first sunset offshore I had seen the night before. We dropped the sails and motored up the channel headed for the Key West Yacht Club. I had visited Key West a number of years back by car, but this was the only way to arrive in Key West.
Our Captain, Wayne, was a Yacht Club member so we had no problem securing a spot to tie up for a few days and get ready for the week long trip across the Gulf to Galveston. By day we readied the boat and by night took in all that Key West had to offer. We partied at Cap’n Tony’s Saloon and most every other bar in town. By the third day the boat was ready and we had to leave our paradise behind.
MY FIRST GULF CROSSING
A massive cold front was predicted to make its way thru the US and down as far as south Florida. We knew we would get caught in it and Wayne wanted to get into deep water before it hit us. We left Key West behind us on a perfect day for sailing, sunny skies and a light breeze from the southeast. The captain set our watch schedule and we were underway. With a down hill run, sailing was easy. I was having so much fun, I hated to hit the rack, but four days of extreme excitement was starting to take its toll.
I was awoken just before sunset for dinner. I came on deck just in time to see another fantastic sunset. I grabbed my camera and shot another dozen sunset shots. Little did I know that after the trip, I’d never be able to identify one fantastic sunset picture from another. After another tasty dinner it was time for my watch. We had reduced the sails before dinner, so as the moon started to rise and as the wind started to die, we decided to run on the engine for awhile. Just before my watch was over, we got a light breeze and killed the engine. As the moon set, we were hitting all of 2 to 3 knots, but we were moving.
The next morning I awoke to the sound of the engine chugging along. We were off the coast of the Dry Tortugas and the seas were like glass. After some breakfast, I took the watch with a friend I had brought with me from Clear Lake. Tom would do work for me from time to time, and had always wanted to try an offshore trip. He knew his way around a boat and was strong as an ox and I knew he might come in handy, even if he had never been offshore either. He had spent some years as a lumberjack in northern California, was about 5 foot 5, and could probably lift a car off someone in a pinch.
A few hours after lunch, the temperature got stifling hot. I decided it was time to take a break, rest the engine and take a quick swim to cool off. We hadn’t done very well at keeping to the schedule, since everyone wanted wheel time. We would soon learn how important that schedule was. Tom shut down the engine and over the side we went.
The new owner and his wife thought we had lost our minds, and Wayne was still down below sleeping. He had been a Marine before getting into the boat business, and I think he could have slept anywhere at anytime no matter how hot it got. Tom was the first over the side and said the water was great. As I stood on the fantail, ready to take the plunge, I spotted what looked like the discharge from the blowhole of a whale in the distance. I doubt it was, but who knew at this point. It had to be at least a couple of miles away, so no big deal and over the side I went. The water felt great. I had brought my mask with me and began swimming around under the boat.
It didn’t take long for me to feel very uneasy. We were in about 800 feet of water, miles and miles from shore, in the Gulf of Mexico, and I didn’t see a single living thing in the water, just endless blue. Wondering if I might look like lunch to some miss guided shark or other creature from the deep, I quickly exited the water, not to return. It seems funny now when I look back at it. The surfing I’d done earlier in my life was far more dangerous when it came to sharks; I was just too young and stupid to care.
While the smell of dinner was still fresh in the air, the wind finally returned. We had a great sail that night, a great downhill run on a broad reach with moderate winds and gentle seas. One of the many things I learned on that trip was probably one of the most important. While dinner was being prepared, Wayne required all hands to secure the boat inside and shorten sail. It would slow your progress, but make for a much more enjoyable evening, and he knew that you always had a chance of the winds coming up after the sun went down. He couldn’t have guessed it better. All through my watch, the winds continued to build, as did the seas. The boat was humming along at 6 to 7 knots and performing like a thoroughbred, when it came time for my shift to end.
That night all hell broke loose. Seas eventually built to about 12 to 15 feet out of the south and things were getting really stinky. We eventually had to add the second reef to the main, hoping that would slow down some of the surfing.
Finally I got to hit the rack for some much needed sleep. It was my turn at the aft cabin bunk, and sleep was good. During the night, with Wayne at the wheel, we passed through the front. By the time the sun had come up, the wind had switched to the northwest, was blowing about 40 knots right on the nose, and standing the seas up all around us. When I awoke, or was awoken as it was, I could tell things weren’t good. The boat was slamming into something over and over. Never having been offshore in a storm, I just didn’t get it. I also noticed the engine wasn’t running, and Wayne was a stickler for running the engine every morning to charge the batteries. I struggled out of my berth and into the main salon only to find a boat full of sickies.
Tom and the owners were all sea sick. I poked my head up thru the companionway to find out it was about 40 degrees colder than when I’d gone to bed. I let Wayne know I was up and would be on deck after I changed from summer to winter cloths and get in my foul weather gear. Once on deck, I was amazed how much things had changed, I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. To say it was ugly was an understatement. I’d never seen anything like it.
We would surf down the face of one wave, only to smash thru the next. We spent the next 36 hours getting the crap kicked out of us. Slamming from crest to crest of the southeast swells was soon replaced with slamming headlong into 10 to 12 foot seas from the northwest. The look of the sea was amazing. The color had actually become brighter. A frothy green tint had over taken everything as far as you could see.
Soon the issue with the engine became the most important part of the morning. The engine had gotten air bubbles in the fuel line shortly after Wayne had fired it up that morning, so sailing was all we had at this point. Wayne was content to hang onto the wheel while I went below to get the engine running, after all, I had built all the mechanical systems for the boat, so it was only fitting I should be the one with diesel all over him. But I had a little trick up my sleeve for this problem. I had installed an automotive inline fuel pump before the first time I had fired up the engine, as a way to prime the Racor fuel filter. I had left it behind, just in case. Little did I know how important it would turn out to be? After a few wiring changes, I powered up the pump, primed the engine and fired the Yanmar back to life.
Once the wind died down it was just cold. The trip was now a winter outing. We finally got a chance to have some warm food and make an attempt to put the interior of the boat back together. It seems no matter how good you think you have stowed things away, things still end up on the cabin sole.
The rest of the trip was spectacular. The southerly’s filled back in and the warm breeze felt great. The front behind us, the boat spent most days on the spinnaker. The night I remember the most was the night that at about 11pm, I caught a bounce on the radio and listened to the San Antonio Spurs game. We were still 2 days out of Galveston.
The sight of the jetties off Galveston was quite a site for everyone. We had survived the crossing and all were the better for the experience. The next day we tied up at the Lakewood Yacht Club, said our goodbyes and the adventure was over.
THE TIME FOR CHANGE
Soon I was making regular trips across the Gulf of Mexico to Florida or Mexico, moving boats from ports far away back home to Clear Lake. Attending the rum races on Wednesday nights or just going out to watch the sunset was just a regular part of life. It’s about this time that I got the chance to enter a race from Corpus Christi to Galveston on a 51’ sloop. It was an overnight race and I thought it would be interesting to be in a race that lasted more that a couple hours. During that trip, I realized, racing was not my cup of tea. I guess I had really felt it coming anyway, just too much yelling. When that race ended, I never raced competitively again. Don’t get me wrong, it was exciting and downright interesting. I learned things racing that I may not have learned after years of sailing.
That seemed to be a turning point in not just my racing life, but life in general. My business partner had lost his mind and left the state to pursue what he saw as a better opportunity with a woman other than his wife. My marriage fell apart due to my stupidity, and I got divorced. Before long I remarried, moved inland, and my life on the water seemed to fade away.
After about a year of trying to run my business from too far away, I shut down what remained of the business and became a landlubber. Now living in Houston, the smell of the sea became fainter and fainter. Even though I tried to hang on after I re-married, even sailing away from the Clear Lake Hilton hotel in grand style after my wedding, the life of a mariner didn’t feel right, life had changed.
I did still make a few deliveries from time to time, even got to tangle with a hurricane in the Gulf, but my life on the sea was fading. Now with 2 kids and a new wife, being a businessman in Austin seemed like a good change of direction. So the business was closed, house sold and kids and stuff packed. We were off to start a new life in Austin and I thought I was ready for a change.
AUSTIN CRUISE LINES
After several attempts to find an Austin business to take over or reopen, WESTEND night club was formed. An Italian restaurant had been the original direction, but funds became the issue. After a short 18 months, and several situations with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, the club luckily became a dream. The nightclub business is not the ideal business for a couple with young kids. During these tough days, my dad found out about a boat that might be perfect for the Lake Travis area. And he was correct, just a few years ahead of his time.
I had driven back to Clear Lake to meet him at the Hilton marina, not having a clue what he had in mind. When I arrived, I realized we were going to attend an IRS auction at the hotel. He walked me out to the marina and down the piers to the boat, and what a boat. We were standing in front of a 65’ custom built excursion boat. We had about an hour before the auction and not nearly enough time to know what we were getting into if we bought this boat, but the decision was made, we wanted the boat and proceeded to get it.
The first thing we needed to do was get this monster out of the water and see what we had gotten ourselves into. I made arrangements to bring it over to the boatyard I had previously used when running Liberty Yacht Service and off we went. Having hauled dozens of boats, this was just another day at the office.
Once on the hard, the shock set in. Water was pouring out of the bottom of the stern in massive amounts. There seemed to be several cracks in the bottom of the boat, not good since the boat was made of aluminum. It seems the boat had been being kept afloat by the bilge pumps. Once we had pulled into the haul out slip, I had shut down the power, allowing the bilge to quickly start to fill with water.
Over the next three weeks, things only got more interesting. One bent shaft, two bent wheels, the genset didn’t run; only one air conditioner was getting power and the list kept growing. Thanks to a little help from one of my buddies at the yard, it was decided that the best way to solve the problem with the seven large cracks in the bottom was to weld new plates to the bottom of the boat. So several thousands of dollars later, the back third of the boat had a new bottom skin and she was ready for her new bottom job.
I was already blue from grinding off bottom paint from the bottom, so being covered in blue paint just meant we were getting closer to splashing the Capri I.
As I stood on the dock watching the travel lift lower Capri I back into the muddy waters of Clear Lake, I wandered what lay ahead and how soon the boat would be ready to move to Austin and Lake Travis.
After several months of enjoying the boat with the family, it was time to make the move and Austin Cruise Lines was born. The move to Lake Travis was quite the adventure. The trip took three days and required a police escort most of the way. The launching on Lake Travis made a splash across the newspapers and before long we were ready for the charter business. The big problem, Austin wasn’t ready for a second charter boat on the lake. The Lakeway Inn had its own day charter boat and selling against a hotel presented some real problems. They weren’t restrained by needing to make much of a profit, if any. They kept their boat at the hotel marina so no slip rent and had the food catered from the hotel kitchen. We did however have more fun on our cruises and word got around. We were getting bookings from as far away as Chicago, but never enough to keep the bills covered. We struggled for too long and finally had to sell the boat and end the adventure.
Well there I was, the club had taken a dump, the charter business was done, I had 2 little kids, and the bills were still coming.
Then out of nowhere, came the call.
DRAWN BACK AGAIN
To my amazement, I was sucked back to the sea. Now that the times required drastic steps, I accepted a job with a company under contract to Mobil Oil running a crappy 95’ crew boat. What an eye opening experience that was. Not having the slightest idea what to expect, I meet my first assignment at the docks near Port Arthur. It was about midnight when I pulled up to the Mobil Oil Offshore Service dock. I could have never been prepared for what laid ahead of me. I had been hired as a second captain on the good ship “Piece of Crap”. I stood on the dock with my bags, wandering how this thing stayed afloat.
Answering the bellow from some old coon-ass on the back deck, I knew I must be in the right place. He barked at me to stow my gear, and “by God get your hard hat on”. Before I could get settled into my cozy little cabin, the engineer, John, had dropped by to let me know the captain was looking for me and I’d better get up to the wheelhouse. John was maybe 23 or 24, thin with long unkept hair. Later I would find out just how good of an engineer he was. By the time I answered the call, we were pulling away from the dock in fog so thick you couldn’t see the bow. The glow of the dual radar screens illuminated the wheelhouse with an eerie glow. Captain Bligh took no time making me aware of my duties. He had been up for 3 straight days, and had no interest in any BS, “just take the wheel, pay attention to the Loran waypoints, don’t hit anything, and only wake me up if we are sinking”.
Before I knew it, I was clearing the jetties, headed who knows were, and in charge of the largest boat, and the largest excuse for a boat I had ever seen. I finally felt comfortable enough on the wheel that I took a few minutes to check out the Loran waypoints. To my amazement, I was going to Grand Isle Louisiana, and at our current rate of speed it would take between 14 and 16 hours, what if I had to pee or got hungry, it’s not like you just pull thru the drive thru at McDonalds. Not to mention feeling completely alone, I was in totally unknown territory. Being a “yacht captain” rarely meant traveling in the fog, maybe if you were way offshore and came across a fog bank, but you never left the dock in the fog. And if you got to your destination and it was foggy, you’d just hang offshore until it cleared to come in. Not to mention the fact that we were only running about 10 miles offshore, just in the right spot to continually be weaving in and out of the rigs and production platforms. And if that wasn’t enough, we were taking the seas on the beam. Nothing beats running offshore, rocking side to side the whole way.
It wasn’t long before engineer John showed up with the cook. Yes, we had a cook onboard. He was an older black gentleman, maybe in his sixties with a deep back bayou accent and a name I never could pronounce, I just called him “Cookie”. He had brought some coffee, and wanted to meet the “former yacht captain”. The three of us sat and talked for a bit, then he informed us he had pies in the oven, and needed to get back before they burned. Maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad after all. The engineer John started giving me the straight scoop on my new job, not quite the vision I had got from the interview before I got hired.
New hires always started at the bottom when it came to boat selections. Our Captain had been reassigned to this boat when the office had found out he was a diabetic and was on daily shots, which tied to his 300 plus pounds, meant he needed to stay near shore, just in case. Work shifts were 12 hours, and mine was daily from midnight to noon. That was going to lead to a tough night. Since it had taken me about 8 hours to drive from Austin, meant I would be up for at least 20 hours before I would have a chance to sleep. I was glad to know that John could spell me if I needed to get a bite to eat or go to the bathroom, so I did both.
By 3 am I was the only sole awake on the boat. The fog gave an unforgettable look to the oil platforms and rigs. They would just appear out of the dark as these wild glowing masses. Having never used two radars, it took some time to get the hang of driving without looking out the front windows. Luckily the seas remained calm the entire trip, just a gentle roll on the beam. The smell of bacon and coffee quickly brought me out of my daze. The boat was alive with activity now. It was 7am and all hands were up, including the Captain. John offered to spell me while I got some coffee and some toast while Cookie whipped up some Denver omelets. In the galley, sat the Captain, half awake, but up. I fixed myself a cup of coffee and he invited me to have a seat. You could have stood a spoon straight up in that coffee. He and Cookie got a big kick out of my reaction to the first sip. “Never have had a good cup of coon-ass coffee”? Up until then I thought I had.
I’d been to New Orleans, I had had coffee at Café’ Dumont, but it had never been like this. Now I knew how he’d stayed up for 3 days. Dupree’ didn’t seem to be the same Captain that had gone to bed the night before. I guess 3 days of no sleep makes you a little edgy. He actually seemed interested in teaching me all he could about running the boat and what my job entailed. I wouldn’t find out for about a month that the reason why was purely selfish. It seems he had not been able to leave the boat for over 4 months, since he had no one to replace him, and that was going to be me.
We finally arrived at the dock in Grand Isle, what an arm pit that place was. I had become accustom to arriving at Yacht Club docks, with waiting line tenders, million dollar yachts and beautiful women walking around. What a shock to see the other side of the boat world. Multi-million dollar commercial vessels everywhere, lines of semi-trucks waiting to unload there cargo onto waiting boats, helicopters buzzing overhead, and more activity going on than you’d see in the visitors stands during the last five minutes before the start of the Clear Lake boat races.
This was amazing, and some of these boats were huge. My shift had ended before we made it to the dock, but either from the coffee or the excitement, I just couldn’t sleep. We finally moved into our spot at the fuel dock and Jason, the deckhand, began tying up the boat. Thinking I could help, I offered to throw him a line. Little did I know, it was like throwing a large piece of concrete. The line probably weighted 40 to 50 pounds dry, and this one was wet. Everyone around got a real kick out of watching the rookie try to throw the dock line, which promptly ended up in the water. I quickly retrieved the no even wetter line and gave it another shot. It found the same location, the water. Now I was soaked and really pissed.
Eventually, Jason got tired of waiting and jumped aboard and grabbed the line. One toss of the line and the loop at the end easily captured the mooring bit on the dock. Captain Dupree barked at John to kill the engines and promptly informed me to get some sleep. That afternoon I awoke to the purr of the Detroit’s and a gentle roll. We were about five miles out and running down the coast with a 2 to 3 foot swell on the beam. Not a bad roll, but just enough to wonder why we would be riding in the trough. Seems like comfort of travel wasn’t really a consideration. The direct route was the only route. The only deviation from course was to zig zag around a rig or platform.
We were loaded with cargo boxes and headed to some production platforms right of the coast. It now occurred to me that we were no more than a delivery truck on the water. Just before sunset we arrived at our first stop. It was time for my first lesson. Captain Dupree pulled up to the platform and stopped the boat. Now stopped, he moved to the second set of controls facing the back of the vessel and smartly spun the stern to face the platform.
After years of running what I thought were big boats, I was confused by the engine control setup. The boat had 3 shift controllers and 3 throttle controllers. The night before I had noticed the set up, but not wanting to look stupid, didn’t ask about the arrangement. I assumed we had 3 engines, but didn’t really understand the complexity of how the controls would interact.
With amazing grace, Dupree worked the controls, barely touching the wheel. Two engines forward, one aft, and the wheel all the way to port. He explained as he went that the idea was to move the boat back and forth as well as side to side. He controlled the boat with just he engine throttles. It was amazing how easily he controlled the movement of the boat. Little did I know at that time that the ease had a lot to do with the sea conditions.
As we neared the platform, a crane lowered a hook to the deck and John quickly attached it to one of the cargo boxes. The box was snatched from the deck and hoisted up to the platform. While we waited for our backload, Dupree decided I should try my hand at holding the boat under the lift spot. Everyone got a big laugh watching the boat swing all over the place. It was a lot harder than it looked, but I wasn’t giving up. After some coaching, I finely got the concept, but was no were near the lift spot. It seems once the current pushes you far enough off your spot, there’s no easy way to get back.
Dupree had me back away from the platform and take another shot at it. Once I was able to point the stern into the wind and readjust our position, I backed up to the lift spot. I finally was able to hold the boat where we needed to be and we radioed the crane operator to drop his load. It was huge bags of trash. In addition to being a cargo truck that floated, now we were a floating trash truck.
Over the next few days, Dupree gave me plenty of chances to practice maneuvering the boat. Any platform we passed was an opportunity to practice. Learning how to drive stern first was a whole new experience that seemed easier than it really was and was only complicated by the need to use 3 engines. Little did I know how much more complicated it would get when I would add a fourth engine. About 3 weeks later, Dupree was gone and I was on my own.
Over the next 10 months I found out what sleep deprivation can do to your attitude about life. The company I was working for seemed to believe that a boat of this size and so close to port, really only needed one captain. I was able to get a few one week vacations away from the boat, but it was mostly 24/7.
THE NEXT STEP
Finally the call I’d been waiting for came. I was told to drive to a shipyard in Bayou Le Batrey and be prepared to take a second in command position on a new boat that was being launched in a week. After getting lost several times, I arrived at the shipyard and found my way to the main office. To my surprise, John was sitting in the office when I arrived. Seems he had been promised the same thing…..the next new boat off the ways.
As John and I walked thru the yard he told me how excited he was and how great the boat was. As we turned the corner of the building I was shocked to see my new assignment…Miss Freda. I was accustomed to how large boats looked when sitting on the hard, but 225 feet looks REALLY big.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. She was beautiful. John and I walked around the back of the boat and started climbing the ladder laid against the stern. Once on deck I was amazed how clean she was, having just spent 10 months on a boat at the end of her life, this was a nice surprise. We crossed the loading deck and entered the main cabin.
Sitting at the salon table were 3 guys playing cards. The first thing I noticed was all the fishing gear. I hadn’t seen that much gear since my last sport fishing trip. Allen, the 1st Captain, Tom the deckhand and Charlie the cook, all introduced themselves. All three were younger than I was and had great tans. They had all come from a south Texas assignment. He was nice to be around Texas boys again.
Allen began to fill me in on the plans ahead. It seemed the yard was ahead of schedule and the boat was being splashed in the morning. It actually happened after lunch, and by dinner we were offshore and running strong.
Tom offered to give me a tour of the boat and show me to my cabin. The boat was amazing, as was my cabin, and this wasn’t even the captains cabin. I couldn’t get over how clean the boat was, you could have eaten off the engine room floor. After the tour we all sat down for dinner and soon I was snuggled in my bunk ready for a good night sleep.
The next day we splashed the boat, loaded our groceries and headed for the fuel dock. John was like a kid with a new toy at Christmas. As we fueled the boat some fuel got on the deck. Thankfully it was John that made the first mess on the deck. We headed out the channel heading to the jetties and prepared to be offshore. As we cleared the jetties we were greeted with perfect weather. Light winds and a 1 to 3 foot swell were a great way to start the trip. As we passed the final marker, Allen pushed the throttles forward and Miss Freda sprang to life.
I was amazed at the power the boat had. In a blink of the eye we were doing 30 knots and flying over the swells. Not bad for 225 feet and three quarter throttle. Allen had already set the waypoints in the Loran and off we went on our new adventure. We made a big arc to our first stop, Grand Isle. Then it was off to our final destination, Port O’Conner Texas.
The shake down cruise was thankfully uneventful. Everything worked like a charm. We ate well, worked regular 12 on 12 off shifts and had a great time getting to know each other. Allen had been a sport fishing captain on the Texas coast for a number of years and knew all the best fishing spots for the neck of the woods that would be the boats new home.
Running the jetties in Port O’Conner brought a new meaning to large rollers. The jetties are shaped like a long neck beer bottle. As the swells roll in they are compressed and grow in height and I would like to emphasize height. I can’t tell you how many things we broke as we slammed our way out those jetties during our stay. But the craziest story I remember is the week of the ice storm. Twice we had to use fire axes to cut our dock lines to make a run. It would have been 3, but we learned to use the loop end on the boat and tie the line on the bit on the dock. The first time we couldn’t get the engines started because they were so cold. After we did get them started we didn’t shut them down for several days, until the temps returned to normal. Several times we made runs in fog so thick you couldn’t see the front of the boat. Thank God for radar.
As I look back at those years, experiences like that only come once in a lifetime. Nasty weather, great fishing and great times were had by all. I even had the chance to bring my family onboard when we were to deliver tons of seafood to an offshore rig for a 4th of July party. We all spent the long weekend offshore eating and fishing.
After a year in Port O’Conner, our contract with Enron ran out at we were picked up by MI. Our new home port was Aransas Pass. You could almost walk to the beach. We were given a regular run schedule and could leave the boat when we were not offshore. We were given beepers for that unforeseen emergency. Our main job was to run basic supplies, but we always had to be ready to assist any rig that needed us. We were the fastest vessel in the fleet and with that came some crazy runs.
We would go night fishing for flounder at the old Brown and Root docks, hang out at the beach on sunny days and get in some fantastic fishing offshore any time we could. Life was good.
After about 8 months in Aransas, Allen was offered a new position running a 60’ sportfishing boat that the owner planned to fish the entire sportfishing circuit. I was on my own again. It took 3 months for the office to send me a 2nd captain, but when he finally came, it only took a few days for him to get up to speed on running the boat. He had been running a sistership to Miss Freda, and only need to get familiar with the runs.
The remainder of my time on Miss Freda couldn’t compare to the first 18 months. I went thru several new deckhands and cooks. Paul, my new second, didn’t like to fish, plus the company was starting to dislike our taking fishing side trips. Now it was just a job with periods of boredom separated by nasty weather and long runs offshore. Sometimes the trips would take anywhere from a few days to a week or more. Some of the runs we were now making would take 30 plus hours one way. We were going to some really deep water now.
After the end of my fifth year, the job was really starting to take a toll on not only me, but my family as well. It was defiantly time for a change. This job had served its purpose. I had been able to upgrade my license tonnage and had some offshore experience in weather a yachtsman would never go out in on purpose. The best part, no matter how bad it was, I never got seasick. For that, I thank God.
My second wife had decided it was time to come home and spend more time with the family and she was right. I had missed too many football games and PTA meetings. I had watched my kids grow-up in pictures and home movies. Unfortunately the spending more time with the family didn’t workout the way she or I had planned. I spent the next 12 years landlocked, working my ass off in the car business and living for the 2 week vacations visiting the places I dreamed I would be sailing to. The hours were worse than when I was working offshore. At least when I worked in the oil patch we could spend more than a Sunday afternoon together. I went to work before the kids were up and came home long after they had gone to bed.
It wasn’t long before the schedule took its toll and the marriage was over.
As I sit here typing, I realize that much of the future is still to be written. I have three great kids and have had some pretty good adventures. I guess if you had to describe my life up to now it could be rapped up in a saying on a sign my father gave me some time ago.
“I’ve spent most of my money on boats and women,
The rest I just pissed away”
I have no doubt I will still get to write about the adventures I dreamed of in my youth while anchored in some secluded anchorage. The question is if it will happen while I can still scurry to the mast to set the sails.
Stay tuned for more……...... As I remember more, I’ll add more.