Crew-change day was there before I knew it and time to embark on a new adventure. Oh sure, I had ridden on crew boats when I worked over at the production dock. My first was a ride out to the edge of the Gulf of Mexico on a fifty-foot crew-boat run by a suntanned crew from Pensacola, Florida. Although a few fun guys, they were night-and-day different from my new Houma Indian-bayou friends.
The boat I would ride this day was a one-hundred-foot hunk of metal named the C-Predator. The boat smelled of fuel and hydraulic fluid, unsuccessfully masked with Bounce dryer sheets taped over the air vents–the sheets flying straight out from the wall when the air conditioner was blowing.
As the lines were released, freeing us from the dock, three huge engines roared loudly as we idled away, down Bayou Grand Caillou. The ride through the marshy regions of southern Terrebonne Parish to the edge of the Gulf took about half an hour, and then it was full speed ahead to one of the most distant rigs serviced by our dock. A drilling rig located in Ship Shoal Block 222 was our destination, and it would take us about four or five hours to reach.
At first, the morning salt air was exhilarating, adventure and anticipation hanging on the offshore breezes. We had only been riding in the Gulf a little while when we reached an area with seas rolling in big humps like a roller coaster in slow motion. This was called a shoal, and Captain Roscoe told me it was shallow water over a sandbar, and the rolling waves are called ground swells. They are not like the choppy seas caused by high winds crossing over shallow water or big waves in deeper water. It’s a unique area in the gulf, a sort of demarcation between the shallow to the deep. While the rolling motion seemed relaxing at first, over time it started to play with my equilibrium. Standing in the wheelhouse next to Roscoe and his crew, I kept my eyes set upon the horizon to gain some sense of balance, of being centered. The Coke-bottle-colored water intrigued me immensely, so different from the dark brown hues of the bayou we left behind.
Since I had been working all night, the rolling waves made me sleepy, so Roscoe suggested I go below and take an upper bunk. As I turned to leave the wheelhouse, he told me that there were some rough seas ahead in the deeper water and not to be alarmed if the boat seemed to rock and roll a little. Ignorant of exactly what defined “rough seas”, I thanked him and headed down to a bunk room. Hesitating, I turned back and asked why the top bunk. He answered, “If things get really rough, I don’t want you to hit your head.” That did not make any sense to me at all at the time, but I accepted his answer, not wanting to seem like a total landlubber.
Once settled on the top bunk, I was lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking, like a baby rocked in its mother’s arms. Thinking this wasn’t so bad, I feel into deep sleep. Because there was neither window nor clock in the pitch-dark room, I had no clue how long I had been asleep when I was awakened with a jerk. Foggy from sleep and disoriented by the darkness, my first thought was that someone was shaking me to wake me up, but there was no one there. Before I could sufficiently clear the sleep from my addled brain, my body was tossed up from the mattress and slammed down again. This was obviously what my captain meant by rough seas and not something I either wanted to or could sleep through. Now I knew what he meant by “hitting your head”, except that he left out the last part of the sentence–“on the bunk above you”.
With each successive wave, I counted the seconds trying to figure out how to get out of the top bunk, find the light, and get dressed without being thrown down, which was no small task. Why hadn’t I just gone to bed with my clothes on, darn it anyway? Beyond that, I wondered, how would I make my way up the metal stairs to the wheelhouse with this tossing and pitching going on? This is NOT what I had in mind when I said I wanted to take a crew-boat ride. I guess I was thinking more like a cruise on the “Love Boat”.
Roscoe was surprised to turn and see me standing there, holding onto the wheelhouse door frame, squinting into the bright sunlight that reflected off the water, hurting my sleep-ridden eyes. “You up already?” he asked with a kind of knowing smirk on his suntanned face. Very funny, I thought. How does anybody sleep with this kind of ruckus going on? Instead, I conjured up a weak smile.
After a few moments of silence, he suggested I go back down and try to finish my nap, but there was no way I was going back down there and submitting my body to that sort of violent banging. I asked him if I could stay in his domain, and once he was convinced I was adjusting to the rough seas and not going to hurl my innards all over his wheelhouse, he agreed by giving me my first lesson in “sea legs”.
He explained, “You can’t be stiff. Your legs can’t be locked. You have to loosen up and let your body sway with the motion of the ocean. Don’t try to fight it, just go with it.” I learned very quickly that the worst position to be in when hitting the down side of a big breaker was stiff-legged. So, I bent my knees and soon enough the rhythm of the seas and I were one. And then, all I wanted to know was how much longer was this going to go on?
As time wore on, the seas diminished, and by the time we reached the drilling rig, the water was calm enough to offload the cargo. From way above us on the rig deck, a crane operator expertly maneuvered the cable and hooks over the pallets like a well-rehearsed dance, while Roscoe manned the stern controls, keeping the boat as stationary as possible. The deckhand’s job was to make hand signals to the crane operator to make attaching the hooks to the cargo easier. Once hooked up, the crew got out of the way of the potentially deadly swinging cargo.
Once the cargo was removed, we had a passenger to offload. I wondered how his rough ride in the passenger seats went. The seats, similar to vinyl school bus seats, were not very comfortable, and each one came with its own “barf bag” for emergencies. Even though there was a small bathroom nearby, it was hard to reach with the pitching action. One of a boat crews’ pet peeves is a passenger who is too lazy to grab the bag provided and instead uses the floor. A sign on the wall reminded them that if they didn’t use the plastic bag provided, they would mop the floor before being allowed to disembark.
The crane operator attached his hook to a large personnel basket and lowered it to the deck. The rig hand-made his way slowly across the deck, stepped into the basket, and held onto the black netting. The deck crew then gave the “thumb’s up” signal to the crane operator, meaning “take him up”. Our job was done and I was secretly hoping the seas would be calm on our return voyage.
For the most part they were, and as the sun sank silently below the horizon, the Gulf took on a different persona. Roscoe told me to go out to the back deck (but be very careful) and look over at the wake coming off the side of the boat. The most mysterious thing awaited me. Like millions of tiny sparkling gems, the water droplets shone as they splashed. The glowing water mesmerized me, and I watched it for a long time before going back in. Once inside, the captain asked me what I saw. Of course he knew, but all I could say was that the water was glowing in the dark. Laughing, he explained that was called phosphorescence, created by millions of tiny sea creatures. Seeing that glowing water was certainly one of the coolest things I had ever witnessed up to that point in my life. I was hooked and rapidly falling in love with the Gulf of Mexico.