For days after my first crew boat excursion, all I could think about were the mysteries that lie beyond the mouth of Bayou Grand Caillou in that vast ocean called the Gulf of Mexico. Previously, those were just words on the map sitting below Louisiana, between Florida and Texas. Now, those words denoted a real place that tantalized my senses, and I desired more.
Even though she had since moved out and moved on, I kept thinking about my recent roommate, Jen, and how she had been a deckhand. Then the thoughts turned to asking myself the question, can I do that? The more I thought about it, the more the idea became something I wanted to do.
From my position as dispatcher, I could observe the deckhands doing their jobs. As they came inside the office to have coffee, I would engage them in casual conversation about their duties as deckhands. Whether on a big work boat or a smaller crew boat, the duties were basically the same. It seemed the most physically taxing duty was throwing the lines to tie the boat to the bollard while docking.
I spent time outside watching them throw their lines, observing the way they tossed the rope like a cowboy throwing a lasso, around the T-shaped iron bitts on the dock. Then they wrapped the rope round the bitt in a figure eight, finishing with a half hitch. With a little practice, there was no doubt I could do that. However, I didn’t practice for fear of attracting attention to myself, thus revealing my real intention—becoming a deckhand for Captain Roscoe.
The next challenge would be figuring out how to see if the good captain would even be interested in having me as a deckhand and whether his company would hire me. Also, the timing of my approach had to be just right so that no one would be displaced on my behalf. Fortunately for me, all those details worked themselves out in short time.
Not long after I mentioned to The Captain that I thought being a deckhand might be something I’d like to try, a different marine company offered him a job. Unlike changing jobs in the business world, doing so in the oil field was like changing socks. Boat crews did so quite frequently, being drawn away from one marine company to another by a mere increase of $10 per day or the lure of docking closer to home.
By this time, both of The Captain’s previous crew members had obtained their captain’s licenses, with encouragement from him, and were now masters of their own vessels. It was time for him to hire a crew to work with him at the new company. And you already guessed who the new deckhand would be. Let the adventure begin!
Becoming a Deckhand
With nothing but men around to critique my skills, or lack thereof, there was no room for embarrassment. I would have to take those inch and half lines by the end and start throwing them. That is exactly what I did—over and over and over until I could hit the iron bollard on at least the second attempt. The more I practiced, the easier it got. Having tossed hundreds of empty fifty-five gallon drums off boat decks in my past position as a roustabout had prepared my upper arm and upper body strength for the task. It might not seem like a rope that size would be very heavy, but just go ahead and start throwing one around, and you’ll soon find out just how heavy they really are!
Everyone seemed surprised at my abilities to throw a line accurately, until a dock hand decided one day to play the gentleman and lend me a hand. I guess he assumed there was no way this five-foot-three blond could reach that bollard, and just as the loop reached its intended goal, he grabbed the line, fumbled, dropping it into the water. However, he did not let go quickly enough for me to jerk the line up into the stern of the boat. I knew my image was tarnished in that split second, as the rope hit the water and was immediately sucked under by the powerful stainless steel propeller. And that meant one thing: a phone call to the main office and the expense of a diver to go down and cut the rope out of the wheel. They all tried to make light of it, but I could not hide the aggravation I felt toward the young man who only wanted to help. Instead, he ruined my spotless reputation, which would take a long time to regain.
Among my other deckhand duties were cleaning the galley, the heads, sweeping and mopping, hosing the back deck, chipping, painting, hooking and unhooking crane cables, and making sure The Captain always had fresh coffee. I guess you could say the deckhand was the housewife of the ship. Occasionally, I took my turn cooking breakfast, which I later learned was The Captain’s way of testing to see if I might be marriage material. (What’s love got to do with it, right?)
One other thing some deckhands did (which is no longer allowed in the marine world) was “holding the wheel” while the captain rested or went below to get something to eat. Learning to steer a course, follow a chart, read the radar, and basically run the boat were by far the most interesting aspects of the job. Eventually, I got good enough at holding the wheel that The Captain felt comfortable taking little cat naps on a Naugahyde bench a few feet from the wheelhouse.
Deckhand Holds the Wheel
On one of those calm, clear nights when the visibility was about six miles, The Captain put me at the wheel and set me on a course back to home base. At night, we navigated with the aid of a radar, and the lighted rigs marked the way when looking out with your naked eyes. Even though I liked holding the wheel, traveling at eighteen knots could get a little boring, so I found other ways to enjoy the journey. As I looked out in front of the boat, I played a game with myself to see if I could identify the different rigs by their light patterns and shapes.
This particular night, I guess I got a little too into the game, because when I finally looked back at my compass bearing and then at the radar, I realized I had gotten off course by several degrees. Never having navigated for this long at night before, I was a little nervous when I saw land less than six miles away on the radar screen, although I could not clearly make out the shoreline with my eyes. It appeared I was about to run us into the shoreline near Bayou Dularge, just to the west of the entrance to Bayou Grand Caillou.
While trying to decide whether to yell and awaken The Captain, back off the throttles, or change our direction, the boat began to slow on its own. All I could do was scream, “WE’RE RUNNING AGROUND!” The speed with which he flew off that bench was matched by the speed with which I jumped out of the captain’s chair. He glanced at the radar and said, “Girl, you’re headed to Bayou Dularge!” With the wheel hard to starboard and the engines full speed, he managed to grind us out of the shallows and back into the channel. “No harm done, but if you’d waited any longer we’d be sitting here until next high tide, cher!”
Not long after that episode, The Captain was offered higher pay running a bigger, faster crew boat, with the option to hire his own crew. Brand new, one hundred twenty feet long, and with four engines instead of three, this crew boat was a captain’s dream. For him, it was a no brainer. For me, it offered a challenge—could I run such a big boat? It wasn’t long before we would find out. He put me at the front controls second day out, and she was way faster than the previous boat. Before long, he trusted me again to take the wheel during his short naps.
Our job was to take workers out to the offshore drilling rigs, as well as equipment and supplies. In order to offload the cargo, The Captain would back the boat up to the rig using a set of rear controls. Typically, those controls are outside the wheelhouse, but on this new boat, they were inside the wheelhouse—a real plus in cold, wet weather. It was at those stern controls that I first backed up to an offshore drilling rig.
Deckhand in the Wheelhouse
The Captain swung the boat around with the stern facing toward the rig, preparing to offload while I stood watching. With the throttles engaged, he stepped away from the controls and told me to take over. I hesitated, but he turned away, leaving me no choice but to step up and take the wheel. The power behind those throttles was intimidating and, being this close to a metal structure occupied by human life, was not a power I wanted to be responsible for. I begged him to take the wheel back from me, as he shouted orders at me: “Forward on starboard! Reverse on port! Straighten up, now! Back off of center! That’s it! Now you got it! Hold her right there.”
I held the boat as steady as I could in the rolling waves, while the crane operator lowered the bright orange personnel net down to the deck. Any second, some unsuspecting passenger would cross the back deck and climb into that transport net, his life in my hands. The thought made my brain sink down to my stomach. This was my first time at the stern controls of this powerful vessel, and while The Captain seemed to have great faith in my navigational skills, I had none. My knees went weak and my palms sweated. Before the passenger could reach the basket, my face white as a sheet, I gave the controls back to The Captain.
With a knowing smile on his face, he stepped forward, relieving me of both my duty and my fears. “You did good for your first time. You did good.” He handled that one-hundred-ton vessel like a toy boat in a bathtub while I stood by watching on wobbly legs. One day, maybe I would be that good.
A goodly portion of my wheelhouse training took place on that big quadruple-screw crew boat. We have some amazing photos of it that I took from a lonely platform somewhere in the Gulf. The Captain dropped me off on the metal structure with my camera, a 35 mm Yashica at the time. I remember thinking, as the boat motored away, what I might do if The Captain decided to leave me there. Then that rascal, after racing left and right across in front of me so that I might get some good shots of the boat at high speed, turned the bow away from me and acted like he WAS going to leave me there. Not to let him know he might actually be scaring me, I just sat down and took in the view, acting like nothing whatsoever was out of the ordinary.
Somewhere along the way, The Captain bought a Samoyed puppy, which we named Jacque de Dulac. Jacque joined us on our crew boat ventures and was welcomed everywhere we went. Our journey on the big crew boat ended with our having to take the boat from Dulac, LA all the way to Ingleside, TX. As we headed to the southwest, I watched the sun rise behind us, its rays bouncing off the water’s surface like a million tiny mirrors—the last sunrise I remember from those days.
When we finally reached our Texas destination, the dock was already packed with big boats, lined up like sardines. We found our place alongside two other boats and tied up to their bitts. In order to get onto land, we had to climb from boat to boat, crossing over bulwarks and gunwales as we went. In order for Jacque to relieve himself on dry land, he had to be carried over the same. After he had done his business, The Captain hauled him back over those gunwales and placed him back on our boat with a firm command, “STAY”.
Later, as we stood on the dock, talking to other boat hands, we heard a huge splash between the dock and the first boat tied there. At first, we didn’t think much about it, and then something told me to go check it out. As I followed the splashing sounds, looking down between the side of the boat and the bulkhead of the dock, I saw a mass of white struggling to stay afloat. It was Jacque, and his fur was quickly absorbing saltwater and weighing him down to the point that only his eyes and nose were out of the water. Panicked, I looked around for some way of saving our poor, disobedient dog.
Some unknown crew member who had been talking with us had the presence of mind to grab a long pole and offer it out to the drowning canine—an offer he readily accepted. I’m not sure how he managed it, but that dog-gone, hard-headed creature wrapped his front paws around that pole and held on for dear life. Once we got him on land and calmed him, another crew member told us how he watched the dog crawl through the freeing ports on each back deck, balance on the bumper tires, jump across, and then crawl through the next freeing port until he had reached the boat next to the dock. At that point, he leapt from the bumper tires to the land, and that is when his plan failed.
After that near-death experience, Jacque stayed when he was told to stay. The whole boat-delivery adventure ended with another new experience for me, and it had nothing to do with boats or water. It was not just a first for me, though. Imagine the Cessna pilot’s surprise when he learned that the passenger named Jacque was a Samoyed deckhand from Dulac that had recently learned the meaning of the old adage “sink or swim”!
Deckhand Career Draws to a Close
Our next job found us working for a production dock back in Dulac, The Captain’s home port, but after being on that larger crew boat, The Captain was no longer content running a small boat. He went back to captain’s school to study for a 300-ton Master’s License, while I grew bored with being a lowly deckhand. I will never forget the day he asked me at the galley table what I wanted to do. I answered that I wanted to make a difference on the bayou.
While he advanced his career on larger work boats, I found myself once again attending Nicholls State University in Thibodaux and studying Elementary Education. My thought was that teaching younger children might be a fulfilling career. The Captain and Jacque moved into my small apartment in Thibodaux, a fact I hid from my parents. Although they knew I was working with him, my parents had not yet met The Captain.
Shortly after I enrolled back in college, my father suffered a heart attack and was unconscious, so I rushed back to Bossier City to see him and be with Mother. Until then, I had never begged God for anything as much as I begged for his life as I lay on his side of their bed, holding an 8 x 10 of him in his Marine dress uniform. I stayed until Daddy seemed to be “out of the woods”, and then returned to Thibodaux to start my college classes.
A couple of days after my return, The Captain and I sat down to eat when a sudden deep sadness engulfed me. It was so overwhelming that I went into my bedroom to try to regain my composure. Peace wouldn’t come, at which point I knew without a doubt that my grief had something to do with my father. I called his hospital room. He answered, but I barely recognized the voice on the other end of the line.
Up to that point, I had never seen a smidgen of weakness in my father, but now his voice was frail and cracked. Trying to steady my own voice, I asked him how he was doing. Haltingly, he said the cardiologist had just told him that the coronary he suffered had damaged his heart beyond repair, and there was no procedure they could perform to help him. An awful silence was followed by muffled sobs, coming through both ends of the phone line.
My world shattered into a billion tiny fragments with that news. Daddy, the man who could do anything he set his mind to, was suffering, hurting, beyond all help. A fixer by nature, I wanted to run to his side and make it all better, but there was nothing I could do but tell him how much I loved him. We hung up, and I felt so very far away from where I should have been at that moment. The Captain held me while my tears flowed, tasting like the Gulf mist I had come to love upon my face. How could this be? Daddy was a mere fifty years old—a good Christian man who neither drank nor smoked.
The Deckhand Goes Home
Once it was clear that my father was determined to make a full recovery in spite of the bleak prognosis, I decided it was time the two favorite men in my life met. So, off to the high country we went to meet the city folks. Along the way, we stopped at Lea’s Lunchroom in a little town called Lecompte. Their fresh-baked pecan pies were one of our favorites, so The Captain bought one to take home to my parents.
We arrived at my folks’ home in Bossier City just before supper, and my parents welcomed The Captain with open arms. That night, after supper, slices of pecan pie were served around the table. The coffee sat steaming in our Corelle cups. The conversation digressed from questions about my guest and his family to childhood stories about me. About halfway through our pie, The Captain drew a deep breath and said, “Mr. Bill, I want to ask you something. May I marry your daughter?”
Daddy’s hand froze mid-air, halfway between plate and mouth, the sumptuous morsel of pecan pie dripping from his fork. He set down his fork, took a sip of coffee and was silent for what seemed like a very long time. For fear of what he might say next, I mentally checked out of the conversation and honestly don’t remember what came next. All I know is that after we got back from our trip, The Captain asked me for the fiftieth time to marry him, and this time I gave him an answer.
He took me to an old furniture store in Houma where bayou folks bought furniture, appliances and jewelry on store credit. The owner made trips down the bayou to collect payments from his customers. Even though The Captain did not need credit for his purchase, for some reason he thought that would be the place to take me. He asked to see engagement rings, and I looked for a long time until I spied a tray of rings more like dinner than engagement rings. A beautiful ring with circles of bright red rubies caught my eye. I guess it comes as no surprise that a woman who left the office for the oil field would not choose a diamond solitaire as her engagement ring. Even though it was not what he would have chosen for me, he bought the ruby ring and placed it on my left hand as a sign of our engagement, saying “This is for my jolie blonde–the most beautiful girl on the bayou”.
No one had ever said that to me before, and in that moment, I truly did feel like the most beautiful girl on the bayou.