Dan Horton, a friend and former colleague of mine, works on tugboats out of the New York Harbor for a living. Two weeks ago, he flew down to Louisiana to take a job on a barge unloading crude oil from the skimmer boats that clean the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. There’s limited computer access on board; crew are only allowed to send and receive one email a day. Dan has been sending letters home to his girlfriend, Lori, who has been passing them along to friends and family, and now, with their permission, I’ll pass them along to you. -Dave Bry
Subject: Daily Dan
Sunday, June 20th
Hey, Babe, all is well here. We were given the weekend off from chipping and â€¨painting and didn’t have to offload any skimmer boats until tonight. It â€¨went fast. I stayed out of the sun today. We’ll see about tomorrow. We may â€¨have to offload to another barge, so that would mean working on my tan again. â€¨Yes, I’m wearing sunscreen. No bugs out here to speak of, but my neck is â€¨really red.â€¨ I misspelled “Sweden” in yesterday’s email. That’s haunted me all â€¨day… Which is to say that I haven’t had a whole lot to think about. Mostly just reading that detective novel that mom bought for me, which keeps reminding me that I misspelled “Sweden.” It’s a tough road to hoe.â€¨ I’m glad you don’t mind being point person â€¨and forwarding these emails to the family. Please do forward them to â€¨everyone. If I get too cootchie-coo or misspell the names of European â€¨countries, feel free to edit. You could even just make stuff up and put my â€¨name on it. I trust your imagination.
Okay, enough of that.â€¨ Those fears of what kind of crew I’d be dealing with were baseless. â€¨I’m very happy with this crew. Heard good things about the next crew coming â€¨on this Wednesday, too. That makes a big, big difference.â€¨ All three tankermen onboard are named “Dan.” The Dan I share a room â€¨with is working the captain’s watch and has been working tugs and barges for â€¨48 years. I’m on the mate’s watch (as usual) and the other mate’s-watch Dan â€¨and I are getting along fine. He’s showing me the ins-and-outs of this barge, â€¨which is five times bigger than the one I was used to, and is almost 40 years â€¨old. In other words, it’s a very large rust bucket with old, old engines. â€¨This is the first black-oil barge I’ve been on-the DBL 28 was in “clean â€¨oil”-and there are some differences in the setup. (Namely, this barge has â€¨boilers to keep the product heated when necessary. Doesn’t look like we â€¨will need to turn them on anytime soon, though sometimes they have to even â€¨down here in the Gulf of Mexico. Black oil products lose their viscosity â€¨below certain temps.)â€¨ The chief engineer has a habit of baking something every evening watch â€¨after dinner. Tonight, I was laying in my bunk reading and not sleeping at â€¨all and the smell of what he was cooking dragged me to the galley. He’d â€¨burned the bottom of some cinnamon buns and was quite dejected. I ate one, â€¨burnt bottom and all, just to try to cheer him up. Not sure if it worked â€¨or not. I think he will be much more careful tomorrow.â€¨ It’s Father’s Day and I’m thinking of all the stuff I’d like to say to â€¨Dad. I’m going to go ahead and say it all to Dad and assume that in some â€¨fashion somehow the message will be received. I’m not really too worried if â€¨that sounds cuckoo because it’s working for me.â€¨
One email a day really is much better than no emails per day. I have â€¨to climb up a very tall ladder to get to the upper wheelhouse in order to â€¨use the boat computer, so it’s a bit of a trek… It’s not the compulsive â€¨blah-blah of my normal computer use. Feels pointed and makes me focus. Not â€¨quite as easy as Ritalin, but it’ll have to do for now.â€¨ Well, I am fine and hope to hear that you and everyone else is fine â€¨as well!â€¨ Thank Eva for writing me!â€¨ Thank you Lori for passing these on! And for writing me! Hope â€¨everyone has a wonderful Father’s Day.â€¨
Subject: Daily Dan: Post Father’s Day Wrap-Up.
â€¨Date: Monday, June 21, 2010
For Father’s Day, I spent about twenty minutes casting a lure off the back â€¨deck of the tug. I was planning on it being my Father’s Day event anyway, â€¨but the way it worked out was that I was in the lower wheelhouse and â€¨thought I saw bait fish swimming past the boat and I got excited. (Haven’t â€¨seen anything alive in the water yet, though there was a flying fish on deck â€¨the other night.) From the angle I was looking, you couldn’t really see the â€¨sheen in the water either, it just looked blue like I assumed it was â€¨supposed to look. From the vantage of the back deck though I could see that â€¨what I thought was baitfish was suspended particles drifting with the â€¨current. I’ve been told that that stuff is what the dispersant does to the â€¨oil. Also from the back deck, you could again see the sheen on the surface.â€¨ Nonetheless, I grabbed the pole and started fishing. I guess fishing â€¨is by nature an optimistic activity (they don’t call it “catching.”) I â€¨wanted to hook something just to see some life. It overrode my usual â€¨hypersensitive notion that it’s damn mean to trick a creature into chomping â€¨down on a pointed hook and dragging it out of its element into a lethal â€¨environment. Like I said, I was going to do it anyway because I remember how â€¨much Dad liked it, and it would be a good way to commune with the â€¨memories. But the sense that I was casting out for some good news here put a â€¨little pep in my arm. No bites, but I did think fondly of Pop and soaked up â€¨a little bit of sun. They tell me that the day before I got on, another tankerman (a â€¨former Massachusetts lobsterman) caught a couple of skipjacks and had a â€¨barracuda on the line before it jumped and spit out the hook. The second â€¨mate tells me that this crew is incapable of catching fish. (The lobsterman â€¨and I are just passing through.) So the fact that nobody else has caught â€¨anything isn’t really an indication of anything.â€¨ What they have told me is that usually you can see down 200 feet deep out here, and â€¨you probably can’t see down 15 now. Apparently, the oil plumes deeper down â€¨are reflecting light back up and along with the particles floating it â€¨disrupts the visibility. Must change the temperature too, I’d imagine. â€¨There are these dead tubular jellyfish floating by all the time (they â€¨look a bit like Coney Island whitefish). There are large swaths of copper-colored stuff floating on the surface that makes me think of instant hot â€¨chocolate that hasn’t been totally stirred in. It’s depressing if you â€¨think about it, so for the most part I don’t. Three years of calling Newtown â€¨Creek home has hardened my sensitivity in this department somewhat.â€¨ We have to pump off the barge tomorrow. Another barge is coming â€¨alongside us and taking the product.â€¨