Letters From The Gulf, Parts 8 and 9: "BP Dropped Off Crates of Bottled Water"

by Dan Horton


Dan Horton, a friend and former colleague, 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. Crew are only allowed to send and receive one email a day; his girlfriend, Lori, passes along his daily email to friends and family. With their permission, we’re passing them along to you. -Dave Bry

Subject: Chicken Dolphin Report
Date: Saturday, June 26


The barge was 90 degrees in the shade today. We took oil from a skimmer boat all afternoon. It’s really not hard work but doing anything in the heat is tough. I’m wearing a rag around my neck to keep the double burn from getting worse. I have a big-ass goofy panama hat, sunglasses and tons of sunscreen. My t-shirt was soaked with sweat within twenty minutes. BP dropped off crates of bottled water and a Gatorade-type of drink to the boat a few weeks ago-I believe they are paying for the fleet of supply boats that are running out of Venice as well. God bless ‘em.

We spotted two baby mahi-mahi swimming behind the skimmer boat. Just over a foot long. The tankerman I was working with is from Florida and does a lot of fishing; he called them “chicken dolphin.” He said they were only a few months old. Later, when I climbed down the pigeon holes from the barge to the boat (it’s a “pin boat,” I’ll explain that some other time) I could see the translucent blue that I’d been looking for down here. There was some shade from the barge, so the surface of the water was out of direct sunlight and it was just glowing. Looked like you could see quite deep. I could stare at that for hours. Of course, the day before we’d been going through some of the oil that had been broken up by dispersant and the white caps looked rusty. I’ll take the good stuff when I can get it.

The moon looked just about full tonight, there was a time where we were tooling along and had the full moon right off our starboard and the fires from “ground zero” off our port. I was on the back deck doing my tugboat yoga routine-stretching with the assistance of bullheads and H-bits, trying to work out the kinks in my back. I kept looking from one side to the other, trying to come up with words for the contrast. Turner, the British painter, came to mind for the portside scene-all orange glow and smoke clouds and half-discernible forms. And on the starboard, I kept thinking of the “luminous clarity” of the light that the Vajrayāna Buddhists talk about. None of this is proper tugboat talk.

I miss you,


Subject: One Barge Per Man
Date: Sunday, June 27th


We just had a full night offloading skimmer boats, one on each side. 
That’s why they need the extra tankerman-only one barge per man by law. I 
don’t know if that would be grounds for keeping me on-it hasn’t happened 
all that often. But I really could use the money. Plus, I haven’t yet 
recovered from the trauma of getting down here in the first place. (The old 
”Greenport to Greenpoint” commute already seems like the golden days of my 
maritime career. I love to see new places and all, but chasing a boat 
doesn’t allow for the freedom that makes travel fun). Money and crew-change 
angst aside, I really want to get home and grill you a good meal. And yes, once you know the time to get home, or have a loved one get home to you, it 
always ratchets up a notch. We call that “channel fever.”

Finished the Stieg Larsson books last off watch. My bunk light quit 
working on me and I read the last 50 pages by flashlight. Swedish democracy 
and constitutional integrity restored by highly talented journalists, 
computer hackers, a few good cops and grrrrlll power. Well allrighty then! 
Loved it. Makes me want to go back to journalism. But then again, maybe not…

It’s time to wake up the front watch. Gotta go.