Letters From The Gulf, The Last Chapter: The Weather-Bound Boats

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: Daily Dan: Pilottown report

Date: Wednesday, June 30th

Hey Babe,

We are tied up alongside a defunct oil dock at Pilottown on the 
Mississippi, just below where Octave Pass and Main Pass converge with the big 
river. It looks like it got hit one time too hard by some hurricane and was 
never repaired afterward. There’s well-picked-over trash on the main pier 
where the product transfers would happen and some wooden bulkheads with 
cleats on top of them were half-falling down. There are big ships going by 
with some speed on them so we had to really button it up good, it was a 
procedure tying up this big unit. I stayed up into the next watch. It was 
pouring rain, we wrestled eight heavy lines and wires onto the caissons at 
the bow and stern. On the smaller barge I was working for the last three years, 
getting the lines out was usually a pretty damn easy affair. This thing is 
five times the capacity of that, so it’s bound to be that much more of a 
hassle getting it together.

Plus, there were no line handlers at this dock, 
and we were well above the bits and hooks. I got the first line out with a 
throw (it was the second throw; man I’m not used to tossing these big 
big lines) and after that, we put a ladder out so a man could go down and put a turn in the eye so they’d hold better.

Sometime today a barge will come 
alongside so we can discharge the oil/seawater mix we have onboard-might as well get this done while we are all held up by the storm.
 It does look like there are a ton of boats up in these waters, 
judging by the AIS system (which gives the names of registered vessels on 
the computer chart). I don’t know what the AIS would look like in normal 
times, but I can see that there are a good number of “Responder” units near 
Venice. They are all named after whatever location they are stationed in 
and there are a good number of states and regions represented here 
tonight: Virginia, Texas, Mississippi, Gulf Coast, Southern, Louisiana, 
Delaware. I’m guessing that these vessels are between 185 to 215 feet long 
and built to deal with spills. That there are so many of them in 
one place is a testament to the size of the task at hand and it’s a damn 
shame that they (and we) are weather-bound here. That hole in the ocean 
floor keeps disgorging however many thousands of barrels a day, regardless 
of the weather.

When I went outside to check the lines (which we do once an hour) 
I couldn’t believe the sounds of the peepers and mosquitos and whatever else 
was out there in the weeds just off the river. Weird winding cycles of 
noise. It had a life of its own… Funky. And the horseflies are monsters. I walked past one of our yellow bug lights on deck and they were swarming up 
around it. I whacked one out of the air that came too close to my face and it 
felt like I was palm-swatting a badminton shuttlecock. Dragonflies all 
over the place, too, and I’m told that there are “dog flies” that will 
bite you through your jeans. I put that in scare quotes because I’m not 
sure if the guy who told me that was pulling my leg or not. It’s usually 
wise not to believe everything you hear on boats, especially when you are the 
only Yankee on a Southern watch. (I’m glad nobody tried to get me on the 
”mail buoy” routine, that one is usually reserved for greenhorns.)

Dad came to mind again tonight. I was reflecting on the fact 
that he would have been disappointed that I wasn’t the cook onboard, since he 
loved to talk about whatever meal was on the burner and the variations, side 
dishes and improvements that could be made to it. (My payscale is better not being the cook, however.) He grieved the loss of his appetite 
last fall… that was hard to witness. I’m eating a lot of high cholesterol 
vittles in his honor.

I’m glad I got to talk to you today (in network no less!) There’s no 
helping what a pathetic mush I am when I’m off on a boat. Wanted to write 
you earlier but we lost internet connection again, so I’m back up in the 
crows nest, 80 feet off the water using the satellite system.
 It’s time to check the lines again. I miss you and will see you 
soon. Not sure when exactly, but soon.


Subject: Daily Dan Departs

Date: Thursday, July 1st


I am off the boat, writing on my own computer and waiting on a flight in NOLA. The knock came on my door just after eight a.m. (I must have been asleep for all of fifteen minutes.) We were getting supplies from one of the crew boats and they were heading back to Bud’s Boat Rental at Venice. My plane ticket had already been purchased by the company travel agent and the captain actually gave me a personal loan to make sure that I had enough cash to make it back to New Orleans (the cab costs $200… And probably another $30 to get to the airport.) There were some guys on the crew boat who worked for MSRC-the company with the Responder boats I mentioned yesterday. I picked their minds as best as I could to get an idea of what their end of the project looked like, but mostly talked with an engineer who usually works on the Hawaii Responder; the boats on the BP site were crewed with folks from all over the place. He was ex-Navy, and thinking about working tug and barge units in Hawaii as a chief engineer. That really sounds like a plan to me.

Another of the Responder people was a deckhand from Alaska. (I’m not making this up. It sounds way too symmetrical doesn’t it? If this was fiction, I’d change it to one of the lower 48, just so I didn’t have to represent the two non-continental states in such quick order.) He had a rental car that was dropped off by his relief-not an uncommon arrangement when changing crew on the fly. I grabbed him and asked him for a lift and thereby saved myself a pile of money (which I needed for the US Airways overweight bag fee… Grumble, mope, pout.) Paid for his lunch and at the end of the ride forced some more money on him just because. He was grateful to have a copilot, driving in big cities wasn’t his thing (after thirty-some-odd years living fifty miles north of Anchorage.) Lord knows I could have used a copilot on my trip down. I had no idea that there were so many roads named “90,” and somehow managed to loop back around to the Huey Long bridge when I thought I was on my way out to Venice; the second time over the Mississippi river bridge I swore I was in the twilight zone. It was incomprehensible. But I digress…

I’m tired as hell and needing caffeine. My bag fell apart at the ticket counter after a hasty attempt at unpacking to lighten it, giving up (it was hopeless) and badly repacking. It’s well wrapped in packing tape now, but this will be its last hurrah. I really hope they don’t feel the need to search it, that would be bad.

If you will have me, my dear, I shall be Commack bound this eve. It’s a good thing you have tomorrow off. Heh heh heh.