BLACK NIGHT IN MOBILE BAY

“The flat boat blew off the stern about 30 minutes ago”. Fritts tells me this as I was pouring my first cup of coffee, prior to relieving him at the wheel for the 6-to-midnight watch. I sighed, mentally preparing to berate the idiot deck crew for not tying it down securely.

“What’s the weather supposed to do?”, I asked. Looking out at the building seas in lower Mobile Bay, I anticipated his answer.

“30-35 knot winds, 5-6 foot seas. I guess I should have turned into Theodore. ”

“Ah, we only have one barge. Should be able to make it to the Alabama Canal. We can tie up there.” And I took the wheel. Fritts headed down the open stairway before the rain started. The Adrienne L was a spider boat,  the wheelhouse was perched on 15-foot high steel pipes mounted atop  the single deck. The bunkrooms were forward of the door leading to the engine room, and the galley was aft the engine room access. A walkway inside the engine room, above the engines leading from the cabins to the galley, was the only interior access between any two points on the boat.

I poured myself another cup of coffee from the pot Fritts had made for me. A bit splashed out of the cup onto my hand as a wave bumped the boat. I was already regretting that we had passed up our last safe harbor. But we were riding with the seas; had I started a turn towards the west and Theodore, we would have been in side seas, and rolled pretty good, possibly breaking the coupling between the boat and our load of jet fuel. Two more hours and we should be in calmer waters.

It was March, 1993. The sun was already going down, and the clouds made it look pretty gloomy. I was headed southeast towards the Bon Secour channel, which would take us into a canal north of Gulf Shores, Alabama. There we could tie up and wait for the weather to die down, probably two days from now. Then we could proceed to Panama City, discharge the barge’s cargo, and head back to New Orleans for our shipyard date.

The Adrienne L was never meant to be in open water. It had no bulwarks, only safety chains to prevent anyone from stumbling off the deck into the water. The doors were like the ones in your house. Any wave would cause a little water to leak into the galley. The mop saw a lot of use. The main reason to get back to New Orleans in a hurry was due to the fact that the company had finally given in to our request to put seaworthy hatches all the way around the main deck, and to replace the paper-thin, rusted-out bottom. The hull was a patchwork of welded plates, but usually the welding weakened the hull even more. Our portable jigger pumps more than kept up with the leaks, but it was always on our minds what would happen if they failed.

The sky darkened, then blackened. No moonlight could penetrate the storm clouds from this, Winter’s last blast. By now the seas were 4-5 feet.  We had no wind gauge, but I guessed it to be at the higher end of the estimates with stronger gusts. With the searchlight, I found the buoy that marked the start of the Bon Secour Channel, a red dot about a mile away, to the east-southeast. The tide had caused us to drift further to the west, and I was having to turn the boat into side-seas sooner than I wanted so as not to miss the channel. The seas were building, 5 foot and better now. We rolled from side to side as each wave sped by. Water was splashing over the barge, spray reaching as high as the wheelhouse window.

The wheelhouse door opened behind me a few minutes later. It was a wet Kevin, the deckhand on my watch. “Greg, a wave knocked the port engine room door in, frame and all!”

“Jesus!” Can you block it?”

“Fritts is trying now. He was holding it up in place, but it is breaking completely loose.” Already I was turning back to the north, to put the port side in the lee water. But the waves were rolling up on the deck, two foot over the sill. Each roller was pouring barrel after barrel of water into the engine room. Kevin went down to help Colin, our other deckhand, get the pumps started, but the waves had inundated the motors, and it was futile. I couldn’t go towards the east and safety, and it was a three to four-hour slog to get back to Theodore. We were, in nautical terms, screwed.

I called the Coast Guard on VHF-16, gave them our position and explained that we were in danger of sinking. By now the water was over the engine room deck plates. Luckily, there was another fool out there in the Bay, a few miles behind us. The m/v San D, pushing a partially-loaded gasoline barge, radioed me that they had two 3-inch diesel pumps, and could we make use of them? I replied in the affirmative, and he pulled alongside of us a long 20 minutes later. During the interval, I had called our office and apprised them of the situation, and Peanut, my captain later, but at the time working in the office, was calling every few minutes. The Coast Guard, I assured him, had said they were mustering a rescue boat that would be headed our way shortly.

By the time the San D reached us, our engines had succumbed to the deluge and shut down. As a consequence, the winds had blown us 180° around, and we were facing south, the wind hitting us from behind. The San D landed on our port side and pushed us back around so the waves were hitting us from the starboard side, and they began transferring their pumps to our boat. The winds were howling now; my guess was fifty, maybe even sixty knots. The waves were piling up on one another, seven feet high, washing completely over our barge. I told this to the Coast Guard, who assured me that they would be getting underway soon. This is thirty minutes after my mayday call. Our generator had stopped; the only light was from my flashlight and the deck lights of the San D. It became impossible to start the pumps, and it would not have mattered by that point any way. Peanut had asked earlier if I shouldn’t try beaching the tow on the shore, a mile to the south, but I decided against it, fearing that the San D might not be able or willing to reach us. I had little faith in the Coast Guard anyway, and I was right in that regard. The very next call from the Coasties moved their arrival from 2 to maybe three-four hours from now.

Fritts came back up to the wheelhouse with more good news. The galley was flooded, almost completely underwater. Just then the starboard face wire, one of two left holding us to the barge, broke, and the boat lurched to the port, listing about 30°. Fritts fell against me, and we crashed into the wall, both of us yelling what for all the world sounded like Moe and Curly upon seeing a ghost. “Nyaah-ahhh!” Then the port wire came loose, and the boat, the stern on the seabed now, stopped rocking. I learned later that the port wire had not broke; the bitt around which it was wrapped had ripped free of the barge, flying up and missing Colin’s head by inches. The barge itself drifted off to the west, riding the tide.

The crew had gathered up in the wheelhouse with me, dragging their hastily-grabbed gear from the flooding bunkrooms. I was the only dry one, and was also the one who lost all my clothing, books, and precious Walkman.  The San D was still alongside, but they were itching to make it to a safer spot, and I said it was time to go. We ran down the steps, which were being lashed by the rising water. The boat was slowly settling forward onto an even keel, but the bow, which was facing northwest, and taking the brunt of the seas, was still above water. We all had life vests on, and I held the safety chain up, and let everyone jump onto the stern of the San D, which was fighting a losing battle to stay alongside us. As the last of my crew went under the chain, I slipped under it myself to join them on the deck of our savior, when the damned chain caught on my life vest. I struggled to free myself, Kevin yelling for me to jump. By the time I got free, there was ten feet between our vessels. Waves were hitting me on the backs of my knees, and the deck was underwater. I watched as the San D drifted further away, then stepped into the doorway leading to the bunkrooms. The hallway was flooded and dark, outside was dark, windy, and every few seconds a wave covered the bow of my vessel. I stood on the doorsill, and held the door against me, so it took the brunt of the shock. I could barely make out the San D, which by now was nearly a quarter-mile away from me. But I could see that he was turning around, and knew they would try to get close enough for me to jump.

It was snowing, I realized. I hadn’t seen snow since I was kid. I thought about playing in the snow back then, making snow angels, sledding, anything but the possibility of the San D’s captain deciding to settle for saving three out of four, which is after all a passing grade. Besides he had his own crew and vessel to think about.  Boom! Splash! Boom!! I was soaked and freezing. My feet were now underwater. I held onto the door. For all I knew, the next wave would tip the boat over on its side. I thought about Cathy, and a warm bed.

Then there they were, the barge was coming along the lee side. I heard Kevin yelling my name. I ran out, sloshing through the water, climbed the push knee, and made the 5-foot leap onto the deck of the barge as it passed. “You okay?”, Kevin asked. “Yeah, just a minute”. I turned around, middle-finger saluted my boat, and said, “Let’s go in.”

In their galley, Fritts and Colin were drinking coffee, wearing dry clothes that they had retrieved earlier. Kevin told me later that he started to gather my stuff, but Fritts told him to get out of there, so now I was the only wet one. Having already lost my pride, I stripped to my skivvies and hung my wet clothes in the engine room to dry, their dryer having a broken belt. One of their crew loaned me a pair of pants, and, shirtless, I made my way outside (The San D being another spider-boat) and up to the wheelhouse to thank the captain for saving us. Of course, he waved it off, and handed me the radio so I could call the Coast Guard, who now said it would be 5-6 hours before they would be on scene. “Cowardly bastards, shallow-water, draft-dodging, regulation-bound college boys”, I thought to myself. But I told them not to be in any hurry, we were safe and sound. Then I called Peanut, who was relieved, and said rooms had been arranged for us in Gulf Shores, and that either he or Kermen, our personnel guy, would come tomorrow and pick us up.

The San D’s barge had just enough draft that he was able to fight the wind, stay in the buoy line, and get us into the Alabama Canal. There, a taxi met us and took our bedraggled asses to the Holiday Inn, which had snowdrifts piled against the  north wall.  I took a shower in the room I was sharing with Fritts, and then lay in the bed, unable to sleep with all the adrenaline still pumping through me. Fritts snored all night.

That was pretty much it. The Coast Guard, who couldn’t muster the courage to save us, threatened our boss with jail-time if they didn’t put a pollution boom around the boat the very next day, while the weather was still terrible. But they managed to satisfy the jerks somehow. The Adrienne L had settled into the mud, only the wheelhouse was above water. A boat out of  Pensacola was hired to retrieve the barge, and they almost sank when a poorly-secured line washed off their stern, caught in their wheel, which spun it tight. One end was still on deck and it wrapped around a hatch cover, which ripped out of  the deck, and they started taking on water. They made it, however, and the barge was brought safely to port. We were interviewed by the Coast Guard, a Lt. Kirk, whom we kidded about losing a pay grade, and a company lawyer took our depositions.  Kermen picked us up, brought me to a K-Mart, bought me some clothes, shoes, and a walkman. Then he put me on another boat immediately, which, believe me, was not my druther. I wanted to go home, but I acceded, as I felt pretty bad about losing the boat. The Adrienne L was raised, refurbished, and re-named the Andre R, after the owner’s son. Boats are often re-named after a sinking. I continued to work on it for another six years. And I have yet to forgive the Coast Guard for their craveness, not that they care a whit.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. What a saga! I struggle (in vain) to recall any equally life and death episodes in my own colorful past. Never having learned to swim myself just adds to the terror.
    Thinking of finally reading Moby Dick now, just to relax.
    And having saved my butt from certain drowning once (in a whirlpool in the Red sea) I can at least attest that the stupid waters have no mercy, no margin of error, and yes, like you, I dreamed of being home in bed. Oh, and wondered who’d get my record collection.
    Thanks so much for composing this memoir-chapter. Folks need to know how their jet fuel gets to, like, the airplane…

    Reply

  2. Been there and survived that.

    Reply

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