Boating of a Different Sort
Whether it’s a pair of oars or a paddle, I’ve always been comfortable on the water. So when an opportunity to try a different kind of boating came about, I was very interested. When the weather turns brisk and the rivers stop running in Idaho, some of us look toward new climates and new adventures to pass the time. When a friend asked me to help crew some shrimp boats to Croatia, I had found what I was looking for. Wintertime in North Idaho brings plenty of chilling weather and this year, buckets of snow. I was a bit apprehensive leaving the fresh powder for the choppy seas, but some things are too good to pass up.
The boats at the shipyard in Morgan City
I had never been on the open ocean for an extended period before. This was a new experience and I was a bit nervous. But I’ve never gotten seasick and can tie a mean bowline, so I figured I’d be just fine. The trip was set to leave the beginning of the year and take thirty to fifty days. We would go from Louisiana to Trinidad and then cross the big pond to the Canary Islands. From there, we would head north into the Mediterranean and follow the African coast east to Croatia. Having the support of loved ones and NRS, I said goodbye and set off for the bayou.
From New Orleans, we headed for the boats a couple hours away in Morgan City. When we pulled into the shipyard, I caught first sight of home for the next few months. The two rust-covered former shrimp boats, Miss Christine IV and Miss Christine V, were a sore sight. Just looking at them, I knew this was going to be interesting. The crewmembers were a hodgepodge of people with interesting pasts. On one boat, there was an old Army helicopter pilot, a previous underwater welder and dive shop owner, a college student, and an ex-Coast Guard captain that grew up at Mackay Bar on Idaho’s Main Salmon River. On the other boat was a friend that has been living and working at youth adventure camps in Europe for the past few years, our captain and his girlfriend that no one had ever met and me.
Rigging the flag for the journey
Two weeks behind schedule we set out. Seeing the rusty boats running with open throttles was exhilarating. The breeze was stiff with a weather forecast predicting rough seas in the Gulf of Mexico. After a day of weaving through oilrigs and dodging barges, we broke into the Gulf. Once out to sea we were greeted with calm seas and no one in sight. Everything went smooth for the first day in the Gulf until the one thing we all feared most happened…the toilet backed up.
After a full day of trying to use a bucket on rolling seas, it was time to fix the problem.
Imagine a sunny day in the Gulf of Mexico. The boats are chugging along at a steady ten knots and a strong breeze is picking up. A grizzlied individual emerges from the wheelhouse dressed in a full body harness and a twisted smile on his face. Moments later we loop a rope off the boat and he wraps the other end around his body, securing himself with a knot. Hoisting himself over the side of the boat, he positions himself above the gray water outlet. Making himself comfortable, he takes the bilge pump hose and stuffs it into the pipe.
Meanwhile, I don knee high rubber boots and rain bibs and head for the bathroom. Armed with a hose and a mop handle, I’m working from the top. I don’t know how I got stuck with this position, and I’d soon regret it. “Hit it!”, I holler. With a thump, the bilge pump turns on and he holds on tightly while the hose tries to break free. At the same time, I’m snaking another hose down from the top. Seeing the water level rising I scream, “Cut it off!”, over the roar of rushing water. Expecting an event similar to the eruption of Old Faithful, I close the lid and hope for the best. As the force of water hits the lid, water sprays violently from the sides. Tugging the bilge hose free, water sprays everywhere while the tank empties to a trickle. After a few episodes similar to this, the floor of the bathroom is ankle deep in water and the clog is free. Pulling the hose out of the pipe for the last time water flows freely and the tank finally empties. Climbing back into the boat he looks up with a big smile on his face and shouts, “I told you it would work!” As I wade through the destruction of the bathroom, I can only shake my head.
As the sun was setting behind the horizon, the wind and the waves began to grow with such force that by morning they were crashing over the wheelhouse. As the day went on, the swell got bigger and people got sick. By some fortunate luck of the draw, I was unfazed by the waves. So I manned the wheelhouse while the others found solace in our newly functioning toilet. For the next couple of days we rode the roller coaster waves and hoped for some relief from the storm. Long shifts on watch and little sleep made for very long days.
Riding the roller coaster during the storm. Notice the platform on the rear of the boat knocked loose by a wave.
In the mayhem, the two boats had taken different courses and lost contact. Before separating, we had talked about stopping briefly in Grand Cayman to calm our nerves. So, we rounded Cuba and headed for the small British territory.
Grand Cayman has a large sheltered bay on the north side of the island, which looked very inviting but is not for large boats. In fact, an enormous reef with few small channels blocks the bay. However, to a headstrong captain who thinks he can fit, the channel is plenty big enough. The channel proved to be wide enough, but not nearly deep enough. After a few minutes of crunching metal and trying to back off the bottom, we killed the engine. There was just too much wind at our back and not enough water to float us. It was official…we were ship wrecked on a Caribbean island.
After a few hours and help from a few locals, we managed to get off the reef. After calling it a night, we spent the next morning surveying the damage. Hitting the bottom had caused the nozzle around the prop to bend into the prop’s path. The rudder was also ready to fall off. We had some major work to make the ship seaworthy, if we could get it running again.
Tom enjoying the wildlife
The next day my friend and I caught a ride in to the mainland with the local who was helping with repairs. For a few hours, it looked like we would be sleeping on the streets for the night. We were having no luck getting a ride out to the other boat. Despite numerous setbacks, the guy who was helping us wouldn’t give up. Finally, he told us to wait on the dock for his friend to come and pick us up. He told us he was working on a dinner cruise and once the passengers were off, his friend would take us out to the other boat. Sure, we thought, he's finally tired of helping and just wants to get rid of us. Fully expecting to never see a boat, we piled our gear on the dock and waited.
It was a dark night and we couldn’t see out to sea very well. Then after a few minutes, we could hear music and boisterous laughter. Soon a large mass materialized in the darkness and headed right towards us. As the object came into view, we started laughing at what was meeting us at the dock. To the yelling and excitement of the passengers, the three-mast sailing galleon shot a fake cannon toward us. As they pulled into the dock, the crew of the pirate ship were swinging from the yardarms and riling up the passengers After practically pushing the passengers off the boat, the crew welcomed us aboard. Within a few minutes, we were being greeted alongside the Miss Christine V with warmth and lots of confusion.
The pirate ship on Grand Cayman
Two days later, I caught a flight back to the states from the island. I was both sad and relieved to head home from the craziness of the trip. Most of the crew stuck around waiting for boat repairs and enjoying the sun before the long cruise across the pond. Once the boats made it out of Grand Cayman, they ran into more mechanical trouble and had to island hop down to Trinidad. They spent another few days there working on the boat before heading across the Atlantic. They eventually made it to Croatia, about a month and a half behind schedule. Out of eight original crew members only two made the entire trip.
I know I missed an even bigger adventure leaving early, but any good boater knows when to call it. Plus, there was a lot of excitement and plenty of memories while I was still around. Looking back at the trip, I learned quite a bit and had a good time; there were personality conflicts, horrendous weather, shipwrecks and pirate ships. Because of this, the trip will be one I’ll never forget. When I think of that time, I can’t help but smile.
Being on the water in a completely foreign craft was a lot of fun and I hope I will have another opportunity like that again. Coming back to the great winter we had here in Idaho was definitely not a bad thing, though. As soon as I got home, I went skiing.