Storm Warning

At Sea — August 2004
By Capt. Bill Pike

Storm Warning
For the edification and benefit of benighted boobs.

Illustration: Joseph Daniel Fiedler
 More of this Feature

• Part 1: Storm Warning
• Part 2: Storm Warning continued

 Related Resources
• At Sea Index

The most intense storm I’ve ever crossed courses with occurred on Lake Superior in November of 1981. It was a bruiser, at least from the standpoint of wave height, which topped out at about 35 feet.

Even old salts get jittery under such conditions. Everybody onboard the M/V Buffalo that night, experienced or not, flat forgot about sleep, opting instead to gather communally in the wheelhouse in bulky orange survival suits to watch the ship fight the sea in the eerie glow of her big spotlights. Freezing water sloshed in the companionways not far below. Sweaty silence prevailed as the 635-foot ore carrier rhythmically submerged her massive bow beneath the monster waves. And triumphant cheers arose each time she came back up, vibrating like a giant tuning fork struck with a vast, celestial hammer.

Other storms have enlivened my seafaring career, of course. And some, while not as intense as the one on Lake Superior, made much more profound impressions. Take, for example, the hurricane that hit the Gulf of Mexico in the autumn of 1985. It turned me into a true believer, wholly committed to keeping boats and bad weather separate. I’ve stuck to my guns ever since, too, even trotting out my convictions publicly from time to time for the edification and benefit of benighted boobs who decide to “ride out” approaching hurricanes onboard their boats to see what it’s “really like out there.”

Wind speeds of over 100 mph were recorded for that storm, along with a penchant for fluky changes in direction. The darn thing was so fickle-minded, in fact, that it completely fooled the oil-company experts of the day—they failed to evacuate a large offshore natural gas platform while winds were light and helicopters could still fly, a miscalculation they eventually addressed by sending a tug-supply vessel to the rescue, the one I happened to be working on at the time—the M/V Point Liberty.

The Liberty was a wonderful boat, constructed of welded steel plate by Halter Shipyards at Moss Point, Mississippi, with an LOA of 197 feet, a beam of 40 feet, and draft of 15 feet. She sported twin EMD engines, a towing winch the size of a tract house, and a yacht-like interior.

The storm wasn’t far off when we backed down on the platform, and the dangers and difficulties inherent in safely getting 35 guys hundreds of feet down onto a heaving deck in thunderous seas is worth a story in itself. Suffice it to say that on the way back to the base in Cameron, Louisiana, every one of them got seasick. While some simply flaked out on the galley floor like disaster victims, the rest took a more active role, heaving their guts out in all sorts of inappropriate places. The Liberty’s crew was queasy as well, and exhausted—we’d been running shorthanded for months due to a downturn in the oil and gas biz.

Night came, and with it torrential rain. From my plush seat at the helm, I caught myself looking astern periodically, trying to keep tabs on the storm breathing down our necks, as if I might be able to see it and somehow stop it.

Next page > Part 2: The hurricane was upon us. My eyes weren’t working. My radar wasn’t working. And my mind wasn’t working too well, either. > Page 1, 2

This article originally appeared in the July 2004 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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