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When faced with a vicious storm and dangerous conditions on board, Capt. Bill Pike knew the only one who could help him make the right decision was himself.

Illustration by Kent Barton

I seldom tell sea stories these days, but this one makes a worthwhile point. It opens on a dark night, long ago, in the Gulf of Mexico, some 120 nautical miles south of Cameron, Louisiana. The oil company I worked for at the time had done some procrastinating. As a result, a hurricane had gotten so close to one of its semisubmersibles that helicopters could no longer land. Winds were too strong.

So now, it was the M/V Point Liberty’s job to finish evacuating the rig—whisk the remaining employees safely back to Cameron—and, so far, we’d done okay. We’d gotten everyone safely aboard, although each time the big personnel basket had come down from the rig with four more roustabouts, slamming the Liberty’s heaving deck with a chaotic thunk, I’d feared the worst. And the guys were comfortable now, although they were all sick. Abandoning the stable deck of a semi for a boat—even a 200-footer—in 18-foot seas means sick is inevitable.

Halfway back to Cameron, the Liberty’s wheelhouse was empty except for myself and Eddy, the lookout, who slept on a settee. Earlier, Eddy had been on deck, in the midst of the mayhem for hours. He was exhausted, snoring. Although the windshield wipers slapped, I could see zilch. I checked the anemometer—it jittered at 40 knots, meaning we were perhaps outrunning the northbound storm.

Just south of the coast, an eerie rushing sound began. What was that? An engine problem, heaven forbid? An auditory hallucination caused by my own brand of exhaustion? I gave the anemometer another glance—the needle skittered ahead as wind in the massive steel mast above the wheelhouse began wailing … 60 knots, 65 knots, 70 knots, 80 knots, 85 knots!

Fear nearly overwhelmed me. From what I could tell, given the extreme yaw of the vessel and the depths of the watery green valleys I saw beyond the bow when I flicked on the spotlights, I was dealing with hurricane-driven following seas, huge ones. But where the heck was I? Was that Cameron looming ahead? My radar imagery looked unfamiliar. Where was the sea buoy? The two, long rock jetties extending seaward? The buoys beyond the jetties?

Then, I got it. Everything was underwater, submerged beneath the surge pushed north by the storm. Moreover, because all physical cues were gone, the Liberty’s radar was now about as useless as her brand-new SatNav which, for some inexplicable reason, had not coughed up a position in hours.

Cameron’s lights beckoned. But what if I hit the jetties going in and tore the bottom out of the boat? I started a turn in the depths of a likely trough, thinking I’d head back south to gain time and sea room. But we almost rolled over. So back I went to my northbound course, throttled ’er way down, and continued to peer into the fury ahead.

But was there something way out there? Maybe? Were there two lights, one steady and the other blinking, vertically aligned, one over the other? Range lights? Range lights I’d used to negotiate the jetties many times before? I took a calculated risk, aimed for the vague glow, and eventually steadied up on a course that matched the range’s charted bearing.

It worked! Soon the Liberty was tied alongside, discharging passengers, and I was considering a point that’s as valid today as it was back then. Marine technology is generally useful and trustworthy. But sometimes—under certain circumstances—self-reliance must take precedence. Indeed, it must become, of necessity, the operative factor.

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