Mission Improbable

Capt. Bill Pike is tasked with the impossible: bringing a 200-foot supply vessel from Trinidad to Louisiana without refueling.

There’s something exotic about communicating via single-sideband marine radio. The distorted, far-off way a conversation sounds is part of the deal, I guess. There’s an almost cinematic quality to it, especially if you’re participating in a call while standing in the wheelhouse of an oilfield boat pulled alongside a frowzy dock down in Trinidad, as I was back in the frowzy mid-80s. The marine superintendent of the company I worked for at the time was on the other end. His name was Gary. And he’d gotten a little feisty of late, given the deplorable state the “oil patch” was in. Boats, and the folks who worked for the companies that owned the boats, were being laid off right and left.

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“I just can’t authorize takin’ on fuel in Port O’ Spain right now—we don’t have the money,” said Gary. “Whataya want me to do? Come down there and write you a damn check outta my personal account?”

“But Gary,” I said, “how are we gonna get home?”

“Figure it out,” said Gary before signing off. “Magellan did!”

Of course, actually, Magellan didn’t. But, at the time, there seemed little sense in arguing. I sat down on one of the settees and looked at my buddy, J.B. The two of us had been roommates at the maritime academy. And we’d since been through lots together, from deckhand jobs on the Mississippi to delivering high-speed patrol boats to cloak-and-dagger types in Central America. But this was a newbie—somehow, we were supposed to shepherd the Point Liberty, a 200-foot supply vessel, from Trinidad to Morgan City, Louisiana without enough fuel to actually make the trip.

What happened next was truly memorable. J.B. began rifling through lockers in the wheelhouse while muttering to himself, eventually coming up with a large book entitled (as I remember it) Atlas of Pilot Charts for the North Atlantic Ocean. He cracked it open on the chart table, turned to the pages concerning winds and currents in the Caribbean and, after a little study, shot me a hopeful look. J.B. was nothing if not resourceful in those days.

“What if we take advantage of the currents,” he said, pointing, “and lock down the shaft on one of the engines with a Stillson wrench? Then go slow?”

The can-do nature of this theory both surprised and encouraged me, given the way things had been going. What a dog of a trip it had been! First, just south of Cuba, we’d blown a head gasket on one of the Detroit Diesel gensets, a problem the chief engineer had only semi-addressed by cutting a temporary gasket from an old chart. Then, in the Trinidadian seaside town of Chaguaramus, a dozen or so Canadian pipeline divers had walked off the boat in a huff after discovering that the Liberty, despite her relative newness, did not have the Dynamic Positioning System they’d been promised. Instead of precise, computer-controlled hovering, all the Liberty offered was J.B. and I, a couple of dicey humans, throttle-jockeying two engines and a bow thruster. And then finally, having run up a pile of gambling debts in Port O’ Spain, the chief engineer had absconded, also in a huff, mostly because the Liberty’s crew wouldn’t bail him out. As a parting gift, he’d overfilled both main engines with lube oil, a nasty ploy that blasted the greasy stuff out of the stacks and all over everything (including a hyperbaric chamber and a small yellow submarine) when we subsequently cranked up.

“J.B,” I said, tapping the Pilot Atlas with enthusiasm, “you are a freakin’ genius, man!”

While I can’t remember exactly how many gallons of diesel we saved by slowing down and removing one engine from the propulsion equation, the amount was just enough when teamed up with the currents we rode all the way back to Morgan town. Heck, I believe the Liberty finally pulled in with almost 300 gallons to spare. And to this day, I still feel like, during the whole extravaganza, I was party to a modest but genuine feat of seamanship. And my old friend J.B., who I’m sad to say passed away last year, deserves all the credit.

This article originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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