I used to live on a sailboat in a little marina in St. Petersburg, Florida. And, during this era of my life, I also worked at sea, for starters on oil-field boats and then on oceangoing tugs. In any case, after a week or two “on the beach,” a phrase professional mariners use to describe their time ashore, I would pack up my personal effects in a big, blue waterproof sea bag and, just before pulling the zipper closed, toss in a bunch of recreational marine magazines, some loaded with new and used boats for sale.
That would make me ready to go. And often, I wouldn’t be back for months, traveling the high seas, while my slip mates kept an eye on my boat. It was a carefree sort of life, although, like most everything else, it had its trials.
Wintertime in the Gulf of Mexico was one of the biggies. In spite of the fronts that barrel through the Gulf on a more or less weekly basis after Christmas, pushing sea conditions that can get fairly outrageous, offshore supply vessels back then were expected to deliver drilling mud, drill pipe and other supplies to offshore rigs no matter what. Things could turn dangerous and life threatening in a hurry, although this was of little account really. There were so many boats vying for jobs in the bad old days that refusing an oil company’s demands meant getting fired. If you didn’t comply, the tool pusher simply hired another boat and everybody was out of a job.
As you’d imagine, stress was a big-time factor. And indeed, one of the most stressful aspects of supply-boat work back then entailed hovering a given boat (most of them were at least 200 feet long) under a rig’s crane for hours because it was too rough to tie up without breaking mooring lines. You had to keep the -vessel more or less “on station,” stern-to in rousing seas, using only the main engines and a powerful bow thruster. Often, there’d be three or four roustabouts on the heaving deck, under the crane, hooking up bundles of drill pipe or giant chunks of machinery or hoses. The life-and-death implications of the process were hard to ignore.
But we did, often for extended periods. I have no trouble remembering the long, tension-ridden nights spent sitting in the wheelhouse, at the aft station, operating the controls, while roustabouts danced around with 6-to-8-foot waves washing through the boat’s open transom and the engines and thruster roaring like they’d been sent for. Two hours of this wasn’t unusual. Four hours wasn’t extraordinary. Six or seven hours? Possibly.
Here’s the deal, though: One of the primary things that kept me engaged, energized and hopeful during these stints—or any of the long difficult watches I pulled while working at sea—were the magazines I’d stuffed into my sea bag before departing for the wild blue yonder. No matter how stressful, boring and exhausting things became, I could always look forward to the expansive feelings of escape I got from eventually going below to my relatively quiet cabin to read in the rack, if only for a few minutes before nodding off.
Of course, my life is now a great deal different than it used to be. And the boating I do is a great deal less difficult. But there are at least a couple of aspects that haven’t changed. Not only do I still own a sea bag but, before closing it up for a weekend on board the Betty Jane II, I invariably toss in a couple of marine magazines. Call it habit. Call it whatever. But to this day, reading in the rack remains one of the most promising, soothing, calming endeavors I can think of.