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Simple Seamanship in a Hurricane

Home on the Range

When all else fails, and sometimes it does, keep it simple and rely on the way things used to be.

boat in rough seas

It was about midnight and the first thing to get my attention was the wind. We had evacuated about 25 guys from an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico a few hours before and apparently the northbound hurricane that had been threatening them was just now catching up to us. The sound in the mast above the wheelhouse was absolutely frightening. I’ve overused the words banshee wail many times in my life but this was the real deal. For some reason the autopilot was still holding a decent course so I left the helm for a pair of seconds to check on the readout for the anemometer—it was jittering at 80 knots. It had been 30 knots only a short time before.

The wheelhouse was empty except for me—I found it to be an exceptionally and memorably lonely place to be. 

The goal, of course, was a straightforward one. We were to get everybody, oil-field workers and crew, back to Cameron, Louisiana, safely. The oil company our 197-foot Halter tug/supply vessel worked for at the time had dithered around until it was too late and too dangerous to evacuate the rig by helicopter, leaving the job up to us. At least we had a fine specimen of a Halter—the M/V Point Liberty was darn near brand new.

Right now I was eyeballing my radar screen, looking for the Cameron sea buoy. Peering through the windshield was just about useless because of the rain, even though the windshield wipers were going full blast. I’d been running in and out of Cameron for months at this point so I should have been able to pick out the buoy easily. But no dice. What could be going on? And there was other trouble, too. The jetties were not showing up on the screen either. And in fact the whole shoreline looked different!

I experienced a chilling burst of sheer panic as the boat lurched and lunged in what seemed like 12- to 15-foot seas, maybe more. Had I somehow made a giant navigational error and arrived in the vicinity of the wrong port? Eddy, the deckhand, came up the stairway—I liked Eddy and I was very glad to see him. But hey, I wasn’t going to let him know I didn’t quite know where the heck we were.

“They’re all sick down there,” said Eddy, shaking his head, “It’s quite a mess.”

The presence of another human being revived my thinking processes. Yeah, I was looking at Cameron all right, but Cameron had been inundated by the storm’s tidal surge. The rock jetties were underwater and therefore invisible on radar. The shoreline looked different on radar too. And what’s more, the sorry truth of the matter was that I could see no aids to navigation at all on the screen, let alone the sea buoy. They were all apparently underwater too. There were no reds, no greens, no nothin’. And without these babies, getting into Cameron without wrecking the Liberty on the rocks of the jetties was going to be quite a little project.

Like a rat in a trap, I began searching my mind for solutions. I knew the compass course I should be on to transit the channel safely but the motion of the boat was so outrageous that that sort of thing wasn’t going to work. And besides, I didn’t have a sea buoy to work with as a point of departure. I contemplated turning around and going back into deeper, less troubled waters but the idea seemed preposterous—who knew how bad the hurricane would ultimately get and how long it would ultimately last? I shot a glance at the SatNav on the chart table—as was typical, it had gone belly up. No luck there.

Then an answer, you might say, flashed. I noticed a bright light—or the loom of a bright light—ahead and it saved the day, or rather the night. I’d forgotten that Cameron offered a range, two lights on towers ashore, one over the other, that could be used like rifle sights by a navigator to negotiate the channel correctly. Because of the rain, I wasn’t able to see both lights at the same time, but I could see one and sort of remember where I’d seen the other, and in this slap-dash way keep tabs on my approximate position and progress.

It worked. By cutting my speed slightly, using the range lights, keeping a close eye peeled on the depthsounder, and combining Eddy’s interpretation of the rain-blasted view through the forward windows with my own, we made it safely into Cameron and the oil company’s dock that night.

And lemme tell ya—nobody was happier about this development than yours truly.

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.