CLOSE ENCOUNTERS – OF THE OIL RIG KIND!
Like They Say, You Can’t Make This Stuff Up!
My first “charter boat” was a 24 foot, deep vee, outboard powered hull – a fine sea boat for it’s size, but sometimes a little less boat than a customer was looking for. There were several larger vessels available for me to schedule trips on, but when Dan offered me a sweet deal to run trips on his boat, it perked my interest more than usual. A 33 footer custom built on a surplus Navy utility hull of Uniflite manufacture, Chick Sharp of Freeport, Texas had made this one special. With its rounded chine and wheelhouse cabin, it had a down east lobster boat look, but the huge open deck and Pipe Welder’s tower said pure sportfishing boat. A pretty vessel, with teak foredeck and mahogany rails, it was powered by an old Cat V-8 diesel – slow, but dependable and fuel efficient. Dan proposed that we pay expenses up front and split the remainder of the charter fee between us, which was better than most owners were offering me. The only hitch was that he wanted to be aboard as crew.
The thing about Dan, you see, is that he had a little drinking problem. The morning our first charter group – two couples from Ft. Worth, Texas – arrived, he had already been in the rum bottle before daylight, or didn’t get out of it from the night before! As we cleared the jetties and headed out across a slick Gulf of Mexico, he was entertaining the two wives by showing them pictures of his wife, cat, bird, and whatever else he had snap shots of in that long, accordian style wallet he had unfolded for them. One of the husbands grinned and asked me if there was an extra charge for the entertainment.
“No Sir, but you don’t get a refund if you get tired of listening to him, either. Ya’ll will likely never see him again after today, so I hope you can keep him amused. I have to hear all his stories on a regular basis, ‘cause like a lot of drunks, he talks in an endless loop – repeating himself over and over. If he starts in on me, I’ll run the boat from the tower – he won’t climb up there when he’s drinking. The good news is, we don’t really need him on this trip – just his boat. If he falls down and can’t get up, just roll him out of the way. If he falls overboard, well, let’s just say we might not hunt for him too long before going back to huntin’ fish.”
When I turned to deliver the last of my little speech, I noticed both customers were holding large mugs filled with stout smelling Bloody Marys, and I had seen them load a big bourbon bottle aboard. You folks will probably get along with ol’ Dan just fine, was what I was thinking to myself.
It was a fine day to be on the water, but the fishing was a little slow. We tied up to a favorite rig early, and although I hooked a nice snapper for the older of the two ladies – who sat in a chair and declared that this was her kind of fishing, “A good-looking man hooks the thing and reels it up for me, too!”, as she worked on her own Bloody Mary – the men folks weren’t doing so well. After catching a few bluefish, triggerfish, and spadefish, they were ready to move. A short run to the east put us at another rig, where the snapper were more cooperative, but the older couple were both sick by now, and the other couple couldn’t seem to connect with the fish. As time began to run out, I picked up my favorite snapper rod and began to catch their fish for them. Dan joined me in the effort, but had no better luck than the customers – probably something to do with lack of coordination, at this point. The week before, two guys on my boat had pronounced me a “natural born snapper fisherman” because I had “the touch” that day, and caught fish after fish while neither of them got a hookup. The truth was, on the previous trip a group of total rookies had out fished me badly, but that’s why it’s just called fishing.
Well, on the way back in, Dan was getting talkative, so I finally climbed up in the tower to get away from him. It was a fine evening, flat seas, mild temperatures, fish hitting all over the surface of the water – and me up high enough that it seemed I could see forever. I could see far enough to notice a shrimp boat coming out from Freeport on a course that was too close to a collision heading for my liking. Every time I changed my direction a little, however, the shrimper changed his also. I didn’t have the speed to get by him, so when they got too close I slowed to barely making way to let the other boat pass. Instead, they came almost to a stop and pulled alongside us. There were only three men on the boat that I could see, the skipper and two deckhands. It might have been just me, but the skull and crossbones they had painted on the bow after the vessel name made me a little nervous. The skipper came out of the wheelhouse – not a normal procedure – and asked if we wanted to trade beer for shrimp. This is a time honored tradition along the Texas coast, but this boat was just leaving port – they shouldn’t have had any shrimp to trade, and it was a little early for them to start drinking. I yelled back from the tower that we had no beer on board, which was true enough. Then the fellow from the shrimpboat asked if we had any whiskey to trade. I looked down at my passengers, who held up an empty bottle, and told him no, he was too late for that, too.
“Don’tcha have anything to drink?”
“I started out with a personal six-pack, and there might be two left, but that’s it.”
“Well, we need to trade for something. I’ll pull up closer and put one of my guys aboard, and he’ll get those two beers from you.”
As the shrimper was trying to back to our stern, I yelled that I wasn’t interested, gave the old CAT all she had, and spurted in the other direction! I wasn’t sure what these folks had on their minds, but I didn’t think I wanted any part of it. I’ve always thought the big Gulf shrimpboats looked a lot like pirate ships out on the water, and I wasn’t sure but what this crew might have had a little shakedown action in mind!
The rest of the trip was uneventful. I ran the boat from the tower – even though it was getting chilly – until just before we turned from the canal into the marina, when Dan grabbed the lower station controls and started weaving the boat. I climbed down and replaced him at the helm, and pulled the boat up to my dock to unload the fish and customers. I told Dan if he’d hold on for a bit, I’d help him run to his house on a nearby canal, but while I was filleting fish, I heard the engine roar to life and watched him swerve towards home. One of his neighbors said he got the boat in OK, but couldn’t manage to walk up the steep bank to his house, finally had to crawl up it!
The next day, Dan came by to talk about what he remembered of the trip. The shrimpboat episode worried him more now than when it happened, evidently.
“What if those guys were trying to rob us? We didn’t even have a weapon on
“Oh yes we did. I had my brief case with my normal backup equipment I carry on other folks’ boats – a handheld VHF, a handheld GPS, a compass, and a 357 magnum – but it was down in the cabin and I was way up on the tower where I couldn’t get to it in time.”
“I’m not sure I like you bringing a gun on my boat and not telling me.”
“Wouldn’t take a trip with you without it, ol’ buddy. Never know when I might have to put you out of your misery!”
The other thing he wanted to talk about was the chain of events that had left him hanging off one of the rig legs like a big ol’ drunk monkey!
This had been a winter charter, and the days were still a little short, so when we got a good box of fish we elected to head back in early, due to the slow cruise speed of the single diesel. Dan used a short rig hook that you toss over a cross pipe on the rig. It has a piece of stainless cable taped along the bend of the hook which is supposed to come straight when pulled on hard enough to break the tape, thus springing the hook off the pipe. It had worked well enough on the first platform, but something went wrong on the second one. Dan had gone forward to try to shake it off, and I eased the boat up until the pulpit was just short of kissing the rig. After a few good shakes failed to dislodge the hook, Dangerous Dan decided to put his left arm around the platform leg nearest the crosspiece it was so securely looped around. He was sitting on the base of the pulpit and leaning against his bow rail when a little freak wave came up from the flat surface of the Gulf and lifted the bow about three feet. When it fell, the nose piece of the bow rail disconnected, Dan went through it, and was left dangling from the pipe as we drifted a few feet away! He was hugging the pipe with both arms now, kicking his legs wildly, and squealing and hollering – it was one of the funniest things I have ever seen that I didn’t have to pay money to watch! One of the male customers asked me if he should go up to help, but I was laughing too hard to answer. In less time than it takes to tell, I had the pulpit positioned directly beneath Dan’s posterior, and had stopped laughing enough to yell at him to let go and drop back on the boat.
“No, no! I’ll fall in the water!”
“If you do, we’ll try to pull you out. No, hold on a minute, we need to get a picture of this before we rescue you!” Unfortunately, nobody on board had a camera!
Three times I had the pulpit touching his butt, and the last time I guess I jarred him loose from the rig leg, because he fell back through the bow rail – which parted again – and landed on his back with his feet in the air, – still kicking! This was as funny as watching him grappling the rig, and I suffered another fit of laughter as the boat drifted back in the current. When he got himself straightened out, Dan came running back to the wheelhouse, where I was still giggling.
“Damn you, Holmes, if you ever tell anybody about this …”
“TELL them? I’m going to write this story up for the whole country to enjoy!”
“Well, just don’t tell my wife, she might get worried.”
“Oh, she’s the first one I intend to share this tale with, – she’ll get a big kick out of it! Honestly, Dan, I know you can’t see the humor in this right now, but I promise you it was priceless!”
Of course, I changed Dan’s name here to protect the guilty, but I’d swear on a Cummins diesel turbocharger that the story is true. The charter business has its ups and downs, but it can be damn interesting, at times!