© Copyright 1998 by Richard George
The personal proximity involved in working with another corporeal human in the activities surrounding drilling, for twenty four hours a day, seven days a week spread out over a two week period creates close friendships or life long enmity.
Jerry and I became fast friends and our off time was spent on the Aransas Bay. Jerry had purchased a sail boat. Reasoning that the cost of an apartment could be put to better use as the cost of owning a boat. So he paid for the boat and I paid for the mooring fee and we spent most of one summer learning to sail and learning to shrimp. The deal was this; we met and became friends with a shrimp boat captain. He knew how to sail, and how to catch shrimp, but he needed help with his shrimp boat. We all agreed that it would be a glorious adventure indeed if he: Captain Frank, would teach us to sail and we in our turn would help Captain Frank catch shrimp.
The first lesson about catching shrimp was that it starts really early in the day. Our first day as shrimpers we woke to banging and raucous shouting on the deck of our boat. Captain Frank's shrimp boat was standing by, ready to cast off for the shrimp beds. Captain Frank was standing on the deck; beating on the overhead and shouting. He had said the evening before that he would be by early, but it's only two thirty. Nobody gets up that early! Nobody but Frank, we could hear the boat motor running, and Frank continued to shout, so hurriedly dressing we went out to quiet Frank. He insisted we get right aboard the shrimp boat so he could get under way. At this time Frank's favorite Bon Mott was; "Time waits for no man and shrimp won't wait either." He developed others as he ventured into teaching Jerry and I the rudiments of nearly everything.
Shrimping is not a lifestyle that caters to creature comforts. Franks only concession to his "Shore critters" was a big thermos of hot coffee. He provided that to prevent our imminent mutiny when we realized he had no intention of stopping at the shoreside bar and grill to have breakfast.
Shrimping is hard work. Shrimping is dirty work. I would not suggest that anyone seek out work as a shrimper--except of course someone who wanted to learn to sail. However on the positive side, the day is relatively short. By eleven that morning we had returned to the dock and had the mornings catch off loaded. Jerry and I left the fishermen's wharf with a bucket of live shrimp, some for our lunch and some for baiting hooks later on. Frank reinforced the idea that we were to supply a case of beer for our first lesson with the comment that, "if you guys sail like you shrimp might be that you ought to bring two cases and some food for us to eat after you run the boat aground."
"Morning Light", was a twenty seven foot wooden hulled boat with a fixed, weighted keel. Her draft was nine and a half feet. In the coastal waters that surround Texas this could be considered a handicap. Another handicap we had to give to the boat was that she did not wish to enter upon a starboard tack, and did so with great reluctance. Other than those two minor difficulties she was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. She was painted blue and white with teak wood fittings all around the exposed surfaces of the deck and cockpit. She was rigged for single hand sailing all except the balloon spinnaker which we only filled on one occasion. On the bulkhead that separated the cockpit from the cabin just below the small porthole was a brass plaque denoting the fact that this craft "Morning Light" had circumnavigated the globe in the year l978. This added to our feeling of confidence in our vessel.
At 4 o'clock in the evening Frank would motor us out into the deep water of the bay. There with the boat gently rocking in the swell he would instruct us on the day's maneuver. Then he would open his ever present beer can and brace himself on the floor of the cockpit to watch over our efforts. We learned to raise sail, we learned to lower sail we learned how to coil rope on the deck. We were taught how to store rope on the hooks below deck. On the first day out we found out about stowing every thing and securing all movable items below deck. We lived on this boat so every thing was thrown around according to whatever method existed in our heads for neatness and order. On our first time out Frank demonstrated that the boat was sailable and that he really knew how to bring this craft to life. He displayed the mystic attraction to sailing. To sail is to live! Both the sailor and the boat come alive, thrilling to the hum of the wind through the rigging. The master employs the verities of nature to bring the living experience into vivid focus around himself and his mistress, the vessel.
Following the demonstration of capability for both the craft and Captain Frank, he suggested we go below to check out how well we had stowed every thing prior to our little jaunt. In the cabin everything that could move had. All had moved from wherever it had been placed, to find a new place, on the deck boards that formed the walk way through the cabin. Mattress', clothing, cooking utensils, radio, clock, every thing we used was on the deck. This was a teaching experience for Frank, he never missed an opportunity to correct either of us that mentioned a "Wall" or a "Floor" or a "Window", and you know he never again had to take note of the need to secure every thing below decks before laying on sail.
The simple pleasures we took from sailing, shrimping, and the local night life was broken by the periodic return to the oil field and related activities. We cycled through the summer in two week intervals of work and play. Following our latest on duty stint our relief showed up in the evening. Returning to the Motel we stowed our gear in the automobile and made the trip back to the beach.
Captain Frank came by on our first morning back. He seemed pleased that we were once more on the beach. He noted that a magazine article he had read recently took the position that a good belly laugh every day would increase one's life span by a significant number of years. He followed that observation by saying that his association with us had already put him in contention for outliving Methuselah.
Frank's program for our continuing education as bay sailors would have us learning to "Jybe, Tack, and Heave to".
Next day at four o'clock sharp Captain Frank began casting off the moorings, Jerry started the motor and I manned the tiller. As we motored out into deeper water Captain Frank explained that the maneuver known as "heave to" meant "to stop", or stop as nearly as possible without tossing out the anchor. To accomplish a Heave to maneuver all one had to do was direct the bow of the boat into the wind. This "took the wind out of the sails" and without a propelling force the boat would cease directed motion. Non directed motion takes place at the whim of water currents, wave action, and of course the pressure of the wind on the hull and mast moves the boat. To place this into vehicular idiom I will say this. Even though you have taken your foot off the gas pedal and taken the vehicle out of gear, you will continue to move because the roadway moves you. The idea I am trying to express is that you really never stop when you are out there on the water, every thing you do will affect direction and maybe speed, but stopping is not within your control. I tell you this so the following events will make more sense to you.
Jerry and I both practiced this maneuver several times from the Port tack, the starboard tack, and from beating downwind. Then we both had our turn at doing as Frank suggested to make the maneuver more smooth and professional feeling. "On board my boat feeling is everything, if it feels good, it looks good, and if it looks good it is good."(Captain Frank).
The wind and water currents had worked their way with the boat during our practice exercises, and now we were quite far off shore. We found ourselves far enough out that the shore was no longer visible and this caused some apprehension. I looked at Jerry to gage his attitude but noticed nothing out of order, unless it could be that he was more attentive when Captain Frank began to explain the procedure for sailing the boat back to the harbor. There appeared on the horizon a black smudge that Frank said we should steer for. He noted that the carbon black processing plant was just east of town and that the plume of emissions from it's smoke stack could be seen for miles out in the Gulf, noting further that all the gulf shrimpers used it as a homing signal when they returned from their shrimping trips.
Frank's idea was that we should sail the boat home while he rested on the deck boards of the cockpit drinking beer. To arrive at that accomplishment Frank had to give us a brief understanding of how to arrive at one chosen place by aiming the boat someplace else. In nautical language he taught us how to tack. He at this time taught us the all important call, "coming about", which warned everybody on the craft that the boom was going to move across the cockpit and that the boat would heel to another course. There is another voice command issued when the maneuver is completed but we never used it, choosing instead to revert to a Texan's, "Yeee Hawww!" Just as often the command was issued in the oil field lingo, "Keep it Turning to the right!" This had nothing to do with boat direction but it seemed good, so we continued.
From time to time the boat would jybe without warning, our ineptness and lack of attention caused Frank considerable mirth. On one of these occasions I asked Frank why there was no nautical type call to be shouted out in the case of an inadvertent jybe? He laughed and laughed, nearly made himself sick. Finally there was an interlude to the laughter where he inserted, "No one but a dumb assed Kentucky Hillbilly that drilled holes in Texas sand would have ever thought of that!" Then red faced and shouting he said, "You are not supposed to let that happen, the tiller man controls the boom and the sail and if you pay attention to what is happening the boat will not be able to jybe unintentionally." Then laughing again he said, "No more beer for you laddie buck, nothing but bread and water till you see the error of your ways."
This day on the sail boat with the blue sky, the sparkling sea foaming around the hull, a spanking good breeze, and companionship with Jerry and Frank stands fully illuminated in the murky corridors of my memory. I sailed, Jerry sailed, and occasionally Frank sailed. We crossed the void of reality into the time that never ends. The wind blew, foam chased the wind across the deck, my hair was parted by the air that had been where I could never go. The boat told it's story in creaks and groans. The sails added their lusty snap as though to punctuate the tale.
At near dusk we worked to secure the craft on it's four tethers that would protect it from rasping against the mooring. With light heart two erstwhile creatures of the land descended from their mystic vessel wherein they had been transformed into men of the sea. There on the dock the initiation was consummated. Captain Frank assuming the mantel of the "High Priest" of sailing men, laid his hands on our shoulders and said, "You'll do." No higher praise will ever come my way.
Our days on the beach were idyllic, we shrimped two days a week unless Frank ran out of shrimp and then we would go out one more morning with him. We sailed some every day occasionally Frank would go with us, particularly if exploration of some far off bay or island was intended. We needed Franks knowledge of the water ways and when we grounded it was good to have his experience along. We did ground the boat on occasion, I have no feel for our averages or how they tallied up with the rest of the sailing world, but we were thankful that most of the bottom on the Gulf coast was mud or sand.
Over time a drill was developed, whoever had the tiller dropped the sail and moved to stand on the stern. The other occupant would go overboard to either stand on the sand and push us back into deeper water, or in the event that the water was too deep for standing. Swimming and pushing would get the job done too. The key element in all this was for one of us to get out of the boat. This allowed the boat to float up higher in the water and thus be freed of the bottom. The first time Frank had occasion to observe this drill he thought we had stove in the bottom and were abandoning ship. He came up off the cockpit deck dropped his beer and began to shout "Don't leave me boys!" The magazine article was right. It does a body good to have a great belly laugh.
Mariners will always thrill to adventure no matter the medium. An intergalactic vessel between planets will provide the thrill of discovery, and that thrill will always be the highest order of living.
People not acquainted with the oil field might feel that the return to work on the rig, after such exotic exercises as we enjoyed on the beach, would become a bother. Not so, the call of adventure awaiting out there was always the most exciting activity anybody could hope to be engaged in. Every day on the drill site was a day spent at learning something new and different. No two ten foot increments of well were ever alike, similar yes, but, always different.
We returned to a company man's delight, the hole was moving down at between five and seven feet per hour. The rate of penetration has every one in a good mood. The drill, however lost headway on the fourth day and a trip to replace the bit was begun. Tripping for the logger is something like a short vacation, our most demanding task is to count the strokes to fill, following the removal of a stand of pipe. So, we rest and dream of a boat with the sails full of good wind.
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Another story by Richard: Red River Gorge