Going Overboard

a coast under clouds

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 10 No. 3, "Coastal Affair." Find more from that issue here.

I sit down to make an accounting of my year in the offshore oilfields merchant marine with a certain woman in mind, a woman I never met who signs herself Betty c. On my last night as a sailor I found a message from her on the overhead of my bunk. 

Women are rare in the Gulf Coast oilfields. In 1979 males outnumbered females hundreds, maybe thousands, to one; a message from one oilfield woman to another was surprising in itself. So I had reason to take this communication seriously, even though it disturbed me. 

Bordered by a rude drawing of oversized male genitals and written in the uncertain hand of a near-illiterate, it said: “I like to fuck anytime. Big Dicks for the Cook. Betty c.” 

After a moment’s thought, I set my rebuttal alongside it: “A woman’s place is in the wheelhouse.” But my dialogue with Betty c. was not so easily concluded. 

Flat on my back on that boat, Betty, lust was maybe the least of my preoccupations. Up until the time I went to work on the boats, I’d thought of myself as a man’s woman. Women, I believed, led boring and limited lives. Men were free; I thrived on their company. I’d fallen in love no fewer than 22 times in my life. But after a year in the merchant marine I would’ve traded my entire reproductive apparatus for a chance to do my job in peace. 

I was the first woman, or maybe only one of the first — Guinness doesn’t keep records in this category — to work as a deckhand on the oilfield supply vessels. The work was hard; the men were harder. They tested me, courted me, competed with me, nearly killed me once or twice. Through it all they insisted they knew what women like me were about. “No woman comes out here in the man’s world ’less she just wants to get fucked.” I denied that, Betty, in the name of female sailors everywhere. But then I found your mark. 

Betty, I only wish I knew you, that we could talk. Failing that, I wish you could read. Because today I sit down to write you a book. 

Morgan City
This is it, the jumping-off point, edge of the known world. Many who come here to make their fortunes, or, like me, only to jump off the world for a while, are not seen again. You may never have heard of Morgan City, Louisiana, but it is a major capital of American blue-collar nomadic culture and hub of the Gulf Coast offshore oilfields. A sign on its outskirts identifies it as “Morgan City - Home of the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival.” “One Hundred Years of Progress,” reads another. I would erect a different sign: “Morgan City — Epicenter of Too Many Booms. One Hundred Years of Boomism.” 

In 1874 Morgan City built a moss factory and enjoyed a modest boom in sphagnum harvested from the surrounding Atchafalaya Basin swamp. The arrival of the railroads brought full-scale booms in timber and shipbuilding, a boomlet in beeswax and honey, booms in pelican oil, otter and beaver pelts, egret plumes, alligator hides. Then came the booms in crab meat, oysters, pogyfish, jumbo shrimp. Never mind that the Pelican State no longer has a pelican to its name — nor an otter, nor a beaver — or that its alligator and egret populations were saved from extinction only by unwelcome federal intervention, or that the oyster and shrimp catches get thinner every year; a boom is a boom, irresistibly here today while the getting’s good, gone tomorrow when the boomstuff runs out. Morgan City stands in the ruins of her sequential booms and seems not to mind the temporariness of it all. The booms just keep coming. 

In 1949 came the most powerful economic explosion to date: the boom in black gold, crude oil. If the oil lay beneath Morgan City’s main street, the city fathers would surely have called in the bulldozers and wiped their town off the map. But the oil is pooled downstream and offshore, beneath the blue gumbo mud and coral shelves of the Gulf of Mexico. Morgan City, with its well-developed port and its central location, is the oilfields’ major freight and manpower depot. 

Around the clock the oilfield supply ships arrive at the docks, load up with supplies for the rigs, and run back down the Atchafalaya to the Gulf. Because offshore oil rigs are manmade islands, the supply vessels — and to some extent, a fleet of helicopters — must ferry the rigs’ groceries, their fuel and water, their machinery and men. The men who crew the rigs and the supply ships work in shifts of one or more weeks at a time without a shore break. On the midweek days when the rig and boat crews change over to allow the offshore workers their home leave, Morgan City’s single main highway breaks out in clumps of bad-toothed hitchhikers carrying makeshift seabags. (All along the oilfield coast a plastic garbage bag is referred to as a Morgan City suitcase.) Those lonesome, horny, homeless, hard-muscled men are known to the locals as oilfield trash, rigrats

All rigrats are male. All but a few of them are under 30 years old, Caucasian, nomadic. They lead a bruising life on the underside of American protection and plenty, bumming their way from the Gulf Coast oilfields to the Baltimore Canyon to the Alaska pipeline and back, always back. Some of them get as far away as the oilfields of Africa, Venezuela, the North and China seas. But Morgan City is their training ground, their jumping-off point, the one town they can count on for a ready job if all else fails. Such men are always in demand in the oilfields; the oil companies can never seem to hire on enough of them. Morgan City couldn’t prosper without them. But nobody really wants them at all. They are rogue males in the grip of testosterone wanderlust and you can smell it on them. 

An old friend of mine, Slammin’ Sam Baxter, had steered me to Morgan City and a cooking job on the oilfield supply boats. He’d guaranteed I’d get the job I wanted on my first day in town. He’d even furnished me with a map that would lead me to Watercraft, a major oilfield boat company he thought would be hiring this time of year. 

I tore up my first try at the application, the one where I admitted to being former vice president of a Michigan Avenue advertising agency, former owner of a gourmet restaurant. I was no Yankee spy, no union organizer or investigative reporter. But my background might raise suspicion. On a fresh application form I demoted myself to former cook and waitress. 
I needn’t have troubled. Five hours in the steamy hiring shed must have done the trick.

Watercraft’s hiring secretary put me on without a second look. “You kin cook? Thass what we want. Start Tuesday, week from today. Be at the gate at oh-four-hunnert hours. Bring an alarm clock, no liquor, no mind-alterating drugs. All you gotta do is what the cap’n tells you. Cook job pays 45 dollars a day.” 

I boiled over with questions. What was the name of my boat? How many in the crew? Where would we be going? 

Mainly, what’s it like out there? 

She answered only the last, wrinkling her little white nose. “I don’t have the least idea. I wouldn’t go on one of them dirty boats if you paid me.”

First Friend
I don’t think I heard the word Cajun more than a dozen times in my year on the Cajun coast. The coast-correct, if vulgar, term for the Acadian French immigrants to Louisiana is coonass. Accent first syllable if you aren’t one, accent second syllable proudly, and soften the a, if you are. The Pride’s, regular skipper, Captain Auguste Godchaux, The Goose, was a full-blooded coonass who’d spent 31 of his 49 years as a sailor. 

Guste’s face was crook nosed and double chinned, lit by wise Gallic eyes that had seen, at one time or another, all the foolishness the world had to offer. The pattern of laugh lines on his face would seem to indicate that he approved of it. He was looking at me now. “Dey tell me I got a crazy-crazy Yankee cook, me. I din’ b’lieve dat shit. Now look! Turn y’seff aroun’.” He spun me. “Lookin’ somepin like a college gel to me. You college gel?” 

Guste invited me, and even expected me, to join him in the wheelhouse whenever the Pride left her moorings. Without my having asked for it, or even thought of it, he pushed me headlong into a full-time apprenticeship. Since diagrams written on paper were beyond him, he demonstrated the sometimes complex principles of navigation with a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. With only canoe experience behind me, I was hard put to keep up with his instructions. But Guste was that rarest of teachers. Not once did he explain a piece of equipment to me if I could take it into my own hands and discover for myself, through often tedious trial and error, how the thing worked. I’d never changed a flat tire in my life, or taken a math course willingly. But Guste had me calculating wind speed and current direction, boxing the compass and plotting our course after one lesson. 

Guste was especially tickled to be teaching me what no woman, by common oilfield consent, was ever allowed to learn. He promised that after a couple of weeks of lessons I’d be bringing the Pride down the bayou and into the locks by myself. 

I told Guste I’d been thinking about quitting cooking to work on deck for real. Deckhands had more interesting work to do, more loose time to learn things than the cook did. Here I’d landed myself the least exciting job on the boat, an indoor job. No sooner would I start a piloting lesson than it was time to make supper. My beloved volunteer night watches ended not in soft sleep but in tense preparations for breakfast. Guste himself had told me that decking was probably too heavy a job for a woman. Still, I wanted to try. 

As he lassoed the tall deck bitts time after time, I stood just beside him, mimicking his discus thrower’s posture, the wide arc of his right arm, his (it seemed to me) exaggerated follow through. He never missed. 

I took my own first 20 tries, and muffed them all. Hand-to-eye coordination had never been my strong suit. The small ragged crowd of men who gathered at our dockside gate were no help. They called out random and contradictory advice, nudging one another in the ribs and hooting as I missed the bitt and missed again and missed again. 

Guste, hanging back, just scowled at them. 

I would have liked to quit. Even when the line grazed its target, my loops invariably failed to open over the bitt and drop onto it obediently, as Guste’s had. 

The winter sun was hot, high contrast. I watched my clumsy shadow, felt my nerves stutter. And then I hit my mark, once. 

That was heartening. I gritted my teeth in concentration, sent the light lasso flying, hauled it back, sent it flying again. Pretty soon I was hitting square on two out of three attempts. 

After supper, we went back to the deck for more line practice. This time Guste hauled a three-inch-diameter line from our offside stern bitt and dropped it at my feet. I could only just lift its awkward 40-inch loop. “I don’t see how I can throw this,” I whined. 
Guste shrugged. “Try and see how she do.” 

On my first attempt to hurl the thing, it dropped on the deck just paces from my feet. Thud. 
“Yo’ll do him,” Guste said. Then he excused himself to go ashore for what he called “a bit lapp” (tr.: beer). Once he was out of sight I nearly put the line back up on the bitt. I could always say I’d tried. But then I saw two faces at the wheelhouse windows, our two deckhands watching me. 

Can a woman do it? They didn’t think so. I couldn’t have borne their being right about that. 
So I tried. And I rested. And I tried again. My muscles shrieked and my ears sang in agony. Once I managed to hook the bitt by its horn. But I just couldn’t seem to get the damned line high enough off the deck. 

And then a feeling of entrancement settled over me, some kind of magic second wind that took me beyond my trying, trying, trying. The line that I’d cursed just minutes before was suddenly whistling over my head, circling the bitt, catching with a satisfying snap! I tested this crazy magic; was it repeatable? Yes, and easier every time. My back straightened, found a balance point. My shoulders loosened. I could feel, actually feel, the power of my own leverage working for me. Here I was doing the lasso act that was the mark of a real deckhand, when back home I’d been a failure at Frisbee. Magic indeed. 

Getting Ahead
Back at the Watercraft office, I made my way through the wall of noise that marks a crew change day: the rough, loving curses of old shipmates meeting, the uneasy shuffle of oilfield vagrants waiting for their new assignments, the ringing of a dozen telephones at once, the click of the heels of white-collared office girls. I stood near the desk of my marine supervisor for almost an hour before I got his attention. Others were waiting, too, to plead their special cases. 

The marine supervisor was rat-nosed, a smoothie, perfect model for a loan company collection man. “I want to be a deckhand,” I told him. 

He pretended he didn’t hear me. 

“I want to give up cooking and work on the deck,” I said, louder this time. The men’s chatter dropped off. The phones rang on. “I didn’t think any women could do it, but I’ve been trying the job and I do OK,” I said. 

Loan Company leaned back in his swivel chair and winked at the men behind me, as if I were a stubborn child. Then he went back to his paperwork, and the room to its noise. “We like to keep our cooks . . . cooks,” was all he said. 

“Even if I can prove to you today, out on a deck, that I can do the job? Maybe you don’t believe I can do the job?” 

“No, honey, it’s not that at all. We just don’t want to see you get hurt.” 

“Isn’t getting hurt or not getting hurt my own responsibility?” 

“I have a safety man down the hall would sure give you an argument about that.” 

“Then maybe I’d better go talk to the safety man.” 

“Suit yourself.” 

Safety Man, a marine super-supervisor with a private office, was no friendlier to my cause. He produced a pocket Bible and waved it under my nose for proof of the sanctity of home cooking and small children, the glory of God’s plan for women. I must have rolled my eyes a shade theatrically. 

“I saw you make that face at me, young lady,” he pounced. 

“Look,” I told him, “my husband and I were divorced more than 15 years ago. My children are in college now. I’ve paid my debt to society. Now I want to work on your boats as a deckhand, and you tell me I’ve got to go back to square one and make babies again. The last I heard, I have some rights. Title Seven of the Civil Rights Act guarantees me this job if I am physically able to do it.” 

Safety Man leaned over his desk and into my face. “This here is a private enterprise, darlin’, and it ain’t Uncle Sam signing your paycheck. I’m the one with the final sayso about who’s fit to be a deckhand and who’s not. Your captain tells me you’re a good cook. The men all like your cooking. So a cook you are and a cook you will stay. We like to keep our cooks —” 

“I know. Cooks” 

On my way out of Safety Man’s office, I spied the able-bodied seaman’s handbook on his shelf. Guste had told me to borrow a copy. Instead, I stole it. These jokers might slow me down, but they wouldn’t stop me. 

Divine Justice 
Finally a deckhand, Lucy secures a “trial” position aboard the Condor under Captain Billy Flowers, a retired Coast Guard captain who persists in wearing his dress whites and has “about half a pound of chin on the end of his face.” Viewing his “classic admiral-of-the-seas profile,” she knew she was in for a hard week. 

After long, hot days of chipping away at flaking paint, stroking on endless coats of white, scrubbing “every grundgy corner of the boat” instead of using her skills as a sailor, Lucy promises herself that someday she’ll have her revenge on Captain Flowers. 

I got it, too, sooner than I’d hoped. 

When I climbed out of the sanitary tank bilges to report that they were spotless, I found Captain Billy alone in the wheelhouse, bringing the Condor out of the Gulf to the Freshwater Bayou. But something twitched my navigation nerve; our position was not right. 

“The compass is broken,” he raged, pounding it with his fists. “Completely off. I don’t know where the hell we are.” 

I recognized our position from a clump of onshore towers, having made the same navigational error myself back on the Pride. Captain Billy had overshot the sea buoy by 15 miles. 

He must have seen some evidence on my face of the superiority I felt. “I don’t suppose you know where we are,” he said, suspiciously. 

“Actually, sir, I believe we’re about 15 miles east of the sea buoy and into Ship Shoals.” 

“And what makes you think you know anything about that?” 

“Just guessing, sir.” 

Billy wouldn’t take my word for it, of course. He ran the Condor up to a pogy boat that was tied off to a well cap and blew our air horns, startling the pogy boat’s sleeping crew out onto their deck. He hailed them for a compass reading and position. They hailed him back. I stole a look at our own compass. Perfect agreement. Billy traced our position on the chart with a shaky finger. I’d been right. We were 15 miles east of the sea buoy. 

Billy only snorted, and manhandled the Condor onto course. An hour later I spotted our buoy. 

“We ought to be just about there.” Billy squinted. Damn! The man couldn’t even see the sea buoy! I could have pointed it out, but hell, he’d made his masterly bed: let him lie in it. 
Guste had taught me the tricks for coming across the shoals into Freshwater Bayou Locks. It’s fairly chancy as these things go, what with swift local currents and a squatty black sea buoy that’s hard to spot in daytime, when it isn’t blinking. Guste had told me that sooner or later I’d run with a green captain and get a chance to save his ass by bringing the boat in myself, so he’d let me practice piloting that stretch again and again. 

But Billy didn’t ask me the time of day. He rang the Condor’s general alarm, summoning our mate and engineer. A general alarm is an exquisitely alarming sound, designed to scare the living beejesus out of everyone aboard. The two men popped up the stairs just moments later, wide-eyed with panic, wearing their silly jockey shorts. 

“Find me the sea buoy,” Captain Billy commanded them. “And you” — he indicated me — “keep your damned mouth shut.” 

The Condor rocked for long minutes on the spot, her wheels kicking up Louisiana mud while the two crewmen fuddled around rubbing their eyes. I examined my fingernails. Damned if I’d tell them where it was. 

Finally the captain turned to me. “I’m willing to stake my professional reputation that somebody sunk the sea buoy,” he said. 

I said, “Captain, that’s the sea buoy right over there.” 

With a savage wrench of his arms, Captain Billy wheeled the Condor around to take the buoy on our starboard side. The wrong side. Even at high tide and in smooth weather, the boat must be lined up just so between a cluster of offshore platforms and a big white chemical tank onshore. Then the captain must squeak past the sea buoy on the port side full speed ahead or the currents will whip the boat around and strand it on the mud. 

Today the seas were rough, and we were coming in at low tide’s turning with the currents especially nasty. 

Billy must have spotted my white knuckles clutching the starboard rail because he turned to me again. “What’s your problem, Miss Liberal Bleeding Heart, Miss Think-Yew-Know-Everything?” 

“Sir, I believe it’s wiser to take the buoy on our port side.” 

Billy sent me to my quarters then, and I was no more than halfway down the outside stairs when I had the satisfaction of feeling the Condor run aground with a hard scrump. A sea gull landed just a few feet from our hull and took a walk around us, pacing as if he were worried. Pacing in three inches of water. 

I heard the bow thruster kick in with an impotent wailing whine. Nope, we were stuck good. Beached. I went on down to the galley and compiled a lusty triple-decker sandwich, a super-Dagwood garnished with my own delighted smirk.