Post-Hurricane Damage Inspection

Trip Start Sep 13, 2008
Trip End Nov 21, 2008

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The Dirt Levert

Flag of United States  , Louisiana
Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Hydrographic community has to be the only people around who get excited when a big hurricane is headed for the Gulf Coast. Hurricane season means all the oil pipelines in the gulf have to be remapped and charted before the oil can start freely flowing again. This year two hurricanes have graced the Gulf of Mexico and the damage is enough to keep us surveyors busy until March. John got the call from one of our repeat clients in the area who was part of a new start-up company in Louisiana. I grudgingly packed my bags and headed for the airport, knowing that this was going to be one of those jobs with no end in sight. Plus, being that this was a start-up company I knew that the money would be tight and the creature comforts would be non-existant. I flew to Houston and caught a jumper flight to Lafayette where the boat was waiting for me. They had already mobed it up and were ready to sail. I tossed over my sea bag and away we went, I was in the gulf again.

The Vessel was a piece of work, let me tell you. Actually, it was a piece of shit, and I have the photo's to back it up. 110 feet long with about 80 feet of back deck, the Captian Levert looked like it was one Coast Guard inspection away from being sold to a third world country. We all all lived in one big 10-man snake pit in the bow of the boat beneath the galley, it was not air conditioned but instead had an array of fans to pipe down the cool cigarette smoke from the lounge area. There was one shower and one head for the whole boat. The Capitan did have a small shitter in his room upstairs but nobody could use it, so we basically had only one toilet, and it was always in use. Any time I had to go it seemed that at least three people had the same idea. Now I know how women feel at sporting events and movie theaters. Waiting in line to piss SUCKS! Especially when you know the person before you just extracted their deep fried dinner and forgot to spray the Oust.
The galley and it's resident 450 lb cook was far from the most sanitary place I have eaten. There was only one refrigerator and two freezers so storage was very limited. The cook had to make due by not refrigerating everything (like eggs and mayo) instead he put them on the floor by the AC vent and cranked it all the way up (I couldn't make this up if I tried). The cook deep fried our food most days of the week, A) because It's Louisiana, and B) because he liked to sleep 16hrs a day. My running joke was that he'd deep fry a Mountain Dew if you asked him to. Sunday's were steak days and this was about the only redeeming quality about the food on the boat because cookie broke out the BBQ grill. More about cookie and the events with the BBQ later......
Our Winches and portable survey shack were attached to the back deck which was (as most gulf boats are) about 2 feet above the water line so if any seas at all came up, we were waking in 6" of water. This was the case about 60% of the time. The survey shack at first had no communications, and later got a Globalstar sattelite phone that only worked when a Globalstar satellite happened to be passing overhead. We could receive service for 15 minutes at a time and that only happened once or twice per hour. It was the shittiest form of communication I have ever had to deal with and I almost preferred having nothing because at least it wouldn't mock me with it's existence, constantly checking only to find it out of service. The only thing that kept me from immediately throwing myself overboard was the survey crew itself. The party chief Brady, the Client rep Charlie (who is Company Man of the Year and in the running for Coolest Client Rep Ever.) and Jim who I have worked with previously in Tobago. (See my other travel blog on T and T for the stories of Jim running away from the job and having to file a missing persons report.)

At first we were just running daylight operations because we didn't know how bad the damage in the area was. Every night at dark we would tie up to an oil platform and bob around until sunrise and then begin again. Our job was to locate and remap pipelines between platforms. To do this we towed an underwater magnetometer across the track where the pipe was last mapped. If we found that the pipeline was close to where it should be we would then run side scanning sonar to see if we could identify if the pipe was in it's trench and if it hopped out at any point. If the pipeline stayed in it's trench we were done and the pipeline could then be reactivated. If the pipe jumped the trench or broke and drifted it was a guessing game nightmare because we never knew how far it had traveled and sometimes it would even get mixed up with another pipeline or an old trench and this caused lengthy delays and plenty of headaches. I always imagined that steel pipe was rigid, but in actuality, it's rather flexible and can do some pretty amazing things without breaking. I saw some pretty remarkable things in the side scan record on this job. I wouldn't believe them if I hadn't seen them with my own eyes, so I don't expect anyone else to believe me.
The Capitans were characters and pretty bad line drivers. Both were from the North East US, however they had the "Louisiana missing teeth" look down pretty well. Capitan Tom was the sarcastic wise ass who would ask you if you had any naked pictures of your wife and then when you replied no, ask you if you wanted to buy some. Capitan Pete was a docile nudist/equistrian that smoked swisher sweets like they were going out of style (once again I couldn't make this shit up if I tried). You can see in the pictures what happened when they tried driving straight lines. In their defense, the Levert's steering wheel had a lot of play in it and there was no auto pilot. After 4 days of crashing our sonars into the sea floor the boss agreed to buy the boat an autopilot, probably because it was cheaper than replacing a lost side scan.

We came in to Port Fourchon to install the autopilot, we also brought on two more guys so that we could begin working 24- hour operations now that the area had been cleared of most of it's hazards to navigations. One of the new guys was Barry, a former Furgo employee from the area. The other was Tim, from our company. Tim brought with him his Sprint wireless card and this saved the day for me. It didn't work very well out in the gulf but it did provide enough service to check my email once or twice a day. Not as good as the real deal, but it kept me from freaking out and stabbing someone which might happen if I go without the net for an extended period of time. I think of it as internet methadone. Tim and Barry were a good addition to the crew. We now had 8 guys in the snake pit and longer lines for the bathroom. Time passed by and we surveyed pipelines day and night.

The Night I Almost died (#2 if you've read my Hawaii blog...)

One morning I woke up to come on shift to find out I had almost died the night before. The boat was transiting from one pipeline to another when the Capitan (allegedly) fell asleep at the wheel. Off in the distance a lay barge was tied to a platform with divers in the water working on pipes at the base of the platform. They had were expecting a black supply boat to come out to them this morning so when they saw us on the horizon, they didn't think anything of it. When we didn't answer the radio, the lay barge looked on it's AMS system and attempted to hail us. When we didn't respond the pulled their divers out of the water and slacked their anchor cables just in time to make enough space for the Capt. Levert to sail directly between the platform and their barge. Our party chief didn't know a thing until he looked out the survey shack window and saw wide-eyed divers flipping him the finger as we squeezed past with less than 20 feet clearance on either side. By the time anyone had gotten up to the bridge the Capitan was on the radio talking to the lay barge. He claims that he was looking down at the auto pilot and didn't see the barge, but after listening to the dive companies story it was pretty clear that nobody was awake on the bridge of the Levert that morning. We immediately went back to the dock and he got off the boat but surprisingly enough, he didn't even lose his job or his Capitan's license. If he can pull a stunt like that and still have a job, then I have no worries about my job security in the future.

We switched Capitans and the boat changed crew. The deck hand that looked like Joe Dirt got off and we brought on a guy we called "Dirty Don" who had a curly fro and mustache straight out of '79. Don was a excited wiry little guy who loved doing everyone else's job and then instructing them on how they were doing it wrong. He was firmly religious and told me one night that he had studied demonology for a number of years and had the ability to sense when demons had control over people. I asked him if demons had gotten me yet and he said that he didn't think so. Thank God for that.

With our new crew we surveyed for about five more days before we got a weather report that looked like we would be blown down for about 5 days on weather. But, before the storm could arrive, the A/C went out on the boat. I know that Oregonians in general don't understand the value of A/C because we only NEED it for about three weeks out of the year. But, when Louisiana loses A/C, shit stops. It becomes absolutely unbearable in a real hurry. Condensation starts building up in the weirdest places and the air gets so heavy that you feel like you can't breathe. We tried to finish surveying the pipeline that we were on but it got too unbearable inside the boat so we headed back to shore. When we arrived back in Fourchon the A/C man was able to diagnose the problem right away. Cookie had lit the BBQ too close to the AC unit and the heat from the grill had melted the power wires together and shorted out. We repaired the unit as quick as possible but it was too late, the weather had started to move in. It looked like we were stuck in Port Fourchon for five days. Jim got agitated from sitting around for so long and left the boat claiming some "important family emergency business" in Texas. He left his stuff on the boat and promised that he would be back on Thursday when the boat sailed again (Remember this, it will come back into play later on in the story).

Port Fourschon is about the worst place in the world to be stuck down on weather. I think I've talked about it before in my other Louisiana blog, but let me touch on it again for those who missed it. Fourchon is 2 hours South of New Orleans. The only things down there are shrimping camps, oil tanks and gulf mud boats that supply the oil rigs with supplies and crew. There is absolutely NOTHING in the form of businesses. I can name all the businesses within a 30 mile radius. One is Charlie's bar and marina, the oldest business in the area. The second is Anthony's, the only nice bar and restaurant in the area. And finally the Conoco/Market/Pizza joint/Bar/Casino at the end of the road. This is where we chose to spend most of our down time because it was within walking distance and it had everything we needed to hang out all day. In the afternoons we would chill on the porch of the market and eat the $2 nachos from the automatic nacho machine, after dinner we would walk around and hang out in the bar/casino until it closed or we found a ride back to the boat. Alcohol is treated so much differently in Louisiana than it is in Oregon and the rest of the US. Louisiana was the last state to pass a law stating that it was illegal for the driver to be drinking. In the past it was always illegal to be driving drunk, but drinking while driving was ok, as long as you stayed sober. Makes total sense doesn't it. Similar laws apply to drinking in public. It is illegal to be drunk or drinking in public, but if you put your beer in a paper bag, it suddenly becomes perfectly legal, and socially acceptable at the same time.

As it turned out, the low pressure system collapsed after two days, we left port on Tuesday morning and called Jim in Texas to let him know that as soon as he was done with his "emergency family business" he needed to come back to Fourchon so the boat could pick him up. We arrived on site to find that the weather had only calmed down in the office, it was still shitty in the gulf. So we tied to a platform and waited for the weather to calm down. I later found out that this was a shitty racket going on between the client company and the oil company. If we were down on weather in port, the client company got half the normal day rate, if we were standing down on weather on-site, they still received a full day rate. So, from the offices point of view, we should just stay out there and weather the storm so they could make more money. I guess it's too much to expect that you'll be treated like a human when working in the gulf. Our problems were just beginning though, half way through our first night down on weather Barry woke up the party chief and complained of serious abdominal pains. We checked his side and saw that there was visible swelling on his right abdomen. The boat immediately started heading for port, but the boats full speed was 10MPH and port was 4 hours away. Now, remember how I said there were no businesses in Fourchon, well that goes for medical facilities as well, after a 4 hour boat ride, Barry had to ride in an Ambulance for another 2 hours to get to the nearest hospital. We were all really worried about him and it turned out that he had pancreatitus (sp?), swelling of the pancreas and liver. He was admitted to the hospital and the last time I checked, he was still there. We left Jim a message and let him know about Barry's condition and asked him to come back ASAP. We sailed out again to catch our good weather, now missing two men and still on 24-hour a day operations. With only coffee to aid us, we worked for about 3 more days before another storm came in and we had to go back into port again. It was now Friday and there was still no sign of Jim, it was beginning to look like he had twisted off on another job. This meant that he had bailed on 2 out of 2 jobs that I had worked with him, I wondered if his record was the same throughout. When the company finally decided to remove his things from the boat and send them back to him, I heard that they were not firing him, just not employing him on THIS particular job any more. Once again, if he can pull a stunt like that and still have a job, then I have no worries about my job security in the future.
Now we were down on weather for realsies and everybody that lived in the area was sent home to get off the payroll for a few days, even Tim and I were told to take a day and relax in New Orleans, so that's just what we did. We got a hotel room about four blocks from Bourbon St. and relaxed and rested ourselves. It takes a person who's worked offshore, living in a bunk in a snake pit to fully appreciate sleeping diagonally in a King sized bed. We discovered that there is only one place in all of New Orleans to get breakfast, and that's Mother's restaurant on Poydras St. One would think that a 24-Hour IHOP or Denny's would really rake it in downtown. But then again, some beignettes, a cup of joe and a cigarette is your average Big Easy Breakfast. The next day we visited the D-Day museum downtown.
I didn't think New Orleans was a very logical place for the National D-Day museum but I found out that the shipyard there had built a majority of the boats that were used in both the Pacific and European Campaigns. I found it very interesting especially because I had just been in Normandy last May. When people think of D-Day, they typically think of Utah and Omaha Beach. But people easily forget that there was a D-Day in the Pacific too, on Iwo Jima. More men and more boats landed on Iwo Jima than on Normandy but for some reason people still think of Normandy when they think of D-Day. I highly recommend the Clint Eastwood films (directed, not starring) Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. Two sides of the same story, Japanese and American accounts of the Pacific D-Day, great movies (I Digress).
After a night in the big easy (or was it two, I forget) we made our way to Morgan City where Jake and Derrek (two other Seafloor guys) were mobing up a second boat for the company. Tim and I helped them with the interface of the sensors and enjoyed their boat for a couple days. They were put on a boat that was built in 2003, had three stories and four bathrooms, two or three man cabins, real capitans and a Chef. Not a cook, a Chef in the galley. Compared to the Capt. Levert, these guys were working on the Love Boat. I kept looking for "Alex on the Lido Deck" but I never found him.
Grudgingly, we made our way back to Fourchon and went out again on the Levert, I was quickly approaching 30 days on this vessel when I received the call, the beautiful word that I was going to be getting off the boat the next time it came into port. I was going straight to another survey, but I didn't care. Going home or not, anything was better than this boat I was on. When the boat finally pulled in, I had lost 34 days of my life to the Capitan Levert, those were days I would never get back. I hopped in the rental car and drove directly to the airport, I didn't look behind me, I didn't shed a tear, I didn't even do a dummy check around my bunk to make sure I got everything, I just ran as fast as I could away from that God-forsaken place. Working in the offshore industry, you know that your path will lead you to Fourchon again and again. Like a banker to Wall St. or an actor to Hollywood, no matter how hard you try, you will be going back there sooner or later. I hope it's later.
I arrived home and got a whole 48-hours before getting the call that I needed to be in Seattle the next morning. I would be working for Williamson and Assoc. on a cable route survey in Japan! Kennichewa!
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