By Michael Carr – We were all beyond exhausted. Muscle memory and caffeine were keeping us going. And now I was certainly going to jail when all I had wanted to do was wash the sticky, smelly mud from the Gulf of Mexico off our tug’s deck.
“Really?” I thought to myself. This guy wearing a uniform, with a badge, weapon, and big radio on his belt was going to arrest me. “OK, stay calm…,” I repeated in my head. Don’t go to this party. What I wanted to do was toss this Custom’s Officer overboard, but with all his gear he would probably sink like a rock and then I would need to jump overboard to save him. Into the ugly waters of Lake Charles Louisiana.
I was developing a headache trying to stay calm and figure out how not to end up in a Louisiana jail. Once the police down there discovered I was from Maine, I would certainly be toast. Oh, did I mention I was so tired I could barely remember the name of our tug?
We had departed Lake Charles, LA two weeks earlier, in tandem with another tug, towing a monster-sized semi-submersible drill rig to the Bay of Campeche in Mexico. It had been a slow tow south, making 5 knots on a good watch. We had been slowed by a tow wire parting early in the voyage, and then our reduction gear having problems, which required a return to port for repairs. Every day of the voyage had been a challenge.
We were short crew and ended up doing 6 and 6 watches. Six hours on, six hours off, for a week. Those 6 hours on watch were grueling. Because we were doing a tandem tow, we had to keep a constant distance between our two tugs. Our courses and speeds needed to match, so each watch was a constant tweaking of the autopilot and throttles. There was no ability to leave the bridge and use the head, so we would pee in a can and empty it over the side.
Fatigue is hideous. It eats at your brain and prevents logical or rational thought. You struggle to make decisions, and once you make those decisions, it’s impossible to know why you did what you did or even remember what you did.
We finally arrived in the Bay of Campeche and after several days of dragging the rig around, from one proposed location to another, we were permitted to drop the tow. We were finally free of the drilling rig! We retrieved our tow cable, and as the bitter end came back onboard we turned north, back towards the USA. Thank you! Let’s go home.
On the way back to Lake Charles I filed the required US Coast Guard arrival reports, providing our crew list, nature of our voyage, amount and type of trash onboard, etc. This report is required 96 hours prior to arrival. As Chief Mate, it was my job to e-mail this report to our Port Captain and the US Coast Guard. I sent it in and knew we would be inspected upon arrival back in Lake Charles. We were returning from “foreign waters,” and the Coast Guard was on high alert for drugs, etc. No problem, I had filed these reports many times and it was routine.
Once the paperwork was completed my focus became cleaning up the tug in preparation for our next job. Inspect all the towing gear, clean up the shackles, grease the towing winch, and wash down the decks. A final deck washing would be done once we moored in Lake Charles and could dump our trash and remove unneeded gear from the stern deck. Now came my first error in judgment.
“Hey, Chief Mate, the Coast Guard and Custom guys are going to be another hour getting here, so let’s just keep cleaning up while we wait for their arrival.”
When these words came from our skipper, I thought “I need to keep moving and clean up the boat, we can’t just sit around waiting for the Coast Guard and Customs to show up.” I knew we could not get off the tug, or unload any gear, garbage, etc. until we had been cleared.
“Let’s put out the gangway so the Coast Guard and Customs guys can get on board when they show up, and let’s stack the garbage bags at the top of the gangway so we can fire-hose the decks, and get rid off all this mud.
Mariners know a gangway is NOT part of a tug. A gangway touches land, and can be considered as “land”. But inside my weary, task-focused brain, I just wanted to hose off the decks. I was certainly not going to have our crew drag the trash bags off the tug and across the wharf to the dumpster until we were cleared. I just wanted to get the trash off bags up off the deck.
And then guys with the badges and guns showed up.
“What is this?” the Customs Officer asked me as he climbed up the gangway.
“Oh, that’s our trash, I had our crew place it there until you cleared us, we wanted to hose the mud off our deck.”
I said this so naively and casually. I guess I thought he might appreciate my initiative in getting our decks cleaned so he would not have to tramp through mud as he came aboard.
Next came a long awkward pause. A really long pause as my really slow-working brain tried to understand the problem.
“You have broken Federal Law, and if you are intentionally attempting to offload trash before being cleared I will need to arrest you,” said the Custom Official in all seriousness. I thought he was joking, but could not remember ever seeing a Customs Officer joke. My brain is really not working I thought.
“You need to be taking me seriously,” he continued. Now our skipper showed up.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
The situation only became worse. I started to argue with the Customs Officer, never a good choice. Having been a Coast Guard Officer in a previous life, I was not receptive to being accused of intentionally breaking federal law.
“Oh God, I thought, here I go, directly to the handcuffs.” But then a small spark of sanity lit up the few synapses still functioning in my brain.
“You are correct,” I said to the Customs Officer. “ I apologize, I was wrong. I should not have placed our trash on the gangway. I apologize and you are totally correct”
I was praying he would take mercy on me. Oh please don’t take me to a Louisiana jail, oh please.
There was another long pause as the Customs Officer looked around. Maybe he took pity on our situation. We certainly looked tired, smelled, and did not look like a threat to anyone, except ourselves.
“I am going to let you off with a fine this time, but this is serious.”
Thank you, thank you, thank you…I said to myself and tried to put on a very serious and remorseful expression. We then filled out what seemed to be too much paperwork. I signed an admission of guilt.
When the Customs Officer departed I called our Port Captain. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Its better than having spilled oil.”
Once the boat was finally cleaned up, and the trash finally hauled across the parking lot to the dumpster, I took a shower and collapsed into my bunk.
I was so thankful to be in my bunk on the tug, and not in a Louisiana jail, and then I was asleep.