Dropping Anchors in the Gulf of Mexico: 60 Days of Letting Her Go and Pulling Her Up

offshore supply vessel
Photo: By corlaffra / Shutterstock

By Michael Carr – Each of American Salvor’s four 6,000 lb. anchors were attached to its own huge winch by hundreds of feet of 1.5-inch diameter wire cable. Each drum was powered by a large noisy diesel engine equipped with pneumatic controls. Paying out anchor wire and pulling wire in was noisy and dangerous. With all four winches running the decibels were overwhelming.

Onboard American Salvor was a dozen divers from a commercial diving company. They were contracted to repair oilrigs. Before these divers could get in the water American Salvor had to anchor directly over each work site, using all four anchors.

American Salvor’s Chief Mate was responsible for setting the retrieving anchors. He would communicate with each winch operator and the ship’s bridge using headphones connected to an HF radio.

“Take in 100 feet on the port bow, and let out 100 feet on the starboard aft anchor, hold the other anchors where they are.”

He would slowly and methodically say these commands into his boom mike as he tried to visualize how the ship was now shifting in her position. On the bridge, the captain and dive supervisor would check the ship’s position, and then tell the Chief Mate how far off station they were.

“We need to come 50 yards to starboard, and 75 yards aft” the Captain might say. But coming 50 yards to starboard and 75 yards aft is not simple, you must adjust all four anchors and visualize the change in the ship’s position.

Standing among the noisy generators, air compressors, diesel engines, and mounds of equipment the Chief Mate would close his eyes, and visualize the ship moving. He would key is mike and give commands,

“Hold the port bow, and take up slowly on the port stern, Ok, all stop. On the bridge, how do we look now?”

There was always a lag time while the ship settled in her new position. Wait, think, re-adjust. What is the wind doing to us, is there current today? Damn, I could use another cup of coffee.

Finally, the bridge would communicate they were on station and the Chief Mate would immediately key his radio mic and say, “All stations, hold what you have, lock down the drums”.

Laying four anchors alongside an oil rig or pipeline in the Gulf of Mexico is a tedious and dangerous evolution. There are thousands of oil and gas platforms in the Gulf, and most are connected to one another by pipelines snaking across the bottom. You cannot just “drop an anchor”.

First, you must consult a chart which shows the multitude of underwater pipes and rigs, but you cannot solely trust or rely on this chart, you must also verify the bottom situation by lowering a sonar scanner over the side and surveying the bottom. Once you are certain the bottom is clear you can begin setting the four anchors.

A few years back this vessel had dropped an anchor on top of a gas pipeline and caused a leak. This Chief Mate wanted no part in that kind of operation.

Added to the vessel noise was the intense heat and humidity always present in the Gulf of Mexico. Your endurance and stamina were always being tested. All you could do was drink gallons of water each day and smile. What a life.

There was no daily schedule, you just went from one diving site to the next for 60 days. That was your shift, 60 days on and then 30 days off.

Once anchors were set and divers getting in the water the Chief Mate would wander up to the air-conditioned mess deck, fill his coffee cup, take a huge gulp of water from the gallon jug he carried around with him, and drop into one of the most uncomfortable fiberglass chairs. He might have 10 minutes or even an hour before his radio would squawk at him with, “Chief Mate this is the Bridge, dive ops are completed, prepare to recover anchors.”

There was no day or night, it was just anchors down, dive ops, anchors up, move the ship. Anchors down, dive ops, anchors up, move the ship. The reprieve came from short breaks running back to Port Fourchon LA for supplies. Port Fourchon is an oil service port. It looks like a set from a Mad Max movie. Offshore supply boats everywhere. Oil service helicopters constantly landing and taking off. Trucks, noise, dust, dirt, the smell of petroleum, welding, exhaust, rubber, fiberglass, and fuel.

A return to Port Fourchon was not restful, but it was at least a change from choreographing anchors all day. Garbage was offloaded, supplies and fuel taken on. Crews changed out, and always some drama. Who needs reality television when you have “Real Mariners in the Gulf of Mexico” every day!

A few hours was the most time they would spend in Port Fourchon, but there were times during winter months when severe cold fronts would come blasting down from Canada and gale force winds would produce huge seas in the Gulf, which prevented diving ops.

“Chief Mate, this is the skipper, come to the bridge.”

“Gale warnings in the Gulf for the next few days, so we won’t be going out this afternoon after loading. We will shove off the dock and go run-up on a mud-bank for a few days, till this blows through” the skipper would say.

“Thank god,” the Chief Mate would reply. He could sleep. He could actually take off his clothes and lie on this bunk. He could eat a meal slowly, and wash some clothes. He could call his wife back in Maine, which was both wonderful and painful. Calls would make him think of his house and woods in Castine, and make him want to get off the boat.

“Focus, deal with it,” he would say to himself.

Sixty days would slowly work their way down to 30 days, and then when his calendar showed two weeks until the end of his shift he would e-mail the personnel office. “Just checking in to see about my relief”, he would try to say casually. In reality, he wanted to write, “Make sure my relief is on the dock in 9 days, 4 hours and 23 minutes!”

Dealing with the Personnel Office was a delicate ballet. Too much communication would backfire, but if you did not ask they would sometimes forget about you.

“We never heard from you, so we thought you wanted to stay on.”

This was not the message any crew wanted to receive.

Then it would happen, your relief would be on his way, the countdown had started. There was always something magical about seeing your relief show up. You knew you were actually going home.

Same ritual each time, some small talk, followed by shaking hands, saying “Good luck, see you in 60 days or whenever”, and off you would go. A van would drive you from Port Fourchon to the New Orleans Airport, a two-hour drive through bayous and small fishing towns.

It was good to be going home, he could see Maine already.