Confessions of a Drunken Coastie, Part 13
Editor’s Note: From 1988 until 1991, Crash Barry — then known as “Egg” — served as a sailor in the U.S. Coast Guard aboard a 210-foot-long ship that patrolled from the Gulf of Maine to the Gulf of Mexico. This is the thirteenth of his true stories about fighting the War on Drugs and the War on Haitian Refugees.
“Just another wild goose chase halfway across the Gulf of Mexico,” Staples drawled. Sitting on the almost empty messdeck, mid-afternoon on a Sunday, we’d just completed a long string of fruitless boardings that had kept us busy since 0300 that morning. “We ain’t never gonna find any god-dern smugglers, no matter how hard we work.” Staples paused, then drummed on the table. “Because they’re smarter than us.”
“That’s bull and you know it.” D-Man shook his head. “The Gulf is a big friggin’ place. And, yes, it’s getting tougher to bust them, because they are getting smarter. More covert.” He took a sip of water. “But they aren’t smarter than us. Hell no. That’s why we’ve adapted and embraced high-tech solutions. That’s why working with the Aerostat is so cool.”
Unlike Staples and me, D-Man was an eager drug warrior and truly enjoyed the law-enforcement aspect of the Coast Guard mission. A budding electronics technician, he and other shipboard geeks were excited by our current assignment, a two-month patrol working in conjunction with an Aerostat: a blimp-and-radar system, tethered to a ship, that soared 8,000 feet above sea level.
“Oh yeah, look at your precious Aerostat.” Staples slapped the table. “Their gazillion-dollar radar is supposed to cover the whole Gulf of Mexico. How has your fancy-dancy eye in the sky helped stop smugglers?” Staples snorted. “We’ve done a hundred boardings in the last 30 days and haven’t found a single joint or gram of cocaine. Tell me again why we’re working with these guys?”
“You know the Aerostat also tracks planes.” D-Man sighed and stood. “And that’s important. Big time. Intel says planes are dropping the drugs near the fishing grounds.” He stretched and yawned. “I’m gonna take a nap before my next watch.”
Suddenly the rumble of the ship’s twin diesels noticeably decreased.
“Uh-oh,” D-Man said. “Why we slowing down?”
“Oh damn,” said Staples. “I hope it ain’t another boarding.”
“Now hear this,” the 1MC squawked. “All hands, this is your captain. I want to thank everyone for their hard work this morning. I know it’s frustrating we haven’t made any interdictions, yet, but Intel says the smugglers know we’re out here. They’re running scared, which reduces the flow of drugs into the States.” The Skipper coughed. “Anyway, since it’s Sunday, I checked with the chiefs and the wardroom. They all agree. It’s time for,” he paused, “swim call!”
A cheer went up throughout the ship. Almost everyone loved swim call, a traditional reward for naval crews throughout the ages.
“For your information,” the Skipper continued, “our current position puts us 375 miles north of the Yucatan Peninsula and about the same distance south of New Orleans. We’re on the edge of the Silsbee Deep. Depth of water under the keel is” — he paused again for effect — “about a thousand fathoms. Less than 20 miles from here, it’s twice as deep. So for the next hour, we’ll shut down the mains and drift. A twenty-minute swim for each department. Deckies first. Then operations and then engineering.”
One gunner’s mate stood the bow-shark watch, the other was stationed on the bridge wing. Both GMs were happy to have any excuse to break out the M-16s. Their actual directive was murky. Were they supposed to open fire on any shark that approached the cavorting sailors? If so, the chance of them mistakenly shooting a shipmate seemed high. What about critters lurking, invisible, just under the surface? What was our defense against those monsters?
I had already jumped off the flight deck — a mere 15 feet above the sea — and into the warm blue Gulf several times before I followed Staples up to the foc’sle and onto the antennae deck. It was a dozen feet higher, from the railing — as high as we were allowed to go. Staples let out a holler and dove, graceful and perfect.
When he resurfaced and started swimming back to the Jacob’s ladder, I followed with my own high dive. The descent passed in a flash and my body sliced into the sea. I plummeted as far as my momentum would take me, then hovered and rolled, suspended in aquatic buoyancy — the closest I’ll ever get to the zero-gravity of outer space. Inky blackness loomed below. Fractured sunbeams beckoned from above.
I couldn’t enjoy the experience for long. My lungs were empty and seemingly miles from air. I desperately pulled and stroked upward, rising rapidly, my chest screaming for oxygen, nitrogen and a dash of argon. Just when I believed drowning was inevitable, my head broke free of the sea, mouth instinctively agape skyward, gasping and sputtering. Surrounded by playful shipmates oblivious to my near-demise, I swam to the ladder and climbed aboard.
After a couple more jumps, the 1MC announced it was time for the ops department to swim. We begrudgingly left the water. After a quick shower to rinse off the salt, I donned a clean uniform and hung out in the berthing area for a bit before heading to the bridge. By then, the engineers were having their turn.
“Friggin’ greasy snipes,” the gunner’s mate said to me. “Betcha they’re gonna leave behind an oil slick.”
Just then, someone shouted and a commotion broke out below, followed by screams.
“What the hell? Shark?” the gunner said. “IS IT SHARKS?” he hollered to his armed comrade on the bow.
Not sharks. Shit. Someone — an engineer, no less — failed to close a wastewater discharge valve, resulting in the automatic release and pumping of a sewage slurry from the Tumultuous’ storage tanks. By the time word reached the engine room, it was too late. The damage was done. The water around the ship quickly turned brown. And because there were men overboard, the Skipper wouldn’t restart the engines.
The order was issued briskly over the 1MC. “All hands, swim call is over. You must come aboard immediately.”
The sailors treading water protested. They didn’t want to swim through the fecal film floating between them and the ship. As the 1MC repeated the order, the rest of us groaned with a mixture of disgust and glee.
Crash Barry’s new book, Marijuana Valley, comes out in April. For more info, visit marijuanavalley.com.