Gut Rumbles

May 31, 2007


Originally published April 13, 2006

I made my first trip to Key West in 1978 aboard the Blue Fin, the Skidaway Island Oceanographic Institute's research vessel. The Blue Fin once was a shrimp boat, but it was intercepted by the US Coast Guard while carrying a load of marijuana instead of shrimp, and the boat later was sold at auction in Miami. The state of Georgia bought it and converted it into a research boat.

The Blue Fin was 80' long (if I remember correctly--- it might have been 60'--- I thought it was a pretty BIG boat), powered by two humongous diesel engines and equipped with large stabilizing anchors to deploy over the sides in rough seas. The boat had a regular crew of five people, and when we loaded up with me and a few scientists from the Institute, a total of twelve souls were on board for the Key West trip.

Believe it or not, we were headed to the warm waters of the keys to collect a special kind of seaweed, which would be used as worm food in an experiment involving (I am NOT making this up!) harvesting the methane from sea-worm farts as an alternative energy source. (Remember--- this was 1978, Carter was President and we were suffering an energy "crisis." Energy research dollars were plentiful, no matter how ridiculous the research.)

We left Skidaway Island at sunrise on a chilly, overcast morning in October. Cold rain misted from the slate-gray sky and a brisk wind blew robustly from the east. The local weather report carried a small craft warning and predictions of strong winds offshore, with seas 15 to 20 feet. Hell--- when we weighed anchor and left the dock, I was all a-twitter with excitement. I had no idea what I had gotten my ass into.

For those of you who have never been in 20-foot seas, I'll just say this: it's a goddam impressive sight and those waves make for one VERY impressive ride. Even with the stabilizers down and dragging, that boat tossed like a cork on the water. If you hung onto the rail and looked overboard, you'd find yourself staring down into a deep, watery chasm one minute, then staring UP at a mountain of ocean that blotted out the sky the next. Back and forth it went, all day long.

That was a VERY rough ride.

I was one of four people on board who did NOT get seasick. I spent all day up on deck, breathing fresh salt air and getting an occasional glimpse of the horizon between huge ocean swells. Almost everybody else ended up down below, suffering the tortures of the damned.

I tried to make it to my rack sometime that evening, but I took one step down the hatch and had to retreat quickly back out on deck. The smell of vomit in the crew quarters was so strong that you didn't smell it--- it reached out like a gnarly hand and choked you by the neck. I knew that I never would survive a night down in THAT hell-hole.

I ended up spending the night on the bridge, talking to the First Mate, a guy named Zack who pulled the graveyard shifts while the Captain slept. Zack was the son of a shrimper and he had been on the water since he was a little boy. He told me something interesting about seasickness.

Zack said that he had been seasick once in his life. Never as a boy and never as a young man. Never in rough seas or in storms. Never when hung-over and burping tequila fumes. He got sick as a sober grown man in the Gulf of Mexico on a beautiful day when the sea was as smooth as the surface of a mirror. He said that it hit him out of the blue, he barfed and heaved for 24 hours, he prayed for death, he thought he was GONNA die and then... he recovered, never to be seasick again.

"At least not yet," Zach added, at the end of his story.

That's why, although I've never been seasick in my life, I still feel a little trepidation when I head offshore in a boat. Since that night on the Blue Fin, I've met several other bleached-out sea-dogs who told stories similar to Zack's. Evidently, you can be on the water for YEARS and never have a problem, then have seasickness hit you like a ton of bricks for no good reason. (Except maybe to teach you some humility so that you feel sympathy and not scorn the next time you see someone get seasick.)

So, I don't laugh at you lubbers who can't make it out of the sound into deep water before you start talking to Ralph and Huey over the side and chumming the water before we're ready to fish. I'll be nice to you. Maybe my time is yet to come.

You know, I AM planning on a sailboat ride to Beliz this summer... all the way across the Gulf of Mexico...

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