I have been sailing my thirty foot sloop in the waters of the Caribbean for some four years now.
Unfortunately, even in these islands of paradise, the world is driven by the availability of that irksome stuff known to most as "The Dollar".
Having run low on occasions it has become necessary for me to find some form of gainful
employment. I was lucky to find a position as captain aboard a small hydrographic survey
The vessel is a sixty foot converted crew-boat powered by two Detroit V8 (GM 871) diesel engines with the interior jammed with computerized data gathering equipment and a sophisticated dual DGPS system for obtaining very accurate positions at sea. Operated on term charter by
the Trinidad-based office of a large global survey company, we are mostly engaged in exploratory work for several oil companies, positioning pipeline routes and undersea communications cables.
This has led to an interesting life with occasional worrying moments as well as some pretty humorous
I have recently returned from another long trip to Venezuela:
Left here five weeks ago and made our way to Isla Margarita to clear customs and immigration. Was a bit apprehensive as it was the first time this vessel has been back to Venezuela since the vessel was impounded for four days. On that occasion we were not carrying the correct papers (supplied by the charterer) to work in Venezuelan waters and, after several days of languishing on the dock in Pampatar, were sent back to Trinidad without being able to complete the
I was even more worried as, when I docked on the quay in Pampatar this time, was immediately in front of the Guardacostas vessel which had previously apprehended us. Luckily our papers were all in order this time so were on our way again within an hour or so. A long haul westward past Curacao, Bonaire and Aruba before turning south into the Golfo de Venezuela and, eventually, arriving at the pilot station at the entrance to Lago Maracaibo (San Carlos) at 18h00 on the fourth day out. Had contacted them on the VHF about 30nm out to arrange for a pilot - not an easy thing to do when they all speak in "code" but they were adamant that I give them an accurate ETA.
Now 'Manyana' was invented in Mexico, but I'm convinced that the Venezuelans have perfected it - we had to hold position in the entrance channel for four hours after arriving, until a pilot eventually came onboard at 22h00. There is a constant out-flowing current here, which had me thinking what good seamen the sailors of old galleons must have been. San Carlos lies at the position where Francis Drake broke through a Spanish blockade of the lake entrance - under sail!
Once the pilot was aboard, we set off down the buoyed channel in the pitch dark with a fella who totally ignored the fact that I couldn't understand a word of his directions. Luckily the channel is well marked so I, in turn, just ignored him! Really quite exciting as, every now and then, had to hug the buoys to starboard as a huge supertanker cruised past so close I felt I could touch it - actually about 20 metres away. Did this for 35km or so arriving in the city of Maracaibo at one in the morning, where we dropped anchor for the rest of the night.
Not too much sleep again as had another pilot arrive, early morning, to take us the rest of the way under the longest concrete bridge in the world and into the lake itself. This fella was worse than the previous one as, not only could also not speak English but actually got himself lost!
Luckily I had perused the charts myself, before the time, so got to the destination at the Semarca base without any help. Of course, as usual arrangements had got a bit mixed up so our contact man was not at the dock to meet us but had gone to Maracaibo.
This language problem can actually be quite funny if one just decides to go with the flow. Our charterer provided us with a local 'gopher' (go fer this, go fer that ) so that we could keep food stocks organised etc. while out working all day - I at first dubbed him "our angel of mercy" as his name was Angel Maizzo but he too spoke no English and I eventually changed it to the "angel of
I would give him a shopping list in the morning and, although it could be seen as irritating, I found opening our "lucky packet" in the evening hilarious - he got about 50% right, along with a lot of unwanted stuff and, for some reason, always four bags of funny black beans, every time! We have enough on board now to feed an army!
Anyway, he did get to buy me a selection of postcards, and post them, and I later ascertained that they had all reached their destinations.
While working in the oil field we were also required to carry a local pilot - wot a larf! - he came on board each morning at 05h30, in time to set off, quaffed all the coffee, seated himself down on the aft deck and, after breakfast, snoozed all day until we returned to the dock, at the Semarca Base, around 18h30 - 19h00.
I called him "Pontius" (obviously, 'cause he was a pilot) but it rhymed quite well, as I would ask Alston, our Trinidadian mate/engineer, if 'Pontius was conscious'?
At the end of the three weeks' work, we discovered that, sometime during the days, he'd consumed our entire supply of long-life milk - he was about seventy, I would guess, but obviously didn't suffer from osteoporosis!
We completed 649 km of survey lines with a worst "off-line" error of 4,3 metres which is really not bad. The computers keep track of all this and can give us a percentage completed at the end of each day. Very tiring, as you have to keep the vessel "on-line" for hours at a time, by hand, so the concentration required is
This is done using a CRT monitor, mounted in the wheel house, which displays the survey grid. An image of the vessel is projected on the screen with data concerning the distance traveled down the line, as well as a constant position in relation to that line. Rather like playing a rather unsophisticated computer game. On this survey we were monitoring four parameters: bathymetry, side-scan and sub-bottom profile data as well as a
Except for bathymetry the other sensors are streamed on cables behind the vessel so the speed has to be kept constant at around 3,5 knots to ensure that the gear is "flying" at the correct height above the bottom.
Once the survey had been completed, and before returning to Trinidad, we spent two days in the docks at the city of Maracaibo and I was able to get off the boat for the first time in more than three weeks. Had acquired directions and a street name of the location of the post office from a guy on the tug next door so set off. Arrived in that street (had no map) but not a post office in sight. So had to revert to my wee knowledge of the ol'
"Donde está correos por favor?" and, after doing this several times, found that I'd worked my way back about 5 km - the post office was directly opposite the gate to the docks! I could see our vessel from the door!
Time to leave and was quite surprised, as were informed by the pilot station that they were quite happy for us to navigate out through the lake again, sans pilot. Did have a coast guard corvette come up parallel with us for a mile or two while I laboriously answered all their questions on the VHF radio, as to what I was doing, where I was headed, the registration of the vessel etc. but they seemed satisfied in the end and left. After leaving the Golfo de Venezuela the sea really turned quite grotty and eventually had to reduce speed to only 3,5 knots as the waves were directly from in front and crashed right over the bow and wheel house. Real bone shaking but, from experience, knew that my own sail-boat would have handled the conditions a lot better.
The constant onslaught of the steep wind driven seas made for a very uncomfortable trip. Luckily the survey personnel had left the vessel in Maracaibo and flown to the States and Trinidad. They would definitely not have enjoyed the ride back and several would probably have been terrified. With such rough weather from directly ahead the vessel chewed fuel and we had to break the journey in La Guaira to take on an extra one and a half tons of diesel. Was so noisy with the crashing of the sea, the pounding and noise of the engines that I really struggled to hear anyone on the satellite telephone which had been ringing off the hook with directions from Houston concerning other possible jobs. Gave up trying to make private calls to the UK as could hardly hear a
I arrived back in Trinidad only to be told I'd be expected to leave again after three days, for Nicaragua, so spent the time in between, rushing around like a chicken with its head cut off. Mainly repairing damage - the little "dolphin watcher", which sticks out over the bow, had been torn loose by the waves and sea water had gushed through the torn welds in the hull making all the fresh water (which is stored there) salt. The port main engine blew a hole in the exhaust manifold which had to be removed and carried away by truck for repair.
Three of the computers needed some tender loving care after all the banging had shocked boards and things lose inside and the main survey navigation gyro was toppled off of its interior cradle and the entire thing had gone into "self-destruct" mode - not an inexpensive piece of equipment!
Luckily, at the last minute, the trip was postponed so I was able to take some time off and fly home to the UK for some much needed R and R. I am now back in Trinidad again and awaiting instructions for the next sojourn. Sure as hell beats working for a living!
Thanks to Jonathan Savage for that glimpse into
the life of everyday (well, not quite) exploration folk...
We're looking forwards to hearing from you next...
In the meantime, if you have already read about life
and work on the oil rigs you may like to take a look at 'A
Friendly Spy', a true story of a lucky escape at sea, in this section,
or maybe see our Beneath
The Keel page in Sporting Types.