After years of loyal service from our existing dive boats, Ocean Frontiers – the dive shop I work for – decided it was time for an upgrade!
The natural choice of course were Newtons, considered the Cadillac of Dive Boats. Over the the following two years, we would get a total of three, brand new, 46′ Newtons. They are built in Slidell, Louisiana, and we would need to send up a crew to deliver them, driving down through the Gulf of Mexico and the Western Caribbean.
When the first of them was ready, I volunteered to fly up to New Orleans (a short drive from Slidell) a week early. I had always wanted to visit the city, and I had a local guide through a friend of mine who lived there. Unfortunately, (or fortunately – depending how you look at it), my visit coincided with Jazz Fest, a big event on the New Orleans calendar. The crowds were chaotic and my friend was busy selling her artwork at Jackson Square Artists Market, but the city bumped to a great vibe so it was no bad thing!
I spent hours exploring the city by myself on foot, not just confined to the famous French Quarter, but also into the Marigny, Downtown and even into some of the Wards – the latter of which definitely had some interesting vibes and characters! I kept my head down on some occasions!
For the most part it was all very beautiful – classic French colonial architecture, hidden little bars and cafes, and leafy boulevards. I naturally felt obligated to sample local brews, especially considering the label had a man wrestling an alligator on it – very appropriate! I spent quite a bit of time following the river, watching the huge ships making their way up and downstream, supplying the vast cities further north along the banks of the Mississippi. And my long walks would not have been complete without getting photos of the paddle-steamers and classic trams.
It was also crawfish season, and not attending a crawfish boil while in Louisiana would be like going to Italy without eating pizza! The taste of these little crustaceans was incredible, but it was definitely a labour of love – picking apart each one from it’s shell and sucking out the juicy flesh!
After a few days, I jumped in an Uber and headed up to Slidell where I was to meet Mo and Evan – my fellow crew for the journey back to Grand Cayman. Newton are considered some of the worlds best dive boats, and it was fun to visit the yard where they are made. It wasn’t exactly like the assembly line at Boeing, and it was a little rough around the edges perhaps, but these are real craftsmen at work, and the place hummed with activity.
We took a few days preparing the boat, and there was lots to be done. It had already been launched, and was sitting quietly tied to a rickety dock in one of the numerous canals in these huge wetlands. The large fishing vessel docked opposite had a dead carcass of some description rotting in the water beneath it’s hull, and over the few days that we were there, the smell steadily got worse!
As we gathered all the supplies that we needed, we made a trip to Wal-mart. When you live on a small Caribbean island, a Wal-mart seems impossibly large, and it would be lying to say we were not at least a little bit excited by the prospect. Although once inside it became a daunting task, navigating a store so large trying to find the items we needed, but an hour later we left with armfuls of trail-mix and jerky, plenty of water, and iced coffees. Evan bought cans of chickpeas, which he ate cold during the trip – straight from the can! My trail-mix was tastier even though he would deny it!
The last task we needed to complete was to procure enough fuel for the journey, as well as a way to store it. We needed to have enough to cover a distance of the best part of 1000 nautical miles, with an approximate fuel burn of a gallon per mile. Plus of course a reserve. Mo had secured three, 250 gallon plastic fuel totes, plus the additional 400 gallon on board capacity and we were all set.
We were finally ready to leave, however mother nature had other ideas and we had to wait another two days to get our weather window. High winds had been forecast for the Caribbean region and so we decided to wait it out. No big deal as we were in the great American South, and naturally it seemed right to go play with guns. Fortunately, Louisiana has no shortage of ranges, and the kind folks at Newton hooked us up with an afternoon of shooting.
The next day, Evan and I rented a car with a plan to drive to Mississippi, for no other reason than – why not? We went to the science centre that sits just across the state line, took the obligatory photographs and checked the box for another state visited!
Finally, the day arrived. At dawn we untied the dock lines and as the sun rose, we set off. We would actually have to drive almost due east for the first few hours to clear the Chandelier Islands which are situated off the coast. We had all sorts of interesting vessels for company as we followed the Intra-coastal waterway, and much like trucks on the highway, they honked their horns whenever a bunch of immature dive instructors pumped their fists above their heads! Mostly it was tugs and barges carrying all manner of shipping containers, barrels, logs, vehicles, coal, and more.
As we turned south having cleared the Chandelier Islands, we entered the heart of America’s drilling industry and we felt very small compared to the gargantuan oil rigs that dotted the horizon. As a security risk, no non-authorised vessels are understandably allowed to get close to them, so unfortunately I didn’t get any photos that justified their size. Although at one point a helicopter flew over the top of us headed to one of the rigs from shore, no doubt ferrying crew and supplies. This huge helicopter, that must have been able to carry at least 20+ people, got gradually smaller as it got further away from us, and eventually looked like a mosquito landing on an elephant by the time it came to a rest on one of the oil platforms.
By sunset on the first day, we had a mildly alarming moment when we dipped the fuel and realised our fuel burn calculations had been somewhat incorrect. The wonderful 14 knots we had been averaging was burning too much fuel, and so we had a new speed limit of 12 knots in the daytime and 10 knots overnight in order to reduce the amount of fuel used. This would add a good 10 – 12 hours total to our journey time, but it was better than running out of fuel!
I really enjoyed driving the night shifts, I found it incredibly relaxing and humbling to be so alone with nothing but utter darkness around me. Free from light pollution, I realised how many stars are in the sky – it almost seemed there were more stars than black space.
The risk of a man-overboard situation was a very real one, especially at night. Falling overboard while so far from land could spell absolute disaster if the other crew members don’t realise you have gone. By the time they do notice, it could be several hours later – by that time you would be lost to the sea. As a rule therefore, certain areas of the boat were off limits at night, the fore-deck being a particular example as you would be especially at risk of falling overboard while making your way up the narrow gunwales.
Also, when answering the call of nature off the back of the boat, our rule was that you would have to let another crew member know that you were planning to do so, and they would watch you to make sure you made it back safely. So it was during this journey that I would approach my boss and say a sentence I never thought would pass my lips – “I am going for a pee, can you watch me?”
We took turns driving the boat, averaging four hours per shift. Generally one of us sat on the fly-bridge with the captain to help in case of something unexpected, and we had a beanbag up there for exactly that purpose.
Although at one point I had fallen asleep on the beanbag and woke up sharply as I banged my head hard against the console. I groggily remembered falling asleep in relatively calm seas, so I asked Evan if it had gotten rougher. “nope – it is about the same as before” came his response. I shrugged and began to nod off again when once again – BANG – my head against the console. “Are you sure?” I asked Evan. “Yeah – why?” he responded casually. I stood up from behind the console and was assaulted by howling wind and the sea rolling in front of the boat – it’s bow rising and falling as it crested the wave peaks. The sea had got rougher so gradually that Evan hadn’t noticed much of a change as he had simply adapted as it did so. The lump on my head however, told a different story!
Someone would also usually be down below resting. We had brought along an air-mattress as we believed it would be comfortable and take the sting out of the waves. However, during the third night and into the day, we passed through the Yucatan channel between Mexico and Cuba, and it was really rough seas. During this period, the air-mattress effectively became a trampoline, and after several incidents of waking up airborne having been catapulted off of it by a large wave, we decided the beanbags were a far safer option.
From time to time, an alarm would sound from the bridge announcing there was water in the fuel – it was mildly concerning, the prospect of losing an engine or having compromised fuel while so far from land! However, each time Evan would check the filters and the fuel/water separator but with no evidence of water in the fuel. So figuring it to be a touchy sensor, we carried on. We were however always a little bit on edge – waiting for the next alarm to go off…
…which is why when, at one point, while Evan and I were resting down below, we heard Mo shouting from the fly-bridge and naturally, we assumed the worst! However, the alarming yells were actually him shouting – “DOLPHINS!” – and sure enough, we had a pod of spinner dolphins bow-riding and surfing our wake! They earned their name as each time they leapt from the water, they did a barrel-roll mid-air before plunging back in.
Having cleared the Yucatan channel and now back in relatively calm seas once again, we were on the home straight! Just another 20 hours or so to go! The day itself went in a similar manner to the previous ones, driving the boat, reading, eating trail-mix, staring at the horizon, and thinking about life.
On the final run into Grand Cayman, I took the 2am to 6am shift, and in the complete darkness of night I began to spot a faint orange glow on the horizon. Sometimes I saw it, only to look down at the compass and lose it again when I looked back, but slowly but surely it began to get brighter and larger. Land Ahoy! A couple of miles in front of us I could see the navigation lights of a large vessel, the configuration of which, told me it was headed to the island as well.
As the low rocky island materialised on the horizon, it coincided beautifully with the sunrise in the east – our direction of travel. As we came around North-west point in West Bay, Mo took over the driving and I was able to snap off a stunning sunrise photo as we pulled into Georgetown Harbour.
The lights I had seen in front of me some hours previously turned out to be one of the small freighters that shuttle goods to the island from the US, and as they had arrived into port before us, we would have to wait for them to clear customs before we could. No big deal, we simply tied up to one of the public mooring buoys in the harbour, and enjoyed our first silence in 71 hours as we finally cut the engines. We also tested the on-board showers too as we finally decided to have our first shower in 71 hours at this point too! (Don’t tell my girlfriend!)
Mo’s wife and one of our friends from the dive shop had come to meet us, and were spending the wait time flying a drone around us while we sat and talked on the bridge. They did manage to get some really good shots of our shiny new boat sitting in the harbour.
Eventually we were called forward to be cleared in, and it was a tortuous wait while the necessary paperwork was completed. Our greeting party had bought us all breakfast from Burger King, but they were on the other side of a chain-link fence and no items were permitted to be passed between us until we had cleared in. So we sat with rumbling stomachs with our breakfasts getting cold so close, yet so far away. When we did eventually get to eat them it was heaven on earth!
Finally our passports were stamped and all that was left to do was to drive Gun Bay Diver around to Compass Point – she looked good in her new home!
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