Thursday, August 20, 2009

N.O. to Natchez II: Shrimp, Hurricane Gilbert, and the New World Order

Ricky Thibodeaux, the pilot of the Marty Baskerville, knew his hurricanes. While I sat in my childhood living room glued to the Weather Channel, Ricky was busy surviving what at the time was the strongest hurricane in recorded history.

I first met Ricky in the galley as he was tucking into some chicken pot pie. It was my first meal on board, and I had managed to fill up my plate in a way I thought might pass inspection.

As soon as I sat down Ricky took one look at my plate and asked me if I was a vegetarian.

“I eat seafood,” I said in my defense, “just no land critters.”

Ricky chuckled. Terry the cook overheard and declared that we’d be having fish tomorrow. Ricky assured me this was a treat.

Just like that the situation was diffused. I hate being a difficult guest, especially among strangers, but my confession went much better than I had feared. Turns out Ricky had a quite a few opinions about seafood. Once we were out of earshot of Terry, Ricky advised me on the next meal the flounder was the fish to go for, it had tastier meat than that on the catfish.

Ricky was a river pilot by trade but a fisherman, or more accurately, a shrimper at heart. Though I’ve never really cared for Winston Grooms or his Forrest Gump, I have to give the author credit for doing his research on shrimpers.

Finally I had met someone who might be able to demystify the world for crustaceans for me. Though I felt I knew my share about the varieties of edible fish, I knew almost nothing about what makes for good shrimp. I asked Ricky how could I tell if a place is serving high quality goods, aside from its proximity to the ocean?

Ricky reflected for a second, I had struck on a good topic with a guy who could have run a shrimp seminar. I was already anticipating holding court with my foodie friends during our next trip to Pacific Cafe.

“You’ve got many kinds of shrimp, you’ve got Brown Shrimp, White Shrimp, Rock Shrimp, Dry Shrimp, Red Shrimp, Tiger Shrimp, sea bobs…You know the size of the Shrimp by how many make a pound. 10-12’s mean ten to twelve shrimp a pound. 16-20’s mean…”

And on. The shrimp topic had unleashed Ricky’s inner Bubba.

After the impressive list of varieties, size and descriptions, Ricky gave me some useful guidelines. White shrimp typically is of a higher quality than brown shrimp, and when rock shrimp make the menu they are a must order. Though if it’s true crustacean delicacy you seek, according to Ricky, then look no further than Louisiana crawfish.

The November to June crawfish season represents Louisiana’s gift to the world (though I am also eternally grateful for Crystal Sauce). Almost all of the crawfish in the United States, and up to 90% of the world’s catch, are harvested in Louisiana. Creole state natives consume 70% of this total. Ricky’s eyes grow distant in his fleshy, bearded face that reminds me vaguely of Paul Prudhomme. He recounts one of the epic crawfish boils of his youth, large pots where crawfish, potatoes, garlic, corn, and sausage mingle before they are dumped out directly on the table in a delicious free for all. Maybe I am missing something in my diet, my eyes don’t roll back in my head when I talk about tofu.

There is a lot of time pass on the river, especially for a guy like Ricky who spends eight hour shifts alone in the pilothouse. We passed the hours talking hurricanes, seafood…and creeping world government. I had been in South and Central America for four months and missed the conservative backlash to Obama. I hadn’t yet heard of the tea parties that had been staged on tax day.

Ricky told me all about the tea parties. He was a rabid Ron Paul enthusiast who identified the coming world currency as the next step in the New World Order’s usurpation of American sovereignty. At a company conference in Nashville last year Ricky had cornered Xxx Ingram to ask him what he thought about the Federal Reserves’ complicity with the Chinese in fomenting the push for a global currency.

“He didn’t even answer me, he just looked at me with this smirk like I was a complete idiot.” Ricky said.

Right then I was hoping I wasn’t looking at Ricky like I thought he was an idiot. I didn’t think he was an idiot. Even if he bought a little of what talk show radio was selling, Ricky didn’t regurgitate the moronic half-logic of a Rush Limbaugh program. He was articulate in his small government, live-free-or-die conservatism, and if he fell in with the latest N.W.O. theorists, he did so with realization of his own limited knowledge. That’s why he asked Mr. Ingram the currency question, figuring surely a rich guy like that would know something about currencies.

“I don’t normally talk politics,” Ricky said. “But I could tell after talking to you that here’s a guy that knows what’s happening. I knew we had a lot of views in common.”

I nodded. It’s funny how people assume you share their views as long as you are willing to shut up and listen. Even if we didn’t have that many views in common, I found Ricky’s take on the world fascinating.

Ricky had spent most of his life on inland waterways, but his greatest story involved the one time he ventured into the open sea, almost 21 years ago. That one trip was enough for a lifetime.

“I’m done with open water. And I know you can never say never. But I am never going back to Africa.”

A shrimper might not make the same exaggerations as his fishing cousins. Still, this pilot knew the art of the fish tale.

Ricky perked up as he settled into his story. The long Louisiana vowels filled the spaces left by the gaps in his memory.

His father, a shrimp boat captain, was looking to sell his two shrimp boats so he could update his fleet. The best offer he received was from a businessman in Ghana. The elder Thibodeaux was skeptical, but the African was willing pay a huge premium for Thibodeaux to sail the ships across the Atlantic. There was also money in deal for the Thibodeaux to outfit the boats in Louisiana and train a local crew on how to operate and maintain the vessels once they reached Ghana.

The African, whom Ricky called the “Indian chief”, was offering too much money for the father and son to turn down. They agreed to the venture, and the chief flew to Louisiana to purchase the boats and oversee their outfitting. Ricky helped procure new equipment for the vessels, the nets, resin and maintenance items the new operators would not be able to buy locally in West Africa. The holds in the vessels, designed for large shrimp catches, easily accommodated the nets and other supplies. The Chief filled the remainder of the space with durable goods hard to come to come by Ghana—Mercedes Benz tires and empty baby food containers according the Ricky.

The boat was loaded in Morgan City and the Thibodeaux had their crews lined up ready to depart at the beginning of September 1988. Ricky would captain the first boat and his father had hired another captain to man the second.

The voyage was ill-fated from the beginning. The morning of the third day it became clear that a tropic depression off the Windward Islands was gaining strength at the eastern edge of the Caribbean. There was nothing but the warm, shallow waters of the Sargasso Sea between Ricky and the gathering storm. By the next evening Gilbert had reached hurricane strength and from there rapidly developed into a major category 3 hurricane. Luckily, Ricky had been tracking the storm and had time to harbor his boats in Montego Bay, off the northwest coast of Jamaica.

On the morning of September 12 Gilbert’s eye began its east to west assault along the backbone of the island. Before the tempest reached Jamaica’s western edge, Gilbert had strengthened into a monster category 5 storm.

Ricky docked the boats behind a large containership that had also made an emergency stop in the harbor’s partial sanctuary. Tucked in behind the broadside of the larger ship, Ricky’s smaller boats would be shielded from strongest volleys of the on coming hurricane. As the winds continued to strengthen, sustained gusts of 150 mph, Ricky heard a sickening screech that sliced through the hurricane’s jet engine roar. Ricky listened as Gilbert’s inner storm bands twisted and ripped the container’s metal ties. The winds overpowered the moorings that bound the larger ship in the harbor. As he feared, the container ship became unbound, and thrashed about as Gilbert hurled it across the harbor and into the shore. The shrimp boats were lucky the larger ship hadn’t plowed through them, but now they had lost their shield from the worst of the winds.

“Then we really took a beating,” Ricky said.

Local shanties were flattened by the onslaught. Corrugated metal roofs stripped off into deadly frisbees. Flying coconuts struck with the force of cannonballs. Glass shards were also a danger—the winds knocked out every window in Montego Bay.

By the time the tropical force winds resided, the 12-hour nightmare had claimed 43 lives on Jamaica. The 19-foot storm surge had swept away boats and deposited them as tree houses in surrounding hills. The infrastructure of the island lay in tatters, but the Thibodeaux’ vessels were still afloat, and after some repairs they were able to set course for Barbados.

No comments: