By J. Rossotti
©2001 J. Rossetti - All Rights Reserved
The novel this excerpt is from is called SEA STORY and is being published by Starlight Word Publications in July of this year as an e-book. That means it can be ordered from the company's website as a download or on a disk. It will also be available in print on actual paper. Sea Story is based on my experiences as a coxswain.
Fantome exploded out of the
I threw down the hose and
scrub bucket and tore out after him as he ran towards Riverside moorings.
I knew that Chandler had gone up to the base to get something at the
exchange. If I couldn't find him I
would grab the first engineer that I saw. Then
up ahead he stepped out of the last building.
Chandler jammed the bag of
potato chips in his pocket and joined the race.
We ran the length of the base,
dashed through the tunnel under the road and up the concrete steps set into the
levee. On the other side of the
levee was the tiny dock that made up Riverside moorings. Chandler got to the boat first.
He threw open the hatches and leaped into the engine room.
Fantome flung off the mooring lines, and I jumped breathlessly into the
"Go ahead!" Chandler
I hit the start buttons, and
the engines kicked in. A quick
check of the dials and a look at the shore tie to make sure it was disconnected,
and I pushed the throttles ahead.
"Coast Guard Group New
Orleans, Coast Guard 32332". Fantome
set the mike down long enough to jerk on his life jacket.
"332, Group," the
Another voice cut in.
"Group, Coast Guard helo 5521."
We listened while the
helicopter outlined what search pattern they planned to use.
I said, "Fantome, tell
the Group that we'll do a bank to bank creeping line down the river.
See if they have a description."
Group answered, "Subject
is male, wearing a red shirt and jeans, jumped from the mid-section of the
Greater New Orleans Bridge."
"Group, 332, roger
out," Fantome answered.
We turned the corner of the
Industrial Canal and entered the Mississippi River at full speed.
Blue light flashing and siren wailing, we whipped around Algiers Point
where the GNO bridge came into view. The
helo overhead made sweeping passes from the bridge down river and then back.
"Group, 332, on
"332, Group, roger
Fantome took up a position on
top of the cabin, arm wrapped around the mast, while Chandler, holding onto his
hat, fought the wind to reach the bow. I
drove the boat to the starting position under the bridge and began zig-zagging
across the river from bank to bank. I
kept a watchful eye on the river traffic which was fortunately light at the
moment. I had no delusions about
the blue light and siren. Our 32
foot patrol boat was very insignificant on the Mississippi, and certainly no
tanker or cargo carrier would watch out for us.
After the search pattern, I
pulled the boat carefully to the docks and wharves so Fantome and Chandler could
peer into the damp, creosote smelling darkness for a body.
"Ain't gonna find
anything in there," Fantome said. "The
bridge is high, and that water is rough."
The Mississippi River in the
spring was a brown, churning, mass of currents and backwashes but we searched
for five hours.
"Group, 332," I said
wearily. "No luck."
"332, Group, return to
"Group, 332, roger
"This is a boring ass
spring," Fantome complained from his chair in the Patrol Boat shop.
He turned his head to watch Valise fish through a bag of M&M's.
"What the hell are you doing, Valise?"
"He only eats green M
& M's," I explained, sitting on the corner of a desk.
aphrodisiacs," Valise mumbled without looking up.
Fantome shook his head in
I pulled out a buck knife from
the sheath on my hip and idly ran one finger down the edge, then looked around
for the sharpening stone.
Novak dropped his bulk into a
plastic-cushioned chair, resting his head on the back and pulling the black ball
cap over his eyes. "I like
peace and quiet." He glanced
sideways under the edge of the hat at Valise still eating candy.
West said, "Valise, you
the only fool I know eats M&M's for lunch."
I said, "Well, Kyle eats
Chitos and soda for breakfast."
"Yeah, and look how he turned out."
Closing his eyes again, he said, "Who has the dirty duty
"We do," I answered
for my crew. "We already had a
jumper this morning, so we expect it will be a suck duty day."
I never get any sleep when I know that you and The Phantom are cruisin'
the river." Novak sighed
heavily, pulling his hat lower over his face.
Fantome said, "Ross, you
see something movin' up ahead?"
I squinted into the night,
pulling the throttles back. Our
boat slowed and then stopped, turning slightly sideways in the river current.
"I hear a boat
engine," I admitted. "What
"Looks like a crew
boat," he answered, referring to the small boats used to ferry people and
material to the oil rigs and ships. "The
asshole doesn't have any running lights."
"Okay, I'll go alongside on our starboard,
and you and Chandler board him. If
his lights don't work at all, we'll escort him back to his dock."
Fantome, snapping on his
gunbelt said, "Right."
I switched on our blue light,
cutting in front of the crew boat. It
hesitated and then slowed.
"Tie us up!" I
yelled to Fantome and Chandler. I
didn't want the river to carry the crew boat too far out of earshot. We drifted, two boats lashed together like handcuffed
prisoners, as I moved the throttles in and out of gear to steer us.
A few minutes later, Fantome jumped back on the 332.
"Ross, this guy doesn't
have working lights, fire extinguishers, or life jackets, and he's drunk."
He pushed his hat back and shook his head.
One of you...hey! Who the
hell are they?"
Another crew boat had come
alongside the first and dropped two men off before disappearing into the
darkness. The men walked towards
the wheelhouse where Chandler stood with the skipper.
"Stay where you
are!" I shouted to them from my open window.
Fantome leaped back on the
crew boat while I kept my eyes on the two men.
I couldn't see any weapons in their hands but I unsnapped my holster flap
anyway. Fantome had one hand on his
gun as he approached the men.
"Please stand over
there," he said, pointing.
They reluctantly moved in full
view of all of us. I checked around
the river and then slowly turned both boats upriver.
When we arrived at the crew
boat dock, I edged the boats in, and we tied up.
The two uninvited guests had a quick conversation with another man on the
dock. We couldn’t see much in the
poor light, and the boat engines covered up their conversation.
Suddenly there were several angry men there.
I knew they were unhappy about the termination because it meant a boat
was unusable until the violations were corrected.
I leaned towards the bench on our 32 boat to make sure that the radio had
channel sixteen dialed up, and then noted with approval that Fantome and
Chandler stood so they could cover each other.
A mountainous man, obviously
in charge, walked ponderously towards Fantome and shouted in his face with much
waving of arms.
Turning his head slightly,
Fantome yelled, "Rossy! He
wants me to go up to the office and talk to his boss about the boarding!"
"He's not going
anywhere!" I told the big man. "If
you have any questions about the boarding, call the base!"
I didn't know if this was the
correct procedure in this situation, but with only a crew of two, I wasn't
taking any chances with our safety. We'd
had run-ins with crew boats before and, while most of them cooperated, a few
were nasty customers.
Fantome and Chandler
re-boarded our boat, and I pulled away.
"They were pissed off,
Ross," Chandler reported as he unstrapped his holster and dropped it on the
said, leaving his on. "Goin'
up and down this river with no damn runnin' lights.
Hey, Rossy, good thing you didn't let me go talk to the boss because they
probably would've worked me over."
I grinned at Chandler, and we
headed back to the base.
I dragged myself out of sleep
with great reluctance and yelled, "What!"
The knocking stopped and a
voice said through the door, "GODO wants you."
"All right," I
I sat up pushing in the
hairpins that kept the thick, waist length, braid in a bun on the back of my
head and slipped on my shoes. That
was all I had to do since I slept fully clothed on my duty nights.
It was uncomfortable but saved valuable time. I checked the clock's glowing face.
It was eleven thirty. Only
one hour of sleep. I knew that
Forrest was the Group Operations Duty Officer that night.
That boded ill.
I tucked in my uniform shirt
as I hurried down the night-dimmed corridors to the GODO office.
Fantome and Chandler appeared behind me, blinking in the brightly lit
Comm Center. Ensign Forrest glanced
up from his desk and said, "You have a man overboard."
My eyes snapped open and the
guys tensed to run, needing only to know which mooring-Riverside or Industrial
"A man fell off a barge
at mile 130," he went on calmly as he wrote in the logbook.
We froze, and I said in a
level voice, "Mr. Forrest, that's way up past Kenner Bend. It will take us at least three hours to get up there."
He shrugged. "Well, we have to respond." He then ignored us
since he had more pressing matters to attend to.
On the way to riverside
moorings, I added up the hours. "If
we get there by two o'clock and search for a while, we might be back by
"That stupid bastard. We
can't do nothin' about a man overboard way up there.
That guy was probably sucked down under the barge and is dead by
"Yeah, well, it's no use
arguing with him," I said resigned. "I
hope it's not too foggy tonight."
As I unlocked the boat,
Chandler sniffed the air. "What's
that awful smell?"
Fantome answered, "It's
the dump. It's on fire again.
The wind must've changed direction. Now it's coming towards us.
Great. That's all I need
tonight, to smell other people's crap burning."
Fantome said he would drive so
he jumped into the chair behind the wheel.
I sat in the other chair for a while, and Chandler slept hunched up on
the short, padded, bench under the window.
After an hour or so, Chandler and I swapped positions.
I fell asleep immediately.
A conversation intruded into
"Where are we?"
"That's too far."
"No it's not."
I sat up. "Where are we?"
Fantome said, "132."
"132! We only had to go to 130, you morons!"
I shoved Chandler out and took the captain's seat.
Fantome said, "I told
"Shut up," Chandler
"Call the base and tell
them we're on scene," I told Fantome.
"Mile 132! For God's
sake!" I glared at them.
Arriving on scene for real, we
saw no evidence of a search. In
fact, there was no activity at all. I
put the boat up to the side of a building-sized push boat, and Fantome and I
walked inside. It didn't look like
the interior of a boat at all. With
the carpeting, desks, and phones, it resembled an office. A man looked up at us with surprise. I introduced us and asked where the guy had fallen in so we
"But we didn't ask for
the Coast Guard to come up here and search," he said. "We looked ourselves for three hours.
We got some more tugs coming in at first light to move the barges so we
can check between them."
Fantome and I shared a bitter
"Sir, would you mind
explaining that to the duty officer at the base?" I asked him.
He reached for the phone and placed it in front of me.
"Would y'all like a cup of coffee?"
Rossy, I'll fix a cup and then go back to the boat so Chandler can come
Ten minutes later we stood up
to return to our boat with Styrofoam cups of strong, black coffee.
Forrest had ordered us to return to base.
We thanked the man and left.
Chandler drove for a while,
then I took over. Pockets of fog
waited around every bend where the wind had trapped it.
I hummed to myself to keep awake and ignore the tomb-like silence that
fog brings to the Mississippi River. Our
boat rounded Algiers Point, and I saw that fog obscured the opening to the
Industrial Forebay. I squinted and
could barely make out two fuzzy mast lights.
They were amber colored, a configuration that told me I was behind a tug
A few minutes, later we
entered the fog ourselves, right behind the tug.
I took a breath and gagged. It
wasn't fog, it was foul smelling smoke. The
wind had changed direction again and now blew the dump fire smoke across the
river. I searched in the haze and
once again found the amber lights.
There was something wrong with
They were too close to us.
Why would a tug stop in this smoke?
I slowed the boat
apprehensively and looked for the riverbank, an alarm ringing in my head.
Where was the bank?
through the front window, I could see something moving.
Then a curl of smoke parted, allowing me to see what it was.
In front of us, in the air high above our bow, was a small, white light
blinking off and on.
barge bow light.
Comprehension and horror
slammed into me. I grabbed the
throttles and rammed the engines in reverse.
The boat rocked back on its stern so hard that water sloshed up over the
deck. Pumped with adrenaline, I
pushed the engines forward and turned the wheel hard to starboard.
"Get up!" I shrieked
in case it didn't work.
Fantome gripped the chart
table, and Chandler picked himself up off the deck as I brought the boat to the
middle of the river.
"What the hell's goin'
on, Rossy?" Fantome demanded.
mumbled as he checked himself for broken bones.
I gasped, muscles starting to
shake. "I saw two amber lights
in the smoke and followed them." I
had to take another long, shuttering breath.
"They weren't amber.
The smoke colored the lights amber.
They were really white."
Fantome's mouth dropped open.
"Tug mast lights coming towards us!"
I nodded shortly, my neck
still stiff with fear. "I saw
the barge's bow light flashing just yards off our bow.
Chandler plopped down on the
bench as Fantome continued to swear. "They'd
've smashed us to fiberglass toothpicks and never even known it."
We tied the boat up to its
tiny dock and silently walked up the gangway from the dock to the top of the
levee just as a faint smudge of pink colored the sky.
Fantome laughed abruptly.
"Well Rossy, this night wasn't a total loss.
We got to have the shit scared out of us."
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