Throttle up! The Journey Begins.

The Boudreaux at launch after getting some fresh bottom paint.

Sliding the twin throttles foward, sitting at the helm of the Boudreaux’s flybridge a dozen feet above the water, a thought keeps running through my mind: this boat is bigger than a kayak.

So much bigger.

It’s 34-feet long. It’s got twin 350 hp engines—each big enough to burn rubber all the way down any sun-baked Gulf Coast two-lane if it were in a car. The engines start with a sputtering bass rumble that sounds like a 60s muscle car drunk on petrol, which they are. Truth is, they’re a little unsettling, as is the mass of the six-ton cabin cruiser they are pushing along now almost up to planing speed, leaving a huge wake that stretches back a half-mile or so.

We had just filled up the Boudreaux’s two fuel tanks (each 130 gallons) and paid the most outrageous gasoline bill I’d ever seen. The tanks had been half full, and topping them off cost more than $500. It shouldn’t be a surprise, I told myself—it’s a big boat—but it was still a shock.

Gasoline. Big engines. Oil addiction. BP’s disaster in the Gulf. We’re in the thick of it all. And from this vantage point, I intend to use our three-month exploration of natural and cultural environments along the fertile, fascinating, much maligned 375-mile coast between the Mississippi Delta and the eastern end of the Florida Panhandle as an opportunity to learn, reflect, and share our experiences.

Our two bicycles are lashed to the Boudreaux’s stern deck and two touring kayaks are secured to the bow deck’s railings. Right now I’d be so much more comfortable piloting one of these more nimble, self-powered conveyances. To be paddling at a mellow pace, in silence, through some backwater bayou surrounded by spider lilies and cypress trees…but this was my big idea, and it was such a compelling, exciting one, I had gone to great lengths to make it happen.

Here it is: spend my semester-long sabbatical with my son, 22-year-old Nat, joined for periods by my wife Suzanne and other short-term visitors, living and traveling aboard a boat suitable for exploring barrier islands, estuaries, and other special Gulf Coast environments. Learn to operate the boat and see what life is like living and working afloat. Use the boat as a launch pad for the kayaks and bikes, enabling us to explore places it would take many more months to access if we were only under our own power. Connect with wildlife managers, oil-spill clean-up crews, shrimpers, oystermen, and others in the field to document their experiences and understandings. Use the boat as a digital editing and broadcasting platform for sharing what we discover—experiment with ways of communicating about our adventure as it happens, while also collecting media assets to be used in the Waters to the Sea educational multimedia programs I produce at Hamline University’s Center for Global Environmental Education (CGEE). Eat good seafood. Soak up the sun and warmth as spring approaches. In short, use this vessel and this opportunity to witness, celebrate, and document the connections between nature and culture, between land and sea, along the thin line that is sometimes called America’s Third Coast.

Tracy took this shot of two visiting dolphins.

With Nat and me on the Boudreaux’s flybridge today are CGEE director Tracy Fredin and his daughter Taylor (who will both be with us for a week) and Dan Webking, the owner of the boat, who is breaking us in. After getting the Boudreaux up to speed, we notice that we are not alone coursing across the open water. A pod of dolphins has easily caught up with us and they are swimming inches from the stern of the boat. Repeatedly they rise out of the water to form effortless, glistening, gray arches: a smiling face, a blow hole like a belly button, a dorsal fin, and a smooth, muscular body tapering to twin horizontal tail flukes that have bones inside resembling our own fingers.

What a wonder!

Here’s a link to a hastily edited short video of our encounter with the cavorting dolphins:

And here’s a link to a gallery of images taken during the few days prior to our launch:

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5 Responses to Throttle up! The Journey Begins.

  1. Brian says:

    Thanks for starting this blog. I’ll really enjoy being a digital traveler on this voyage. I have a ton of questions for you, but I’ll start with just two. Have you seen any oil yet? Why are you not concerned about eating local seafood?

    • John Shepard says:

      Hi Brian,

      Thanks for your interest in this adventure! We did see oil in the form of tar balls that were being collected by workers along the beach in Gulf Shores AL before we set out on the boat. See the photo gallery link in this post for a few pics of the operation. Workers were collecting tar balls with dip nets along the surf line and higher on the beach using heavy equipment to excavate about five or six feet below the surface sand. One worker said the amount washing up in the surf zone varied from day to day with the winds and currents. He expected those working the surf line would be busy for another year or more. A film maker colleague we visited with, who produced a one-hour special with Dan Rather on the possible long-term impacts of oil spill (titled “A Gulf un Understanding”, available for download on iTunes), said he’s concerned that large quantities of oil are lurking on the bottom in naturally forming troughs near the shore and that storms could stir up the oil and send it ashore for years to come.

      Everyone we’ve talked to about local seafood has been reassuring that the catches are good and untainted. I think folks would be very concerned about bad publicity if fish being served were contaminated, and my sense is that people are being cautious.

  2. Brian says:

    I worked in Prince William Sound seven years after the spill. There were oil globs hardened on the rocks. My sense was that we’d be seeing oil in the sound for a very long time.

    I’m glad to hear that the seafood is free of oil contamination. What about the dispersant used by BP? I recall that BP wouldn’t make public the ingredients, so how do we know that the seafood is not tainted by the dispersant?

  3. Ben says:

    What an exciting and inspirational adventure! Can’t wait to share your discoveries. It’s 19F and frozen solid in Dallas today…dreaming of the Gulf Coast.

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