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Excerpt: 'The Good Pirates of the Forgotten Bayous'

Chapter 1: Ricky at the Helm

"I feel it in me sometimes—the pirate blood in my veins."

Violet Canal, St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, Aug. 29, 2005

Ricky Robin suddenly has a bad feeling about things.

It's well beyond midnight, maybe three in the morning, who knows.

Ricky's lost track of time.

It's incorrigibly dark beyond the glare of his generator-powered floodlights mounted above the fore and aft decks of the Lil' Rick, the sturdy fifty-six-foot steel trawler he built with his own hands three decades earlier. The wind has picked up and is bawling like a rabid cat; rain is machine-gunning his wheelhouse windows.

The Lil' Rick is beginning to shudder and rock and, worse, tilt.

It's not supposed to tilt. Ricky Robin, a seaman all his life, has tied down plenty of boats in plenty of storms. His boats, once tied down, just don't tilt.

Besides, the Lil' Rick is tied down with redundant ropes—ten in all—and under power, and Ricky, or so he believes, has history and lore on his side. He's hunkered down at Violet Canal, a man-made appendage to an ancient natural bayou named Dupre. It's been a trustworthy hurricane hole for the storm-wise local shrimping and oyster fleet going back to the days of Reconstruction.

Bounded by ten-foot-high levees north and south, the canal deadends at an abandoned lock just off a major thoroughfare called the St. Bernard Highway, less than two hundred yards from the towering levees of the Mississippi River on the west. Lying to the east are two more protective levee systems: two miles away, a ten-foot-tall inner ring of levees along a historic colonial-era waterway known as the Forty Arpent Canal; and about eight miles away, a 17-foot-high levees along the western shore of a seventy-six-mile-long, man-dug shipping channel called the Mississippi River–Gulf Outlet (or MR-GO), known hereabouts as the Mister Go. That's why sea captains like Ricky Robin consider Violet, while nobody's version of a scenic harbor, an impenetrable fortress against violent storms.

That the seventy-ton Lil' Rick, snugged in hard against Violet Canal's north levee, is now being shoved around like a puny kid on the playground is for Ricky a bad sign.

Ricky needs knowledge. He keys his VHF marine radio and broadcasts out into the pummeling blackness. He raises another shrimp-boat captain on his ship-to-shore radio at Empire, a fishing and oil-patch marina across Breton Sound in Plaquemines Parish, about thirty miles south-southeast. He can barely hear the guy yelling into his radio above the din of the raging storm. "We're catching hell. Wind and water like you wouldn't believe. The gulf 's pouring in over the floodgates."

The captain is on his own oceangoing trawler wedged in a cluster of commercial fishing and oil-field work vessels at a protected harbor sitting inside the Mississippi River levee. He's under power but almost every boat that isn't manned has been sunk—pulled under when an astonishingly powerful and fast-moving storm surge overcame the length of the tie-down ropes and flipped them. Those still afloat are heading for other disasters.

The captain is probing the rain-slashed darkness with his spotlight. He tells Ricky what he sees: a hulking ghost rips by—a 90-foot-long steel menhaden deep-gulf seining ship, torn from its moorings. It's running dark (meaning probably no one's aboard) and is propelled by nothing more than seething tides and tornadic winds. Giant anchors and ropes fat as pythons secured this boat. But it's been loosed, and the captain watches it being tossed up, in a froth of whitecaps, on a nearby levee—as if it were some toy boat. Others will end up in the middle of highways and on the up-ramps to bridges.

"This wind and water—it's coming your way," the man tells Ricky. "Get ready."

Then, in a squall of static, he's gone.

Ricky Robin thought he was plenty ready, but now he's not so sure.

He leaves the Lil' Rick's wheel and makes his way unsteadily, the trawler leaning in the gale, back to his cluttered galley. The boat's pitch has worsened and Ricky realizes the problem. He'd raised his two 42 booms, the steel mechanical arms that hold his trawls, to 45 degree angles above his decks and secured them with chains to hold them in place. His worry: if he left the booms down and his trawler broke loose in the storm, they would carve, like giant steel wings, through any nearby boats in the narrow canal. Violet Canal is packed with vessels: maybe thirty other manned boats are hunkered down under power and another forty or fifty are tied hard to docks.

But in the shrieking, whipsawing east-southeast wind, the raised booms are acting as airplane wings and the trawler has swung sideways to the gale. With tornadoes about, Ricky's fear is that a rogue gust will whisk the windward boom skyward—and flip the Lil' Rick over.

Against the thrum of his generators and engine, and the din of the wind outside, he has a tense counsel with his co-captain and cousin, Dwight Alphonso—Tee-Tee, to his friends—who has volunteered to ride out the storm with him, along with Dwight's eighteen-year-old son, Dwight Jr.

"Look, Tee-Tee, if the boat rolls over this way," Ricky says, manning the trawler's wheel and pointing toward the port-side exit to the wheelhouse, "we'll try to get out this door."

It's a sobering moment—contemplating having to feel their way in confused blackness through the tight exits, the boat keeled over or capsized, water pouring in. Assuming they make it out, unpleasant things could await them at the storm-tossed surface.

Soon, another roaring gust tilts the Lil' Rick precariously. Ricky knows he has to do something. "Too much lean," he tells Tee-Tee. "I gotta lower the booms or we ain't gonna make it."

He pushes through the aft door, sucked shut in a thud behind him by the blasting wind. Outside, raging gusts pummel his head like a boxer. Rain blasts in horizontally in buzz-saw sheets. He feels his way to the first boom and begins to inch out toward the end of it, eyes shut. Opening them isn't an option. Imagine being strapped to the hood of a car and driven, face first, through a power wash: that's what it's like.

Luckily, Ricky knows his booms the way a blind person knows his route to the kitchen. He gains the end of his starboard-side boom and, in the glare of his floodlights, grapples with the chain, tied in double half-hitches—a mistake. This isn't a quick-release knot. As he struggles to untie it, he feels that he could be scraped off the boom at any second and spit into the dark, howling maw. He yells crude curses at the storm—he calls Katrina a mother —and yanks harder at the chain. The knot finally gives. The boom releases.

The Lil' Rick lurches, then rights itself.

Ricky edges his way down, then repeats the operation to the portside boom, holding on to a long boom rope as he descends to the trawler's aft deck. But the wind kicks his legs out from under him and sends him skidding.

For a long moment, it's as if he's in a bad pirate movie—he's lifted up and suspended in air above his railing, his purchase on the rope doubtful. But a wind dervish slaps him back to the deck.

The battered ship captain lands with a thud. Still clutching the boom rope, he manages to secure the booms by lashing the rope to giant steel cleats welded to the outer wall of the Lil' Rick's galley.

The wind makes standing impossible. Ricky crawls on his belly, squirming wet as an eel, toward the aft door. He wrangles it open and steps into the lighted galley. He shuts the door behind him and looks at Tee-Tee, shaking his head.

Katrina's a damned handful.

Given the violence of the wind, Ricky decides the trawler could use still more ballast to keep her on an even keel. He switches on electrical pumps, powered by his generator, to fill his trio of 300-gallon water tanks, normally used as live-bait wells, on the windward side, and then he, Tee-Tee, and Dwight Jr. take up positions on that side as well.

At 51, Ricky's still in good shape, save for a mild red-beans and-rice paunch that is a signature of middle-aged men in these parts. Still, at about five-foot-six, he's compact as a bulldog. But Tee-Tee and his son are hefty guys—six-footers weighing in at about 230 apiece. "It's a good thing we got your fat asses aboard," Ricky tells them.

Even Tee-Tee thinks this is pretty funny. It's about the only thing they have to laugh about.

Ricky moves forward again to the wheelhouse, guns the 300-horsepower diesel engine, and turns the Lil' Rick's wheel to shore up the trawler's position into the wind. "Let her blow now," says Ricky.

He almost regrets saying it—eyewall winds will gust up to 150 miles per hour here, and hit-and-run tornadoes will throttle boats, buildings, houses, trees, and vehicles.

At some point, with a glimmer of light in the sky, Ricky sees a chilling sight: out of the east, a small shrimping skiff, maybe 20 feet long, is tumbling—through the air—on the howling wind toward the Lil' Rick. At 50 yards away, it touches down and skips on the bayou's surface like a skittering stone.

Ricky guns his engine again, hoping to goose the Lil' Rick harder up against the levee and out of the boat's way. The small trawler skitters by—just grazing the Lil' Rick's stern. There's a scraping sound, and the boat whirs off into the ether.

Ricky knows the connection between hurricanes and tornadoes. He's seen mini-tornadoes dip out of the clouds like jet-propelled Ferris wheels and scoop up everything in their path, tossing it all skyward. That could explain the flying boat.

This is one of Ricky's moments of near panic. Any boat hammered by one of these microbursts—even a seventy-ton trawler like his—is in trouble. "That's your ass," he says. "You're gone, even if you've done everything right."

Ricky looks grimly at Tee-Tee and his son and decides they all need to be lashed together on a rope with a life ring that Ricky will control. If they get blown over or washed out of the boat, they'll at least have a chance to stay together.

He orders Dwight Jr. into the shelter of the Lil' Rick's lower bunk off the galley (below the window line and thus out of the path of any penetrating flying objects), and he and Tee-Tee take up watch in the wheelhouse.

With daylight edging into the sky and the wind, though still formidable, slackening some, Ricky is thinking, Well, damn, we made it through.

Indeed, at around 8:30, he twists through the dials of a portable radio and hears a news report from New Orleans saying that the city seems to have been spared a direct blow; the storm has made a slight but propitious jog to the east and is grinding its way toward what forecasters predict will be its terrifying last act, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast about 50 miles northeast.

But for Ricky Robin and the knot of a few hundred others hunkered down on boats and in dwellings in and around the historical safe haven of Violet Canal, the slackening wind is Katrina's cruelest feint. The center of the eye of the most destructive storm in U.S. history—an eye 32 miles wide—is passing a mere 12 miles east of here.

On the back side of that eye, the wind will return with a vengeance, and far worse things are about to happen.

Reprinted from The Good Pirates of the Forgotten Bayous: Fighting to Save a Way of Life in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina, by Ken Wells. Copyright (c) 2008 by Ken Wells. With permission of the publisher, Yale University Press.

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Ken Wells