Weathering a storm on Gulf can be a nightmare

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June 19, 2002

Weathering a storm on Gulf can be a nightmare

By SHANNON TOMPKINS, Houston Chronicle

When Darrell Richmond and Lee Gomez saw the black wall stretched like a billowing mourning veil across the northwest horizon Sunday morning, they knew things were going to get worse.

They just didn't know how much worse.

Over the next couple of hours, they would face what every offshore angler knows is possible but prays never happens.

They'd be caught in the jaws of a hellish storm that seemed to come out of nowhere, their lives dependent on their cool, skills and, in the end, simple twists of fate.

When the pair of veteran offshore anglers cleared the Sabine Pass jetties Saturday afternoon, seas were slick and wind was light from the southeast.

They aimed south, pushed the throttles to the twin 200-horsepower outboards hanging from the transom of the 25-foot center console and skipped over the calm Gulf at better than 30 knots.

Their target was an oil and gas platform about 70 miles out where they planned to hang a rig hook and spend the night wrestling huge fish.

The first part of the trip went perfect. They hooked to the rig and loaded the boat with fish.

"We had three huge ling, one of 'em about 60 pounds," Richmond said. "A couple of big amberjack (50 and 53 pounds), red snapper and some mutton snapper. The fish box was full."

Weather forecasts called for light winds and calm seas through the next day, and that's what the pair saw until sometime around midnight.

"The wind kicked up from the south, and I thought that was kinda weird," Richmond, 32, of Beaumont, recalled.

By dawn Sunday, seas had built to 5-6 feet under an increasing southerly wind.

This was not in the forecast.

The pair decided to head in, and plowed their way north through sloppy seas.

"It was getting rougher and choppier," Richmond said. "We were soaked, but we had a following sea and the boat was handling really good. I wasn't worried at all. I'd been through a lot worse."

But when they were about 25 miles from shore, Richmond and Gomez noticed that band of black to the northwest.

"Lee said, `Man, that sure looks dark!'," Richmond said. "We were hoping it was just a little rainstorm."

It wasn't.

What Richmond and Gomez saw was a line of heavy weather, an aberrant spinoff of a low pressure system that made up in the Texas Panhandle during the night.

The huge line of storms formed, then raced at amazing speed through Texas Saturday night and into Sunday morning.

Unbeknownst to the pair of anglers in the Gulf, the system already had claimed the life of one fisherman.

Saturday night, the line of storms, carrying winds of as much as 60 mph, swept over Lake Stamford north of Abilene, catching William Beeson, his three children and one of their teen-age friends in their 14-foot boat.

The overloaded boat capsized, throwing the five people into the dark water.

None of them was wearing a life jacket.

Beeson, 46, drowned; his body was found two days later.

The storms, which caught weather forecasters by surprise, raced south with unusual speed, moving 40-50 mph or faster.

"The next thing we knew, it was on us," Richmond said. "The air temperature dropped maybe 15 degrees, and the wind came hard from the west, bashing us on the port side. It must have been blowing 50 knots."

"Seas went from 5 feet from the south to 10, maybe 12 feet from the north in five minutes," he said. "They were incredibly steep and there was no back side to them -- you'd just plow up them and fall off."

Ten-foot seas might not sound like much to people unfamiliar with the Gulf of Mexico. But a 10-foot sea in the relatively shallow water of the Gulf atop the Continental Shelf is seriously bad mojo for small boats.

Storm-driven Gulf waves are steep, very close together and chopped. It can be near impossible to keep a fishing boat from dropping off one huge wave and plowing into the one following it.

Then, sometimes, rogue swells will come cross-wind, slamming the boat abeam, creating a whole new set of problems.

Richmond and Gomez, who had strapped on their life jackets when they saw the dark wall approaching, had little time to consider their options. The storm was on them and things looked grim.

"I thought we might be able to make it, but I wasn't sure," Richmond said.

Fate stepped in.

The pair had just traversed a 20-mile stretch of Gulf that held nothing other than ocean.

But when the storm hit them, they were within a mile or two of an offshore oil and gas platform.

They headed toward the platform, swinging to the downwind side and plowing toward a landing used by workers and offshore supply boats.

Getting from the deck of a recreational fishing boat to the landing of an offshore platform is dangerous, dicey work even in calm seas.

Doing it in the middle of a storm, when the boat is pitching every direction, is like trying to jump into the open door of a freight car on a passing train and just as dangerous.

"Lee did a hell of a job lassoing the landing with the bowline," Richmond said. "I don't know how he did it with the seas as rough as they were."

Normally, the landing is maybe 10 feet or so above the surface of the Gulf. But when the boat was at the top of a wave, the landing's grating was eye-level with the two men in the boat.

They pulled the boat close to the landing, waited for a wave to lift the boat, and Gomez jumped from bow to landing.

Richmond was next.

He scrambled to the bow as Gomez pulled the boat close to the landing. Richmond crouched, waiting for the next wave to lift the boat so he could make the leap to safety.

"It just launched me. I didn't have to jump. When the wave came, it just threw me up in the air. Lee said he could see the bottom of my tennis shoes over his head."

Richmond made a hard landing but was OK.

So, too, was the cell phone he held between his teeth as he exited the battered center console.

The pair secured the bowline, leaving about 50-60 feet of rope to hold the lunging boat. Then they climbed to the upper level of the platform, where Richmond used the cell phone to call longtime friend and fellow offshore fishing veteran Dale Fontenot.

Fontenot, chief of the Lamar University police department, checked the weather radar and told the pair they were in for at least another hour of storm.

They waited, huddled in a shed on the unmanned platform, as winds topping 60 mph raked the Gulf. The huge platform was vibrating from the wind, Richmond said.

The tethered boat seemed to be taking the beating quite well.

But an hour or so later, after the storm passed and seas fell to "only" 5-7 feet, the pair discovered they had a problem.

The boat's automatic bilge pumps had either broken down or been overwhelmed by the waves slopping into it.

"There was a couple of feet of water in the boat, and when we tried to pull it toward us, the water would run to the back of the boat and the stern would go under," Richmond said.

The boat wallowed on its tether, threatening to roll over at any moment.

Richmond said he knew the boat was going to capsize but needed to get back in it; their wallets and keys were still aboard.

He decided to jump from the landing to the boat and retrieve the gear before it went belly-up.

They pulled the boat close, and when a wave began lifting the hull, he jumped for the deck.

The boat titled up, its stern going down.

"I fell a long way," Richmond said. "Lee said I looked like a pinball bouncing off the ice chests and the gunwales and console.

The fall broke Richmond's left ankle, seriously banged his right shin and bruised his backside.

The boat was wallowing, trying to roll. He grabbed wallets from a console but couldn't find the keys.

He crawled to the bow, grabbed a rig rope Gomez offered and swung back to the landing as the boat finally rolled over.

"The ice chest was so full of fish, it just went straight to the bottom. I watched it," Richmond said. "And there was about $6,000 worth of fishing gear, too."

They used the cell phone to contact the Coast Guard's Sabine Station and request a rescue.

An hour or so later, Richmond and Gomez watched wide-eyed as a slate-gray, 170-foot ship bristling with armaments approached their refuge.

"I knew it wasn't any Coast Guard ship I'd ever seen,"Richmond said.

It was the USS Thunderbolt, a Cyclone-class coastal patrol vessel that has been part of the U.S. Navy's homeland security efforts.

A team of rescue divers from the Thunderbolt launched an inflatable boat, picked up the two anglers and hauled them to the safety of the ship.

The ship steamed to within a few miles of the coast, where Richmond and Gomez were transferred to a Sabine-based Coast Guard vessel for the trip back to land.

Recuperating at home, Richmond said he's just glad things worked out the way they did.

"The Gulf tried to eat us, no doubt," he said. "The boat's still out there, belly up and tied to the rig. There's $6,000 worth of tackle on the bottom.

"But like I told Lee, I'm just glad to be alive. You know things like that can get you anytime you go offshore. You just have to be prepared to deal with them.

"We got lucky."

Shannon Tompkins covers the outdoors for the Chronicle. His column appears on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays.
 

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