Fresh coconuts everywhere! We hadn’t had any fresh food in the last couple weeks, unless you count coleslaw; nothing lasts longer at sea than cabbage and carrots. I started up the Bell-Soloy helicopter to begin shuttling crew to a Pacific island atoll. We were going grocery shopping.
An uninhabited Pacific atoll
It was 1988 and we had been at sea almost two months and the holds were far from full. My job was to fly the helicopter in search of tuna, and then help catch them by herding them into the net. We were to fill the Maria Rosana II with about 1,300 tons of tuna. She was a fast 225-foot tuna clipper with a crew of 23, five speedboats, and a helicopter. We used a seine net almost a mile long and 500 feet deep, with one end attached to the skiff and the other to the ship. When setting the net, the skiff was released and the tuna boat would make a huge circle back to the skiff. A cable, which ran through metal rings all along the bottom of the net, was then winched, closing off the bottom of the net. The net was then pulled through a power block until the tuna were packed tight. They were then scooped out and funneled through a chute into a hold for freezing. Simple enough, except tuna are 47 mph fast and lately schools had been hard to find. Holds full or not, we would soon be low on ship fuel and have to return to port. After months of hard work, we could now have a little enjoyment. After all, how many people get to land on uninhabited Pacific atolls?
After shuttling several guys to the island, I shut down the helicopter and started walking around. The birds had never seen humans and were unafraid of us; we had to zigzag to avoid stepping on them. As I walked the oceanside I saw multitudes of fish and some very large and inquisitive moray eels. The lagoon side was full of baby sharks. It was pristine and untouched.
Back at the helicopter, the guys had already accumulated a very large pile of coconuts. The copilot side door had been installed (no dual controls), so we were able to fill that entire side of the cockpit with about 20 coconuts. I then flew back to the ship, landed and then reached over to pop the door open, watching most the coconuts roll out onto the deck. The mechanic then reached in and got the few remaining stragglers. After many trips we had a few hundred coconuts all over the helideck. The helideck had a metal lip about 4 inches high around the edge and was cambered, which caused the coconuts to roll away from the helicopter. Soon, there was barely enough room to land.
Just before start up and flying coconuts to the boat
Later that day our pleasure was ruined by learning we had to waste a day meeting up with a sister ship to get a needed part. Seems one of the refrigeration solenoid valves was bad. Our mood was quickly restored when some genius figured out gin went really well with coconut milk, likely the helicopter mechanic.
The next day, I flew to the other boat to get the part and while the other pilot cleared the deck, we chatted on the radio.
“Oh by the way, the stabilizer is busted” he said. The stabilizer is a U-shaped hydraulic flume tank near the stern, married to the inside hull of the boat. Tuna clippers are long and sleek; so without a working stabilizer there isn’t much roll stability.
I knew what that meant. But I asked how bad it was anyway.
“Well she is rolling a bit in this swell, just pick your moment and you should be okay.”
“How much is rolling a bit?” I said. He was really getting my attention now.
“Oh, about 30 degree each way, but she’ll settle down once in a while for you to land. No problem, just get the timing right.”
Nearing the boat, I could see they had recently set the net and were laying stern-to in a following swell. This was worst possible position and she was rolling heavily, but I noticed there were pauses. I made an approach, trying to gauge and anticipate the roll. Once over the actual helideck, it was a combination of looking at the horizon and down at the landing area. The deck was moving up and down a manageable 6 feet, but the roll was bad. It was necessary to wait until the deck was fairly level and within the slope limitations of the helicopter, and then get it down fast before the next roll. As soon as the floats touched down, I quickly bottomed the collective before the next roll. The mechanic rushed out with cargo straps, cinching us to the deck, and I began the two-minute cool down. The ship then took a big roll, which was not a lot of fun; an idling helicopter on a 30-degree slope 35 feet above the ocean. I doubt I could ever get used to that. Soon we shut down and I went into the bridge to look at the inclinometer gauge, which measures the amount of roll. I could hardly believe it, but it was showing regular rolls to 28-degrees both ways; a 56-degree swing.
After the part had been loaded, I climbed back in and started the turbine. After bringing the rpm up to 100 percent, I signaled the mechanic to release the last remaining cargo strap. Waiting for the ship to level, I then applied max power and nosed her over.
After I cleared the ship, I radioed the other pilot. “Hey man, how long has it been like that?”
“It went out at the beginning of the trip about a month and half ago,” he said.
“ Well, if there was a tuna boat helicopter pilot hall of fame I would vote for you.”
“Ha, well the first week is rough, but you get used to it,” he said.
I wasn’t so sure I would get used to it. Rick was one of our most senior pilots and had been doing this for more than six years and was very good. I was sure glad our stabilizer was working, and made a mental note to buy some drinks for our chief engineer the next time we hit the beach.
The rest of the trip was uneventful, until we blew up one of the helicopter’s floats with a ¼ stick of dynamite….buts that’s for another blog.
Flying to the ship