Listen to this story:
The crew of Les Bons Temps (The Good Times) hoped to make it home before dark. It was early afternoon, the weather was growing colder, the radar warned of rain, and this was their second day aboard the 30-foot (nine-metre) boat, which was now spitting black exhaust over the waters of the brackish marsh. Captain Scott Maurer cut the motor.
The starboard engine was vibrating, and 45-year-old Maurer was worried. The crew tied the boat to a piling in a narrow channel of the Barataria wetlands. There wasn’t another soul in sight. In every direction, tall marsh grass swayed in the wind.
Normally, if Maurer ran into trouble near his oyster farm on Grand Isle, he’d call on another boat for help - but this waterway sees less traffic than his usual fishing grounds, and the only boats in sight were two tugs in the distance, slowly towing an enormous floating oil rig.
The crew of Les Bons Temps was on their way from New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico, a journey of roughly 160km (100 miles). No one on board had made the trip before.
Standing at the helm in hazard-orange rain gear, Maurer worried aloud that the boat had hit something in the shallow waters, damaging a propellor.
“Could be storm debris,” he mused.
The water was an opaque brown, but 33-year-old deckhand Luke LaCava, a bright-eyed and curious Alaska fisherman who had been chain-smoking off the stern, volunteered to jump in. He put on a wetsuit, hopped off the transom, and disappeared below the surface. Without goggles, he would have to blindly grope along the propellor shaft beneath the boat.
In spring, this area would be teeming with alligators, but in January, there were none to be seen. LaCava reappeared, shivering. “Nothing,” he said.
Using his hands to make the shape of the blades in the air, Maurer gestured to check both shafts. LaCava took a deep breath and went back under.
A few seconds later, he re-emerged, gasping. “The propellor shaft has rope wrapped around it,” he said, wiping his face and spitting out sour water.
Nathan Herring, a 32-year-old Grand Isle oyster farmer, quickly fetched a knife from the boat’s galley and passed it to LaCava, who dove again once, twice, before finally emerging with a piece of black nylon crab trap line. His efforts earned him fistbumps from the crew.
With the line free, LaCava climbed aboard and Maurer fired up both engines. For a moment, he assessed their sound: better. Then Les Bons Temps was off again, heading for open water.