Buddy Cantrell arrived in St. Simons Sound on Sept. 20, 2020, to work on the salvage of the Golden Ray.
“I was told to prepare to be here seven days,’’ he said.
Now, he hopes to be out of here by mid-October.
His job was to supervise as the Kurt J. Crosby, a 9,200-horsepower tug, set anchors for the VB 10,000 to hold it in place as it cut the Golden Ray in eight pieces and lifted them out of the water. The anchor had to hold 180 tons. He tried everything he knew, piggyback anchors, more chain, nothing worked. The sand bottom was so hard, anchors wouldn’t hold so they drove pilings.
The salvage company hired Crosby Tugs for the project with the condition they keep Cantrell as tow master. He had his own conditions, including that he be allowed to bring along Kathy, his wife of 39 years.
His job is to give directions to get the tugs in and out safely. When they move floating dry docks under cut-off sections of ship, Cantrell directed them from atop those vertical walls at the back just as he did when the slices were towed into the port.
It all looks so difficult to people watching from the shore, and it probably is. But Cantrell has done harder things, much harder things, and he’s done them a long time.
“I started working on tugboats in 1977 when I was 16 years old,’’ he said. “When I graduated from high school in 1978, I was on a tug the next day.”
The second day on the boat, he ran over an anchor buoy, and the captain asked, “‘Pecan’ — he called me Pecan — ‘what you did wrong?’”
Cantrell reckoned he should have stopped.
On shore, he wears an LSU cap and rightly so. He had graduated from South Lafourche High with Bobby Hebert, who went on to quarterback the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons. The following year his friend Ed Orgeron graduated from South Lafourche. Coach O led the LSU Tigers to the 2019 championship over Dabo Sweeney’s Clemson Tigers.
Cantrell has been running outboard boats since he was 8 or 9 and made captain when he was 20. Had his dad allowed it, he would have been captain a year earlier.
His father was a tugboat captain for the same company.
Cantrell is a junior, as in Armojen Cantrell Jr. Everyone called his dad A.J. except on tugs where he was Capt. George.
“He called everybody George,’’ Cantrell said. “The only way he wouldn’t call you George is if your name was George. Then he’d call you Henry.”
My first job as captain, I relieved my father on a boat called the Gulf Miss. He was going on another boat.’’
Before he took that first tug, his father spent three hours with him and told him how to be a captain, to demand respect from his crew. The way to do that was to earn it, Cantrell said.
None of that, “I’m the captain of this tug’’ chest thumping, Capt. George said. Just do the job, he said, and the crew will always know who the captain is.
He says that’s the best advice he ever got, and the only people he ever had to remind of his captaincy were the higher-ups when they wanted him to take unnecessary chances with his crew.
He has his own company, Cantrell Services LLC, and the past five years, he’s worked ocean-going tugs in Europe, South and Central America and West Africa.
On Christmas Eve in 1989 he left Charleston for England and it took three weeks to cross in 14- to 15-foot seas. He had the closest call of his career on the way back in calm seas.
“The morning of Jan. 25, we had a major engine fire. We couldn’t put it out. Me and the crew had to abandon the tug in a life raft in the North Atlantic in January,’’ he said.
Fortunately a ship looking for better weather sailed into the calm seas and picked up Cantrell and his crew and took them to Le Havre, France.
“My boss says, ‘Ah man. We got it made. Buddy’s a Cajun. He speaks French.’ I was the only one in the crew who didn’t speak French,’’ he shrugged.
He says now it was a miracle they were found.
“That was my closest call. That wasn’t my scariest,’’ he said.
NASA had contracted with a company he worked for to tow the Space Shuttle fuel tanks from their Michoud facility in New Orleans to Cape Canaveral.
He got a call: “Captain, they want you to depart at noon today.”
“They” being NASA, which would delay a launch for a flock of gulls, wanted him to launch into the Gulf with Tropical Storm Juan approaching.
He recommended waiting a day and his superiors said, “You can leave or we can relieve you.” There wasn’t much work that year so he put out to sea with five men on the tug and six on the barge but warned, “I’m going to put it in the log book, I’m sailing under protest.”
He was right to worry. Juan turned into a hurricane briefly and played along the coast of Louisiana, dropping nearly 18 inches of rain before re-entering the gulf and making landfall again in Mississippi.
The normal trip was five days, but he had to sit offshore riding out the rough seas the first five days, keeping the tug and barge pointed into the waves. He didn’t leave the wheel house those five days and caught short naps in a chair.
The fuel tanks could only take 18 degrees of roll. More than that and they could tumble out of the cradle and explode most assuredly, killing the six crew members on the barge.
“I said, ‘What’s the maximum safe distance?’ They said two miles. I had 2,500 feet of tow cable,’’ he said.
He was five days late when he sailed into The Cape to a relieved and jubilant welcome.
“I said spare me the high fives,’’ and he vowed to never do it again. “You go through that one time, you never forget it.”
Although he’s been working relatively storm free in the Port of Brunswick and St. Simons Sound, he has nonetheless been a victim of a storm. Hurricane Ida devastated his home in Larose, La., ripping off siding and destroying his roof. He has water damage in four rooms, but someone put a tarp over his roof, someone with a sense of humor. The blue tarp is covered with smiley faces and other emojis, he said, showing a picture on his phone.
The insurance adjuster is coming Sept. 27, but Cantrell can’t meet him there. He hopes nothing is missed.
He and Kathy love St. Simons, and things got better recently. His daughter, Shelbie, and grandson, Emmett, who he hadn’t seen in six months, came to visit.
Ida wrecked a lot of oil platforms in the Gulf and there’s plenty of salvage work. He may also head to the Northeast where there’s work that could last two years.
He says he may come back this way. That would make a lot of people glad because he’s made a lot of friends with his Cajun exuberance. As he says, “I’ll talk to anybody.”
He’d have more friends with one simple change: A different cap.