Reverse Navigation

Marlaine at the author’s family dock before the trawl frame was added. Photo courtesy David Sharp

September 2022

By David Sharp

When my father retired, he bought a boat designed for shrimping, and I became his only crew during the summer of 1965 between semesters at college. Marlaine was a cypress-hulled Lafitte Skiff, custom built by Emile Dufrene himself in Lafitte, Louisiana, and she was kept at our dock on a bayou in Slidell, Louisiana.

To begin this adventure, Dad and I had been bottom trawling for a couple of days in the Gulf of Mexico, between the Rigolets Pass in Louisiana, and Gulfport, Mississippi. In the wee hours of the dark night, the trawl was hauled aboard the rolling, pitching boat and the net’s purse opened to release a pile of wiggling, flopping creatures dumped on the wide aft deck, to be sorted by spotlight.

In addition to the shrimp we were fishing for, the catch could be mostly trash by weight: small sharks, stingrays, junk fish, bottles, cans and sea catfish: awful creatures coated in slime with long, needle-sharp poisonous barbs on their heads that get miserably snarled in the net. We sorted and iced-down the keepers, retied the purse, and launched the trawl and its doors to begin another long, boring slow-speed run. Dad checked the chart and gave me a compass heading to steer before going below for a nap, telling me to wake him in an hour and a half.

I religiously kept my assigned compass heading, and when I woke the captain he came on deck, scanned the horizon, and asked if I’d seen the lights of a city up ahead. “Nope,” says I. “Hmm, we should have seen a glow from Gulfport by now,” replied the captain. After another check of the chart, and a puzzled look as he scanned the horizon, Dad asked me how long my empty Dixie Beer can had been sitting right next to the compass? “All the while?” I guessed.

When Dad moved the beer can away from the compass, the needle swung around about 10 degrees (most beer cans were steel in 1964, not aluminum). He returned the can and the compass went back to its skewed heading. After repeating this little experiment a couple more times, the captain went below without comment and started fiddling with a chart.

A few minutes later Dad gave me another heading to steer, but without the beer can this time. Dad told me that we were east of Gulfport, but I should see the lights of Biloxi soon, and he went back below to continue his nap. About now, I wished that I had paid more attention in Spanish class because it would come in handy if we landed somewhere in Central America. But, sure enough, within an hour I saw the glow of a city dead ahead.

The captain’s reverse navigation had worked and we arrived in Biloxi at sunrise. Dad actually rented Marlaine a slip among fancy pleasure boats in a marina, which was very unlike Captain Tightwad. We sold our shrimp to a wholesaler from Gulfport, and Mom and my two sisters drove over from Slidell for a swim in the marina’s pool. The next day, Dad and I headed out to sea again with me wondering what adventures awaited us this time!

David Sharp is a retired Ocean Engineer living in Newport, R.I. He started boating as a child, and has owned over 20 boats so far, but Alexis was a favorite. David and his partner, Nancy Grinnell, currently day-sail their Pearson Ensign and cruise New England aboard Carry On, a 2001 Cape Classic 30 trawler.