Story and photos by Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times
As waves splash over the bow of the Elizabeth A, Sai Plork sits at the helm of his shrimp boat, feet propped up on an ice cooler.
After a week of bad weather and equipment delays, his boat and 10 others are finally leaving the Venice Harbor dock. They won't be searching for pink gold, as Plork refers to the gulf shrimp he loves to catch. Oil is his intended catch of the day.
"Let's go find some oil," Plork shouts over the drone of the 300-horsepower engine as he steers his 32-foot boat northeast toward Breton Sound. His brother's boat, the Five Star, leads the way.
Plork and the others are among the fortunate fishermen who landed BP cleanup jobs this week on the waters they know so well. He'll get paid $1,500 a day for his work, and BP is paying for the gas. For Plork, it's not so much about fending off an environmental disaster as it is about making a living.
It's a six-hour trip from the harbor to the spot where they are to join 30 other boats in the cleanup effort. As they approach the designated coordinates, brown blobs of what looks like melted chocolate begin to appear on the surface.
Plork and his deckhand, Kit Khath, 34, struggle with their newly jury-rigged boat as they lower orange booms onto the water to corral the globs. Then they set out a string of 4-foot-long, white-netted floats to absorb the oily mess.
"This is our first time," Plork says as he attempts to position the booms so they will drag smoothly behind the stern in a semicircle. It takes an hour before they get it right and some brown blobs begin to stick; others slip past, swept away by waves and the wake of the boat.
It's a slow and tedious process - 40 boats motoring round and round in circles in a sloppy dance, their engine fumes overwhelming the smell of any oil.
When the white booms turn brown, the men put on protective jumpsuits and gloves and pull in the contaminated floats. Sludge sticks to the rails of Plork's newly painted deck. They wrangle the buoys into clear plastic garbage bags, and then feed out another line of floats.
After four hours of skimming, they have only three bags of chemical waste to show for their work.
Plork never imagined he'd be a boat captain when he followed his brother from California to Louisiana in 1998. He had lived through the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia before immigrating to the United States in 1982.
After learning the ropes as a deckhand, he bought the Elizabeth A one year later and started to make good money, up to $10,000 per month.
There have been setbacks: Hurricane Katrina left his boat standing on its stern, it's bow pointed skyward; shrimpers went on strike last year to boycott the low prices for the catch.
The season was just about to begin when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig sank and oil started gushing.
"When we pick up shrimp it's beautiful, all pink and pretty," says Plork, who prefers to eat steak. "Now we're picking up dirty stuff."
Deckhand Khath, who usually works on the shrimp docks, says he isn't used to life at sea.
"I never worked this hard in my life," he says, his face sunburned, his hands peeling. He took the job in hopes of paying off the money he owes on his new truck.
"I don't think we should come out here and do this work for BP," Khath says. "They should have a professional crew do this work, and we should get paid anyway."
He pours pink solvent into a bucket and starts to scrub down the deck, moving the three bags of waste. Considering the wages alone, the oil bags cost BP about $500 apiece, he figures. Then he flushes the detergent overboard.
"I used to smell like shrimp," Khath says. "Now I smell like oil."
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