A Life Well-Lived: Retired tugboat captain recalls long career on water

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From deckhand to tugboat captain, 78-year-old Newton “Blackie” Blanchard has seen a lot of changes in his lifetime, not only on a personal level but also to the landscape where he was raised and in the marine industry, which was his livelihood.

Born in Bourg in 1937, Blackie was one of 14 kids.

His father, Alvard Blanchard, was a trapper, worked at the blimp base during the war, then for Humboldt Oil and finally as a shrimper. He died in 1951, when Blackie was an eighth grader at Lacache Middle School, leaving his wife Sadie to raise the nine kids still at home on $110 a month.

Embarrassed by his shabby clothes, Blackie dropped out of school.

Joining the army at 17 landed him in boot camp with the 101st Airborne. After some demolition training, Blackie was assigned to the 237th Combat Engineer Battalion at the Hochbrook Kasern Army base in Germany. Three years later, he returned home and was surprised to see nutria and armadillos that had not been around when he left.

As jobs were scarce, Blackie went after nutria for their $1 bounty and did some alligator hunting as well. “We were getting $3 a foot for the gators so we were killing them all. That’s why it’s regulated now.”

In the late ‘50s, Blackie became deathly ill while out trapping. He spent the better part of the next two years at the Veterans Hospital recovering from DDT poisoning that affected his entire body. When Blackie came out of a 21-day coma “the first thing I saw out my hospital window was a sign that said ‘HELL.’ A nurse came in and I asked her was I in hell. She said no and showed me it was a SHELL sign.” DDT was banned in 1972.

Roughnecking in the oil fields a few years was his next gig, a tough job. Working on the drill floor of a rig is hard manual labor. Some of the jobs, like the chainhand, have since been somewhat automated and the invention of hydraulic tongs was a welcomed renovation.

In 1963, Blackie quit the oil fields to campaign for Royal Pellegrin, who was running for the state Senate against Harvey Peltier. “I thought if Royal won, he could hook me up with a better job. But he lost.”

Blackie freely confesses to having a bad boy reputation in those days earned from his history of hard drinking, fighting and crazy stunts like eating glass on a dare for a beer. Nor does he deny the story about crossing the old wooden Robinson Canal bridge at 105 mph, catapulting his ’59 Ford Fairlane into the air at the top and landing with a hard bounce on the road on the opposite side.

“I was late getting a crew to the job,” he explained. “The guy in the front seat grabbed the cross hanging from my mirror and prayed we wouldn’t end up in the bayou. Hey, I got ‘em there on time, and I later helped build the new bridge.”

Though Blackie was also a lady’s man, that ended when he met Opal Esteve at the Belvedere, a dance hall by the airport.

“I thought she was a barmaid and made a bet with my friends that I would be taking her home with me that night.” He lost the bet but did get her phone number and a dance.

“Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White,” says Opal. “That’s the song we danced to. It’s about finding your true love.”

It proved to be serendipitous as they were married three months later.

Married and needing a job, Blackie hired on as a deckhand with LeBeouf Brothers Towing, but that ended after two months when the boat he was working on hit a bridge and sank.

“Nothing much has changed with deckhands. They still do the boat maintenance and tie the ropes but some, like me, go on to become tugboat captains” says Blackie.

He admits that requiring life jackets and enforcing other safety measures is a positive change but “as long as I’ve worked on the water, no one has drowned on any job I was on.”

“We used to pass through hurricanes and shut down every well in the field by jumping from the boat to the well, without lifejackets,” he recalls.

A friend got him a job as a captain on a workboat, the Betsy Ross, in the Texaco oil fields. For the next two years, Blackie ran men and equipment from oil well to oil well to make repairs, run a pipeline, whatever was needed. Six days on, six days off. On his off days he drove a truck hauling cane to the Montegut sugar mill and started building his own tugboat, a project that would take 10 years.

Blackie was determined to start his own business. He approached Texaco to ask if they would hire him if he bought his own workboat. When they agreed, he put in a bid for the Junious E., a boat named after someone killed in a barroom fight.

Blackie worked for the next 22 years for Texaco and sold the Junious E. in 1980 when his tugboat was completed.

His first job was “hauling sand from New Orleans to the back of Galliano where they were building a road. Worst job ever. Six months and I made no money,” he remembers.

In the meantime, Blackie and Opal lived in an 8-foot by 45-foot trailer until their first daughter was born. The trailer size gradually increased after each birth and, in 1983, with three daughters to raise, they started building their house.

“He was the best father,” says Opal of Blackie. “He’s the one who taught the girls how to tie their shoes, how to drive, how to hunt.”

Though his family was growing, the ‘80s were a disaster in the marine industry when oil went down to $10 a barrel.

“I saw people mortgage everything to get bigger boats and then everything came crashing down,” Blackie says. “People went bankrupt. People had heart attacks. I survived because I was an independent. I didn’t owe nobody for my boat. I had no captain fees because I drove it myself. Still, it was close. A few times I wanted to tie it up. After Hurricane Andrew in ’91, things began to change for the better.”

Blackie drove his tugboat for 34 years, “running through every mud hole in southeast Louisiana,” watching the landscape and the industry change.

Though dramatic coastal erosion is clearly visible on maps today, ”it’s really a different picture to see it over a lifetime,” according to Blackie. He does not hold the oil and gas industry entirely at fault. It‘s a combination of disasters, both natural and man-made.

“Hurricanes and wave action have played a part, bringing in salt water, washing out soil. The years of digging and pulling oil out of the ocean floor has caused subsidence,” he says. “Leeville, Lake Barre, Golden Meadow, Lake Pelto, Dog Lake, Bay St Elaine, all the places where they took out oil sank. We used to park all the barges at Caillou Island. Now there is no Caillou Island.”

But there’s a reality to oil and gas locals know well: “Those companies also gave people jobs. People were able to give their kids a better life than the poverty many of us came from,” Black says.

It’s the price for the lifestyle a material world demands, he acknowledges.

The marine industry has vastly improved in the years since Blackie first took to the water.

Decades ago, pollution wasn’t a concern and regulations were few. No one was considering what was going into the water.

“Cuttings, the shale coming out of the drill pipe, were dumped overboard. All the caustic chemicals used to free a stuck pipe-overboard. Busted or rusty pipes would leak into the water,” Blackie recalls. “They’d clean out their tanks and that sludge of oil-into the water.”

When environmentalists began shining a light on the damage, more regulations were created.

“Now, they have barges that collect those cuttings,” he observes.

Licenses are also required for tugboat captains. “I ran boats for 12 years without a license,” Blackie boasts.

When it became mandatory, “at first I just needed a tonnage and passenger license, then I needed to get certified in safety and firefighting,” he says. “Everything is getting bigger, like barges – and more sophisticated.”

Technology advancements soon followed: GPS, radios, radar and other equipment has surfaced, all of which require a license.

Safety requirements are also more prevalent, a welcome shift.

Blackie has been at three rig blowouts, two in Montagut and one at Caillou Island, but his most memorable was a fire on a Mallard Bay gas rig in Lake Chicot in 1997. He was making a delivery to the rig, which was being shut down. When the crew could not automatically close the blow-out preventers, they abandoned the rig. A few of the crew decided to go back to see if they could shut it manually, but gas had escaped everywhere by that time and it blew up killing them.

Blackie has a picture of that day taken from the air. His tugboat is a short distance away as Boots and Coots firefighting boats smother the fire with giant plumes of water.

In January 2013, Blackie’s tugboat caught fire sustaining massive damage. He wasn’t there, but the impact on him was considerable. “I built that boat. It was my life. It broke my heart.”

Though he says he got used to retirement “in about two months“, wife Opal disagrees. “It was more like two years.” Now he enjoys spending time with his family, playing with his grandkids, gardening and tooling with other projects. An aficionado of military history, he is looking forward to an upcoming trip to Europe to visit famous military sights such as Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest.

It seems retirement isn’t so bad after all.

Newton “Blackie” Blanchard stands near the junction of the Company Canal and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway not far from Bourg, as he reminisces about his time in the south Louisiana marine industry. Below (l): Blackie during his military service and at right a wedding day photo with wife Sadie.