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Oil ends life on the water for Gulf boat captain

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JAY REEVES
June 17, 2010
— Grounded by oil, the charter boat owner along Alabama's Gulf Coast known as Capt. Bligh walks past an old first mate.

"Arrrrrrgh," Bligh growls like a pirate. He has beard like Santa Claus and a belt with saltwater fish embroidered in the webbing. Hardly anyone calls him by his real name, Brent Shaver. A lot of people don't even know it.


Earlier this month, Shaver began a scary season one without fishing. He had to shut down his inshore guide business after oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill made it through a pass into Perdido Bay, about 100 miles north of the rig site. Rust-colored tar balls now stain its sandy shores.


A brown oil stain hung on the side of Shaver's 24-foot fishing boat after his last trip more than a week ago, a slivery sheen floated atop water in the bait well. Fishing line was discolored and felt slimy.


The rest of his charter trips were canceled for the summer and with $5,000 from a BP claim already in his bank account, Shaver spent his first morning off at Zeke's Marina the same place he'd be if he were fishing. He had to finish scrubbing the hull of his boat.


After that, there were errands, a few bills to pay, maybe a trip to the doctor with his 86-year-old dad. He might stop by the post office to see his wife, Pam, who works the counter. Next?


"I really don't know," mused the captain. "I used to fish here. Hope I can fish again."


The oily slick spreading across the Gulf of Mexico is killing animals in Louisiana marshes and fouling beaches that Southern and Midwestern families have visited for generations. It's threatening the livelihoods of people who wait tables at restaurants, change sheets at hotels and rent chairs in front of condominiums.


But the oil is taking away something more precious than money for people who love life on the water. Mornings spent rigging up gear at the dock are gone; the whine of their boat's motors is a memory; the sunlit evenings crossing the bay with a cooler full of fish are history.


"Talk about killing a way of life," said Larry Hermecz, who works as a first mate on a private boat.


The thought of it all brings tears to Shaver's eyes.


"I can't change. I'm 59 years old. I can't do anything else. I don't want to do anything else. So I gotta figure out a way to keep fishing and hunting and entertaining people. That's my job, entertaining people, making people have fun," he said.


Shaver's parents started him fishing on the Gulf Coast as a 7-year-old in 1957. They'd take him to the once-sleepy fishing village of Destin, Fla., which is now an upscale resort town of big boats, fine dining and fancy hotels. Later, the family moved to Pensacola Beach, Fla.


"We fished there and ended up here in 1970," said Shaver. "I was fishing for fun until 1980, and then I started doing it for a living. I worked private boats, I fished the Bahamas (and was) down there for eight years in the spring, tournaments," said Shaver. "I've been here ever since then."


With weathered hands and a mane of red hair that's sprinkled with gray, Shaver built his business. First-time customers became second-time customers. Some of the people who bring their children to fish with Shaver today first went out on his boat when they were children.


And he worked out a schtick to keep people entertained when the fishing is slow. He has a second nickname, after all: Hollywood, from back when he always wore sunglasses in high school.


On the boat, kids imitate Shaver's "Arrrrrrgh" pirate growl when another boat passes by. He got his "Capt. Bligh" nickname from making deck hands work hard; it's a reference to the too-tough captain of "Mutiny on the Bounty" infamy.


Shaver's got endless stories and a way of talking about the osprey and blue heron around Perdido Bay that makes the spindly legged birds seem like family to visitors. But all that's gone for now at least.


Shaver is considering going to work for BP with his boat looking for oil in the bay. He's got to earn some money, even if it may seem like working for the enemy.


"Man, you tear up when start thinking about it," said Shaver. "I've been doing this a long time, and it's hard to .... I don't know. You just sit out here and think. I watch the osprey, the pelicans, the blue herons while I'm fishing. My tourists love them, and then you go home and watch the news and they're all covered in oil."



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