Several shrimp boats troll the waters off the Florida panhandle – an odd sight these days, since fishing has been banned in the area.
But these vessels are not looking for shrimp: they are hunting oil on the surface of the water. And soon, these boats will be outfitted with a homemade contraption that can pick up tons of the stuff in just a few hours.
Boat captain Gerry Matherne, a second-generation oil industry veteran and a contractor for BP, invented the contraption. He is using his invention to help clean up the oil leaking from the damaged well following the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.
"We tried it and after the first attempt we collected two tons in few hours," Matherne said, laughing in surprise. "[We said] 'Well we've got ourselves a winner here'."
He is leading a team of boat captains who are part of BP’s Vessels of Opportunity program that pays out-of-work boat captains to help clean up the oil. Matherne’s task force is cleaning up the waters from the Florida-Alabama state line to Fort Walton Beach, Florida.
Matherne is no stranger to oil spills. He worked his first spill near the Bay of Campeche off Mexico in 1979 and the Exxon Valdez in 1989.
The ship captain is now leading the task force in spotting, skimming and removing oil from the water’s surface.
When he first saw that the weathered, dense oil in the Gulf did not float well, he realized this spill was different: the elusive oil would sink and resurface.
“Traditional skimming would not be highly effective with this,” said Matherne. "It's forcing us to think out of the box."
So he designed a new oil skimmer, purchasing parts for a local hardware store with his own money. He had a local seamstress sew heavy mesh from the hardware store into a bag suspended around a PVC pipe frame.
The concept was to skim and capture the oil at the same time. On its initial test, the bags collected oil that later congealed into a giant two-ton tar ball.
The skimmer even collected the oil sheen. It was so successful that BP is building the frame and bag design. The new skimmers should be delivered in the coming weeks.
"It exceeded our expectations," said Matherne. "We were very excited," .
Matherne is determined to protect the shoreline. With the excitement of a young man, the captain describes how he visualizes the long outriggers on multiple shrimp boats lined with the skimmers he designed:
"Can you imagine sweeping 80 feet in a continuous 24 hours a day?" Matherne said. "I can collect a lot."
Matherne says he wasn't trying to be an inventor but the manuals on skimming weren't written for a spill occurring 5,000 feet underwater.
"I was faced with a problem and I was trying to solve it," he said.