The Life of Pipe


The iconography of a Texas oil field (postcard from Tyler, TX); Scrap yard in Houston where we bought our used oil field pipe; Fitting the pipe to the starboard bulwark of our boat; Testing the pipe for Alpha radiation with a rented geiger counter; Safe readings on the geiger counter!

It seems that everything we fix on our shrimp boat has a unique story built into it, and the cap rails we replaced a few weeks ago are no different. When we bought the boat, we inherited a particularly sad set of gunwales wrapping all sides of the boat… rotting lumber, corroding steel, burned-out pvc, a ton of poorly-applied bondo (a cement-like substance typically used on automotive body repair), these were perhaps the most visible imperfections in the boat. And so it was no surprise that upon buying the boat, we immediately set out to replace the gunwales. What we didn’t anticipate was that reclaimed oil field pipe would make a great gunwale on a shrimp boat. We need to credit John Collins for pointing us in this direction. Just a casual glance around his boat yard reveals the variety of his projects that have all used oil field pipe in some way.

Using oil field pipe as anything on a shrimp boat might sound odd,  but using the reclaimed pipe was another way for us to work within the specifics of our region. Although the largest deposits of oil may no longer be in Texas, the economy of oil and gas still permeates the state and especially the Houston region (see the previous posting). So oil field pipe is easy to find around here. You can find it in an array of gauges, widths and lengths, new and used. We found a steel scrap yard on Highway 59 in north Houston that had the right pipe for us at the right price. We borrowed John Collins’ trailer and bought four 30ft lengths with an inside diameter of 2″ and a gauge of 0.154″ (schedule 40). This doesn’t look like pipe that would bend around the curve of our boat, but sure enough, with enough cable come-alongs, levers, ropes and the help of friends,  it did.

Soon enough, oil field pipe actually seemed like the obvious choice for our cap rails. Until we got the following email from our friend John Reed who had helped us out on the boat one day: “I was talking with a friend of mine last night and we wandered onto the effect of Japan’s nukes on the scrap metal industry.  He (is in the scrap metal industry) told me that they are ALWAYS worried about radiation in scrap metal; the metal is often rejected by steel buyers if levels are too high.  ‘What kind of steel would be radio-active?’ I asked naively.  ‘Oil drilling pipe, medical equipment, stuff like that.’ he said.” Our next thought: we have a radioactive shrimp boat! So we investigated the matter and found some good background on the issue and learned that any radiation in oil field pipe is related to the NORMS and TENORMS. And we realized the only way to sleep well at night would be to test our pipe with geiger counter. Fortunately, geiger counters are rentable…but there was another catch. The tsunami had just hit Japan, nuclear fallout was spreading from damaged nuclear reactors, and every company in Houston area that would normally rent a geiger counter was shipping them to Japan. We got lucky and found a single remaining geiger counter at Suntrac in League City, TX, about 20 minutes from our boat. One hour and $50 later, we determined that none of our pipe, or anything else in John’s Boatyard was above standard background levels of radiation. Relief. We’ve had more exciting stories unfold on our boat since this episode, but thankfully no more involving radiation.