Ron Dull has spent his life traveling worldwide seas
BRECKENRIDGE – Ron Dull’s life is anything but dull.
The Breckenridge resident spent 20 years as a sea caption crossing oceans worldwide.
A romantic life? Yes.
Lonely and dangerous? Yes.
For decades, he spent two to three months at a time on the ocean – without contact with friends or family – working for Gulf and Shell oil companies, among others.
Soaking in the sea’s serenity
“There’s a certain beauty in the isolation of it – almost like a desert,” Ron Dull said. “There’s a certain relaxation. You have control of your world, and when you’re in this world, you don’t have much control.”
One of his most beautiful nights came on a full moon, when a rain cloud created a full, double rainbow.
And when the ship’s large wake stirred up the plankton, causing phosphorescence – a long, trailing green glow – Dull thought of how it looked like a comet tail he picked up and dragged behind the ship.
But as serene as the sea could be, it could also become violent.
Surviving stormy seas
One time, his ship’s owners lured him into a path of a hurricane.
“It was a financial decision to take the ship where it shouldn’t be,” he said. “As the captain, I turned the ship around and took it to a different port.”
Other times, he couldn’t avoid storms.
He knew about bad weather about a day or two before it besieged the ship. He and the crew prepared by locking everything down and filling the tanker up with water so it submerged, keeping the deck about 12 feet above the sea. He also slowed the ship down to avoid unnecessary bending of the ship.
When the storm came, he watched from a bridge about 50 feet above the deck as it hurled 50- to 60-foot, green waves onto the deck.
“It’s like being on a cliff – or in a cliff – over the Pacific Ocean and watching the waves break against the cliffs, or like being on the New Jersey shore and watching the waves break,” he said.
Only, you can’t return to the safety of home.
“Nobody sleeps very much for a couple of days,” he said. “The ships rock and roll a lot. You’re just basically hanging on to everything. You try to sleep (during your eight-hour break), but you get thrown out of the bunk. So you wedge yourself in with life jackets.”
Once the storms subsided, Ron Dull would continue his daily routine of running a 700-foot, 16,000-horsepower tanker.
“It’s definitely an ego trip for a guy to have that much horsepower,” he said.
Social life at sea
During quiet times, he’d read, write or watch movies during his eight hours off duty before returning to another four-hour shift.
“Never play a seaman in Trivial Pursuit,” he said, referring to the time he spent reading. “They know more trivial stuff – nothing to get them a good job.”
Though he had time to socialize, he’d often spend weeks on a large ship without knowing everyone on board. Different shifts rotated crew members, so the captain might only know the crewmen on his shift. Plus, Dull maintained a sense of professionalism.
“As a captain, I didn’t bond much because any given day, I had to crack heads,” he said.
His wife of 24 years, Kim Dull, calls the sea his mistress, but she and their daughter, Caitlin, joined him for long trips on holidays.
The family spent time – away from television and telephones – reading, playing games and checking out the flying fish that landed on deck.
“She would even steer the ship,” said Kim Dull of Caitlin. “She’d sit in the captain’s seat, and even though it was on autopilot, she would take it so seriously that she was steering this huge oil tanker. I think it gave her a sense of responsibility.”
And that’s not all a month on a tanker gave her.
“My daughter learned all kinds of curse words and how to play poker – some real-life things,” said Ron Dull.
Pressing on to be a pilot
Fourteen years ago, Ron Dull joined 12 other captains as a senior pilot in the St. John’s Bar Pilot Association.
As an unlimited master mariner – the highest license issued by the Coast Guard – he owns a twelfth of each of the two pilot boats he and the 12 other senior pilots use to guide tankers, military vessels, yachts, tugs, barges, passenger ships and other vessels from the open seas into ports in Jacksonville, Fla.
By Florida state law, sea captains must hire local experts who take vessels from three miles out into sea through the 48-mile canal.
Each trip takes one to five hours, depending at which port the ship docks.
Dull flies to Florida for three weeks, and during the three weeks he’s on duty with six other pilots 24 hours a day. He pilots an average of 45 ships during the three-week period, then returns to Breckenridge for a three-week break.
But just because he’s off the open sea doesn’t mean the danger ends.
Danger approaching port
“There’s always close calls,” he said.
Such as the time he lost the ability to steer a Toyota car carrier. The steering locked at 20 degrees starboard. He had to bring the ship safely through the 400-foot wide channel without hitting rocks, sandbars, shoreside buildings, tankers or other boats.
“It was going about 12 to 14 knots, which is about 15 mph,” he said. “But what people don’t understand is (ships) are not like cars. They don’t stop. You can’t put the brakes on.”
He aimed for a beach, where tourists started running toward the shore to snap pictures of the approaching carrier. He sent out warning signals because the photo-shooters didn’t realize the ship would send out a huge wake toward them once it landed.
He ended up beaching the ship on a muddy, sandy bottom without causing a fuel spill or any damage to the ship or people.
“The Coast Guard gave me really nice accolades. They said I really knew how to crash a ship,” he said. “It’s like crashing a jet. How do you do it nicely? Your prime (objective) is to walk away.”
But sometimes people don’t walk away from accidents.
In 1989, Dull trained to become a senior pilot. The senior pilot training Dull guided a tanker loaded with chemicals when the barge he pulled began sliding sideways, like a waterskier shooting away from the side of a boat.
They came upon a fishing boat but couldn’t maneuver to safely avoid it. Two men in the smaller craft died.
Now, regulators ensure tugboats pull 400-foot and larger barges, but Dull still faces a dilemma: If given the choice between running over a smaller boat and accidentally killing people or crashing into a rock and causing a chemical spill that would be an environmental disaster on par with the Exxon-Valdez spill, he would chose running over a boat and risking the boaters’ deaths.
“Most pilots take the stance, “If it’s in the way, I’ll run it over,'” he said. “It has the capacity for an Exxon-Valdez (situation) every time a ship comes into port.”
From land to sea to mountain
Ron Dull didn’t always dream of being a sea captain. He started college as a political science major, but after a semester, he flunked out. Bad timing – it was the height of the Vietnam War.
When Uncle Sam called for him, he enrolled in New York Maritime College. His only sea-going experience had been on a 14-foot runabout boat he owned.
“I thought, it’s got to be a lot better going out to sea than to Vietnam,” he said.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in science, his third-mate license and a commission into the Navy, he eventually became a captain.
During his years as a captain, he moved to Vermont to ski Killington and later met his wife.
They moved to Breckenridge in 1990 because Kim Dull’s a “mountain girl” who teaches snowboarding at Breckenridge Ski Resort, and plus, “It’s as far away from the sea that you can go,” Ron Dull said.
Kimberly Nicoletti can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 245, or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
As a Summit Daily News reader, you make our work possible.
Your donation will be used exclusively to support quality, local journalism.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User