In his song “A Pirate Looks at 40,” Mississippi singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett wrote: “Mother, mother ocean, I have heard you call. Been wanting to sail upon your waters since I was three feet tall.”
Recently, Buffett put his money where his guitar is.
He, along with his family, has played a key role in a unique project that combines Jimmy Buffett’s lifelong fascination with the sea, education and the need to protect and nurture the environment.
The University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory (GCRL) in Ocean Springs recently augmented the engine of the research/education vessel The Miss Peetsy B to run on waste vegetable oil. A group of students in GCRL’s Sea Camp were the passengers on the 33-foot vessel’s initial voyage with its new fuel system last week.
The boat is named for Buffet’s mother, “Peets” Buffett, who passed away in 2003. Jimmy Buffett and his sisters, Lucy Buffett and Laurie Buffett-McGuane, donated the boat to GCRL in 2011.
Jimmy Buffett is an alumnus of USM while “Peets” Buffett was a 1940 graduate of Gulf Park College for Women in Long Beach, which became the main Coast campus of USM in 1972.
USM public information officer Martha Brown said the family donated the ship to further childhood education.
“The Buffets wanted the boat to serve as a floating classroom,” she said. “Now, it teaches children about alternative fuels and the need to protect the environment while at the same time showing them what our researchers do at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory.”
Randy Holton, MD, was commissioned to execute the engine augmentation. It only took the resident of Folly Beach, S.C., a couple of weeks to finish the project. It wasn’t much of a learning curve as Holton is not only a veteran of alternative fuel conversions, The Miss Peetsy B is not the first boat-conversion project he has worked for Jimmy Buffet.
Buffett contacted Holton, who already had a track record of converting buses and vans to run on waste vegetable oil, with a pioneering concept several years ago. Buffett wanted to augment a shrimp boat to run on waste vegetable oil from his Margaritaville restaurant in Myrtle Beach, S.C. It was viewed as a sort of symbiotic relationship – the boat would net shrimp to be served at Margaritaville, and the oil used for cooking them would be captured, processed and fed back into the boat’s fuel tank.
It was the first of its kind in the industry, and proved successful.
“Jimmy now refers to me as his mad scientist,” Holton said with a chuckle.
The Miss Peetsy B played off the shrimp boat project. It will get its waste cooking oil from the GCRL’s cafeteria as well as from Lulu’s at Homeport in Gulf Shores, Ala., a waterfront restaurant owned by Lucy Buffett.
Still, The Miss Peetsy B encompasses some firsts. Perhaps the most significant is its dual fuel system.
Holton explained that the engine was augmented to run on diesel as well as vegetable oil. This serves several purposes. One, the boat is more easily cranked on diesel – the cold vegetable oil makes starting the engine difficult, so the boat uses diesel until the engine reaches an optimum temperature and the vegetable fuel system is activated.
It provides redundancy. The vegetable oil systems filters could clog while operating, forcing a difficult filter change at sea.
The dual system also offers an added educational component. The engine cover can be removed allowing children to see the red-colored diesel lines and the amber-colored vegetable oil lines. When the captain flips the switch, they can witness the conversion at work as the lines change from red to amber.
The boat worked flawlessly during its initial voyage last week, and Holton said he was proud to have been a part of it.
He also is proud to be a colleague of Jimmy Buffett.
“Jimmy is very astute, fun to work with, talks a lot but when somebody has something to say he doesn’t know about, he gets quiet,” Holton said. He added that his respect for Buffett only grew when he learned that Buffet wanted the shrimp boat conversion process put online for free for anyone to use – no patents, no proprietary considerations.
“People simply do not know all of the charitable work the man does,” Holton said. “He wants no credit for it.”
Holton can be reached at (843) 696-1941.