Monday, April 13, 2015

Tows and Towboat US (Part Two)

Sunday around noon we finally reached the waters of the ICW protected by land.  The ICW is basically an inland waterway consisting of natural inlets, saltwater and freshwater rivers, bays, sounds, and some artificial canals.  It provides an east west route from Brownsville, Texas to Carrabelle, Florida without the hazards of travel on the open sea.

The waterway, designed primarily for barge transportation, provides a channel of varying widths with a controlling depth of 12 feet in the center.  There are shallow areas near the banks on both sides, but there is plenty of room for tows to pass each other, with room sometimes left over for recreational boaters.  Sailboats with keels need to take extra precautions to stay off the shoulders so they don't run aground.   Ask me how I know.  Fortunately we were able to rock the boat side to side and pump the tiller enough to get us out of the mud in all but one instance.  More on that shortly.

Tows push barges loaded with petroleum products, foodstuffs, building materials, and manufactured goods.
Tows passing 

Our original plan, before we spent two and a half days in Matagorda Bay, was to make it into the protected water of the ICW and stop for the night at Matagorda Harbor.  However, our revised plan, since we were at Matagorda Harbor around 1400 hours, was to try for Freeport before we stopped.  We were well aware that we would have to travel at night, but our running lights,  VHF radio, AIS, and chart plotter were working well, and we both felt we could spot and avoid danger before we got in too much trouble.

Readers familiar with the first chapter of this voyage recall we could not get our SOG up higher than about 3.2 knots.  Even sheltered from waves and wind in the ICW we still were struggling to get more than 3.2 out of Avery Christine.  Tows travel around 6 knots.  Given the numbers it's easy to understand that we were constantly being overtaken by tows heading in our direction (east), only to pass them later when they stopped for a shift change, to eat, rest, or whatever else they do when they pullover.  Tows ease there barges into the shallows, effectively grounding them; put one, or both, of their big 1800 horse power diesel engine in idle; and they can stay put until they reverse direction and pull the barge out of the mud.  

The same group of tows ran up on us time and time again.  We would pass them when they pulled into the bank for a rest; they would catch, and pass us once they resumed navigation.  We would pass them as they staged for the Colorado flood gates; they would pass us when they got through.  The west bound side of the Brazos River flood gate was under construction and closed to tow traffic until 1800 hours, but there was just enough room for us to squeeze through; they caught us later that night. Talking to the same tows as much as we did; we both felt we were developing a kindred spirit with them.  Little did we know we were about to test our relationship theory in earnest.

Around 21:00 hours the following radio communication took place.

"William J Klunk this is Avery Christine."

"Avery Christine go ahead."

William J Klunk we are the little sailboat approaching on the east bound side. 

"I've got you Avery Christine, see you on the one whistle."

"Roger William J Klunk, see you on the one."

The above verbal exchange meant we would pass each other port to port.  Getting closer to each other I mentioned to captain Ken that I thought William J was taking his half of the channel out of the middle.  "Holy shit.  He's going to hit us."  About that time Ken said "we are stuck on the bottom".  William J Klunk just kept coming and hit us with the last 15 feet of his second barge, midway down our port side.  The first bump pushed us 3 feet to starboard and deeper into the mud.  The second bump sent us even farther into the mud and heeled us over to starboard at a twenty-five degree angle.

"William J Klunk you hit us"

"Avery Christine, I couldn't see you,"  and with that he kept on truck'en west bound down the ICW.  

Heading towards the William J Klunk we noticed the east bound Mia Kelly pulled over on the west bound shoulder.  We were about 60 yards past the Mia Kelly when we were hit.  Mia Kelly having heard the whole exchange, between us and William J, on the VHS radio; hailed the captain of William J and urged him to pull over, which he did.  Mia Kelly then contacted us and asked if we were okay.  He said he would put his skiff in the water and dispatch his crew to inspect the damage and see if they could help us.

We sometimes associate class with knowing the correct club to pull out of a bag on the golf course, or perhaps knowing how to select the right color of belt to wear with your shoes of the day.  Any trained monkey can be taught to make those kind of selections and be right some of the time, but you can't train a monkey to show character in times of peril, to be selfless, to be kind when there's is no percentage in it for him.  

Class is more about self discipline and integrity.  It's about  empathy and kindness.  It's about exercising pride without arrogance, it's about accountability without blame.  It's all about the kind of self confidence that develops after getting so close to life that you can smell your own fear, but not turning away with apprehension or panic.  It's about standing tall when it counts.

Luckily the Avery Christine was not severely damaged.  Just a few scratches, and a small section of rub rail was pulled off.  The young men that were dispatched by the captain were extremely polite and considerate.  I tried to get them to use their skiff to pull us out of the mud, but because of the nature of the event, and after contacting the Coast Guard, the captain of the Mia Kelly said he was sorry, but he could not.  The captain of the Mia Kelly said he would stay on the scene until we could get Avery Christine out of the mud.  Unfortunately after calling the emergency number for Towboat US, and dealing with the local skipper, we could not get them to respond to our predicament until the next day at 08:00 hours.  It was 21:00 hours at the time of the accident.  Towboat US gave "low tide" as an excuse for not coming out to help us, however the app on my phone clearly showed it was high tide.  Incidentally, as the tide went out Avery Christine heeled over more and more until her starboard side was resting on the bottom, leaving us with a world askew at 45 degrees.   

We stayed healed over, stuck in the mud, for 11 hours until Towboat US arrived at 08:30.  It took them less than 15 minutes to get us out of the mud and on our way.  True to their word  Mia Kelly stood on the side all night long, and shined a spot light on us each time a tow approached.   The coast guard had issued a slow bell for our co-ordinance to all concerned traffic which in actuality released Mia Kelly from any obligation, but she stayed anyway.  Like I mentioned earlier: class is more than knowing which fork to use at a banquet.  Thank you Mia Kelly.  

Monday morning at 09:00 we were once again underway headed for Freeport.  We arrived at the new Freeport Marina around 16:30 in the afternoon.  We didn't want to risk spending another night stuck in the mud, so we decided to fill up our diesel tank, hang out at the Marina, take a shower, get a hot meal, and maybe get a cold drink or two at the local pub.  Our plan was to leave at 06:00 hours the next day, which given our blistering, record setting  speed would put our arrival in Seabrook around night fall.  But guess what?  It was so foggy at 06:00 we couldn't see the end of the slip we were tied to.  We finally pushed off at 11:00.  We both are familiar with the approach to our final destination, Seabrook Marina, and felt we would be okay if we arrived at night.

The fog is burning off.

Early in our travels on what we hoped would be our last day the fog was making it touch and go until about 13:00.  After 13:00 the sky cleared, the sun came out, and the rhythm of life on the ICW was spectacular.  By far the best day on this trip.
                                     Typical landscape along the ICW near Chocolate Bay.

Tows in front of us, approaching Flamingo Isles.

 Approaching the Galveston causeway bridge we began to hear about two southbound trains that would require the bridge operators to close the waterway for the train to pass.  We lucked out and made it through before the trains came down the track, but our luck was short lived because no sooner had we made it under the causeway bridge than fog began to settled in.    

The causeway bridge is down for a train and the sky is falling.

Tows on the outside of the causeway bridge were reporting clear blue skies, but it was a different story on the inside.  I guess Poseidon enjoyed our company on this trip, so much, that he contacted Mother Nature and had her provide a fog event for the Galveston basin.  Five minutes after the above photo was taken the fog was so think we could not see the bridge, and it became very difficult to see the lateral beacons marking the channel to Pelican Island.  Radio traffic between the tows ahead of us made it clear the fog was even thicker ahead.  There were eleven tows hunkered down in the Pelican Island cut making our passage through, and beyond, almost impossible.    The weather forecast we were able to get from the internet stated the fog would persist until the next morning, so we decided to move out of the channel about one hundred yards, drop anchor, and spend the night.  

Wednesday morning both of us were chomping at the bit to get moving, but it was a no go we couldn't see squat we were still socked in with fog.  We sat around telling each other lies  stories until 11:00 when Mother Nature finally released her strangle hold on our visibility.   The fog lifted so fast that all the tows were in a mad scramble to get moving.  When we passed through Pelican Island's cut, and were making our turn down the Houston Ship Channel, I counted 17 commercial vessels headed in various directions.  

We were in the middle of our sixth day on a two day delivery, and we could finally see some light at the end of the tunnel.  The warm wind was sufficient enough for us to unroll the head sail and let Avery Christine kick up her heels.  She must have liked the action because we screamed down the channel on a broad reach into Seabrook at 6.8 knots. 

We made it into the Seabrook Marina work dock without any trouble, tied up in our assigned slip, and unloaded the boat in record time.  I was surprised at how little food we had left when we finally made it to Seabrook.  Remember when we left Palacious we had enough food for an army.  Way to much for two guys to eat in two days, but when we arrived in Seabrook we only had a half jar of peanut butter, three slices of bread, and two bottles of water.  

The prop was fouled with barnacles and prevented us from reaching SOG higher than 3.5.

Damage from the tow collision.

I ran into captain Ken on our dock yesterday and he asked if I was ready for another delivery.  "Hell yeah!"