Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Short Break Between Coastwise Runs

I’m back at home for a few weeks, so I thought I would update and elaborate on the post Chris put up from my letters.  The crane on the barge is being repaired and once those are completed, we’ll be out for nine or ten straight weeks.

Triton "flopped" on the barge while loading.

I confess to having been a little apprehensive when I first boarded the tug.  I knew I could handle the work and life aboard, but with every new venture there’s always the thought of “What if I can’t hack it?”  As it turned out there was no need to worry, everything came together nicely.  The Captain and crew were all great guys; we got along and worked well together. 

When first hired I was brought on to be the deckhand and cook.  After boarding I learned that there was another temporary deckhand who was going to be cooking for the first two weeks and then I would take over.  This meant I was to be the engineer’s deckhand, standing his off-watch.  This involved hourly engine room checks, walking the boat and various maintenance projects while on watch.  That part wasn’t hard, but being on the twelve to six watches was.  Being awake from midnight to six AM while at sea, and then switching to a normal day cycle while loading or unloading plays havoc sleep cycles.

The biggest concern I had was being on the “outside”(off shore), in the winter.  All of my experience has been on inland, protected waters and I was curious to find out if the mal de mer would strike.  Within two runs I learned I could differentiate the sea state in a heartbeat.  If the swells were running six feet or under I couldn’t even feel them…six to twelve foot swells I’d be aware of but they didn’t seem to affect me.  Once the seas reached over twelve feet I was going off my food.  I’d be hungry, I’d eat and five minutes later my meal was being flushed away off the work-deck!  The kicker was that seasickness can be overcome after a few days, but we’d only be outside for two days and then back inside to calm waters.  I was never getting the chance to beat it.  I never felt sick, but just couldn’t keep food down.

We encountered some decent seas on our way north for the second load.  Things were calm as we crossed the bar at Coos River, but building rapidly as we worked our way north.  The forecast was for 14 ft swells; we were getting steady 16 to 18 footers.  I spent the morning of the second day in the wheelhouse at the end of the Mate’s watch as 20 to 22 footers rolled by; he informed me that they’d diminished from the 25 footers that had been coming in previously.  A few hours later, we made the turn into the sound and it was calm water.

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Seagulls hitching a ride on our load.

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Loading logs is the reason we’re out here.  I’m a little fascinated by the lumber commodities that we’re paid to move.  The first load was a barge of old growth timber averaging forty-eight inch diameters, forty feet long.  The inner carpenter in me was in love with this timber!  Mostly we move third growth pulpwood from point A to point B.  The tow we’re working is a flat deck lumber barge, four hundred feet long and seventy-five feet in beam.  Fully loaded is has an extreme draft of eighteen feet.  I ran the math on the first load: twenty million pounds of wood!
Boom tug Sandpoint Chief working around our barge.
Logs come to us pre-tied in bundles that would just fit a tractor trailer.  They’re floating in the water, contained by a perimeter of logs chained together called a boom.  Each boom full of logs is called a bag. Our job is to use the log bronc to push bundles alongside the barge, where the crane operator picks them out of the water.  Our bronc is a small boat about twelve feet long with a 175 hp diesel engine.  Propulsion is a 360 degree pivoting hydraulic prop, so we have fantastic directional control.  They’re noisy, smoky, smelly and a heck of a lot of fun to drive!

As the crane picks up the bundles we have to keep an eye on it.  Sometimes a log will squirt out the end of the bundle, shooting into the water and popping up hundreds of feet where it started.  For safety reasons we never operate under the grapple on the crane or near the bundle ends where a squirter can come out.  Bundles can also have their bands break, causing logs to come rolling off the deck of the barge as well.  When running the bronc, we always know where the crane, grapple and logs are and never turn our back on it!

Broken bundle, squirters ready to shoot out!

It usually takes about three hundred bundles to make a barge load.  While we stage bundles with the bronc, there’s another crew on a small tugboat whose job is to push the bag smaller, feeding bundles into us.  These boom tugs are great little boats with a lot of power and long on character as well.  The operators are typically great guys with a never ending repertoire of stories, which we hear over coffee and lunch.  I have to say, those Canadians are great folks!

The crane, looking like a prehistoric dinosaur at dusk.

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The locations that we go to load are some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.  Our second run was up to Gold River in Nootka Sound, B.C.  Running up the sound, the fresh snow level was at 100 feet. Pristine waters and the clean, fir scent in the air will be something I always remember.  As we closed in on the logging camp at the head of the sound, Victor Island came into view.  A little mountain rising from the center of the bay, it was just beautiful.  On the island was a little house that looked like a lighthouse.  The lumber operators told me that some Americans bought the island about three years ago, built the house, stayed for three weeks and have never been back!

"Lighthouse" on Victor Island, Nootka Sound, B.C.

Our second load-out on that run was a few miles back down Nootka at a place called Mooyah Bay.  The operators were unprepared for us, which ended up delaying us by two extra days.  The delay would have been fine if we could have told anyone about it.  The isolated camp had no cell coverage and our towing company had let their satellite phone service lapse.  No way at all to communicate with the outside world!  The operators said when they needed to place a call, they used the VHF radio to call Gold River, got the water taxi and motored into town to use a land line.  A five minute call would take them half a day.

Entrance to the small inlet at Mooyah Bay.

While we were stuck in Mooyah Bay, we opted to drive the log bronc into a small inlet near the load-out.  It turned out to be a perfect little bay, just the place to bring Kwaietek back to someday.  Then we noticed the oysters, thousands of them everywhere, in any size you could want!  (I won’t say we poached oysters that evening, but we were very well fed)!  As we were ashore after dark, I could feel the primeval power the Pacific Northwest forests can project after sunset.  No wonder there are more Bigfoot sightings on Vancouver Island than anywhere else!!

We’ve been at sea for 32 days now. The runs are starting to blend into each other as time progresses and I’m sure that feeling will be even more extreme by the end of April.  I can’t complain though, as there is always something new to see on every load.  One run we encountered 20 ft seas--another leg we had 8 ft swells on a 25 second period--so long and smooth you couldn't really even see or feel them…  We worked in 22 degrees F. under crystal clear skies at 0700 while running the bronc to load and then again in driving rain as we finished lashing down the crane.  In Tacoma, we were in fog so thick that we were unable to see the aft half of the barge and then experienced the intensity of a color-drenched sunset as we stood out to sea from Nootka Sound on our way home.

Leaving Gold River and Victor Island.

When it came time to drop the barge off for the crane maintenance, we ran it up the Columbia to Cathlamet, Washington.  We pulled in to port, secured the barge, broke the lashings and turned for home. By this time the entire crew was ready for a break and you could feel it on the boat!  As we came back downriver we were turning for 16 knots over the ground with the aid of the river’s current.  The captain timed everything perfectly to cross the bar at Astoria at maximum ebb into an eight foot swell, at dinnertime.  I had to hold dinner while we punched out, as the bar was running fifteen foot waves, extremely short and steep.  Running light with no tow and empty fuel tanks had us trimmed down by the bow which didn’t help.  Green water washed over the bow and up to the wheelhouse windows the entire way across.  

Punching across the Columbia River bar.

As we worked our way north the seas increased.  I’d managed to serve dinner and eat just after the bar, so I had a full stomach.  I cleaned the galley, stowed everything and went to lie down.  My bunk is down low, right on the center line of the boat so the motion is very comfortable.  I read until I fell asleep and was up at 0430 to cook breakfast in sixteen foot seas.  This time I noticed that I could eat everything at breakfast and keep it down.  I’m hoping I finally crossed the line and will be able to eat in heavy weather. (Guess I’ll find out in a few weeks)!

The kind of "art shot" I like to fill my camera with.
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Reading and talking with people have convinced me that this was exactly the right move for me to make now.  The average age in the towing industry is in the mid-fifties and the expectations are for a high retirement rate in the next ten years.  Meanwhile, the industry doesn’t expect enough incoming personnel to fill the gaps.  What this equates to me, is an opportunity to train and advance upwardly into this career.  By April I will have the near-coastal sea-time to upgrade my Able Seaman status and by July, I expect to have my 100 ton Master’s and 200 ton Mate’s licenses.  I’m getting proficiency exams signed off and will have every endorsement I can get and just keep pushing forward.  Coming into this without the finances to spend two years in a maritime training program means I’m doing this the hard way (it’s called “working up the hawser”), but I am also earning good money while I’m at it.  I would never have guessed when we closed Gracewinds [Chris’s business], that this is where I’d end up, but I’m very glad that I have.  A good job with growth potential, work I enjoy, new education and training and the satisfaction I am taking good care of my family.

Best of all, by summertime we’ll have a savings account that will allow us to spend a few months on our own boats and the Zodiac.  It’s going to be the best summer yet, and I cannot wait!

Sunset leaving Nootka Sound on the last run.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Tug Journaling

Correspondence from Jeffery, sent from onboard the tug Triton:

The Triton is a pretty good boat. The company bought it a few year's back and it was initially in pretty rough shape. The engineer and the mate have been working for some time to whip it into shape. She's a handsome working boat, but I can see right now that there will be plenty of chipping and painting in my future. 

The tug took on 65,000 gallons of fuel at dock prior to departure. The Triton can hold up to 110,000 gallons of fuel,
so they filled several of the other empty tanks with water to help weight her down. This doesn't impact the engine, as it has a centrifuge that spins water out of the fuel continuously, (I emptied about 2.5 gallons of water at the end of a six hour watch). 

After waving goodbye to the family in the Ballard Locks, we headed to Tacoma to pick up the barge. The first time hooking up the gear went well. The hardware is big and heavy, but the winches make it easy to handle. Basic, common sense safety precautions keep it all safe. My old rule from contracting seems to apply here as well, things are thought out and talked about before we begin. 

We motored up the Strait toward Port Alberni. Aside from some rollers outside of Neah Bay, the sea state was calm. We reached Port Alberni the next day and started to load the lumber.

Log Bronc craned overboard

Loading was easy. The company flies a crane operator in to meet the barge and the lumber camp guys tow the logs over. The logs are banded together before they arrive and are floating together in a group of about 150-200 log bundles. The logs are chained end-to-end and dropped into the "bag". They crane the log bronc off of the barge in one of the bags and  We use the log bronc to push the bundles against the barge so that the crane operator can load them. The log broncs are really fun!

With the logs loaded and secured on the barge, we headed south. The run into Coos Bay was a piece of cake. I was bummed that I missed my first bar crossing, but conditions were so calm, I didn't miss that much. One of the other deckhands and I were positioned on top of the logs on the barge as we came into Coos Bay to call distances. The railroad swing bridge is only about 40' wider than the barge and the assist tug steered the barge from its stern. We passed though the center of the swing bridge at slack to avoid the wicked currents that could have swung the barge into the bridge.

Calling distance from the barge into Coos Bay

We off-loaded the barge and had a long work-list of projects to take care of while at anchor. 

Morning in Coos Bay.

The work is really not that difficult, but it is fairly physical when we're on deck. I haven't had a cup of coffee since the second day. They drink Folgers and the acid just sits in my stomach. Eating really well, no booze, lots of water and milk and  working hard--I should be coming home in really good shape.

Leaving Coos Bay--headed up to Cathlamet and then further north to Gold River, (Nootka Sound). We've been dodging crab pots all day. As we left, we watched a crabber place his string of posts right down the center of the towing lane. Triton moves at about 7-9 knots light, and has a twelve foot diameter prop and couldn't avoid running over at least four of them. I looked back and saw that we were trailing three floats on our tow-line!

It's just after midnight and we're now on our approach to the Columbia. Expected to cross the bar around 0330 and start the  run up the river. Today was a good day aboard; we washed down the boat so I spent two hours working my way around the whole boat underway. The swells were running over ten feet and we had a following wave pattern on top of that. The boat was rolling around, water was everywhere, decks awash and most of the time I was having a blast! I couldn't stop watching as each swell would roll up on the boat and we would rise up over it.

After washing the boat, I sat in the wheelhouse and just gazed at the frigate birds flying around. They skim just over the water; wingtips barely touching the surface. They're pretty cool to watch!

We  spent four days in Gold River. The Nootka Sound is 2/3rds of the way up the west side of Vancouver Island. No cell phone reception, no AIS, no anything really. The loggers that work in the camp have to radio down to the next town and have somebody drive a boat to pick them up and take them into town to use a satellite phone. The logs weren't ready to load, so we had to sort and bundle them. We wasted a few extra days up there because of it. I was on pins and needles knowing that Chris couldn't reach me, nor have any way to find out why I hadn't phoned her.

The up-side to Nootka Sound was the view and the wildlife. Bears, eagles, and oysters everywhere. Breaded oysters, sauteed oysters, souped and frittata'd!

Triton in Gold River

We lashed down the load, secured the crane and headed back down to Puget Sound on Monday morning.

lashings for the crane

We arrived in Tacoma on Wednesday.
Chris texted, all excited that the AIS indicator showed her the name and photo of the little assist tug coming alongside of us. She described it for me, and as I was cooking in the galley, I had to walk up on deck to see what she was referring to. Sure enough, there was the little orange and white tug, Whidbey alongside of us.
The Whidbey tug

I'm going to wrap this letter up. I miss my family very much. I'm glad that we will have some money banked finally. The time apart is not fun, but the time together when I'm off the boat is going to be better than ever. I'm really looking forward to time with Chris and the kids.

Chris and Juliet surprised Jeff with a visit to Tacoma Wednesday night.


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Departure

Tonight is Wednesday evening. It has been 15 days since Jeffery tossed his gear onto the deck of the tugboat Triton and hopped aboard. 

Juliet, Megan and I drove to the Locks in Ballard to send them off on their way out to sea. We saw the big, black and white Triton appear at the entrance and watched it idle down to patiently stand off until the signal lights turned an approving green. They slowly motored into the big chamber and Jeffery waved to us from the foredeck. We were able to shout pleasantries back and forth while the chamber slowly lowered to sea level.  Megan and Juliet clowned around while Jeffery took out his phone and snapped a couple of pictures of us waving from the rails above. Everybody tried their best to stay light-hearted and upbeat.

All too soon, the noisy buzzer announced that the gates to Puget Sound were opening and the tug's mighty engine revved up. Juliet bolted forward to follow the tug as far as she could run, but I held back, lest a few tears should fall and betray the brave face I was trying to put on for her benefit, (and my pride).

I gazed ahead as the tug leisurely moved beyond the Locks and out into the mouth of the Sound. This was the beginning of our new and long-planned-for way of life. Jeff would be gone for up to four months at a time, returning sometime in late April. I was awash in an array of emotions, sadness at his extended absence, excitement at the possibilities that lay ahead of us, uncertainty about my capability to handle everything alone and a tinge of jealousy that he was embarking on new adventures without me. A tiny, niggling feeling of unease came seeping back in--it had been trying to get my attention for the past few weeks, but I had been intentionally ignoring it... ...What if there's some sort of accident out on the water? What if he likes being away on his own? He might find that he prefers life on the ocean over life what we've had...What if he meets somebody else while he's away? What if you get used to life without him around?  What if, what if....

I shook my head and pushed the cynical little voices back out of my thoughts. These are just the typical emotions that haunt any loved one that remains behind, I supposed. Okay, knock this worrying shit off. You need to begin this year with a positive outlook and search for the benefits that come with our separation.

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Today I awoke earlier than Juliet. Her alarm wasn't set to go off for another twenty minutes. I switched on my stateroom light and located my heavy fleece socks. The galley was dark, save for the colored LED lights that remained from the holidays. Jeffery asked that we not take them down, so I left them up and they lent a warm romantic glow to our cozy galley mess. The kettle was quietly boiling on the diesel stove. I poured a cup of coffee and sat in peaceful silence for a bit.
It seemed to be a good time to take stock of how we were doing so far.

The past week had been a long and eventful one. Many new chores had been added to Juliet's to-do list. In addition to her nightly homework and writing-time, she now had some of Jeff's former chores to manage. She also assumed some extra safety checks and maintenance jobs. She didn't complain too much about her extra responsibilities... with the exception of pushing the pump-out cart up the dock, (that particular task brought out the whiny teenager in spades)! 

The jobs that were added to my workload didn't appear to be too much for me. What seemed to be tiring me out was the continuous mindfulness that being solely in charge required. Jeffery and I, (along with Juliet) had always shared the responsibility of keeping everything running smoothly. What he didn't catch was usually remembered by one or the other of us. Nowadays, I was constantly attentive to things like the laz tank fuel levels; bilge pump sounds (or lack thereof); battery water levels; amperage draw; fresh water pump timing; dock lines;  propane shut-off valves; deck leaks... then there were the bank account balances; moorage payments; marine weather forecasts and on and on and on. None of which constituted an emergency, but when combined, created a taxing effect on my energy levels. 

I yawned and reached for another splash of coffee. I proceeded to give myself a mental pep-talk. Today would be a good day. 
Further forward, I could hear the familiar sounds of a sleepy teen getting dressed for school. "We're gonna get through this alright." I said to myself.

Jeff phoned shortly after I dropped Juliet off at school. "We just lashed down the crane on the barge and now we're waiting for the assist boat to get over here. Once they show up, we're heading back out again." He announced. I could hear the happiness in his voice. He absolutely loved his new career.

" Where are you going this time?" I asked.

"Looks like we'll clear the bar around 1900 this evening and then up the coast to Gold River. It's further north than Port Alberni, so I'm guessing we're gonna be out for around four days or so.  It doesn't look like we'll have any cell reception until we get closer to shore.The captain said marine forecast is showing 18 to 20 foot swells by Thursday and likely to stay that way for at least the next week or more. " The tone in Jeff's voice conveyed enthusiasm more than concern about the state of the seas.

"Huh. I guess you'll find your ocean going sea-legs now, won't you?" I remarked.

"Yup. It's gonna be fun." He said without a trace of sarcasm.

"Be safe then. I really miss you."

It was abundantly evident that Jeffery found tug life to be his calling. He loved the big engine, (locomotive-sized, appropriately), and he delighted in driving the small "log bronc" that pushed around the massive logs when off-loading. After the first off-load, the captain had inquired how many years Jeffery had been driving log broncs. He was incredulous when Jeff responded with "Uh, since today." 

It seemed readily apparent to me, that this new phase of our lives had turned into exactly what Jeffery had hoped for.

I drove back to Kwaietek in a contemplative mood. Was this single lifestyle what I had really hoped for?  I climbed aboard and went aft to dip the fuel tank located on the fantail. 3 inches remaining. Damn. I needed to transfer some diesel quickly or we'd be out of fuel for the stove and hot water. The marine forecast warned of northwest winds. That meant a temperature drop and possible snow showers.... well, no choice but to get some diesel into that laz tank. I briefly mulled over the option of asking our friend Jeffrey Smith for some assistance. This chore had always been my Jeffery's job and I was a little hesitant about whether I could pour the heavy jerry cans of fuel into the small opening by myself without re-injuring my lower back and/or spilling diesel overboard (thereby incurring a fine). What the hell, I'm going for it.

By noon, I'd filled the tank with enough diesel to carry us through the weekend of cold weather. I'd proven to myself that I could do it competently and safely without any help. I felt satisfied that there was now one more "Jeff job" that I could add to my list of accomplishments. The rain resumed and I went below to warm up.

With hot tea in my mug, I plopped down on the settee in the mess. As I lightly blew into my cup to cool it down, I gazed around the galley. The cheerful colors of our dishes and glassware brightened up the room, even in the grey winter. I noticed how tidy and orderly the entire room was... uniquely organized I remarked to myself. The carpenter-clutter and piles of boat magazines had finally been stowed away appropriately in their rightful places. (Something that never managed to occur when Jeffery was in full-time residence). I smiled as my glance wandered toward the old Granny Gardner engine; looking so sharp after I'd taken the polish to her bronze fittings and buffed her aluminum cylinder heads with the new compound that Jeff Smith had brought over during Christmas. The floors of the engine room and galley were swept, mopped and everywhere the wood smelled of Murphy's oil soap. Nice.

It was then that another small voice began to make itself heard, This is my adventure too. I'm tackling all of this and it's working out well. I certainly can take care of this old boat by myself. When Jeffery gets back in April, it'll be wonderful. But he won't be the only one who's changed for the better.

We really are going to be alright. I smiled and patted Lucky Jack as he jumped onto my lap and began to purr.

 ~ Chris