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.

1 comment:

  1. Nice to read about Jeff's adventures on the tug : )