Friday, October 25, 2013

Terror at Tiger Pass!

Somewhere off the coast of Africa this week, an Edison Chouest Offshore supply vessel was attacked by pirates and the American captain and chief engineer were kidnapped.

Elsewhere in the Pacific a couple of weeks ago, some poor ship somewhere was caught in the grip of a typhoon.

I sail on a small ship in a small sea. I suppose I am doomed to diminutive adventures.

I am reminded of the old veteran who was asked which war he served in.

“The Big One,” he replied.

“Oh, wow, I didn’t think you were quite old enough to be in World War II,” the other guy said.

“I wasn’t. I was in Korea, and it felt mighty damned big to me,” retorted the old soldier.

That exchange probably made more sense 20 or 30 years ago when I first heard it – back when Korean War veterans were merely middle-aged. But I digress, before I even get started.

Here’s what happened.

We leave the dock in Venice at 4 a.m. In a driving rain. A left takes us up Tiger Pass, and another left turn to take us north in the Jump to the Mississippi River.

About three-quarters of the way up the Jump, making a little better than 7 knots, I feel the engines suddenly drop out of gear. I pull them back to clutch, and then re-engage the throttles.

According to my gauges, they’re still idling, but there is no response to the controls.

I check my throttle selector -- a tiny toggle switch that moves inputs between the forward and aft helm stations. It’s where it is supposed to be.

Suddenly, my engine monitoring system shows “NO DATA” for two of the engines. The other two flicker in and out.

By this time I have lost all forward momentum and the river’s current is beginning to drag me back. I turn on the Not Under Command lights (red over red), make a security call on VHF 13, and run downstairs to wake everyone up.

Our progress, backwards, to the intersection of the Jump and Tiger Pass
The engineer and the off-watch captain tackle the problem, which we assume to be electrical. The deckhand helps keep lookout, and I man the radios.

There is quite a bit of traffic – supply vessels, crewboats, tugs and barges, shrimp boats --  through the Jump, which portions some amount of the Mississippi River into Tiger Pass and Grand Pass.

The current is not being kind to us, and begins to drag the bow of the boat – the most vulnerable section of the hull – towards a nasty group of pilings on the north bank of the Jump. It occurs to me, belatedly, that I do have control of one engine on the boat, one that is not hooked-up to the malfunctioning monitoring system.

I turn-on the bow thruster and use it to steer the boat. We pirouette gracefully off of the steep bank of a slip, and I flip the boat nearly 180 degrees, hoping to be able to catch an abandoned dock where the Jump meets Tiger Pass.

No one is more surprised than me that I’m able to swing the starboard stern to within a few feet of the dock. 
The deckhand catches a piling and makes us fast, and I use the bow thruster to ease us up against the dock, where we secure the boat.

We are no longer a hazard to navigation.

Meanwhile, the rest of the crew is troubleshooting at a rapid pace. We find a couple of wires melted together in a control box. We isolate and reattach them. We regain throttles for about a minute, before the whole system crashes.

Another crewboat that works our field – and whose captain holds a master of towing vessels – comes alongside to take us back to our dock. Back in the middle of the Jump, we are in the midst of letting go the other boat so he can come around to our starboard side when once again our throttles come to life.

“Let’s see if we can hold ‘em long enough to get back to the dock,” I tell the other captain. “But if you could shadow us back, that would be great.”

And … we make it. Two hours after our departure. We thought we had the problem beat, too, until we tried to leave the dock an hour later and the same thing happened all over again.

Turned out the problem was in the interface between one of the big Caterpillar engines and the aftermarket control system.

Or one of the problems was.

Regardless, it was fixed, and we’re none the worse for the experience.

It was a bit of an adrenaline dump that left me feeling wrung-out the rest of the morning.

And that’s my sea story for this hitch.

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