Sunday, August 31, 2008

Bad Doug!

Yeah, everyone who wrote and mentioned that I wasn't wearing my PFD while working off the North Reef at night is absolutely correct in pointing out my very poor behaviour and bad example. I should have had one of these on, which was hanging in my wheelhouse. I urge everyone to wear one, and I am guilty of not wearing it every single time....and I really should have had it on during that night on the nasty north reef. My bad.

I will strive to wear it from now on, promise!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

North Reef at Night

A few loyal readers have commented that they would like to see more video of my work out here at Block Island. Much of the footage I have isn't very dramatic, and frankly would bore most of the subscribers to RedRightReturning. But, they don't call me Captain Hollywood for nothing. I did find some video of a job I had last month. Before you watch this clip, let me set the stage so you'll understand what you are seeing.

The north end of Block Island tapers to a point, understandably named Sandy Point, and extending quite far out from there is the Block Island North Reef, which might have been more correctly name the Block Island Deadly, Narrow and Particularly Nasty Long Sand Bar. I guess North Reef fits better on the charts.

This sandbar is very narrow, and the west side is really almost an underwater cliff: it drops from ankle deep to twelve feet in less than a boat length. The east side is more like a traditional beach, with the depths gradually decreasing from ten feet deep about 200 yards to the east to the ankle deep bar itself. (This geography makes for some very strange seas, and even on this very calm night, you will notice some small breakers that look like they are coming towards my vessel, as if I was on the beach, when actually I'm in deeper water to the west the strand.) That long bar on the chart never really drys even at low tide. It lurks down there below the surface, waiting for the unwary boater or lazy navigator.

About 2100hrs one night, a sailboat calls Mayday and reports himself aground at the north end of Block Island. There was a bunch of thunderstorms rolling down Long Island Sound, but otherwise it was calm and clear. I was underway lickity-split, while the USCG directed all their rescue efforts to playing 20 questions with the mariner on the radio (they never did launch any physical assets to the area that I know of).

From the time I got underway to the time I arrived on scene was probably less than 10 minutes. When I had visual contact, I asked the boater if he had gone aground coming from the east or the west - the answer would make a difference to my approach and which direction I might pull him off. He thought he had come from the west, and as you will see, he was wrong. A boater who has run into an island at night is generally not your best source of reliable navigational information - but you gotta start somewhere...(look again at the chart, he was between the 9' and the 4' depths that straddle the reef just north of Sandy Point)

The video begins as I approach from the west (deeper and steeper side) of the reef, and I spin around in preparation to toss him a bridle. As you watch the video, you can actually see the reef just under my swim platform. In the backgound, the Block Island North Light blinks mockingly just behind the grounded boat.

I heard a few shells and stones rattling around in the jet, which is the boat's way of telling me it's time for Plan B. Fortunately, with the jet boat, running over hard shell and sand isn't the end of the world; it doesn't even really slow the job down.

I quickly zipped around to the other side of the reef. This eastern approach presents a few problems of its own. The depths on that side are very shallow, and when the current is running, it will set you towards the reef. As you can see, conditions were calm on this night, and I had no trouble backing up to his stern and practically handing him my bridle. The look on the faces of his family huddled in the cockpit tells a story about their experience.

As you will see, everything turns out fine, and we even beat those thunderstorms back to the harbor.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Underwater Clean Up

The Dockmaster and I decided that it was time for someone to pick up all the trash under the docks at the Block Island Boat Basin, where we tie up the Safe/Sea Block Island all summer. We filled two wheelbarrows with junk that we harvested from under just "A" dock, one of the four main docks here. The cell phone on the left is mine; I dropped it about 3 weeks ago.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

When Good Jobs Go Bad, Part 2

File Part 2 of this story under "I'd rather be lucky than good any day."

Here is a single frame of my video of the 3 boat raft-up adventure, just as I attempt to implement Modified Plan A. If you remember, this was the plan that sucked wind, and the guy's chain was just reeling out of the chain locker.

This little video clip begins just before the the towline gets sucked up into the port jet.

You can listen to me and the Harbormaster discuss the situation, and towards the end of the clip, my luck changes. Somehow, the anchor line that was fouled from the 4th boat magically get un-fouled, and I was able to tow the whole mess across the channel and grab a mooring. WHEW!

I pulled the 3 boats over to me, and then jumped in the water to access the damage. The guy's anchor was hanging about 8" below the grate of my port jet, still clipped in my snap hook! The chain had all run through the snap hook, and lifted the anchor right up to the bottom of my boat. (the launch boat with the fenders all around is the Harbormaster's boat)
The owners of the sailboats all showed up about this time, and they secured their boats on separate moorings.

I learned a long time ago that a job isn't finished until the boat is ready for the next job, so once I had the 3 boats secured on moorings, I still had to get the line out of my jet. Fortunately, a good friend and colleague of ours has a mooring service boat with a 2 Ton A-Frame crane. I had Ben from Edwards Marine meet me over at the mooring boat.

We had to lift the back of the towboat up about 15" to get the jet access plate above the water line, which was easily accomplished with a bridle attached to the D rings welded to my transom.

Once up in the air, we had the tedious task of cutting and hacking countless wraps of Amsteel and 3/4" nylon from the jet drive shaft. The Amsteel we use for towline is really cool stuff, until you have to cut it. We used 3 brand new knives making about 10 slices. Here is a picture of Ben taking a turn with the knife. And here is the remains of what we cut out.

So, this adventure began as a routine job and turned to total monkey dung, but the guardian angel of tow captains was on duty, my luck turned faster than a roulette wheel, and I made it to dinner before the kitchen closed.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

More Water Spouts in New England

Safe/Sea's own Captain Andy Casey spied this water spout chasing him down Narragansett Bay last week. I'm jealous because I've always wanted to see one. Click on the picture to see a larger version. This was taken with his iPhone.

When Good Jobs Go Bad, Part 1

File this story under: "Some days you're the windshield, some days you're the bug."

It all began quite routinely, as a thunderstorm approached Block Island on Wednesday. As this cloud passed, it started to rain, and the wind shifted from E @ 6 to W @ 15.

The weather caused a three boat raft-up of sailboats to drag anchor. At first, the Harbormaster and I sort of thought that they would fetch up, but it quickly became apparent that the three un-attended boats were heading for an innocent fourth boat anchored downwind, and we had to take some action to prevent a collision.

Sometimes, when a boat is dragging anchor, she is bearing down on other vessels, and there is no time to get aboard and haul her ground tackle - but you can't tow her with anchor still on the bottom. In those cases, a good option is to just hook on to her anchor rode with a big snap shackle at the end of your towline. When you begin to pull forward, the snap shackle will run down the rode and pull the anchor off the bottom, and you can then slowly tow the boat that way. In one quick step, you will lift the dragging anchor off the bottom, and create a makeshift towline to at least get the vessel out of a crowded anchorage to buy yourself some time and room to set up a more traditional tow. This technique is universally known as Plan A.

The trio of sailboats were all hanging on a single hook from the boat in the middle. Her chain rode was hanging over the bow roller, and I could see a nylon snubber off the starboard cleat. The chain hook on the snubber was a few feet below the surface, so I modified Plan A just a tad and opted to clip onto the chain at the bow roller, above the snubber - hoping to just pull the raft upwind a few yards and avoid the impending collision.

What's that saying? "Never change horses in mid stream." What happened was that the anchor chain was not secured in the chain locker, nor over the gypsy of the windlass, so as soon as I tried to pull, I was just pulling chain out of a chain locker, rather than towing the 3 boat raft upwind. Modified Plan A sucks wind. Now I was really running out of time, and I had to hustle back there and get a line on tout de suite!

I rushed back to the bow of the middle boat and quickly reconnected the tow line below the snubber, just as the Harbormaster informed me that the three boats were about to get T-boned by the bow of another vessel. With the tow line hooked up, time to get those jets in gear and implement Original Plan A.

WHAM! SCREECH! I cringed at the sound of my towline getting sucked up into my port jet, and wrapping around the impeller shaft at, I hate that sound, don't you? Fortunately, it's a twin screw, so I can still maneuver. Maybe I can still pull this job off without too much drama....behind me, it looks like we've just missed that 4th boat, and I'm clear to implement Plan A, version 2.0 minus 1.

Except, as I pull the rafted boats away, the Harbormaster informs me that the 4th boat's rode is now snagged around the rudder of one of the boats that I'm towing.

Let's review: I've got one engine down. I've got a raft of 3 unmanned sailboats attached to my towboat in a manner that is probably not covered in the Hamilton Jet owner's manual, and I can't disconnect myself from the 3 sailboats because their anchor chain is now sucked up tight to my port intake. I'm not sure where the unmanned boat's anchor is except that it has to be somewhere between my jet intake and the bottom of the Pond (please, God, let it not be on the bottom!). And one of the 3 unmanned boats is now fouled over the anchor rode of yet a fourth boat. Did I mention that it's pouring rain and the winds are gusting around 20 kts. This job has pretty much turned to shit, don't you think? be continued...

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Article 7

There seems to be a rash of salvage claims being challenged by insurance companies on the grounds that the entire contract is void because it was signed "under duress or undue influence" - i.e. the boat owner was compelled to accept a salvage agreement because he felt he had no other choice.

Perhaps the insurance companies are confusing the "duress" of actual bodily harm with "marine peril" and its potential for physical damage to a vessel. IF a salvor has threatened to leave a crew to die or get injured aboard an imperiled yacht, that salvor is probably guilty of using "undue influence" to force a salvage contract. But to ask an otherwise healthy and un-injured crew to accept that a yacht in perilous circumstances should be covered under a salvage contract is acting completely within the spirit of Blackwall and SALCON 89.

Lets have a look at what SALCON 89 actually says about the influence of danger. Salcon 89, Article 7 states:

“A contract or any terms thereof may be annulled or modified if: (a) the contract has been entered into under undue influence or the influence of danger and its terms are inequitable; or (b) the payment under the contract is in an excessive degree too large or too small for the services actually rendered.” (bold emphasis mine)

The word and in part (a) is a key to understanding what Article 7 is about. During any true salvage situation, there is obviously going to be some danger. Indeed, every salvage is contingent on the presence of PERIL. And everyone who is on scene at the time is certainly going to be influenced by the presence of the dangers involved.

The authors of Article 7 were not suggesting that any agreement made while in the heat of a dangerous situation would be automatically void. The intent of Article 7 is to link the danger to equitable terms - that is why the word and is in part (a). To make an equitable agreement, the terms should fit the situation, which if covered by SALCON 89, is by definition a situation that involves danger (Article 1, para 1).

To claim that the presence of danger somehow voids a marine salvage contract is constructing an argument based some very torturous logic. How can you toss out a contract to resolve a perilous situation because there was danger present?

Furthermore, the challenge to the contract based on the influence of danger almost always includes the additional argument that there is no salvage because the peril so insignificant that it didn't even exist at all!

This is where they shoot themselves in the foot and the entire argument falls apart. If you are going to challange an agreement based on the presence of danger, don't go on later in your plea to downplay the danger and argue that it didn't exist.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

TowBOAT/US Oyster Bay spies water spout

Mitch Kramer of TowBOAT/US Oyster Bay, NY, saw a water spout today inside his harbor. See the story here:
Photo by John McGrane

Monday, August 4, 2008

Bill to exempt some mariners from TWIC

Senator Coleman (R-MN) introduced the Small Marine Business and Fishing Guide Relief Act of 2008 (S. 3377) to amend title 46, United States Code, to waive the biometric transportation security card requirement for certain small business merchant mariners, and for other purposes. This bill, if enacted into law, would exempt from the requirement for a Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) merchant mariners serving on vessels the owner or operator of which is not required to submit a vessel security plan. The official text of the bill is not yet available, but an advance copy has been circulated.

Well, this news will throw a wrench into the works. I am skeptical about how far this bill might go. I think that the DHS and the USCG really wants every license holder to have a TWIC, but this bill could have a chance.

The TWIC has been rife with confusion, delays, extensions and completely unreliable deadlines since the beginning, so this somehow comes as no surprise.

If this bill passes, can I get my money back?

Thank you to John Fulweiler for bringing this to my attention.

iPhone replaces pencil

As I mentioned in a previous post, iPhones have become standard equipment onboard Safe/Sea towboats. The large screen and fast email technology has some advantages for high volume areas like Safe/Sea's.

Way back in the old times, I would have to get all my case information via a cell phone, or over a radio. In either case, that meant trying to scribble some notes in a noisy wheelhouse while driving the towboat, with all the attendant frustrations of asking for some info to be repeated, which usually went like this:

"What was the number again?"
"You're broken, say again?"
"Call me on the phone!!"
"I've got no signal..."
"Say again?"
"Standby, you were covered by the other radio."

Or, one had to go dead in the water and copy the info, but again with dropped cell phone calls or stepped on radio transmissions putting up obstacles to a quick transfer of information. And, even if I did write it down, sometimes I couldn't read my own notes!

Well, the iPhone bypasses all that communication confusion. Here is the standard procedure now at Safe/Sea:

As soon as Safe/Sea's dispatcher gets the basic case information, their computer sends a brief text message to my phone: DING! You have a case at xx location, please proceed to get underway. If I'm near the boat, I just get aboard and say "I'm underway" on our business radio; otherwise, I can reply to the text message with a simple K. Now the dispatcher knows I got the message, and I'm getting underway.

Within a minute or two, the iPhone gets an email with the following information:

Full boat description.

Operators Name, address and cell phone number. (the cell phone number is highlighted and underlined, so I just touch that number, and my phone calls his phone; no need to dial. This feature is fantastic. Who wants to dial while driving the boat?)

His location, with LAT/LON if useful. (The LAT/LON is also highlighted. If I click on the lat/lon, a Google Earth map comes up showing his reported position on a chart, right on the phone - very handy to verify that his LAT/LON match his stated position.)

Full membership details with coverage limits and expiration date.

What is wrong with the boat, and where he wants to be towed to

That's a bunch of data to collect, and copying it all down on paper would have taken a few minutes of my time, with the boat at idle, and the dispatcher's time to read it to me, and either good radio comms or a reliable cell phone signal. Safe/Sea has whittled that all down to just a reliable cell phone signal.

If the customer is paying for service, the email will include his credit card information as well. How many times have you had to ask for someone to repeat that sixteen digit number?

Many of the towers around the country will have no use for this technology, because their case loads and fleets are too small. A one boat operation captain sure doesn't need to email himself the information he just collected. But for the larger towers, with 4, 5 or 6 towboats all working at one time, the iPhone can be a time saver, and will definately reduce your communications load during peak hours.

Areas with a centralized dispatch, like Southern California, would certainly benefit from this technology.