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Friday, November 25, 2005

Thanksgiving Mist

It was just about three years ago I left my work as captain of the pilot boat to deal with a semi-critical situation in New York . . . my mother, with health issues, was having great difficulty taking care of the house she had lived in for 43 years.

Looking back, I can't help but acknowledge the serendipity of my last pilot run, how it foreshadowed the social and family problems I would face in the years ahead.

Our pilot boat was an old 36' Hatteras sport fisherman. She was more than thirty years old, and she looked it. A great design by venerable Naval Architect Jack Hargrave, but not the best built boat of her size and vintage. What I mean by the latter is simply a function of technology. Today, modern builders use non-wood core products and vacuum bagging techniques to ensure rot resistance and complete saturation of the fiberglass resin. Back then, builders used plywood or other wood core products, and only builders of the very best boats did their damdest to get the cloth to stick to the wood. If you look at an old fiberglass boat from inside, even one without rot in the core material, you're bound to see delamination and areas where the cloth has dried and frayed. Major bulkheads and stringers, and the places where these structural components are tabbed into the hull, are noteworthy areas to find these problems.

Crown Pilot showed this type of aging, and more. In addition to delamination, she had rotten spots in her bulkheads and stringers, stress crack issues, alignment issues, old sealant, and her wiring needed replacement. Wiring in a boat is only good for 20 to 25 years.

What many people don't realize is this: If an old boat cost $100,000, and you keep that boat for twenty years without doing any major work to it, you can expect to put in another $100,000 (or more) to bring it back to its original condition.

As they were saving for a new, custom built pilot boat, the owners had no intention of putting this amount of money into the Crown Pilot. What they needed was for the old work horse to "hold together" long enough for the new boat to arrive.

It was a cold, late September evening. I was scheduled to take Skip Strong off the outbound Tug, Captain Bruce McCallister. Chris Wells went as my mate, and together we left Rockland for the MP Buoy about an hour and a half before our planned rendezvous.

A few minutes after we passed Whithead Light, we smelled a hint of smoke. We checked around the boat, including the engine room, but found nothing. Figuring the cause of the smoke was a short in the bus heaters, I turned off the heater switch at the panel. At this point, we'd already had communications with the pilot and arranged for an early transfer at a patch of water called, the Devil's Half Acre. With the seas kicking up and the smell of smoke, the prudent thing to do was get the trip over as early as possible. (This area, Devil's Half Acre, provides the best lee for a pilot transfer in the wind and sea we were facing that day. In addition, the water is deep for a few miles. The deep water leaves room for a catenary in the cable should the tug need to slow way down or make a turn.)

Taking a pilot off a tug or ship in rough weather is like competing in an episode of Fear Factor, but without the nets or safety wires. Add the threat of fire on a gasoline powered vessel and you have a recipe for some very frayed nerves.

Just as I started my approach to the tug, the cabin filled with smoke and the port engine died. Chris quickly and rightly reminded me about the main breaker for the heaters, which I immediately addressed. I restarted the port engine, and Chris and I opened all the windows and doors to clear the smoke. We still had not actually located the problem, and we didn't have time for a thorough search.

Generally, it takes only a minute or two to get a pilot off a tug or ship. You don't want it to take any longer for obvious reasons. Imagine balancing on the rail of a rolling tug or hanging from a ladder off the side of a ship in a gale. Could you do that for a whole minute? Could you do that for two minutes?

After I got the pilot, I turned the helm 90 degrees to starboard in order to get away from the tug and its barge, the latter the more dangerous of the two, like the poisonous tail on a manta ray. Skip came aboard and was greeted with a mariner's worse fear, a potential fire emergency.

Clear of the tug and barge, I cut the engines and let the boat drift. The three of us went into action. Chris and Skip readied themselves with fire extinguishers while I slowly and cautiously lifted the engine hatch. Fortunately, whatever was smoldering did not live in the engine room.

The source of the problem turned out to be a corroded bus heater core, which caused the heater motor to draw more current than its feed wire or main switch could handle. With the breaker off, the threat of fire abated. The port engine problem was something altogether different. As it turned out, about 7/8ths of the way home, that engine shut down completely.

The very next day I notified the pilots I had to turn the boat over to another captain. My mother, I said, needed my help. Somebody else would have to deal with Crown Pilot. I stuck around the next morning to supervise repairs of the engine, then I headed to New York.

At first, I missed the action of the pilot boat job. I missed the commeraderie and the challenge of the work. However, over time, it became celar to me that working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, nearly 365 days a year, being on call at a moment's notice, with virtually no time off, left little or no room for family and friends.

Things are a lot different now. These days, nobody tells me where to go on Thanksgiving.

Bottom line: Even though my mother's hull and machinery are reaching their operational limits, and her wiring has gone bad, there's no replacing her. No amount of money will bring her back to original condition.

In my mother's case, there is no turning over the helm to someone else. Every shared Thanksgiving counts.


Copyright © Bob G. Bernstein (seabgb) All Rights Reserved!

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