Saturday, March 29, 2014

Oil Spill, locks closed, an unusual docking situation and a rescue

After spending the day holed up awaiting a weather window, we left Sanctuary Costa Grande at sun up.

As we headed out to the ICW from the Sanctuary cut, there were quite a few barges lined up in the ICW heading east into Matagorda bay.  We waited for traffic to pass and merged into the line.  
The wind was down today to about 10-15 mph out of the north east which we assumed would make the 17 miles across the bay pretty rough taking the waves on the quarter.  As we approached the jetties we contacted Nightingale (the other boat that we shared our weather hole with to let him know what kind of weather we were seeing) and let him know the weather was like in the bay.  
We were just coming through the jetties so we told him we would contact him in 15 minutes as we were out in it.  The good news is that the waves were only about 2-3 feet but they were stacked up right against each other and we were heading into the wind so the spray was constant.  We were thankful for the dodger and bimini as we stayed dry and fairly warm.

Here is a nice little video of us sailing in San Antonio Bay the prior day

Barge traffic wasn’t too bad in the bay, and all of the tugs are good about responding on the VHF when you contact them to see which side of them they want to see us pass them on.  As we got to about the center of the bay, the waves were starting to jump up to 4 feet and were stacked 3 and 4 in a row.  For us this meant that we would go up and down the first 2 and then have the 3rd break over the bow and the 4th just slowed us down a bit.    We attempted to call back to Nightingale to let them know since they have a power catamaran that has a fairly low center between the hulls.  For him this would have been a bit of a pounding.  We were too far away from him so we contacted a tug “Reedemer” that was 8 miles behind us going the opposite way and asked him to hail Nightingale and pass on the report.  He did so and we could hear him relay the message.  (Mental note, we don’t have as strong of a VHF signal as I want)

We made it across the bay and into the protected waters again and as we were passing up a tug “Janice Roberts” the captain informed us that the Colorado River West Lock was closed until 1900 (7 pm).  The problem for us is we were hoping to go another 18 miles past the colorado river for the night, now it looks like we need to take a Plan B that is about 5 miles past the lock.     Just over 3 miles from the lock, all of the barge traffic was stopping.  We were able to see them stacked up on the AIS.  After contacting the lock master, they let us know that we could go through the west lock and down river on the Colorado and take the bypass cut around the east lock.  The problem is that cut only has 5 feet of depth and we need 6.  So it was time to just bite the bullet and get in line.  Looking at the tugs, I counted 16 ahead of us.  

We were circling in the ICW trying to determine what we were going to do for the next 4 and half hours and decided that there was no barge traffic coming at us with the locks closed so we would just anchor in the middle.  I went to the bow to ready the anchor and heard one of the tug captains talking to another to let him know that we were behind him.  Deb was manning the VHF and let them know that we were going to anchor here while we waited on the locks to open and then through in a “unless one of you tug captains would let us tie up to you”  We heard one tell us that he wasn’t sure what the company would think of that but he didn’t mind and asked us to just tie up to the first barge in his strung out load.  The cleats on these things are about 3 feet across and docking on it is like pulling up to a nice 10 foot deep bulkhead.  We stopped right next to him and tied up.  He asked us to just make sure we stayed on our vessel which we were glad to do and thankful for the generosity of letting us tie up him rather than anchoring in the middle of the ICW.  

So here I am writing a blog while sitting at the nav station while tied up to a barge.  I made sure that the company name was not visible in these because this was a really cool thing this guy let us do.   As I write this the thunder and lightning is picking up and I am just hoping that the captain of the tug doesn’t call me and ask me to shove off due to my 50 foot lightning rod (mast) tied up to his tug.  If he does, I completely understand, but hoping not.  

I got a call on the radio from the Tug Captain, he said that he was going to start moving on up the ICW a bit further.  We told him we would toss the lines off.  I went down below and had she wouldn't start.  I couldn't believe it.  I called the Captain back and let him know that I was having an issue and working on switching over to an alternate battery.  He asked what we drafted, we answered and he said that he would just carry us along for a while and he would be sure that he kept us in water deep enough (not a problem as he needed 4 feet more depth than we needed.  But it was really cool of him, he just left us tied on and carried us with him a mile or so while we swapped batteries.  We untied while doing about a knot and a half while tied to him.  

So it will get a bit more interesting tonight because these tugs in front of me will take a little bit of time to get going through the lock, which means we may not hit it until dark.  The place we will stay for the night is about 4 miles past the lock.  This delay certainly impacts us however as we were planning on making 55-70 miles today and with this stop we are oily going to make 34, which puts reaching Kemah out of the question by Tuesday.  The goal now is to get to Hitchcock on Tuesday if possible so that our friends can catch their flights back to Dallas.  If they can’t we may need to take a cab from Freeport which may be oostly but potentially the only option.
We were trying to figure out why the West Lock of the Colorado river was closed and then learned it was to keep the traffic from stacking up in Galveston where everything is shut down due to the oil spill and collision between a ship and a barge carrying oil.  It appears that there was about 168,000 gallons of oil spilled into Galveston bay right at the Texas City dyke.  Due to this and the clean up efforts the Intercoastal water way east and west bound is closed at the Houston Ship Channel, the Houston Ship Channel is closed, the Galveston Ship Channel is closed and the Texas City Channel is closed.  This basically means there is no way to get home right now so our plan is to try to get to Hitchcock on the West side of Galveston.  

We received a call from Nightingale, they had attempted to go around a tug and had the prop wash push them into shallow water and had run aground.  We waited for a while to see if they were able to free up and they were not so we turned and went back to give them a tug and see if we could free them.  The good news is that we were able to and we made good time heading up the ICW.  The Captain on Nighingale radioed the lock operator who was willing to let us run through ahead of the barges.  That allowed us to get to our designation for the night.  We both ended up staying at the Matagorda City Harbor for the night.