Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A Moment's Inattention

If there’s one thing that can be said about being on the water, it is that anything can happen, and without notice.  We most like to think about the quiet (sans Cigarette boats and Sea-Doos), the beauty, the closeness with nature, the fun and relaxation, but if we fail for a moment to remember that we are in an alien environment, things can turn sour very quickly.  Here is an example I’ve recently encountered.

To orient the chart for you, the river at 2 o’clock in the picture is the Brickhill River, the one at 11 o’clock is Cumberland Dividings, better known here as part of the Intracoastal Waterway.  The one at 9 o’clock is Crooked River.  I was coming down Brickhill River with the intention of heading southwest across the ICW and into the Crooked River.  As I was coming out the mouth of the Brickhill, I saw a sailboat, about 35-feet and of appearance similar to a Beneteau, heading south in the ICW.  I was headed for beacon “62A” as my first mark to clear the shoals  on the western shore and the inside of the bend before turning for the Crooked River.  I figured the sailboat would also be heading for the same mark, and that we would pass close to one another near the beacon.  That was no problem, as I’d simply swing to starboard (right) and paddle across his stern.  The operator first attracted my attention because of the way he was driving his boat.  The engine was wide open, well above cruising RPM, and straining.  The boat was riding a 1.5 to 2 knot fair current, and would have had a combined speed of at least 8 knots with the current.  I kept watching him and waiting for him to close with me, but he never seemed to get closer.  I began to realize he was much too far to the west side of the channel, and suddenly, he went from 8 knots to zero in a nanosecond.  The boat stood on its bow, the mast angled far forward, the helmsman was thrown forward and doubled over the steering wheel, and when the boat recoiled back, the person sitting forward in the cockpit was thrown aft.  Unlike the idea of running aground on a gradually rising bottom, many of the current-carved shoals create vertical mud and oyster shell walls.  He had just found one.  Unlike hitting a rock wall, the mud would have yielded a bit, but only a little.  I couldn’t imagine he hadn’t done damage to the keel or its bonding to the hull.  He sat as if stunned for a while, then backed away and just meandered about a couple minutes as if unsure what to do next.  Then he started to head up the Brickhill, which I assumed would be to anchor and dive to check the hull, but then he came back out and headed north again from where he had come.  There’s a sarcastic and very old saying, “A collision at sea can ruin your whole day.”  He had just ruined his whole day---or month.
Ah, but then there’s the question of beacon “60”.  Was it there?  I don’t remember seeing it until it was towed into the ramp at the state park.  It was on a new piling, but had been snapped off right at the bottom by a hard impact.  It’s not uncommon for barges to remove buoys and markers from channel turns such as this one, especially at night.  Even if “60” was gone, there were enough visual cues to the location of the channel if he had been watching the chart.  The channel clearly hugs the east shore, the channel is narrow and he would have passed close to the greens, which were there, and “62A” was there, and only a very short distance from “60”, indicating a channel well to the east of where he was.  It’s important to consider all the evidence and not rely too heavily on any one thing.  Before being too hard on him, however, we have to remember that there, with a moment’s inattention, we could find ourselves.  Anything can happen on the water.   

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