Close Encounter

It is November.  Winter is coming.  But last week included several wonderful days to be on the water,  and I took advantage of them.  Sunny, calm, windless tanning opportunities, perhaps the last of 2010.  Sunday was cool, but with a fresh wind that beckoned, so I headed for the docks after spending time at the park with Buddy. 

As often as not, I won't even raise the sails until I get under the bridges and out onto Lake Washington.  Maneuvering on the north end of Lake Union, and in the Montlake cut, is tight, and the traffic is often heavy enough that it is best to just motor on out.  But the breeze was from the south, and the lake was largely empty but for a few rowing teams and the launches that attend them.

The navigation channel evidenced an earlier regatta, with bright buoys marking the courses, but there didn't seem to be much going on, so I sailed quietly north and turned the corner towards the University Bridge, which was raised to near vertical.  About that time, one of the launches steered near, and through cupped hands, warned: "Barge coming through...take care!"

I had already started the engine, the winds always fluky around the bridges, and I came under the lee of  Eastlake.  I was surprised that I couldn't see what was coming through, but I was in an acute angle of the channel and the northern tip of Eastlake, and I assumed that whatever was coming through would be on the opposite side of the channel.   Mistake.

Then appeared the largest barge I've seen inside the locks, and so close to the southern abutment of University Bridge that not even Ripple's slender breadth would have fit.   I wouldn't have attempted to squeeze through had the distance been 5 times as great. 

Commercial traffic always has the right of way (not to say, the blessing of physics).  This barge was shockingly large, and what maneuvering there was to be done was my responsibility alone.  In most situations, a hard-to-starboard turn can be executed in little more than a boatlength (Ripple's port-side shaft makes this particularly efficient).  In this case, a quick scan revealed floating-poly line connecting buoy floats from the rowing regatta: certain prop foulers.  No options remained but to hold in position and hope that the lee of the near shore kept the wind from blowing me out of my narrow slot of relative safety.   My sails were not my allies at this point.

No sailboat much likes backing up, and Ripple less than most.  Her offset shaft further complicates the calculus of prop walk, poor directional control of stern rudder and the weigh-less nether-land of transitioning from forward momentum to reverse.  A previous embarrassment in the Chittendon Locks had occasioned several  practice sessions in stopping and reversing my course in something approximating a straightish line.  Reverse the throttle until the stern starts her walk to port, tiller hard to port, and full throttle astern until the rudder catches.  The middle of this maneuver feels all wrong until you get used to it, and thanks to my remedial practice,  I had some confidence.  

I won't say my escape was graceful, and I am sure the tug skipper and the bridge minders were shaking their heads, but no blood, no splinters, and several lessons learned or reinforced:
  1. Mastery of backing maneuvers is critical (thankfully, a lesson previously learned).
  2. Have your VHF radio on.  I don't know if either the Tug or the Bridge would have contacted me on channel 16, but I didn't have my radio on, so the option was unavailable to me.  Lynne Reister pointed out to me later that its the law.
  3. Approaching a narrow passage at an acute angle is a bad idea.  I should have assured visibility with a wide margin of maneuverability.  Quiet, traffic-less Sunday indeed!
  4. Be vigilant about even apparently small impediments to maneuverability.  The swimmer's floats in use to demarcate a rowing course played a major role in constraining my options. Thankfully, I saw them and avoided fouling my prop.
I went on to a great sail, burying the rails with the main and yankee, easily sustaining 6+ knots on Lake Washington.  I slipped back into Lake Union without incident, and greased the landing.  An accumulation of circumstances and my own errors fell short of precipitating a potentially serious encounter on a quiet, sunny afternoon.  Ripple's master and slave is wiser for it, and grateful for the tender mercies of fate.


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