A Good Sea Story

No joke – there we were in the main channel of the busiest port in North America…

That’s how all the best sea stories start, right? “No joke – there we were…” Maybe the language is a bit saltier, but the idea is the same.

Battleship IOWA added another anecdote to the annals of her sea “lore” yesterday. It goes a little something like this:

Problem: We need to transfer our work barge from the forward end of the ship to aft. IOWA is “starboard side to” – which means her starboard (right) side is tied to the pier. Between the dock lines that hold her in place, the fenders (giant bumpers) that prevent her hull from rubbing against the pier, and the forest of pilings beneath the pier, we have little choice but to bring the barge out from behind the bow, maneuver it down the port (left) side of the ship, and tuck it securely away behind her stern.

Solution: A thirteen-foot whaler, a small fiberglass boat with an outboard motor, lives in our yard area off IOWA’s stern. We toss the whaler in the water, motor to the bow, and drag the barge around. Easy peasy lemon squeezy…? That would make for an incredibly boring sea story.

So Saturday morning we have our plan in place: COO Mike Getscher and I will do the tow, then Mike will swap out with education manager Tiffany Ellerbeck, and I’ll take Tiff to film some of the growth at the waterline for one of her upcoming education videos.

I put in my appearance on the pier toting a bag that contains our get-into-the-crazy-places film gear – a GoPro with a bendy tripod, a collapsible selfie stick, spare batteries, and in this case, a plastic yellow float. I’ve got a bottle of water in there as well, because you just never know what’s going to happen when you hop into a boat.

I’ve also decided to go full on sailor and I’m wearing my tall ship “rig” – a leather sheath containing a rig knife, marlinspike, and a Leatherman tool, all attached with lanyards, that I wear on a wide belt.

Mike, Chief Moser, and volunteers Bill Maggio and Frank Reynolds are standing by to help get the whaler in the water.

“You’re driving to the bow,” Mike informs me as I don a zip-on life jacket called a work vest. “I’ll meet you there and climb down the ladder to the barge.”

“Cool,” I smile.

I haven’t soloed in a small boat in a few years. I need practice. Should be fun… if the motor cooperates. Always a chance that an outboard will decide to be temperamental. I’ve got a fully-charged radio clipped to the belt for my rig, a cell phone in the bag, and there are a few paddles in the boat. I’m about as prepared as I can be.

The whaler is already suspended over the water, its bridle hanging off the forks of our Gradall lift. I set my bag in the boat and step in. I don’t know Frank, but everyone else in this operation has at least a decade of experience in varying arenas of the maritime world. We go at it without superfluous talk.

In no time I’m being lowered to the water between the battleship and the pier. When I’m afloat, Bill drops an extra line – a tag line – into the boat in case we need it for the tow.

I start the motor. It cranks to life quickly. Letting it idle and warm up, I disconnect the bridle that was holding up the boat. I call up to Frank and have him toss me the stern painter (a line used for securing the boat). I coil it, stow it, have Chief do the same with the bow painter, put the boat in gear, and head out.

A nippy breeze has tagged along with the “May grey” – an overcast common to spring mornings in SoCal. (Next month it’ll be “June gloom.”) Tide is flowing into the harbor at this hour and I’m going against it. The whaler’s bumping around a little and I can’t go onto plane to smooth it out because LA Main Channel is a no wake zone. I don’t care too much, though. No other vessel moving in the channel at the moment means I can thoroughly enjoy transiting along the twenty-four-foot-high side of one of the greatest naval ships in history.

Takes a couple of minutes to reach the bow. Only the second time I’ve been in this spot and it’s no less impressive – that bullnose is waaaaaaaaaay up there and good grief the ship’s lines are spectacular.

I don’t have much time to admire the hull, though. Mike, now sporting his own orange work vest, is waiting at a ladder on the pier that leads down to the water.

The barge is – using the hull as a reference – aft of him; he can’t get to it.

“You’re going to have to push it to me,” he calls.

I give him a thumbs up, pass the barge, and spin the whaler so I can come up on the barge from what I’m considering behind it. I’ve only done push boat duty in a RIB (rigid inflatable boat), so I’m working out how fast I can approach and touch the barge without banging up the whaler.

I move in close, cut the throttle, then put it in idle reverse to slow it down and am gratified that my first contact with the barge is light. I start to push, not realizing the corner of the barge is between two of the pilings. The barge starts to spin instead of move toward Mike.

He’s partway down the ladder at this point, keeping an eye on my progress.

“That’s ok,” he says. “It’s actually better. Spin it completely so we can put the boat against the fenders.”

Ah. Brilliant. I’ve accidentally done something clever. The barge has small fenders that help it stay clear of the pier. We can put the whaler against them when we side tow the barge. Perfect.

I complete the rotation and the barge lands neatly at Mike’s feet. He jumps off the ladder and gets to work. As I tie the whaler to the barge, he is busy pulling up the lines that connect the barge to the pier. Soon the barge is teeming with sea creatures who make their homes on the sections of line that have been hanging into the water.

With the whaler secure I join Mike on the barge to help disconnect lines. It’s disgusting work – slimy sea life all over dock lines is not my thing. I had a bad experience with brittle stars in a chain locker… but that’s a sea story for another blog.

We’re going to need these lines to secure the barge at the other end of our journey. We don’t want to disturb the ecosystems thriving on them, so we cut away as much of the line with growth on it that we can and ease it back into the water. I learn my knife hasn’t been sharpened in a while because I can barely get through one of the lines. Mike’s finished his and is in the whaler. I turn to him with a scowl. I hate being caught with a dull knife.

“My rigging mentor is never going to let me live this down,” I groan.

Shaking my head at having ignored my impulse to sharpen it the previous evening, I ask if I can borrow Mike’s. He hands it over and I complete the task.

When I return to the boat, Mike’s not happy with the side tie – the length of the small boat against the length of the barge. Doesn’t think we’re going to have enough power to tow it this way.

“I don’t know if this is actually going to work,” he frowns.

After some consideration, we decide to tow the barge behind the boat. I loose both painters, then walk the stern painter to a cleat at the forward end of the barge that will create the best angle relative to the whaler’s stern. I leave about ten feet of slack in the line before I belay it to the cleat to ensure there will be some distance between the barge and the boat underway. As I do that, Mike bowlines the bitter end of the tag line we brought along to a second ring on the whaler’s stern. He tosses the rest of that line to me, and I try to match the length I’ve let out on the painter.

When we’re satisfied, Mike says, “I think you’re going to need to stay on the barge.”

I get it. “Good to go,” I reply.

He nods, faces forward, and puts the whaler in gear. Not much happens. Laughing, he turns and quips the infamous line from the movie Jaws about needing a bigger boat. Failing miserably to restrain a wry grin, I slowly point at the enormous battleship just to our left and we crack up.

But the little whaler isn’t ready to be counted out. Gradually it eases forward and begin to move. Soon we’re under IOWA’s bow. I’m kicking myself for leaving the GoPro in the whaler. I could be getting some epic shots.

We round the corner and are somewhere between the 61 and the port quarterdeck when I hear a pop of some sort. Doesn’t sound like much, but Mike turns.

“Just lost steering,” he grimaces.

“How bad?” I respond.

“Can’t go all the way to port.”

“Think we can make it to the stern?”

“Yeah,” he shrugs. “Won’t be pretty, but we’ll get there.”

He retrieves his radio and reports our situation to Chief Moser back at the stern. Chief acknowledges that he’s standing by.

We’re still moving decently and since there isn’t anything I can do, I again enjoy the view.

IOWA’s superstructure towers above us and I amuse myself by watching to see which if any of the guests roaming the decks notices our passage. As far as I can tell, we’re totally stealth… and then the whaler slows.

Mike turns again. “Motor just quit. We’re adrift.”

His words sink in: we’re adrift. We have no power… in the main channel of the busiest port in North America.

Ok, I tell myself. Work the problem.

Priority: is there an imminent threat? I glance both directions up the channel. Nothing underway except us. That’s good news. It gives us time, and with time you can solve most problems.

Second priority: I need to get closer to Mike in the whaler to see if I can help and to decrease the distance between us in case another vessel does appear. The last thing I want is to be separated from the whaler and dead in the water. I grab the tag line and pull the barge toward the whaler.

Mike’s trying to restart the outboard, but it’s not cooperating. When I get close enough, I can see part of the problem.

“Tag line’s around the prop,” I tell him. “Can’t see how badly, but there’s at least one wrap.”

He leaves the steering wheel and leans over the back of the boat. Next thing I know, he’s got an arm over the stern and is shoulder-deep in the water, trying to loose the line from the prop. It’s budging, but he hasn’t got the best angle to get at it. We look at it for a moment and realize if we untie the short end that’s attached to the whaler, we should be able to pull it free.

Mike slips the bowline off the stern and I rapidly pull the line clear. I toss the bitter end back to him and he remakes the bowline on the stern.

“All right,” he says, catching his breath. “Let’s give this a shot.”

He climbs back into the seat behind the wheel and turns the key. God bless the little whaler – it cranks to life.

We allow ourselves a moment of celebration, then make tracks toward IOWA’s stern. Mike radios an update to Chief. Chief comes back to let him know they’re still standing by.

Mike gives IOWA’s stern a wide berth when we get there. He has me cast the stern painter off the barge so we’re only attached by the tag line. He uses the tag line as a pivot point to help him slingshot the whaler to the left. We need to swing into the channel between the ship and the pier.

I don’t see anymore of what he does. I’m busy fending the barge off the stern. I’ve got my hands against the hull to keep the barge away from it.

Jim Ohr has joined the gang on the pier. Just in time he calls down to alert me to one of the wires supporting an anode for our cathodic protection system. I grab it and hold it away from the barge, too.

“Walk it aft to the corner,” Jim suggests.

I shoot a glance in the direction he means. Fantastic idea. I push away from IOWA, walk the anode to the end of the barge, and drop it.

I’m drifting toward IOWA again. I fend us off, then Mike kicks us over toward the pier. Chief’s grinning face appears above me and he tosses me a line. I make it off to the cleat at the aft corner of the barge nearest the pier and throw the rest of the line back to him.

Once he’s got the line in hand, Mike casts the tag line off the whaler. I swiftly haul it aboard, toss the bulk of it up to Jim, and switch the belay to the forward cleat near the dock. They warp me along the dock, deftly weaving their lines under IOWA’s heavy dock lines, until we reach the spot designated for the barge. Further up the channel, I see Mike working with Bill to recover the whaler.

Mike’s out of the water and on his way up to the pier when Chief and Jim secure me in my spot. I climb up a ladder to the pier, safe and sound at home again.

Laughter wafts my way. I hear Mike telling Jim, “Yeah, we were adrift in LA main channel!”

Let the sea story begin…

Marann Fengler

Event Coordinator

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