The Albatross: Welcome 2013

Happy New Year!

The trip south and back was interesting, for starters; I learned a lot about myself and more again about the nature of my job. But to cut straight to the chase, the weather kicked our ass in the first two days out of Port Angeles. As soon as you round Cape Flattery, that ocean becomes an entirely different creature altogether. The longest I’ve ever endured constant, crashing motion and noise like that is about two days – counting quite a few Gulf of Alaska crossings – but at least in cases like that you know you’ll only be out there for about 48 hours. On the trip down the coast, we were looking at four or five days and after the first 12 hours I was beginning to fear for my sanity. Some of the guys told me their worst horror stories of crossing the Atlantic to Africa and the Pacific to Hawaii as well as China, Russia or Korea, and being in seas like that for weeks. When people ask what it feels like to be tossed around on a tugboat in 30-footers, my best description is: imagine being on a roller coaster, drunk, blindfolded.. and you can’t get off the ride and go home. You live there. Phew. I wasn’t feeling so great that first night. Not everyone gets seasick, and when you do you are apt to be teased by your shipmates. But there isn’t much you can do besides take some meclizine and nurse your wounded pride; I felt much better the next day.

We left Port Angeles WA on December 20th and when I woke up to stand my watch at 8 o’clock Christmas morning, I came outside to see the Golden Gate looming bright ahead, framed by the slanting cold winter sunlight. I was gasping with joy as I breathed in the familiar smell of the Bay… I didn’t have time to look around as I set up the deck to break the gear we were using to tow our little empty barge, but once we got closer to the Bay Bridge I got to take a good look at the city, gray as it was in the rain. We handed the barge off to the tug Point Fermin (and I got to say hello to the guys I worked with on that same boat last winter) and then tied up for the night at Oakland 9 on Burma Road, home to our sister boats at AmNav and a few other companies. My father, who lives no more than half an hour to the east of that very dock, came to see me and bring a Christmas gift, which I opened in my room while he looked over my shoulder. I’m glad he got to see where I lived on the boat – he’s always been a ship captain and the world of tugs is not a familiar one to him. I played Santa and went to the store with dad to pick up some necessities for the boat as well as fulfill some requests for candy and tobacco products from my shipmates. That one hour or so that I got to spend with him made me very happy on an otherwise dreary and rather lonesome Christmas day.

My mom and brothers were hoping to come down later but they never got the chance – we left at 8 the next morning, with the sun at our backs. Crossing the San Francisco Bar proved a challenge, and the following day hit us with northerlies of up to 30 knots, reducing our speed to 4 knots and dampening our hopes of arriving home in time for new years eve. But the next day turned everything around, and not only did the wind all but completely die, our speed started pushing the maximum 9 to 10 knots, and it began to look like we were going to make the morning flood across the Columbia River Bar on December 29th to hand off our barge in Astoria, not to mention get home in time to celebrate the new year.

In the next couple days as we made our way north in ever-improving weather, plying the lovely smooth water and watching dolphins perform acrobatics in our bow wake, I noticed a black albatross which never strayed too far from us in the daylight, a gull-like bird with a four-foot wingspan, wheeling along the waves in lazy circles with one wing tip always just a few inches from the surface. One had flown with us on our way south, too. I love seeing these birds; most anyone reading this already knows that according to sailor lore, being followed by an albatross is a symbol of good luck to come. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen one.

Once we arrived at the mouth of the Columbia and made the harrowing bar crossing, we handed off the battered old barge “Seattle” to the John Brix, a river boat with pushknees on her bow, and turned around and headed home. We made an average of 12 knots all the way to Cape Flattery, and I’m told we were going close to 14 knots as we went by Port Angeles. The trip from Astoria to Shilshole Bay, which would normally take an average of 28 hours on a tugboat, took less than a day. The other deck hand and I had to get up early to wash the boat down before we got to the office. We arrived at the locks in Ballard at 1030 and were at the dock in the Fremont ship canal by 11, off the boat at noon. Jake picked me up and after errands, we went to Anacortes to catch a ferry to Lopez Island where we celebrated the new year with friends. There was time for revelry as well as for quiet reflection, and it was the most perfect way to welcome 2013.

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