Breathe

On Monday we got off the dock in Whittier with me piloting the barge. It was the first time I’ve done that in Valdez – I’ve done some barge piloting for a mom and pop company in Seattle in the past but that definitely has never involved two nine- or ten-thousand-horsepower tugs, nor a 400-foot barge. I’ve learned a lot recently about the mechanics of this kind of assist work so I understood what was going on and I drew up a little plan for myself the night before. This is the best way for me to plan: draw it out. I’m a visual learner and this technique cements information into my brain.

The captain and I had a little briefing session that morning too, before I went out. I knew I’d be somewhat nervous but I didn’t quite anticipate the level of adrenaline that would be coursing through me as soon as I took on the responsibility of the barge and both assist tugs. The best advice I got that morning was “breathe”. This single word is truly the key to control for me. It was a simple maneuver: push the barge to the dock while the crew takes back the lines, then pull the barge off the dock, turn it into the channel, and head off to anchor in Shotgun Cove. It was five in the morning and still dark, but some morning light was beginning to show at the east end of Passage Canal. There wasn’t a breath of wind, the sky was clear, and we were one hour from low slack water so conditions were pretty much perfect. But as soon as control of the situation was in my hands, my heart jumped into my throat and stayed there, racing, for a while. Alert dead slow toward the dock, Hunter right twist dead slow/dead slow, hard right rudder. Breathe. Both boats stop. Breathe. Alert away easy, Hunter left twist dead slow/dead slow, rudder hard left. Breathe. Ok here we go.

The engineer told me when I got back to the boat that I sounded on the radio as if I’d popped a Valium before doing the job. I guess I’ll take that as a good thing? Being calm and smooth in these situations is ideal; if something is going wrong, assess it, take a breath, and then get on the radio and do what you need to do to fix it. It was fantastic and I hope to do it again soon.

Now we’re in Cordova, and we’ll be here for a few more days. They were getting ready to deploy small decant barges from the 500-2 yesterday and get going with drills but they had a structural problem with the crane and they’ve had to spend a day attending to that. We will have at least another day to kill here at the city dock before we anchor the barge in Nelson Bay for two days of drills with local fishing boats. Last night I walked into town after dinner with a couple of my shipmates. I really like walking through Cordova; it’s the perfect Alaskan town. Hilly, funky, wooded, bustling with life during the summer fishing season. There is a fishermans’ memorial down by the harbor where generations of men and women lost to the sea are memorialized in plaques surrounding a bronze statue of a defiant seafarer at the helm of his ship.

We walked through quiet neighborhoods and I tried to picture what it would be like to live in one of the adorable fishermen’s shacks on the hill across from the old public school, now a crumbling wreck of a stone-and-concrete building. Many buildings in this town survived the massive 1964 earthquake (unlike the town of Valdez, which was swallowed by the earth and had to be rebuilt on more solid ground) and old buildings built in the 20s and 30s still rest here on the basalt bedrock at the foot of Mount Eyak.

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