By Wayne M. Johnston
I first met the Pacific Ocean at Cannon Beach when I was a kid. Tourists hadn’t taken over the town yet and it felt like we had the beach to ourselves. The vastness, and how puny I felt at the edge of the ocean was like looking into space at the moon and stars. The sense of amazement, the size and power of all that water, the sound of it breaking on the rocks and miles of flat sand has stuck with me. The sense of awe seems universal. The seashore draws crowds. It can be calming and it inspires hope that, in spite of whatever it’s like where you are, there are other places, other possibilities.
Then you find yourself working on a boat beyond the surf, out in it.
I’m in the engine room of a tugboat. We’re probably thirty-five miles offshore between Cape Flattery and the mouth of the Columbia River. Later today, we’ll pass by Cannon Beach. There’s no place to hide. In this weather, the entrances to safe harbors are not accessible. I’m the boat’s immune system, the chief antibody (chief engineer). It’s my job to monitor the systems, and at any sign of trouble, attack the problem. Essentially it’s a floating robot controlled from the pilothouse by three small levers (I also have a license to drive this thing.). We’re trailing a quarter-mile of steel cable connected to a cargo barge, a giant floating box, packed tight with rolls of newsprint from a mill in Canada for California papers.
The cool steel of the bulkhead separating the engine room from a fuel tank is my backrest. I can feel the boat climb each swell and drop into the trough. It’s hard to stand, so I’m sitting on a five gallon, bilge-soap bucket. I turned up the flow rate of the centrifuge that cleans fuel as it’s transferred from selected storage tanks to the day tank that the engines draw from. I also adjusted the desalinator converting seawater to potable water to keep pace with our use. My inspection of gauges and bilges is complete. Everything is as it should be.
During the night, south of Cape Flattery, we hit seas sixty feet or better. It’s hard to tell in the dark. To soften the pounding, we slowed down. We had open sea behind us and at times we were blown backwards. The worst of it has passed. Everything held together and now we’re making headway.
As engine rooms go, this one is spacious and bright, polished aluminum diamond-plate decks, white bulkheads, spotless engines. Even the overhead beams, the hull-frames and the inside surface of the steel plating that separates this space from the ocean are freshly painted, white, clean. Where I’m sitting is probably the place on the boat least affected by the rough sea since it’s below the center of gravity and slightly aft of center, but the foam plugs in my ears and the headphones over them only take the edge off the deafening scream of the engines.
The propulsion engines are near full operating speed, delivering about a thousand horsepower each. The symmetrical layout of the clean space before me would inspire confidence except for the built-in flaw of the engines. They’re light-weight, high rpm, turbo-charged diesels, sixteen cylinders each. They feel like hot-rod engines and wrong for the job they are doing. They were designed for intermittent emergency use rather than longevity. To save money when the boat was built, they were converted from hospital back-up-generator power plants for marine use. They got what they paid for and we get to live with it.
Out here where dependability matters, they’re worrisome. That there are two helps. When one fails, and it is when not if, at least there is a back-up to keep you pointed in the right direction, alive, while you make repairs, or until help comes. The two smaller generator engines forward of the main engines are run alternately to power the boat’s electrical equipment. They are very dependable, but can’t make the propellers turn.
Above the big electrical panel that stands between the propulsion engines and divides the engine room, there are stored boxes containing spare air filters. A loose tag of brown paper tape on the end of one whips in the constant blast of air pumped through a duct from outside. Otherwise there’s no motion to see, belying what’s actually going on, the frantic fragility of stressed pistons, bearings and gears, hidden by spotless engine paint inside those inert shapes. The passive looking machines are burning a hundred gallons of diesel fuel an hour. The dollar amount on the slip I sign after each fueling would easily pay off the mortgage on my house.
Except for the engine room and a small space that houses the steering hydraulics above the rudders, the hull below the deck is fuel tank, water tank or ballast tank. The boat rides best when low in the water, so as we burn fuel we take on seawater ballast, and as we use potable water, we desalinate seawater to replace it. This boat is slightly bigger than the ones that Columbus sailed or the ones that brought the first colonists, but by today’s standards, it’s a very small ship. The colonists didn’t fill the hulls with diesel fuel and tow huge barges.
I take another tour of my gauges before going up the ladder.
The captain is perched in the pedestal chair, alone in the pilothouse. His feet straddle the compass on the dashboard. Occasionally the radio squawks with static, but even the bottom-fishermen that sweep the continental shelf with trawl nets and sell to Russian factory ships are quiet this morning. I sit on the bench by the chart table. None of us has slept much.
“Everything okay down there?” the captain asks.
I nod. He yawns and continues.
“Get any sleep last night?”
“Not much,” I say. “Dozed a little. You?”
“No. Got to worrying,” he says. “I’m not sure we got the air bags right in the bow of the barge. The office claims damage is killing them.”
“Can’t do anything about it now,” I say. “We’ll find out when we get there. If you want to lay down, I’ve got it for a while.”
Even though the swells have dropped, they’re still more than thirty-five feet, give or take, a third of the length of the boat. The windows are hit with repeated blasts like from a fire hose as the wind whips the tops off the waves and picks up our bow spray. When I’m alone, I dig out a cassette tape from a case I keep in one of the cupboards. Vivaldi Concertos, the really busy string ones. I set the volume loud enough to drown the engine noise without bothering the guys sleeping and perch in the big chair.
Whatever it was that Vivaldi was trying to reflect had to feel something like it does to be in this chair right now. Powerful string instruments, lots of energy and depth, a boldness that fits the dance we’re doing. There’s sadness and danger in it too. It’s a good soundtrack for a great ride. This is the ocean, better than a mechanical bull or a rollercoaster. Everything is gray or foamy and the music is just right as the boat climbs each swell and drops into the trough.
Imagine being stuck on a roller coaster for days. I lose the mood before Vivaldi is played out. The tape lasts about forty-five minutes. It’s hard to sustain any kind of adrenalin rush for long trapped in a noisy box that’s relentlessly being battered.
When the weather is good, it’s like a desert out here, miles and miles of nothing. An occasional albatross skims the crests, seagulls cluster over schools of small fish. Further south, brown pelicans show up. Dolphins sometimes surround us, several airborne at once, breaking the monotony. Mostly it’s gray and lonely and empty.
On one of my first ocean trips, there was a full moon and clear sky. I got a blanket, put on my insulated coveralls and lay aft of the pilothouse, on the upper deck, just taking it in. Another time (different boat, wooden mast), I had to climb up at night to change a running-light bulb. The weather wasn’t as nasty as today, but there was enough swell that I had to cling tightly at the top of the swaying pole. The boat felt small under me. The ocean was endless. I enjoyed the sense of isolation and insignificance.
When evening comes, we’re off Cannon Beach and I remember my daughter’s birthday. I reserve calls home on the marine radio for special occasions like this. They’re expensive and the connection can be unsatisfying. It’s a party line. Anyone within range who wants to relieve boredom can listen in. I’ve heard some interesting conversations.
After five rings my wife answers. There’s commotion and kid-noise in the background, birthday party, seven-year-old girls. After I say where we are and try to predict when we’ll arrive in Long Beach, my daughter is given the phone.
“When are you coming home?”
“Pretty soon. Who’s at your party?’
“You know, my friends. Gotta go. See you when you come home. Bye.”
Another big gusher comes over the bow and slams the pilothouse as the receiver clicks and the connection is broken. I’m ready for calm now, but according to the weather report, it’s not likely to come until we get to Northern California. At the four-to-five knots we’re making between storms, hours will drag into days. I’ll try to keep the few-minute rush of Vivaldi euphoria present in my mind.
In December of 2002, the tug described here sank in heavy weather 18 miles west of Florence, Oregon. It was towing a log barge to California on a weekly scheduled run. Of the five-man crew, four were rescued. The account on a back page of the Seattle Post Intelligencer was a brief 150 words.
Copyright Johnston 2016