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My close encounter with a tug and barge

Any veteran sailor who has cruised Chesapeake Bay for years should have a harrowing tale or two to tell shipmates. It is the nature of a rewarding sport that at times can be dangerous, risky and challenging.

Sporting some new Slam foulies, the Bay Tripper was prepared for late-season sailing but not for an encounter with a tug and barge.

I have had my share of close calls, including the sinking of my Westphal 28 one-design 35 years ago in a freak 70-knot squall on the Tred Avon River in Oxford, Md., a mishap that earned me the nickname “Shipwreck.”

In late November, my turn came again with a near wreck on my last full day of sailing for 2011 that could have ended my season (and me) on a rather somber note. What follows are reflections on what happened during that early afternoon on Nov. 27, a few lessons learned and suggestions regarding nearly being run over by a barge being pushed by a tugboat.
A typical barge on the Bay is about 200 feet, with a beam of 35 feet. Whether pushed or towed, they are a familiar sight and must be avoided well in advance at all costs. This is not just sound advice; it’s also a Coast Guard regulation. But unlike cargo ships, which present a most formidable appearance, oncoming pushed barges sit relatively low in the water. And they may not always be easy to spot, seemingly motionless, off in the distance, especially when showing a relatively narrow frontal view to someone on a possible collision course.
I have sailed alone for decades and always keep a sharp lookout for what’s going on around me, which, I suppose, is why I have lasted so long. So why didn’t I see the barge coming directly at me and why didn’t the tug crew see me? Boaters might assume that operators of large oncoming vessels have them in view because of their state-of-the-art radar and many lookouts posted. Also, the speed at which these carriers travel is often woefully underestimated. (Tugboats moving barges do not have Maryland Bay Pilots aboard.)
I was on a close port reach sailing at 5 knots across the Bay from Kent Island toward Thomas Point. I was sitting to leeward with the rail down but not under (a habit of mine that must be altered). The autumn breeze was fresh, heftier than in summer, and it was sunny and clear, with many whitecaps. I was focused on gaining on a larger sailboat while looking out for other sailboats on starboard tack. From my low perspective, the high, windward side of my port cockpit coaming blocked a water-level view of oncoming traffic bearing down upon the port side of my 22-foot sloop.
Incidentally, I’ve rigged on both sides of my cockpit coamings two 6-foot lengths of line that I call my “old man lifting lines.” When sitting to leeward, I grab this line to “climb uphill” when coming about or just to raise my position and stand up to look things over to windward. I use this rig quite often.
No other boats were around, except the one I was chasing about 50 yards ahead. At around 1:30 p.m., about a half-mile northeast of Thomas Point Light, something told me to look up. Suddenly, just off my port bow, there appeared a sinister, moving black wall that I thought for a nanosecond was a hallucination. Looming just ahead and right on top of me was a very large barge that appeared instantly with no warning. I was about to crash just abaft the forward starboard corner of its heaving blunt bow.
I reacted instantly, without thinking and completely on instinct, pulling the tiller hard over to come about immediately with no thought of even popping the starboard jib sheet loose from its cam cleat. This actually helped the emergency maneuver in that the jib got back-winded and further pushed me away. I was aware of escaping what seemed like impending doom, but my boat completed the turn fast and only then did I pop the sheet. The jib flailed wildly as I reached for the bitter end of the port sheet — stopper-knotted at the sheet block on the toe rail — to get control.
I was aware of someone on the tug shouting something unintelligible as I tried to harness the wind on a new tack and regain my senses. I wanted to shout back at him, “Why didn’t you blast your warning horn?” But I was otherwise occupied. The answer, of course, is that he obviously had not seen me, either.
I can understand why my 22-foot sailboat with a dark green hull might have been difficult to see in whitecaps, even under full sail and offering a good side view. Breaking waves that day slapped against my hull and occasionally splashed over the deck, but why would I not have been detected by radar? Perhaps rigging some kind of permanent radar reflector is in order.
When things settled down, I resumed sailing for the next three hours. I gave up chasing that other boat, which was beating ahead with sails strapped in and the rail under. That evening at home, however, sleep was difficult. I could not get the incident out of my mind and had to rise and walk around several times to avoid nightmares.
All I can report with accuracy is that the tug was red, probably pushing north to Baltimore, and was soon out of range. I could have followed to get identification, but it would have been a dead run for me and I wouldn’t have caught up with it. I was in the wrong, but the tug operator and crew must share some guilt for not detecting me on a collision course and blasting five warning volleys. In fact, if I had converged on that barge just 30 seconds earlier it would have rolled me over and under, and those aboard the tug might never have known they even hit something.
I had heard and smelled nothing from the tug’s powerful engines. Any noise comes out of the tug’s high stack, which was way out of my sound range at water level. Most boaters are aware that even cargo ships coming your way at speed make little sound except for a sinister hissing from a bow wave, and one should never be that close to hear it.
Next season, I will sit more often to windward and keep my waterproof binoculars and handheld VHF (scanning channel 16) at hand in the cockpit. And if I see a collision course developing with any vessel, large or small, I will not assume that the other skipper sees me and will be ready to give way. At any rate, the rule is to avoid a collision at all costs, no matter who is “right.” As they say, a collision can ruin a good day at sea.
On a more pleasant note, I put Erewhon away Dec. 1 for a well-deserved winter’s rest at Casa Rio Marina off the Rhode River, south of Annapolis. I had an exhilarating, surfing motorsail with a reefed main and no jib in 12-plus knots from the northwest, with whitecaps curling up and trying to catch me from behind. I made the 12-mile trip from the Spa Creek Drawbridge in Annapolis to the Cadle Creek dock in Mayo in exactly two hours. Along the way, I spotted three different barges being pushed by tugboats and kept damn well clear of them.

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.

This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue.