Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Rowing Bits: Racing the Tug

This summer has provided many fine and often interesting rowing days commuting on my “Bus” from Gabriola Island to the Pacific Biological Station in Departure Bay on Vancouver Island. It’s only five and a half nautical miles for a raven traveling, but more for me as the tide pushes me across the channels emptying into the Strait of Georgia from the inside waters between the island and Nanaimo harbour.

“Bus Bailey” named after the second owner and fisherman, is the full name of my double-ended Luoma handliner built locally for commercial salmon fishing in 1937. “Bus” ,a thirteen-and-a-half foot, double ended carvel-planked rowboat, is well-proportioned with a well-defined and balanced sheer providing a solid “sweet” appearance. Frank Hackwood, the third owner, tells me that Bus Bailey paid twenty dollars in 1946 for a fully outfitted boat with the original pair of fine spooned oars of tight-grained old-growth fir and an oak ‘dry-ass’ seat.

Frank allowed me to exercise the Bus for many years, then stunned and honored me on my 50th with the “Bus Bailey” present. What a gift and what a coveted responsibility. Access to Frank’s beach railway makes my rowing commute feasible from Pilot Bay and we always enjoy an early evening chat as I haul up the Bus. Frank has such a wealth of knowledge and stories about our shared local maritime scene and is always keen to share. If I didn’t have to get down-island for dinner, (and a shower), there are many evenings that I’d happily hang around for more tales of past coastal days and the boats and people that filled them.

Like all handliners, it is ideal for long rows with supplies and fishing gear, and for hauling home the catch, or in my case, rows well with seaworthy confidence, and is able to carry my lap-top and office files enclosed in a heavy dry bag, a small safety bag and a guide bag for clothes.

I hope the following story might give you a sense of the pleasures possible from maritime commuting and perhaps encourage you to spend more time on the water, in whatever small boat you can. My forced race with a tug and log-boom is one I’ll likely still recall from a quiet anchorage many years from now.

After many brilliant sunny days of classic summer rowing, one calm morning in mid-August turned into a blustery and cloudy afternoon that felt like September had aggressively jumped the queue. Thundershowers were forecast for the evening. While the return row would not be unworkable, I knew it would require some commitment as the wind was now topping 15 knots and there remained some tide moving out toward Snake Island to sharpen and solidify the waves.

Its easy to warm up my back, legs, and arms as I find an early rhythm to head out past Jessie Island – the guardian of Departure Bay. Passing the navigation marker off Jessie’s eastern point, I glanced over my shoulder to check for the incoming ferry in order to judge my timing across its path prior to it’s entry into the Bay. The ferry appeared to still be far outside of Snake Island, although the dimmed and greyed light added to my uncertainty, already heightened with the awareness that the speed of the ferries is easily underestimated.

A second glance yielded more details, and confirmed that there was also a tug crossing my path from the north-west, positioned windward of the cardinal buoy and heading toward the outside of Newcastle and Protection Islands. One more careful look over my shoulder and, yes, it was also towing a long log-boom. “OK, that simplifies things,” I thought, knowing that as long as the tug and boom were between me and the ferry I wouldn’t have to concern myself with the ferry. However, several repeated glances did little to confirm the speed of the tug and my relationship to it.

While these considerations were going though my head, I was now working against the weather, concentrating on my timing to pull the “Bus” as smoothly and steadily as possible through the waves on a course just off the wind. Given the wind had been building since noon, the waves, while sharp-crested were well spaced allowing the “Bus” to rise steadily and slide over each without pounding - the kind that practically halts any forward motion. Although demanding, this is satisfying work, with the energetic tunes on my MP3 really motivating my pulls and coaxing strength from my body.

Still thinking about the tug and the ferry, I realized that the choices of the ferry would be interesting, as the professionalism and perspective of the captain always provide a lesson in seamanship. I anticipated that it would likely reduce speed and make a wide sweep across the bow of the tug, keeping Snake Island close to its port side, then head toward and follow the Newcastle shore into Departure Bay. With some dismay, I also appreciated that I must quickly determine if rowing faster than the tug was possible or a long (and cooling) wait to cross behind the log-boom would be unavoidable.
I decide to row hard, pushing myself, perhaps faster than I could sustain, just to clarify if passing in front of the tug was possible for me in the Bus.

Early quick glances showed me closing on the tug, however, at about 45 degrees off its stern I could still not be certain of safely crossing in front. Separated by more than half a mile, it would require continuous effort with as much steady drive through the waves as I could muster. So my challenge was on!

This was not a sprint of short quick strokes but it required speed through the water from timing of strokes, steady pace and the use of power strokes when the wave sequence allowed. It took longer that first anticipated to close within 100 meters of the front of the boom and parallel to the tow-line. This still didn’t confirm that I would be able to catch-up and pass the tug, only that I could close on it’s course.

Now that I was positioned downwind of the log booms but parallel to their course I would finally be able to determine my real options. For what seemed like an eternity, but in actual fact was just the duration of the “Fishermans Song” by Ken Ham, I didn’t seem to make any progress away from the logs. Given that I was rowing hard I began to dismay and my confidence was slowly escaping downwind with the waves. Each pull felt slightly less efficient.

Next song on my IPOD, “Soul Survivor” by the Mad Caddies, had me immediately smiling as I knew that it would determine my fate for the next forty minutes. If this motivating rhythm didn’t result in progress then I’d be forced to wait till both log-boom sections passed by.

Perhaps it was the sequence of easier waves or more likely the sub-conscious motivation of the happy and powerful music, but slowly, just perceptively, the tow cable on the booms and the wind-splashed waves on the leading log seemed to be receding. I refused to look over my shoulder at the tug until I was certain the shortened gap would be noticeable and oh yes it was! This kind of tangible positive reinforcement is the greatest source of motivation, but I realized that I’d need it, as the white caps were becoming more frequent with the wind gusts intensifying. Yes, I was gaining but there would be no break until safely past and I’d been rowing for close to twenty minutes considerably harder than my usual steady “efficiency-stroke” pace.

Meanwhile, the ferry had stopped, clearly deciding to wait and pass behind (to the north-west of) the log-boom once sufficient room opened up on that lee-shore. This was a very unusual event as I’m sure I had watched the same ferry a hundred times on my way home, but I could see now that it was the prudent choice for the ferry.

I focused intently on my timing, the growing gap, and on ensuring that I stayed well to the lee of the log-boom path. Keeping up the pace is indeed easier when you have the positive feed-back from measurable progress. There was also this false-reality sense that I had created a no-option situation, where I had to make it, but of course I was perfectly safe and could have easily (very easily) let my oars and body go and wait it out.

A second wind had surreptitiously infused my body giving me a power experienced when you are in the ‘zone’. It was then that diesel exhaust blew past my face, immediately followed with wind-blown snatches of a new sound. The industrial throbbing-power sound of the tug’s engines quickly dominated as I inched alongside, perhaps only a stones-throw downwind of her. Despite working hard to maintain my ground, it seemed that I only made progress when the wave sequence allowed me to smoothly work over the waves. Just at that point, the forward progress of “Bus” faltered as I messed up my rhythm and several waves slapped me further off the wind and away from the tug. After working to come this far, there was no way I was giving up, so set-to regaining lost ground and once again was alongside the tug, closer this time in order to take advantage of the slightly protected lee-water. A quick look over my right shoulder and there on the bow deck stood two crew with coffee-cups in hand, shouting at me and punching the air with their fists to match my timed pulls through the waves. Trying for nonchalance, I nodded my head in acknowledgement but knew my hard-earned position abeam would be lost if I stopped before successfully crossing back onto my route to Gabriola. Success, just another hundred meters of wave-by-wave increments, was within my grasp and I tasted it!

Once safely ahead of the tug’s path, I swung directly into the wind and with a steady but relaxed pace angled across until well clear of the tug’s course. Finally, I stopped for water and let my back and shoulder slump as the “Bus” swung broadside, easily bobbing over the waves while I sucked and breathed deeply. Looking across to the tug I thought about giving those guys a wave but just then the tug gave me a quick double-blast on the horn making me laugh aloud and wave back.

The gap between Newcastle and Protection Islands serves to easily align markers on the distant Nanaimo shoreline and as I rested, I knew I was approximately a third of the way home as the distant apartment had swung through my ‘islands-sights’.

On a cool August afternoon a two minute rest is long enough to re-energize but quickly hints of future chills, so I was truly happy to pick up the oars and once again reach them forward and pull the bow over the waves. The tug boat diversion was fine but I still had two or three miles of rowing into a freshening south-east wind but I’d feed off the lingering excitement and it knew it would go quickly. I also knew my old pal Frank Hackwood would enjoy the tug boat story while I hauled up the “Bus’ on his beach railway, and we’d laugh together at the antics of the tug crew.

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