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Archive for the ‘marine safety’ Category

sha1406032813sha1406033434sha1406033401I’ve been working in the G.O.M. for the last 16 months or so and regularly find myself making that long transit from the Dry Tortugas to the Southwest Pass of the Mississippi River.  The trip is more or less a great circle extending 400+ nm.  The first few times I made the crossing I noted that I would have an extreme “crab angle” due to the influence of the current known simply as “The Loop” aka a parent source of the Gulf Stream.  Sometimes I’d be steering upwards of IMAG162815 degrees into the current in order to make good my charted course and struggling to make any real speed.  Sliding across the Gulf is the rule.

There’s little doubt that this is old news to the guys who have been working the gulf for years, but it was a real surprise to me.  I mean, I expected different, but not to this degree.  Banging up against the Gulf Stream makes for slow going, no real mystery there.  And running with the stream is amazing in that your speed exceeds anything you thought the boat could do…but the loop?

The “Loop” is a current in the Gulf  of Mexico and flows at greater or lesser velocities as the seasons change.  It is known to meander widely and is formidable enough to knock more than 3 to 4 knots off your speed.  Meander is a gentle way of putting it, one watch you’re cruising nicely, next you’re wondering if the wheels fell off…  It’s seems to be all over the place, but with satellite imagery and telemetric magic it can be tracked.  And if it can be tracked it can be planned for.  Soooo for  those of you who know all about this, need read no further unless you’d like to proof my work.  In which case I will gladly accept any additional clarifying data you’d wish to provide.

The information one needs in order to visualize and to take advantage of / or steer around this current  has been available, but the resource (available in the form of “pilot charts”) only gives a general overview of the current by the month.  Honestly, I didn’t find them all that helpful.

My colleague gave me this link that provides just the kind of data you can use.  The site is paid for by our tax dollars and in my opinion money well spent.

You’ll need to make certain your security settings in your browser allow java applets to run.

The initial page gives you the overview which you can select a geographic area and what you’d like to see.  If you just want velocities, click it.  If you want to save the data as an image, select .gif format.  The smaller the geographic area, the easier you’ll be able to interpolate the lat and lon grid.  (I use MS Paint to overlay the more detailed lat/lon grid, it’s a bit tedious but yields an reasonably accurate grid to pick off waypoints)).

Note the red grid over the gulf.  you can resize it as you wish and pick the day average as well.  I usually use a 3 day average.  Once you’ve made your selection choose .gif if you want to save the image.  After that, you can eyeball the route you want to take and then identify the waypoints you’ll need to hit to go around the adverse current or to take advantage of a following current.

 

gom site

This will assist in selecting a course around the higher velocities and hopefully save some time on your next transit.  Sometimes a few miles out of the way can save more than a few hours, an all important option when it’s close to crew change.  After all that is the most important consideration….just sayin’

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I found myself going through the “library” aboard and rediscovered an article written earlier this year for Marinelink regarding a “quandary” for AT/B’s, as the phrase was coined.  I thought it was just so much bullshit when I first read it and I had to every intention to comment.  The comment piece fell by the wayside for a while but I’ve renewed my interest so here goes.

It’s clear to me the term “quandary” was meant to generate a response from the industry and perhaps create a bit of drama.  And even though it has taken me until now to comment, I’d like to add my view and I offer my opinion as Master of one of the aforementioned “quandaries”..

Captain Jeff Cowan, (whose experience regarding AT/B’s remains in question for me) pontificates on the ill-conceived and imminently dangerous existence of AT/B’s in place of ships in the Jones Act trade.  He has drawn parallels that make a “sour grapes” spin sound complimentary.

I read with a good deal of glee the direct and articulate (see what I did there?) response from Mr Bob Hill of Ocean Tug and Barge, and thank Marinelink for publishing Mr Hill’s comments in their entirety.

I believe with all due respect, that Captain Cowan has missed the boat on this one (pun intended).  I have been working on one of Mr. Hill’s AT/B’s since 2003 (see the page header).  We were in the New England trade for many years and this last spring joined our sister unit the AT/B Christian F. Reinauer in the Gulf of Mexico to trade between Louisiana and Florida.  I have no illusions of what these units can and cannot do.

So let me address Captain Cowan’s assertions here;

My boat normally carries a 7 man crew, we have room for 10.

As far as STCW requirements; we are all STCW certified since the charterer requires it.  And yes Cap, we operate more than 200 miles offshore.  It’s a nearly 420 nm long trip from SW Pass to the Dry Tortugas on a great circle route, twice as long if you try to stay within twenty miles of the coast.  The inshore route is held as an option, though rarely used.

We moor with 8 lines, more if necessary.  A two man deck crew generally has it done in 15-20 minutes.  There isn’t any port/facility we call on that requires more than eight mooring lines.  I have witnessed one of the large Crowley 750 class moor and they take an hour or so with a dozen or more lines.  I can’t state with any certainty that’s the norm or the exception.

My company has had a Safety Management System in place since the late 90’s

We are S.Q.E. rated through the ISM Code and ISO 9001 and have been since 2004

We have 3 service gen-sets and one emergency gen-set all 99Kw, whaddaya think this is?

Since we’re talking Jones Act Shipping we’re not dealing with ISPS

Yes I will acknowledge the crew size could be larger.  The requirement for a greater number of people on board will have to be mandated by the charterers since the USCG and US Congress are unable or unwilling to force the issue.

I don’t have any illusions as to why this issue garners the attention it does from the “upper level license” community.  The Jones Act tanker trade is being somewhat eclipsed by AT/B’s, but not completely.  So let’s just settle down..

Since my AT/B unit was assigned work in the Gulf of Mexico I’m seeing a lot of AT/B’s working in the Gulf and I do mean a lot.   I’m seeing state-of-the-art rigs trading in Tampa, Jacksonville Florida, New Orleans and Port Everglades.  Bouchard (conversions), Reinauer (design-built and converted units), new Crowley designs, and OSG behemoths all taking bigger bites of the coastal trade away from tankers in the 350+ bbl range.  Crowley just completed building 17 new AT/B’s at a total cost of $1 billion USD, that ain’t small change.  AT/B’s are and will continue to be the future, but the tanker won’t be disappearing any time soon.

It’s true that for the most part we burn less fuel, we have fewer crew members (something we didn’t have a big say in), and yet we’re getting charters from the big guys on a regular basis. (As a point of order here; the majors don’t put their eggs in risky basket if you catch my drift.)

That’s not to say we’re not getting tons of rules; in addition to the rules quoted by Mr. Hill being satisfied to just build an AT/B, we’re tasked with tons of procedural and operational (ahem) guidance from our charterers.

We’re being inundated with terms we were more or less oblivious to a decade ago.  SOLAS, ISGOTT, OCIMF, SIRE, ISM, SMS, all these acronyms are in our daily lexicon and we’re subject to the same standards as ships in many cases.

A Cat 1 SIRE (similar to a full blown colonoscopy) is an audit that is generally reserved for ships, my rig has had more than a few of them so far.  We’ve tried to explain to the auditors that we’re not a ship with precious little success.

Here’s a Sample SIRE Report, how’s that for a fun-filled afternoon?

Captain Cowan cites the delays associated with tug and barge operations and the added time and costs that come with it, again I call b*llsh*t.  We are chartered with a clear statement of expected speed we’ll average and delivery times we’ll make.  The customer is well aware of what they are buying, if it was unacceptable we wouldn’t be so busy.

We don’t sail into storm systems, the customer wants all his cargo, not just most of it. We take a beating like everyone else if we get caught but we’d rather not.  Everyone knows it comes with the territory.  Ask anyone who has sailed through a hurricane and I’m damn near certain they’ll tell you to a man they’d rather not do it again.

The Scandia/North Cape was a single skin barge lost in a storm nobody should have sailed into.

The Valdez (with a crew of 24 plus) was not a total cargo loss, a large volume of her cargo spilled in Prince William Sound, but certainly not all of it….everyone seems to think the ship went away after the grounding.  It kinda did, the ship was towed to California, repaired, renamed and placed in service again with a different name.

Do we need to mention the Costa Concordia?

Those of us who are running these rigs are not breaking any rules, we’re doing our jobs.  And we’re doing it with “lower level licenses” in many cases.  Now I’m not particularly fond of the term but I can accept that there has to be a distinction.

Tankers run aground and spill cargo just like barges.  A detail frequently overlooked in this kind of argument is that a total loss means everything ended up in the water (and it’s a rare occurrence), let’s coin the phrase correctly shall we?  Double bottom technology isn’t perfect, but it’s helping prevent bad things from becoming disastrous.

With the number of disasters in the news these days concerning ships breaking in half, catching fire, sinking, colliding, and grounding; there aren’t many stories where I see someone claiming how much safer ships are.   The fact is that any vessel that puts to sea must assume risk.  Weather, training limitations and sometimes dumb luck are involved to make or break a journey.  We like to believe dumb luck has little influence on the outcome but anyone who has piloted their way unscathed out of a zero-dark thirty fog-bank in heavy traffic knows better.

I doubt that the ship drivers are worried at all, it’s the writers of blogs and magazine articles needing something to write about.  Nothing like creating a tempest in a teapot for a little entertainment.

If we’re going to discuss things in a constructive manner let’s agree that there’s little room for half truths.  After all this isn’t Fox News is it?

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My last piece was generated from a rant I expressed in my pilothouse on my last trip down the East River heading for an anchorage in New York’s Bay Ridge Anchorage 21B.  Generally, my postings originate as rants that are rendered raw and then tempered with a good bit of editing for language and content.  I don’t just go off and shoot from the lip. Usually.

Of course, my professional perspective is what I draw on and my opinion is given full sway, it’s my blog after all.  But since my last post I’ve had some feedback that puts a neat spin on the ultimate aim of the article.  Education, for me as well as others.

A rather brave young woman decided to upbraid me for what she believed were insults to the Kayaking Community.  She was right on the money on some points and I give credit where it’s due.  She provided a couple of links I had not previously seen and found them to be really thoughtful and comprehensive in their advice on mixing recreational traffic with commercial vessels here in New York.

So in the interest of passing along the lesson of “you’re never too old to learn”, I wanted to recognize these organizations for working to make everyone safer in the pursuit of their particular vision of happiness.

The first one I’d like to share is one that includes enough information to rate as a must read for any recreational boater seeking to play on the waters of New York Harbor, or any busy waterway for that matter.

I Boat NY Harbor  The content of this site warms this lil’ old  tugboatman’s heart.  It’s comprehensive, articulate and clear and I ‘m glad someone has thought to do such a thorough job.  Kudos.

Safe Harbor.US Listing educational videos and notices of the events taking place in the harbor and good concise articles relating to interacting and avoiding close encounters with the behemoths that ply the waters of N.Y. Harbor.  The video catalog alone is worth a click.

I think it bears mentioning that the State of New York doesn’t recognize paddled craft as “vessels” subject to the rules as we understand them, that’s a big WTF as far as I’m concerned. This story just boggles the mind.

Everyone on the water has to have an understanding as to their responsibility when they take to the water for any reason.

And for now I’ll close with a thank you for the comments I’ve received.  Be safe.

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photo by J. Milton

Who’s the mental midgit that came up with the idea of kayak tours of the East River’s waterfront?  There’s a growing trend of flotillas of multi-colored kayaks and canoes in all the wrong places in the recent past.  Not long ago I read an article somewhere extolling the beauty of the New York skyline from a kayak and all I could think was, “Hey Jackass, that’s what the Circle Line boats are for”.  Kayaks aren’t meant for a commercial waterway.

A quick Google search reveals quite a few sites for kayaking in the New York City area.  I visited a few of these sites and saw little in the way of educating kayakers to the danger of playing in the midst of commercial traffic, although to their credit they do keep novices quarantined in protected coves or basins to start. These stalwart if misguided souls that venture into open water relate how awestruck they are by the experience of New York Harbor kayaking, but I don’t think they’ve given serious thought to the environment they’ve entered.  We’re just a quaint backdrop to their vistas. Awestruck is what they will be when they’re caught in a back eddy off Hallet’s Point and I come around the corner in a full slide…but I don’t think the word can begin to describe the feeling they’ll have.

The sites I visited expressed no caveats or understanding of  how dangerous we are to them.  Yeah I get that the waterways are public, but do you really think that a ship is going to be able to wait for your pals to catch up to the group?

With kayaks paddling along in the East River, jet skis blasting by with more than two riders, water skiing on the sea plane approaches off 23rd St on the East River, NY., fishing in the channel, chasing tugboat wakes on jet skis, it’s going to get real ugly.  It all adds up to a situation where recreational boaters end up in the midst of heavy commercial traffic and they just don’t get it.

So here it is, the 4th of July weekend and I’m watching kayaks paddling up the East River off the Brooklyn piers and along the ferry slips of Lower Manhattan as I make my way to Bay Ridge Anchorage.  I mean really, kayaking on the East River!  C’mon already, you’re so low to the water that you’re barely visible to traffic at half a mile.  With no less than a dozen ferries and tows tossing wakes and flying by at a fair clip a disaster is only a matter of time.  God help you when you’ve finally figured out why you made such good time up the river only to find yourself paddling you ass off against the current to get back to your expensive SUV before dark.  Are you having fun now?

Every day during the recreational season boaters submit themselves to potentially fatal exposures and are completely oblivious to it. Thousands of pleasure seekers take to the water and expect their days to be just like the catalog pictures they perused before they bought their boat. Carefree and sunny days afloat without a care in the world, just bring enough sunscreen, granola bars and water.  No concern for proper radio etiquette or the correct channel to call for a radio check…jeez if they even have a radio.  Hell, most don’t understand a GPS unit enough to relay their position when they do get in trouble.  Kayaks? They may have a flashlight or even a small strobe, riiiight….another bouncing glittering light lost in the city’s skyline.

There’s an urgent need to educate the recreational boater and identify the issues that commercial traffic faces in everyday operations and that information should be spread far and wide with notices of “no-play-zones” enforced to minimize the dangers the recreational community is up against by being on the water along with the commercial community.

I submit that these enterprises should at least make an effort to have their presence announced or perhaps provide some sort of radio equipped motor escort on their little jaunts.  At least there would be someone to talk to.

For the life of me, I can’t seem to wrap my head around this kind of nonsense of playing in a commercial waterway, you might as well be playing hopscotch in the truck lanes on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Here’s an offer, if you or your friends are part of this madness, drop me a line.  I’d be willing to address the issue of education with your group (for carfare and lunch, gratuities will be accepted).  You’ll be safer for it and so will I.

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Tugboats or towboats (whatever you prefer), share the fact that they go bump. More than a little and most of the time. It’s dangerous work and always has been.  That’s why they’re wrapped in rubber all the way around. The first time a new crew member steps on the boat we want to impress on them to be aware of their handholds at all times. “One hand for the boat, one hand for yourself”.  You definitely have a responsibility for your own safety.

The bump can come at any time of the day or night, in any weather, fair or foul. Getting “waked” by a passing boat or a hard contact under the bow of a container ship or maybe laying up alongside a raft of barges, it always has the potential to be a substantial impact.  Adding a little twist to that is the deckhand will usually be a couple to a few hundred feet away from the wheelhouse and may be out of our direct line of sight.  A radio in one hand and the other holding on during the approach is the rule.

If you give the facts their due, all that rubber wrapped tonnage has to make contact with unwrapped tonnage to do its job. It’s our raison d’etre. Sometimes the bump is gentle, sometimes it’s hard enough to jar a few fillings loose. The “bell-ringer” happens frequently enough that it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Someone is always training, but it’s not just the novices that score a hit every now and then.

The boys working the decks of boats doing scow work are accustomed to the bump. Scows don’t get all that much TLC, they’re built for the banging around they get. They bump and grind more than Gypsy Rose Lee.

Ship work involves getting “up close and personal” with the walls of steel that seem to pull you in with their own special kind of gravity. We really don’t want to land hard on a ship, but….

Even though oil barges are built with substantial steel framing and double hulls, we try very hard to avoid banging them around.   All that “explosiveness” should give one pause….not to mention the liability of opening one up anywhere.

Timing, weather and skill play a part in it all. But even the best boat handler’s have a hard bump now and again. It’s part of the job, tug boating is definitely a contact sport.

A deckhand has the primary risk to fall victim to a hard contact if he doesn’t have an eye on what’s happening and have a firm grip on something. The easiest way to go swimming (or worse) is to be approaching the berth and you’re on deck with your head up your ass dreaming of crew change, cold beer and warm women.

If you take the time to examine the way things happen it should come as no surprise that when you’re about to land alongside a couple of moored units they are not necessarily laying tightly packed together. There will be some slack in their lines, especially if the other units have been laid up for a tidal cycle or two.

Even though you’ve made the initial landing “eggshell safe”, once your first line is out and wrapped up the force of the tug working ahead or astern will now move ALL the barges until everything fetches up. Think “billiards”, one contacts another and so on until all the lines have taken up the strain.

It probably won’t be the initial contact that gets you, it’s the after shocks that are the killers. After some time aboard a tug and if you’ve really honed your “situational awareness”, you’ll learn that when two or more large steel boxes are in close proximity, there will be bumps (note the plural). The sometimes fatal mistake occurs when one forgets that simple fact.

In bad weather you’d probably (hopefully) have a keener awareness of how dangerous things are since footing becomes difficult in heavy snow or visibility is challenged in darkness, rain and wind. Work vests can restrict movement, safety glasses may be fogging and diesel exhaust will impair your vision, all good reasons to be cautious.

Fair weather dockings would seem to be of less concern, but you should be holding on anyway since you can be lured into that false sense of security by the balmy breeze and not notice how quickly the boat is closing with the berth.


Bumpity, bump, freakin’ bump.


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We seem to take for granted the learning process when it comes to many things, not the least of which includes our physical motor skills and our cognitive ability to quantify a situation as good or bad.  Let’s take walking for example, you learn how to balance and toddle along very young, much to your mother’s delight.  Soon after that, the joyful look on Mom’s face becomes terror when you’ve learned how to run, and of course, you run with abandon everywhere.   You haven’t learned when it’s okay to run, you just run.  But in trying to teach you, Mom and Dad had to let you take a couple of  falls. Soon enough you get the idea that running is good some of the time, but not a good idea all of the time.  The first time you touch something hot serves a painful lesson, but it’s then we learn that fire is hot and ice is cold.  All the skills we acquire as we grow lead us to becoming an adult with the capacity to view our world as a collection of safe/unsafe, fun/scary, dangerous/fun or stupid moves.

“The triple bridges up the Hackensack closed on him after giving him permission to proceed. This was about 2 am and everything up there is pitch black. As soon as he realized the bridge was coming down, he threw it into full reverse, but it wasn’t soon enough. He did lose his job but the USCG did not take any action against him. They had the radio conversation on tape and exonerated him.”

When in comes to tugs and tows one could spend all day describing the mind-set needed by a boat handler but in the end it has to be learned.  The training wheels come off pretty early and the actual boat handling begins  as soon as the ticket  is in hand.  The hard part isn’t what one might think, it’s not the timing of the throttle or depth perception, it’s situational awareness.

All of the things that come into play while maneuvering a tug and tow for transits, docking, sailings, or re-configuring are subject to being re-evaluated as they progress or deteriorate using every input, hunch, suspicion, or sensation. Recognizing that things have gone bad is not easy.  You’d think it would be in your gut, but novice boat handlers don’t have the judgement or experience that exposes the “bad stuff” early in the maneuver. Knowing when to pull the plug is the hard part.  Recognizing it too late and then pushing a bad situation in the hopes of saving the day will end badly.  So it serves a boatman to understand his limitations well before any operation is undertaken.  Proper planning prevents piss poor performance.

The towing industry is a contact sport, shit happens and we’ve all had our share of “bell ringers” and bad days.  The key is to learn from them.  But, recognizing the threshold of disaster is a difficult matter when it comes to to training someone for it.  In order to make that determination, you have to see things go bad and “live it”.  That threshold  is usually reached well before things go wrong.  The chain of failure starts earlier than one might think (these days referred to as the “root cause”).  When a novice is training he practices voyage planning, sailings,  transits, and dockings.  He or she is watched and guided to safely execute the maneuvers, but they need to be allowed to screw it up (to a point).  The best lesson is one that has some “pucker factor” at work.  The greater the “pucker”, the more unforgettable the lesson.

The mark of a mature boatman is apparent when and how he deals with a bad situation.  Any novice who’s had a bit of time behind the wheel can sail and dock a barge when conditions are ideal.  The test comes when everything you thought you knew comes up short, then the fact that you won’t do anything new in an emergency becomes evident.  How you handle an adverse turn of events comes from learning how to expect the unexpected and being prepared to deal with it.

One of the most important skills is to know is when to start over.  It’s “plan B”.

The saying; “Physics is a bitch” couldn’t be more accurate.  The behavior of the tow’s mass and inertia can be calculated and parsed to the nth degree.  But who really does that?  Well actually we do, when we check the current, wind, traffic, and our gut. Quoting a post in the Captain forum from a Captain to a new mate, “Son, never approach a dock faster than you’d want to hit it”.  The approach and landing is generally a controlled crash.  We’re talking inches per second.

Ebb current rounding Tremley Point and losing it in the turn brought this one to a sudden stop. It made one Hell of an “impression”.

Giving thought to how we should proceed involves planning for as many contingencies as we can think of.  Time on deck provides the means to acquire that judgement.  But watching someone having a bad day is not as indelible as having the bad day yourself.  That crystalline intensity isn’t there.

Every deckhand with some time under his belt utters the same monologue when the pilothouse is having a problem.  He knows exactly where the poor bastard went wrong and has the answer to all things “tugboat” until he himself is at the helm envisioning all too late what he should have done.  There isn’t a working boatman alive that can claim he has never had a reportable damage. You can’t be in this industry and not have had an incident.  It’s the nature of the job.  Incidents that don’t get you or anyone else killed or maimed serve as educational opportunities.  You (hopefully) never forget the “lesson learned”.

With luck and determination, a good number of candidates for the wheelhouse survive their “baptisms by fire” and turn out to be competent and capable boat-handlers.  Most recognize that their careers are ongoing educational seminars at “Tugboat U”.   The number of years one is on the job is not insurance against error.  Even with 30+ years at the wheel, errors occur.   They don’t happen as often, but they happen none the less.  Overestimating rudder power and underestimating the wind could turn a simple approach to an “all astern frantic” exercise.  With luck it becomes a footnote and lesson learned, catch it too late, disaster.

Allowing for error during training is one of the most difficult lines to walk in this business.  Every trainer has a different comfort level and each trainee is unique. Some are granted a bit more leash  while others are held a little more tightly until their skills improve and allow for more freedom from intervention. Overall, the aim is to expand the limits of one’s skill level when it comes to error management.  The only practical way to do that is to let the situation develop and address it.  If you haven’t been allowed to deal with a bad situation, you’ll never be able to defuse one.  It sounds like a “Catch 22″ but the many factors that have an effect on decision making can’t be listed in a curriculum.

The U.S. Navy has intensive and expensive training for damage-control and fire fighting.  They practice air combat maneuvers and test the mettle of their people in relatively controlled environments.  The intensity of having water up to your ass while you plug a hole in the hull or flames licking at your heels knocking down an engine room fire, or someone at your six with “missile lock”.  It’s about as real as it can get, but it’s still a training exercise.  The ship isn’t really sinking or afire and that missile isn’t really heading for your tailpipe.

On tugs, we have to create these training opportunities as we work.  We don’t have the luxury of the reset button.  The set-up and execution of specific maneuvers are conducted in the real world with little room for dramatic errors.   Some elements are frequently encountered during the hitch.  We see wind, current and traffic every day.  We deal with strange berth assignments that test our close quarter maneuvering skills daily.  We utilize assist boats not too differently than docking masters on large ships.  When an assist boat is used, the equation now includes another whole set of considerations.  Not the least of which would be keeping it in position safely and using it to its greatest advantage.  All of these skills are learned on the job, not in school.

It’s been mentioned that simulators would be useful in giving wheelhouse candidates a safer environment to experience their “Kobiyashi Maru Incident”.  I can agree to a point, the quality of simulators has improved dramatically in the last ten years but the reset button is still there.  It’s an expensive course of limited value in my opinion.  I can’t say that I would have a lot of  faith in a trainee telling me that he had the high score on the simulator as we are on approach to Hell’s Gate drawing 25′ at max flood, eastbound, meeting a westbound deep draft sailboat in mid-channel.  There’s a whole lot more at stake then a grade at that point.

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