Thursday, December 15, 2011

May You Live In Interesting Times

(Originally posted in the Annapolis Capital: September 13, 8:09 am | (permalink) | (0 comments)

“May you live in interesting times,” goes the old Chinese curse. Of course, the times that are most interesting to historians may not be the most tranquil or pleasant to the ordinary people living through them. Similarly, the trips that make the best stories to tell in the bar are not the uneventful ones. So it was with our weekend least weekend. Plans were for dinner at the waterfront home of good friends Steve and Jane, followed by a raft-up next night on another part of the river with different friends, an easy three hour trip to the Magothy River from Annapolis. (Three-hour tour? Now I’ve got the Gilligan’s Island theme song running through my head.)

It was rainy and no wind when we left on Friday afternoon, and although the predictions were for clearing skies, we hadn’t seen the clearing yet. But the last several times we’d promised Steve and Jane that we’d come by boat, we’d gotten lazy at the last minute and come by car instead, and this time we were determined to follow through. So we donned our foul-weather gear and headed out – little knowing that the chance of rain was going to be the least of our concerns before the trip was through.

The trip passed without incident until we were north of the Bay Bridge, just the flat gray sky and the flat gray water. In fact, it was somewhat easier than normal because the water levels were up due to flood releases from the Conowingo Dam upstream. The rain was still holding off although it looked ominous up ahead. I picked up the phone to look at weather radar one more time and saw that we had gotten a phone call from friend Chris about the raft-up Saturday night. Unable to hear well over the sound of the engine, I asked Dan to take the helm while I took the phone below to return Chris’ call from the relative quiet of the v-berth, but when I went below … “Dan! We’ve got water!” The forward part of the cabin floor was awash, and the access plates at the base of the mast were floating gently back and forth.

We have three bilge pumps – the small electric “everyday” pump, a manual fallback pump that you can crank by hand even if all power fails, and a gigantic automatic “emergency” pump. Thought #1 – there’s got to be a BIG hole if the emergency pump can’t keep up with this! But we hadn’t hit anything, I was sure of that. We were later to learn that the big pump had never activated. That was both good news and bad news. The good news is we would never have noticed the problem if the big pump had worked. The bad news was, well, the big pump didn’t work when we needed it!

We traded places, me at the helm and Dan below trying to find the source of the leak. Me, I started steering for the shallows. If worse came to worst, I was going to find some water less than 5 feet deep. Hey, a boat that’s aground can’t sink, right? Meanwhile, Dan went through methodically shutting off seacocks to see if he could find the leak. N.b. for other boaters: You know, when you’re sitting in a public bathroom stall, your eye is drawn to any printed matter, whether its graffiti or advertising or [whatever?] We figured, if you’re going to read something, and read it over and over again until you’ve inadvertently memorized it, might as well memorize something useful. So, we posted in our bathroom (head) a floor plan of our boat showing where each of the seacocks is, the locations of the fire extinguishers, and other critical emergency info. This came in useful, when Dan reported that he had shut off all the seacocks he could remember and the water was still coming in. He checked the chart to make sure he hadn’t left anything out and indeed, he had not forgotten any of them. So we were left with an even greater mystery!

We determined that the bilge pumps were able to keep up with the leak, so we continued on, slowly. I had a lesson in the relativity of time: a few minutes is a very very long time when water’s coming into your boat! At least, I assume it was the relativity of time; the other alternative was that (a) the clock broke when the crisis started; and then (b) it magically fixed itself when Dan looked up at me from his position on the floor under the main salon table, big grin on his face and hands dripping black bilge gunk like the creature rising from the lagoon, and said, “Hey, I know where the water’s coming from!” Turned out that a check valve in the bilge pump was stuck in the open position, letting water flow in. The outlet from this pump is normally above water when we’re at rest. But underway, the bow wave is just enough to submerge it and, the broken valve allowed that water to flow in. Time started once again passing at its normal rate as soon as Dan said he understood the problem, and we continued on our route. An hour later we were tied up at Steve and Jane’s dock, the offending valve was removed and awaiting repair in the morning, and we walked up the hill to their house and an excellent dinner and lots of laughter and catching up. If we laughed a little more shrilly and drank a little more than we might otherwise have after our “interesting” afternoon (and didn’t need to drive anywhere), can you really blame us?

Next morning Dan and Steve worked on the valve while Jane and I chatted and compared future plans (more on that in another post) and shortly the valve was declared serviceable again, although it would be replaced when we returned to Annapolis. We had a pleasant one-hour journey across the very protected waters to the other end of the Magothy where we’d meet the other boats for the Saturday raft-up. The first part of the trip, we took turns checking the bilge at three-minute intervals, each of us gleefully reporting to the other that it continued to be dry.

We arrived at the (gorgeous) raft-up spot at the same time as friend Dave was arriving on his boat and determined that although we were smaller, we were also heavier and with a bigger anchor, so we got the honor of being the anchor boat. We would be the only ones in the raft-up to set our anchor; the other boats would tie onto us. I think of this as an honor because by doing so, they are completely trusting to our anchoring skills and judgment to keep all of us safe from dragging overnight. It also put us in the center of the action for the evening’s socializing.

And socialize we did! There were a total of four boats, and the cockpit table barely had room for all the delicious food that appeared from the various galleys. The conversation was even better than the food! It covered the usual boating chatter, anchorages and storms we had known, nautical lore and gadgets we coveted; and it also covered some unique stories of travel and restaurants and congressmen and science and music and history and aviation – an amazing range.

The trip back was also cursed by being “interesting times.” Way upstream at Conowingo Dam, all the water from the floods in NY and PA was being allowed to pass down the Susquehanna to us here in the Chesapeake. The water was thick and brown with sediment, and with the water came flood debris. Dan stood on the bow to better see the flotsam, and directed me with hand signals to pick a zigzag path through the trash. We passed floating propane tanks, a portapotty, plastic trash and flowerpots and two-by-fours and five-gallon buckets, and an incredible number of logs and patches of grass. Sobering to realize that these are peoples’ homes and livelihoods that we were dodging. The three hours that it took us to return home were in their own way almost as harrowing as the outbound trip had been. Finally, though, we returned safely to our calm, sunny slip, hoping for a somewhat less “interesting” … or even downright boring … next few days.

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[photos: (1) Birds finding a new resting spot on a large log in the debris. Note the unusual brown color of the water. (2) This is not the shallows, just a large patch of grass floating just south of the Bay Bridge. (3) Logs in the water near Baltimore Light. All photos by Chris Rizzo. (4) The U.S. Geological Survey measured the river discharge just below the dam (blue line). The vertical 'steps' show the opening of the flood gates, the small triangles at the bottom show the normal discharge for those days. The peak flow was almost 800,000 cubic feet per second, in a more normal year it would be around 10,000.]

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