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Sundew officer recalls

Jan 1, 2003

One of the most unusual rivers in the world is the Pine River in Charlevoix County, Mich. It is listed in Ripley's Believe It or Not as being the only river in the world that flows in two directions. That may be stretching the truth a little, for the reverse flow is caused by changes in the level of Lake Michigan, which cause lake water to flow back up the river into Round Lake and thence into Lake Charlevoix. The change in the level of Lake Michigan is in turn caused by a phenomenon called a seiche, a flow of water that results from atmospheric pressure differentials between one area of the lake and another; the lake water actually rocks back and forth like water in a giant bowl. Very subtle seiches cause the Pine River to reverse flow occasionally, and the unsuspecting shiphandler can get into a lot of trouble without realizing it. This reversal can take place over a matter of a few minutes. (When I was in my teens a seiche drained most of the water out of the outer harbor of Ludington, Mich., exposing acres of sand bottom, before rushing back over the beach, drowning two fishermen on the breakwall and washing away lifeguard towers placed well up on the beach.) While the Pine River may or may not be the only reversing river in the world, it may well be the shortest. It consists of two sections. The first section extends from Lake Michigan upriver for only 1,200 feet before passing under a highway bridge and entering Round Lake, which is right in the middle of the picturesque town of Charlevoix, Mich. Leading from Round Lake out into Lake Charlevoix is the second section, just 1,500 feet long, passing under a railroad swing bridge at the Lake Charlevoix shore. For most of its length the channel's sides are steel sheet piling, for the channel is maintained by the Corps of Engineers so that coal freighters can deliver their cargo to a generating plant on Lake Charlevoix. I've often watched, amazed at the exhibition of shiphandling skill, as lakers more than 500 feet long, with no bow thruster, passed through this channel with only inches to spare. Along the north side of the second section of the Pine River is U.S. Coast Guard Station Charlevoix. The dock there is used as a staging area for buoy tenders as they seasonally remove and replace the buoys in northern lakes Michigan and Huron. In 1970, the USCGC Sundew was approaching this dock to load buoys; we were headed upstream, or eastbound, into Lake Charlevoix. This was standard procedure, as the single-screw Sundew was easy to moor port-side to. No one noticed that the river had reversed itself. We made a nice angle into the dock, backed down, and tossed heaving lines to the line handlers waiting ashore. Backing down, however, the stern didn't back to port like it should have. The captain quickly realized what had happened, but the stern line handler did not. While the following current pushed the stern farther and farther from the dock, the line handler ambled slowly along to pick up the monkey's fist. It fell into the water just as he reached it, stretched to its entire length. The ship was by now at an angle of about 35 to 40 degrees to the dock with a bow and after spring line secure, and the stern out in the following current, which was relentlessly pushing against the hull, rapidly increasing our angle to the dock. The captain ordered the spring line eased before it snapped. Now, only a bow line held us. The stern continued to swing until we were about 90 degrees to the dock, when the rudder grounded in a sandy shoal on the opposite side of the channel. Sundew was now wedged between the dock under the bow and a sand shoal under the stern, spanning the entire channel and effectively damming up Lake Michigan from entering Lake Charlevoix. Actually, since Sundew drew 13 feet and the channel was about 18, some water was passing under our keel, but the pressure on the bow and rudder was tremendous, and the situation was embarrassing -- especially for a Coast Guard ship in its own home port. After roundly cussing out the line handler, the captain ordered three mooring lines bent together and led from the after port side bits forward and outboard along the hull to the bow. This was passed ashore and placed well upcurrent. We took a heavy strain on the line with the towing winch, trying to pull the stern against the current. No luck. More strain. Still no movement. Leadline soundings on both port and starboard sides of Sundew revealed a six-inch difference in water depth. Worse, the current had begun to build up a new shoal around the rudder in the loose sand under our stern. Our position became more solid with every passing minute. The captain then requested that the station 44-foot motor lifeboat be used for tug duty. These boats have a lot of power for their size and are fitted with heavy rubber all-around fenders. A 40-foot launch also came out to help. With both boats pushing at full power from the down-current side and near-breaking tension on the up- current stern line, Sundew finally began to move. From the bridge we could see the flagpole at the stern begin to inch along the shore. Some 15 minutes later, movement suddenly increased as the rudder broke free of the sand, and we began to swing back toward the dock. A few minutes later, we were moored with no damage except to our reputations. In the aftermath, around the wardroom table, we talked about what could have happened. For example, if the rudder had not grounded and held our stern, we would have swung hard against the railroad bridge with unknown but certainly unpleasant and expensive consequences. In the end, though, we determined to carefully check the current before mooring at the station again, and after that, we sometimes moored up-current (but downstream), starboard side to, with no problems. Working buoys in the Great Lakes is a challenge, though probably no less so than in most other areas, given the vagaries of weather, current, shoals, etc. It is axiomatic among members of the Coast Guard aids to navigation fraternity that one is, by definition, assigned to work in dangerous waters, among rocks and shoals, because that's where buoys tend to be located. Sundew got crosswise in another channel later in the year, in Cheboygan, Mich., home port of the icebreaker Mackinaw. This time, however, it was intentional. The channel leads inbound SSW from northern Lake Huron straight into the harbor. There are a couple of channel buoys, a can and a nun, located about halfway in. The problem is that the buoys are located on the edge of a narrow channel right on the edge of shoal water, and there is usually a side-setting current and a prevailing crosswind. Working the upwind, upcurrent buoy is not too bad, because the ship can be put alongside with the buoy to port, and the ship worked into the wind and current with rudder and engine, using the tendency to back to port to advantage. (The 180-foot tenders have no bow thruster.) The leeward side of the channel is more difficult, because the ship is constantly wanting to ground on the lee shoal, and the shiphandler has to keep working the ship upwind, in reverse, trying not to drag the mooring out of position or go aground on either side of the channel, which is barely wider than the ship is long. Excellent shiphandling is required, and the captain under whom I served was a master. Capt. Garrett took just pride in his ability to conn the ship in extremely tight situations. To work the lee-side buoy, he simply eased our bow into the soft, muddy channel side and sat, carefully keeping our stern dead into the wind and current, while the buoy crew did their work. The engineer called up to say the strainers were getting clogged with silt, but we were through with the buoy before they stopped up altogether. One of our duties was to supply offshore light stations with fuel and occasionally supplies and personnel. Capt. Garrett could literally conn the ship's bow into a ladder notch in the side of the light structure -- the notches were about one foot wide. Then he would order the helmsman to "steer on the light," ring up slow ahead, and we would pass the fuel hose and supplies over the bow. Capt. Garrett taught me how to work a buoy in my first fall season aboard Sundew. Fall season in the Lakes means all the lighted buoys have to be disestablished and replaced by winter ice buoys. The one he picked for my first was Nine-Mile Point, in northern Lake Huron. Our goal was to switch the lighted buoy for a winter mark and examine the mooring. The buoy lies in about 25 feet of water, with the nearest shoal a mile or more away. No problem, I thought. I approached the buoy on a southeasterly heading with courses to the helmsman, followed at the final approach with two or three rudder commands. I backed the ship down and the buoy came gently alongside the port-side buoy port. The bosun got the snatch line through the lifting ring on the first try, and within a minute our three-part tackle had the six-ton 8 x 26 buoy on deck and the mooring chain in the stopper. This was going to be easy. Hauling in the mooring chain consisted of moving the boom high to the opposite side of the ship, hooking the whip (single cable) to the chain, and hauling away until the whip was two-blocked, dropping the chain in the stopper, and going back for more. But this time, the chain got about halfway up and the winch ground down slowly to dead stop. The chief bosun looked up at me and shrugged. "Too much tension," he shouted. I looked at the captain. "Where's your chain tending?" he asked. Leaning out as far over the bridgewing as I could, I couldn't see it. "It must be under the ship." "So what are you going to do about that?" he asked. "I guess I need to turn her." I was getting humble real fast. But then the answer became obvious. The east-setting current was moving us sideways and keelhauling the mooring chain. We were dragging the mooring sideways across the bottom. "Right full rudder!" I yelled to the helmsman, and gave the engines a shot of 2/3 ahead. Then I reversed engines and killed our way. Another strong shot ahead, and another backing-down. Once more, and Sundew lay docilely alongside the mooring with the chain tending outboard and slightly forward -- ideal. Then I realized that I should have approached the buoy from the east, downcurrent, knowing full well that there is usually an easterly set in this area, especially with a west wind. Of course the captain knew that all along, but he also knew that I couldn't do any serious damage, and would learn a lot more by getting into trouble and then getting out of it, than I would if he coached me every step of the way. Adrenaline inspired by fear has an amazing tendency to etch lessons indelibly in one's head. We were aground one other time while I was aboard Sundew, and this one was the most scary. We were working a buoy just a few miles from our home port of Charlevoix, at a place called Fisherman Island Shoal. It sits in about 15 feet of water marking a very shallow, rocky shoal jutting out into Lake Michigan. In calm conditions this is a difficult buoy to work, but on the day we scheduled it, the weather was marginal, with strong westerlies and a bit of a sea running. The captain decided to try it, and conned us in from open water. Just as we had the buoy alongside, the ship rose on a sea and settled with a sickening shudder. The engineer sent a man to after steering, who reported the rudder post jumping up and down with every wave. Somehow, we had gone aground aft but not forward. The bottom in this area is mostly huge boulders, from a few inches to many feet in diameter. One of them was under our rudder. Instead of backing down, the captain ordered left full rudder applied gently and slowly, and put the engines 1/3 ahead. Sundew swung slowly out into the lake and with a few more bumps, we were free. Again, no permanent damage was done, but a report had to go in to the district office. We ended up working that buoy by getting the 40-foot patrol boat underway from the local USCG station on a calm day a week later. These boats have twin 6-71 GM diesels of 160 hp each, with enough power to drag a small buoy mooring across the bottom. Once the buoy was dragged out into the lake, Sundew was able to approach it and overhaul the mooring. Then, with our quartermasters aboard to position the buoy with horizontal sextant angles, the 40-footer dragged it back on station. We also sent in a recommendation to move the buoy farther offshore. The new class of buoy tenders now being built will be much easier to work buoys with, having dynamic positioning systems, thrusters fore and aft, loran, and GPS, all of which we did without. Still, I miss the old Sundew, where "taking the ground" was a part of the job. Richard K. Hubbard works at the Defense Mapping Agency's Hydrographic/Topographic Center and was one of the editors of the recent revision of The American Practical Navigator (also known as Bowditch).