Sailing Past a Navy Freighter
Monday’s sail was canceled due to high winds, a first. Tuesday’s sail presented stiff winds but more easily managed by reefing the main and keeping the Genoa furled.
Longtime civic activist Margaret Fowler brought two friends from Southern California who were visiting Williamsburg so they could experience the excitement of the York River. They had already had enough excitement lately.
“We’re from Ventura, the city actually,” said Karen Nale. “We just went through the Thomas Fire, the worst in California history. Luckily our house survived, but 500 houses behind us were lost. The winds got up to 70 miles per hour, and swirling madly through the canyons.
“We were evacuated at 3:30 in the morning. Some people got out with only their pajamas. Six men stayed behind to see what they could do, and they saved our house.”
Margaret sailed the boat skillfully through an occasional gust. The wind chill was significant but we were bundled up snug.
Her husband Russ picked up the story. “The men tried to use garden hoses, but the pressure was gone. Instead, they pumped water from our spa to save the house. Even before the fires were out, looters showed up. They scared them off. When we got back, we saw the devastation of hundreds of homes reduced to cinders.”
I contemplated briefly the psychic pain of such a scene. Karen said, “We had some friends nearby who sold their house and were all moved out. The fire hit their house on a Monday night, and they were supposed to close on Tuesday. They lost everything.” Russ added, “The charred lot is on the market for $950,000.” He looked at me as if to say, Good luck with that.
Karen said, “Then a few months later came the rains and with it the mudslides. It was very fast. People’s houses filled up with mud in minutes.”
Russ said, “It came with four feet of some people’s roofs, so that’s 14 feet. Because it covered such a wide swath, you couldn’t tell what was beneath your feet. Fireman probed around someone’s back yard and fell through the mud into their backyard pool.”
Karen added, “Weeks later people were still sifting through the mud to find family heirlooms and valuables. I have a friend who found diamond studs by sifting through her mud.”
Off in the distance we saw what looked a cruise ship at the opening of the York River. Slowly it came into view as the SS Cornhusker State, a Naval support freighter that sports three huge cranes to offload at sea. As it neared the York Oil Terminal, I got on marine radio to hail it.
“Navy warship proceeding inbound on the York River, this is the sailing vessel Deadline off your bow by one mile.” Usually someone on the bridge redirects the conversation from Channel 16 to 13. This time was different.
“This is Moran tugboat on a dead tow,” said a clear voice on 16, without redirecting to 13. I responded, “I’m standing off on the south side of the river, out of the channel so you can proceed free and clear.”
Ever so slowly the picture emerged with one tugboat towing this 668-foot freighter on a hawser that seemed to dip from time to time. What we couldn’t see was two more tugs on the starboard hip, holding the ship on the leeward side from side-slipping in the west wind. Without those two tugs, Cornhusker State might veer off and crash into the Coleman Bridge, by now open for transit.
Instead of chugging along at its rated speed of 20 mph, the ship was crawling at 5 mph. What should have been a 20-minute passage through the bridge wound up taking 40 because of the slow movement of the tugs. I imagine traffic on Route 17 was backed up for miles in both directions. As the ship entered the bridge lane, we turned up and sailed home. Only then did we see the second and third tugs on the hip of the freighter.
An hour later I saw the Cornhusker State off in the distance, tied up to the dock at Cheatham Annex. That’s where the Navy trains supply personnel, and the Cornhusker had those three mammoth cranes to do the job. Still, it was unclear why she was stranded mechanically.
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