Thursday, December 15, 2016

Fogbound in Crescent City

We are anchored in New Orleans, or more specifically, Algiers, in the New Orleans General Anchorage (map). We are downriver of downtown, and just across the river from the historic Chalmette Battlefield.

The view from our anchorage this afternoon, as the steamboat Natchez, left, and a bulk ship, right, passed us on either side. The bulker dead ahead is anchored.

Shortly after my last post Monday evening we dropped the hook at the Upper Grandview Anchorage on Grandview Reach (map), in fading daylight. We anchored abreast of a large bulk cargo ship, the Helvetia One. Ashore was a small dock with pair of workboats that service river traffic; just before we turned into the anchorage we chatted with a river pilot on an upbound cargo ship who offered to put us in touch with them if we needed anything ashore, one of myriad nice gestures we've experienced on the river. I'm sorry I did not copy down his association number.

Our view at the Grandview anchorage as the fog lifted. The ship was too long to entirely fit in my picture.

Speaking of which, here on the deepwater section of river, the pilots call and answer the radio by number, rather than the name of the vessel they are piloting. So a giant tanker like the Overseas Texas City might call on the radio thus: "Vector, this is 97, I'd like to see you on two whistles."  This is more than a little disconcerting until you figure out what number is on which ship. We soon learned to make a chart as we listened to other calls. Pilots come from several different pilots' associations, and the number is sometimes preceded by a modifier like Federal, Crescent, or NOBRA. One of the NOBRA pilots chatted me up on the radio about Vector, only the second person to do so in 850 miles of river.

Leaving Grandview astern. You can see the dock ashore and our other neighbor, an ATB upriver of the Helvetia One.

We had a pleasant night there, but the lights and powerplants of the nearby ships meant it was neither dark nor quiet. In the morning we woke to a blanket of fog over the river, which kept us in the anchorage for an extra hour or so in the morning. Fortunately, we were just 54 miles from our destination here in New Orleans, the entrance to the Industrial Canal.

Approaching the Sunshine Bridge.

That 54 miles has been, bar none, the busiest waterway we've ever navigated, and that includes the Port of New York. In addition to the unending parade of linehaul towboats with tows upwards of 30 barges (the largest we've passed on the river is 49), we're now dancing the tango with hundreds of harbor tugs conducting fleeting operations and doing pas de deux with deep-draft cargo ships. We have to listen to two radio channels at once, which are often both blaring simultaneously, and more than once I've been talking on one radio while being hailed on the other. I was so busy in the pilothouse that I had time for nothing else, including snapping pictures of some of the landmarks along the way.

Approaching the Luling bridge.

After completing our mandatory check-in with Vessel Traffic as we passed the Harvey Lock, I called the Industrial Lock on the phone, hoping beyond hope that they might be open or at least have an estimate for when they would open. Sadly, they gave me the exact same answer I've heard for days: closed, with no estimated opening date. Worse, they told us we could not use the small dock where pleasure craft normally wait unless and until the lock was reopened.

Approaching New Orleans and the Crescent City Connection bridges. Two paddlewheel cruise ships, America and Queen of the Mississippi, are docked here.

We were prepared for that answer, and proceeded another two miles downriver to the General Anchorage. At 50' deep and just off the main channel, it's less than ideal, but at least it is a legal place for us to stop that is still within striking distance of the lock. There's a fleeting operation along the bank here; we dropped the hook as close to shore as we could get without being uncomfortably close to them, or so we thought.

There's a long story here that's more appropriate over a few beers than in a blog post; suffice it to say we ended up moving around the anchorage three times. We were right to be where we were (confirmed by Vessel Traffic), but we didn't want to be dead right. The last movement was at midnight, when a 600' ship needed to squeeze into the anchorage as fog closed in on the river.

Steamer Natchez passes us close aboard. He's steaming through the anchorage; the shoreward edge of which has become a de facto (but not de jure) channel, which led to some conflict with a fleet operation, seen behind him.

That fog ended up closing the river entirely at Algiers Point, just upriver of us, a short while later, and we had a very quiet night. This morning tows and ships were lined up anywhere and everywhere on both sides of the closure; the river did not reopen until after lunch. While the closure itself did not affect us, there was no way we were going to try to make our way downriver in that kind of fog, especially with so much traffic stacked up.

In the course of all the moving around last night, I spoke with the shift supervisor at Vessel Traffic three times (three different people; we managed to catch two shift changes). During one of those conversations, I learned that the Industrial Lock was planning to open today, information the lock itself had been unable to provide. Sure enough, a bulletin came out late in the day to that effect, stating the lock would open for traffic at 6pm this evening.

Passing downtown. Riverwalk Mall at left, and the Hilton Hotel where I spent way too many nights over a period of a decade. World Trade Center toward the right.

All's well that ends well, and with that news, we decided to remain right here, even after the fog lifted, and try to get through the lock tomorrow. If that goes awry for whatever reason, we still have just enough time to go around the long way. When they started taking names this afternoon for spots in the lock queue, the queue filled up to 17 spots in a matter of minutes. That's a full day of lockage; the lock opened at 6pm today but anyone requesting lockage by then would be waiting until sometime tomorrow night. Fortunately, pleasure craft are locked through in the leftover space behind commercial tows, so we don't wait in the same queue.

The river was extremely busy this afternoon as the backlog in both directions cleared; it's finally calmed down to the point where the radio (we are monitoring four separate channels now) only cackles once every couple of minutes. With any luck we will not get any calls tonight, and in the morning we'll motor hard the two miles upriver to the lock and wait for a gap to squeak through. That could be minutes or hours, but we are hoping to be in Lake Ponchartrain by the end of the day.

Passing Jackson Square and the Jax Brewery.

With a whole day at anchor and unable to leave the boat, I took advantage of the downtime to effect a critical repair. On our cruise from Baton Rouge Monday, the autopilot lost its position input. That did not affect its operation, but it caused alarms on instruments downstream that were getting their data from the autopilot. Some initial diagnosis under way indicated that the serial port in the autopilot itself might be to blame, which meant the autopilot would also not be able to accept commands from that input, which is a critical backup to the main command input.

Today's project confirmed the diagnosis. Sadly, the board containing this port is not repairable; the defective part is probably a $2 opto-isolator or UART chip. Replacement boards are also not available, not that one would be cheap. We had bought a whole used unit a couple of years ago as a backup, and I ended up swapping it in and reprogramming it today. The take-out will become the emergency spare; it's still usable in a pinch with only one (of two) working serial ports.

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