Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A tough couple of days

We are under way westbound in the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, west of Morgan City, Louisiana. This morning found us docked at the free city dock in Berwick, LA (map), immediately across the Atchafalaya River from Morgan City. We had hoped to tie up at the free Morgan City dock and explore the town a little, but the docks have been closed for repairs for several months.

Vector at Berwick City Docks. Morgan City dock is across the river; US-90 and historic Long-Allen bridges ahead of us.

Sunday morning we got under way fairly early from the Boomtown Casino, since we did not really know what the docking situation would be like in Houma and we wanted to arrive early. We retraced our steps back to the Algiers Canal and continued west on the ICW, where the first thing we encountered was the shiny new floodgate structure and pumping station.

Approaching the flood gate. We'd been warned our compass would swing.

A note on our chart mentioned that the structure emits a strong magnetic field that can affect magnetic compass readings. Since our magnetic compass drives our autopilot, I disengaged the autopilot well before the structure and steered manually. A wise move, as the compass needle literally swung through 180°. Louise captured a short video of it as I conned the boat.

Compass goes wild at Harvey flood gate.

Shortly after passing the floodgates I re-engaged the autopilot and we settled in for a long day in "the ditch." The canal passes an alternating mix of industrial marine infrastructure and vast wetlands, the latter dotted with gas wells and fish farms. Eventually the canal crosses Bayou Lafourche in LaRose, LA, which is a port in its own right with direct access to the gulf and a good bit of offshore service industry.

Our chart showed one marina there, but it is long defunct and there is nothing left of it. With no place to either anchor or tie up, we continued west to Houma. This part of the route is predominantly wetland until the outskirts of Houma, which owes its existence entirely to maritime service facilities and shipyards. On our way into port we passed the steam paddlewheeler Delta Queen, which was towed here from Chattanooga along more or less our same route a year or so ago, and now sits idle in a shipyard awaiting its fate.

Best I could do for a shot of Delta Queen. Click to enlarge.

We had high hopes for docking at the city docks in Houma, which are along a narrow canal in between the "twin bridges" that cross the ICW here. The dockmaster had informed us he had 7-8 feet the whole length of the dock, and we had independent verification that there was at least enough water at the outermost berth, closest to the ICW.

Turning into this canal is tricky because the entrance is under the bridges, in between fenders, in literally the narrowest part of the whole ICW. So the turn must be made with enough time to fully complete it and clear the ICW well before any tows arrive at the bridge. With enough doubt about available depth in the canal, I wanted to be sure that I had not only all that, but also enough time to back all the way back out and clear the bridge fenders if need be.

As we approached the turn we could see that the outermost berth, where we knew we would have enough water, was already occupied with an expensive yacht. Not only could we not have that prime spot, but we'd have to get around him and proceed well into the canal to try a different spot. All made much more complicated in the narrow canal by a good ten knots of wind wanting to push Vector right against the dock or any vessels tied there.

Our view from our cozy spot in Berwick. The US-90 bridge and the Long-Allen bridge behind it.

This stretch of waterway is pretty busy; we'd been passing tows all day. I had a gap of a few minutes ahead of an eastbound tow, and we made our turn. We got just about abreast of the motor yacht before we ran out of water; with the wind threatening to push our 110,000 lbs hard against an expensive fiberglass yacht, I quickly called for astern full and we beat a hasty retreat back into the ICW. By this time I had just a few minutes to get Vector turned 90° and out of the bridges to make way for the eastbound tow.

We motored back and forth twice while I called the dockmaster to ask again about depths. He was clearly clueless. When I inquired about asking the motor yacht to move forward a few feet he allowed that it was stored there, a deal between some local bigwig and the city that was above his paygrade. So really the Houma City Docks are unavailable to cruisers; a shame for anyone who would like to visit.

Our charts showed two other possible options -- a restaurant with a dock, and a fuel company with a dock. Both were closed on Easter Sunday. The restaurant dock looked like it might well be too shallow for us, and with no one to ask, we did not want to risk it. And the fuel dock, while plenty deep, was clearly posted no docking, and, again, no one from whom to obtain permission.

Another view of Vector on the Atchafalaya in Berwick. SP rail bridge behind her.

Reluctantly we pressed on westward, with few options in sight for any kind of reasonable stop. Lots and lots of places where it looks like a boat might be able to pull well out of the channel and drop the hook, but none of those spots had enough depth for Vector. We pulled off-channel four times, and even got the hook down once, but we could just not get far enough away for the tow traffic to safely clear us.

Somewhere in the course of all of this, and I no longer remember whether it was before or after the Houma docking fiasco, we started having DC voltage problems. Our AIS transponder is particularly sensitive to low voltage, and often an early warning sign of problems is the transponder rebooting, which sounds an alarm. The AIS probably rebooted a dozen or more times over the course of the afternoon.

I spent a bit of time troubleshooting as best I could under way, ensuring that the alternator was charging (it was) and we did not have some huge load on either 24 or 12 volts (we did not). I finally concluded it was a problem with the battery bank itself which could wait until we stopped. As long as the engine RPM was in the under way range the voltage was good enough; it only dropped critically low when I pulled back to idle.

We ended up having to go all the way past sunset, to Bayou Black (map), a little-used barge canal off the ICW. It was one of our longest (maybe the longest, not counting overnight passages) days on the water, at nearly 12 hours under way and 71 nautical miles. We had dinner in the pilothouse under way, just as we do on our overnight runs. As soon as we had the hook set we settled in with a well-earned beer.

Even though it was relatively wide, as an active barge canal we were a bit concerned about anchoring. Under these conditions, extra lights are indicated, and the AIS transponder is a critical safety item -- even if we were completely dark, the towboats see us on their displays. Of course, the battery problem did not magically go away, and not long after we shut down the main engine, the AIS started incessantly rebooting.

Train crossing the SP bridge. Inoperative swing span at right. We crossed this bridge on Amtrak's Sunset Limited many years ago.

We ended up just running the generator all night. There was zero load on it when we started it up, since the charger thought the batteries were already charged. We turned on all four air conditioners for the duration to keep the generator from wet stacking. We put as many hours on the generator that night as we normally put on in five days at anchor. At the end of a long, hard day I simply did not have it in me to start taking apart the battery bank to find the problem.

Not long after we anchored, while we were still sipping our beer, a towboat turned off the ICW and up the canal; we recognized him as a pocket tug we had passed in Houma. I called him on the radio to see if he needed us to move, but it turns out he was doing just what we were -- he had a spud barge and they put their spuds down right smack in the middle of the canal entrance. We immediately felt a lot better about where we were anchored.

As if the long day and the battery problem were not enough, the bilge alarm went off while Louise was in the shower. Seems it was time for our biennial shower sump overflow. I spent ten minutes clearing the sump out and getting it working and we opted to clean the bilge out in the morning. Louise kept an eye on the sump while I showered to make sure it was not going to stop up again.

In the calm light of day we considered our options for dealing with the batteries. As tempted as I was to just dive in and start working on them, we realized we were just an hour and a half from the dock in Berwick, and we decided it was a wiser course to do the work there, where we could at least find a way to get parts or help if we needed it. We ran the generator until after we got under way and started it up again before arrival.

Monday morning we weighed anchor and got under way for the Atchafalaya River and the Morgan City area. The ICW connects to Morgan City by way of Bayou Boeuf. In order to manage current in the cut and keep Atchafalaya floodwaters from racing down the bayous, the Corps of Engineers manages a lock in this stretch. Sometimes its open at both ends and traffic just passes through, but they were actually operating the lock when we arrived.

This is the first time we've ever been asked to enter a lock and just hover in the middle, without tying off.  The lockmaster asked us to drive in mid-channel and stop around 100' into the lock. We just sat there station-keeping while they locked us down a few feet, then drove out.

The view astern as we station-keep in the Bayou Boeuf Lock. The gates are closing.

A short while later we came squarely to the very industrial port of Morgan City. The port and the Atchafalaya River are under Vessel Traffic Control and we checked in with them shortly after leaving the lock. Another three-radio day. Fortunately the channels are wide and deep and we had no trouble maneuvering around the commercial traffic.

These jack-up rigs are docked at one of the many service facilities.

I've been looking forward to a stop in Morgan City for some time, so it was sad to learn that the city docks are still not finished after many months of work and myriad delays. Fortunately, Berwick, just across the river, also offers a nice city waterfront with free dockage. Morgan City has power pedestals, though, which would have come in handy with the battery problems.

As are these offshore service platforms. One on the right has a helipad.

After we were securely tied alongside we called the police department to check in, as listed on signage at the docks. They put me through to the person in charge of the docks, and he said he was going to have an officer come by. That never happened, but we felt very welcome at the dock.

Not wanting to run the generator any longer than necessary, I got to work on the batteries as soon as the engine room had a chance to cool down. As soon as I put my meter on the Vanner battery equalizer I discovered why the charger was reporting full but the AIS kept rebooting. There was no voltage on the 24v side and I found the 40a input fuse blown.

Blown equalizer fuse (center) shown with cover removed.

Fuses like this do not blow for no reason, and rather than risk blowing my lone replacement, I continued to the diagnosis of the battery bank. Clearly the problem was in the lower half of the bank, and if one battery had gone bad, it would be found there. Fortunately, this is the easier half to work on. Isolating the three batteries involves removing just two ground wires.

After letting the batteries rest an hour, my battery load tester showed battery number two to be bad. We've been down this path before. I cut that battery out of the bank, and cut the easiest-to-remove upper battery as well so that the two halves would still be in balance. After it was all back together I replace the equalizer fuse and let the uppers recharge the lowers a bit before firing the charger back up.

Bad battery removed from bank, courtesy of a removed connector and some electrical tape.

As long as I had grubby clothes on to work in the engine room I also vacuumed the shower water out of the bilges and got the fans running to dry them while the batteries were settling down. It was blissful to be able to finally shut down the generator.

We found a 15-amp convenience outlet on a nearby park structure and connected it to the charger to finish equalizing and topping up the batteries. And finally we were able to just relax on the aft deck with a beer. (The city dockmaster came by the next morning, and had no problem with our power cord, and even showed us where the water spigot was located.)

With two very hard days behind us, we opted to just stay at the dock another full day. That gave us a chance to relax, and also to sample the only restaurant in town within walking distance of the dock, Bayou Lagniappe, which was closed Monday. It was quite good, actually.

Hole in the wall. And the only game in town. Good thing the food was excellent.

This morning we shove off and headed a short distance upriver past the two highway bridges to the Rio Fuel dock. We took on 600 gallons at a relatively inexpensive $1.97; we still had enough fuel left from our fillup at Paris Landing, Tennessee to make it all the way to Brownsville, but prices are going up so we wanted to load up while it was still below two bucks.

After fueling we headed back downriver to the ICW, checking out of Berwick Traffic at mile marker 99 west of town. Tonight we hope to be docked somewhere at the Port of West St. Mary.

Passing the Cote Blanche Island cable ferry. Important to know that the cables have dropped before crossing paths.

Update: we are tied up at Mr. D's Seafood, a shrimp boat operation in the Port of West St. Mary (map). When we called the port they referred us here, and we have a secure spot for the night for a whopping ten bucks. There is no place else to dock or anchor for dozens of miles. The dock is a bit rough, and 15kt of wind pushing us against it has already put a chip in the paint, so I guess we can call this the first ding.

Vector at Port of W. St. Mary, Big D's Seafood.

Tomorrow we will continue west in the ditch to the Vermillion River. In two or three days we should be in Lake Charles.


  1. Would really like to hook up with two of my favorite DST folks.
    I am in Galveston , TX. Thought I had you in my contacts but realized that was two phones back. Richard J. Conner

  2. I'd never thought about having fuel on board while you were hauled out. But your mention of taking on fuel made me think that must be an aweful lot of extra weight for the slings to have to take into account when being hauled out. Very interesting!

    Thanks Mike Ferrell

    1. It's almost in the noise level. Vector displaces something close to 105,000 lbs "light boat." A reasonable "full" load of fuel for us is 1,200 gallons or about 9,000 lbs. We generally consider our average displacement to be 110,000 lbs, which would be around 800 gallons of fuel. We had 600 aboard at the last haulout.


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