Monday, July 18, 2011

A Series of Unfortunate Events

The BV is closed. Possibly for a week, or longer. Massively Major SNAFU yesterday, thank goodness on my watch (because of course I couldn't take my license test today). Here's what happened, at least as far as I heard, and when I highlight a word, there's a definition at the bottom of the post. There are a lot of ferry specific words, and it bogs down to describe every one. Ok? Go!

So yesterday morning, ferry operator X (name changed to be nice) snagged the low water line under the apron. To fix this, X had to loosen the clamps holding the low water line in place. This took about 45 minutes or an hour, and evidently, X did this while traffic backed up, people were calling in, dispatch was trying to find out if X was ok. Finally X loosened the line enough and was able to get it free from the apron, and it was tightened back up. Crisis averted...?

Awhile later, the boat was running aground on the gravel bar every time X took off from the west bank. This is typical for the summer. When the water level is really low, the boat starts scraping bottom. That's when it's time to dredge. We haven't dredged yet, we're probably a week away. To try and solve the problem of hitting gravel, X decided to let the steering cables (aka winch cables or winch line) out quite a bit. This isn't usually how you deal with hitting gravel. If you tighten up the low water line quite a bit, you would swing further upstream, which usually solves it. But X let out the cables. I learned today that on any winch line, you should always have, at a minimum, 5 turns of cable on the winch. That way, there's enough tension to keep the line in place. The cables on the BV move very slowly. X must have sat on the knob to let out the line for at least 5 minutes. I'm not sure what X was thinking. It just seems very contrary to me. I think X was thinking that with the cables out that far, the boat would swing to the downstream of the gravel bar. Unfortunately, with the steering cables out that far, it put an incredible amount of tension on both the low water line and the baloney. Picture it, cause it's hard to describe. When X let out the steering cables, the boat drifted further downstream. The low water line is downstream, so now the boat pushes on that. The baloney hangs upstream, and I'm sure it was extremely tight.

So X loads a few cars on board, and heads across the river, heading towards the east bank. X must not have been paying attention, because soon one of the people in the cars called X's attention to the fact that the low water line had slipped out. Moments later, someone in a different car hollered that there were big sparks coming from the transformer on the tower. The low water line, because of the tension, had slipped out. It could also have slipped if X hadn't tightened it well enough in the morning. The transformer was sparking because the baloney was breaking. BREAKING. It broke inside the wrapping (the inside broke before the outside) first, which sparked the transformer, then the entire thing broke in half.

So now there's the boat. With no power, and not connected to any of the lines that usually keep the boat in place. Three people, two cars and the operator on board. Dead in the water. The boat drifted about 50 feet downstream and ran aground on a gravel bar. It took 3 hours to figure out how to tow the boat back to the dock to unload the cars.

And now the aftermath. My boss thinks it'll probably be $30,000 in damage and repairs. A new baloney costs probably $6-8,000. New transformer, lots of labor, replace a lot of small parts and fittings that warped from the stress. And some things we haven't even figured out yet. For instance, when the baloney broke, the part attached to the boat fell into the water, where it was hauled out. The part attached to the trolley is still up there, attached to the trolley. However, the trolley is in the middle of the river, since the power that propels it forward was lost when the transformer blew, and we can't drag it along with the boat, since there's no power to the boat. Ideas so far to grab the trolley have included launching fishing line around it, or wrapping line around it with a bow and arrow.

In other words, it's a hugely gigantic mess. The bosses are reeling, us trainees are baffled and a bit scared (what if it happens to me!?). Everyone's pissy and angry. This is the kind of mess I'm terrified that I'll do, because I just wouldn't know better. But I don't think I'd do this. I don't think I'd let out the steering cables like that. I'd be very concerned if the boat ran so far downstream. I'd pay a lot of attention. Still. It's worrisome.

Glossary of terms:
Low Water Line: This is a cable that runs underwater, across the river. It attaches firmly through loops and clamps on both sides of the river, and runs through slots on the downstream side of the boat. We can tighten and loosen the LWL with a winch up on the east shore. The boat follows the course of the LWL, so keeping it tighter or looser is important, and helps you steer and land better.
Apron: The apron is the part of the boat that hits land. It's like, the driveway onto and off of the boat. We can raise and lower it a bit, which helps us to land and take off. Underneath the apron are metal plates, those plates make contact with the ramp. I'm guessing the LWL got stuck on one of the plates.
Dredge: When we dredge, we put a big excavator on top of 4 enclosed barges (enclosed meaning they're solid metal boxes, no opening on top) that we tie together. The gravel is scooped up, then we push the barge downstream, and dump the gravel.
Steering Cable: Picture the ferry as a rectangle. Now, attach a cable to each of the corners of one long side. Take those cables, and run them 80 feet in the air and attach them together to the trolley parallel to the center of the long side of the rectangle. So the cables plus the boat form a triangle. Now make those cables something you can lengthen or shorten, either together or one at at time. Can you see how tightening one cable would make that end of the boat swing upstream? And if you loosen them both simultaneously, the whole boat would move downstream. Does that make sense? They're hard to describe.
Baloney: The oddly named baloney is, in essence, an extension cord. It attaches to the roof of the cabin on the boat, and then runs up to the trolley overhead. There is enough slack in the baloney that it swings down low, sometimes even drooping into the water. The baloney is about as big around as the mouth of a large coffee cup. The entire baloney weighs 1-2 tons. It's extremely heavy, and is deceptive, since from a distance, it appears thin and small and blowing in the breeze. The weight of the baloney really drags us upstream, so the LWL fights that by pulling us downstream.
Tower: There is a tower on either shore, just upstream from the boat. It's basically an electric pole, but very large. The power for the boat is run through the lines on the tower. 
Trolley: The trolleys are little units on wheels, that run along the lines that attach from the towers. They run along parallel to the boat. The baloney and the steering cables attach to the trolleys. Because the trolleys run along with the boat, when they break away from the boat, they're just hanging out there, in the middle of the river, 80 feet up.


  1. The county just got that boat, and X already BROKE it?!?! X needs to go back to swabbing the deck. A lot. With a toothbrush. X's personal toothbrush.

  2. Oh Jenny - I'm so glad it didn't happen on your watch. Poor X - Murphy's Law x Murphy's Law. Poor BV, Poor X and lucky you.