Saturday, November 17, 2007

FUBAR: Heading south from Turtle Bay

Date: November 12, 2007
Time: 06:00
Position: North 27 41.08 West 114 53.12, Turtle Bay
Visibility: Approx. 1 Mile

It’s raining and overcast. What happened? Last night, the sky was perfectly clear, but the weather is completely different today. The tan, gray and rust colors of the surrounding hills, so crisp in the clear desert air yesterday, are shrouded in fog this morning. It’s as though the weather we left up north has caught up with us while we slept. Most of the FUBAR fleet is already headed out. In ten minutes almost all of them are gone—disappearing into the gloomy mist. The bay is quiet and practically empty. The only sound is the splash of a pod of dolphins, easily visible against the dark, oily calm water. They too are headed out, followed by a lone sea lion.

The crew of our boat, Pacific Escort, is up and moving too. At 06:20 we fire up the engines, weigh anchor and head out past the lobster pots that mark the entrance to Bahia Tortugas and into the fog shrouded Pacific. Jim Leishman and I are on watch. He comments that the air has a distinctly tropical feel to it.

08:25—We are approximately seven miles off of the coast. The fleet is just visible about two miles ahead in the lifting fog. The sport fishing boats, Big Mama and Fish and Game, discuss their estimated arrival time at Thetis Bank—the fishing grounds about ten miles off of our destination, Magdalena Bay. But first, there is 228 miles to cover. We all settle into our sea boat routine.

09:00—I go off watch, put on the sound-deadening earmuffs and take a turn around Pacific Escort’s engine room. Using an infrared pyrometer, I take temperature reading on the two 170-horsepower, turbocharged Lugger 1066 marine diesel engines that serve us so faithfully. All is well, the engine sumps read about 210 degrees Fahrenheit, coolant tanks and turbo charger housings read 190 degrees and the transmissions about 130 degrees. The ambient temperature in the engine room is 115 degrees—I have nothing but respect for the engine-room crews in the old-time diesel submarines and the continuous heat and noise they had to put up with.

09:30—The Betram 46 Live Wire, about two miles ahead of us, reports spotting whale spouts. At 09:50, just 4.5 miles off Pico San Pablo, we see them—two south bound Grays—their dorsal fins hardly visible as they break the surface in a smooth arc. As we pass by, 500 yards to their right, they sound.

10:07—Under a clearing sky with scattered clouds, we see a southbound ship. Our AIS (Automatic Identification System) tells us it’s the cruise ship Dawn Princess—length: 266 meters, beam: 32 meters. Eight-point-seven miles off our starboard beam, doing 19.2 knots—a floating hotel, casino and spa, with plenty of activities to keep its passengers happy. On Pacific Escort, we need no such distractions—the boat and its intimate connection with the sea around us, are more than enough.

11:23—Speed: 8.5 knots, Course: 140 degrees, Weather: sunny and clear, Seas: calm. Location: 15 miles off Bahia Anuncion. I’m in the middle of my daily fight with the SAT phone, trying to upload some text, when a big pod of dolphins changes course and heads our way. Several swim along in our bow wave for a few minutes, then they’re on their way.

12:40—We receive a call from the motor yacht Robin Lee over the VHF—located about two miles in front of us. They have lost hydraulic fluid from the steering system and have used up all their spare hydraulic fluid replenishing it. They cannot steer the boat manually and the autopilot is only working intermittently. They do not have an emergency tiller. You are only as good as your backup.

Coincidentally, the ocean is so calm that James and Eric, intent of doing some joy riding, have just launched the tender. Jim Leishman calls around to the other boats in the fleet and manages to locate several different kinds of hydraulic fluid, but a SAT phone call to PAE’s commissioning manager back in Dana Point reveals that only the specified hydraulic fluid should be used in the system. Fortunately, the sport fisher Robin Lee has spare fluid and a hand pump that’s needed to pressurize the system. She heads our way at 20 knots and Eric and James, in the tender, race out to meet her. At 14:40 the equipment is handed off and they head for the waiting Robin Lee. Robin Lee’s crew is able to replenish and pressurize the system and continue on to Magdalena Bay.

260 39.85 North Latitude
1130 59.54 West Longitude
Course: 145 Degrees (True)
Speed: 7.4 Knots
Visibility: Unlimited, a few scattered alto cumulus clouds

17:40—Jim and I are back on watch. The 15:00 to 18:00 watch is a good one: Everyone on the boat is active and social, anticipating dinner. It’s not unusual to find the entire crew in the pilothouse watching the sunset. It’s a great one this evening. We might even see the green flash—that small streak of green that appears on the horizon just after the sun sinks below it. We aren’t that lucky this evening, but the sunset still is spectacular, with Venus and the new moon appearing. Another school of dolphins appears, criss-crossing our bow in the last light of the day. Dinner tonight is steak and the last of the lobster James bought in Turtle Bay, followed by a movie.

24:00—Welcome to fish talk! I come on watch and in the darkness count the navigation lights of 17 boats, scattered over the ocean from horizon to horizon. It’s an impressive sight. The chatter on the VHF is mostly about tomorrow’s fishing off the Thetis Bank. James and Eric have been fishing all day and we plan to be there as well, so Jim gradually alters our course to put us west of the fleet.

At 02:00 Jeff and Jay relieve us and I head off to bed. It’s amazing. I brought a novel to read in the off hours, but between watches, learning to run the boat, social activities and what entertainment the sea has to offer, I’ve hardly had time to look at it.

--James Kirby, aboard Pacific Escort, headed south

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