Friday, May 30, 2014

SOS Call

On Wednesday, we had just finished up what was going to be the last job of the day when we received a frantic phone call from one of our customers. His 15' keelboat was sinking in Harpswell, Maine and he was stuck in Chesapeake. His wife had called him when she noticed the stern sitting low in the water. She, nor any of their neighbors, did not have a dinghy in the water and could not get out to the boat.

We turned the barge around and headed back up in the river. It took us about 15 minutes to get on site and by the time we arrive the cockpit had filled and water was up over the seats. We set to bailing with a five gallon bucket and a hand held bilge pump. It was a tenuous task. We do not like to bring the barge along such pretty vessels. We are big, ugly, covered in mud, and awkward; we can break stuff without even trying. We tried to put David on board so I could get the barge away, but she threatened to swamp and go down. So we had to hold her carefully alongside the barge and bail. Luckily, the wind had died down and it was fairly calm.

30 minutes later she was bailed out, her plug was in place, and the only traces of a near catastrophe were our muddy boot prints.

We earned our acronym on Wednesday. Keep that in mind, SOS doesn't just install dock systems and inspect moorings. We do whatever needs to be done to take care of our people.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Tough Week

Given that we have only taken one day off this month, I do not think of weeks in the normal sense. My scale and frame of reference is all wonky. Most people, more or less, think of a work week (Monday through Friday) plus a weekend (Saturday and Sunday). I, however, am a little more flexible with my definition of a week. A week in my mind is usually 7-10 days with no specific days of the week attributed to it. When discussing my "week" with friends over drinks, it may very well contain two Wednesdays. Or when I tell a customer I am going to work on their job next week, I might actually do it tomorrow. Time looses scale and meaning when specific days fail to hold unique meaning.

It is with this frame of mind that I tell you last week was rough.

We work in very shallow water most of the time. It is not unusual for us to be working in less than two feet of water with one of our sides pinned against a cliff. We beach the barge routinely and purposely. For those of you not familiar with boating, that is not a common practice with a 32' boat. Many experienced boaters would look at us like we are crazy when we drive our barge right up on the beach or push our bow against a ledge. And they would be right, we are a bit crazy, because as a result of our behavior we have to repair fiberglass annually and our propellers look terrible. It is not uncommon for us to ding our props on ledges. My dad boasted 13 prop repairs in one year. Ouch!

We ordered brand new props for the barge and they arrived this past week. I don't think the barge has had new props since it was new in 2008. It has had many many different modified and repaired props but we were excited to put two identical props on our engines.

Three of our old props with one of the brand new ones
David installed the new wheels and then we headed over to the wharf to load up materials to install two new moorings. After loading up gear we took her out for a test run and pointed her towards our job site for the day. Cruising through a channel that is well known for ripping off lower units, at 18 knots, I hit a ledge with my starboard engine.

We ding props at idle. We hit rocks in reverse. We don't hit ledges at speed going through gutways we travel every other day. It was a newb mistake and I paid dearly for it. My prop (less than an hour old) was shredded, I ripped off my skeg and blew a whole the size of my hand in the lower unit.

Brand New Propeller
Yeah it was a bad day to say the least. We limped home on one engine, accomplishing nothing but destroying my gear. The next few days we were forced to work out of the Maritime while I moped over my busted engine.

Luckily (or unluckily) our starboard engine will not die. Last year the powerhead died, but was re-machinable and rebuildable, which David did this spring. A few weeks ago we thought the lower was going to kick it, but it turned out to only be a bad shifter cable. This week I put a window in the lower unit, but David was able to weld it up. So as much as we want to repower the barge, this engine keeps on kicking and we can not justify the expense while we still have "working" engines. I think I might paint an Energizer bunny on it.

Today we were able to work from the barge. David did a nice job repairing the carnage. She isn't digging reverse after the repair and we were only able to get her to 18 knots (21 knots is her usual max speed), but she is still getting us from Point A to Point B in a reasonable fashion.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Lucky Duck Files - Part 1

A proactive duck inspects his equipment regularly. 
A lucky duck inspects his equipment just before it fails.

This mushroom eye is on borrowed time. 

This thimble has already broken, had it collapsed it would have cut through the rope in no time.

This 1/2" shackle is only in marginally better condition than the chain it was paired with.

3/8" chain is tiny to begin with, but that there wouldn't hold my dog

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Emergency Work

Yesterday we had to run across town in the Maritime to perform an emergency repair. The prevailing winds in Maine are out of the south and most of our coves also open to the south, meaning our equipment is usually well prepared to handle winds out of the south. But when the wind flips around out of the north you get to see the true condition of your system.

The wind has been blowing hard out of the north for the last few days and yesterday we received a call from a customer whose float was flapping in the wind. Not knowing exactly what had happened, David and I loaded the Maritime with 200' of 1/2" chain, a 200 pound mushroom, shackles, rope, and all of our other emergency repair materials. It was a rough, soggy ride across town. The wind was blowing 20-25 mph out of the northwest and crossing the mouths of the coves was unpleasant at best.

We arrived on site and, after a quick inspection, discovered that the customer's inward chain to the north had parted and the float and ramp was being pushed hard to the south. Of the four lines securing the float, this was the best possible failure and easiest to remedy. We rolled out some new chain and had the float hooked back up in short order.

The culprit would have been easily identified as a highly likely failure point had an inspection been conducted last season.

We will always do our best to respond to an emergency repair call, but we would rather inspect your equipment before it gets to that point. A little bit of preventative maintenance goes a long way.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Rain Day

Today, marks the end of an 11 day stretch of ramp and float installs. In 11 days we installed more than 50 systems. We even worked two tides in one day, a 7 am tide and 7 pm tide, which was a first for SOS. We would have continued straight through until the end of next week, but today consists of torrential rain and 30+ mph winds. No matter how hard you push and try to work in that kind of weather, the day is only going to end in tears with a bunch of busted equipment and crushed souls. So we are taking a breather to get caught up on things at home.

The last week has been very slow going. While the weather has been warmer, it has still been windy and our highest tide was only a 9.6. Many float storage systems have been designed with 10 and 11 foot high tides in mind and when it comes to clearing a jagged rock, a 1/2 of an inch can mean the difference between a smooth install and more than an hour of jacking and pulling.

The smaller high tides mean we have to get a little bit creative. Here we used pipes to extend the ways. 

 And when lines go missing over the winter, sometimes they require a little search and recovery.

It's been a tough few weeks with a lot of windy weather, but the good news is that the end of the frantic season is in sight. We can now count the installs remaining on two hands. We should be able to finish up the last of our installs by the end of next week. That will be the harbinger of a more peaceful era, Inspection Season. 

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Ramp and Floats 2014

The end of March heralds the mad dash to June. Those of you who don't live in Maine might not be aware that April is the month in which people start to release all their crazy. After being pent up inside after a long, cold, snowy winter everyone is just itching to get outside. The first sign of the sun and the lengthening of days comes with a fanaticism.

To be completely honest, April is a terrible month in Maine. It's cold, it rains a lot, the wind blows, and we usually end up with at least one bad snow storm. But Mother Nature likes to tease us with one or two days of glorious sun and 60 degree temperatures. There is something primal in us that is triggered by those day. You start seeing cyclists braving the gritty roads, gardeners cleaning the dead leaves from their beds, and boaters scrambling to get their boats cleaned up and ready for launch.

Boaters prepping their boats, means it is time for Soper Ocean Services to go back to work. It means the beginning of our busiest season: Ramp and Floats. Outside the state of Maine it is very common to see people trailering their boats; few people have waterfront property and many only take on the expense of storing in a marina if they have a boat too large to launch with their own vehicle and trailer. In coastal Maine, however, things are a little different. We have a huge amount of coastline, meaning many residents live waterfront or have access to the water via a deeded right of way, a public landing, or an association. Mainer's tend to launch their boats and leave them in all season on moorings, accessed by a dock. Maine's coast is covered with thousands of privately owned dock systems that all need to be uninstalled in the fall and re-installed in the spring.

The Ramp and Float season is brutal and short, driven by the tides and weather. Up until 2007, my dad started the season early in April, but then the Patriot's Day Storm hit and ripped out a number of systems that had already been installed. NO INSTALLS BEFORE PATRIOT'S DAY has been one of Soper Ocean Services's few rules to live by ever since. On the opposite end of the season we are bound by our customer's itch to get their boats in the water. Our target is to have all of our systems installed by June 1st.  So, what starts off as 6 weeks to install over 120 systems is quickly shorted by wind, torrential down pours, PM high tides, and mechanical difficulties.

Yesterday marked the end of our first Ramp and Float tidal cycle. While the sun was shining for many of the 8 days, the wind was a constant fight. People who live and work on land have a little different view of "good weather" than those who work on the water.

Last Sunday, a friend declared "Monday is going to be beautiful."
I rolled my eyes and answered "No, it's going blow 20-30 mph."

This is what Monday yielded.

Despite the rough weather and wind we still managed to get four systems installed and get the barge staged for a week of work.