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Downhill Racer Page 2

At Sea — April 2000, Part 2
At Sea — April 2000
By Capt. Bill Pike

Downhill Racer
Part 2

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• Part 1: Downhill Racer
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"I guess most people don't realize just how strange or odd it looks the first time you see it," he says, referring to the scene one beholds when the sedate handling characteristics of a huge, fully loaded commercial vessel are summarily swapped for the dynamics of a slip-sliding amusement park ride. "What's weird is, day or night, everything you see around you begins to move in a funny or slightly skewed way--all the trees and buildings and lights on the sides of the river. Hey, I've been doing Algiers Point and places like it for a few years now, but the experience never ceases to make me just a bit queasy."

There are a couple of theories that explain the sensation. For my money, the most reasonable one holds that, in a fast, dramatic turn, the normal parallax associated with simply going down-river--with trees and other objects in the foreground moving with consistent relation to trees and objects in the background--is somehow warped by the addition of a second parallax, this one coming from the rapid sideways slide of the vessel across the river. Another theory maintains that the complex behavior of a big vessel in a dramatic turn alters its pivot point and other ship-handling parameters so much that, for many skippers, the vessel begins to feel subtly disorienting.

Whatever the reasons for the visual weirdness, the underlying problem is not just one of perceptual skew and the mental disarray that can temporarily result from it. A more fundamental fact is that such handicaps are exacerbated by steering con-ditions that are way less than perfect. While upbound boats actually gain maneuverability from the push of current (thanks to faster water flow over their rudders), downbounders lose maneuverability, not only because of reduced rudder effect but also because backdown power is weaker than forward propulsion. Thus, steering a big, downbound vessel through a turn like the one at Algiers Point, with the current alone carrying you along at 5 or 6 knots and little chance of stopping or even slowing down, often calls for such boat-handling subtlety and grace that it's as much an art form as what Van Gogh used to do on canvas.

Of course, luck can sometimes be a factor, too. Several years ago, while I was working on ocean-going tugs that regularly visited ports on the Mississippi, I witnessed a close call that emblazoned Algiers Point in my mind forever. I was an able-bodied seaman at the time, and one of my jobs was to act as a lookout. During a cold night in early spring, I sat in my little, multiwindowed crow's nest on the bow of our barge, peering forward into the dank murk. We were just approaching Algiers Point upbound when I spotted the running lights of a downbound tug-barge combo ahead. But no sooner had I radioed this info to the mate in the wheelhouse--a little fireplug of a guy named Bollard Bob--than the starboard light of the tug disappeared altogether, an odd event that scared me. Had the light simply gone out? Was the tug-barge combo turning? If so, where?

Bob's voice on my radio soon answered these questions. He'd just had a fast, frantic talk with the skipper of the downbound tug, which was being set sideways so vehemently by the current above the point that the whole rig was now sweeping towards ours broadside at an alarming rate. While the skipper was attempting to recover from this development with a hard-over wheel and all the horsepower he had, the level of visual chaos and disorientation he must have been dealing with is scarcely imaginable. But luck was with him, I guess, because after a few dire moments, nerve and talent prevailed, and with a slight assist from a fluky eddy or perhaps his guardian angel, the man regained his side of the river and passed us port to port.

"Shoot," Bollard Bob joked afterwards, a little shaken; "I bet for a while there that poor son of a gun was so balled up he thought he was runnin' the IMAX theater `stead of the Mississippi River."

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This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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