At the Shore

With nearly imperceptible slowness, the black of night gives way to a featureless, colorless predawn. A faint dull red glow limns the eastern horizon, grading upward into gray nothingness. Little by little, sea and shore emerge from the formless void.

The bright disk of the sun lies hidden for now below the horizon, but if all goes as planned the Earth’s spin will shortly bring it into view. Exactly where is unclear, though, as a high wall of cloud far to sea makes the point of its emergence an object of some guesswork. Anticipation builds as the minutes tick by. As I watch and wait, a high tendril of cloud, invisible a moment before, begins to glow like a thin wire in a hot flame. In seconds the fire spreads until the cloud tops are aglow along twenty degrees of horizon. Moments later, at the exact center of this luminous swath, a white-hot sliver, so dazzlingly bright it seems to pulse, crests the cloud tops and blasts the world with pure light. If life came with a soundtrack there would be a swelling orchestral chorus of Thus Spake Zarathustra right about now.

When on a trip to the shore, it is more or less mandatory to witness at least one sunrise over the ocean. I’m not entirely sure why, but there is clearly no sense in fighting it. Of course for it to count you have to be there from beginning to end. You cannot pop in on the process halfway through or, god forbid, once the sun has already risen, even partially, and call it a win. Because of persistent inclement weather, it had not been at all certain that I would be able to accomplish this modest yet curiously compelling goal, and I savor, in a small way, having successfully done so.

Many people find the idea of sunrise at the beach appealing in the abstract but lack the will to follow through. I regard this as a character flaw. Sadly, my girlfriend is in this category; she slumbers through the entire show, oblivious. But I know her to have many offsetting positive qualities, so she is forgiven this particular weakness.

It seems to be connected to our fascination with boundaries. We are drawn to boundaries, we humans. Over here we have one thing, over there, something else, just beyond our reach, and it is that other thing that calls to us. We want to observe it, walk up to it if we can, stand on its very outermost edge, sample its essence. So it is with sunrise, the boundary between darkness and daylight. No matter how many times we will have witnessed it before, we never tire of the spectacle of night becoming day. And if the opportunity presents itself, we simply must stop what we are doing and behold it in all its transfixing glory, exactly as our forebears had done for ten thousand generations. And so it is with the shore, the boundary between land and sea. Without even understanding why, we feel compelled to stand wonderingly at the edge of our world, gazing toward that other, liquid, world, which our far distant ancestors once inhabited, and which, perhaps, in some vestigial way we still dimly recall.

Thanks to days of hard southeast winds, the shore is a maelstrom of raging surf.  Even at a distance of more than a hundred yards, the continuous roar is loud enough to discourage conversation. The inshore waters, normally a pleasing greenish hue, are presently the color of mud. From our perch nine stories up you can see that this discolored zone stretches far out to sea. Anyone walking the beach is guaranteed to get their feet wet, as waves frequently wash completely across it. In places the first row of dunes are crumbling under the assault, like sand castles left to their fate. Here and there a handful of surfers try their luck. But good, clean waves are few and far between so mostly the surfers bob like corks in the churning waters, paddling furiously to stay upright and pointed in the right direction.

The fierce, unrelenting wind renders flight nearly impossible for the avian multitudes inhabiting the shore. As if in defiance, a squadron of pelicans attempts to fly directly into the gale, barely making headway at great effort before giving up and peeling off downwind. Smaller seabirds don’t even bother; they hunker down and settle in, make themselves as small as possible, heads toward the wind, uniformly spaced and aligned like so many animate weather vanes.

For the first couple of days we were here a thick foglike haze hugged land and sea as the wind howled and heavy clouds streamed low overhead. The world shrank down to a circle just a few hundred yards across, dissolving into the mist at the edges. Some time in the night, though, the wind shifted a full 180 degrees to blow equally hard offshore, lifting the curtain. So the view now stretches unimpeded to infinity.

A previously unseen fleet of tankers and container ships clusters offshore, scattered across many square miles of Gulf. I do a quick naked-eye count and come up with fifteen. Raising binoculars I repeat the procedure and discover three more, missed on the previous count because they are so far away that only their very topmost parts peek over the horizon; the rest lies hidden by the curvature of the Earth, easily discernible now. I experience a pang of satisfaction in confirming the roundness of the planet.

These vessels wait patiently for their berths on the Ship Channel in Corpus Christi to become available. Even under optimal conditions it can take days for a ship’s number to be called. And traffic moves slowly always because only one large vessel at a time may be in the Channel. But high winds and poor visibility had halted traffic for a while, so now there is something of a backlog. You imagine the boredom that must attend this seemingly endless waiting.

Sooner or later, though, the radio always crackles to life, and the boredom evaporates in an instant as the crew springs into action to carry out the thousand and one tasks necessary to put a large vessel into motion. Valves are turned, switches are thrown, buttons are pushed, motors whir, gears mesh, circuits pulse with electrical current. The ship shudders from one end to the other as its massive diesel engine, the size of a tractor-trailer, springs to life with a rush of black smoke.

Within seconds the engine settles at a throbbing low idle, warming up, as the helmsman runs through his checklist. Checking vital functions, he turns the wheel from lock to lock, and in less than a second giant pumps push barrels of hydraulic fluid through conduits the size of man’s leg to servos that obediently swing the rudder, twenty five feet tall and weighing twenty tons, first one way and then the other, through eighty degrees of arc, swirling the water as it goes.

A massive tanker prepares to make the transit. Eight hundred feet and then some from end to end and a hundred abeam, it rides low, almost down to the waterline, so when it reaches its destination it will obviously be offloading at least a portion of whatever hydrocarbon product it happens to be carrying. This ship, like all vessels of its class, will be guided into port by a licensed Pilot, who has been ferried to the ship by a small boat. From the moment the ship enters the Channel until it slides into its berth, the Pilot is, by law and tradition, the Captain. Which is as it should be because he–it is almost always a he–has passed a series of arduous exams in order to legally guide ships through these local waters, which he knows to a level of precision an order of magnitude better than most of us know our own back yards. Right about now he is settling in, beginning the process of safely guiding fifty-plus thousand tons of ship bearing millions of dollars worth of cargo down twenty-plus miles of narrow channel, across waters congested with boats of every size and description. No pressure there.

The Pilot will stand next to the helmsman on the bridge, calling out orders Ahead slow, left full rudder, right rudder fifteen degrees, which are immediately, unfailingly obeyed. At his direction the forward drivetrain is engaged, and a deep, percussive ka-chunk that is felt as much as heard reverberates throughout the ship. The speed of the engine drops noticeably as it adjusts to the load, and a low rumble-whir joins the chorus of sounds as the massive propeller begins to spin. With every rotation, the propeller’s three blades displace hundreds of tons of seawater, and by the third law of motion the force of this displacement thrusts the giant vessel forward with a detectable rush of acceleration.

In minutes the tanker slides between the jetties lining the mouth of Aransas Pass, occupied on this windy and chilly day only by seabirds and a few hardy humans. From the vantage point of the bridge, six stories above the water, an observant person would notice the shore on both sides of the pass curving seaward to meet each jetty. He would also notice the shoreline on the south side of the Pass lying a good two hundred yards farther to sea than on the north side. Observing such a scene, an insightful person might infer, correctly, that the jetties have successfully blocked the predominantly north-flowing longshore currents, as they are meant to, which would otherwise fill the Pass with sand in a very short while.

The going is a little slower than usual as the tanker battles a swift outgoing current. Days of strong onshore winds pushed millions of tons of water through the Pass into the maze of bays, tidal channels, and estuaries that lie between the outer islands and the mainland. But the onshore wind has ceased for the time being, and with the loss of its propulsive energy the enormous fluid mass drains seaward, helped along by the gale now blowing from the opposite direction.

A mile or so into the passage comes the first significant challenge, a sharp left turn where Aransas Pass joins the Intracoastal Canal. The Intracoastal Canal is a very busy waterway, but in the world of navigation might makes right, so smaller vessels are required to yield to the larger. And if any should miss the point they will be met with a warning blast of the ship’s very loud horn.

Because of its great mass, the ship is slow to change direction, so the turn must be initiated well in advance. And with its heavy load the tanker is drafting close to forty feet, only a few feet less than the nominal depth of the channel, so the margin of error is greatly reduced. If the turn is not precisely executed the ship runs the risk of grounding, or worse, colliding with the deep-water docks on the far side of the channel. The Pilot, cool, experienced professional that he is, will betray no hint of stress during this difficult, high-stakes maneuver.

Almost immediately after completing this turn, the ship must negotiate the busy ferry crossing, which runs anywhere from two to six boats, depending on traffic, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. Even though it looks like a collision waiting to happen, in actuality the Pilot has little to worry about. The ferry captains are, as he is, careful professionals, and keep a safe distance until the big ship is well past. Seeing the heavy traffic, people often wonder, quite reasonably, why a bridge has not been built to replace the ferries, not realizing that such a bridge would have to be so very tall, to accommodate the largest ships, that there would not be enough room on the Port Aransas side to provide a proper approach. You’d need a wider island.

Shortly after the ferry crossing, if the Pilot glances left, he might notice a knot of surfers gathered, inexplicably, along the eastern side of the channel. Clad in brightly colored wet suits, they slouch astride their boards, casual but alert, paddling intermittently to maintain position, casting expectant glances over their shoulders toward the big ship. The surfers knew it was coming and have been waiting for it. Because as the ship moves, its enormous bulk displaces thousands of tons of water every second, which generates a massive shock wave three or four feet high that precedes the ship and persists for as long as it is in motion. Conveniently, this wave breaks quite nicely as it strikes the shallows along the edge of the channel. The surfers see the wave coming and paddle to match its speed. Some fail to connect and fall by the wayside right away. One or two manage to catch it and struggle to their feet, only to lose their balance within moments. But there is almost always at least one who finds the groove and keeps it. A skilled surfer may ride this endless, perfect wave for miles, and some do, unconsciously mimicking, perhaps, the bottlenose dolphins continuously leaping and playing in the ship’s bow wave, mere feet ahead of the giant vessel.

After a long straightaway a slight right turn redirects the tanker toward the Corpus Christi Ship Channel, twelve miles away across Corpus Christi Bay. Even though the really tricky part is past, the Pilot cannot relax just yet because the channel is quite narrow, and should the ship stray even slightly it will run hard aground in the surrounding shallow waters, which rarely reach even fifteen feet of depth. He will know he is almost home when he reaches Harbor Bridge, an elegant span arcing a hundred and forty feet above the water. If he glances up as he passes beneath it, the Pilot will see the silhouettes of cars and trucks passing like fleeting shadows over the transparent steel-mesh decking of the roadway. Immediately beyond lies the Ship Channel, seven miles of artificial waterway dredged from the muck of Nueces Bay, lined with industrial facilities and docks, one of which is this vessel’s destination.

If any of crew was thinking about going ashore, they will be sorely disappointed. Unless they are American or Canadian and have the documents to prove it they will be restricted to the area immediately around the ship, an unappealing industrial zone with few if any creature comforts. Since the attacks of 9/11 every major port facility in the United States has enacted heightened security measures. So almost alone among the nations of the world, overturning centuries of tradition, the United States no longer grants shore privileges to foreign sailors.

In a day or so, after the cargo is offloaded, the Pilot will climb back aboard. After he settles in he will direct the crew to activate the ship’s side-thrusters, which will push it gently away from the dock. With the engine at the slowest possible speed, the ship will idle up the channel for a few hundred yards until it reaches one of several turning basins, where it will execute a slow turnaround until it is pointed in the opposite direction, toward the Gulf from whence it came. Departure will be the reverse of arrival. Once the ship reaches open water, the Pilot will officially hand command of the vessel back to its Captain, a small boat will pull aside, the Pilot will take his leave, and the ship will continue onward to its next port of call, waiting somewhere over the horizon.

The fierce winds of the last few days have tapered overnight to almost nothing. The once-raging surf now laps gently, waves just barely breaking as they roll languidly ashore from right to left, one every ten seconds, spending themselves upon the shore with the sound of a five gallon bucket emptied onto concrete before dissolving into the sand with a sibilant whisper. A strip of beach a hundred feet wide, hidden yesterday beneath roiling waters, now lies exposed to the sun. The water is once again a suitable translucent green. Seabirds wheel and soar in their thousands, clamoring noisily, free once again after after days of forced grounding.

Toward dusk a ship emerges from the Pass and heads out to sea. A couple of miles beyond the jetties it finds deep water and turns to a south-by-southeast heading. The engine surges as the helmsman pushes the throttle to “full ahead,” releasing a cloud of black smoke that hangs for a time like a marker before slowly dissipating. The ship climbs to the edge of the Earth and then over it, settling little by little into the sea until only the light at the very tip of its mast is visible. It flickers once, twice, three times, and then is gone.




© 2015 By Scott P. Snell

Right of reuse is freely granted with proper attribution.

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One Comment

  1. What I am doing makes absolutely no sense.
    It is two in the morning and I have just poured myself a glass of wine. Ridiculous! I am lying in my hotel bed enjoying every word…of your blog. A late night search for computer assistance …for my son…who I discover lives several hundred meters from you in his tiny Airbnb , has resulted in a surprise literary discovery.

    You have missed your calling.

    You write with such clarity. I have not read all your posts…yet…but I know when I return home to Australia…soon… I will seek out your blog again. You should publish this work. ‘Short Stories from Austin’… I’d buy it!

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