Incident at the Crossroads

By Tom Neale, 2/8/2007


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Tug pulling dredge and pipes, with smaller tug assisting (aft of the dredge).
I could barely hear it over the chatter on VHF Channel 16. A tug was calling a “securitee” and I thought I heard the word “Crossroads.” That’s where we were heading. It’s a bad place to have a problem with commercial traffic—or any other kind of traffic.

The “Crossroads” is that portion of the ICW in Florida where the St. Lucie River flows across the ICW channel on its way to and from the ocean through St. Lucie’s Inlet. As you go through the Crossroads on the ICW, you can look eastward and see the Atlantic. This inlet is shallow and subject to constant shoaling. Often seas break all the way across. Local people who know what they’re doing and who have appropriate boats for it may use it in safe conditions. But as I glide by in the ICW I’m usually glad I don’t have to go out that inlet. But it isn’t the inlet alone that makes the Crossroads a problem.

The Crossroads is a problem because a huge amount of water flows across it, going to or from the ocean, depending on the state of the tide. The current is very swift, and as you make your way through, it will pull you toward one side or the other unless you take bearings on aids to navigation, both in front of and behind you, and unless you know how to “crab” to keep from drifting sideways. The Crossroads, because of what it is, is plagued by shoals. Frequent dredging is required to keep the ICW channel open. A lot more water flows from the inlet to the St. Lucie River and back than flows up and down the ICW. What this means, is that if you allow yourself to be pulled just a little out of the channel, you’re usually aground on hard sand with current ripping around you, pushing you farther up on the shoal, and digging sand out around your keel so that you often become even more tightly aground as the minutes tick by. Light planing boats don’t notice this as much, but displacement hull boats are very vulnerable.

So I listened intently to try to hear the tug again. I had the second VHF on Channel 13, and I hadn’t heard the call there. We keep the second set on 13 much of the time because this is the “bridge to bridge” channel that commercial vessels usually use. Knowing what they’re doing up ahead has saved us many a bad time over the years. And being able to instantly communicate with them on that frequency to discuss a passing or how to stay out of their way is invaluable. But, to avoid clutter on this critical channel, VHF radios default to one watt, so you can’t hear boats far away. Some sets allow you to temporarily over-ride the one watt, and this is important in emergency situations. But we were close enough to hear the tug even on Channel 13, and even if it were a one watt broadcast, and we heard nothing.


1. There are FCC regulations governing use of the VHF and we should all know and follow them. It’s not just a matter of “doing good,” it can be a matter of saving lives.

I called on 13 for the tug approaching the Crossroads issuing a “securitee.” There was no reply. I called on 16, asking that the tug switch and answer on 13. No reply. I waited a moment and called again on 13 and he came up. I told him that I was a southbound motorsailer approaching the Crossroads, that I’d heard his “securitee” but that it hadn’t come through clearly, and asked him to say it again. He clued me in, obviously glad I had responded.

He said that he saw me, identifying the island to my east. He told me that he was approaching the Crossroads pulling 1,000 feet (as in one thousand feet) of dredge pipe. Dredge pipe is sections of very heavy pipe through which dredging companies pump sand and mud toward a disposal site. When in use it’s usually submerged lying on the bottom. When being transported or rearranged it’s usually floating on the surface, one section connected to another, in a very long and dangerous snake trailing behind the tug. Often another tug brings up the rear to control that end, and sometimes small tugs are stationed to push or pull between the rear and the front of the train, just to try to keep things under control. Tangling with a section of dredge pipe can be fatal to many boats. Tangling with 1,000 feet of dredge pipe—forget it.

But this tug wasn’t just pulling dredge pipe. His intentions were to get into the Crossroads and turn the pipes around, making a huge circle of dredge pipes with a 1,000 foot diameter. This could consume the entire critical waterway junction. If one or more of the pipes got away it could be disaster for the St. Lucie River/ICW junction and any boat in it. I’ve seen thousands of feet of pipe on the loose and it’s not pretty. And even if the tugs kept the circle of pipe strictly under control, there wouldn’t be room in the Crossroads for a boat our size to safely pass.

The tug captain told me that he was getting ready to begin the circling, and asked me if I’d mind slowing down until he completed the operation. The tide was ripping out to the sea, carrying me with it toward the intersection in an almost overwhelming grasp. The wind was on my stern, whipping along at 20 to 25 knots. I thought I could make it through before he clogged the Crossroads, and I knew I couldn’t back down against that tide and wind and hold in place as could a boat with twin engines do so easily. And I knew that there are many tug operators who don’t understand the problems of a long keeled single screw motorsailer holding in place, with current and wind pushing it on. But there was no way I’d take the chance. I told him I was going to do whatever I could to hold in position.

Working dredge with pipes. Small tug is standing by.
We reversed against the tide putting the rudder hard over to bring the stern near a green day marker—but not so close as to run out of water. This gave me some room in the channel to try to get my bow around so that I could do my waiting powering into the tide and the wind. Bringing the bow around against those two forces wasn’t easy, and we were being swept sideways toward the intersection and the shoals at an alarming speed as we tried. But a combination of thrusts on the bow thruster and hard thrusts forward against the hard-over rudder finally did the trick before we were on the shoals.

I called the tug, told him I’d had to turn around and couldn’t see him well and asked him to tell me when he was clear. Two smaller tugs joined in to help control the pipes. Finally he called me and said he was heading back out with his pipe train. We turned the bow back in much the same way, and headed through without problem.

This is typical of many everyday events on the ICW and in other water ways. If you don’t know what’s going on ahead, and if you don’t communicate with the other skipper, and if you don’t know and follow the Rules of the Road, a nice day can very quickly turn into disaster. And of critical importance in all of this, is that we have to pay attention to at least Channel 16 VHF, and preferably 13 also. Listening to music or turning the sets off to “get rid of all the idiotic chatter” may be appealing. But it could mean losing your boat and maybe a life or two. And we have to keep these frequencies clear except for authorized traffic. I just listened to somebody from New England trying to make a marina reservation in South Florida on VHF 16. He’d come all the way down and still hadn’t figured it out. This is frightening. And I hear people say they don’t need the VHF anymore because of cell phones. These are great, but they don’t even come close to serving the purpose of standing watch on VHF.

Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale