Dodging Bullets from Every Direction

Dodging Bullets from Every Direction
Aerial view of tanker-barge collision (USCG photo).

"Easy on the throttle pal," I said to my son Hunter, who at the time was much younger and much less experienced at driving a boat. "These things don't have brakes and this little tunnel hull can have a mind of its own in sharp turns," I explained. Sure enough, within seconds we found out just exactly how fast you can get in trouble as a tricky section of the canal ate his lunch and we beached the boat. No damage, nobody got hurt, and we ended up wiser for the experience. I did however file it away for future use and I must say it comes in handy when he gets a little "big for his britches" so to speak.

Just recently we discussed our little incident while talking about the potentially catastrophic ship and barge collision that took place in late January near Sabine Lake. "I can only imagine what driving one of those big ships is like," said Hunter. "That has to be scary and awesome at the same time."

"Can you imagine trying to get one of things stopped?" I added. "All that weight and no brakes make for a tricky combination."

On January 24th the 807-foot tanker, Eagle Otome, collided with the towing vessel, Dixie Vengeance and her two barges, in the ICW on the northwest side of Sabine Lake. Nearly a half million gallons of crude spilled into the channel and put local industry on lockdown as all traffic along the busy waterway was halted and began to back up all the way into the Gulf where other ships waited to use the channel.

During the following hours and days, an incredibly massive cleanup effort was launched using twenty-seven skimming vessels and nearly 60,000 feet of floating oil boom. Two crucial factors played a major part in keeping this spill from wreaking serious destruction on surrounding waterways and marshes.

Most important was the location of the collision and spill. If a spill had to happen on Sabine, this is probably one of the best places it could have occurred - in the channel away from the main body of the lake and fragile estuary habitat. The other critical factor was the incredibly quick response by the local, state, and federal agencies. The amount of people and equipment that descended on the spill in such a short time certainly kept it in check and prevented what could have been major damage.

I know many of you who read this column have probably been on Sabine Lake and witnessed these huge ships come and go where the Neches River meets the ICW. The expansive flats near that area are favored haunts of winter wade fishermen. I have watched these giant vessels navigate the big bend in the river countless times and marveled at the skill it must take to do this without just burying one in the surrounding shoreline. Same goes for the pilots who run the Houston Ship Channel; I just can't imagine their skill or the pressure they feel when underway.

Had this collision and spill taken place anywhere near the mouth of the Neches River, or farther up the Neches instead of the protected waters of the channel, we would have been in a world of trouble. Fragile areas of marsh that are the lifeblood of Sabine Lake would have been devastated. I hate to even entertain those types of thoughts but when you see a situation like the one we just experienced, it really makes you realize just how fortunate we are that it has not already happened.

Now at this particular moment we don't know exactly how this spill will affect Sabine but all indications so far are good. As of this writing nearly 300,000 gallons of the spilled crude have been recovered and each day that number grows. Hopefully all of the oil will be removed real soon and the long term impact will be nothing more than the memory of a close call.

Speaking of close calls, Sabine Lake and Calcasieu (for the most part) dodged a major bullet from sub-freezing temperatures recently. The extremely low water temps caused major concern for folks all along the Texas coast, especially our friends to the south who are lacking deep water shelter that we are so fortunate to have. The deep freeze finally subsided and things appear to have returned to normal. The trophy trout guys have been ecstatic since the freeze as the fish have just gone on a tear, eating up everything in sight. The warm days following the fronts have really produced some nice stringers of quality fish.

In the meantime other anglers on Sabine Lake will begin to branch out a little from the single-minded pursuit of trophy trout and add some flounder and black drum to their menu. The coming weeks are some of the most anxiously awaited of the year for folks with more on the brain than big trout. Flounder fishermen will set up in the passes and begin to probe the marsh drains and shorelines as the flounder begin to show up in full force. Likewise the folks with the heavy tackle and desire to pull on a bigger fish will head for the jetties and soak cracked crab for monster black drum and bull redfish. Still others will begin to stroll, drift, and dredge the big reef at the Causeway for speckled trout and redfish while enjoying a dry boat instead of wet waders. The options for spring fishermen will increase as fast as daylight savings time and only get better as the days warm up.

I'm still not sold on the idea that we will not get another bad cold spell this winter; it's just how we roll in Texas. Historically, February brings some of the nastiest weather of the year and after an exceptionally cold December along with dodging that fish-kill bullet in January; all bets are off until we have winter in the rearview. It seems we always get at least one more cold one just before Easter, even if it's short-lived. We always laughed that the ladies at church got dressed up in new Easter dresses only to have to cover them with an old winter coat. As far as the weather goes; "Hang on, it's Texas."