I had the good fortune of traveling abroad just after the Thanksgiving Holiday to visit a place far, far away. Well not so far, only about 3,000 miles as the “Continental” crow flies.
The missus and I took a flight from Newark’s Liberty International and landed in Shannon, Ireland after a 6 ½ hour flight. Although a bit “jet-lagged”, my wife and I proceeded to engage in a perilous endeavor. I was driving on the wrong side of the road for the first time.
It wasn’t as daunting as I had imagined and with a couple of cups of airport coffee and a scone for good measure we set off to drive down into Cork County and settle in at our hotel in a village called Midleton.
Luckily, I had caught a bit of sleep on the plane and I was negotiating the roadways of the Emerald Isle without any real difficulty. The roundabouts were at first a challenge, but no more so than driving Rt. 95 on a weekend in Jersey. With the missus as my co-pilot we made the 3 hour trip to Midleton. We only made a few minor navigational errors and managed to arrive safely.
Prior to leaving on our holiday I had contacted the Port Commisioner’s office in Cork City through their website with the hopes of having a look at the tugs working in the second largest natural harbor in the world and maybe chat with my counterparts and compare notes. I received a reply from Captain Paul O’Regan inviting us to do just that. We made arrangements to stop in the Customs House in Cork City on the Monday following our arrival and have a chat and coffee. We met with Captain O’Regan and Captain Noel Fitzgerald of the VS Tug Gerry O’Sullivan.
In this day and age of Homeland Security precautions, TWIC cards and red tape, both my wife and me were invited to join the crew of the VS Tug Gerry O’Sullivan for their next tow on Wednesday. No ID cards, bloodwork or body cavity searches required.
A ship was due to arrive and discharge at the Conoco Phillips facility in Cobh Harbor (pronounced Cove) on the morning tide and we gladly accepted the invitation and kept in touch for the next day or so.
On Wednesday morning we arrived at the Cobh Heritage center and parked behind the gates. The master had yet to arrive and we were welcomed aboard and chatted with the Bos’n while we were awaiting the Captain’s arrival. Captain Fitzgerald showed up and gave us the “nickel tour”. A coffee, some introductions and then underway.
The crew consisted of the Master Noel Fitzgerald, Chief Engineer Panos Karousos, Bos’n Killian O’Brien and their wheelhouse trainee Gerry Moran.
With 4,000 bhp, clean modern lines and tight quarters, the Gerry O’Sullivan is a Voith-Schneider twin drive tractor tug, she is also a “day boat” . The crew spreads themselves among the work vessels that are under the control of the port. They could be assigned to any manner of work boat for their tours that might include drag operations to smooth the bottom, or maybe tend navigation buoys, to manning tugboats. Shore-side work is also in their job description. They are each a “Jack of all trades”. Their tours last two weeks on and off, they are on call as opposed to living on the boat. Trainees for the wheelhouse are on their own time until they are qualified and licensed to handle the boat. Not too different from the way we did it in the past. We call it “hamming”, or “ham and egging”.
The tow; To say it was impressive is an understatement, I’ve never experienced such a nimble boat.
(a VS tug in Antwerp, Demonstration This video is of a similar tug, there are some configuration differences but the maneuvering is the same. The fun stuff starts at the 12m30sec mark ).
We flanked away from the wharf and quickly turned within a boat length, the stern no more than one or two meters from the wall. The Gerry O’Sullivan easily turned on a dime and steadied so quickly it could have been on a track.
The G.O’s sea keeping quality wasn’t that much different from a conventional tug. As we approached the harbor entrance the ride was, let’s say, a bit lively. The tug isn’t really suited to coastal towing but then again their work is primarily ship docking. It handled the 2-3 meter swells well enough, it wasn’t uncomfortable considering.
As we met and escorted the ship from Roches Point Light, another tug was tethered to her stern to provide arresting capability in case of a steering casualty. The harbor is large but there is a tight entrance channel that requires a dead-on approach.
The pilot kept her neatly on the ranges and he had little traffic to worry about, only a naval vessel that was outbound for sea that met us when we cleared the narrows.
The docking was going to be conducted during the last hour of the incoming tide and as we approached, the G.O. approached the starboard bow and put up her working line. The method for assisting the ship with a tractor involves turning “stern to” the work. That is, we approached the starboard bow with the stern of the tug. This places the forward mounted drives in the best position for maneuvering during the job.
The line used for assist work is a heavy 9″ circ. samson braid hawser pennant attached to a smaller diameter but stronger synthetic main line on the drum. The deck gang on the ship has to winch it aboard mechanically. Once secured, we ride the ship until the pilot slows for the approach.
Of note is the way the tug will work alongside. The pilot orders the G.O. to back the bow, the tug backs away quickly and while doing so a substantial amount of hawser is deployed to the length of about 200′. This allows the tug to apply force without eating its own “dirty water” or better known as “quickwater”.
At first I thought the brake had failed until I realized the Bos’n was handling the controls. Deploying and retrieving the slack is handled by the Bos’n who takes up station alongside the helmsman after the line is sent up to the ship. Conventional tugs in the States don’t usually release that kind of slack when docking a ship. We tend to stay snugged up. Captain Fitzgerald explained that the added slack allows the tug to exert her force without overloading the line vertically, the longer lead gives the tug clean water to work in and ensures the line won’t let go from excessive downward force. Smart.
It all happens very quickly, when the pilot asks the tug to back, the drives are reversed , the throttles are increased and the brake on the drum is released so slack can be powered out at the speed of the tug’s sternway.
I didn’t anticipate how fast our helmsman (Gerry) would back away from the ship. With no lag time for clutches, (because there aren’t any)forward to astern happens in the blink of an eye. The change of thrust overcomes its former motion quickly. The Bos’n matches the speed of the winch with the tug’s motion and secures his brake as the throttles are reversed and sternway is reduced to “fetch” into the line. Once set, power is applied and the boat can swing whichever way is required to apply the necessary force to oblige the pilot’s request. When the pilot calls for “ahead easy” the tug closes its distance to the ship as the line is winched in as fast as it went out. In a flash we’re snugged up “stern-to” the ship and pushing her toward the berth.
It went as I expected, no fanfare, professional, boring. Just the way we like it. Our trip back to the dock was bright and sunny. We told tales and compared work. We discussed licensing and training. It seems tugboat men are the same all over, ribbing each other, tall tales and good humor. The men of the G.O. were just as curious about how we worked in the States as I was with their operation. A brilliant experience, I can’t thank the crew and Captains Fitzgerald and O’Regan enough.
I know, a tugboat ride on my vacation, one of the few times I wanted to be on a boat on my time off.
I wrote this as a story about a fun day and some detail of how these men work a V.S. tug. I didn’t intend nor do I wish to go into a deep analysis of how these boats work. I was aboard for one job, I can’t possibly know or do justice to the skills these men possess. I had a small glimpse of their professionalism, expertise, and good humor. Enjoy the photos.