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Archive for the ‘life aboard’ Category

It’s been a few months and the weather conditions down here in the Gulf of Mexico continue to offer a diverse experience from one voyage to the next. Here’s what we had to deal with for a day and a half just before the Thanksgiving Holiday.  What you’re watching is what an ATB is designed to do, ride weather that would keep a conventional tug and barge hove to on a slow ahead engine or weather bound all together.   We don’t necessarily enjoy this kind of ride, but the fact the ATB tolerates this kind of weather and is still able to make a respectable amount of headway is testament to the effectiveness of the design.

 

The Nicole L. Reinauer heading for Tampa, Florida on a stormy day…. from Bill Brucato on Vimeo.

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A line tow ready to head upriver, his length overall is about 1,500 feet and maybe 120′ wide.

I have to admit I’m a bit of a tourist these days.  My latest assignment has my boat trading between New Orleans and Florida.  As I write this we’re waiting to get a loading berth in the NORCO terminal just above the Crescent City.

While I’ve been around tugs and tows my entire career I’ve never had the experience of seeing a Mississippi river tow built and then sailed by the massive towboats that navigate the lifeline of the mid-west.  It’s busy work and takes a lot of blood and sweat to put together.  It can take a day or two to build a “line tow” by small workhorse towboats that are in constant motion picking up, shifting and rafting up a fleet of 28 or more barges carrying anything from coal to grain to whatever.  The towboats that move the finished tow are huge and wide with a good amount of horsepower in the engine room and the pilothouse.

Listening to these boats receiving their marching orders is interesting, the numbers and types of barges vary from boxes to rakes and keeping track of where they are placed and how they are delivered is complex but well understood.  It reminds me of how my Dad used to get his orders moving railroad floats for the New York Central when I was a boy just riding along.  The numbers of each unit are conveyed in a boatman’s shorthand, concise and exact.

The volume of traffic here is amazing. Ships, sea-going and river tows are everywhere.  Huge cranes off-loading dry cargo, flotillas of barges are almost everywhere along the riverbank.  The anchorages are along the river and tightly packed.  Our anchorage here in Ama one of many.   We set our anchor within a few dozen yards of the unit ahead of us and settle back.  The river current is constant so we lay parallel with the bank.  It’s a bit unsettling to be this close to the guy ahead of us and the one behind us, but the anchor holds and it’s kinda cozy.

The radio chatter is flavored with a bit of a patois and it’s amusing to hear some of the exchanges between the pilots and operators of the boats working here.  Courteous and occasionally colorful these fellows use phrases that catch your attention.  In a conversation between a couple of units this morning the dialog went something like this;”I’m up-bound approaching the turn, what would you like?” If you could hold up there I’ll be around here shortly”, “No problem cap, I can do anything but disappear.”  You can be sure I’ll be using that one someday.

It’s not news to anyone that’s the least bit familiar with the western rivers that the “line tows” are massive floating collections of cargo larger and longer than any ship afloat.  To listen to these units making their way is a study in “cool and calm”.  When I encountered my first big guy, I was impressed  with the way he seemed to manage his charges so effortlessly.  I quickly recognized that these men were supremely gifted boat handlers and to underestimate them would be foolish.

For the time being, I’m going to enjoy the experience and absorb as much as I can from the mariners that work in this corner of the country.  These people have a skill set that rivals any you might find in the Northeast.

During my first voyage here one of our river pilots came aboard to relieve his colleague who had met us at the entrance to the river eight hours earlier.  As we shook hands and in a big voice he said “Cap, your day just got better”, better indeed.

More to come.

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My first voyage to the Mississippi River was a fine fair weather trip around the Florida Keys and across the Gulf of Mexico.  I shot a few pictures and learned a few things.  More on that later.  For now, some photos..

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It’s been a couple of years since I was working on a conventional tug.  I’ve been in the ATB world up to my eyeballs for the last eight years and I look at these temporary duty assignments with a mixed view.  Although I love getting back to basics and exercising my skill sets, nothing grates on me worse than having my boat in the yard and me not being there to get the things I need done “my way”.

That said, I can’t worry about two boats at a time so the focus is presently on my current assignment, the tug Franklin Reinauer.  So named for one of our late founding fathers and built for the company in 1980 or so.  Not a large tug by today’s standards but still a little bulldog of a boat.  She’s equipped with a nice little tow winch and a decent amount of horsepower.  A five man crew and enough work to keep time flying by at a respectable rate.  With quarters a lot tighter than those on the Nicole, she’s kinda tiny really but comfortable in a cozy kind of way.  Really cozy once you get in the upper house, basically a box on a stick.

Not so long ago she was one of the coast boats.  Making runs anywhere and everywhere towing up to 70,000 bbl barges.

The view from the Franklin’s upper house of the RTC 28’s notch…

The work is now mostly assist work with an occasional barge delivery in either Newtown Creek, Jamaica Bay or Sewaren NJ.  We made a trip to each during my few days aboard with a surprise or two.

Surprise number one; It turns out is that Newtown Creek now has a community of sailboats moored along the creek’s crumbling bulkheads outside of the Pulaski Bridge, I can’t help but doubt they’re costing the boat owners anything in the way of dock fees.  It’s more than a bit amusing to me that it’s becoming a mecca for gypsy boat owners finding cheap wharfage for an expensive hobby.  I hate to see what might become of these opportunists when a windy day and breakaway scow have their way with their fiberglass hulls.  I can just imagine the splintering sound of hulls under the bow of a runaway 300 ton scrap scow.
Surprise number two; Who knew that scrap yards harbored statuary?  The picture of a few (recovered?) statues lining the wall of the reclamation center in Greenpoint.  Very artsy.  And finally, no real surprise to find that small vessels still insist on taking the same draw of the Jamaica Bay Subway Bridge as an inbound tow (with a fair tide).  Even if they’re law enforcement, some things never change.
 

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I expect to be back in the ATB world soon, until then I’m enjoying my little piece of regular tugboating immensely.  I especially liked nursing a light barge in push gear across Coney Island Channel this morning.  I had almost forgot what it was like “sweet-talking the tow” across the channel when a swell was running.  Good stuff.

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I recently received word from a former AB/Deckhand of mine that he is now the newest Captain in our fleet.   He used the above header in a thank you note for my pushing him to go for his license.  The  “kick in the ass” (as the phrase is coined) is the advice given someone with recognized talent to do what’s necessary to move up off the deck and into the pilothouse.

All of us, no matter how long we’ve been in the industry have been given (mostly unsolicited) advice on how we should either advance or abandon our ambitions.  Some folks are suited for the work a tugboat demands and some are better off staying ashore and getting into the regular “nine to five” lifestyle.  For those who adapt and excel at the job it’s not unusual for the older men to start encouraging, cajoling or insisting the deckhands with obvious talent “go for their license”.  I was subject to this “kick in the ass” and have kicked a few myself.

Some guys procrastinate while others take the bull by the horns and get it done.  The motivation for advancing is usually monetary, why work on a boat and not make the most money you can?  You’re here anyway, you might as well pull down the big bucks.   I’d like to think it’s more than the motivation of what collecting a few more “Benjamins” brings, I’d hope it’s also the sense of accomplishment that follows a determined effort to advance one’s career..

After hearing it enough, he did.  He studied, passed, practiced and excelled.  I had no doubt that he would. He’s one of those people who “get’s it”.  After having him as my senior deckhand for so long I was glad to see him move on to bigger and better.   I didn’t want to lose him as my senior guy on deck, but you gotta let’em go…

He put in his time as a tug mate on various tugs and was recommended for promotion by no less than three tug masters.

I have to say that I’ve taken a good deal of pride in the fact that I was part of  his process. I have no doubt he’ll be kicking some ass of his own.

Congratulations Mike.  To quote Michael Stipe of R.E.M., “Welcome to the deep end”.

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