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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 last piece was generated from a rant I expressed in my pilothouse on my last trip down the East River heading for an anchorage in New York’s Bay Ridge Anchorage 21B.  Generally, my postings originate as rants that are rendered raw and then tempered with a good bit of editing for language and content.  I don’t just go off and shoot from the lip. Usually.

Of course, my professional perspective is what I draw on and my opinion is given full sway, it’s my blog after all.  But since my last post I’ve had some feedback that puts a neat spin on the ultimate aim of the article.  Education, for me as well as others.

A rather brave young woman decided to upbraid me for what she believed were insults to the Kayaking Community.  She was right on the money on some points and I give credit where it’s due.  She provided a couple of links I had not previously seen and found them to be really thoughtful and comprehensive in their advice on mixing recreational traffic with commercial vessels here in New York.

So in the interest of passing along the lesson of “you’re never too old to learn”, I wanted to recognize these organizations for working to make everyone safer in the pursuit of their particular vision of happiness.

The first one I’d like to share is one that includes enough information to rate as a must read for any recreational boater seeking to play on the waters of New York Harbor, or any busy waterway for that matter.

I Boat NY Harbor  The content of this site warms this lil’ old  tugboatman’s heart.  It’s comprehensive, articulate and clear and I ‘m glad someone has thought to do such a thorough job.  Kudos.

Safe Harbor.US Listing educational videos and notices of the events taking place in the harbor and good concise articles relating to interacting and avoiding close encounters with the behemoths that ply the waters of N.Y. Harbor.  The video catalog alone is worth a click.

I think it bears mentioning that the State of New York doesn’t recognize paddled craft as “vessels” subject to the rules as we understand them, that’s a big WTF as far as I’m concerned. This story just boggles the mind.

Everyone on the water has to have an understanding as to their responsibility when they take to the water for any reason.

And for now I’ll close with a thank you for the comments I’ve received.  Be safe.

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photo by capt. jim brucato

I recently posted a time-lapse video of a Cape Cod Canal Transit which was pretty well received by the boys at the Canal’s A.C.O.E. Office.  It was the 1st of March and the opportunity couldn’t be ignored.  With the opening seconds of the video showing us entering the East End in a pronounced slide and set toward the south breakwater, the canal is entered with the music of one of my favorite Santana tracks kicking in at just the right moment as we shot into the entrance.

The question from Ryan is; How would you compare a Hell’s Gate transit to a Cape Cod Canal transit?

Okay, since you ask……

One thing right off the bat, they are similar but different transits.  The Gate presents its challenge once we commit for the eastbound transit at the lower end of the Poorhouse Flats range.  After that (if you’re in the flood current) you are going through the Gate, stopping is not an option.  Thirty or so minutes later, the “deed is done”.  The Canal is a committed transit after passing Hog Island just west of the Maritime Academy.

Hell Gate is a tight and rocky estuary that doesn’t allow for a lot of leeway, it is an intense affair with two big turns.  Once you clear the railroad bridge it becomes kind of anti-climactic.  This time of year both waterways have the added challenge of dealing with large numbers of recreational vessels.

The Canal is a fifteen mile transit from Cleveland Ledge to the East End, the last twelve or so being the very definition of commitment.  Once you’ve sailed past Mass Maritime and the A.C.O.E. West End Station there isn’t any room to turn around or places to stop.

On average the canal transit lasts from 1 to 2 hours depending on the current and traffic.

The Canal is similar to Hell Gate as it requires focus and timing to approach and negotiate.  The primary difference is the amount of time you need to spend doing it.

Turns must be set up well in advance for large units since a fair current will introduce a respectable slide toward the down-current side of the channel.  Bottom clearance is a consideration as well.  Although the canal has a decent depth, there are some shallow spots that develop from time to time that will create enough suction that can make handling a deeply loaded unit a struggle in the turns.  With a head current (going against the flow) it’s almost like pushing a pencil by its sharpened tip across a table.  A balancing act that lasts for the entire transit until the east end breakwaters are in the rearview mirror.

Hell Gate has numerous eddies to contend with but they are fairly predictable for an experienced pilot.  The Canal has a strong current that follows the trend of the ditch without too many cross-current issues (except perhaps near the academy and east entrance breakwaters).  The east end can be challenging once it is approached since (as evidenced in the video) the bay influences the entrance with waves, weather and wind.  There is also a railroad bridge at the West End Station that closes the waterway from time to time.  Traffic is advised well in advance by the A.C.O.E. Controllers and the bridge never has an unannounced closing.

Should there be a strong northerly or easterly component to the wind and seas at the eastern end, many conventional tug and barge units delay their transit until the conditions abate since exiting the canal in push gear is something we’d want to do without a heavy swell surging the gear.  Tugs towing light barges negotiate the canal at nearly any stage of the current without too much difficulty, but those towing a loaded unit “short” (close to the tug) through this waterway experience a delicate affair that is generally timed to coincide with the slack rather than max current.  Tail boats are often used to help keep the tow under control as well.

from the web, 4/11/83 the morton bouchard

Like Hell Gate, the canal can be an unforgiving stretch of water.  More than one unit has had a bad day in the canal when things went sour.  It only takes a few seconds of inattention to get in trouble; it gets ugly in a hurry.

Hell Gate is scenic and cool for its views of the Manhattan skyline and its Upper East Side until we reach the Astoria side of the railroad bridge, then it’s industrial chic for the ride past the Bronx.  It gets pretty again when you reach the Whitestone Bridge and head under the Throg’s Neck bridge for the Sound.

The Canal is lovely and quintessentially New England, with wide walking and bike paths on both sides.  Folks fishing in crystal aqua green water enjoying the parade of vessels large and small.  It’s a beautiful ride any time of the year.

Sea level canal transits (like the Cape Cod Canal and Chesapeake and Delaware) are challenging and interesting.  You are on your toes for the entire trip since a fair current will boost your speed over the bottom dramatically and a head current will make for a long trip.  It’s about focus and forethought.  My Dad used to say that a boat handler should be thinking a mile or so ahead of his boat to be ready for what’s next.

I’ve got to say that I like both transits.  The Canal is pretty, but at the end of the day they both offer something that is challenging and interesting.

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A steamy Hell Gate Transit late in the afternoon. Most of the recreational boaters have headed home for the work week and we have the Gate to ourselves….more or less.

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Photo by Capt. Jim Brucato

It’s said that the citizens of New York City reside in a place that is rich in a thousand ways.  The fortunes won and lost on Wall Street, the fame and fable of the East Village, the museums, parks and activity that never ends.  Of my favorite places in this city I include all of Little Italy and Chinatown.  Like Frankie said, “a city that never sleeps”.  But there is something about New York that seems forgotten, overlooked or ignored by many of her residents in the colder weather. Her status as a world class port.  It wasn’t too long ago that the city’s maritime connection was well known to its population, since they likely arrived by ship.  Nearly every immigrant family to arrive here since 1887 has had their first sight of the Statue of Liberty burned into their memory.

For nearly 400 years, ships of all kinds have moored along the banks of the Hudson and East Rivers and dropped anchor in the Upper Bay by the hundreds. Sailing ships, then steamers and yes tugs and barges from every corner of the world called here to pick up or deliver people and items from and to the farthest reaches of the planet.  But the terminals and wharves that once employed our grandfathers are now either in shambles or reinvented as recycled real estate.

The port has become all but invisible except for the behemoths that pass under the Verrazano Bridge or those that lay at anchor in view of the ferries running between Staten Island and lower Manhattan.  The port is “out of sight and out of mind”, it’s “somewhere in Jersey” now.  The visible port activity is considered quaint as opposed to critical commerce.

Docks along the Hudson River that were once bustling centers of trade are now home to the commuter ferries or fishing haunts that sit perched on the bones of the New York Central, Erie Lackawanna, and Lehigh Railroad dockyards of Weehawken, Hoboken and Jersey City. Terminals that once housed coffee or soap processing plants in Edgewater are now shopping malls and walking parks with few if any of the residents realizing what transpired beneath their feet only a couple of generations ago.  The Chelsea docks that were once the busiest in the city now house a recreation center and golf driving range. It’s easily acknowledged that the city is so transient that it’s residents tend to overlook its legacy as one of the greatest ports in the world.

But not everyone is oblivious to this city’s legacy. We can be thankful for the stalwart souls that pursue the quixotic endeavor of trying to save and/or showcase historic vessels and locations throughout the city.  The organizations at large (to name a few) include the good people restoring and maintaining the Tug Pegasus. This classic tug was, and still is a workhorse with a worthy pedigree. Captain Pamela Hepburn brought the Pegasus to life and put her to work for many years before putting together the means to restore this classic tug to its original self.  A true labor of love.  The “Peg” is now a regular at “tug musters” and gatherings concerning the Hudson River Societies seeking to preserve the Port’s history and educate the community with real working vessels and the people that run them.

The retired M/T Mary Whalen serves as the nexus of the Portside Project for Ms. Carolina Salguero and her group of volunteers to help bring awareness to the Port of New York’s Brooklyn Piers and surrounding facilities.  She has undertaken the task  to rehabilitate the Mary Whalen as close as possible to her original working configuration with a few changes to accommodate her new mission.  Her efforts to improve access and usability of the waterfront she has dubbed “the sixth borough” are a worthy endeavor that deserve support.  (Ms. Salguero has earned the respect of many in the port for her unflinching multi-media documentation of the events on 9/11/01.)

The Fireboat John J. Harvey is another gem that has been fighting off the ravages of time with dedicated volunteers to keep her afloat and in our minds. A recently published memoir by her latest engineer, Jessica Dulong, offers a definitive dialog of her participation in the Harvey’s restoration and operation.  The Harvey is a genuine working reminder of service vessels that have given above and beyond during their tenures in New York Harbor.  I recommend this book to anyone with a desire to glean a deeper understanding of the kind of people who have lived, worked, and endured serving the port.  Ms. Dulong has cited the contributions of the giants of history as well as the everyman in the Hudson River’s importance to all things New York.

The Old Mariner’s Home at Sailor’s Snug Harbor, Staten Island has transformed from its original retirement home for mariners to a world class museum that presents local lore and history in many forms that inform and applaud the Harbor that is New York.  It has featured our local towing community as a long term exhibit.  The Noble Maritime Collection, definitely worth a visit.

Soon the weather will be balmy and warm.  The harbor will fill with recreational boaters and tour boats.  Tugs and barges will continue their duties all the while dodging small craft and dressing themselves in a fresh coat of paint. The Circle Line boats will circumnavigate the island of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty is open for visitors as always. Fireworks will soon be showering the Statue and the East River will see dozens of wedding parties celebrating their big day.  Taking a decidedly different tack on the tour business is the group running Hidden Harbor Tours. They take a closer look at places the Circle Line Boats might not have a desire to visit.  The tours focus on smaller, less well known corners of the harbor.  A look at places most guidebooks don’t include, definitely for the hardcore urban tourist .

Cruise ships will make their conspicuous yet stately passages from the North River, Bayonne and Brooklyn waterfronts to sea.  The true spirit of the harbor will become a little more obvious as the summer heat moves everyone to the shoreline to catch a breeze.

Photo by Capt E.W. Brucato

In the years I’ve worked in and around the city, I’ve had the chance to witness the building and destruction of landmarks great and small.  Like many, as a teenager I watched the World Trade Center rise on the skyline, and as an adult I watched it crumble.  I was a deckhand when we were delivering sand and gravel for the foundations of Battery Park City.

photo by Donna M. Brucato 1987

I saw and participated in Op Sail 76, the Brooklyn Bridge Celebration of 1983, and the Statue of Liberty’s 100th birthday in 1987, that one easily beat all.  My boat was hired to tow the fireworks for the first time that night.  I had the good fortune to be able to host my family on the tug while the most impressive Grucci fireworks display I ever witnessed unfolded over our heads.  I’ll never forget how you could feel it in your chest as each report from the detonations echoed though the World Trade Center complex that night.  My 10 year old daughter was so frightened by the noise and paper from the exploded shells showering the boat that she hid in the pilothouse for the finale.  I haven’t seen a fireworks display that could hold a candle to that show since that night.

The activity is year-round and everywhere.   The vessels calling here are the most sophisticated transport systems afloat and carry an enormous amount of goods.  The tugs moving oil and building materials still do it the New York way, quietly and efficiently, with skill and flair. I’ve listed only a few of the fine organizations that serve this port by keeping its legacy alive.  Just thought I’d mention it…..in case you forgot.

A Buchanan tug off Constable Hook Bayonne c.1981

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