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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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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.

Main Street Midleton, Co. Cork, Ireland.

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.

Co. Cork Customs House

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.

Commemorative statue of Annie Moore and her two brothers Phillip and Anthony on the wharf at the Cobh Heritage Center.

The Annie Moore story

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.

Herself

The trip out to the sea buoy revealed that the buoy system is the opposite of the system in place here in the US .The IALA Region A System is the rule.

Roches Point Light

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.


Tug Alex tethered for emergency arrest to the M/T Americas Spirit

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.

Putting up the ship line, note the messenger line and the main hawser in the "staple".

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.

Cork Waterfront

A waterfront pub, Cork City.

The inner harbor, Cork City.

Control station

Chatting with the Bos'n Outbound Cobh Harbor

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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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Tugboat mariners are an independent sort and we’re accustomed to enjoying a measure of autonomy that few industries allow. We don’t take kindly to the “clueless” telling us anything, much less how to do our job.  We’re used to the press not having a clue, we’re used to answering the same old questions over and again about what it’s like on a tug. We’re thankful that when we’re underway the world shrinks to the tug, tow, and our immediate horizon.

When we watch those poor bastards driving (more like crawling) on the B.Q.E. and F.D.R. Drive as we sail by, we thank our lucky stars we’re not faced with that every day. But unlike them, we have an “alphabet soup” of Federal and State agencies looking over our shoulder.  Insurers, customers, and employers alike pile on to make our jobs just a little more interesting.

The trip that takes our daily commuter from his front door to his place of employment is seldom given more thought than to decide what size coffee to pick up with his bagel or scone every morning.  It doesn’t require too much preparation, just a full tank of gas, a friendly traffic report, and perhaps set his “Tom Tom” for an alternate route .

Up until about 15 years ago, like our commuter, voyage planning in the N.Y. towing sector was still an informal exercise.  The plan was always fluid with the distinction of being mostly in our heads as opposed to written down. Planning seldom got too complex, we didn’t see a need to write down what we could recite from memory.  The term “voyage plan” wasn’t in the vernacular.

To us, it wasn’t broken.  So of course it had to be fixed.

In the mid-90’s I was attending the first Bridge Resource Management course offered for tug masters by the Seaman’s Church Institute in New York City.  There were eight seasoned tug captains in our group and one or two qualified as “Tugasaurs”, meaning they had been in “tow-biz” since Christ was an “Ordinary”.  We were on the company dime and didn’t really know what to expect from a class that was undoubtedly more suited to a ship than a tug.

Except for playing with the newest simulator, the curriculum promised to be about as exciting as a root canal when our instructor, a young ship driver/academy man, introduced himself and began reviewing the need for the practices he was going to impart.  The more he talked, the uglier it got.  It proceeded to get bloody (figuratively) as we began to chew this guy down to his ankles.  I mean, who the Hell did he think he was telling N.Y. boatmen how to do their job?  He’s never set foot on a tug much less handled one.

It wasn’t long before our “victim” saw the cavalry arrive in the person of Captain Rich Weiner (pronounced “wine-r)”.  This poor bastard’s savior was just in time to prevent his bloodied carcass from being dragged to the seawall and summarily dispatched as eel-bait.

Captain Weiner is a well respected and widely known docking master in New York Harbor and has worked with many of us over the years.  Once Rich walked into the room, the pack eased off long enough to hear the same message delivered.  And although he delivered the very same message, he had status as one of us.  His reputation and expertise gave him the credibility to make clear that the issue was the message, not our unfortunate messenger.

After the grumbling settled down, Captain Weiner was able to smooth our ruffled feathers and explain how voyage planning was being required and formulated.  Whether we liked it or not he explained, we should be the ones deciding how it should be done.  Having others decide how we do our jobs was even more distasteful than the new idea itself.  So, in the end we all drank the Kool-Aid.

It was difficult to admit that it was a good idea at first, especially since our voyage planning seemed perfectly adequate to us.  The more Captain Weiner talked, the more it became clear that our customary practices were not enough to satisfy the “powers-that-be” and were necessarily being replaced by the increased paperwork and tedium.

It simply became impossible to argue against the need for detailed passage and voyage planning.  The fact that it must be written down was probably the most irritating part of the idea since our paperwork load was increasing exponentially every day.

With that said, it was obvious that knowing where, when and how are key to a safe and hopefully uneventful passage from point “A” to point “B”.  There’s little difference between a tug or a ship’s voyage planning when it comes to the considerations of wind, weather, available depth, current, and way-points. Arrival times at key points along the route, DR positions, current set and drift are always critical considerations now more than ever in the age of OPA90., the Clean Water Act, and any number of State Regulations.

These days the practice is deeply ingrained in our procedures and codified by customers, company policy, insurance providers, and ISM safety management systems.  Everyone uses a different template, but they share the same basic information.  These plans allow us to visualize the entire transit and determine ETA’s with greater accuracy.  The plan is an overview of our vessel’s presence of mind along the way.  At any point in the trip we can have a clear and detailed reference of how things are going.  Guesswork is reduced to a minimum.

On top of that,  it is a professional approach, proof that the vessel, crew and cargo is in “good hands”.

We aren’t being asked to be clairvoyant or perfect, the document is a “working” plan subject to updating as we go.  There’s little doubt it’s for the better, “Tugasaurs” notwithstanding.

If you aren’t conducting and detailing a policy of voyage/passage planning, you will be. ISM Safety Management Systems are built around international law and customary practice, within which voyage planning has become an integral practice.  Sooner, rather than later, you’ll be asked to do this.  Better to do it now so you control how it’s formatted instead of having some geek do it for you.

Passage plans and voyage plans are synonymous, the voyage starts long before we sail with the collection of the vessel/tow

particulars including:

Deep draft, of the tug and tow

Cargo, grade and amount

Vertical and under-keel clearances, including “vessel squat

Expected speed over the route and waypoints (courses and distances),

Tidal heights and current (set and drift) for critical points along the track-line, including departure and arrival

Estimated time en route

Estimated arrival times, at waypoints and final destination

Berth information, chart catalog, pubs last update

Pilots and escort/assist boats, required or not

Once this information has been collected and detailed on the plan, we can refer to and update the all important ETA as we go along. Adjustments, observations and delays are all considered.  The greatest benefit is that our situational awareness is enhanced by the plan. We have considered and calculated a D.R. for the entire trip giving us a good basis for setting up assists, line handlers, pilots and crew changes.

A well prepared passage plan is akin to the FAA’s required flight plan.  How long will it be before tugs with tows have to file our own “flight plan” with a government agency sometime in the future?  I’ve read discussions pointing to that possibility, I would hope if that should come to pass it will be under the control of licensed and experienced mariners with the local knowledge for each area of concern.

Of course it’ll be up to us to take an active part in the process before the clueless run us into each other or aground.   As distasteful as change may be, it’s better if those of us on the job have a say in how it should be done.  I’d recommend that the “powers that be” continue to embrace the idea of deferring to expertise, it just makes sense.

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Time lapse video, NYC's East River.

Time lapse video, NYC's East River.

Lou Vest of the Houston Ship Pilots did a few time lapse videos of transits in the Houston Ship Channel.  I was inspired to try my hand at the game with the East River Transit since shouldn’t be said that a New York boatman can’t run in such fast company..

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