Archive for February 16th, 2009

Almost eleven years before the Eklof tug “Scandia” and their barge the “North Cape” made their ill-fated appearance on Rhode Island’s Moonstone Beach, I was eastbound on the tug Emily S. during one of the coldest winters that I can remember with a loaded 25k barrel gasoline barge named the Richard K. en route from NY to Providence.

The weather was typical for the month of February with a stiff westerly blowing and a clear sky as we headed past Stratford Middle Ground and across Eastern Long Island Sound during the last few hours of my afternoon watch. We were strung out with about 1000′ of our tow wire and a 9″ circ. x 75′ shock-line connecting us to the barge. The tanker-man was riding the tug for this trip since the company’s newly acquired “western rivers” style barge had yet to get living quarters fabricated and approved. Our crew consisted of the Captain Ed Redden, myself as mate, Rick Thompson as deckhand, Engineer Mike McKeon, and our tanker-man house-guest one Mr. Joe Tribilowicz

When Ed came up to the wheelhouse to relieve me at 1800, the weather was threatening to get a bit sloppier. I made my turnover and went below.  I had my dinner and turned in to get some rest. I fell off to sleep feeling the boat riding ahead of a building stern swell.  I was comfortably dreaming a couple of hours later as we were approaching Plum Island buoy, when the wind and current began to interact in a most unpleasant way. The current was flooding toward the west-southwest and the wind had increased in velocity veering from out of the southwest blowing in direct opposition to the flood current.  This has the unwelcome effect in the bottleneck of the eastern sound of causing the seas to step up substantially toward the narrowing confines of Eastern Long Island Sound and The Race.

Ed made the decision to render more cable in order to allow for the surge that we were beginning to feel. Normally this would have had the desired effect of moderating the ride and giving the tow a chance to get in step with the tug, but not this time. It would have worked if the shock-line held, but of course if that was the case, there’d be no story.  A short time after Ed had rendered what he thought was a decent amount of additional wire, the shock-line parted and the barge was on its own in a 12-15′ following sea.

Tug and tow are riding “in step” when they meet the seas at the same time.

I felt the towline part as I lay in my bunk and was getting dressed when Rick came down to tell me what I already knew. There’s no mistaking when the towline let’s go, the engine’s pitch changes as the load is released and she starts to run without all that weight behind her and the quality of the ride changes for the worse. I made my way up to the wheelhouse and began the work of fixing the approximate position of where we lost the barge and reporting this info to the U.S.C.G. Group Long Island Sound as we attempted to find our lost charge.

The Captain had managed to recover the tow wire and what was left of the shock-line as I was trying to pick the barge out of a deteriorating radar picture. Things were getting too crazy. Without the tow to help stabilize the tug we were at the mercy of an increasingly steep and slightly confused sea.   Bringing the tug head up into the seas was not helping.  On an 85′ tug in these conditions even though we were secured for sea, things you’d never expect to move were flying everywhere and it was getting difficult to manage our situation when the Captain finally made the call to head for safe haven in New London, CT.

The fact that we lost the barge was a tough break (no pun intended). The attempts to find it in the building wind and seas were fruitless. The idea that 25k barrels of gasoline were floating around without a tug was really a serious situation for the entire eastern end of Long Island and Connecticut. No one was happy.

We  made it safely into New London Harbor and were allowed to put in at Fort Trumbull Coast Guard Station .  As we were approaching the dock we saw that a U.S.C.G. 91 footer had been dispatched to try and locate and track the barge. As we passed each other we heard one of their crew yell,”that boat’s coming in and we’re going out?”

Oh no, not a happy camper.  The ride they were in for was going to be an all-night roller coaster affair with no break until they were relieved by a larger unit or the weather moderated.

The Emily was a new-built just the year before and had a tow wire but not a proper towing machine, meaning it was not the kind that would render and recover wire as the strain reached a set point. The twin screw 1800 bhp of the Emily was more than adequate for her needs but she wasn’t very well suited to the task of recovering the barge in such conditions.  No amount of effort in the existing conditions would have warranted any further attempts, it was too dangerous for the crew.  There weren’t that many of us to start with and no one was on the barge to take a line or assist reconnecting the tow wire.

After we secured, I headed for the Duty Officer’s desk to compare notes, update, and convey our ill tidings to the Boss.  Needless to say it was a tough phone call to make or receive.  The Captain was busy with the authorities and the paperwork that always accompanies these things.

The time in the Coast Guard office was spent trying to come up with a plan to recover the barge.  We had the spare gear, we just needed to find the barge and be able to get someone aboard to clear the bridles of the old shock-line and shackle the new one in.  In due course a plan involving helicopters and tug crew was settled on.

My deckhand Rick Thompson  and I would fly out in a Coast Guard Rescue Helicopter over the barge come daylight and be lowered down to the deck with the necessary gear and take the tug’s line and reconnect the towline.  All we had to do was drop onto the slippery deck on a thin little thread of a wire.  I had never been in a helicopter much less dropped out of one, and I had no way of knowing until after the fact that Rick was scared to death of flying.  He never mentioned it until the whole affair was over, he said afterwards that even with that being the case he wasn’t letting me do it alone.

So, with daylight approaching and the winds moderating we set off in a CG van for Groton airfield while the tug got underway.   We dragged our new shock-line, shackle, and tagline into the aircraft and were suited up in Mustang suits and headsets.  I brought my camera, zoom lens and all, determined not to miss documenting this adventure.  We sat on the runway and waited as the pilot and crew prepared for takeoff, I had no idea how really noisy helicopters were.  You could barely hear yourself think much less converse without the headsets.  We taxied and then lifted off the tarmac and hovered a couple of meters off the ground for a few minutes.  I guess everything needed to warm up before we got too much altitude.  The crew chief was really upbeat and everywhere at once.  He checked everything twice, including me and Rick.

He asked if we were ok with going down on the wire and with a little more bravado than brains I said “Let’s f*****g do it”.  He tossed a big thumbs up at me and probably had a good laugh thinking about how big my eyes were going to be when I was being dropped out of the aircraft into the down-blast of the main rotor and toward a heaving deck.

We cruised at about 500′ and I could see the pilots console with every dial and button you could imagine.  The ride was noisier than I expected and a bit like a roller coaster.  I snapped as many photos as I could manage from my seat as we flew out towards Block Island Sound. The barge had managed to negotiate the Race by itself and into the Block Island Sound.  It was now Block Island’s turn to be worried, the prevailing wind and currents had put the “Great Salt Pond” squarely in the cross-hairs.

The “on-scene commander” was aboard the 91 footer we had passed on our way in, and was “in sight” of the barge calling the shots.  As we approached the scene, the helo commander’s voice came over the headset and said that on-scene command was concerned the conditions were too slick and we’d have to call off the intended deployment of men and material.  Another option was being discussed, but at that point, I wasn’t privy to it.

I felt the helo bank east and we were on our way to Otis Airfield on Cape Cod but not before we took a tour of a beached fishing boat along the south shore of the Cape.  We landed at Otis and were escorted to the galley on base.  The rec room nearby had a pool table and dartboard and plenty of hot coffee.  Until that trip I was a comfortable non-smoker having been successful at quitting the damn things about 2 years before.  It was odd that as I was walking past the cigarette machine that I reached for a couple of bills and selected my brand, opened the pack, and began to light one up. Rick took a moment to remind me that I didn’t need a cigarette, I remember clearly thinking that I earned it.  He and I shared a couple of smokes, a game of pool, and some idle conversation.

We were informed after being there a couple of hours or so that we were to be transported back to our boat, which was underway and had reacquired the tow without us.  Sonuvabitch, he caught the tow without us! The original idea was for the tug to rendezvous with the CG cutter and barge and after we were lowered to the deck the tug would re-attach and take us aboard, conditions permitting.  No one had even given thought to trying to recover the tow with so few men.  There were only three guys on the tug and one of them had to run the boat while the other two caught and connected the bridle.  This was so not the plan that was discussed.

We re-boarded the helo and went through the same preflight two-step as we got underway for Point Judith Coast Guard Station.  Just before the helo dropped our gear and us at Point Judith they took us on an overflight of the tug and tow allowing me to get some really great shots.  We landed and they waved us goodbye leaving us to drag everything onto a 35′ cutter and get underway for the Emily, which was just approaching the point eastbound.  The cutter took us to the Providence Towboat, Tug Reliance, just outside the Harbor of Refuge which ran us to the Emily where we boarded and settled back in.  I went to the pilothouse to relieve Ed who was as exhausted as I was.  We were all exhausted.

Ed would’ve been brought to task for not following the plan had his attempt failed and injured someone. But, the circumstances changed quicker than the plan could be modified, moving him to act.  The risk of injury with the tug being so shorthanded was no small consideration but the benefit gained from acting on changing circumstances and conditions saved a bad situation from getting worse.  It was a bit of good fortune that the opportunity presented itself to reacquire the tow and testament to the guts of the guys who did it.  The job got done, Ed deserved the credit for recognizing and acting on a serendipitous change of circumstance.  Rick and I were tweaked that we didn’t get to help, but it all worked out for the best.

The lesson learned brought home the point that a shockline is not always a smart addition to your towing gear.  If the shockline is too short, as it proved to be in this case, there’s no real point in putting one out.   The normal gear used these days is a large and heavy chain bridle attached to a large diameter wire pennant, permanently attached to the barge and a good length of wire set for the prevailing conditions.

“Wire to wire” with a proper length to start with would have satisfied the needs of the tow, even if it meant slowing down.  Risking a recovery with so few crew could’ve been a deadly situation but the man in charge was able to pick the right moment to take a shot at getting the barge under control and succeed.

The good folks of Block Island were breathing easier and all was right with the world. We made it into the Narragansett Bay East Passage and picked up the barge without further incident and made our delivery about 12 hours later than anticipated.  The many photos I took were lost when I thoughtlessly opened the back of the camera without rewinding the damn film.  I was so tired, I had completely forgotten that small technical part.

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