Archive for May, 2009


Hell Gate Railroad Bridge looking west, photo by Capt J.T. Brucato

This piece doesn’t intend to provide a comprehensive method for dealing with transits, it’s offered in the hope it will give a bit more background and glimpses of how  professional mariners deal with their day-to-day operations and how this transit is approached.  A little Hell Gate history would be in order for those with  an interest in the way things come about.

It was all about “commerce” as you might have guessed.  I found this article online and I wish I could name its author. It does a terrific job of filling in the blanks on this bit of New York Harbor and how it was made into the lifeline it is today.

During a spring tide cycle the velocity for the ebb current can easily reach 5.0 knots or more depending on prevailing weather conditions.  Wind from easterly weather will tend to increase tidal ranges and flow and cause tidal changes to occur later than expected,  extended periods of west-north-westerly weather will hold levels below normal and cause tidal changes to occur earlier and with less velocity.  It’s just a function of geography and wind direction how the NY Upper Bay and Long Island Sound respond to the effects of wind.  Anyone who has followed the hurricane watches on the Weather Channel can understand the way water piles up from the influence of an onshore breeze.


When you’re eastbound, the eddies and set experienced in each part of the transit will be slightly different but predictable each time one makes transit at different stages of tide and current and weather.  The East River Deep Water Range is a good example.  The U.S. Coast Pilot #2 clearly relates that on any given tidal cycle the “Gate” is going to have currents usually in excess of 3.5-4.0 knots.  It offers enough detail to make one aware of the geographic and hydro-graphic facts, but leaves the finer points of piloting this body of water to the paragraph recommending “pilotage services”.  Hell Gate is in the tidal strait known as the New York East River which connects three major bodies of water; The New York Upper Bay, Long Island Sound, and the Hudson River via the Harlem River.  The semi-diurnal tidal flow can reach speeds of up to 5.0 knots depending on the lunar cycle and prevailing weather.  The project depth from the Battery to the Navy yard is 40′ and then 35′ to Execution Rocks,  the range of tide is 4.6′ at the Battery, 5.1′ in the Gate, and more than 7′ at Execution Rocks.The  tight channel and rocky shore makes for an unforgiving environment for piloting errors.  His Honor the Mayor won’t need to watch the six o’clock news to see when someone has made a mistake, since his official residence (Gracie Mansion) overlooks the river at the best place to witness any transit.The waterway’s orientation is generally Northeast-Southwest, but local mariners usually declare their intentions as “Eastbound for the Gate, or Westbound for the Battery”.  The currents run close to the “Narrows”  but for a small time difference.  Most tugs and tows transit at or near slack water for safety’s sake.  Some ships and large A.T.B. units will make their transits up 2 hours before or after the slack in order to avoid high concentrations of traffic.

The Influence of Wind;  So it follows; if there has been an extended period of easterly weather, one can expect tides to be above their normal levels and currents to be running stronger than predicted.  Westerly wind will cause tidal levels to remain below normal and cause tidal flow to begin earlier than normal with less velocity because of reduced volume.  Unless this westerly weather is directly following a storm like a “Nor’easter”, in that case as the wind veers westerly, the ebb current can be expected to be dramatically stronger than predicted.All of this adds up to a tidal strait that will test the skills of anyone who wishes to pilot a vessel east or west.  Understanding how things actually work will save a lot of heartache.Flood Current Transits; The flood current runs from the Battery and the Buttermilk towards Long Island Sound.  It travels up along the shores of Williamsburg,  Brooklyn and along the east and west channels on either side of Roosevelt Island.  The flood current enters the western entrance of the Harlem River from the Hudson River running south into the East River and meets the main flow at and around Mill Rock.  Then as it all mixes at Hallet’s Point it runs east toward and between the Brother’s Islands and out to the Sound.

The phenomena known as the “Spider” is a swirl off the Battery that results from the confluence of the Hudson’s volume and the East River’s flow within 1.5 to 2 hours before and after the change of current.  (From the Coast Pilot #2;  ) In the channel northward of Governors Island, cross currents may be encountered. During the first 2 hours of flood in this channel (eastward), the current in Hudson River is still ebbing (southward). In the first 1.5 hours of ebb (westward) in the channel north of Governors Island, the current in Hudson River is still flooding (northward). At such times large vessels must take special care in navigating the channel. It is reported that the most dangerous time is about 2 hours after high water at The Battery. At this time the current is setting north in the Hudson River and westward from the East River. The effect on a large vessel coming from southward and turning into the East River is to throw her stern to port and her bow to starboard, thus causing a sheer to starboard toward the shoals off the north end of Governors Island. When coming from northward in the Hudson River the same effect tends to prevent the vessel from turning and to cause her to overrun her course. These cross currents are known locally as The Spider.As the East River current slacks, the Hudson River current at the Battery is still running fairly strong.  The later current changes in the Hudson allow this swirl to develop and has the effect of setting the stern once the bow enters the shadow of Governor’s Island and slower flowing East River. It’s in the worst possible place since there is a rather impressive shoal just north and south of the range line and must be allowed for when shaping up to enter the East River Deep Water Channel.  It will affect a deep draft vessel (15 to 30’of draft )by trying to spin her as she sets up on the range.  It’s strong enough that it must be given due regard and anticipated for its effect .  Generally a bit of rudder will overcome the tendency to spin off the range, the vessel will slide somewhat onto the range and steady up as she passes Whitehall ferry racks.

Tugs with stern tows “up short” will generally use the Deepwater Channel to enter the North River off the Battery in order to pick up their charges alongside of the Colgate Clock in preparation for the transit to their eventual berth.  Fast ferries, large and small are present at all times of the day as well as small vessel traffic, tour boats, and dinner cruises in and around the island of Manhattan.

Flood Current Transits Eastbound;

The effect present as one enters Buttermilk Channel off the north end of Bay Ridge Anchorage is a well defined slide that sets NNE as the vessel turns in on the Buttermilk range which tries to force the vessel towards the SW tip of Governor’s Island and its piers on the south side.

On approach to Atlantic Basin in the Buttermilk Channel, there is a well defined “set” that begins to affect the tow as it is passes the Old Brooklyn Piers. The current will cause the tug and tow to sag toward the pier-heads under the it’s influence and require adjustment to keep the tow from clipping the ends of the piers as the Brooklyn Bridge is approached.  This will become apparent once the tug and tow are just past the ends of piers 7 and 8.  When inbound on the Deepwater Range, this slide will be a consideration as the turn for the Brooklyn Bridge is set up.  The confluence of the currents and the shoals on the eastern end of Governor’s Island  and off the Battery are only the first set of challenges the transit has to offer.

As the turn under the Brooklyn Bridge is approached the flood current’s “set” will now force you toward the Manhattan shore and increase the over bottom speed.  There is also a local anomaly that affects radio transmissions here, one must take care to make a “Securite'” call well prior to passing the Brooklyn Bridge and as soon as possible when clear of the Hudson Ave. powerhouse to warn traffic that may not have heard the initial call.  This is also where V.T.S.N.Y. requires vessels to switch over to their next  zone frequency (channel 12 vhf) which is monitored until clear of the Throg’s Neck Bridge.  The next big turn is Corlear’s Hook opposite Wallabout Bay and the Brooklyn Navy Yard as you set up for the transit under the Williamsburg Bridge.  The flood current set is now strong on the Brooklyn shore and requires a fair amount of rudder to correct and end up in the middle of the deep water and stay on track for the Poor House Flats Range.  On large deep draft units, this is generally a controlled slide as opposed to a turn.  Small westbound tugs and low horsepower units still hug the Manhattan wall (westbound) at this turn to try and escape the main flow of the current.  It usually runs just a bit slower along the wall and if you were shallow enough, you could avoid 10-15% of the current’s velocity.  Once clear of the point the practice was to cross to the Hudson Ave on the Brooklyn side to utilize the current’s shadow there.

As the vessel advances past the old Domino Sugar dock and North 1st Street approaching the Poor House Flats buoy and range, the current tends to set toward mid channel and then along the channel.  Turning onto the Poor House Flats range is an exercise in timing since the vessel must bring the current onto its port quarter and slide onto the range line and steady for the turn at E. 34th Street.  This is a critical turn for deep draft units since the buoy marking the turn at the southern tip of Roosevelt Island sits just south of a shelf that extends into the channel with less than 25′ of water over it.  The turn at the U.N. building requires one be prepared for the set of the current toward Manhattan as she shapes up for the Queensboro Bridge, (locally referred to as “The 59th Street Bridge”).  Here the current runs true with the channel up to 74th Street.  There is a section of turbulence that sets up during the strength of the current in the vicinity of the bridge, an upwelling caused by the structures of the Mid-Town Tunnels buried in the river bottom can be fairly intense.  As the north end of Roosevelt Island is approached the velocity of the current will notably increase as the channel narrows and creates a bit of a venturi effect.

Meeting in the Gate anywhere near maximum current time is a very bad idea, there’s precious little room to play with and you’d be meeting each other in a turn with a swift current.   There are just too many points of failure to accommodate a safe transit.  Even if the current ran with the channel the situation would be too unwieldy to handle with all the variables.  That doesn’t seem to prevent plenty of “deep draft sailboats” during the season, who fail to understand that it’s not healthy to occupy the middle of the channel when 25,000 tons of steel and fuel are headed directly at you.

Once a large unit has passed Belmont Island off the United Nations building near East 34th Street, it is committed to the transit.  There isn’t anywhere wide enough to turn around and the strength of the current would generally prohibit stopping without a substantial assist tugs in attendance.

Once committed she must maintain her steerage and stay mid channel until reaching the 74th Street Powerhouse.  It is not advisable to advance eastbound beyond 74th Street with the flood current if one expects  to be meeting westbound traffic near the Gate.  West-bounders “bucking tide” are at their worst for getting out of your way.  Unless you’re talking about a ship or other large  and high horsepower unit, they are using every ounce of horsepower to overcome the current with little left for making any significant headway.  On a fair current this waiting game should take place well south of the Poorhouse Flats buoy or better still, hold in the upper bay and time the transit closer to slack if a lot of traffic is returning westbound.

The turn at Hallet’s Point is the initial turn into Hell Gate proper and is usually “shaped up ” by finding the center line of the Tri-Boro Bridge and sighting a safe distance off Negro Point and then splitting the difference for the left turn under the Tri-Boro and Hell’s Gate Rail Bridges.  Here’s where most tugs and tows can suffer a push gear failure should they misjudge the turn.  If there is a significant amount of  flood current left before slack, the eddies flowing from the Harlem River (from left to right approaching the point) will certainly slide the tow towards the Astoria side of the river once the left turn under the bridges is made.  The port side is now broad to the current and its influence will require the helm to increase to a hard right rudder with a gentle increase of throttle until the tow has advanced past Negro Point and out of  the cross-current.  If “hard right rudder” is applied  too quickly or if  the throttle is slammed to the stops, the starboard push gear will be taking a huge load and it’s possible that the gear could part and cease to be of use as the tow falls out of shape towards the rocky shoreline of the Astoria Wall.  Safety lines on either side of the tug may be of some effect but the leverage of proper push gear will be lost.    Once the Hell Gate Railroad Bridge is overhead, the tricky part is pretty well done.

Lining up “The Brothers” is easy and the turns will widen as the waterway opens up.  The deep draft route necessarily will be north of the islands, only small shallow draft tows go between.  The rest of the transit will pass the last oil terminals on the waterway when passing East 138th St. to 149th St in the Bronx.  La Guardia Airport and Riker’s Island, then the Whitestone Bridge and S.U.N.Y Maritime and the Throgs Neck Bridge.  Once clear of Throgs Neck there is a hard left turn up towards City Island and past Stepping Stones Lighthouse.  This lighthouse marks a 24′ shoal that extends west of the light itself, recommended clearance to allow  for this outcrop would be a radius of at least 1/4 nm. as the turn for Hart Island and Execution rocks is made.  The deep water is available on both the north and south sides of Execution Rocks.  It is well marked and smaller units can and do stay to the northern route during stiff northwesterly weather to enjoy a lee from the Connecticut Shore.

The biggest issue that will be encountered at this part of the transit will be during the recreational boating season which kicks off just before Memorial Day when the area is thick with small motorboats and sailboats right through the summer and into late autumn.

Ebb Current Transits Eastbound;

Making a transit against the ebb current is a common practice.  Eastbound vessels heading through to Long Island Sound will experience the full force of the current as they approach the major turns and the upper end of Roosevelt Island and Hell’s Gate itself.  There are several significant parts of this transit that bear further explanation.

The Buttermilk and Deepwater Channels spill into the upper bay and Hudson with substantial volume but generally speaking, the currents are running with the trend of the shoreline and easy to manage.  Like vessels working the Western Rivers, the vessel running with the current or fair tide is considered the stand-on vessel.

If your vessel is “stemming” or “bucking tide”, you’re expected to hold back in various places along the way and allow the stand-on vessel time to clear the big turns or the tight spots in their transit before you continue eastbound.  To impede their transit would be an invitation to disaster.  The best hold points are in the straightaways off the Domino Sugar dock and up to just south of the 59th St. Bridge.

The Back Eddy between Roosevelt Island’s North Tip and Hallet’s Point;

There exists an eddy that sets up during the ebb cycle just below Hallet’s Point at the north tip of Roosevelt Island that demands the consideration of any unit towing, pushing ahead, or towing alongside as it enters the Gate.  The back eddy begins to affect the eastbound unit as it approaches the north end of Roosevelt Island and will add 1.5 to 2 knots of S.O.G. (speed over ground).  This eddy’s influence will disappear quickly as the tow reaches the turn at Hallet’s Point and the speed gained will quickly diminish.  What develops at this point is the current is now on the starboard bow and the port quarter at the same time, this will try to spin the tug and tow to port.  There is a real possibility one could end up sheering to port and into serious trouble as the current will force the whole unit towards the shoals of Hog Back.

Towing astern in the back eddy; the tug enters the main flow at Hallet’s Point but the tow is still carrying (up to 2 knots) more speed and can now run over or trip the tug as it follows the laws of physics and the tendency to stay in motion.  The current can easily sheer the tow away from the tug, coupling its greater speed and mass to endanger the tug.

The method for avoiding this situation requires the tug towing astern to stay in the ebb current and outside the edge of the back eddy as much as possible.  This obviates the need to worry about increases and swift losses of speed since the tug and tow will remain in the ebb current and see no dramatic increase in speed due to the back eddy.   The idea is to avoid the “kick in the ass” the back eddy provides if you’re towing astern.  It wouldn’t be prudent to play with that bit of current.  New mates and deckhands alike are impressed by the amount of headway the eddy will impart to the tow, but they should never forget how quickly the counter-current at Hallet’s Point takes it back.   By the very nature of the ebb current transit, there isn’t a whole lot of throttle left to use if things start getting “squirrely”.

The “Current” Myth;

It’s a well circulated local story of how the current in the Gate makes it nearly impossible to hit the wall at 96th Street off Gracie Mansion when westbound.  The story has been told a thousand times how untended scows broke away from their moorings and drifted unscathed through the Gate as if they magically steered themselves through.  The story goes “you shouldn’t worry about hitting the wall since it was impossible given the current flow and depth of the water”.  In my experience I have personally witnessed a couple of small scows do just that, but they did it on the flood current and they had an assist from favorable breezes. And of course, nobody says what happened after the magic scows cleared the Gate.

The fact is you CAN hit the wall.  If your transit is at the strength of the ebb current westbound, and you fail to judge your turn approaching Hallet’s Point correctly, you will find yourself sagging into the 96th Street wall wishing the local legend was true.  Depending on your draft, wind, and speed, you will most certainly hit the wall and then bounce across the river to hit Roosevelt Island’s north end for good measure as the current swirling behind Mill Rock throws you across the river.

If your transit is set up for an eastbound flood current transit, the Astoria wall is your likely stop if you suffer a steering failure or poorly timed turn at Hallet’s Point.  The current will first force your tow off Hallet’s Point and then sideways to the Astoria side as you try to steady up under the Tri-Boro Bridge passing Negro Point.  It gets even more exciting when the starboard push wire let’s go and you’re faced with a possible hobbled wheel and an imminent grounding.  Add a deep draft sailboat in mid-channel and your day is complete.

A few years back, a large Turecamo tug was towing an empty 130,000 bbl. barge astern, westbound, when a towing gear failure occurred just as he was steadying up off 96th Street.  The barge’s connection to the tug was severed and a light 130,000 bbl “beastie” careened into a  “6 oil” barge  (heavy industrial fuel, nasty stuff) that was moored at the 74th Street Powerhouse.  The runaway peeled the moored unit off the dock along with the dock’s cargo manifold.  It’s a lucky thing cargo ops were done for the day.  Now two barges are drifting downriver scraping and banging along the Upper East Side’s promenade until both were finally corralled and pinned to the wall near the old 63rd Street Heliport.  The master on the Turecamo boat got hold of his runaway and luckily another tug that was in the vicinity captured the runaway 6 oil barge before it could inflict any dramatic environmental damage.  I was almost part of that story but for the fact the master of the Turecamo tug made a timely radio call in the calmest voice informing all that he lost the tow and was going to try and recover it.  I had to call a unit ahead of me that had just passed the Brother’s Islands asking if I was hearing things.  The unit ahead said it was no joke and he was turning around to wait until things settled down.  He “rounded up” off East 138th Street, and I “rounded up” off Hunt’s Point.

The East River is a handful and we necessarily spend a good deal of time making certain new mates understand and respect its characteristics.  There’s no room for error and it’s a very “New York Harbor” thing to learn.

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New “Warning To Boaters” sign


On April 27, in an attempt to bring safety awareness to fishing boats which, too many times, fail to move out of the way of a moving ship in a timely fashion, the Menominee County Sheriff Dept. Marine Patrol put out these signs at all local area boat launches on the Lower Menominee River. Too many times I have watched boaters wait until the last possible moment to move out of the way of a ship entering or departing our port. Last year, as a ship was backing out of the Menominee River, I was at the west end of the lighthouse pier when a ship was backing out of port and the captain asked if I could run out ahead of him and shoo the fishing boats out of his way! Unfortunately, his ship was moving faster than I could; I told him that I would like to help, but that he would have to use his horn. Hopefully these signs will raise awareness of the dangers of such actions.

Man, you gotta love this guy!

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It’s that time of year when we must relinquish our monopoly on the local waterways and share them with the recreational boater for another season.  As we do, there is a need to give both sides of the equation a heads up and reality check.  This story by writer Michael Daly  from the New York Times, first published in November of 1981, is a classic tragedy of ignorance and circumstance coming together to create disaster.  The professional community never wishes to see anyone get hurt, but it still  happens in spite of our best efforts to avoid dangerous encounters with the recreational community.  The recreational boater frequently puts himself in harm’s way and is often blissfully (sometimes fatally) ignorant of the consequences of his behavior while “out on the water for the day”.

The recreational community certainly has a right to enjoy the marine environment, it’s just that  some/many don’t have a really clear idea what it means to be a mariner or possess the basic skills one must have to truly enjoy it safely.

Note; the hawser is set “to the chain”.

The story of the Karen E. is a lesson taught and remembered by the mariners in and around NY Harbor.  Initially the tug captain and mate of the David Mc Allister were demonized for their part in the sinking of the Karen E. and loss of 5 people including the  yacht owner’s 10 year old daughter and his friend’s 9 year old daughter.

The tug David Mc Allister was towing a loaded cement barge off Long Sand Shoal in the Long Island Sound bound for Boston.

The Karen E.  had developed electrical problems which left her owner ill-equipped to navigate in diminishing visibility.  He had contact with another vessel and calls for help were acknowledged by the Coast Guard and a local marina.  But, rather than heed the advice he received by radio to hold a particular course, he wandered off without any clear idea what to do.

In the fog,  the tug David Mc Allister was sighted on an easterly heading.   The Karen E.’s owner decided to bring his boat alongside the tug to ask for help.  His situation was reported to the Coast Guard again and he was summarily warned of the tow as he pulled away from the David. It’s believed he ended up running over the towline and locking his vessel in the path of the loaded barge.  He lost his wife and 10 year old daughter, along with his friend and his wife and 9 year old daughter.  After swimming for roughly 8 hours in Eastern Long Island Sound the owner ( the only survivor) was helped ashore and taken to a hospital.

The owner of the Karen E. insisted the tug’s wash “sucked” his vessel into the path of the tow.  Tests conducted with the same tug and similar vessel to try and re-construct the incident (see photo above) failed to prove his assertion, in fact the opposite was seen.  The small vessel was pushed away by the tug’s quick-water and out of the path of the tow.

The claims of indifference on the part of the tug crew made for some dramatic reading but the hearings that followed drew a different picture of an ill-equipped and panicked boater who made a every attempt to blame others for his own failures.  Although the owner of the Karen E. was eventually charged with negligence, those charges were dropped.  It’s not difficult to agree with USCG deciding he had suffered enough harm already.  The drama was followed closely by those of us in the towing industry and this story was discussed around many a galley table.  It’s claimed that charges were filed against the tug crew for negligence and these men were sanctioned for their part in this tragedy, I can’t find any evidence of the USCG’s actions in this regard.  That’s not to say they weren’t, only that I can’t find them.

Hindsight is the only lens with which we can view the owner of the Karen E.’s actions, I believe Mr. Daly’s article should be required reading for professionals and amateurs alike.  There’s just no way to over-emphasize how important it is to know what you’re doing when you leave that marina with a boatload of folks looking for a relaxing and safe afternoon’s cruise. The owner’s testimony showed he had an inadequate knowledge of his boat’s systems and backups and committed an even greater sin of ignoring professional advice in the face of the emergency.  He should have deferred to expertise.

Those of us who work out here year-round don’t want to be party to any incident, much less one that could destroy a whole family.   It’s in everyone’s best interests to understand the reality of being out on a boat and relying/depending on your skill, mechanical ability, and good judgment to make it a safe voyage.  Your life is truly on-the-line.

October 20, 2010; At the request of the families involved, the names of the victims and the key figures have been edited from this article.  This revision is offered as is and I represent it as a parable of caution.


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My advice to every freshly licensed Mate I have ever trained has been; “You should never renew a Mates ticket“. While that statement may sound counter-intuitive, the idea behind it is to put in your time working as a Mate and then upgrade to Master as soon as you’re qualified (time-wise) to do so.

It’s not like deep-sea tickets that require advancing 3rd through Chief Mate before you can sit for your Master’s ticket.  Lower level licensing basically has three steps; A.B., Mate, then Master. Realistically, a lower level Master’s ticket can be in hand within the 5 year term as a mate/pilot if one is determined enough to do so.

For the two years or so after you get the Mate ticket you’ll be working on your T.O.A.R. anyway, so an effort should be made to stay current with your studies.  You’ve done all the work to get the Mate’s ticket, retaining the skills is a matter of revisiting the material on a regular basis. After you’re working as a Mate/Pilot the only thing necessary is to accumulate the sea-time working under the authority of your license.


It’s no secret that it gets harder to do as time goes by. When I was working on license and pilotage years ago I had to set aside time away from my day-to-day household responsibilities so I could focus on my studies (at the cost of precious time with my wife and young child). Both understood my need to bury myself in the study materials and I was fortunate that they were patient with me. The time was well worth the effort and I acquired my Master’s ticket using home study (thanks Capt. Murphy).

I, like many of us, didn’t attend an academy or have the luxury of being able to afford and then spend two or three weeks at school since I had to earn a living and pay bills. But, I did have the advantage of working with others who were “studying license” at the same time. Whenever I got jammed up, there was usually someone around who had overcome the issue I was struggling with and saved me some heartache in the exam room.  The internet would have been as widely embraced as a study aid if it existed then.

Young families are distracted with working and building their lives. Children, mortgages, family obligations and such throw many stumbling blocks in the path of an aspiring Master candidate. These distractions need to be ignored for the greater good and the time to “git’er done” is while your study skills and practice from the mate’s exam are still fresh. The material is going to be pretty much the same with a few exceptions, and once the big ticket is in your pocket you can relax and enjoy your young family with the knowledge that you’re set to accept that promotion fully documented when the opportunity presents itself.

The day after you have enough sea-time, file the application. Sit for the exam as soon as you can and see where your weaknesses lie. There’s no shame in failing a section or so, if that happens you’re lucky to have found where you need to focus your efforts to overcome the difficult parts and pocket the easy stuff.

Get the license as soon as you can. You’ll be glad you did while you’re spending time teaching your kid how to fish, ride a bike, or tie his shoes. If you wait, you’ll have all the distractions and none of the advantage of starting while it was still reasonably fresh in your head.

So, what are you waiting for?

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