Archive for November, 2009

Many of my friends and acquaintances wonder aloud at how I and my fellow mariners deal with the holidays while at sea.  It’s inconceivable to them that being away from home during the holidays is something we can accept.   To those of us who are at sea during Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, the day is like any other except we can expect (or at least hope for) a large meal with the trimmings and a nice overtime addition to the paycheck.

Since I started in the early seventies, I’ve missed way more than half of the “big three”, much to the chagrin of my family and friends. For the past 54+ years it’s how it’s always been for me and my family.  My Dad was home or away, we seldom knew for certain whether he’d be home or not since work was the priority.  For my own little family, it’s been more of the same.

In 1980 I was a new mate with Exxon Shipping Company’s East Coast Branch and I was assigned to the Tug Exxon Pelham and Tow #1.  It was supposed to work out that I’d be home for that Christmas and be able to celebrate with my wife and 3 year old daughter, but a schedule change forced the cycle in the wrong direction.   I found myself on the tug waiting for orders in the Constable Hook Terminal in Bayonne NJ on Christmas Eve, far from home and more than a little blue.  Of course, it was snowing.

My wife was showing a brave face over the telephone, and luckily my daughter hadn’t a clue.  I walked back from the pay-phone and at the 1800 watch change the Captain walked in and asked how far away home was for me.  I was only about 80 miles away but it might as well have been 800.   I had only been working with this captain for a couple of hitches, but that day he proved to be a kind and decent man.  He promptly told me I should go home and spend the holiday with my family since we weren’t going anywhere for at least 2 days.  I was reluctant for about 10 minutes being the “new guy”, but he convinced me it would be okay, I agreed to take him up on his offer.  When I asked what I could do in return, he insisted that I should return the favor by doing the same for my mate somewhere down the road.   Captain Paul Lewis made an impression on me that endures today.  I have since returned his favor a couple of times with the same request that it was made of me all those years ago.

Me (look at the hair!), Richie Anderson, Capt Paul Lewis, Joe Rodowsky; Paul Lewis' and Richie Anderson's retirement party on the Pelham 1981

Being away is tough but it makes the coming home that much sweeter.  My wife always makes the holiday for us when I return and we celebrate regardless of the date.  It works out well for us, our friends after all these years understand and appreciate the situation.  It actually makes things a bit better when one doesn’t have to race from one set of relatives to another on the same day.  Too hectic.

The holidays are always considered and we make commitments based on our schedule.  We swing the hitch every year to spread the holidays out so everyone has a chance at least once every other year to have the “big three” at home.   In the past the hitch swing wasn’t all that common, but it has become part of the annual scheduling process for us on  the east coast.  Most of us anyway.

So as you raise a glass this holiday season remember someone is always at sea, 24/7/365.

Have a safe, healthy, and happy Holiday Season.

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Erie Basin is home to the Erie Basin Barge-Port co-owned by the Hughes-Reinauer partnership.  It is a tight body of water surrounded by a man-made barrier islands and was home to the New York Shipyard, Revere Sugar Company, and numerous small barge concerns.  The property surrounding the basin is purported to be home of the most hotly contested real estate issues in the 5 boroughs.

The newest occupant is the IKEA Corp. which acquired the NY Shipyard property and built its newest Brooklyn facility there.  The New York Water Taxi calls this basin home as well as the being a holding berth for the Reinauer Shipping Company’s many barges and tugs.  The NYC Police department maintains an evidence impound yard here as well.  (Not a good place for a vehicle to end up.)

Traffic in and out of this small 240′ wide entrance is year round and large scale.  It’s not unusual to see small tugs with sand and trap-rock scows gliding through the “cut” as well as impossibly large tug and oil barge combinations headed for the tie up berths along the NYC Police vehicle impound yard.  It was once home to one of the many shipyards that worked here in New York.  Getting a ship in this cut was a daunting task for the pilot and assist tugs that had to shape up and then catch the big guy inside the cut and assist the turn.  Tricky stuff.  This link shows a photo of the basin from over 50 years ago and illustrates perfectly how busy a place it was.

This tiny part of New York’s harbor is one of the most challenging to negotiate with a tug and tow and is a defining skill of every Reinauer wheelhouse man.  The currents of the Upper Bay and the East River influence the basin’s approaches and make this a particularly difficult inlet to pilot.  Prevailing winds in the winter months are Northwesterly for the most part and will have a tendency to drive and inbound unit southeastward toward the long concrete bulkhead of its 240′ wide entrance.

The summer winds are generally southwesterly and present the north side’s collapsing bulkhead with its ragged profile.  The method I’ve used and prefer when towing alongside into the basin is to have the tow made up on the starboard side of the tug.  The reason I recommend this to my mates and anyone who asks is that the tow will almost always set toward the south wall, given the nature of the prevailing wind and the anticipated effect of the current.  Having the tow on the starboard side allows me to land flat along the south wall and take advantage of the installed rubber fenders that line the wall (thanks to Reinauer).   The approach for the opening is affected by crosscurrents flowing either north (flood) or south (ebb) and will require the inbound unit to have a good amount of steerage to safely negotiate the cut.  The approach is lined up well out in the upper end of Bay Ridge Anchorage in order to set up the entry and stabilize the slide as the entrance is neared.  On the south bulkhead one can see reflective markers that act as a range and will assist the inbounder with detecting the slide as the entrance is approached.  The addition of this homemade range was the result of the Reinauer wheelhouse men making a simple suggestion that made the situation a little better.

With a nod to the skills exhibited by the Reinauer workforce, there is a small cadre of men who earn the respect of every real boatman in the harbor as they transit this small cove in the heart of New York.  The men running the “Brown tugs” and the men steering for “Buchanan” can rightly claim to be occupational experts when it comes to negotiating Erie Basin cut.  These guys do it with loaded sand and gravel barges at nearly any stage of the current in almost any weather and do it every day.  It’s a regular thing to see the boys on the Thomas or John Brown taking a loaded scow or scows through the cut with only a couple of soft lines and nothing else as they glide into the bay from the inner berths of the basin.  It’s graceful and appears effortless, we all know it’s not.

There’s a special knack for handling scows on soft lines that only years of practice can refine.  The amount of boat handling these men do in a day outpaces nearly any other tug in the harbor.  They handle more scows into and out of more berths in a week than we in the petroleum transport business do in months.  This creates extraordinarily skilled boathandlers and deckhands.   It’s a real pleasure to watch them as they untangle a flotilla of 16 or so scows and separate them into various rafts for delivery.  These are the largest tows on the Hudson River anymore and are frequently seen transiting the East River for ports east or heading up the Arthur Kill and Kill Van Kull bound for the “stakeboats” in the upper bay.  Their “stakeboats” are the moorings on the Jersey flats that serve as staging areas for the empty trap rock scows headed back up north to Clinton Point and loaded ones just arrived and bound for construction sites all over the tri-state area.

Erie Basin is also the staging area for most of the city’s fireworks displays.  The Grucci family and others like them set up their pyrotechnic magic inside the confines of the Basin.  It’s a regular thing in the summer months to see the firing tubes of these displays being set up and arranged for an evening’s show.

The many operations that originate here are an integral part of the port that is New York Harbor.  It’s easy to dismiss this little hole in the wall as unimportant.  The next firework display you witness on the Fourth of July will be crafted here.  Your roadways and skyscrapers will be supplied by the efforts of the men who move their charges through this narrow portal safely.  The gasoline and heating oil that is delivered to your neighborhood is done by the tugs barges that wait patiently for the next order to be loaded and delivered to any of dozens of  terminals in the tri-state area.

It’s a big job starting in a small place, right in your backyard.

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