Archive for the ‘deckhands’ Category

Tugboats or towboats (whatever you prefer), share the fact that they go bump. More than a little and most of the time. It’s dangerous work and always has been.  That’s why they’re wrapped in rubber all the way around. The first time a new crew member steps on the boat we want to impress on them to be aware of their handholds at all times. “One hand for the boat, one hand for yourself”.  You definitely have a responsibility for your own safety.

The bump can come at any time of the day or night, in any weather, fair or foul. Getting “waked” by a passing boat or a hard contact under the bow of a container ship or maybe laying up alongside a raft of barges, it always has the potential to be a substantial impact.  Adding a little twist to that is the deckhand will usually be a couple to a few hundred feet away from the wheelhouse and may be out of our direct line of sight.  A radio in one hand and the other holding on during the approach is the rule.

If you give the facts their due, all that rubber wrapped tonnage has to make contact with unwrapped tonnage to do its job. It’s our raison d’etre. Sometimes the bump is gentle, sometimes it’s hard enough to jar a few fillings loose. The “bell-ringer” happens frequently enough that it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Someone is always training, but it’s not just the novices that score a hit every now and then.

The boys working the decks of boats doing scow work are accustomed to the bump. Scows don’t get all that much TLC, they’re built for the banging around they get. They bump and grind more than Gypsy Rose Lee.

Ship work involves getting “up close and personal” with the walls of steel that seem to pull you in with their own special kind of gravity. We really don’t want to land hard on a ship, but….

Even though oil barges are built with substantial steel framing and double hulls, we try very hard to avoid banging them around.   All that “explosiveness” should give one pause….not to mention the liability of opening one up anywhere.

Timing, weather and skill play a part in it all. But even the best boat handler’s have a hard bump now and again. It’s part of the job, tug boating is definitely a contact sport.

A deckhand has the primary risk to fall victim to a hard contact if he doesn’t have an eye on what’s happening and have a firm grip on something. The easiest way to go swimming (or worse) is to be approaching the berth and you’re on deck with your head up your ass dreaming of crew change, cold beer and warm women.

If you take the time to examine the way things happen it should come as no surprise that when you’re about to land alongside a couple of moored units they are not necessarily laying tightly packed together. There will be some slack in their lines, especially if the other units have been laid up for a tidal cycle or two.

Even though you’ve made the initial landing “eggshell safe”, once your first line is out and wrapped up the force of the tug working ahead or astern will now move ALL the barges until everything fetches up. Think “billiards”, one contacts another and so on until all the lines have taken up the strain.

It probably won’t be the initial contact that gets you, it’s the after shocks that are the killers. After some time aboard a tug and if you’ve really honed your “situational awareness”, you’ll learn that when two or more large steel boxes are in close proximity, there will be bumps (note the plural). The sometimes fatal mistake occurs when one forgets that simple fact.

In bad weather you’d probably (hopefully) have a keener awareness of how dangerous things are since footing becomes difficult in heavy snow or visibility is challenged in darkness, rain and wind. Work vests can restrict movement, safety glasses may be fogging and diesel exhaust will impair your vision, all good reasons to be cautious.

Fair weather dockings would seem to be of less concern, but you should be holding on anyway since you can be lured into that false sense of security by the balmy breeze and not notice how quickly the boat is closing with the berth.

Bumpity, bump, freakin’ bump.

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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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Line handling is a skill that takes a lot of practice.  It’s an age old tradition for a new deckhand to receive instruction on the fantail from the Captain, Mate, or senior deckhand in the finer points of line throwing and “lettin’er go”.  It doesn’t look all that  different now than it did more than 100 years ago as you might imagine.  It’s a skill that requires more finesse than strength and it brings out the competitive side of everyone when it comes time to show your stuff.  It isn’t as easy as the veterans make it look, just ask the new guy.

These captures are from a video shot by Mate Gardner Bilodeau.

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It’s a regular occurrence, we take the novices aboard and get them oriented. We show them the pointy end (the bow), the port side rail, the starboard side rail, and then the not so pointy end (the fantail) all the while extolling the virtues of remaining within those boundaries, no swimming without authorization if you please. We teach them the basic chores and how we want them done, and then try to imbue them with our knowledge and experience so that they too will eventually be equipped to think and act as a full share member of the team. We are keenly aware that until they’ve got some time under their belts we’ll need to coddle, cajole, and harangue some of these hopefuls in order to keep them from killing themselves or anyone else on our watch. The entire crew is involved.

One of the many questions asked by newcomers to the trade is; “What do I need to know right out of the gate?”. In an effort to clear up the mystery, here’s the first few things a new hire should commit to memory as he or she steps aboard the tug (or any work boat) for the first time.

Welcome aboard.


The Tug Richard K , shifting at Standard Tank in Bayonne NJ photo by Capt J. Brucato 1979

The first thing you need to know is that working on a tugboat is a real job, you can’t fake the proficiency you’ll need to survive. The environment is dangerous and demanding. Learning on the job is traditional and training new hires is a common practice for us, we expect it to take some timple.

We prefer that you have no experience at all, it’s easier for us if you have no bad habits that we’ll need to overcome. If you’ve been fortunate enough to graduate from an academy please keep in mind we don’t need to hear how smart you are, you’ll need to demonstrate your intelligence and learn what we teach you.

Please know that we won’t ask you to do anything that we ourselves haven’t done. We know how to get you up to speed and you’ll either learn to follow orders, or end up “back on the beach”. After that the next thing you’ll learn may well be when to say, “Ma’am, do you want fries with that?”. If you want the job, pay attention.

No one expects you (as a novice) to know what is expected when you step aboard a boat to work for the first time. If you’re lucky enough to have scored a job with a tugboat outfit, there are many things to be learned but, before you’ve stepped aboard the one thing you should have already mastered is your manners.

Report to the captain and show him your paperwork. Although the atmosphere on a tugboat is less formal than what you would find sailing “deep sea”, you would do well to remember that the Captain is not your buddy, pal, father, friend, or peer, he’s the Boss, be prepared to show him respect.

Listen carefully to what you’re told and find your room and bunk. Introduce yourself to your new shipmates.

At this point it’s worth mentioning that you should pay particular attention to practicing good hygiene habits. The tight living quarters on a tug are tough enough, we don’t need to put up with your funk. Flush and wipe the bowl if your aim is bad. Wipe out the sink, no one wants to see globs of your toothpaste floating around the drain or splattered on the mirror. Make sure you always clean up after yourself, learn how to change a toilet tissue roll, your Mama ain’t here.

Keep yourself and your work area clean and orderly, and before you handle any food whether you’re making a sandwich or starting dinner, wash your hands.

Find out what your responsibilities are in an emergency, check the Station Bill for your duty assignment during drills and emergency response. Learn and remember the location of all the emergency equipment on the boat, you’ll be expected to know how everything works in short order. Pay attention during the drills. You’ll be shown what everything is and what it’s called, your task is to memorize it so you understand what you’re being told.

You’ll be assigned a watch. Get out of bed when you’re called for the watch, don’t try to catch “just 5 more minutes”, we’re not your personal snooze alarm. You’re expected to show up a few minutes or so before you’re due on watch. Napping on watch is forbidden.You should be properly dressed, fed, sufficiently caffeinated, and ready to work.

Showing up prepared to work “properly equipped” means a deckhand should have a work knife in his pocket or on his belt and be wearing a good pair of work boots and gloves, sneakers don’t really cut it. During your first tour you should keep a list of the items you’ll need to fill out your gear for the next hitch. Like a better set of rain gear, boots, glove liners, etc.

If you don’t understand something, ask. Common sense (while not so common) is second only to showing respect for your shipmates and vessel. That includes pulling your weight and respecting the privacy of others. Like I said, good manners.


“Crossing the table”, towing a ship out of the graving dock in Bayonne Shipyard

You are here to work, put the cell phone, Ipod, and laptop away until you are off watch. You aren’t here if you’re on the phone or whatever.

Practice, practice, practice your line-handling. The only way to become proficient is to take a lot of throws at bitts and cleats. Every deckhand breaks in the same way by throwing lines on the fantail. The exercise isn’t all that different from a hundred years ago, it’s a rite of passage for all of us. We’ve all done it and I can assure you it’s not about strength, it’s about technique and finesse. “It’s in the wrist”.

These are just a few of the things you’ll be expected to do once you step aboard. Remember, there are no stupid questions except for the one you didn’t ask.

You only get one chance at making a good first impression and if you show us you’re ready and willing to learn, we’ll be more than happy to teach you everything we know.

By the same token, if for one minute we get the idea you’re trying to blow smoke up our ass or just trying to get away with the least you can do, you’re done. Then we’ll find someone else who’d like to earn $45,000.00 per year + benefits to start, with no experience required. Comprende?

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Since long before the days of hand held radios and modern twin screw tugs, the deckhand has been responsible for the “first and last twenty feet” of the job.  This means that he was relied upon to give direction to the tug using a small police whistle or use hand signals to safely guide the operator away from or into the berth since visibility was almost always impaired by the tow.
This critical skill  frequently required an extended period of time on deck and it didn’t matter how cold, wet, wind-blown, or frozen the man was.  He stayed on deck until he was released by a toot on the peanut whistle or a wave from the wheelhouse.
However, the deckhand who faithfully and admirably stood by his station and performed his duties could be somewhat less than noble. On occasion he could be found cursing a blue streak for all he’s worth if things were taking too long in his opinion, especially if he was freezing or soaked to the skin.
“That dock-shy sonofabitch, I could have had this thing to the dock last week”, or one of my favorites, “My little sister could do a better job getting this thing to the dock!”. No one can hold a candle to a sailor once he’s hit his stride and cursing a blue streak, it’s a thing of beauty.
There was precious little generosity granted when things were taking a little longer than normal.  The wheelhouse was tasked with getting their charge to the dock safely and the deckhand needed to ensure that would happen.  So if the conditions were a little more difficult than usual, the level of “bitchin'” was sure to rise.  The epithets were hurled like a monkey’s fist on a heaving line away from and out of earshot of the wheelhouse.  It was somewhat cathartic and made a difficult task a little less painful, but no matter the circumstances the deckhand was there until it was done.
There wasn’t any (acceptable) vocabulary to relay one’s discontent to the wheelhouse since a whistle or hand signal was all that was used.  The job had to get done and if you weren’t properly dressed you could consider it a lesson for next time. We all learned to be keenly aware of “docking showers” since we’ve all suffered through that torrential downpour that occurs a mere 20 feet from the dock when there is no way in Hell you could leave the deck to get your rain gear.  You tough it out and hope that the engine room is warm enough to dry you boots for the next watch.

In any case I hold the belief that it’s a deckhand’s God-given right to bitch on deck with one huge caveat; don’t let the wheelhouse hear it, ever. The idea that one might flash a signal at the wheelhouse other than what was required was grounds for a quick trip to the dock, adding one’s name to the bottom of the hiring list at the Union hall, and then maybe extracting that size 12 from one’s bottom end.

It behooves me to admit that I too was guilty of this behavior. When I was decking, I had occasion to stand alone in 20-degree weather with a 15-knot breeze off the dock for over 45 minutes one fine winter’s day.   The old Rollins dock in Bayonne, NJ was falling down with exposed steel and splintered pilings, it wasn’t pretty and even less so when you had to land at the berth “in the blind”.  The captain made multiple attempts to land under my direction.   I gave him clear and proper whistle signals for what I knew was needed, and he was “blind” except for me. But over and again, he would back away from the berth just as I was close enough to get a line out and finally end my misery.  And so, like  many others before me I conjured all the foul thoughts and language I could muster and spewed that venom until the job was done.  I had little sympathy for his predicament.  I had safely guided him in such situations so many times before without a problem that his reluctance to let the barge get close enough was maddening.  When at last we were moored, I came back aboard nearly frostbitten on my nose, feet, and hands.  I spent an hour trying to warm up all the while cursing the man as my extremities thawed slowly in close proximity to the galley oil stove.

Some of the most creative and descriptive derogatory terms I’ve ever heard were from a damp, slightly chilled and weary tanker-man as he and I waited for the Mate to get us close enough to the dock to get a line out.  I stood witness as he revealed his uncanny knack for tearing an approach down to its parts and passing his judgment on the wheelman’s lack of talent.  Who knew a bargeman could wield such knowledge and expertise? Of course, it’s easy to criticize when you’re not at the wheel, or even a wheelhouse candidate. One of my favorite retorts was to tell the “resident docking master” that I’d be happy to relay his advice to the man at the wheel, or if he’d prefer, he could do it himself.  That offer was never accepted.
Commiseration is such a perfect word.  Barge captains, tanker-men and deckhands all share the misery of getting to the dock as Mother Nature rains down, blows, sleets, and snows upon them.  It’s a perfect environment of shared discomfort, everyone is equally miserable.  The scene is common throughout the industry, in any language, and any corner of the world.  The wheelhouse always takes too long to get it done if you ask the man out in the weather.

Docking the derrick "Century" in Newtown Creek winter 1985-86

Docking the derrick "Century" in Newtown Creek winter 1985-86 photo by bbrucato

The perspective changes, as it must, once you’re the man at the wheel.   You know it’s likely the deckhand is cursing your lack of skill, style of dress, and even your taste in women.  It’s entirely possible he’s calling your parent’s marital status into question as well.   But as long as he’s turned and facing the dock when he does it, we can allow him his misery and let him vent.  We did it ourselves not so long ago.  We all remember our time on deck and we’d like to think that we’ll do a better job of keeping everyone happy and get things done quickly and safely now that  it’s our turn at the wheel.  But sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way.  Either way, it isn’t about keeping everyone happy. It’s about doing the job safely without hurting anybody or anything.

So, it’ll take as long as it takes, feel free to bitch away boys, just let me know when you’ve got a line out.

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