You can learn a lot of things from the wheelhouse of a tug.
The weather (high water due to spring rains, minimal current, blue skies). The economy (slow commercial vessel traffic in New York Harbor reflects the sour economy). Patience (idling in wait for the vessel to arrive). Sleep (how to doze off to the hum of diesel engines). "Grub shopping" (you never have enough milk). The environment (high water brings out the worst of New York's trash into the rivers).
As the Washington, D.C., correspondent for WorkBoat , I don't often have a chance to get out on the boats that I write about. My job usually involves the shoreside chores of attending congressional hearings, talking shop with Coast Guard regulators, or sitting for hours inside hotel ballrooms listening to industry association meetings and workshops.
Getting on a tug in New York Harbor was a chance to compare all this "Inside the Beltway" knowledge to the real, operational work of the Charles D. McAllister , a 2,800-hp, twin-screw tug based at McAllister Towing 's Staten Island, N.Y., operation.
But before stepping on board the 109' × 29' tug, I had to get my geography right. Inside a non-descript building on Richmond Terrace in a seedy area of Staten Island's waterfront, is the 24/7 nerve center for McAllister's towing operations in New York Harbor. Here, dispatcher Joseph Tesoriero was in charge of making sure tugs were in the right place to get the day's work done: guiding oceangoing cargo ships through the Narrows and the Kill Van Kull and on into the Port of Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal, the principal marine terminal for New York Harbor.
He had his eye on an approaching vessel, the Zim San Francisco , a mammoth 4,860-TEU German-flagged container ship chartered to Zim Integrated Shipping Services of Israel. A large TV monitor mapped the ship's location, just south of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. As the ship made its way north at around 9 knots, a pink likeness of the vessel inched along the overhead computer-generated map.
Two tugs were required for this docking operation. The Zim San Francisco is a huge ship - 902' × 105' with a 44-foot draft - and needs assistance rounding the tricky turn at Bergen Point where two currents meet.
The first McAllister tug, the 4,000-hp Ellen McAllister , was already alongside the vessel, and the ship pilot had turned over control to a McAllister docking pilot to guide the ship to the Port of Newark. Tesoriero estimated that the vessel was about 30 minutes away from reaching the point where the second tug - the Charles D. - would meet it near the Bayonne Bridge.
This was a slow day for McAllister. Can't blame the weather, as it was a warm spring day with no rain in sight and calm conditions on the water. They'll handle fewer than nine ships today, while yesterday they worked 18. The average is 12-15 a day, down from about 20 before the recession hit.
But Tesoriero said it's misleading to conclude that fewer ship visits is an automatic indicator of a bad economy. "Ships have grown bigger in the last few years, and cargoes are diverted to these bigger ships," he said. "And these bigger ships are carrying more cargo. With the deepening of the port, we can handle these deeper ships."
I put on a lifejacket and made my way to the Charles D. , where deckhand Humphrey Davidson greeted me and helped me on board. I climbed up to the wheelhouse where Capt. Martin Clancy was preparing the tug for departure. The rest of the crew included engineer William Pierce and mate Hans Daatselaar.
We exchanged a few pleasantries as he moved the tug onto Kill Van Kull. He offered a one-liner that summed up his job: "Countless hours of boredom, followed by moments of sheer terror."
"Sheer terror?" I asked.
"It can happen. If you lose an engine, or line up to a barge and a gust of wind comes up. This is a close contact sport."
Clancy and his crew were half way through a two-week work rotation, and the captain was near the end of his six-hour shift. Wearing aviator glasses and a New York Yankees sweatshirt, he lit another cigarette, apologizing for the nasty habit, explaining that he's been on tugs for 20 years, starting at age 32. "I came late to the job."
He stopped the tug near the Bayonne Bridge, where we saw the Zim San Francisco make its way towards us. A few logs and other debris - loosened by the spring rains - passed by, that reminded Clancy of some unnerving things he sometimes sees in the river: dead bodies, also known as "floaters." He lit another cigarette and commented on how slow business is.
But when he got a good look at the Zim San Francisco , he was surprised. "That guy's really loaded," Clancy said, referring to the stacked up containers - more than 4,000. The tug pulled along side the ship and Clancy spoke to Capt. Robert Moore, the pilot, by radio.
As we approached Bergen Point, the pilot and the two tugs prepared to guide the ship around the point and into Newark Bay. Clancy moved his tug close, and its bow began to nudge the monster as the engines revved. It was a smooth and seemingly effortless turn and the ship continued north.
Clancy turned over the controls to Daatselaar, who had just emerged from his rest period, and he went down for a nap. The first mate's job is to help rotate the ship before pushing her backwards into the dock. He received instructions from Capt. Moore, the pilot. There's more pushing and positioning, and the ship seemed to glide into its docking position. The tugs pulled back and the Charles D. waited next to the pier for the pilot to leave the ship and board the tug for the trip back to Staten Island.
Securely back at dock, the crew waited for its next assignment. Clancy, the captain, didn't emerge. He must have been sound asleep in his berth.