Maestros in the Wheel House

By Tom Neale, 6/5/2012


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The Tug Evelyn Doris started calling Wrightsville Beach Bridge long before it was going to need an opening. This busy bridge crosses the ICW at the town for which it is named. The ICW is lined, south of the bridge, with marinas and a dense collection of boats. The current runs swiftly through the narrow channel; Masonboro Inlet is near. The wind often blows strong off the nearby Atlantic. The tug had every reason to call early. Pushing a huge barge, with flat cliff-like sides towering high above the marshes, the captain had to carefully plan and execute every move. With a tow like that, you can’t stop or even slow down below a certain speed because you lose steerage and control. When this happens you go aground, into docks and boats, or into the bridge.

Wrightsville opens on the hour for pleasure craft, but on demand for commercial craft. Like most bridges, it takes a while to swing. And sometimes vehicular traffic won’t stop, even though the lights are flashing, the horn is sounding and the gates are lowering. And then there’s the occasional fire/rescue vehicle with an emergency. So the tug captain wisely alerted the bridge tender that he was going to be rounding the bend soon and he’d need the bridge open when he got there. He couldn’t give the precise moment of his arrival because the current would change when he passed the ocean inlet. The tender understood and told the captain that he’d “have her open” and to keep him posted. As soon as the tug passed the inlet crossing, where the incoming tide added to his speed, potentially diminishing his control, he gave his new ETA, courteously reminding the bridge tender that he wouldn’t be able to stop. We were heading north up the coast this spring and were behind the tug and had told him and the tender that we’d be sliding through behind. All looked well.

Evelyn Doris at Wrightsville Beach Bridge.
But as the tug, borne by the tide, approached the bridge, it didn’t start to swing. Two pedestrians, oblivious to the lights and horn, were slowly sauntering across the bridge like two lame jackasses in mud to the belly. The bridge tender told the tug what was happening, cleared the bridge and started the swing, as the captain did everything possible to avoid a calamity—successfully.

We followed the tug through the next bridge, around a half hour to the north, and all went smoothly. But later, at another bridge, trouble began to unfold. This bridge only opened on the hour for pleasure boats, and around a dozen were milling around waiting. We’d passed the tug long ago, by pre-arrangement with him, and were also waiting at this bridge, but hanging back because of the strong tide pushing us (and everybody else) toward the bridge. The wind, blowing across the channel from the ocean, added to our difficulty. Again, the tug called ahead for a commercial opening and explained to the bridge tender that a stiff breeze was crossing the beam of the barge and that this fact, coupled with the fair tide, meant he wouldn’t be able to stop or even slow down without possibly losing control. The bridge tender acknowledged and said he would open early to get all the pleasure craft through and out of the way….a good plan. The channel is narrow here.

Passing Evelyn Doris.
Many don’t understand what a tug captain must do in a situation such as this. You don’t just drive the tug and tow through the bridge. You have to carefully line up with the opening. There’s scant room on either side of the tug and tow and the slightest touch can cause a huge amount of damage. Lining up means very careful sighting and maneuvering and positioning well before you reach the bridge. It also involves anticipation of what an eddy or wind gust will do in the next few minutes—foretelling the future but it’s part of the job and learned from experience. Sometimes it involves taking a turn very wide to have room to compensate and it may involve reversing one of the huge engines for the extra steerage power needed to swing the rig. To make matters worse, at this spot, the ICW channel has a bend just before the bridge. The captain couldn’t just follow the channel around the bend. It was far too tight. He had to swing to the very edge of the channel so that he’d have enough room to begin executing his turn and lineup. He helpfully explained this to the bridge tender and to the pleasure boats waiting ahead of him, telling them that they were going to need to be out of his way as he came through.

This would all have been fine but for the fact that some of the pleasure boaters weren’t standing by on VHF 13, which was the bridge tender’s channel and the FCC designated vessel bridge to vessel bridge channel. And some who were on VHF 13, despite the fact that the tug, the bridge tender, and everybody else were talking English, were speaking French. So a significant number of pleasure boats, although clearly seeing the huge tug and tow moving toward them, continued to mill around in front of the bridge. The tug kept coming, the captain repeatedly, courteously, reminded the pleasure skippers and the bridge tender that he couldn’t just stop.

Evelyn Doris Pushes Huge Barge.
We had been waiting off to the very edge of the channel, to let the tug pass. We had communicated this to the tug captain who agreed it would be a good idea. We didn’t want to get into the melee of boats at the bridge, many of whom apparently didn’t understand what was going on. But then the bridge tender announced that he was going to open early so the pleasure boats could get out of the way. We told the captain we were going to take that solution. We saw that he was going to have to swing far over our way at the side in order to make his turn and we were already almost aground. He told us his speed over the ground and we told him ours: better than 12 MPH. We took off, the stern of the 53 foot Chez Nous squatting in the water. It was a good plan.

Tom’s Tips About Bridges and Other Boats

1. When you’re waiting for a bridge opening NEVER assume that the bridge will open when it’s supposed to.

2. Sometimes vehicular traffic won’t stop (and they’re usually violating the law when they don’t), sometimes an emergency vehicle (fire, ambulance) has to race across, sometimes the bridge breaks and sometimes the bridge operator isn’t doing his job properly.

Click Here for More Tips

Until we saw that the bridge wasn’t swinging. Boats were milling, the tug and tow were coming, and the bridge wasn’t swinging. I called the tender and reminded him that the tug couldn’t stop and that he’d said that he was going to open early for the pleasure boats to clear through and that he needed to do that right away. His response was something to the effect that the pleasure boats weren’t close enough yet (although they certainly were). In my opinion this was something like saying, “don’t go into the tornado shelter until you see Toto flying off.” I told him that I was coming at around 12 MPH, that I’d be there in around a minute, and that I wanted to get out of the tug’s way and that he’d said he’d open early to let boats at the bridge clear. He finally began to swing as the tug captain, again, coolly, professionally and courteously announced on 13 that he couldn’t stop and needed to maintain speed to keep control. I’ve been running boats (although not tugs) for almost 60 years and I knew that he was dead on right.

But still, several of the pleasure boats kept milling about, apparently not having been standing by on 13 or not understanding what the tug had to do or the laws of physics that were in control of the situation. But the captain not only understood, he had the skill to do what was needed, avoiding a potential disaster, all the while maintaining his professionalism and courtesy.

Over the years I’ve seen far too many situations like this, where some pleasure boaters don’t have a clue about what the commercial people have to do…about the issues they face. I’ve seen over and over again masterful handling by tug operators to avoid a bad situation set up by careless pleasure boaters. Having been once again very impressed, and just wanting to know, I called the tug company a few days later to ask who the man at the wheel was. They gave me his name: Albert McKinney. I’ve got a lot of respect for people on the water who do their jobs like that. I think we all should.


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