On the Wire

It’s been a busy few weeks to start the new year, both at home and afloat. On the tugboat front we’ve put some miles under the keel in the last two weeks; roughly 2,000 to be specific. After nearly a year of bunkering and running around the harbor we are finally doing some coastwise work, and for me it’s a chance to learn the ins and outs of working on the wire. At my previous employer we got on the wire a precious few times due to our run being so short and in the generally sheltered waters of long island sound. We’d load in New York Harbor, often KMI Carteret, and push loaded to Port Jefferson. 11-12 hours later we would leave with the barge light alongside for another load in the harbor.

The majority of my work now consists of running around the harbor on the end of the dispatchers phone line! Multiple barge moves a watch, in and out of IMTT or Buckeye Bayonne. Then off to the anchorage or up Newark Bay to Port Elizabeth/Port Newark. The bunker trips are broken up on occasion by clean oil dock to dock trips in the harbor.


So it was a definite treat to find out that we would be making some out of town trips for a client with one of our newer barges. A number of these trips would be extremely out of town, as far afoot as I’ve been yet as a watch stander on a tugboat. After loading in New York we headed out the Narrows and got on the wire just below the Verrazano Bridge. As we headed down Ambrose for sea we stretched out a couple of layers of wire, and after turning out between the 1 and 3 buoys we let out some more. From that point on it was several days of gradually warming weather, in conjunction with gradually blueing water. The sunsets on the afternoon watch certainly didn’t disappoint.

Our arrival to the St. Johns Sea Buoy was towards the end of my 0001-0600 watch. In order to make good out ETA to the pilot station, I had to gradually slow down and pull in wire to keep it off the bottom. Off the sea buoy we pulled in the rest of the wire and pulled the pin to disconnect. For this part of the evolution I remained at the forward controls with the steering controls and kept us on a straight course in front of barge. The capt. ran the throttles and the winch, as soon as we disconnected I took the throttles back and drove around to the stern of the barge to get into push gear.

While we were more than ready to get to the dock after 5 days offshore, at this point thick fogged had rolled off the coast and settled just offshore. Thick enough that the Pilots had closed the river to piloted traffic. So I went to bed and we drifted around to nearly 1100 when the fog had lifted and we had a pilot. Then it was just a quick trip up river to the terminal where we dropped the barge and ran off to take on fuel, water, and offload trash at our company dock in Jacksonville. Again the Small Vessel Operations network struck again and I got a wave from a fellow alumni on the Katie T Moran as they steamed down river to meet a ship.

Once our quick turn around was complete, we put the barge on the wire just off of the dock and headed for sea. Our pilot was the same who had brought us in from sea and we had a great conversation about the suspension of Sea Year at Kings Point as both him and his wife are alumni, and his daughter is currently at the school. After he boarded the pilot boat just below Mayport we slowed slightly to get ready to begin letting out wire outside of the jetties. The first order of business is to get the wire sitting in one of the donuts on the texas bar. These are a large metal ring with an indent in them which the wire sits in, they then slide from side to side as the boat rolls and yaws, preventing wear and tear on the wire. When you have been towing up short and the wire isn’t sitting on the donut there are a few ways to get it into the donut. If the donut is already up off the angled edge of the texas bar then it is just a matter of sliding it into place under the wire so it simply drops into place as you slow down and pay out wire. However in our case the donuts were still off to either side of the texas bar and too heavy to lift up onto the straight section of the texas bar. The process in this case is to use the boat and the barge to slide the wire up side of the boat past the donut. To do this I simultaneously slowed down, let out a small amount of wire, and drove out to one side of the barge. At this point the barge is traveling faster than the tug and it only takes a few seconds for the bow of the barge to pull the wire forward on the rail of the tug. As this happens I speed up, pay out a bit more wire and drive back out in front of the barge. When done correctly this looks like one smooth swift motion, to be honest it took me two tries. Our winch requires you to run the level wind manually and operating that, the winch itself, the throttles, and the steering is a lot all at once.

Once we had the wire in the donut and the tug was in front of the barge and straightened out, I radioed up to the wheelhouse and my AB put the boat on autopilot. This allowed me to concentrate on working the throttles and winch to pay out wire while keeping enough tension on it to keep the catenary off of the bottom. Then it was again a couple of days on the wire headed north, this time for the Chesapeake Bay and C & D canal with a destination of Philadelphia to wait out poor weather offshore. It was a blustery trip up the bay and through the Canal, the wind and weather continued as we towed up Delaware Bay towards Philly. Off the Navy Yard we called all hands and rounded up on the barge shortly after dinner time. The conditions continued to be challenging and between the crew of the tug and the two crew on the barge we had the barge alongside, made up, and underway again in roughly five minutes. The crew we have onboard are a great bunch and we all work at a nearly unspoken level together, what has made it even better was the ease of working with the current barge crew. They are two great guys and always worked to make our jobs easier.


Even with crew change just around the corner there was time for one last local job for us and the barge, a quick run from our dock in the Schuylkill River down the Del City for a load, and then up to Del Air for a discharge. We crew changed by tugboat off the mouth of the Schuylkill as we went by with the loaded barge, it was then a mad dash to our vehicles at our Brooklyn Dock, and then homeward bound! All said in done we put a lot of miles under the keel, and I got to learn some new things while sharpening my voyage planning skills.

About newenglandwaterman

1600 Master Near Coastal, Master of Towing Vessels, and a whole binder full of other pieces of paper. You can find me at the controls, hooked up and hard over, when I'm not at home playing with the dogs
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