By Michael Carr – Portsmouth Virginia’s Inner Harbor seawall is lined with lampposts spaced about 25 feet apart. They are ornate, built of steel and concrete, and stand at the edge of the seawall, where you can use them for support when you peer over the pier’s edge to admire boats tied up along the wall. At night their light provides a warm glow and reflects off the Elizabeth River. For walkers and joggers the waterfront’s wide wooden docks, lights, benches, and shrubbery provide a relaxing venue.
Sixty-foot, 100 ton, twin-screw passenger ferries ply the half-mile distance across the Elizabeth River between Portsmouth and Norfolk, transporting commuters and tourists. Most days each ferry is filled with adults and children, admiring river traffic and the numerous vessels being repaired in the surrounding shipyards.
As one of the Captains for the Elizabeth River Ferry service, I enjoyed the transits. Some crew thought the route back and forth was boring and tedious, but I enjoyed watching passengers board and disembark, and each day was a little different.
We had a crew of two. They would collect tickets, handle the spring line hook up and release, and keep order during the 15-minute passage across the river.
Once an hour I would leave the pilothouse to make an engine room check, otherwise, I was alone in the pilothouse. A large five foot in diameter wheel steered the boat, which I relished spinning from full left to full right rudder during maneuvers. Propulsion came from two 350 HP diesel engines connected to three-foot diameter propellers.
A large paddlewheel adorned the ferries stern but was there only for cosmetic reasons. These ferries were essentially flat-bottomed barges, with a riverboat style superstructure. There was no keel so the ferries slid sideways during turns, you slalomed your way into berths, but with the props, separated by 20 feet, you could easily maneuver by backing on one and coming ahead on the other.
Spinning the boat around on the Portsmouth side, placing the bow pointing out, was always enjoyable and kept me working on achieving the “perfect landing”. Upon entering the ferry slip in Portsmouth you must turn the ferry to starboard and spin her around, placing her port side against the boarding ramp. There is little room to maneuver, you cannot “back and fill”, and so the turn to starboard must be made correctly. Right full rudder, ahead on port, back on starboard, spin the boat, and feather each throttle to maintain spin and only minimal forward motion. You must lay the ferry against the dock so the crew can reach over to the dock, grab the fixed spring line, and drop its eye over the forward cleat.
When the spring line has been dropped on the cleat the crew rings a bell located on the adjacent bulkhead, indicating the spring is on. At this point you come ahead slowly on the port engine, take up slack on the spring line, and come to neutral on starboard while maintaining right full rudder. This sucks the ferry against the dock while passengers debark and new passengers embark. This is a simple maneuver, but it must be executed correctly each time, and depending on wind, can be a challenge. I always strove to “nail it” each time. I like to think I improved over the year I was captain.
Each shift driving the ferry was eight hours, but on occasion, we did 16-hour shifts, when another captain was sick, or there was a family emergency. During an 8-hour shift, you would dock and undock four times an hour. Repetition builds skill and confidence, or at least it should.
“Keep an eye on the starboard throttle tonight,” said the Operations Manager. “Other captains have told me they think something is binding up or sticking in the cables.”
“OK,” I said, thinking I would need to moderate my spins on the Portsmouth side during tie-ups. “I’ll send our mechanic over tomorrow to take a look”.
I thought nothing more of the throttles and began my shift. It was a Friday night; we would be handling commuters, and then the happy hour crowd. The real challenge came after midnight when we made our last run at 0100. Revelers from Waterside would board for the last trip across the river. I can remember blowing the ferries horn multiple times as we prepared to depart at 0030 and watch people “running” for the boat. It’s quite entertaining to watch women run in stilettos as their boyfriends attempt to assist.
On our final run across the river, I was always ready to tie up, shut down the two engines, inspect the boat and head home. I slowed as we entered the slip on the Portsmouth side. Throttle back to half ahead, then right full rudder, then starboard back.
But starboard did not back. It kept going ahead, at full throttle. We had maybe 100 feet before we would slam into the concrete seawall, with a boatload of intoxicated passengers. I pulled the port throttle to reverse, full reverse. I put the rudder amidships. Now we were spinning to port, with the starboard throttle stuck in full ahead and port going full astern. I knew the crew was wondering, “Really, it’s the last run of the day, its 1:00 am, can we please just tie up?”
I needed to shut down the port engine, but I did not want to do that when the engine was running at full throttle. While spinning in a circle at high speed I wrestled with the starboard throttle lever, working it gently to get the engine out of gear and RPMs down. Then the cable broke.
“OK,” I thought, “No point in trying to lower the RPMs now” and I pounded down on the engine kill knob. The starboard engine stopped. Now I had only the port engine, making steering the flat bottom boat nearly impossible.
“Get to the dock, get any line on” and we can then sort this out I thought to myself. Easier conjured than accomplished. I did not want to be pushed into the end of the slip, I would never get out if that were to happen, so I backed and filled, and turned the wheel to move us toward the dock.
And then the lamppost appeared. I had been so focused on getting us to the dock that I had ignored the lampposts placed along the edge of the dock.
It was high tide and our bow rake overhung the dock. There it was that big steel and concrete lamppost, directly ahead, only a few feet away. If I had both engines working I could back straight, and clear the post, but with only the port engine working I would spin our stern to starboard as we backed, swinging the overhanging bow to port, colliding with the lamppost. If I continued to come ahead, well that would just bring a collision with lamppost sooner.
“Shit,” I said to myself. “Lets back real slow and see what happens”. Well, what happens when a 100-ton vessel presses against a lamppost is the post comes down, in slow motion. And down it came. Crash, onto the ferries bow.
I slid open the pilothouse window and yelled down to the crew, as calmly as if I was asking for a cup of coffee, “Just ignore the lamppost, go ahead and hook up the spring line.” I thought there might be more commotion from the passengers, but they just disembarked, staggering up the dock, laughing and having a wonderful time. It occurred to me maybe they thought this is how we dock all the time. Knocking down a lamppost is part of the “Art and Science” of being a mariner.
With the passengers gone, all was quiet, the crew cleaned up the boat and I walked down to examine the lamppost now lying on our bow. “Sorry to wake you up boss, but I knocked down a lamp post tonight. No injuries, other than the lamp post.”
I was back at work the next afternoon, the throttle cable had been fixed and the lamppost was gone. But a replacement pole was not in place. Years later, many years later I was transiting the Elizabeth River, now a skipper on an Army tug, and I slowed down as we passed the ferry slip. I peered through my binoculars at the pier, counting lampposts and spacing, and there it was, the same spot with no lamppost. It had never been replaced. I thought back on that night.
“Can you take the wheel for a moment?” I asked the Bos’n. “You know, your past is always part of you, I’m going to get a cup of coffee”.