Spinning in the Current: Turning a Barge Loaded with Buoys in the C & D Canal

Photo: Michael Carr

“Canal Control, Canal Control, Canal Control, this is Army Tug 915, channel 13 over”.

I speak slowly into the VHF microphone. One hand on the mike, my other hand controlling the throttles and rudders on the 60 foot Army tug with a 100-foot barge on her nose loaded with Coast Guard ice buoys.

We are stemming a 3-knot ebb current off Dann Ocean Towing’s docks near the west end of the C & D Canal. I let the mike hang by its cord and take a gulp of coffee. I am the only one in the small wheelhouse; the tug’s crew is on deck readying mooring lines.

It is late in the day and we are looking forward to tying up at Dann Ocean Towing for the night. We are assisting the US Coast Guard buoy tender William Tate in their twice-yearly buoy exchange in the upper Chesapeake Bay. Because the upper Chesapeake Bay freezes over in the winter the Coast Guard changes out their regular buoys with ice buoys each fall. In the spring, after the Bay is ice-free, regular buoys are put back in place.

Ice buoys are designed to slide underneath moving ice flows. They are not as bright, nor do they sit as high above the water, as normal buoys, but they are watertight and resist being dragged off station.

Our job is to shuttle buoy laden barges to and from the Coast Guard tender, bringing out ice buoys to be set, and returning to the Coast Guard depot with the regular buoys. By shuttling buoys the Coast Guard tender can remain in the Bay working.

This cooperation is beneficial to both the Coast Guard and Army, as we need underway “tugging” time to maintain our watercraft skills. Pushing and maneuvering loaded barges with a single tug is a specialized skill. Anticipating wind and current, and putting a barge where it needs to be requires a gentle touch on rudders and throttle.

“Army Tug 915 this is Canal Control, over”.

“Good afternoon Sir, I am abeam Dann Ocean Towing and need to flip around so I can enter their cut and moor. Do you have any traffic coming through at this time?”

“Army Tug 915, negative, no traffic at this time, you are cleared to flip around. Let us know when you are out of the channel.”

“Roger that Canal Control. Will do”.

We are facing east, with a 3-knot current on the nose. Dann Ocean Towing’s basin, where we will tie up, is on our port side, but I cannot just turn and head into the basin. If I tried that maneuver, with this 3 knot current on my nose, we would be swept west as the barge’s bow came broadside to the current.

What I need to do is flip us around. First, we move to the right side of the canal, giving ourselves maneuver room, and then turn the barge to port while backing at nearly full throttle. This spins the barge around, placing our stern into the current. In that configuration, I can once again stem the current and slowly “feather” us towards the 100-yard-wide opening into the mooring basin.

Complicating entering the basin is the 200-foot oil response vessel Delaware Responder, which sits moored along the basin’s east side. Entering the small rectangular basin requires sliding out of the current, while maintaining a heading toward the north, avoid being impaled on the basin’s canal-side bulkhead, and finally not colliding with the moored Delaware Responder.

I break this task into separate maneuvers, and then focus on incremental steps between gulps of coffee. Step one is to stem the current and hold our position. Think about how much throttle and rudder action is required to maintain position. Then, while maintaining position and evaluating the situation, I call Canal Control. A brief respite while we parlay.

Now comes the spin, once I start the spin it has to be done quickly, but with control. Left 10 degrees rudder, starboard engine ahead full, port back full, start the spin. Once the bow starts coming left it is blown downstream by the current. I back off the starboard engine. Change the throttle from ahead to astern. Rudders amidships, and now back straight back into the current. Don’t overshoot the turn.

Once turned around, I place us upstream from the opening. Slowly slide right. Right rudder, goose the engines and straighten out again. Rudder amidships. Let the tug and barge settle out. Keep momentum near zero. Once we are over on the north side of the canal we need to make the move and turn into the basin. Fortunately, there are no back currents or eddies in the turning basin, so once the barge is out of the Canal’s current the barge goes where you point. By placing ourselves against the north bank I reduce the current’s effect on the barge when we start our turn.

A turn into the basin must be executed as if you are trying to go where the Delaware Responder is moored. Once I turn the current starts taking us west at 3 knots. We are entering a 100-yard-wide opening while being pushed sideways at 3 knots. I am seeing “vectors” everywhere; the current vector, the wind vector, the tug and barge vector, the resultant vector…the “where we are actually going”, the true vector.

We slide past the Delaware Responder, maybe 10 feet off her outboard side, and then almost magically, the 3-knot current is gone. I back down full on both engines, and we slow to a crawl and stop. We are in calm water now, maybe 20 feet off the basin’s west wall. Right full rudder, port ahead slow, starboard back slow. I walk us sideways and place the barge’s port bow on the dock. The deck crew rigs a snubber line.

I see thumbs up from the crewman on the bow. I go to right full rudder, and ahead slow on port, back slow on starboard. We suck ourselves against the dock and secure all lines.

“Coast Guard Cutter William Tate, this is Army Tug 915, channel 13 over.”

“Army Tug 915, Tate, go.”

“Tate, 915, we are secured for the night at Dann Ocean Towing. Ops normal. See you at 0600 tomorrow morning skipper.”

“915, thank you for all the help today, really appreciate you ferrying so many buoys for us, have a great evening.”

“Hooyah sir, our pleasure. 915 out.”

“Canal Control, Army Tug 915, we are moored Dann Ocean Towing, clear of the Canal, thank you.”

I make the final log entry for the day, secure the radar and electronic equipment. Then shut down the engines and electrical panel. I take a sip of coffee and walk out onto the port bridge wing. With the engines secured it is quiet. I can hear cars crossing the canal bridge high above us. I wonder briefly where they are all going.

I can now talk to the crew without a radio.“Awesome work today guys. Let’s meet on the mess deck when you are done securing, and we can set the in-port watch. Thank you for a great day…”