Location: the back deck of the Patapsco, drifting along with the Double Skin 55, in the Artificial Island Anchorage at the lower end of the Reedy Island Range, Delaware River. We’re right next to the Salem Nuclear Power Plant, but we’re not worried because Homer Simpson works at this one. The text book term is “transitioning between towing modes” but we simply call it “getting on the wire.” It is, for the crew working on deck, the most dangerous evolution we do, along with breaking loose from a stern tow. Having a well-planned and executed method of doing it is critical if everyone wants to go home in one piece.
To help ensure just that our pick-up line is an old 1.75-inch diameter spectra stern line (no longer fit for that service) which is shackled to the end of the in-service stern line on the port “suitcase” drum of the Intercon tow winch. It’s fairlead through the centerline closed chock and sent over to the barge. There it’s shackled to the barge’s pennant, then we haul it back over the rail…..
…..and across the deck to a point where we can connect our main tow wire to it without too much trouble. Sometimes you need tools, sometimes not.
The deck crew jumps in without fear to shackle in. Using the ultra-strong spectra gives everyone a confidence while working around it that you just never have with regular soft line: it’s highly unlikely that the spectra would ever break, but there’s no snap-back to get you if it did. The increased safety factor from using it allows them to focus more on the task of making the connection. One less (big) thing to worry about…..but of course you must remain careful and vigilant: other hazards still remain. Meanwhile, the captain or mate must maintain the tug’s position relative to the barge so that the wire stays in the right spot on the rail.
The pin is put through the jaws and the nut is spun on…..
…..and the welding rods are secured in place. Then the deck crew moves forward and stands clear while…..
…..the pick-up line is backed out to let the pennant/wire connection come under tension and set the shackle in the correct orientation, then the wire is winched back in a bit so one of our superstar-deckhands can disconnect the pick-up line. Don’t worry, they’re all way brighter than they look!
Once the screw pin shackle…..
…..is disconnected and the pick-up line freed, it’s wound back onto the drum and secured for sea.
Play time’s now officially over. The wire is payed out slowly as the tug swings around, sliding aft and up the rail as tension increases…..
…..and drops into one of the “donuts” (or rollers), which is then neatly picked up onto the top of the Texas bar, where it commences rolling as the wire continues to pay out.
We move out of the anchorage and back into the channel, slowly paying out more wire under moderate tension all the while, at the intersection of the Reedy Island and Baker ranges, outbound for sea. The deckhands stow all gear and secure the decks. Next stop, in about 20 hours with decent weather, is New York Harbor.
We keep the tow relatively short with just two layers out, giving us an LOA of about 900 feet or so, while navigating down the narrow channel through Delaware Bay for another 40-odd miles. The tankermen always try to do the best they can, but sometimes we get stuck with a flat or nearly flat-loaded barge (little or no trim), which can handle like ass, despite their efforts. No one likes getting stuck towing a wild barge in a narrow channel, especially when you’ve got 3-5 knots of fair current behind you. Heavy rains, snowmelt, or a full or new moon can make it stronger still. Throw in darkness, bad weather, fog, heavy traffic (including the dreaded “deep-draft” sailboats), or all of the above, and it’s white knuckles until you clear the #8 buoy triangle at the bottom of the bay and turn outbound into Tugboat Alley for McCrie Shoal and Five Fathom Bank. You’ve got to keep it short enough that you can apply some power and get it to quickly “snap back” more-or-less directly behind you when meeting or being overtaken. But putting out just enough wire to get it solidly into the water can often create enough lateral drag on it to settle a wild barge down at least somewhat. Approaching Brandywine Shoal Light we begin to pick up the swell coming in from the open Atlantic to our east, so we slow down to pay out more wire for another trip “up the beach.”
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