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Tugboat How-To: Towing Alongside 101

Towing alongside is considered to be a bread-and-butter skill for anyone operating a towing vessel. To the novice deckhand or bargeman, or to an academy-graduate greenhorn, much of the process and the reasons for doing things in certain ways may seem mysterious. This post is intended to illuminate some of these principles and practices, as well as to serve as a starting point for others to contribute their ideas and opinions.

Here is an example in profile of the classic stern-first or “heads & tails” configuration (tug’s bow head-first with the barge’s stern tail-first when moving ahead, thus becoming the “working bow”) for towing alongside, which is usually the preferred method whenever possible, as demonstrated by the tug Mary Turecamo and the barge Portland in the Upper Bay’s Bay Ridge Anchorage…


…and…


…a close-up for more detail: 2-part head line, a strap (1-part), and a 2-part stern line. The strap is what transmits the vast majority of the forward pulling force of the tug to the barge, while the head and stern lines transmit the turning/twisting/pivoting forces that allow the barge to be steered. The head line also handles most of the backing forces.

These images of the Marie J. Turecamo and the barge Connecticut, with the same kind of make-up, shows all three lines…


…doing their respective jobs…


…as they slide by, headed for the Con Hook Range and the Kills.

Why is the heads & tails make-up the preferred way to do it?


Because most tank barges (as well as many other types) have skegs, or vertical stabilizers, at the stern…


…which allow for much better and more predictable handling characteristics when they are cutting through the water at the lead end of the tow. This greatly enhances directional control (the barge “tracks” better) and helps minimize the “slide” or crabbing-effect, wherein you and your tow will travel sideways a certain amount when moving forward unless you can counteract it with the rudder, sometimes a great deal of rudder. Some barges, literally, want to move you a barge-width or more to the side for every barge-length you advance and it will frighten the daylights out of you the first time you experience it. It’s like trying to walk in a straight line when one of your legs is a foot shorter than the other. In some cases it can be so extreme that you use up virtually all of your rudder, swung away from the barge-side, just trying to go straight and have to resort to twin-screwing your way through turns. A trick that will often help, when towing anything alongside, is to use only your “inboard” engine (the side where the barge is made up.) in situations where you need to temporarily minimize your slide. With the propulsion axis more closely centered on the overall width of the tow (tug and barge/vessel combined) the tendency to slide will be reduced, sometimes dramatically. This was a technique I used frequently in the days when I used to jockey barges in and out of Erie Basin, a place that allows scant room for error.