Mariners are trained and experienced to handle all types of emergency on the river. Sailboats pose unique hazards of boom strike, lightening and heeling. 99 days out of 100, everything is fine.
Fortunately, the York River offers a placid environment for sailing and boating in general. The river spans as wide as two miles, with plenty of room for navigation by the few tugboats that come along.
Vane Bros. tugs operate close to the coast, often for dredging operations. Moran tugs arrive from Norfolk ahead of Navy warships to help steer them into port at Yorktown Naval Weapons Station. Other tugs operate independently. Now and then we see a tiny tug pushing a teeny barge that’s a pile-drivier.
Tugboats typically tow barges on the open Bay or sea. Once inland, they reverse course and push the barges because it’s more stable that way.
By contrast with the York River, the Illinois River offers a perilous challenge to tugboats and their captains. The Illinois is narrower, shallower, and chock full of barge traffic moving goods to and from Chicago. The current on the York is tidal, rising and falling 2 feet twice a day. Over 273 miles, the Illinois drops 90 feet on the way to the Mississippi. That averages 6 inches a mile, which is a lot of drop. A series of locks breaks the fall, but tugs with multiple barges can barely squeeze inside them. Amazingly, some families take float trips on the Illinois.
John McPhee is a long-form writer for The New Yorker magazine. He has written extensively about all modes of transportation, including tugboats. Several articles form his book, “Uncommon Carriers.”
A tugboat captain named Mel told McPhee, “There are seven different ways to run a river—high water, low water, upriver with the current on your head, downriver, daytime, nighttime, and running it by radar. Once you learn those seven ways, you can run any river.”
A tugboat burns about one gallon per horsepower per day, so a 2,000 HP engine uses 2,000 gallons a day. That seems painfully inefficient until you realize that a tug can push thousands of tons of cargo per day. McPhee wrote, “As the barge industry is always ready to point out, in fuel consumed per ton-mile, a tug is 2-1/2 times more efficient than a freight train and nearly nine times more efficient than a truck.”
Out on the York, boaters give barges plenty of leeway. It’s customary to raise a tug on marine radio to report one’s course and offer to deviate. McPhee wrote of the Illinois:
“Slow as tugs are, they sometimes hit pleasure craft, although it is usually the other way around. A skier of boat who comes in from the side to jump the wake can be sucked into and through the propellers. If a water-skier falls a thousand feet in front of the tow, the skier has 60 seconds to get out of the way or the skier can go under the entire tow and into the propellers.”
A You Tube video below shows a string of barges run aground, which happens on the Illinois because passing lanes up and down river are so narrow and close to shore. Listen closely to the crew’s conversation and you’ll think this is nothing more stressful than rearranging cars in a parking lot. Sometimes things get more frantic.
“At 5:25 am, the Billy Joe Boling and the 15 barges instantly lose 100 percent of their momentum and come to a sickening, shuttering, completely unexpected and convulsive stop. This 1145-foot vessel has not just been sliding in mud; it has run aground hard.” Barges snap off and continue heading downriver for Baton Rouge on a course that will ram them into bridges unless the crew acts fast. Which they do, to save the run.
On the York, barges come in from the Dakotas to unload crude oil at the Yorktown Terminal. From there, the oil runs through the Colonial Pipeline to Philadelphia. Sometimes the operation is reversed to pump oil to Yorktown for onloading to barges. It makes no sense.
McPhee found American cars built in Japan that were then shipped to the United States. He learned of Toyotas built in the States that were shipped to Japan. A tugboat captain said, “If they ever figure it out, we’re out of business.”
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Mariners are trained and experienced to handle all types of emergency on the river. Sailboats pose unique hazards of boom strike, lightning and heeling. Here's what to do.
Capt. Bill O'Donovan
Williamsburg Charter Sails
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