Up and down the York River, tugboats provide safe and secure transit for ships. The biggest clients are Navy warships, which usually take one and sometimes two tugs to push and prod into port at Yorktown Naval Weapons Station. The current is wicked, aggravated by the 2-foot tide.
Moran Towing gets that job done, using giant boats based in Norfolk near the Navy fleet. They precede the cruisers and destroyers to catch them under the Coleman Bridge. Consider the Wendy Moran, which has two 16-clyinder engines providing 4,200 HP. Wendy Moran is 87 feet long and carries 39,000 gallons of fuel so that it can make passage all the way from its home port of Wilmington, Delaware. At 175 gallons an hour burned, it can run 223 miles between fill-up. Moran operates in key ports up and down the East Coast, with a considerable footprint in New York City.
Vane Brothers out of Portsmouth operates tugs with oil barges for the Yorktown Terminal. The combined use of tug and barge is called bunkering. Sometimes two or three barges lie off the docks of the terminal, and a Vane Brothers tug accompanies each one at anchor. This is a safety feature that evolved after the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska years ago. That had nothing to do with tugs or barges, ironically. The captain was drunk.
Tow vs. push
Tugboats at sea typically tow a barge because it’s easier and doesn’t require close-in control. Watch it happen in the Chesapeake Bay, and you’ll see a delicate ballet take place. As the tug reaches the entrance to the York River, the captain slackens the hawser line and briskly moves behind the barge to begin pushing it with his bow up the snout of the barge stern. I don’t think at any moment the barge drops the hawser until the push is under way.
Prices of used tugs are all over the map. A new 107-footer from China is listed here at $5 million. They say that for a $5 million barge, the first $4 million is the engine. Twin screws enable the captain to drive the tug like a tank and turn on a dime. Their wake looks spectacular in full flight.
One piece of useful protocol for mariners: Hail an approaching tug before he hails you. Use Channel 13 and identify yourself. Listen very carefully for the name of the tug, as the captain does not like to repeat himself. Tell him your intentions and path. He’ll appreciate it and say so.
My favorite boat of all time is a Vane Brothers tiny tug that looks no bigger than pickup truck. Tiny Mary pushes small barges around that are used for driving pilings for residential docks.
Let’s Go Sail, hailing the tugs
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