When giant tankers need guidance getting in and out of port, captains call on the world’s most powerful tugs to steer them straight.
The Methane Princess is inbound, and she’s not to be trifled with. She’s 277 metres long and 43 metres wide, draws 10 metres and is loaded with liquefied natural gas (LNG). The 94 000-ton vessel is perceived as a giant floating bomb, and at slow speeds, within the confines of crowded shipping channels and ports, there’s simply not enough water passing over her rudder to maintain steerage. She might as well be adrift. Which is why, on this muggy, overcast September afternoon, the tractor tugboat Edward J Moran is churning down the Savannah River, headed 13 kilometres into the Atlantic off the US coast to meet the Princess and escort her to the Elba Island LNG terminal, 8 kilometres east of Savannah, Georgia. And why the Edward and her sister ship Bulldog, owned by another company and heading out with us, are tasked with the job: they are the most powerful, sophisticated tugs in the United States.
Up in the Edward’s pilothouse, the captain, David Missroon is sitting in a Kirk-like Star Trek chair, each forearm resting on a console, each hand holding a fist-sized joystick knob. Missroon flicks his wrists. The ship pitches forward – the force is strong enough to send me to the deck, but I’m holding on with both hands. Almost as quickly, the tug comes to a dead stop and then lurches backward. I’ve been around the water my whole life, and I’ve never seen a vessel move the way the Edward moves, much less one 30 metres long and packing 4 850 kW: she can go from 13 knots (24 km/h) forward to 13 knots in reverse in 15 seconds. Another twist of the joysticks and the ship pivots 360 degrees within her own length.
The reason for all this power and agility is simple: to convince a skittish public of the safety of transporting LNG, the US Coast Guard and the LNG industry are building a fleet of tugs that are able to maintain absolute control over the tankers in port at all times.
When we exit the river and head into the ocean, the swells pick up, and 2-metre waves, driven by winds gusting to 50 km/h, crash over the pilothouse. It’s a long, rough slog out to the Princess, which finally looms into view – a British-registered, black-hulled steel monolith that left Egypt 12 days ago. We slide up against the hull in the ship’s lee, and Rodney Magwood, the docking pilot, climbs the gangway and disappears inside the tanker. We manoeuvre to the stern, the bow hard against steel, and deckhand David Krokoski tosses up a light line connected to our tow rope, a 24 cm braid of Kevlar with nearly half a million kilograms of breaking strength. We ease back 60 metres into what’s known as the in-line position and match the Princess’s speed of 9 knots. From here on, the tanker will remain tethered until she’s back out at sea.
It takes two hours for the Edward to reach the river’s mouth. The tug has four crewmen: a captain, a mate, a deckhand and an engineer, and they work a week on and a week off, on standby 24 hours a day for LNG work and whatever else the port throws their way, from docking container ships to rescuing disabled vessels at sea. Missroon is a third-generation Savannah River tug sailor. His mate, Anthony Groover, 25, is the son of a docking pilot who was trained by Missroon’s father and who in turn trained Missroon. “When I was a kid, I spent nights on the tugboat with my father,” Missroon says, “and my life has mirrored his. He wanted me to go to the University of Georgia, but he died in a car accident when I was a senior in high school. I changed my plans and came to the water.” He adjusts the volume of a John Mellencamp song playing on the radio. “My son wants to do the same. He’s spent lots of time on the boat, and it’s in his blood, just like me.”
It’s late afternoon when the Edward and the Princess, now under escort by a US Coast Guard helicopter and two Coast Guard rigid-hull inflatable boats, close in on the LNG terminal, a long concrete pier parallel to the shore. These terminals have long been controversial, but all LNG tankers are double-hulled, and during 33 000 voyages over the past 30 years there have been only eight leaks – none of them resulting in fires. LNG won’t burn unless it becomes a vapour and dissolves into the air at a concentration of 5 to 15 per cent. The worst accident occurred in 1944 in Cleveland at the world’s first commercial LNG plant, when a tank failed and spilled its entire contents into rivers and sewers. When the air-gas concentrations were right, the vapour caught alight, killing 128 and injuring 225. Since then there have been four accidents worldwide that resulted in fatalities, all at plants. “We don’t want any chain in the process to be weak,” says David Beardsley, vice-president of construction and repair for Moran.
We’re travelling at 9 knots, and it’s time to slow down. From here on, Magwood, the docking pilot on the Princess’s bridge, calls the shots. “Half ahead, transverse,” he says over the radio. “Half ahead,” replies Groover, now at the Edward’s con, as he pivots the joysticks inward, rotating the screws so they’re facing away from each other, a manoeuvre that acts as a brake and is known as a transverse arrest. The Edward shudders violently – it feels as though we’re bumping over a washboard dirt road. The meter registering the load on the Edward’s line shows 54 tons. The Edward slows to 8 knots, as the Bulldog swings round to the Princess’s bow. At 7 knots, Groover shifts to starboard. When the Edward, straining and digging, slowly pulls the Methane Princess’s stern around, 94 tons register on the line. “Five-point-eight and backing,” Groover says. The Edward’s bow is pushed down, its stern lifted up; it shudders as it backs against the strain.
Bit by bit over the next half-hour, we slow the Princess down to 4 knots. Two more tugs join us, the Bulldog “end on” – bow forward and perpendicular to the ship – against the Princess’s bow and two older Moran tugs amidships. The berth is now about 100 metres ahead. As Magwood guides the behemoth in, a dance based on years of experience and intuitive knowledge between docking pilot and tugs commences. “Edward, take me on down again,” Magwood says. “Roger, take you down,” Groover says. “Easy, Dog, easy,” Magwood says. Over the next 45 minutes, the closer we get to the dock, the faster the commands come. “Easy does it on the Edward,” Magwood says. “Thirty per cent on the Dog. Easy on the stern tugs, easy.” The process is precise and slow, a nudge here, a pull there, four tugs and the Princess – four captains and docking pilots, five individual powerplants – all working in concert. “Stronger stern tugs, stronger,” Magwood commands. “Easy astern, easy. Stop, Edward. In position.” Groover smiles. “We just put it within a foot of where he wanted it. Hey, Rodney, nice job!”
When the Princess is safely tied up, the Edward and the Bulldog lie a short distance away; they stand by for the next 24 hours of unloading. The two older tugs return to Moran’s dock in downtown Savannah. John Johnson emerges from the engine room, and the smell of his homemade enchiladas soon fills the galley below the pilothouse. The galley is better equipped than my kitchen at home, with a full-size stainless-steel fridge and oven. “We all love to cook,” first mate Groover says. “Nothing comes out of a box.”
Out here on the water, as the sun dips below the river’s green banks, it’s easy to see why generations of men have plied the tugboat trade. The river is serene, ever-changing. The crewmen are removed from the world, but also connected to it in a way merchant seamen in the open ocean never are. With such small crews, even deckhands get a chance at every job. And though they’re on board for a week at a time, they remain in home port, and modern conveniences make the job less lonely – cellphones connect to friends and family, and flat-screen TVs in the galley and cabins and Wi-Fi keep the world at hand.
Late the next afternoon, it’s hot, bright and blue, and the Princess is empty, ready to disembark. The Bulldog noses into the tanker’s starboard bow and ties on. The Edward latches to her stern behind 81 metres of line, and another Moran tug ties on amidships.
“Easy on the Dog,” calls Magwood, once again directing from the bridge of the Princess. The Bulldog responds with one long whistle and three short. Before two-way radios, tugs and pilots communicated by whistle; most captains still prefer it. One whistle acknowledges the request, three whistles means easy, and four means hooked up, slang for full ahead or astern. “Stop, Dog, stop.” One whistle. “Straight out on Edward, straight out. Stop the Dog, stop. All stop.”
The Edward’s engines throb, the river churns and foams, and the rope strains. The Methane Princess begins to slide away from the terminal and into the channel at the stately speed of 1 knot. The tanker is the length of a city block, and such an enormous mass has an inertia that is hard to grasp, yet the tugboats move it with choreographed precision and few words. We drift backward a bit, and Magwood calls, “Stronger, Edward, stronger.” One long whistle, two short. “Okay, right on up the river, Edward. Easy, easy, Dog, easy!”
We power backward. The Bulldog pushes on the bow, and the Edward navigates to almost 90 degrees astern of the Princess, shuddering and thrumming and vibrating. The Edward’s bow digs into the river, and the stern tilts up, swinging the tanker around, slowly, slowly, until she’s pointing downriver. “Stop, Edward, stop.” A churning swirl of water begins under the stern of the Princess as she goes to full ahead. “Edward, full ahead, and home we go!”
It’s night by the time we drop off the Princess 13 kilometres out, pick up the pilot Magwood and re-enter the river. A high, full moon lights a shimmering path over the water. It’s quiet and dark in the pilothouse, the glow of gauges and computer screens soft and comforting in a cocoon of utility and purpose that’s removed from the traffic and lights and restaurants of pulsing Savannah, so near but so apart.
In the anonymity of darkness, the stories of men who work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to keep it all going unspool. Of pressing and holding steel container ships and tankers to the docks in hurricanes and 100 km/h winds. Of times in waves and winds when tugs had to venture out to sea to find disabled ships and bring them safely to port. Of the pride of sons joining their fathers on the water to do gratifying work that’s about steel and power output amid dynamic waves and currents and wind. Of shared experience and no nagging existential angst about why we are here and what we are doing.
The ship thrums under our feet. It’s 10 pm, the dock is near, and the lights of Savannah burn bright, lighting up the horizon. The men on the Edward are like those in coal mines and on deepsea oil rigs – they’re the wizards of Oz, the men behind the curtain, unseen and unheard for the most part, but vital to everything we take for granted.
Before we bump gently against Moran’s dock in the moist night, Groover and Krokoski are throwing lines and spraying down. As I step off the tug, I hear whistles tooting somewhere out there, over the river. One long, three short. An answer. Now I know what they mean, and they’ll be singing all night long.
For nearly 200 years, tugboats have butted, towed and nudged big ships in harbours. But handling the current maritime fleet of mammoth vessels calls for greater speed, agility, safety and power. Here’s the hardware that gets the job done.
Swivelling twin propellers
Twin screws known as Z-drives extend from the bottom of the hull like room fans and rotate 360 degrees, enabling tugs to go from a top speed of 14 knots to zero within a boatlength and to move forward while turned sideways.
Twin 12-cylinder diesels with 11,6 litres per cylinder generate 4 850 kW – almost twice that of a standard tug.
It can generate 75 kW – enough to pull the tugboat forward even when the engine is full astern.
To douse fires, the Edward J Moran, pictured here, calls on the most powerful firefighting capacity afloat. Twin 670 kW pumps pull water through 30 cm risers to a pair of 360-degree nozzles that the crew controls remotely from the pilothouse. The flow rate: 45 000 litres of water a minute.
They ruled the waves
The world had not seen their like before. A little over 30 years ago, a pair of massively powerful South African tugs patrolled the high seas. Named after two maritime heroes, Wolraad Woltemade and John Ross were the salvage tug equivalent of guns for hire. They were also the most powerful vessels of their kind on the planet.
Laid down in Scotland’s Clyde shipyards in 1976 at the height of South Africa’s urban unrest, the salvage tug Wolraad Woltemade was joined by the identical but locally built John Ross. With two main Mirrlees-Blackstone diesel engines developing an eye-watering 19 200 horsepower – well over 14 000 kW – they provided unmatched brute pulling power.
They owed their existence to the popularity of the Cape sea route among bloated supertankers. Clearly, there was a need for a powerful fast-response to emergencies. So, in terms of the Standby Tug Contract with the South African authorities, at least one of the two tugs had to be available in a local port. For the sister tug, there were always lucrative tows or salvage work. It was an idea picked up by others. Current-day equivalents include monsters such as the Russian Nikolay Chiker, which dwarfs the South African design and whose engines develop about 30 000 kW.
In their illustrious service life, the South African pair passed through the hands of Safmarine, Pentow Marine and the Dutch operators Smit. Under new ownership John Ross was renamed Smit Amandla and remains in service as the standby tug.
Not so, Wolraad Woltemade.
Old salts shed a quiet tear when, in early 2010, Wolraad Woltemade slipped out of Cape Town. There would be no return. Her one-way trip ended forlornly on the beach at Alang, in India, awaiting the breakers.