Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Testing this thing one more time.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Patience. You'll get your call.

We all wanted to work upon the water. Some would go to fishing boats, some to ships. Those that wanted to go to the tugs had a more difficult time breaking in.

There is an idea that a green hand will be a burden to the tug crew. Fish boats and ships have positions for starters but boatmen talk as if the work is too special on the decks of a tug. That one can rarely learn it as well as they have. A man needs experience before he can be hired but he'll gain no experience before he is hired. It's the Grecian Urn cycle, broken only by the desperation of a small outfit in immediate need of hands.

Then we went down to meet the men and women at the outfits.


Saturday, April 17, 2010

13. He meets the shadowy dock man.

The two men made it back to the engine to find that Bobby was gone. They started getting tools out, Roy working like a surgeon arranging them just right in the order he knew they would be using them and the lad just following along and moving things out of Roy’s way. When they were finished, they sat on the tool boxes and lit cigarettes. They smoked in silence, Roy wiping sweat from his face with a bandanna. From above, sounds were heard coming from the galley. “Sounds like Bobby has a batch of iced tea going,” Roy observed. The lad nodded and continued smoking, casually observing more of the engine room. The relative quiet of the engine room was shattered by the sound of a dog from the galley’s watertight door being slammed open, the weight of Bobby stepping onto the fidley, and the door being slammed shut again. The entire disturbance was finished with a single bang of the dog being roughly slammed into place. Bobby came down the stairs at a good pace, his feet turning the metal steps into gongs as they struck. He hit the engine room’s deck plates with a bang and turned immediately to the lad.

“Go find Tommy,” he commanded, “and tell him we need ten gallons of that VARSOL he has stashed. And no bullshit. I know he has some and I’ll come up and get it myself if he doesn’t give it to you. Tell him that.”

“Ok,” the lad responded. “Where do I find Tommy?”

“I said ‘Go. Find. Him’, “Bobby growled. “If I knew where the fuck he was, I’d a told you where to go, wouldn’t I?”

The lad looked at him for only a second and then started up the stairs to the dock. What an asshole. This guy is going to need to calm down if we’re to get along. He considered, too, that Bobby was going to have to see that he was no idiot. To be fair, if engineer Bobby thought he was at all like deckhand Bobby, then maybe he was being tough to make sure he was understood. The lad relaxed and set out to do his first task.

He went back to the forward bitt where they had boarded earlier and made the high step up the cap rail of the bulwarks. One more step and he was on the dock barge. He stopped to look around. The place looked deserted. He walked toward the gang plank leading to the driveway, picking his way around the many pieces of scrap metal, and fittings that littered the dock. He went up the gang plank with long deliberate steps. When he got to the top, he stopped once more to look for his next waypoint. Movement caught his eye. It wasn’t really anything but smoke coming from the open doors of an old shipping container. He carefully stepped up until he could see that two men were sitting inside of it, one on an old metal bucket and the other on an empty line spool. Both were smoking cigarettes, conversing quietly.

He stepped into their view and they both looked up at the same time. One of them, the one on the metal bucket he recognized as the shadowy man that hung around the fire the first day he came to the tugs. He was staring at the lad with narrowed eyes and it gave the lad the same uncomfortable feeling he had that day. The other man sat on the rope spool and smiled at the lad with a broad, gap-toothed smile, almost hidden by the bushy mustache that was as gray as the hair that hung long from under his ball cap. His face was youthful though. The lad was surprised to see the gray hair on such a young looking face.

“What can we do for you, young man?” the friendly man asked.

“You Tommy?”

“I’m Tommy.”

“Well. Bobby sent me up to get a couple of cans of VARSOL from you.”

“He did?” Tommy teased, almost singing the question. “What if I tell you to tell the fat prick that I don’t have any.”

The lad dropped his head for just a split second, the first hint of frustration showing early in the conversation. “Look. He knows you have it and he’s been a real ass so far. I really need to come back with some, or it isn’t gonna go well for me. You have some, right?”

“Yeah, I do. Take it easy. I wouldn’t mess with you too long.” He stood up while taking a last long pull off his cigarette, snubbing it out on the container wall by the time he was upright. The lad could see he was a tall guy. “I have it in another container. C’mon. We’ll get it.” Now the little quiet man stood up too and followed Tommy out of the container.

“Don’t let Bobby push you around,” he said to the lad as he passed him. The lad followed the quiet man toward the container as Tommy led. He continued, “Bobby thinks he’s hot shit because he worked for a big diesel company before this but he get a check every Friday the same as all us. If the old man told you to help with that engine, you do that and you’ll do good. Bobby can’t do a thing about it. They ain’t his engines.”

The lad was relieved that the skinny guy was talking to him at all. He jogged a step or two to catch up and held out his hand. “I’m…..”

“I know who you are,” the skinny man said without looking at the lad’s hand. “I’m Bridges. Donny Bridges. I work up on the dock if you need anything from around there.”

“Ok,” replied the lad. “Thanks.” He was starting to realize that Bobby wasn’t well liked by too many so far.

They reached the container where the paints and liquid goods were kept. Tommy went inside and when he returned, he was carrying in each hand a round five gallon can. He set them down in front of the lad and then closed up the container. He and Donny wished the lad a good rest of the day and walked away, headed up the dirt road toward the office. The lad watched them for a few seconds and then bent to pick up the cans of solvent.

He walked the other way down the road back to the dock. The cans weren’t heavy but the thin, formed metal handles were digging into his fingers. He set them down for a bit to give his fingers a chance to recover some circulation, wishing he had a pair of gloves, but items like these were not to found at this outfit. He would try to remember to buy pair. Picking up the cans, he headed towards the tug, stopping only once more until he arrived at the edge of the dock where he made the step down to the boat carrying one can on his shoulder and holding on for balance to the dock and boat with his free hand. He left the cans on deck and headed down to the engine room.

Work had already begun on the engine. There were parts obviously missing and with Roy on one side of the engine, Bobby on the other, more were coming off as the two men tinkered meticulously.

Bobby heard the lad’s footfalls on the ladder and turned. “Get it?”

The lad nodded. Bobby stopped his work and waved him down. He took the lad over to a tub made from the bottom of an old oil drum which had been cut off neatly with a torch. He instructed the lad to pour the solvent into this drum and to begin cleaning the parts that were starting to pile up beside the tub. He was actually very patient while he showed the lad the scrapers, picks, and brushes that he could use to do the job.

But he made one thing very clear. This was as good as it was going to get during the first half of the engine repair. If he wasn’t up to it, to let him know now so they could get some other help.

“I can’t clean parts if we just stand here talking,” the lad responded with a smile. With that, he set to work.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

12. He moves toward the engine room.

The next morning, the lad returned to the yard in daylight during what could be known as regular working hours. This time, the gate was open and there were more cars parked down the dirt driveway. He knew where he was going today, getting straight out of his car and heading toward the dock. He walked down the plank to the dock barge and saw the little boat he had worked on and the bigger tug tied up to a berth on the end of the barge. There was a group of men, four of them, standing by the bigger tug, talking. He stopped to see what was happening. He recognized the old man from yesterday but the other three men were strangers to him.

“Real sharp crew there,” came a voice from behind him. He turned around. It was Bobby who had climbed up to the dock from the little tug. He had the same disheveled look as he did yesterday and it appeared that he still had on the same clothes too.

“Yeah,” answered the lad. “What’s going on?”

“They’re talking about fixing that junk pile. C’mon. Let’s go check it out.”

Bobby headed for the end of the dock and the lad followed. They got to the end of the dock where the group of men was and they stopped, lit cigarettes, and watched from a few feet away. The old man was talking to a heavier middle aged man that the lad now recognized as the engineer, “Mr. Mechanic” as Bobby had called him, from the bigger boat. The other two he was certain he didn’t know. One was another middle aged man, skinny as a rail, his face rugged from years in the sun. The other was a man in uniform looking work clothes, complete with a name tag over his pocket but the lad couldn’t make out the embroidered script. He wore glasses and was looking directly at the engineer, watching him as he talked to the old man. It was obvious that the conversation was between those two.

The engine was in bad shape. The work needed to be done in a hurry. There was a big trip coming up. The job couldn’t be done half-assed unless the old man wanted to have to do the job again soon. Of course they all knew how important this was. The engineer was hired to perform just such an important job. The old man realized this and was only trying to look out for the company. Nothing was implied by his concerns. The mechanic agreed with everyone. The craggy faced man was silent during the whole conversation. It sounded like a plan of action had been formed. Then the engineer said, “If we’re gonna finish on time, I’ll need more help.”

The old man looked around at all of the men on the dock, Bobby and the lad included. “Here,” he said. “Take this young man,” pointing at the lad. “Get that engine fixed.” With that he hobbled away, back to the office. The lad watched him as he made his way up the stout boards that formed a gangway from the dock barge to the land. He forgot about the other men as he wondered what could have happened to the old man that gave him such a bad limp. When the old man reached his truck, the lad turned back to the two men near him.

The engineer had his arms folded across his chest, his forearms resting on the ample belly that stretched the fabric of his t-shirt. He was speaking to the mechanic in hushed tones and nodding his head when the mechanic spoke back to him. Every now and then he shifted his eyes to glance over at the lad. This made him a little nervous but he continued to wait for an indication that they were going to move. After a minute or two more, the men turned and walked toward the boat. He wasn’t sure what to do now and as he was about to move toward them, the engineer turned and with a bit of irritation in his tone asked, “Comin’?” The lad was now certain he was needed and quickened his pace.
They all went to the edge of the dock barge and one by one step down to the cap rail of the tug’s waist and then made a second step to the main deck. Each step down was at least two feet and the lad was thinking how badly it could hurt if one misjudged the distance and took a fall. They all walked single file toward the stern and turned at the end of the deck house. The lad stopped for after he turned to look at the large winch that was now visible. It was considerably larger then the one on the small boat- as tall as he was with a diesel engine mounted ahead of it to drive the big drum of wire. He was impressed but soon realized that the other two men had disappeared into a watertight door. He quickly followed.

Inside the door, he found himself walking on the grating of the fidley through which he could see a large yellow engine, and with a glance to his right he could look through the open space to the other. Ahead was another door but the group turned right, continuing on the grating walkway to a short flight of stairs leading down to the lower engine room. The engine room was larger than the one on the little tug. There was about 5 feet between the two engines and plenty of room to walk around the generator engines. The whole room was no bigger than a large living room. It was dimly lit as the only lights were ancient incandescent fixtures that cast a yellowed tint on everything. The maze of pipes and wires clinging to the bulkheads cast eerie shadows and it didn’t help that the lower half of the bulkheads were painted the same dark red as the peeling paint on the diamond plate decks. The upper half was so dingy with oily soot residues that it barely resembled the white paint that was put there originally. On the forward bulkhead was another watertight door with a step up to it. He wanted to see this.

The mechanic and the engineer weren’t even paying attention to him so he put his hands on the combing of the door and eased his head into the room. TO his right were two big air compressors and on his left was a large tank to receive the pressurized air these produced. The room had a set of deep shelves dividing it into another section where a workbench was mounted. All over the bulkheads were gaskets and belts hanging from random pieces of metal, bolts, and makeshift hooks put in place to serve this function. The shelves were piled with boxes and bags and loose parts. Every square inch of space was occupied by a tool, or a part, or a piece of scrap rope. Even the angle iron in the overheads had long pieces of stock lashed in them. On the forward bulkhead of this room, he saw a door similar to the one he was peering through but it was closed. Next to it was a small chest freezer. He would have liked to walk in and peek inside but this looked like a personal item. It had more to do with the life of the tug than its work. He let it go and turned toward the two men, still talking about the engine.

The starboard engine was obviously the one that was ailing. Both men were looking at it, the mechanic rubbing the sides of his chin with a thumb and forefinger, the engineer resting his crossed arms on the shelf of his belly. How long can they talk about this thing? The lad was asking this as he examined the engine on his own. He had never paid much attention to the diesel engines he had previously run across but he could from this one that the basic parts were not much different from the gas engines of the beat up cars he had nursed along over the years. Even for this engine’s considerably larger size it wasn’t difficult to recognize the parts that resembled those of a car.

“You know what you’re looking at?” The engineer was talking to the lad now. The lad looked over and saw that the engineer was waiting for an answer.

“I have an idea. I won’t say I know much about it yet until I know what I’m supposed to do for you.”

“You’re supposed to do what I say, when I say to do it. You don’t need to know anything except that. If the old man thinks you’ll be of some help to us, fine. He might know about deck hands but I know about engines and I don’t know any deck hands that will do the bull work around them.” His tone wasn’t friendly at all and the lad knew he was up against a challenging individual here. He wanted so much to fire back a smart response to the fat man’s remarks but he curbed himself.

“Well?” he started, “We’re not gonna know standing around here. What do you need first?”

The engineer snorted. “Hmmph. Follow this man here and hump his tools down from the truck.”

The lad looked at the mechanic who gave a slight smile and started toward the stairs up to the main deck. The lad followed. They made their way to an old white pickup with work boxes on the back and the mechanic turned to the lad. “Sorry about Bobby. He doesn’t get much help around here. I’m Roy. I have a business up in town- come down to help the old man every now and then.”

The lad shook Roy’s hand. “Bobby might get more help if he weren’t such a hard ass.”

“Yeah. I know,” said Roy who was pulled tool boxes and work bags off of the truck. “He’s not too bad a guy once you get to know him some. Give him a chance.”

“He’s not the one who needs the chance around here, though.” The lad was grinning when he said that. Roy grinned back.

“If you can just try to keep up, you’ll do better than the last ones. Let’s get these down there and give you that chance.”

The lad swung a heavy metal tool box up onto his shoulder and picked up a canvas work bag with his other hand. “I’ll take any he gives me.”

Away to the engine room they trudged under their burdens. The lad was getting another start.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

11. He’s thought a boatman.

The two climbed down from the boat deck and up the side of the barge once more, the lad following Bobby. Once on the barge, the lad did just as Bobby was doing looking under the containers for deck lines. The containers were secured atop large beams that held them a couple of feet off of the deck and the lines had been thrown under them for safe keeping. They were thrown very far under them and made off using a variety of techniques so that freeing each line became an exercise in belly crawling and puzzle solving. By the time they had six lines pulled out and ready for the dock, they were both brown on their bellies, chests, and thighs. The lad started to sneeze from all the dust and his nose was running profusely. Bobby walked up to him and he could see a trail of snot and dust running down his upper lip, like that of a school boy at play.

They had a few minutes to before they touched and the lad was able to observe the dock. It was a typical pier on the naval base like he had been on years ago. There were many people moving around and watching with great interest as they closed the gap between the barge and its berth. There were men in uniform and some in nice civilian clothes conversing. There were men in hard hats and work boots, obviously preparing to take the lines. There were also navy sailors in there uniforms and blue hard hats standing by with heavy equipment to handle the containers. The lad made eye contact with one of the well dressed civilians who nodded to him. The lad nodded back and looked away. “I wonder if he knows that I’m not part of the regular crew around here?” he thought. Never mind that. He looked over just in time to see Bobby working the first line.

Bobby had been holding a line at his shoulder for a minute or two and after a quick shout from one of the hard hats on the pier, he threw it with the power of a shot-putter and the eye fell cleanly around the bollard where the dock man was pointing. The lad was impressed. That line had flown for about 15 feet and hit its mark. If he was expected to do this, there would be some great entertainment. He saw Bobby make the line off to a cleat near his feet and then look up. Bobby pointed to somewhere behind the lad so he turned and saw one of the hard hated dock men standing next to a bollard nearby.

The lad immediately understood that he was to catch a line on that bollard but was he to do it like Bobby had? His stomach knotted up and his heart was beating a little faster. He collected up the eye and an arm load of the line in an attempt to look like he might know what he was doing. In the time he took to stall, the barge had already bumped into the heavy timbers of the pier. He swayed a bit and looked up to see the dock man reaching over to him. “Save your arm,” he shouted, “I’ll take that for you.” Now all the lad had to do was swing the eye over the man. What a relief.

The man on the dock laid the eye over the bollard and the lad made off to the nearest cleat, taking in as much slack as he could. There were four more lines to be put out and he followed the directions and pointing of Bobby and the dock men to get them all leading in the proper direction. They were so close to the dock that the lad was able to hand the eyes over as he had his first line, but he didn’t feel so bad about it watching Bobby doing the same. It wasn’t long before the barge was secure to the pier and the men on the dock started climbing over to the barge, looking at container markings and consulting clip boards. Some were customs officials and some were naval officers. All had an interest in the new arrival.

Bobby waved to the lad and motioned toward the boat. It was time to go. As the lad was making his way to the end of the containers, one of the dock workers called over, “Thanks for the help. You guys do some good work.” The lad didn’t really know what to say back so he just smiled and gave a thumb up to the fellow. Could it be that this guy thought he was a full time boatman? The lad shrugged and continued his way to the boat. When he got to the other side of the barge, Bobby was already aboard and motioned him to start taking line off. They started at the stern, then took in the bow line, and held the first line up, the spring line, for last. Then James eased the stern around so that the highest part of the bow was against the barge; the lad stepped easily over to the boat. The tug backed away and spun about to head home.

The tug’s engine grew gradually louder as it came up to speed. The two slouched in the galley settees and smoked, taking a break from the activity. After their cigarettes were smoked and some iced tea was downed, Bobby informed the lad that the skipper was funny about keeping the boat clean. Before they got back to the dock, the trash should be emptied and the wheelhouse needed to be cleaned. Booby took the wheelhouse and the lad gathered all the trash. While he was at it, he gave the galley a good wipe down and a sweeping. Before long, the engines came down and the little tug began to turn into the short channel that lead to the yard.

When they got to the dock, the lad knew which line to stand by. Bobby hopped up to the dock barge and caught the first line for the lad. With his new knowledge, the lad went straight to the bow next. After the head line was secure, he move to the stern and threw the last line up to Bobby who dropped it onto a cleat and then motioned the lad not to make it off yet. The engines came to life and wheel wash surged off to the starboard side of the tug. The stern slowly moved toward the dock, the head line creaking and groaning in protest. When the motion stopped, Bobby swirled a finger to let the lad know he could make off the line now. As soon as this was done, the engines relaxed and the stern eased out a little into the line. The boat was well fast to the dock barge.

Bobby came back to the boat and headed for the engine room. The main engines stopped one after the other. Then the generator stopped. The boat was dead quiet except for the sound of James gathering his gear from the wheelhouse. Then came the sound of Bobby opening the forward door to the forepeak and throwing the end of the shore power cable out onto the deck. The lad walked up and grabbed the end of the cable, continuing his walk up the bow and onto the dock. The cable got heavier as more was pulled to the dock and soon he found the big receptacle where he plugged it in. The tug’s lights came on and she was ready for the night.

James walked straight up to the lad extending his hand. “Thanks for you help today. We’ll be seeing you around.”

“You think so?” asked the lad.

“Oh, sure. You’ll be a boatman. Take care, now.” He walked off to his truck leaving the lad to stand there and think for a second or two.

“He thinks I’ll be a boatman.”

The lad walked up to the office and stuck his head in. Sharon, the young lady at the desk was there now. She saw him a smiled broadly. “Well, hey there. Heard you had a good day. Can you come in tomorrow? We’re going to need another hand.”

“Sure.” The lad added, “I can come in any day you need. If you’ll have me.”

“We can always use a good boatman around here,” she said.

He smiled back and said, “Tomorrow then. Thanks. See ya.” She lifted a hand to wave and he headed to his car with a snap in his step.

Good news for two days in a row. They think he’s going to be a boatman.

Monday, March 08, 2010

10. He sizes up an ocean barge.

After a morning of shifting little deck barges, and spending most of his afternoon in a noisy little tug, the lad needed to have a seat in the quiet and relax. His recent experience making up to the barge he was now riding had shown him that he could gain the skills of the tugboat craft and his confidence was seen in the relaxed posture he held as he leaned back against a container, smoking his cigarette. Bobby was sitting nearby smoking, as well, manipulating the cigarette with his damaged fingers, blowing smoke out forcefully as he too relaxed.

By now the sun was ahead of the tow. The seat they had chosen was shady and the cool breeze from the water was giving the lad chills as it blew across his sweaty t-shirt. He was sweating too. He looked down and realized that, with the exception of his shoulders, the entire shirt was soaked. There was a coating of rust on the wet material. His pants were soaked on the thighs where the wet lines had been leaning on him and they too had a large rust stain on each leg. He would love to be headed towards a shower now but the barge still had to be delivered to its berth. His buddy wasn’t saying much, so he thought he’d kill some time on his own. Slowly and with a bit of effort, he stiffly stood up and stretched. He wanted to explore the barge.

He walked a few steps to the starboard side. There was his tug, still made up and motoring along at a slow speed. The engines weren’t too loud now. He could see James’s feet sticking out from the pilot house window. Obviously James was relaxing a little too. As he looked down the barge, he observed that it was about 150 feet long so he took a quick glance to compare the breadth, about 50 feet as far as he could guess. The containers were stacked five long by four wide, and piled up four containers high. There was just enough room for a man to walk along the edge with one hand on the containers to steady himself, so the lad started walking toward the bow. On his way by the little tug, he nodded to James who was relaxing in the wheelhouse. James touched two fingers to his brow and swung them out as if to salute to the lad. The lad continued his way up to the bow of the barge where he found a large wall of metal about five feet high. It was angled forward and reinforced from behind with heavy angle iron. Here is where the navigation lights were mounted, their heavy batteries and boxes chained to the rear of the big sea-break, as this was called. Behind the sea-break was also a wide variety of scrap iron, old shackles, and pieces of odd rope and cable that had survived the transit across hundreds of miles of open ocean.

He walked around to the forward side of the sea-break. It was here that he was able to see the big towing gear that connected the barge to the tug. At each forward corner of the barge was attached a large chain with links as big as his flattened hand. These two chains were many feet long and met at a point well ahead of the barge, joined at its center line by a large shackle. These were the bridles. From the point where the two chains met, the shackle connected them to a bit of the same chain, but shorter in length than the bridles. That was the pendant. Ahead of the pendant was a large piece of white synthetic rope, with heavy metal thimbles spliced into each end. One end was shackled to the barge’s chain arrangement and the other end was shackled to the towing cable of the bigger tug. It was the thickest line he had ever seen, every bit as big around as his thigh. This was the line that was designed to absorb the shock caused by a tow straining against its cable in a high sea. It was good that he came up here. He now had a good idea of what a towing gear looked like when it was set up and he committed the picture to memory.

As he crossed the bow, he stepped carefully around the sea-break. It wasn’t too difficult to imagine your own body swept under the bow wave of the barge in the event of a misstep. He was watching his path carefully and was surprised when he looked up to see the beaches and houses of his own neighborhood. This excited him. Wouldn’t it be great if his wife could see him as she walked their dogs along the beach? He would love for her to see him walking along the moving barge as if he’d been towing all his life. She had supported him in this career choice so far and he wanted her to feel like the time and investment was worth it. He searched the beach line as if he could actually see her at that distance. Of course there was no chance of that, but he felt good for looking.

A hand gripped the top of his shoulder and he turned with a start to see Bobby. “If you aren’t too busy site seeing, we have to get ready to put this thing to the dock. We’re not far now.”

The lad frowned at the sarcastic remark but nodded and began to make his way to the tug without waiting for Bobby. What a fuckin’ smart ass. It’s not like anything else was going on. He was thinking he would say something but decided to leave it alone. He made his way to the edge of the barge where he was standing next the wheel house. James was standing up waiting for them. Bobby walked up beside him and James began to outline how they would be helping the little tug. He had been on the radio with the other tug’s captain and they came up with a plan to get the heavily loaded barge to the dock as easily as possible. When he explained it, the lad actually understood what was going to happen and kept up with the conversation.

They approached a very busy area around the military docks. The bigger tug had shortened her cable and the lad was impressed when her crew slipped the towing shackle and the towing arrangement flew over the bulwarks and into the harbor with a great splash. The bigger tug then began to maneuver around the bow of the barge. James got the attention of his crew and the two began to take in the lines, one at a time, in the opposite order that they went out. This time the lad went up to the barge. He boarded the little tug again when James nosed the high bow up to the stern of the barge. Bobby stepped up on the bow fender with an eye of the head line coiled on his arm. With one heavy throw, he lassoed the nearest cleat and hopped down from the bow backwards, making the line off to the H-bitt as soon as his feet hit the deck. The lad was impressed with this bit of tugboat seamanship.

Bobby told the lad that he should get off of the bow since the tug would be maneuvering on a head line. They went up one deck and sat with their backs against the pilot house, smoking. Bobby was fairly disinterested in the action but the lad was watching and listening to every move. He looked to the bow and saw a man climb from the bow of the bigger tug and disappear through the containers. He heard a lot of chatter on the radio and then a single blast from the tug’s whistle. The engines changed speed and the little tug eased toward the barge, bumping lightly but enough to make the deck shift under him. Another blast of the whistle and the engines increased their pitch, working harder into the barge.

Toot! The engines slowed slightly. TOOOT! The engines came to idle and the lad could feel that the propellers had stopped. Toot! Toot! The engines came to life and the little backed slowly against its head line, the line squeaking and popping under the strain.

The whole scene created an orchestra of whistles, engines, the sound of rubber grinding and squealing against heavy steel, and the occasional sounds from the head line as it protested against the work asked of it. Both tugs were hard at work moving their own end of the barge according to the directions of the man from the bigger tug. The air was thick with the acrid smell of oily diesel smoke. The water was churning and swirling around the entire side of the barge, trapping flotsam and thick foam in its many whirlpools and slip streams as tons of water were shoved about by the powerful propellers. It was hard to believe that this much work could be completed with the very little activity of the crews from the tugs. That would change shortly. A barge can’t tie itself up.

Bobby flicked his cigarette butt into the moving water and started to stand. “Time to get over there." We’ve got to be close to the dock by now.”

The lad stood up and followed Bobby. He hoped his day was soon over. He was beginning to feel the time with every heavy step but he would continue to work his first barge. That, he would do with purpose.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

9. He gets “made up”.

The noise they had just heard was the sound of the little cable coming apart. When wire rope parts, it can make a sound like that of a shot gun firing. This was the case here. After Bobby’s initial entertainment was over, he motioned the lad to follow him out the stern. As he expected, the cable was hanging over the stern, limp, slightly swaying as the tug’s quick water passed over it. He went to the controls, set up and began to pull the cable in with the winch. It wasn’t long before the frayed and broken end of the cable was on deck.

The lad was studying the cable end when James shouted and waved Bobby up the wheel house. The lad was left alone with the cable for a few minutes. Soon Bobby returned and began to speak. The lad didn’t hear him though for as he began to speak, the little tug’s engines raised their pitch and the tug started into a hard turn. As it heeled over to meet the turn, water was forced across the stern and wet the boots of the two hands. They retreated to the next deck up where it was dry.

“We’re gonna make up,” said Bobby. He saw that this meant nothing to the lad so he explained further, “We’re going to put three lines up and then push the barge along to help the bigger tug along.” He added, “That’s what we should have done in the first place,” with a confident tone, self-confirming his expertise in tugs and towing. He went on to point to the places where the lines would be placed to make up to the container barge. The lad listened and although he didn’t fully understand the jargon of Bobby, he had an idea that he’d be able to keep up when the task started.

The little tug had come about full circle and was running with the barge, maintaining a wide gap between the two. James was staring a point on the barge as he used throttles handles and the wheel to guide the little tug in. Slowly it drifted in towards the barge. The closer it got, the louder the sound of the water between them was, rushing through the gap the two vessels like a raging mountain river. Before too long the suction created by the rush of water caught the little tug and it moved, with some force, the last foot it needed to touch the barge. With the sounds of thick, wet, rubber squeaking and grinding against the flat steel hull, the tires and fenders of the little tug hit and it came to a sudden lurching stop. The lad felt the deck shifting under his feet.

Bobby was on the bow with a wooden ladder. The lad went to him to help position it from the tug’s deck to the edge of the barge’s deck. When it was firmly in place, Bobby held onto it with both hands and stared at the lad. The lad wasn’t sure what to do now and looked quizzically into the eyes of Bobby, only inches from his own. He suddenly realized what was supposed to happen. As he made his realization, Bobby confirmed it by pointing up the ladder with one hand and talking loudly, but unintelligibly. The lad could barely hear him over the din of the rushing water and the in-close cacophony of the tug’s fenders, but it was obvious that he was to climb up the ladder, across the whitewater void, and onto the barge.

Bobby leaned in and yelled into his ear, “I need to make the lines up. You just put them on the cleats where I show you.” The lad was now shocked. He shook his head. Bobby looked at him sternly. Then he looked up to the wheelhouse. He could see that James was being patient now but that patience would wear thin quickly. He looked back at the lad and the face he was told him that he couldn’t push a green hand so hard. He made his decision and started up the ladder.

Bobby was on the barge in no time and yelled down pointing to a line on deck. Waving his hand upward, he told the lad to send up the first line. The lad quickly made a messenger to the large eye and tossed up to Bobby who dropped it easily onto a large cleat some feet back. Then he pointed to the quarter bitt and twirled his finger so that the lad could see where to make off. He did this easily enough and then Bobby walked up to the bow of the tug and pointed down to the line on deck, again waving up. The lad passed this line and Bobby walked forward a few feet and dropped that eye onto another cleat. He walked back to the lad and yelled out through cupped hands, “Dip it!”

The lad looked puzzled.

“DIP! IT!” Bobby yelled again.

The lad knew nothing about dipping a line and Bobby was obviously getting angry for this is why he wanted to stay on deck.

“Drop the line,” he heard a loud voice from say from behind him, turning to see James standing above him in front of the wheel house. “Just drop it. In front of the bitt,” he yelled again. The lad did that.

“Now. Reach under and pull it under, back to you.” The lad did this. Now he was holding a loop of line.

“Good. Take that bight and push it over the top of the bitt there,” he said pointing to the left upright.” The lad saw what he was after and dropped the line over the bitt.

James smiled and gave the lad a thumb up signal. “Now make it off on the other end,” he yelled and then retreated back to his controls in the wheelhouse.

The lad looked up to Bobby who pointed toward the stern in exaggerated motions. He made his way back there quickly. He automatically reached for the line on deck when he got there. He had already figured out how the make up was supposed to work. After he passed the line up to Bobby, he waited to hear where to make it off. Bobby pointed to the capstan and made circles in the air with his finger. For a second the lad hesitated but then he jumped into action. He was going to figure how to run it right there, right then.

It looked easy enough. Pull this thing out to make sure the drum didn’t turn. There’s the button. Was the power on? He tested it. Yes. Bobby had left the right generator running. It turned. He went for his line and started to run it around the little capstan on the towing winch. Bobby was yelling. He turned around and saw him pointing to a spot on the stern. He had forgotten to lead the line to a cleat on the deck for a better pulling point. This wasn’t a big deal and he corrected it quickly. Then he put another turn on the capstan and turned it on. The line was pulled in and was coming tight. He controlled the amount of pull and turned to Bobby who held up a fist when the line was good and tight. Reaching for the stop button, he quit his heaving and then made the line off to the bitt behind him.

He looked up and Bobby was calmly walking away. Figuring the job must be finished now, he walked his way to the galley door, stopping before he went inside to see Bobby climbing down. They met in the galley and Bobby suggested that they go up to the barge and look around. The lad felt like making the climb now that the tug was secured to the barge.

He climbed up and walked around the containers carefully. He went forward to see the bigger tug at the far end of her towing cable. He looked at the containers piled four high and lashed down with heavy rods. When he got to the stern, he sat down on the deck and lit a cigarette. Bobby emerged from around the corner of the containers and sat down beside the lad, lighting a cigarette.

It was quiet back here and they smoked in silence watching the wake of the barge. The lad smiled to himself. He knew how to make up. For now, he was a little more equal to the man beside him. He knew there was more to learn, but this was still a satisfying moment. The bay water hissed by the moving barge for a while as he enjoyed the moment.