The Fleet Week: Shipdocking Extravaganza

Wednesday, July 20, 2005
By Don Sutherland

When was the last time 15 ocean ships docked almost all at once in New York, and undocked again, and sometimes redocked in-between, all in a week? In the near-400 years since the Dutch first arrived, there have been events even larger. But not many of them lately. Lately, large get-togethers of harbor craft in the most visible parts of the port - upper bay and lower North River - usually surround festive celebrations like the Tug Races and their accompanying games, great entertainment for young and old. But more stirring to watch than tugs at play are tugs at work. Barges go up and down the rivers regularly, but shipdocking, the lively part of tugboating, is concealed from the public eye off the remote corners of Staten Island and the containerports of Newark Bay. "Is there a harbor?" most citizens might ask, and "do its activities affect my life?" Then comes Fleet Week New York, a friendly invasion by several navies for which the public turns-out by the thousands, and the tugs start hopping. This past Memorial Day saw the biggest of the eighteen annual Fleet Week observations to date, the U.S. Navy tells us, and with the broadest international participation. Ever wonder what tugboats do, in the aggregate, in cross-section, on average? The Memorial Day observation gives the time-lapse movie, as dozens of movements are compressed into four major days and three minor. "Fleet Week berthing and ship movement is a complex ballet of ship desires and needs," the Navy's Chris Zendan told us from New London, Conn." Pier and logistical considerations, and time, tide, and current. All is choreographed between the Fleet Week Navy Commander and operations team, the Captain of the Port, ship husbanding agents and ships themselves." The planning sessions began in January, according to Capt. Pat Kinnier, Port Captain for McAllister in the corner of Staten Island called Mariners Harbor. "It wasn't to be a shipdocking routine, where ships arrive in orderly succession," Capt. Kinnier recalls. "There would be a parade through the Narrows, across the upper bay, and up the North River to mid-Manhattan, all very majestic, and then everyone would dock just about at once."

Said Portland Tugboat's Capt. Brian Fournier, who sent the classic tug Stamford, dressed in McAllister stripes, down to participate, "The navy ships have to be at such and such a place, and time. It's unique. I can think of only one other day more complicated, and that would have been Op Sail 2000." The big, dramatic opereations, like docking the carrier John F. Kennedy, would occur at mid-Manhattan, within easy view of the cameras. But there's only so much pier space at Manhattan these days, and some of it is leased to cruise lines. Four or five ships, including the carrier (and the USCG Vigorous, which could stay only briefly), could be docked and husbanded on the Hudson, but for the rest there is just one pier, colloquially the Navy Pier at Stapleton, on the Narrows shore of Staten Island. It's a good six or seven miles between the two points, most of it across the broad expanse of the upper bay. What if it got windy, and you were pushing some large, flat object like, oh, an ocean-going navy tanker?

Terms of Agreement The job sounds like one that could take a lot of tugboats. McAllister holds the Navy contract for tug services in the New York Harbor upper and lower bay areras, and provided them for Fleet Week under that contract. McAllister has plenty of tugs at Mariners Harbor, and plenty more nearby — Philadelphia, for instance, plus points further north and south. But not every port has New York's requirements. "Everything working here has to be AIS-equipped," Capt. Kinnier reminds us, though it's not presently so everywhere the company works. Besides that, the ship-assist and docking exercises would pack a lot of tug power into short, sporadic episodes. Rather than bring tugs other than the Stamford from Portland just to cool their heels in New York for hours or days, it made sense to rely on local talent as subcontractors. Kosnac's June K. and the Normandy both assisted in ship movements and husbanding services, along with a couple more tugs from Moran.

"We did a docking on Shreveport and Porter," said the Normandy's Capt. Paul Mahoney, "and moved sludge barges alongside the Porter - we did what came up. You know, what tugs do." The Virginia from Weeks was also busily working the Manhattan piers area, while fendering and booms were laid-out by Miller. "We were tasked with line of demarkation" said Miller's Sven Van Batavia, "at Manhattan and the Navy pier on Saturday. We placed fenders inboard of each ship - 11 vessels here at S.I. , and set oil containment boom around all barges. The Shreveport went for a cruise while the pier's contracted customer, the Norwegian Dawn, came in; we moved the mules for that." Capt. Fournier sent the Stamford several days early, owing to three nor'easters expected shortly. "They were chased into the [Cape Cod] canal by eight-foot seas. Sam Coolidge had plenty of New York experience, and along with Guy Splettstoesser, our other captain aboard, they worked the Stamford like crazy - container ships, tankers, barges - by the time the Stamford came home, she'd done I think 38 jobs." Not often that we see a 1950s single-screw tug at work on New York Harbor, but the Stamford during the warship docking seemed to be everywhere. All the tugs seemed to be everywhere.

Tugarama It seemed like the weather followed the Stamford all the way to the parade, as May 25 was gray, cold, and blustery, with a fair spread of froth around the bay. After the parade up the river to mid-Manhattan, three ships - a guided-missile cruiser, guided-missile frigate, and an oiler - went back across the harbor for Stapleton, some practically in a dead-ship state as the tugs guided them through the breeze. The Pakistani oiler Maowin, higher and broader than most of the sleek warships, took the attention of the Beth McAllister, Brian A. McAllister, and Stamford. Also kept busy as the week progressed were the Bruce A. McAllister, Charles D. McAllister, Joan McAllister, and Iona McAllister. Among this armada of McAllister and subcontracting tugs were all sorts of variants on a shipdocking theme, from the classic design of the Stamford to the Beth's Z-drive modernity. A textbook could have been written, citing the Bruce's elevating wheelhouse and the Charles' flanking rudders. For anyone interested in a spectrum of maritime architecture, there was range aplenty among the floating weapons and the floating tools of Fleet Week '05. The stars of the show were, of course, the warships, with the carrier John F. Kennedy by far the most imposing - and perhaps the most sentimental, as word got around that this would probably be her last visit to New York. But guided-missile destroyers and frigates and cruisers - U.S.S. Porter, U.S.S. Carr, and U.S.S. Cape St. George - were also on-hand, sharp, sleek, formidably graceful.

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