K-Sea's OK Seas

Wednesday, November 20, 2002
Even on New York harbor, where the tugs range from burly to brutish, K-Sea's biggest are easy to pick out. Standing as tall as a seven-story house, they're the white ones. Their red trim makes them all the more conspicuous, like huge decorated lateens on the horizon as they move monster barges from the Kills.

For giants like these, of course, harbor chores like bunkering would be almost recreational, something to keep them exercised between the coastal jaunts for which they're designed - and for which their owners are expanding. K-Sea has a dedicated harbor fleet too. They're as brawny as any but look a little moreso - muscular, almost hulking with those white superstructures stark against the sky. K-Sea also has a pushboat, the curious Odin, odd to the eye but insistently practical. Add three tankers and 36 barges to their 18-tug fleet, and you get an impression that exceeds mere scale. This looks like a diverse range of equipment, for the new kid on the block.

Well, sort of the new kid. In 1999, the management team of Eklof Marine Corp. bought-out their employers - a company whose origins they trace to 1910 - and established the new name. Painting their fleet as they did, they'd be forgiven for pursuing plain-vanilla harbor service. But management had its eye on the coastal trade, with its glowing thesis of tug/barge superiority over dedicated tankers. Eight months after founding, they bought an armada of ocean-going tugs from Maritrans, whose attention was refocused outside of New York. From there, K-Sea could chart course for the ITB part of the game. ITBs, or integrated tug/barge systems, pin a more-or-less standard tug into the notch of the barge, keeping the two units flexible but also making them effectively into a single transportation unit.

"We do a little ship-docking work," said president Timothy Casey but "our prime business is bulk transportation" to petroleum sites along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and - under humanitarian programs of the U.S. government - liquid foodstuffs to third-world nations. In that regard, K-Sea's capability exceeds coastal trade as such, and moves on to trans-oceanic.

What's in a Barge?

The company's three motorized tankers - Jet Trader, Great Gull, and Great Lakes - might seem out of place where the emphasis is upon tug/barge systems, but equipment choices come not from dogma. "Small tankers are a little less weather-sensitive," said Casey, and there certainly is weather to be had in the Northeast. Still, the company's current building program covers barges, big ones, utilizing JAK 400 locking systems.

"The integrated equipment rides more like a ship and takes heavier seas than conventional tugs and barges," said Leo Falgout, K-Sea's point man with the Bollinger shipyard, increasing a fleet that will soon include four ITB systems. "We've made two round trips to Pakistan with the Cara Sea and Spring Creek, "which gives us a clear view of how well the system works."

K-Sea's existing tugs are being refitted for their role as dual-mode ITBs - Java Sea is next - partly because the tugs can pursue other undertakings while their barges are loading and unloading, and partly because as Mr. Casey points out, "it's more economical, because crew sizes are smaller."

Mr. Casey's point seems reinforced, business-wise, by the record of the two 150,000-bbl barge systems K-Sea operates in the Gulf, one of which presently uses the JAK 400 system. Although other K-Sea equipment goes to the Gulf, these are the two constant players in a region that generates about 25% of the company's business, compared to about a 30% share generated in the company's hometown. The current figures also reinforce K-Sea's directions, with 45% of its business already coming from coastwise barge excursions. The company's largest individual barge has a capacity of 165,882 bbls, but is single-skinned. K-Sea presently has 11 double-hull barges in operation, and is scheduled to run all double-hulls by 2012, comfortably before the deadline of 2014.

Although petroleum products make the major tows in New York, K-Sea's two dry-bulk barges are kept busy, as are their specialized tankers. The Spring Creek delivers edible oils while the appropriately blue Aqua supplies potable water. Such barges possess different features and lead different lives than any petroleum barge. That's probably a good thing, since coffee from water in an ex-oil tank is bound to taste strange, even if only in mind.

All in the Mind

What's in your mind is important on a tug, for it steers your attitudes. They make you worthy of trust, or not, to the people around you, in a setting that can get dangerous without asking. For all the improvements in safety measures, for all the absence of intoxicants (whose once-upon-a-time ubiquity gives old-timers memorable tales), the deck still pitches, lines still strain, things unexpectedly go bump. According to the Coast Guard's Lt. J.G. Connie Williamson, speaking at K-Sea's annual Captains' Seminar late in October, 80% of maritime incidents are caused by human error. So it's good to believe that the guy standing beside you would see a problem before it came up, and would clue you accordingly.

That's not a tugboat exclusive, of course. You need to trust your doctor and tax-accountant too. But they went to school for what they do. Not only the factoids, but the outlooks and ethics of professional conduct get firmed-up in school. What school do people who work tugs go to, and what set of standards are they taught?

The captain of the Adriatic Sea didn't go to that much school. Kenny Simmons seems almost boastful that he quit after the eighth grade. So maybe tugboating is learned on-the-job, and maybe the ability to command is a gift of nature. The first mate, Geoffrey Cabral on the other hand, went to boarding school. There are plenty of ways to get smart, the point being you can expect almost anything when you enter the wheelhouse of the Adriatic Sea.

If you were elsewhere than the Adriatic Sea - somewhere around east Texas, say - someone who looks like the captain would look natural driving a John Deere. True enough, his family did some farming there, though five brothers went to sea, and their father, known to have worked oil rigs, had seaman's papers himself. Or, if you were in Bermuda, someone who looks like the first mate would look natural driving something planked in mahogany, and real lateens this time. And true enough, he was 30 before leaving for the continental U.S. and, of all places, New York.

The mixed cues, the feints that promise to reveal what a guy's all about but ultimately mislead, extend to the galley. On the first day bound for Boston, the Adriatic's cook was a deckhand who also runs fishing charters around Gloucester, on deck in a cap spattered during off-hours as a house painter. There are numbers of ways to start conversations aboard the Adriatic Sea.

A mixed bag of backgrounds is its own cultural tradition among seafarers, of course, and it comes naturally. Vessels go different places, and people go with them. Where would Melville have been, without Ishmael and Queequeg? A run by the Adriatic Sea from New York to Boston, towing 110,000 bbl of fuel, is no three years on the Pequod. But there are points in common.

And points in distinction.

On other boats, even other K-Sea boats, someone tells us, the two crew shifts have their own separate stores. It's everything for everyone on the Adriatic Sea, whose pantry possessed applesauce to vitamin pills. Deckhands and engineers did most of the cooking, though the skipper whips-up a mean omelet. The MarineNews award for Xtreme Chefing goes to the second engineer, for his cayenne-based spaghetti sauce.

Reading the newspaper, watching satellite TV, swapping stories and opinions on politics or sports or the world as it turns - a sniper on the Beltway during this run - there's diversion enough if it's needed. A day at sea towing could pass slowly. Maybe, in compensation, other things speed up. You learn about people, in minutes or hours things that might elsewhere take weeks. This gent's son got picked-up by the cops, that gent's wife died not long ago. Everyone's in on it, hopes for the best.

Then it comes time to shift the barge. On the way up to Boston loaded, on the way back down light, the KTC 135 was towed on the wire, towed on the hip, pushed from the notch, repeatedly remade as conditions warranted. Yes, there was weather to be had in the Northeast. Each time, the decks erupted with sudden activity, guys moving fast, semi-choreographed, performing a drill. It was presumably deckhand work, but engineers and captains were out there too, working lines and winches. "It gets finished sooner," someone explained.

Third-Party Endorsement

Someone mentioned that a female writer had been aboard recently, gathering background for a book. "They were totally wonderful to me," she told MarineNews. Maybe it turns out that once the reporters leave, the crews revert to spitting on deck, chewing with their mouths open, and leaving the lid up on the head.

But it would come as a surprise, and would not reflect company policy as stated. Nor would it explain a report issued by a prospective customer, comparing K-Sea's performance against several competitors and against its own facilities. The verdict: K-Sea meets the customer's standards best of all - in some cases, even better than the customer itself. The assembled captains were shown the report - the sincerest form of feedback.

Management at K-Sea aspires to a happy ship, and seems to meet its aspirations. There are gripes and concerns, too. At the captains' seminar, mention was made that there were sometimes delays getting supplies. Methods were discussed for improvements. Privately, the skippers' concerns focused less on their own situations than on those who are "coming up" in the next generation, facing new equipment and new hoops to jump through before reaching the wheelhouse, owing to new industry-wide regulations. Said the company's VP of Administration, Rick Falcinelli, "our bargemen's and our captains' annual seminars are held to give everyone a chance to bone up on the latest developments in the company and the industry, receive mandatory training, and air their own ideas." Topics included safety of course, and coping with new regs, and how to treat a doper. And yes, ethics. It was all very academic, with PowerPoint presentations, but it wasn't your ordinary conference. The gents assembled, after all, were already masters. Maybe, at last, there is a school of tugboating. Maybe it was always postgraduate.

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