By Don Sutherland
It's sometimes said that great harbor cities don't appreciate their harbors, so the city of New York must be an exception. Look what happens every Fourth of July. For years without missing, regular as clockwork, Macy's fireworks display has locked-down the harbor with skies in eruption, which the masses trek shoreward to see. Around either side of that date, the fireworks season brings the burghers of Manhattan, the boaters and bathers of the Boroughs to their esplanades and beaches. Few of them know how those big black barges full of fireworks got there, but lo and behold, there they are. Ooh, and ahh.
There are advantages to setting-off fireworks over water. For starters, it's less likely to ignite than trees or houses. And being less flammable, water-based platforms permit larger displays. All you've got to do is get there.
Where did those big black barges come from, anyway?
Where Do You Put a 200-footer?
Island Towing and Salvage, a company specializing in those named tasks, has a good deck barge — 60x26 ft. — and a choice of three tugs to send out on assignment. If its own tugs are occupied, Capt. Bob Henry, the proprietor, knows where to get more.
We caught-up with Capt. Henry aboard the June K., the Kosnac flagship, which he's been steering off-and-on for some months. She's one of the tugs used for fireworks barges delivered around the harbor this season.
Capt. Henry also used his own Jenny Anne, as well as Marine Environmental Transportation's Hubert Bays on fireworks shoots this season, although bad weather canceled the event for the latter. "The guys could hardly stand up on the barge," says Capt. Henry, due to stormy conditions that day.
We joined Capt. Henry for the Wolf's Pond Park show, off Prince's Bay on Staten Island. The show came together in the Reynolds Shipyard, on the Rosebank shore. Capt. Henry's own yard in Mariners Harbor has sufficient space, except when the freighter next door is loading used autos bound for the Carribean. "The fire department likes to be able to get its equipment down to the barge, in case it's needed," Capt. Henry says, and an acre of used cars could foil their efforts.
You'd think that a harbor with over 500 miles of shoreline would have enough space to load a 200-foot vessel — or something a little longer, since a spacer barge between the tug and fireworks barge is required by FDNY. You'd think it would be easy to find a place to load a tug and two barges in the port of New York, and maybe it is. For besides the Navy pier at Stapleton, usually taken by barges for the big Macy's display, Capt. Henry reminds us that "there's also Hughes' yard" in Erie Basin, across the bay in Brooklyn. If you can't immediately find it, just look for the big new Ikea store on the shore next door, and the graving dock the furniture company filled-in for a parking lot. Capt. Henry mentions a half-dozen fireworks barges he delivered this season, to locations ranging from Staten Island's south shore to Yonkers in the north, in the employ of two fireworks companies — Bay Fireworks/Pyro Engineering, and July4Ever. Besides having the tugs as needed, the events required the barges themselves. "Not everyone likes having explosions taking place on their deck barges," Capt. Henry muses, although between Weeks and Hughes there seemed to be enough units to get the jobs done.
The Reynolds yard is conveniently located — near the Verrazano Bridge and the Interstate highway system, easy for a truckload of fireworks to get to — but it's a vestige of a time when Staten Island's east shore was industrial and autonomous. The City of New York has seemed baffled by that shoreline since the Island joined the metropolis in 1898, having proposed one bad idea after another. A mile or so from Reynolds, a sports stadium and housing development now represents the planning for Stapleton. Before there was a Greater New York, there was the Vanderbilt fortune which was built in the 1840s by boats at that location.
Today, the Reynolds yard is spacious enough to serve its purpose, but its purpose includes the support of the company's two lighterage boats, Twin Tube and ABC-1. The Sandy Hook Pilots tie-up next door. Turning and maneuvering a 200-plus-feet tug-and-barge system could be tight, and a challenge if you're trying not to hole someone. So Capt. Henry made-up the Wolf's Pond Park show in the stream, in the anchorage, in the Narrows off Reynolds' yard. The massive cloudburst that afternoon, with raindrops the size of marbles, must only have refreshed the crew as they lashed the barges together.
Besides the space to make-up barges, to accommodate crews to man them, to accommodate fire marshals to watch them, to accommodate trucks to supply them, a fireworks display can require sand. Tons of it, to accommodate the fireworks themselves.. "Four dumpsters full of it," says Capt. Mike Vinik, "each weighing twenty-five tons." It takes a crane to move such a load, and it must be close enough to the barge to make the transfer without tipping over.
Fortunately, Vinik Marine knows a lot about sand. Rather than a shipyard as such, their tie-up is more like a quarry "in an undisclosed location" near New Jersey's Amboys, according to a security-minded report on Channel 9. Getting from town to Vinik Marine's tugs can be quite an adventure, past mountains of aggregate, along the series of ruts that serves as a road. At least one of the Vinik crew claims to have broken an axle during that long drive to work. Your MarineNews reporter once brought a businesswoman to meet Capt. Vinik, though midway through the quarry she feigned reservations. "Did you bring me here to kill me?" she asked, though she seemed to be half-joking.
Perhaps to the benefit of their fire departments, New Jersey communities don't require fire marshals on-site, nor the spacer barge between tug and fireworks barge. Indeed, for the large displays at Red Hook and Rumson, the massive deck barges sat alone at anchor. The fireworks company for those displays, Garden State Fireworks, shoots the show remotely, far from the barge.
That's after the barge gets into position, of course.
Too Shallow for Tugboats
"There's a twenty-foot draft under the bridges," on the way to the barges' locations at Red Bank and Rumson, Capt. Vinik tells us, "but at the locations we have seven to eight feet at high tide." Vinik Marine's original tug, the Dorothy Elizabeth, draws thirteen. So while the tug could bring the equipment as far as Atlantic Highlands, the Dorothy sat an anchor offshore for July 2 and 3.
The barges themselves draw only a foot-and-a-half. So other than negotiating some narrow bridge openings, getting them in place should be a snap. For this fireworks season saw the working debut of the Teri Lou, a small pushboat Vinik Marine acquired and refurbished. She draws only six feet — though at that, she still had to go in at high tide.
Small cabin cruisers draw even less, so the Vinik armada included a couple of those, too. Using Chris Crafts as tugboats may seem unconventional, unless they're likened to portable thrusters for the bows of the barges. They make it easier to steer such wide vessels through such narrow openings.
And there's always the boated gentry that inhabit the upscale communities of the south Jersey coast. "There were probably a thousand pleasure boats going through the area, who don't recognize the lights on an anchored barge," Capt. Vinik muses. They left a man aboard for security, and the Chris Crafts acted as safety boats on the night of the displays.
The Red Bank and Rumson shows went-off perfectly on July 3, Capt. Vinik reports, Garden State Fireworks' program showing a precision that "blew the Macy's display away." No pun intended.
Capt. Vinik should know, having seen both. The Fourth of July is one of few days off at Vinik Marine, and a trip up to the Statue for crews, families, and friends is already a tradition.