Marine Link
Sunday, November 19, 2017

Pushing the Tugs in Charleston

December 23, 2002

"Tug boat sinks, spills diesel fuel" declared the headline in the Local section of the newspaper. And, strictly speaking, the headline was correct. In 1906, The Captain Morgan had been built as a tug. But as the fourth paragraph acknowledged, "The owner was having the boat ... refurbished into a house boat." So would it be more correct, technically speaking, to say "House boat sinks?" It may be a subtle distinction, but subtleties are why people buy newspapers. Houseboaters and pleasure boaters in general, some might imagine, leave no waterborne pollutants in Charleston harbor, while commercial vessels and oil spills were practically synonymous by November 9. And potentially scandalous. Some sources conjectured (incorrectly) that a massive spill by an Evergreen containership, a few weeks before, had even been deliberate. A houseboat spills oil in isolation, but a tug's is "the third locally in five weeks." It could give tugs a bad rap.

So if the citizens of booming Charleston, over coffee or latte that Saturday morn, knew about the tug festival the next day, their enthusiasm could well have been dampened.

But they probably didn't know, anyway. The Post and Courier, as far as anyone can tell, ran none of the releases sent by the festival's organizers.

If the Post and Courier had run the releases, it probably wouldn't have helped much. The same day as the festival, the Charleston Cup, a horse race, would be held. What could compete with that?

Meet You at the Tugfest?

Well, actually, to a tugboater, maybe a tug festival could. McAllister, Moran, and Stevens Towing were committed to be there. Among their three fleets were all sorts of tugs, collectively outlining the last half-century of design, and maybe the next half-century too. Single-screw diesels? They got 'em. Reverse tractor drives? You bet. Stevens runs pushboats. What a great cross-section of equipment could show up, and what a display of skills. Want to meet the wizened old-timers? Or the new breed of young skippers? Is there a generation gap? A tugfest could be a great way to find out.

Regardless of their vessels, tug crews share skills. Direct-reverse or Z-drive, you need somebody on deck who can toss a line. One that's a bit thicker, a tad heavier than the rodeo champ's. That's worth a newspaper story, isn't it? After all, Charleston, like other places we know of, was a seaport before it was a city.

But also, it's a city in transition. It's not the old south. There's a belief going around that there's a Yankee invasion. There's also a saying going around: Charleston is more than a port.

That's saying a mouthful, since Charleston has the fourth largest containerport in the country, the second largest on the Eastern and Gulf coasts. "No globalization," demands as part of the "vocal opposition" the State Ports Authority president mentioned last year.

It wouldn't be easy for the fourth largest containerport to keep going without globalization. So you could say, broadly speaking, that there is more than one agenda in Charleston among those giving thought to developing the port.

If it?s not one thing ...

The situation is hardly unique to Charleston. There seems little doubt, wherever the ships come in, that waterways and waterfronts once were abused in the interests in commerce. The mindset that tolerated such sullying, out of need or expedience, spoiled the scenic views, made kayaking distasteful and swimming the rivers unhealthful. Wherever the ships come in, citizens now yearn to build houses - usually expensive, frequently highrise, often gated - as earnestly as they once yearned for flush toilets. The city of Charleston and its surrounding communities - "where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers meet to form the Atlantic Ocean" - looked inland, as did most towns, for the amenities of urban living. The shorlines of plenty of cities were thought to be unsavory - populated by burly, brawling guys who go all day on whisky and beer - places best relegated to the construction of highways so folks could leave town in their SUVs.

Arguably, it was the maritime industry itself that changed all this - out of need and expedience again. Containerization is such a logical mode of transport, one wonders why it took so long to develop. When it finally did, it found the thin ribbons of commercial waterfront inadequate. Containerports sprawl and need plenty of upland, and they tend to become the centers for shipping. Before citizens and their housebuilders could repopulate the waterfront, they had to reduce commercial competition for the land. That reduction was facilitated when cargoes moved into containers.

But the competition flared up again in Charleston, after the SPA determined it was in everyone's best interest to expand the containerport. The old Charleston naval base, after the Navy departed, seemed just the place for expansion, but "the City of North Charleston had other ideas for developing the site," said John Hassell of the Maritime Association for the Port of Charleston, "and they had the legal authority to proceed."

The SPA found an alternative site, across the Cooper from the ex-navy base, on land made from dredgespoil at Daniel Island. "Before they put in Route 526," said Mr. Hassell, "Daniel Island was almost inaccessible. It wasn't physically distant, but before Exit 24 joined it to the world it remained rural." A landfill at its southern end would possibly seem an ideal site for industry.

But as citizens and their housebuilders looked to the waterfronts, they concurrently became environmentally conscious. The terms "rural" and "pristine" often go together. And though a containerport on a dredgespoil dump might not itself be an intrusion, its support system - roadways for trucks, say, or rail lines - might be.

Besides, citizens and their housebuilders were eyeing Daniel Island, too. In handsome brochures published by Daniel Island Real Estate LLC, a world unto itself is described - a country club, tennis stadium, parks, a golf course, and houses priced from the mid $100,000s to $1.5 million, "surrounded by serene rivers and marsh-lined creeks" - on 4,000 acres where "care has been taken to preserve the natural environment."

No, nobody would want sunken tugboats spilling diesel fuel here.

And the winner is ...

Interestingly, and perhaps gratifyingly, both camps claim victory. "Now it is a done deal!!!!" triumphed the containtheport web site, "Daniel Island port expansion has been stopped! The State Senate endorses compromise plan to expand Charleston port!" The compromise? To develop the southern part of the ex-navy base into a containerport after all. "It's one of the few instances where the interests of a containerport anywhere have prevailed against such opposition," we were told by an SPA spokesman. "The City Council has approved it, the SPA board approved it, North Charleston approved it, the State General Assembly approved it, and the Governor-Elect approved it." The Maritime Association's John Hassel tells us the spirit of cooperation between the onetime adversaries is symbolized by renaming a street in the center of the Navy base Partnership Boulevard.

Which is not to say the SPA is off the hook, as far as the opposition's web site is concerned. Criticism is continuous regarding SPA lobbying efforts, SPA financing practices, and dredging for deeper-draft ships, among other topics - even though the dredging itself is also a done deal. The opponents continue questioning the need for bigger and bigger ships. And with the threat of terrorist materials inside the containers, the opposition adds dread to its classic indignation.

So if a boat sinks in Charleston, and it once was a tug that served oil-spilling commerce, newspaper readers might think they know the whole story from the headlines alone.

Unsung Heroes?

That Post and Courier report did mention that the spill was quickly contained (fifth paragraph). What it didn't mention was by whom, and exactly how. The whom was that stalwart of maritime industry, Moran, whose recently formed Environmental Recovery unit just happened to be there. Called in for the Evergreen spill, the crew's staging area was the selfsame location where Capt. Morgan went down. The booms went out immediately, and virtually nothing escaped into the river, according to Moran's man in charge, Tim Griffis.

"I was standing right here, talking to some people," which included USCG Lt. Kevin Floyd, "and it went over like that" said Griffis with a flick of his hand. It had been noted for a couple of days that the ex-tug was taking water. "In the old days, we'd have just gone aboard with a pump," said one local mariner, "but these days, you worry about getting sued." According to Lt. Floyd, the precipitous plunge caught everyone off guard. "We knew there was a problem, that's why we were there. But at the rate she'd been taking water, she shouldn't have gone down for days." At presstime the Coast Guard was still investigating, and would not comment on causes for the spontaneous sinking.

All in all, that Saturday was not a great day to precede a tugfest. By about then it also seemed certain that Stevens Towing, although sending people, could send no boats to the races. They were all lined-up for jobs, so there would be only the brotherly love of Moran and McAllister on the water the next day.

Which would do nothing to dull the excitement. Both fleets are good-looking, and diverse in their abilities. "The Wilmington was our big winner in years past," said McAllister's Steve Kicklighter, "though now she's being prepared for reefing." The McAllister Sisters and the Missy McAllister were scheduled to arrive for the event the next morning, the former an ocean-goer with twin screws and flanking rudders, and the latter an ex-YTB. For Moran, it would be the Elizabeth Turecamo and the Robert Turecamo. The Robert started out moving oil as Esso No. 20, in 1953 when barges were a bit shorter than today. With 3000 horsepower turning a single screw, the Robert has plenty of oomph, and lines that some by now might call classic. The Elizabeth, the reverse-tractor tug now merely four years of age, was specially adapted for indirect towing through the region's twisty rivers. Someone mentioned that it's younger guys, who wouldn't be afraid of rolling if they drove sideways, who go straight to the captaincy of these new boats.

So just as a display of sculpture, a study in marine architecture, the tugfest the next day could be a treat. Even if there were only four boats, they were four great boats. And there'd be plenty of great tug people there, too.

Pity the Frogs

Grant Whitford, Operations Manager of the Charleston Maritime Center where the tugfest was held, had only two words for Marine News when we arrived the morning of the event. "It figures."

The skies had opened up, and loosed upon the city a torrent of a style they call a frog-choker. One could stand on the balcony and watch the Cooper River Bridge, within a mile, periodically disappear in the rain. Not in fog, not in mist, but in rain in drops the size of quarters - okay, dimes - as dense and opaque as a wall. If the press releases had been published, and if anyone had read them, and had been of a mind to watch tugboats, they were probably now more of a mind to stay home.

The avalanche of rain continued through the morning, with magnificent bolts of lightning. "I sure hope nobody's expecting to go out," said a crew member of the Nautical Queen, a sightseeing boat docked at the Center. But the people from Stevens, Moran, and McAllister came anyway. Exhibits of knots, of diving equipment, and the line-splicing contest went according to schedule, in a large room on the Center's ground floor. The chili cookoff proceeded as planned, and there was plenty of free beer. The tug-of-war had to be cancelled - the grass was too wet - but by noon the skies cleared to a cheerful blue, and the line-tossing got underway.

Rather than competitive, it was more like a display of line-tossing form. Altogether, the body English was somewhere between bowling and ballet.

It was sunny, almost springlike, as the four tugs paraded toward the bridge for the start of the race. As they charged south, it was apparent that the Elizabeth was practically coasting - or anyhow, not breathing too hard - for with her 6140 Hp, there would not have been much of a contest. It was the Robert that passed Buoy 37 first, the finish line, followed-up shortly by Missy McAllister.

Four tugs in a heat make a stirring display. Too bad so few Charlestonians found out. They don't know what they missed.

It would be incorrect to think that the citizens of Charleston are indifferent to their harbor. "They have the sense of the contrainerport's importance," said John Hassell, "but not always of its direct impact on them. A lot of the goods that they buy come in right here, and they get some savings. It's always amusing to see a 'containtheport' bumper sticker on a car that entered the country through Charleston."

And once you get away from industrial uses, the citizens are rightly proud of this beautiful harbor and the vessels upon it. The Spirit of Charleston, a schooner, is going up in a shipyard a block or two inland. Why so far from the water? "People can come see her get built," said Executive Director Charlie Sneed."They'll get interested. They'll contribute. They'll participate." And they'll buy T-shirts and caps, to help fund the progress. How will the finished ship get to the water? "House-moving technology," said Sneed.

Across from the Maritime Center, on the Mount Pleasant side, heroic warships and a Coast Guard cutter on exhibit pay tribute to another maritime heritage. The craft include a gunboat used in Viet Nam - a war that at one time everyone wished to forget. With time, attitudes change.

But rarely too quickly. Two days after the tugmeet, the newspaper carried a follow-up to the Capt. Morgan story. This time, Moran Environmental Recovery was mentioned - starting in paragraph four - and Tim Griffis got the last word ("It's our river, too."). But the headline? "Coast Guard's quick action contains oil spill from tug." Oh well, maybe someday.

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