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A dance on the water: Baltimore’s 6 harbor-assist tugboats essential to the port

The tug Vicki M. McAllister trails the vehicle carrier Morning Menad through the Key Bridge site as her sister tug, Bridget McAllister, is positioned toward the front, guiding the large ship into the Port of Baltimore

Posted on June 24, 2024

As a 574-foot, Korean-flagged car carrier glided through the Chesapeake Bay at 7 mph on a recent afternoon, a welcoming committee came in the form of two Baltimore-based tugboats. The tugs matched the ship’s speed, one latching itself to the freighter’s port side and the other coming up to the stern.

With only 4 inches separating the 98-foot Vicki M. McAllister from the massive ship it tailgated, a local deckhand on the tugboat and the freighter’s crew wordlessly connected the two vessels — vastly different in size, function and origin — with a thick towing line.

The boat and the ship now were intertwined for the next 90 minutes as the ship headed for the Port of Baltimore’s Dundalk Marine Terminal. The tugboat served as an insurance policy while the ship glided past the wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, then helped it nimbly slide into a berth.

The Vicki, one of only six harbor-assist tugs stationed in Baltimore, regularly guides ships, some as small as 300 feet long, others up to 1,200 feet, in and out of port. It’s a dexterous dance; the tugboats maneuver inches from the vessels, tying a line to a bitt — a post on the ship’s exterior — then detaching, relocating and attaching to a different area, all while the ships loaded with cars, containers or other goods stay in motion.

The wee-but-mighty tugboats are often unheralded. But they’ve received more attention since March 26, when the container ship Dali lost power, hit a Key Bridge support pier and knocked the structure down. The collapse killed six men working on the span and blocked the channel, stunting port commerce for months.

Before the collision, two tugboats helped the Dali out of its berth. But, in accordance with state regulations, the tugs weren’t required to assist the vessel under the bridge.

After the fact, some observers argued that if the tugs had escorted the vessel farther, they could have prevented the disaster. Others were less certain. Could the tugboats have kept the 100,000-ton Dali from destroying the bridge?

“I don’t want to speculate and get ahead of the NTSB,” said Brian Vahey, vice president of the Atlantic region for the American Waterways Operators — an advocate for the tugboat industry.

The National Transportation Safety Board is studying what, precisely, caused the Key Bridge disaster, and will issue recommendations to prevent such incidents in the future in its final report.

Since the calamity, tugboats — five of them — towed the damaged Dali out of the wreckage site and back to port and have escorted more than 100 deep-draft vessels through the debris-littered channel. Tugboats will again guide the Dali when it transits in the coming days to Norfolk, Virginia, for further repairs.

Business slowed at the Port of Baltimore, but the tide has started to turn in recent weeks, and activity is expected to steadily increase following the June 10 reopening of the full 700-foot-wide, 50-feet-deep shipping channel. Previously, more than 200 deep-draft vessels called on Baltimore each month and authorities hope commerce will return this year to that level.

Each of those massive vessels will need help parking. And the six tugboats are ready to assist.

Deckhand Kramer Whitelaw handles the lines as the tugs Vicki M. McAllister and Bridget McAllister ease the vehicle carrier Morning Menad into a berth at Seagirt Marine Terminal. (Jerry Jackson/Staff)

‘A contact sport’

Some species of ant can lift more than 50 times their body weight, and tugboats are cut from even stronger cloth. The Vicki weighs about 450 tons, but it can pull a ship that weighs more than 100,000 tons (200 times bigger), like the 984-foot Juno Horizon, which it assisted earlier this month.

Part of its hauling powers lie in the size of its 4,650-horsepower engines. More than 70% of the Vicki’s space is devoted to the engine room, Capt. Austen Parish estimated, with the remainder allotted to fuel tanks, navigation and living areas (tugboat captains live aboard for two weeks at a time, then take two weeks off).

The tugboat’s exterior is lined with tires — some full, some cut into smaller pieces — to provide cushioning when escorting turns into bumping.

“It’s a contact sport,” explained Mike Reagoso, vice president of Mid-Atlantic Operations for McAllister Towing, which operates tugs up and down the East Coast.

Occasionally, a ship coming into Baltimore needs the assistance of just one tugboat. Oftentimes, it’s two, and sometimes, especially for ultra-large containerships or when the weather is challenging, three or more tugboats will help.

Three of the local tugs are owned by McAllister and three others by Moran Towing. Both work closely with the Association of Maryland Pilots because it is a licensed harbor pilot, a local expert, who ultimately steers a ship into Baltimore, directing tugboat captains through the process. Cargo ship owners pay the pilotage and tugboat fees, which vary but generally cost several thousand dollars per trip.

Sometimes a pilot will direct a tug toward the stern, then to the starboard side, and then elsewhere. When a pilot offers instructions over VHF radio during a transit, the tugboat captain repeats them back for clarity.

The Vicki McAllister (left) turns back to port as the Bridget McAllister prepares to release after the pair of tugs escorted Royal Caribbean’s Vision of the Seas out of port and safely through the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse site. (Jerry Jackson/Staff)

“It’s a joint judgment call,” Parish said. “I need to feel safe coming into that position. On the flip side, he needs us where he needs us.”

Parish, 29, grew up on the water in Kent County on the Eastern Shore, trained as a mariner at Texas A&M University and sailed deep-sea vessels before becoming a tugboat captain.

“I really enjoy the challenge of maneuvering in tight spaces and the tugs offer a taste of that,” he said.

On June 7, Parish captained the Vicki  past the Key Bridge wreckage. As the tugboat sailed by, steam poured out of the Dale Pyatt, the largest clamshell dredge in the Western Hemisphere, while the Chesapeake 1000, the largest floating crane on the East Coast, slowly picked up another piece of debris.

The tugboat then sailed by Fort Carroll — an artificial island designed in the 19th century by Robert E. Lee of the Army Corps of Engineers, now abandoned and radiating a stench of bird guano — and then a day-cruise ship. Parish blew the tugboat’s horn, to the delight of waving passengers.

“People love tugs,” Parish said.

Push to park

A blue-and-white speck — the Morning Menad car carrier — then appeared on the horizon and, 3 miles south of the Key Bridge site, four vessels met in the quiet waters: the massive freighter full of cars, a small boat delivering a Maryland pilot, and two tugboats, ready to provide guidance.

As the Ro-Ro freighter (its cargo of vehicles can “roll on” and “roll off”) continued sailing towards Baltimore, pilot Mark Baummer boarded. He directed the Vicki to the Morning Menad’s stern, where Parish deftly lined the boat up just a few inches behind the ship, each vessel traveling 6.5 knots (just over 7 mph).

Crew members on the car carrier lowered a messenger line — a thin cord — to deckhand Kramer Whitelaw, who tied the tugboat’s large rope to it. Members of the freighter crew, all wearing hard hats and one with a cigarette in his mouth, retrieved the rope and fastened it to their vessel.

A deckhand on the vehicle carrier Morning Menad takes in the line from the tug Vicki M. McAllister as they approach the Port of Baltimore. (Jerry Jackson/Staff)

Whitelaw, of Sparrows Point, said that he ordinarily communicates with the crew — who are from various countries and rarely speak English — with hand signals. Both Parish and Whitelaw say they try to be good “ambassadors” of the area; in some cases, they’re the first humans, aside from one another, that a crew has seen in over a month.

Once fastened together, tugboats can help the big ship in the event something goes amiss due to mechanical, human or weather issues.

“If something does go crazy, hopefully, we can be part of the solution,” Reagoso said.

But on this day — a calm one — the Vicki and its towing partner, the Bridget McAllister, simply sailed alongside the vessel until it was ready to park. At that point, the pilot directed one tug to pull on the ship and the other, more aft, tug to push, spinning the ship around.

It was a fairly simple parking job, but each one is a little different.

“You can drive your car into a parking lot and some, you just pull straight in, and the other ones you gotta parallel park with 37 turns in the middle,” Parish said.

Mate Kramer Whitelaw, left, and Captain Austen Parish take the tug Vicki M. McAllister toward the vehicle carrier Morning Menad. (Jerry Jackson/Staff)

Port safety

Tugboats are an essential piece of the port ecosystem — especially with a renewed national focus on infrastructure protection. They can provide a nonstructural option to prevent the type of calamity seen at the Key Bridge.

The Maryland bridge that sees the most oceangoing vessels pass underneath is the Bay Bridge near Annapolis, but the state does not require tugboats to assist ships there.

The state has considered changing that policy since the Key Bridge collapse, Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld said, but given the speed (roughly 15 knots) that ships travel at that point in their voyage, more substantial tugboats would be required, he said.

“You need a different type of tug for that,” Wiedefeld said in a June 12 interview at the Port of Baltimore. “There’s things that you’d have to invest in to have them.”

The state is reviewing “realistic” short-term and long-term options, Wiedefeld said, to protect the bridge.

Back on the Vicki, with the Morning Menad parked and the mission complete, Whitelaw detached the tugboat from the freighter and Parish backed it away. He drives the ship using controls in each hand, while managing a winch — the mechanism that reels in the towing rope — with his right foot. It’s not dissimilar from playing the piano or the drums.

“I’m not a musician, but I always wanted to be,” Parish said. “This is about as close as I can get.”

Parish guided the Vicki back to port, but it didn’t stay there for long. There was another big ship on its way to Baltimore — and it needed help parking.


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