Publication:The Virginian-Pilot, Section:Commentary, Page:104, Date:Sunday, June 12, 2005 Sunday, June 12, 2005


Elizabeth River is a seaport, not a playground

    BY DAVID N. VENTKER     Iread J. Daniel Ballard’s     complaints last Sunday,     “Speeding tugs are a     menace on the Elizabeth River,” and I cannot help but respond.

    The captain on the tug boat Mr. Ballard encountered most likely began his “day” when he went on watch at midnight. If this watch was like many others, he experienced the following events:     By 12:30 a.m., he was dispatched to assist a ship docking or undocking at one of the coal terminals in this port. Referred to by some as “tide ships,” many of these vessels can leave the terminals with their precious cargo only at peak high tide.

    If the tug is late, the ship can’t sail. If the ship can’t sail, the berth at the terminal is unavailable for the next empty coal ship, waiting out by the Bay Bridge-Tunnel to be escorted in and docked by other tugs.

    At 2:30 a.m., the tug may have been ordered to the Newport News Marine Terminal to help dock or undock a container ship. The river currents are treacherous there under any circumstances, but a heavy rain, any amount of wind, and other vessel traffic further aggravate the situation.

    If the tug is late, this terminal, too, is tied up, and the next ship waiting at anchorage can’t come in to take on or offload its cargo. If the tug is late, a ship facing a difficult situation under the best of circumstances might suddenly find itself in trouble, endangering itself and the terminal facilities.

    At 4:30 a.m., the tug may have been dispatched to meet another ship coming in from anchorage, perhaps on its way to Lamberts Point Docks. The tug must meet the ship promptly if the ship is to keep its schedule — any delay risks further congestion in the port, costing dollars and risking jobs.

    At 6 a.m. the captain was probably relieved by his mate and, if conditions allowed, he went to his bunk to get some sleep. His next watch would start in six hours. This “routine” is repeated every day, 24 hours a day, day in and day out until the captain is relieved 20 days after beginning his shift.

    Tugs and their crews were at work on the Elizabeth River when Hurricane Isabel came to town. They’re at work during every nor’easter and snowstorm, when Mr. Ballard and his friends are sitting warm and dry at home. They are on the river every day and every night of the year, doing their jobs and keeping the port in operation.

    Why was the tug moving so quickly, as Mr. Ballard complains? Because it was working; it had places to go, deadlines to meet, ships to service. If this tug, and the dozens of others that work on the Elizabeth River, can’t get where they’re supposed to be, when they’re supposed to be there, then every job in this port is at risk.

    The tug captain would, quite frankly, prefer a more leisurely pace — tug engines, some rated at more than 3,000 horsepower, drink fuel at a ridiculous rate when they’re simply idling. Apply even half throttle to meet a ship on a schedule and the rate of consumption goes up considerably, which means the cost of operation goes up.

    Why is the tug in such a rush? Port security operations cause delays. Ships (and even tugs) with mechanical problems cause delays. Bridge openings cause delays. The weather and the tides cause delays. Recreational boaters who’ve had a little too much Chardonnay or who are otherwise oblivious to the world around them cause delays (and routinely endanger their own lives and the lives of others on the water).

    In the industrial areas of the Elizabeth River, tugs are restricted to a speed of 6 knots. They typically operate at lower speeds around Hospital Point. Even so, it can take a half-mile or more for a tug to slow its speed enough that its wake does not disturb the comfort of a recreational boater.

    The port of Hampton Roads will soon become the largest commercial port on the East Coast. With any luck, this will bring more commercial vessel traffic and more tugboats.

    My advice to Mr. Ballard: The Elizabeth River is not a playground — it’s the heart of a working, world-class seaport. If you see tugs on the water, get out of their way and let them do their jobs. We all depend on them.

• David N. Ventker is a Norfolk attorney practicing maritime law; he represents a number of tugboat companies. E-mail him at