The Tugboat Captain
A tugboat is a wonderful thing. Lacking the majestic height of a sailing ship or the fearsome rake of a warship, its appeal is found in its compact power. Among ships it is the wiry, constantly moving, 5 foot 8 inch basketball guard or the explosive, high leaping 85 pound gymnast: it isn't supposed to be able to do what it does, but nothing can equal its ability. The tugboat sacrifices speed for raw power, power used to push, to pull, to maneuver. Cruising down a river, scurrying about some port, or working in the open sea, its measly 6 to 9 knot top speed makes sailing on it seem like a trip that is all pleasure; as if no company with an ounce of sense would ever let itself move so slowly.
The New Jersey Sun. Like all of the boats owned by Sun Transportation, Inc., the New Jersey Sun bears the name of her home station combined with the word Sun. A seventeen year old tug, she is 104 feet 5 inches in length and has a beam of 30 feet. Pulling a fully loaded barge, she cruises in the range of 6 to 9 knots, her speed heavily influenced by the tides and currents. Her crew is made up of six experienced sailors: the captain, the first mate, the chief engineer, the chief steward, and two tankermen. The lower bridge, the one with seven windows, is used whenever a loaded barge is being pushed or when towing is being done; the upper bridge, containing all of the necessary controls but scaled-down electronic navigational aids, is used for maneuvering an empty barge, where the barge's height would interfere with the crew's line of sight. Because it's closer to the water, the lower bridge offers a smoother ride.
But move they do. They move large ships. They move barges filled with coal, oil, and other bulk materials. They move the waste of large cities. On the Mississippi, the Hudson, the Delaware, and other parts of the 25,000-mile waterway system they move more than 600 million tons of goods each year, goods that would otherwise require vast fleets of trucks. For example, a typical gasoline barge, loaded with its capacity of 2,400,000 gallons of gas, will meet the demand for 200,000 fill-ups at the pump, provide the fuel for driving 384,000,000 (yes, that's million) miles in the average car, and give that average car the needed combustion to putt-putt its way around the world 14,769 times. To make that delivery by truck would take a convoy of tanker trucks that would move along bumper-to-bumper, stretching for nearly three miles.

t is a paradox of twentieth century America that the things we are most wary of are often the things we have grown most dependent upon. We are a country consumed by consumption. Nothing illustrates this point more than our unquenchable thirst for oil and its derivatives. For the vast majority of Americans, every movement is planned around the automobile: jobs, family activities, the most basic necessities rely on some form of powered transportation. And yet the source of transportation's lifeblood, that monster that we label "big oil," is seen as the enemy of the environment, a greedy beast that must be watched, distrusted, and vilified. The great paradox of our time becomes our simultaneous consumption and fear of oil: we use gasoline to drive to meetings and oil to heat our homes where we watch television, and the meetings and programs condition us to despise the very source of our mobility and warmth.

ntil we can resolve the dilemma created by our demand for oil, we will need to count on such things as tugboats. We will need to rely on them for their steady reliability, for their constant concern for safety and the environment, and for their economical response to our demand. Modern tugboats are a marvel of engineering. Small, highly maneuverable, and incredibly powerful, they and their crewmembers play a crucial role in our goods and materials society.
Chris Brogan
Chris Brogan, Tugboat Captain
No celebration marks the occasion of Captain Chris Brogan's fiftieth birthday. No cake, no candles, no cards. There is, instead, the relentless pounding of the waves and the constant, throaty growling of the boat's engines. As does every member of the crew, for dinner Chris has a choice between roast pork with steamed fresh vegetables and mashed potatoes and gravy, or lemon chicken with rice pilaf, both meticulously prepared and presented by the boat's professionally trained chef. For dessert Chris can select thick brownies, teeming with walnuts and piled high with whipped cream, or fresh fruit salad, or cookies, still warm from the oven, tucked neatly alongside a scoop of French vanilla ice cream. But there is no party or special treatment. He is aboard his boat, Sun Transportation's New Jersey Sun, and is closely focused on his role as its captain.

s he does every day during his two week shift, he eats at 5:30; and after dinner he stands watch on the bridge from 6:00 PM till midnight. He examines the twin radar screens--one set to scan a one mile radius, the second set to cast its eye on farther distances--monitors the boat's Global Positioning System (GPS) to ensure that the boat is on course, and studies the inky darkness of the surrounding sea, watching for ships' lights or illuminated marker buoys, constantly moving from one source of information to another, constantly alert to the hazards and responsibilities that he embraces with such serene delight. All the while he talks softly to himself.
His talk is not the rambling of an eccentric or the mumbling of someone whose mind is drifting about. It is the talk of someone who is solely responsible. It is the talk of someone who must rely on his own experience and education. It is a way of stepping through a list of reminders, a way of directing the process on which he is so intently focused. Perhaps even more, it is a way of protecting his charges: his crew, his boat, and his cargo. Every moment brings new decisions, and every decision must be the right one, for he is the captain and he allows himself no room for error.
And no matter how carefully you listen, no matter how much you eavesdrop, you will not pass beyond the carefully maintained persona that is "Captain Brogan" and into the deeper thing that is "Chris Brogan" until he is sure that the boat is safe, that he is in charge, and that you present no danger. It's not that he's dishonest or duplicitous; it's just that, like most of us, there are two sides to Chris Brogan, and the dominant side of the one who sails the New Jersey Sun is to be measured, attentive to business, and careful.
But when he is content that everything is as it should be, the other side of Chris Brogan emerges and his conversation weaves in and out of the two roles that make up the single person. Then you begin to understand the reasons behind his tendency to draw pictures, his habit of mentoring his crew by telling them of his own past mistakes, and even his penchant for talking to himself.
When I was young, they didn't know that I had learning disabilities. Learning disabled wasn't even part of the vocabulary of the time. So school was a disaster for me, and I dropped out in the ninth grade. I finished my high school education later, in the Marine Corps, but my early failures haunted me.
Self-taught in many of the skills he needs to navigate--geometry and trigonometry eluded him until later years when he made his living as a pilot in the harbors of Connecticut and on Long Island Sound and its tributary waters--he is intensely aware of the problems people can encounter when trying to learn. Almost as if he is over-compensating, he embraces technology and applies it to almost every aspect of his work. "Technology is great," he'll tell you, "The more we get the better off I am. That and common sense, you'll do all right."
But technology isn't what brought him to sea, and that's where the other part of his being comes in to play. He is a Towing Master--the technical term, he'll tell you, is the one that appears on his license, "Master - Inland Waters Any Gross Tons" and "Pilot, as endorsed Any Gross Tons, and Master Coastwise"--largely because he has spent the major part of his life around the water. The son of a ship's master--when he shows you the picture of his father that hangs in his cabin, Chris will tell you that his father's license allowed him to sail "any ship, any waters." He also saw tugboats as a means for achieving those things that his lack of formal education threatened to deny him. Finally, Chris--and later his brother, Pat, who also commands a Sun tug--were drawn to the sea because it offered them the ability to maintain a measure of control over their working lives:
We're like pirates! This is one of the last jobs on the face of the earth where you can be the absolute master of what you do. You can train the men, configure the boat, lay things out the way your experience tells you will work best. Sure there's a purpose to this, but it's still fun. It's like having your own yacht with a purpose.
Before he could take the helm of that "yacht with a purpose," however, he had to put in his time as a deckhand, a pilot, and a first mate. It took six years before he had a master's license, and undending years of sitting for First Class Pilot's licenses--to get one requires that you learn and memorize course, buoy, depth of water, rock, reef, and shoal, of the area that you are being tested for. As if that wasn't enough, the descriptions and dimensions of all manmade objects have to be committed to memory. The test takes at least eight hours, includes drawing the entire chart to scale, and you have to score 90 percent to pass.
Along the way he also picked up the skills required to maneuver--whether pushing, pulling, or alongside--a tug and barge filled with nearly 2.5 million gallons of fuel, in any condition of weather, tide, or current. Along the way there were accidents and close calls; but rather than hide from them and pretend to be something he isn't, Chris uses them as the source of instruction and learning. He commonly gives jobs to his first mate and in the process of laying out the requirements of the job he'll explain how he went wrong in the past and what he learned from it. "I want everyone on this boat to know as much as possible. Let them be as informed as I am. That will give me more freedom."
That notion of freedom, the idea that sweeps through his conversation with the deliberation and illumination of a scanning radar, is Chris Brogan's reason for bringing technology to what is, by any standard, a generally low tech profession. If asked about his affinity for gadgets, he'll explain quickly:
Technology gives me more freedom by lessening paper work and making mistakes more rare. Computers, GPS, radar, and the like let me enjoy the details instead of fighting them.
So when he is not standing watch or training the crew, he can generally be found in his cabin, working at his laptop computer, designing or refining a piece of software. Whether it's a program that can be used to navigate Sun's boats from one port to another, calculate trip schedules, or handle the routine tasks of ordering, inventorying, and cataloging, Chris works to match the advantages of the computer to the needs of the shipping industry. And while some people might think it odd that he loves this job enough to work the two-week-on, two-week-off schedule that comes with it, a schedule that forces him to put off an occasional birthday party, Chris Brogan is happy. After all, candles can wait, but the sea never stops churning.
The Tugboat Captain - A Gallery
Course Planning.
Because the speed of the boat is affected by the movement of the tides and the currents, it's necessary for Chris to plot the boat's course based on the date and the time of departure. Given some of the new navigational aids, especially those that make use of the boat's recently installed Global Positioning System, Chris has undertaken the project of planning sets of courses which will be programmed into the autopilot and recalled for use as they are needed.
Programming the course.
Once wavepoints have been calculated, they're programmed into the autopilot. Using GPS technology, the autopilot will compare the actual location of the boat with the programmed course. Looking down from a satellite, a GPS can determine, within 20 feet, the boat's position on the globe. The large black boxes on either side of the console contain the boat's radar monitors. When the boat is underway, one monitor is usually set to scan for a radius of 1.5 miles and the other is set to scan for a radius of 6 miles. Scanning radars help assure that any maneuvering that has to be done can be done in a routine manner.
The galley.
Work schedules on a tugboat place unusual demands on Chief Steward Darcy Lever. First and foremost the food must be good. It is. Secondly, because she's working with six different palettes, the food must have variety. It does. Breakfast is usually the familiar cereal-egg menu, but lunch and dinner generally feature two or three choices and a range of diet-conscious selections. For example, dessert after dinner might be pie ala mode, but weight watchers would have the option to ask for yogurt and fresh fruit. While the galley appears small, it contains all the elements of a small restaurant kitchen, and the crew's work schedule means it rarely has to accommodate more than four people at a time. Tug crews work two weeks at a time. While they are scheduled to work, they stay on or close to the boat and work in shifts: one tankerman and the captain work six hours; after that time the other tankerman and the first mate work the next six hours; then the rotation begins again. The chief steward and the chief engineer work as needed and inevitably work at least twelve hours a day.
Sitting in the notch, ready to get underway.
In order to push a loaded barge, the tug is maneuvered into a cutout at the aft end of the barge. This cutout, called "the notch," is like a ten foot wedge that's cut in to the barge in a shape that conforms to the bow of the tug. The tug eases into the notch until its cushioning, rubber bumper is against the barge, and lines are tied off to securely join the two. Side lines are then run and result in a linkage that's so rigid it's as if the barge and the tug were a single unit. The barge is unpowered, and the structures on top are pump housings and a shelter used by the tankermen while they supervise loading and unloading.
Moving into tow position.
It's safer to tow a barge than to push it when sailing in potentially choppy, open waters. So at the mouth of a river, before entering the sea lanes, the lines holding the barge against the tug are untied and the tug moves around the barge and positions itself in front of the barge. Then, using a cable running from one of the winches to the front of the barge, towing begins. In the process, the shape and size of the notch can be clearly seen
Letting out cable.
The length of cable fed to the barge is determined largely by the wave height and the depth of the water. Rougher seas call for more cable, but the cable is heavy, so the greater the amount of cable that's unreeled, the deeper it sinks. For instance, the distance shown is this photo suggests that the cable will be running about 20 feet below the surface. What results is a series of calculations that help to determine how much cable should be fed to the barge given the depth of the water. One of Chris's recent projects was finding a mathematician who helped produce a chart that can be used to speed up the process of calculating how deep the cable runs at given lengths.
Passing New York City.
The dramatic skyline of New York City in the background, the Island Sun looms above the tugboat as they approach the mouth of the Hudson, heading toward the open sea. Empty, the barge presents no significant safety risk, and its height makes it impractical if not impossible to manipulate with the tug in the notch, so it's usually towed. Because it's on a river where there's considerable traffic, the cable is not fed out very far.
A moment of reflection.
Passing the Statue of Liberty, a member of the crew takes a minute to enjoy the beauty of life aboard the New Jersey Sun.
A discussion of navigation.
An important part of Chris's job is ensuring that members of the crew have an opportunity to learn and work toward promotion. Here he discusses a navigational problem with First Mate Michael Smith, assigning to Smith the job of computing the scheduled wavepoints for the journey from Sun's Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, refinery to the delivery point outside of Albany, New York. Wavepoints are nautical milestones that use buoys as checkpoints and assure that the boat is on course and schedule. Like most members of the crew, Smith is qualified by both experience and education, but the mentoring system Sun's captains use guarantees that all hands are given an opportunity to keep current with advances in technology.
Getting into pushing gear.
Under Chris's careful scrutiny, tankermen Wesley Gamble and Thomas Wyatt help to set up the lines needed when pushing a barge. Because safety is given such a high priority, every system has checks and double checks, and every caution is taken to assure that a barge doesn't end up adrift. Here Wes and Tom take turns greasing one of the 2 inch lines that secure the barge to the boat. Grease is applied to make sure that the lines don't fray and break as a result of rubbing against the boat. The small, booth-like room behind Chris houses the controls for handling the two powerful winches that are used for pulling and pushing the barge.
Below decks.
The engine room houses two 1,450 horsepower, Caterpillar diesel engines that drive the boat, two smaller diesel engines that provide electrical power for the boat's systems, and the workshop in which Chief Engineer Mark Finucane handles the job of keeping the boat sound and running. From the kitchen to the bridge, anything that goes wrong or requires repair is his responsibility. While the sound of the running engines is nearly deafening, the engines and the space itself are kept meticulously clean and make it a pleasant place to work.
Pushing the Island Sun.
Filled with nearly 2.4 million gallons of gasoline, 15 feet of the barge, Island Sun, is below the water. The cable on the left is one of two that are connected to the boat's winches and are used to keep the barge snugly against the boat.
A view from the Island Sun.
Looking back from the bow of the barge, the New Jersey Sun seems dwarfed. That's not surprising, since its 315 feet in length and 64 feet in width make the barge more than three times as long and twice as wide as the boat. In order to strengthen the structure of the barge and minimize the size of any spill that might occur, the interior of the barge is a series of tanks rather than one single tank. If the top were peeled off, the lower portion of the barge would resemble a sectioned icecube tray.
The winches.
Using 2 inch diameter cable, both of the winches are used when pushing the barge. One is used for towing.
Coming in to port.
Before arriving, the tug again goes into the notch so that the barge can be precisely maneuvered to the dock.
As the cargo is unloaded, a process that takes about eleven hours, the barge slowly rises until only three or four feet of it are below water. It's hard to believe that it's the same vessel that was being towed and pushed the day before.
Sunset at sea.
Moving along at about 8 knots, the sea relatively calm, it's difficult to imagine a more tranquil way to earn a living