The tugboats play a crucial role in easing a global crisis. Capt. Mike Johnson controls the tugboat Delta Teresa with throttles and handgrips from the captain’s seat. With the largest of the large container ship at dock in the Port of Long Beach, Charlie May assesses the work of the tugboat, as reported by an article published on limohio.com.
Start of journey
The sea is calm tonight. The breeze is light. An easy swell rolls beneath the Delta Teresa, a tugboat idling at the entrance to Long Beach Harbor.
Capt. Mike Johnson looks at the monitor to his left and sees a green shape, the Marjorie C, making its approach from San Diego. He starts the tugboat’s twin diesels. Deckhand Max Cota and engineer Charlie May wait with him in the warmth of the wheelhouse.
Seven days on, seven days off, the Teresa’s crew members have had a front-row seat to a world economy thrown off balance by the pandemic.
Arrival at long beach port
The crew members of the Teresa started their day an hour earlier waking up in a dead-end back channel in Long Beach Harbor where they had tied up last night.
The congestion at the ports has drawn its share of ink, Johnson knows. Fingers are quick to point at shipping lines, terminals, truckers, but who’s to blame? The culprit, if there is one, is the American consumer trying to make up for lost time.
Each day on the water, there is evidence of a seemingly insatiable demand in the comings and goings of container ships, automobile carriers, oil tankers, even the Chiquita banana boat.
“Those of us who work out here see everyone’s lives writ large,” he says. “Every day we get a firsthand view of the size and scale of the American economy and American consumerism. Not many appreciate this when they go to the market and buy individual items.”
But waterfronts have always been forbidding places, the fenced-off realms of shipping terminals — 70 in Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors — crisscrossed by train tracks and truck routes and pinched together by bridges, causeways and landfills.
The first message from the pilot
“Good morning, Teresa,” says the pilot, who boarded the Marjorie C at a sea buoy one mile out. From its bridge he will take the ship into the harbor with the Teresa and the other waiting tug, the Delta Audrey, alongside.
“Put your line up on center-lead aft,” he tells Johnson, shorthand for where he wants the Teresa positioned: directly behind the ship. The Audrey will take the bow.
The Marjorie C’s running lights draw close. Its superstructure looms overhead. Perched in a captain’s chair, a padded-leather lounger with two footrests, he spins the Teresa around and drives into the larger vessel’s wake.
Operating a tug
The tug has no steering wheel. Instead, two rotating hand grips correspond to twin propellers that swivel 360 degrees beneath the hull. A tug is so maneuverable that Johnson equates it to a Rubik’s Cube: Driving it reminds him of solving a three-dimensional riddle.
The throttles are two thumb levers — one atop each grip — that can deliver up to 6,600 horsepower and can pull 90 tons. Only locomotives, tractors and large farm equipment come close to having such power.
Johnson nuzzles the Teresa’s bow against the stern of the Marjorie C. Thick fenders cushion the impact. Cota and May don hardhats and life jackets and ready their lines on the lower deck.
About the crew
The three men work silently, their focus honed by years of offshore experience. Johnson, 41, got his start piloting a dredge off the Louisiana coast. Cota, 40, pulled barges to China and delivered food to Haiti and West Africa, and May, 32, was chief mate delivering jet fuel and diesel around the Hawaiian Islands.
Maneuvering the tug through the big ship’s washing-machine currents
Johnson watches as a winch on the Marjorie C pulls up a 3-inch-thick braided nylon rope that connects the two vessels. Once it is secured, he allows the tug to fall back.
“Teresa is all fast,” he radios the pilot as he maneuvers the tug through the big ship’s washing-machine currents. He holds steady about 200 feet away, matching speeds and keeping the line slack.
The Marjorie C is a regular customer, running containers and vehicles between San Diego, Long Beach and Honolulu. Nearly 700 feet long and a little more than 100 feet wide, the ship is owned Pasha Hawaii. Because it is American flagged and covered by a federal statute from 1920, it wastes no time waiting offshore.
“Transverse arrest, easy power,” the pilot radios. The time has come to start putting on the brakes.
Because the pilot wants to be able to steer the Marjorie C, its propeller must continue to turn, but its slowest speed is too fast, which is where the Teresa can help.
Swiveling his propellers sideways, Johnson uses the tug as a deadweight to act as an anchor to slow the Marjorie C.
If Marjorie C is fully loaded and traveling at 10 knots, its forward momentum equals that of 4,000 cars on a freeway traveling at 70 mph, Caltech physicist Jason Alicea explains.
With the winch locked, the braided rope stretches tight, and the Teresa begins to shake and shimmy, fishtailing in the turbulence. Johnson keeps the course straight.
Megaships entering the port
Rivaling the Empire State Building in length, mega-ships began arriving on the West Coast in 2015, creating a surge of cargo — up to 10,000 containers at a time — that even then were blamed for tying up the supply chain.
Maritime historian Sal Mercogliano with Campbell University in North Carolina wonders if the shipping industry is seeing the end of the revolution that truck driver-turned-businessman Malcom McLean started in 1956 when he put 58 containers on the deck of a converted oil tanker for passage to Houston.
The Closing time
As the Marjorie C and the Teresa enter the middle channel, the harbor begins to close in around them. A tanker, Pacific Sky, is offloading crude at a terminal almost 60 feet away.
“Pull in line, one-third power,” calls the pilot, asking Johnson to begin pulling with greater force against the Marjorie C. Johnson swivels his propellers to reverse, and the tug-of-war enters a new stage.
Still the large ship is moving too fast.
“One-half,” the pilot asks Johnson, who throttles up his engines.
The Teresa shakes, and the vessels are soon creeping ahead at 2.5 knots.
As the Marjorie C passes under the new bridge spanning the back channel, its cables lit blue against the gray sky, the pilot orders the Teresa to change position. Cota and May again head down to the lower deck.
Johnson positions the Teresa against the port side of the Marjorie C. Cota and May retrieve the braided rope and reset it.
Soon the cargo ship and the two tugboats slowed to a halt.
“Teresa, push bare minimum,” the pilot calls. Johnson responds, turning the Teresa perpendicular to the ship and begins to nudge it sideways to the dock.
Having crossed the Pacific from Hawaii, sailed up the coast from San Diego, the Marjorie C now has a journey of inches.
“Teresa, stop,” the pilot sends his last command.
The line handler on the Marjorie C lowers the braided rope back to the Teresa. The winch takes up the slack, and Cota and May coil the rope’s running end on the deck.
Johnson gets on the PA system. “Thank you,” he tells the crew of the Marjorie C as he pulls away. The hourlong dance is over. “See you soon.”
Dawn casts blue light over sea and sky. Seagulls wheel and mew. In 24 hours, the Teresa will be back, ready to escort the big ship to sea.
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