In the Swedish magazine Utkiken, a 10-year-old British schoolboy wrote an essay titled, “Why I Want to be a Captain.” My favorite line of this essay reads, “”¦most people think it’s dangerous to drive a boat, except captains, because they know how easy it is.”
I hope my children think I’m that cool one day, because when the wind kicks the sea up in a frenzy, trying to throw your boat into oblivion, you don’t feel that special.
Alaska is a place where the sea takes delight in tossing the mariner about. Spending time this summer out there on my internship from Maine Maritime Academy working on tugboats for Western Towboat Company exposed me to just a few of those experiences.
The Wrangell Narrows is a passage to Petersburg that is only navigable at high tide. The currents tear through that place with immense force. Just to give you a mathematical idea of the power of water: 1 knot is approximately 1.15 mph. That is ridiculously slow, yes? But when the current travels at 1 knot, it carries 130 tons of force on a tugboat and barge 25-feet wide.
The mathematics ran through my head all four times we went through those narrows. The only way to control the barge was to bring it up very close behind us, which meant that if we had to stop for some reason, the barge would bulldoze right over us.
I didn’t much fancy having 10,000 tons of barge grinding my bones to dust. But the other frightening factor was that if we maneuvered wrong, the barge would be on the rocks before we could say “hard to port,” because the narrows are”¦ well”¦ narrow. About a stone’s throw from boat to shore on both sides.
It requires a lot of learning and even more practice to qualify for this passage with Western Towboat Company. It’s not as simple as “turn right” to make the barge go right. It’s not like driving an 18-wheeler. Imagine instead that you’re driving that 18-wheeler on sheet ice and the trailer is tied to the truck with a 20-foot long rope.
Captain Lickey of the Western Titan guides the vessel into the narrows. On the radio, the chief mate makes the security call that is standard for entering a narrow channel: “Securite, securite, tug Western Titan entering the south end of Wrangell Narrows with loaded barge, speed 5 knots. Standing by on 13 and 16.” Now all the vessels nearby know that we’re coming.
The first turn is almost invisible, except for two colored marks standing in the water: green on the left, red on the right. Captain Lickey eases the tug around to the left, but the barge continues straight ahead. It has large skegs under it, like stationary rudders to keep it going straight.
I watch it with apprehension, the pit in my stomach growing as it fast approaches the red mark. Then, glancing over his shoulder to check it, Captain Lickey deftly taps the throttles ahead and guns the engines for a few moments. The tow bridle attaching us to the barge pops as the links rotate around each other as the tugboat’s 100 tons of pulling power yanks it tight, and the barge swings around behind us, missing the mark with little room to spare.
“How do you know when to do that?” I ask him.
He explains to me in a tight voice that if both legs of the bridle are tight, gunning the engines will only make the barge go forward faster, instead of turning it. He has to wait until the barge passes from one side to the other, and one bridle leg goes slack. Then he can put the throttles down and use the power on the offset strain to pull the barge around in the direction he wants.
So, little Utkiken writer, driving a boat is not as easy as you think it is. It takes years of experience in dangerous situations to become an expert boat handler. But if you want to become a captain, don’t forget that everyone starts at the bottom.
Benjamin Stevens of Islesford (Little Cranberry Island) is a junior at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.