Captain Merle Treadwell looked down the pier from the wheelhouse and saw Raymond, the port manager, come out of the office with the new mate, the latter smiling, bearded and young. The manager took careful steps, his eyes on the uneven old planks of the tugboat pier. The new mate was leading, stopping occasionally to let the red-faced man catch up. Treadwell thought about what he’d heard about the oncoming mate: maritime academy graduate, like they all were these days; had done a couple of years on bulk freighters on the Lakes, then a couple more on tugs down in Norfolk. They say he can run one of these tractor tugs, Treadwell thought, observing the hand controls for the 360-degree thrusters. We’ll see. Probably never ran a conventional tug, never even worked on a single screw boat, he thought as the two visitors clambered over the gunnel onto his tug. The mate looked up and gave a little wave; the manager came in through the stern hatch without acknowledgement. As they came up the ladder into the pilot house, Treadwell heard the mate’s animated speech.
“Great! I can’t get over I’ll be working on a brand-new boat.”
“Straight from the shipyard,” the manager said. He barely looked up at Treadwell and raising his hand, palm up, said, “Merle Treadwell, captain of the Tyler Dugan. Merle, this is your new mate, Ken Martell.”
“Pleased to meet you, Cap,” Martell said with a firm grasp of the hand. “I’ve been looking forward to coming aboard and meeting you.”
“Merle Treadwell, Ken. I’m glad we finally got a full-time mate,” he said, glancing at the manager. “They tell me you’ve worked on tugs the last two years.”
“Yes, down in Norfolk. I worked on the Cape Thunder and the Annie Dugan there.”
“Ahh, so you worked on a conventional tug and a z-drive like this one.”
“Yes sir. I made a point of getting to know how to handle both kinds.”
“Good, good, Ken. Good to have that experience under your belt. That way you’ll know what to expect when we’re teamed up with one of the conventional tugs.”
Treadwell noticed the clean white baseball cap the mate was wearing. Northern Pilots Association. Ohh, I see what job you really want, kid, and reflected on his own application for a pilot’s job, turned down two years ago.
“Well, Merle, there’s some work coming up this afternoon, at least one carship and a couple of container ships, so as soon as you feel comfortable with him, he can start standing a watch,” the manager said. Raymond nodded a few times and added, “Ken worked on busy boats down in Norfolk, and I’m sure once he gets familiar with our harbor, he’ll fit in very well.” Looking at his watch, the manager said, “I’ve got to meet a client for lunch, so I’ll leave you two to get squared away,” and descended the ladder.
The captain and his new mate watched their boss climb off the boat and walk down the pier back to the office.
“Well,” Captain Merle said, “Welcome aboard, Ken. Why don’t you get your gear, and I’ll introduce you to the crew and show you your room. Once you get your gear stowed, I’ll take you around the boat and we can start to get you turned over on the Tyler Dugan.”
Ken followed Merle around the boat. When they got to the controls, Ken asked a few questions about how the boat handled.
“Prop wash and wind are the two challenges with this boat,” the captain explained. “When your old boat, the Annie Dugan, was up here, all it took was a little more power to keep ‘er steady, but this boat, with its long skeg, you’ve got to watch the prop wash especially and really work the sticks to keep ‘er steady.”
Ken nodded and looked at the winch controls. “Not a proper rend and return for the ship line, is it? The Annie had a dial where you could set the speed of the winch.”
“No, they didn’t include that feature on this boat. I don’t know why…”
When a metallic banging sound emanated from the galley, Merle said, “That’s the way Jimmy announces lunch. C’mon, let’s go below, and I’ll introduce you to the crew.”
Steaming meatloaf, beans and mashed potatoes on the table, the two deckhands and the engineer reached over the food to greet the new mate.
“I’m Jimmy, engineer and head chef.”
“I’m Rob, deckhand on the 6 to 12 watches. Be careful, the engineer sometimes gets confused between the galley and the engine room and puts hydraulic fluid instead of milk in the mashed potatoes.”
“That’ll keep us all regular, anyway,” Ken replied with a smile.
“I’m Ace, deckhand on the 12 to 6 watches. Did you work with Crash Simpson down in Norfolk? I hope you’re not like him. I had to strap myself in my bunk when I laid down the way he banged the boat around.”
“Nah, you should be fine with just some pillows on the deck next to your bunk,” which got them all laughing.
Next to the captain’s seat, a microphone chirped. “Dispatch to the Tyler.”
“Tyler,” the captain replied.
“Hey Merle, 1315 hrs., the Vancouver Ace going into Downing Berth Number 3.”
“Roger that.” Taking his hand off the microphone key, he looked at the mate. “Ready to take her out?”
“No time like the present,” Ken said
“Ok,” the captain said to the crew, “We’ll leave the pier at 1245,” to which they all nodded.
Ken adjusted the captain’s chair and seated himself in as the diesel engines rumbled to life. He checked the RPMs, then looked out to see the deckhand flip the lines off the bollards. When a thumbs up was signaled from the deck, he leaned back in the seat, cocked the thruster controls and kicked the speed up a notch as the boat eased out away from the pier.
“Keep the speed down under 5 knots until we get out into the main channel,” the captain coached. The mate nodded and checked his instruments, holding back the boat’s speed until in the channel.
When they got near the 900-foot car ship that was the Vancouver Ace, the Captain asked, “You got the radio or want me to handle it?”
“No, I got it, Cap,” and when hailed from the big ship’s bridge, confirmed the instructions, slid alongside the ten-story high car ship and matched its speed exactly while the deckhand flipped a bight from the tug’s hawser over a bit fixed in the ship’s hull as spray came over the bow.
“The Tyler’s all fast, Cap,” the mate announced to the pilot guiding the car ship. Ace came into the pilot house and, exchanging glances with the captain, nodded in confidence.
After three more docking jobs, the Tyler returned to the pier, the boat gliding into its berth with barely a bump.
“Nice job, Ken. Very good,” the captain said. “I’ll stay with you until you get familiar with all the terminals and channels, and you should be able to stand your own watch in short order.”
That night, the captain worked with his new mate, docking and sailing vessels with only catnaps until 7:00 a.m.
“Tyler to dispatch,” the captain said.
“Sara Maru. Started zero three fifty, finished, uhh, zero four ten, deep draft twenty-seven feet.”
“Ok, Merle, that looks like it until about thirteen hundred, c’mon back to the pier.”
“Roger, dispatch,” the captain said, rubbing his eyes.
“Long night,” the mate said.
“Yeah,” the captain said. “I’ve been without a mate for a week and those cheap m-fs in the office wouldn’t bring in one until they hired you.”
“Wow,” the mate said, “want me to take her in?”
“Nah, I got it,” Merle said, kicking the RPMs up for the return trip.
When they had tied up to the pier, Merle gathered up the timesheets and other paperwork.
“Get some sleep, Ken, I’m just going over to the office and drop these timesheets off before I hit the hay so we can get paid.”
“I can get it if you want, Cap.”
“Nah, I got it,” he said, going over the gunnel.
In the office, Merle walked by the manager’s office, nodded to Raymond, and put the timesheets and other paperwork in the inboxes. Raymond sat at his computer with his hat on. Merle walked by the office again and didn’t look in, but stopped when Raymond called, “Merle!”
“Yeah?” he said, stepping back and looking in where Raymond gazed at the screen. Merle noticed Raymond was wearing a Crowley Maritime ballcap. Shit, he thought, this prick never worked for Crowley. They moved him into the office as a salesman here when he’d been a mate for about six months. He never made captain. The only sailing this bum’s done since is with his friends at a yacht club.
“I need you to give these shirts to Ken. They’re the newest Dugan Towing golf shirts to wear when we have visitors.”
Hmm, nice, Merle thought, looking over the embroidered Lacoste™ polos. “Got any more? I haven’t gotten any new ones in a while.”
Staring at the computer screen, Raymond answered, “Nope. Probably won’t have any more for six months. Besides, you got some just…” he nodded as he picked up his buzzing cell phone. Merle heard him say, “Say there, Cap, when are we going fishing again at…” as he left, thinking, That arrogant s.o.b., I’m gonna tell him off one of these days. Why the company made him boss, I’ll never know. As he went down the stairs out of the office, Captain Merle met with Roger, the Captain of the Michael Dugan.
“What’s up, Merle?” Roger said, nodding up the steps.
“Just dropping off the timesheets, Rog. You busy last night?”
“We had a couple jobs, but we stayed up river between them. Raymond’s got the dispatchers watching us when he isn’t here now. Even gave them a new set of binoculars so they can see us up close and personal. My mate, Jack, just brought a new gas grill out here from home, and that bastard complained about us grilling on the pier a couple of nights ago, said it was a fire hazard. What the fuck, man…”
“I am so sick of this bullshit,” Captain Merle said, shaking his head. “I just drop the paperwork off and get the hell out of there,” he said, wishing he’d gotten that pilot’s job for the hundredth time.
A week later, a relieved Captain Merle turned Ken over to stand watches by himself but listened carefully whenever he was off to the sounds of the engines, the bumps against ship hulls and the talk of the other crew members. He rested easier in his bunk after midnight hearing the RPMs gradually go up and down, the gentle taps of the tug’s rubber fenders against the big ships’ hulls as they pushed them to the piers and the easy banter of the engineer and the deckhands as they changed watches. Ken even took all the paperwork over to the office, although Merle couldn’t figure out what the hell he did over there for twenty minutes every morning. Hell, there weren’t any secretaries over there anymore.
Shortly before the end of their two-week hitch on the boat, Merle got up early and did his usual 360 around the boat while Ken was over at the office. He had noticed the boat was riding a little back and forth along the pier and when he spotted the fore and aft deck lines angled inward to the bollards, knew why.
“Mornin’ Cap,” Ken beamed as he stepped over the gunnel onto the deck.
“Good morning, Ken,” Merle answered, looking down at the deck lines. “Get the paperwork delivered?”
“Yeah, got a copy of the day’s rundown, too. Looks quiet today.”
“Good, we can use a break. Say, before you turn in, c’mon over here, I want to show you something.”
“Oh, what’s that, Cap?”
“See the way you’ve got us tied up to the pier? Using spring lines?” he said, pointing at the angled ropes.
“Yeah,” Ken drawled.
“Sometimes that lets the boat slide up along the pier if they’re not real tight, and especially if one of the other tugs come rolling in hot or we get a wake from out in the river.”
“Uh huh,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest.
“So, here’s what I want you to have the deckhand do when you pull in,” the captain said, untying the forward line and pulling the boat right against the pier. “Tie it straight across…”
“A breast line…”
“Yup, and then,” he said, trotting down to the stern and untying the aft line, “the same back here,” he said. “And then,” he continued, whipping the line several times quickly around the capstan, “Use the capstan to pull it in snug,” he said, activating the rotating wheel and watching it pull the tug tight against the pier.
“See? No movement. You don’t have to worry about the tides here, so no adjustments either.”
“So, make sure when you tie up to get whoever’s working the deck to do it this way, alright?”
“Sure, Cap. No problem. Anything else?”
“Nope, get some sleep, and I’ll get Rob working on painting the fantail.”
Over the next few days, Merle noticed with satisfaction that wherever Ken was running the boat and they tied up, the boat was held tight against the dock with breast lines, the aft one snugged up with the capstan.
On the last evening of their two-week hitch, Merle saw the temperature dropping and the wind blowing in over the water. When Ken came in to relieve him, Merle updated him on the upcoming work and mentioned, “Looks like there may be some fog tonight,” and tapped the plaque with the standing orders on it, pointing at one that said to notify the captain in any fog conditions.
In his bunk, Merle opened a book called Leadership Lessons from the Age of Discovery, dozing off while reading how Magellan hanged mutineers and left their corpses swinging from the yardarms as an example to others who might be like-minded. He awoke about 2:00 a.m. to the sound of a long blast on the boat’s horn. He sat up and waited, and sure enough, two minutes later, the boat’s horn wailed again. Merle got into his sweats and trotted up to the wheelhouse.
“Ken, what the hell’s going on?”
“Little bit of fog, Cap. We’re headed across the harbor to pick up the Wendy J., going into Seabrite 3.”
Ace looked at Ken with alarm in the cabin’s red night vision light.
“Didn’t you see the standing order about fog, Mate? It says, ‘Notify the captain in any fog conditions’!”
“Yeah, but I’ve been in fog before…I didn’t want to wake you unnecess…,” Ken choked out.
“All fog conditions, Mr. Mate, not just when you feel like it. This is the most dangerous operating conditions on the water. Ace – take the portable radio and get out there in the bow. Shout out if you see anything.”
“Yes sir,” the deckhand replied, and snatching the radio out of the charger, hustled down to the front of the boat where forward vision was maximized.
“Hell, Mate, visibility’s only a dozen feet in this soup!” he said as the horn’s drawn out warning sounded again.
“Yes, sir,” Ken replied. He was about to say something else but stopped.
Merle walked to an observer’s chair and said, “Always notify the captain in all fog conditions. Every time. You hit something, somebody might get hurt, there’s a fuel spill, we all lose our license.”
Merle settled into the chair and remembered his first job as a mate, under old Captain Laurence. One sunny day Laurence came up into the wheelhouse and started taping cardboard over all the windows.
“How’d you do in radar school, mate?” the captain said.
“Good, cap, got a 98 on the final,” Merle said.
“Great,” he said, applying the last cardboard blind to the stern windows. “They’re firing the engines up now. Take me across the harbor to where the Marcella Runner is docked at Dunbar 6,” he said, tapping a green spot on the radar screen, “and then bring us back here and dock it.”
“Uhhh,” was all Merle could get out.
“Can’t you do it, kid?”
Merle took a deep breath, looked at the radar screen, then told the deckhand, “Get the lines in.” He barely breathed going across the harbor, but when he got close to the ship, knew the wind was pushing inland, cut the engines to idle and drifted into the Beseth Runner soft as a kiss. He exhaled and pulled away from the freighter, eyes glued to the radar screen, and got them back to the dock, where Laurence ripped the cardboard off the windows when they were ten feet away from the pier.
“Nice job, mate, nice job,” he said, and left the pilot house.
That’s the way you learn about fog, Merle thought.
When they got off for their two-week break, Merle noticed that Ken didn’t pack his gear.
“Ken. Crew change today at noon. What’s up?”
“Ahh, the office asked if I wanted to work over for the other crew’s mate a few days. I figured I could use the money.”
“Ok, man, suit yourself,” Merle said, thinking, those pricks in the office never told me he was working over, and, grabbing his bag, left for home.
On their next hitch, Merle noticed on Ken’s watch that the boat always returned to their own pier between jobs, never docking down the river to await inbound ships, where they were away from Raymond’s office window.
When Ken came up into the pilot house to relieve Merle that night, Merle said, “Hey, Ken, get enough sleep?”
“Oh, yeah, Cap. Jimmy’s turkey stew had me snoring five minutes after we finished dinner.”
“Yeah, that’s good stuff. Well, as you can see, we’re tied up here by the Atlas Bridge waiting for the Honshu Maru to come up river. It’s due up at 2300 and is headed for Seabright 6, port side to the dock. The Able Dugan will assist.”
“Ok, boss, anything else?” he said, adjusting his Delaware Bay Pilots ball cap.
“Yeah, one thing. If you’ve got less than two hours between arrivals, just tie the boat up down river. That way you don’t have to travel as far to the job, and we don’t have to be under the boss’ microscope at the pier.”
“Uh, huh, Honshu Maru, 2300, going to Seabright 6, got it.”
The next morning, Merle got up and looked outside. The boat was snug to the pier, and Raymond was looking out his office window staring at them, hands in pockets. Merle checked the rundown and saw they had a job in an hour. Walking into the galley, he poured coffee into his 20th anniversary cup and saw Ken was posting the latest memos on the bulletin board.
“Morning, Ken. How’d it go last night?”
“Good, two jobs, that ore ship sailed from Dunbar, and we parked the Liberty Ultra at Downing 5. Next job’s at 0730, the Seattle Transporter going into Downing 2.”
“So, what are we doing here? You should’ve stayed up river after the last job if the next one’s at 0730, like I said.”
“Well, I talked to Ray about that when I dropped off the paperwork this morning, and he said he preferred we come back to the pier after every job.”
Ray!? Merle clenched his teeth, and said, “Look, Mate…,” then stopped, shook his head and went up to the wheelhouse. When he calmed down, he sat in the captain’s chair and thought about when he was a deckhand under Captain Theodore.
They were shooting through the canal with the current behind them when the engine oversped and kicked off.
“Boy,” Capt. Theodore said to him, “get the engineer up and have him reset the governor. Quick now, before we get through this canal.”
“I can do it cap. The engineer just got off watch…”
“I said get the engineer up and have him do it!”
Merle hustled down to the engineer’s room and pounded on the door. “Chief,” he said. “The engine oversped and the captain wants you to reset the governor. Right now.”
“Damn it, tell him I’m off watch. You do it.”
“I told him that. He told me to get you to do it.”
“The hell I will. I’m off watch. That’s the rules.”
“Chief, reset the goddamn governor right now!” the captain bellowed from the wheelhouse. “That’s an order!”
“I’m off watch for the next four hours, and I’m not getting up!” the engineer shouted and slammed the door. Merle ran down to the engine room and reset the governor.
When they got through the canal, the captain pulled over at the first pier he could find.
“A coal pier, perfect,” he said. He then went down and kicked open the chief engineer’s door.
“Get the hell up, you bum!” he shouted. “Pack your shit up and get off this boat, you don’t work here anymore! And if you’re not off this boat in ten minutes, I’ll throw your ass off and have you arrested!”
Merle went out on deck and waited to see what would happen. Five minutes later, the chief engineer was humping his sea bag out of the deckhouse and tossing it onto the soot-covered pier, miles from home.
“I’ve called the dispatcher,” Captain Theodore shouted from the wheelhouse window. “You can pick up your last check when you get back, you useless son of a bitch. Throw the lines off, Merle, we’ve got work to do.”
Captain Merle picked up his cell phone and thought about what he was going to say before he hit the speed dial for the office. Raymond, who the hell are you to undermine my authority as Captain? No, he probably wouldn’t know what I’m talking about. Probably hung over this time of day, too…What’s this about coming back to the dock between jobs? That makes no sense when we’re all the way upriver, umm, maybe…Why should we come all the way back to the dock between jobs? You’re the one always talking about saving fuel… Nah, that s.o.b. won’t listen to anything I’ve got to say, and Merle put the phone down. Stepping over to the chart table, he pulled up his laptop, connected to the Wi-Fi and checked the numbers on his 401K. He figured he was still two years from the recommended retirement numbers, just like it had been yesterday when he checked it. As the engines fired up, he shut the laptop down and sat heavily in the captain’s chair, waiting for the engines to warm up before signaling the deckhand to throw the lines off.