Coast Guard cutter just avoids getting squashed

On a rest stop in Molokai recently we had an experience that made my wife Jas and me appreciate the tremendous skill involved in maneuvering a large vessel in tight quarters. For once, it was not the two of us doing the maneuvering, and we enjoyed a privileged position – on the dock – of observing from a safe distance.

Jas and I had sailed Havaiki to Molokai for a few days of R&R. After we secured at the fishing pier on the east side of the wharf, we walked the three-quarters of a mile into the small, three-block-long, two-block-wide town of Kaunakakai to do some provisioning. As we headed back to the yacht some time later, we noticed a number of Coast Guardsmen wandering around town. Reaching the shoreline and beginning the quarter-mile walk out to the wharf near sunset, we noticed a tug and barge to the east, heading westward. It soon became obvious that it was shortening its tow in preparation for coming into the small harbor, apparently to pick up a barge that was secured to the west side of the wharf. We watched another beautiful, golden Hawaiian sunset as we strolled along, intending to get out to the wharf in time to watch the tug pick up its second tow.

Darkness falls quickly in the tropics, and by the time we reached the wharf itself, all the lights were on, the tug was nearing the entrance to the channel, and we noticed a white Coast Guard vessel of about 70 feet tied up to the pier about 100 feet or less in front of the moored barge.

The tug, with its shortened tow, was obviously committed to coming the rest of the way in the channel, and it passed the No. 1 buoy (the only lighted buoy in the channel) and started in on the red range lights on shore. The tug’s bright spotlight came on as the skipper attempted to pick up the unlit channel markers and the barge it was to pick up. The brilliant light swung from port to starboard, briefly illuminating the Coast Guard vessel – and then it snapped back like a comedian doing a double take.

By then we were close enough to hear the VHF speaker crackling on the bridge deck of the Coast Guard vessel.

"This is the tug Mana (I can’t recall the actual name), calling the Coast Guard vessel on Kaunakakai wharf, over."

There was no answer, but the young man on deck watch aboard the cutter sprang to life and ran up the ladder to the bridge deck. His eyes bulged as he saw the channel seemingly full with a tug and barge bearing down on him. He ran back down the ladder, back up the ladder, and back down to the deck again.

Once again the tug skipper called on the VHF and the young deck officer ran back up the ladder and answered, although his response was unintelligible to us on the wharf.

The words of the tug skipper came back loud and clear, however: "Sir, you are tied up and are blocking a barge we are committed to picking up. I would suggest that you find a way to move out of our way – unless you want a longer, thinner vessel."

I offered to help the young man cast off but was refused.

Looking back toward shore we could see the Coast Guardsmen now straggling along back out to the wharf.

By now the tug had entered the lee of the warehouse on the wharf and began a wide swing toward the barge it was to pick up, letting out some cable on its shortened tow, to make room to maneuver. The Coast Guardsmen were now jogging down the wharf, and by the time the tug began easing in front of the barge, they were all at a full run.

Now, two things were happening. The skipper of the tug was maneuvering his single-screw vessel close enough to the pier to let his deckhands jump ashore so they could scramble up on the barge to hook up the bridle, and the weight of the catenary on the towed barge was causing it to begin moving slowly toward the pier, the tug, the barge that was being picked up, and the Coast Guard vessel.

As the rest of the crew scrambled about the cutter, a tall, thin, white-uniformed person, who was probably the Coast Guard skipper, stood abeam the tug and tried calling up to the tug skipper, who by then was as busy as the proverbial one-armed paperhanger – certainly too busy to talk to a person on shore, who then resignedly got on board the Coast Guard vessel and began getting underway. By the time the Coast Guard vessel eased off the pier, the tug was already pulling away, its new barge coming behind it, with the barge it had been towing swinging slowly seaward.

The Coast Guard vessel cleared the No. 1 buoy and swung to the east, followed shortly afterwards by the tug with its two barges, which cleared the same buoy and headed westward, its powerful stern spotlights directed on the barges so the deckhands could adjust the length of the cables on its two tows.

As Jas and I climbed aboard Havaiki, we heard the VHF come to life: "This is the tug Mana to the Coast Guard vessel. Thank you for your cooperation, captain. The wharf’s all yours now."

What fascinated Jas and me was the fact that during all of these maneuvers, with a single-screw tug and two barges in a very confined turning basin, the tug didn’t touch a thing – not the tires on the pier, not the Coast Guard vessel, not the barge it picked up, nor the original tow that it had entered with.

Wouldn’t we all like to handle our vessels as well?

By Ocean Navigator