At about a quarter to three, Carol and I decided to take a walk. We were both working at home this afternoon, and wanted to get out before the sun set.
We decided to walk to Pope’s Island, and as we got on the bridge from New Bedford to Fish Island we saw that the big freight ship that had been offloading fruit at Marine Terminal had just gotten underway, and was rounding Fish Island. Just then, the bells for the crossing gates at the swing span bridge started to clang, stopping vehicular traffic on Route 6 so the bridge could swing open for the freighter.
Late last week, I had been walking on the New Bedford side of the hurricane barrier that protects the harbor just as the freighter, River Phoenix, came into the port. It’s probably on the large end of the ships we see coming into the harbor, somewhere around 400 feet in length overall, a big white reefer with “NYK Lauritzen Cool” painted in huge bold lettering on the side, the red British ensign snapping from the stern. It was quite something to see it come through the hurricane barrier, the bridge superstructure and derricks towering over the hurricane barrier. Two tugs came out to meet it: I could see that Jaguar was the tug at the stern, but I couldn’t see which tug was at the bow. The black and yellow pilot boat came zipping out, but I couldn’t make out whether they took the pilot off once the tugs had the ship under control, or whether the pilot stayed on until the ship was docked. All this while, the swing span bridge was swinging slowly clockwise so as to open the channels into the upper end of the harbor.
From where I stood on the hurricane barrier, I had a clear view straight up the eastward channel of the swing span bridge; River Phoenix is big enough that it pretty well filled the channel, and it must have been a neat bit of piloting to take it through. There was a stiff westerly breeze, and you could see River Phoenix moving slightly eastward under the influence of the wind, but the pilot (or the tugs, whoever had it under control) nicely adjusted for the influence of the wind.
When I walked out to Pope’s Island on Sunday to buy a newspaper, I could see them unloading what looked like boxes of fruit.
And then this afternoon, there was River Phoenix rounding Fish Island, about to head through the swing span bridge. By the time the swing span bridge had swung open for River Phoenix, Carol and I had walked right up to the edge of the westward channel to watch.
The tug Jaguar was at her stern, and we watched as Jaguar cast off the stern rope. River Phoenix swung slowly around in a wide arc towards the eastward channel of the swing span bridge. “Too bad,” I said. “I thought it would go through this side of the bridge.” I thought she would keep to the starboard, but Carol said that the one other ship of that size that she had seen heading outward through the bridge had kept to the port heading out.
It looked to me as if River Phoenix were swinging a little too wide, but of course I’d never seen a ship of that size heading outwards through the bridge and I really had no idea of what too wide would look like.
“I don’t see how they get through there without hitting the bridge,” said Carol. “I wonder if they’re going to hit.” “Oh, they must know what they’re doing,” I said. But then, a couple of weeks ago, the tug Fournier Boys had been heading in the westward channel of the bridge to assist another big freighter out, and the tug had hit the pilings along the channel on the Fish Island side. I looked down and could see a piece of one of the beams Fournier Boys had shattered, still resting there on top of another piling. When she had hit, it had been quite a crunch.
River Phoenix was quite a sight as it passed through the channel. The setting sun cast shadows of the bridge superstructure on the white side of the ship sliding down along. I noticed one of the crew on the deck started to run, and then several things happened almost simultaneously: there was a crunching, scraping sound; the swing span of the bridge rotated a little bit clockwise, seemingly beyond where it usually stops; the crew member in his bright orange jacket peered over the railing, looking down where the steel side of the ship was scraping the steel girders of the bridge; and Carol said, “Oh my God, it hit!”
We stared in disbelief. The scraping sound stopped, and the part of the ship that had hit the bridge appeared beyond the end of the bridge. There two long dark lines where the white paint had been scraped off the ship’s side. I was looking at those scrape-marks in amazement when I heard another scraping sound: River Phoenix had hit the bridge again, near her stern; an even worse sound of crunching and scraping; but this time the bridge didn’t seem to move much at all.
“Look, there’s the bridge operator,” I said to Carol. He had come out of the control room which is mounted high in the center of the bridge’s superstructure. He stood on the walkway up there, watching the ship pass slowly by. At last she cleared the bridge, without hitting again. The bridge operator was talking into a radio or cell phone, I couldn’t see which. He came down the steep steps to the main deck of the bridge, and leaned over the far side inspecting the damage. The tug Jaguar steamed briskly through the bridge after River Phoenix. The bridge operator climbed back up to the control room, still talking to whomever.
“I don’t think we’re going to be able to finish our walk,” I said to Carol. “I’ll bet they won’t try to swing the bridge back after that.”
We waited for a while. Carol had somehow had an idea that the ship was going to hit the bridge, and we talked about that. We watched as River Phoenix slowed down in the middle of the harbor. Then we started walking back the way we had come.
We told several of the cars that were waiting for the bridge that they shouldn’t bother waiting any more; the ship had hit the bridge. One woman tried to argue with us. “I recognize that fishing boat coming in,” she said — there was a blue trawler far down the harbor towards the hurricane barrier — “I work on the piers, they’re just holding the bridge for that boat.” Nearly everyone else, though, turned around and started driving towards Interstate 195, in order to cross the harbor there.
We walked down to State Pier, and River Phoenix was out in the middle of the harbor with an anchor chain coming down from her bows into the water. As she swung slowly, majestically, around to face the northwest wind, we could see that her crew had lowered her gangplank. We guessed that the captain was going to be picked up and taken ashore to talk about what had happened to the swing span bridge.
As we back across the pedestrian overpass over Route 18, we could see cars and trucks still heading towards the swing span bridge. We could see flashing blue lights on the Fairhaven side, but no police presence on the New Bedford side yet. We discussed how long it might take to reopen the bridge to Route 6 traffic: surely they’ll at least have to inspect the bridge;
perhaps repairs will be necessary. Maybe everything is fine, and they’ll reopen the bridge soon. I have my doubts, though, and wonder when we’ll be able to resume our favorite walk across the bridge to Fairhaven. As usual, I was way too gloomy — by 5:15 pm, the bridge was operational again.
Ship information from the NYK Lauritzen Cool Web site: River Phoenix, 394396 cubic feet, 4537 square meters, built 1993, speed 19 knots. No length given, but I estimate about 400 feet.