Tag Archives: New Bedford waterfront

Of tug boats, birds, and quahoggers

On my afternoon walk yesterday, I was heading along Route 6 towards Fairhaven when I faintly heard someone yelling at me over the traffic: “Hey, Dan!” I looked down, and there was Carol near the future site of the Fish Island Yacht Club, standing and talking with the Tugboat Captain.

I slipped down past a fence or two, and Carol introduced me to the Tugboat Captain. Here’s the back story:

The Tugboat Captain is from Barbados originally, and he and his Haitian business partner came up to New Bedford to buy a tugboat and a barge to use down in the West Indies, for such things as hauling fill from Haiti to some of the smaller islands. Carol met the Tugboat Captain when she was looking in to renting office and storage space on Fish Island: an office for her writing, and storage for the composting toilets she imports from Sweden.

Tugboat Captain’s business partner has run into difficulties moving money from Haiti to the United States, and so Tugboat Captain has been stuck here for two months (so far), keeping an eye on the tugboat they bought. Carol got friendly with him, and as the weather got cold, we found him a hat and some other warmer clothing. Carol also got Tugboat Captain some work weeding at an organic farm in South Dartmouth, which gets him a little cash and (more to the point) a chance to get away from the tug for awhile, and which also gets some much needed help for Carol’s friend the organic farmer.

Thus ends the back story.

So there we were standing there, chatting about this and that, when the Ornithologist’s small orange boat appeared in the distance, coming up the harbor. The Tugboat Captain turned to watch them critically as they came in. “You see their radar,” he said, in his soft Barbados accent, “You know how radar goes around like this…” — he demonstrates, and we nod — “Well, his can go like this…” — he showed us the axis of rotation tilting until it’s parallel to the ground — “so that he can point it straight up, and track birds.”

“Where is he working?” I asked.

“Out the harbor, to the port,” Tugboat Captain said, still watching the boat come in, “about ten miles.” In other words, out in the middle of Buzzard’s Bay.

Carol and Tugboat Captain discussed who was piloting the boat today, and at last they figured out which one of the two men it was who work with the Ornithologist (it was the one they don’t know as well). The Tugboat Captain continued watching as the small orange boat slipped in beside the tugboat, the Ornithologist standing at the bow with a rope ready to tie up. “You see,” he said, turning to us to explain, “most people would bring the bow in first, tie up, and then swing the stern over. But not him. He likes to bring the stern in first, and then swing the bow over.”

The two men from the small orange boat tied up, walked across the tug and onto the little wharf, and came up to say hello. The Tugboat Captain introduced us all around. It turns out the Ornithologist, who lives in Maine, makes his living by working for engineering firms, researching whether wind power installations will damage bird life. He left academia, he said, because he didn’t care for teaching. Carol got into a long discussion with him about the relative merits of various offshore wind power projects.

I turned to the other conversation, between the Tugboat Captain and the pilot of the small orange boat. The swing span bridge was opening to allow one of the deep-sea quahogging boats [*see note below] to pass through and up to the North Terminal. Even I could see that the quahogger was sitting poorly in the water, wallowing as it tried to come about and head up the harbor once the bridge opened. The whole boat tilted towards the bow, and there wasn’t much freeboard. The Tugboat Captain and the pilot were shaking their heads. One of them said something like, “Either you have to be lucky, or you have to have a really good skipper.”

“What’s with that boat?” I asked curiously.

The pilot said, “It looks like the boat was built for something else, and modified for quahogging.”

“He’s got a full load of clams,” said the Tugboat Captain, to clarify further.

“Geez,” I said, “I don’t know anything about boats, but even I can see that’s one boat I wouldn’t want to set foot on.”

They both shook their heads.

I’m always fascinated how people in different professions see the world. All I saw was a boat that looked kind of funny, but they could see far more than I. The Ornithologist and Carol, sunk deep in their conversations of alternative energy and environmental impacts, didn’t even notice the quahogger. As for me, really the main reason I noticed the quahogger is that as a minister, I’ve been trained to watch people — I didn’t see the quahogger per se; I actually saw that the Tugboat Captain and the pilot were seriously interested in something, and followed their gaze.

* If you’re unfamiliar with the term “quahog,” it refers to a species of clam, known in the kitchen as littlenecks, cherrystones, steamers, etc., depending on their size. Here in New Bedford, they pronounce it “ko-hog,” but my mother, whose family was from Nantucket, always said “kwa-hog.” Wikipedia on quahogs.

Good news, bad news

Bad news

The rain let up at about 5:30, so we walked out to the end of the State Pier. We were chatting away, looking out at the harbor, when Carol gasped and said, “Look!” The old New Bedford lightship, a kind of symbol of the harbor, has been listing to port for some time, but this afternoon it was over on its side….

The cherry red hull of the Lightship New Bedford shone like a beacon on the waterfront yesterday after the 133-foot vessel flipped on its side because of a leak.

Full story and picture.

Good news

The Green Bean, home of the best coffee in the downtown neighborhood, has settled in to their new digs on the corner of Purchase and Union streets. Carol and I went up at 4:30 this afternoon, as we both took a break from our writing projects. We got our coffee from one of the friendly owners, and sat down to drink it. It’s a great place to sit and watch the people and the cars pass by on a drizzly Friday afternoon — much nicer than their old location.

M-F 6:30 am – 5 pm, Sat. 8 am – 2 pm

More good news

Tomorrow, Saturday, June 3, at 7:00 p.m., there will be a reading of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl,” in honor of the poem’s 50th anniversary. A number of New Bedford noteables, including former poet laureate of the city Everett Hoagland, will be reading.

See ya there — Gallery X, 169 William St. (the old Universalist church).

Harbor watch

Late this afternoon, I stood at the pivot point of the swing-span bridge that connects New Bedford and Fairhaven, one of the best places to watch the harbor.

Out in the distance, I could see a blue fishing boat coming into the harbor  through the hurricane barrier. She kept to starboard, and a small recreational boat darted past her out into Buzzard’s Bay. The lighthouse on Palmer’s Island was stunningly white in the bright late afternoon sun.

Over at State Pier, the Kent Explorer was docked [her picture on a Dutch shipping blog]. At a little over 400 feet (123 meters) length overall, this is one of the larger ships I’ve seen in the harbor. The bridge was eight or nine stories from the deck, and so the ship towered over the ferry terminal building; even the open hatch covers were taller than the ferry terminal. The two cranes, one fore and one aft, were unloading what looked to be plywood or other sheet goods.

Next to the Kent Explorer, the fishing boats and the ferries looked tiny. New England Fast Ferry has brought in their other fast ferry and it is now docked at the State Pier; the summer schedule starts up again on May 15th, only two weeks away.

On the other side of the bridge, over at the Maritime Terminal, the Silver Fjord (320 feet/ 97.6 meters LOA) was taking on cargo. Two days ago, Carol and I tried to figure out what they were loading. It was something packed in white cardboard boxes, and I thought perhaps it was some kind of frozen seafood. MarineLink.com reported on March 20 of this year that Green Reefers shipping line has purchased Silver Fjord, and will rename it Green Tromso. Since Green Reefers ships call here regularly, there’s a chance we will be seeing Green Tromso, a.k.a. Silver Fjord, sometime again.

Over on the south end of Fish Island, I saw a boat I hadn’t seen before. Barbara Joan, out of Montauk, is sitting on one of the old piers up out of the water, and presumably she’s being stripped; a large dumpster sat on the pier beside her. She looked like she once was a small fishing boat, but once a boat gets over to that end of Fish Island, it pretty much means it’s now scrap.

I began walking back. It was a fine day, so there were a fair number of idlers like me: a man fishing off the swing-span bridge, a cocky young man strolling along the other side of Route 6; once I got back down on MacArthur Drive, three young men came out from behind Crystal Ice whooping and hollering; as I climbed up the stairs for the pedestrian overpass over Route 18, I could hear some teenaged girls laughing and giggling on the observation deck above.

Just before I started across the overpass, I glanced out and saw that blue fishing boat I had seen coming through the hurricane barrier was now waiting for the swing-span bridge to open up for it. A cloud of gulls swarmed around it, waiting for scraps of fish to hit the water.

Merry New Bedford Christmas…

After church today, Carol said we had to go down to the hurricane barrier to look at the harbor. We got down there, and walked to the end of the hurricane barrier and back before the clouds moved in.

The whole fishing fleet is in for the holiday, and through the binoculars we could see them lined up three and four deep along the docks on the Fairhaven side and the New Bedford side of the harbor. The inner harbor was sheltered from the light southerly breeze, and was almost dead flat in places. No boat traffic at all; we saw a seal lolling on the surface right in the middle of the main shipping channel. That was the highlight of our walk for Carol.

Needless to say, I was most excited by the many birds that were out. Carol was very tolerant as I kept stopping to look through the binoculars: “Look!” I’d say, stopping yet again. “Horned Grebes! And a Common Loon just dove under the surface!” There were lots of Buffleheads, and Black Ducks, Scaup, Goldeneye, Long-tailed Ducks, a Mallard or two, Common Mergansers. On the way back, I got a good close look at six Brant, the closest I’ve ever gotten to these small geese. That, of course, was the highlight of our walk for me.

We’ve never seen the harbor so quiet. A delightful moment on this Christmas day. And Merry Christmas to you, wherever you are!

Green Spring

On my afternoon walk today, I decided to head out and cross the harbor via Pope’s Island. Just as I got in sight of the swing bridge, it began to close: the gates came down, and pretty soon the bridge started to turn so some boat could pass. I looked to see what boat it was. It was a fair-sized ship, about a hundred yards long, helped along by a tugboat. I kept walking towards the bridge, until I could read her name in white letters on the green bow: Green Spring, a ship in the Green Reefers line; you could see “Green Reefers” in big white letters on her side, and the rakish “GR” painted on her smokestack. The black and white tugboat accompanying her through the bridge, and tied to her stern, was named Jaguar. Jaguar’s skipper gave two short toots as they went through the bridge.

Once Green Spring got through the bridge, you could see Jaguar’s propellors churning up the water, stopping Green Spring’s forward motion, starting to swing the big ship’s stern over towards the Maritime Terminal dock. Jaguar tooted her whistle now and then; presumably to signal what she was going to do next, though I thought that he two ships must have communicated mostly by radio. Once Green Spring’s forward momentum was stopped, Jaguar untied from her stern and maneuvered over to her starboard side, about a third of the way up from her stern. From there, Jaguar began to nudge Green Spring’s stern around Fish Island and towards Maritime Terminal. Tiny little Jaguar pulled her, nudged her, pushed her gently back, and back, and back. Every now and then you could see the wash from Green Spring’s propellors helping Jaguar pull her backwards towards her berth.

It was more than twenty minutes from the time Green Spring passed through the bridge until she approached the dock; I stood in the sun, watching her slow stately progress over that short distance; watching Jaguar nudge and pull and ease her into her berth. A fellow walked up, unshaven, knapsack on his back, coat open, and stood beside me, also watching. He kept up an intermittent commentary, so softly I had to keep asking him to repeat himself; I think he was talking more to himself than to me. He said something about, what if she broke away and hit the bridge we were standing on? Where we stood was a little lower than Green Spring’s after deck; I had already thought briefly about what would happen if she hit us. “You know it’s gotta happen,” said the unshaven man. He went on to say something about aircraft carriers. “What’s that?” I said. “I don’t know what the Nimitz would be doing here though,” he said.

Another man, walking purposefully, paused a little ways away, watched for a few minutes. The bright late afternoon sun shone down. The longshoremen caught the heaving line, and hauled the first stern rope up onto the wharf. Once it was looped over the massive cleat on the dock, the crew of Green Spring, clad in blaze-orange jumpsuits and white hard hats, turned on the winch and pulled the slack up out of the water. The unshaven man gave up and walked away; I didn’t see the other man leave but after awhile I noticed he was gone; I stayed to watch a little longer.

Jaguar pulled her stern out a little, swinging the bow in. After two abortive tries, the longshoremen threw the heaving line back up to the crew, who sent two more stern ropes to them. Watching this, I missed them getting the first bow line tied off to the dock. By now, I had been standing there for a good forty minutes. The sun was sinking ever lower, the cold was starting to seep in. The crew started to winch the bow in towards the dock. Good: I’d seen enough; as far as I was concerned, Green Spring was safely berthed.

On my way back a half an hour later, I saw that the gangplank ran up to Green Spring’s deck, that no crewmembers stood on her deck any longer. I imagined that one or two of the ship’s officers were up at the U.S. Customs House a block from our apartment, taking care of whatever paperwork had to be taken care of; I imagined most of the crew wandering New Bedford, maybe finding a friendly bar; I imagined one crew member, unlikely as it seems, visiting the Whaling Museum to find out how mariners of the past once fared. Tomorrow, the crew will be back on deck; the semi trucks will be backed up to the loading dock next to the Maritime Terminal building, the crew will be at the ship’s cranes swinging cargo onto the dock, the forklifts driven by longshoremen will be whizzing back and forth, they will be loading the reefer trucks and one by one sending them on their various ways.

For a picture of tugboat Jaguar, visit this tugboat fan page, and scroll down almost to the bottom of the page.

Waterfront story

Two freighters are in port today: Green Spring at the Martime International Terminal, and Sophie at the State Pier. I was walking past the vehicle exit of the State Pier, after going to look at the schooner Ernestina in the snow, when a beat-up blue van pulled up.

“Hey,” said the man driving the van, “You from that ship there?” cocking his head in the direction of Sophie.

I laughed and said, “Nope, not me.”

“Oh,” he said. He was about 60, with friendly blue eyes, and wearing a blue parka with that faintly greasy black patina that comes with hard work and long wear. “If you was from one of those ships, I was going to ask you what she’s carrying there. I used to be in the Merchant Marine, and I got curious. But now they got that up,” and he pointed to the chain link fence with the barbed wire at the top that encircles that part of the State Pier where the freight ships dock. “It’s prob’bly because of the longshoremen, they’ll steal you blind.”

He proceeded to tell me a few stories: one about longshoremen who stole from him (he showed me his state peddler’s license, which lets him sell watches and such things out of his van); another story about seeing a state cop stealing whiskey from a container that the longshoremen has broken open, “I saw him, taking it out. If I only had a camera! –I would have caught that #$%@! right there”; and then he told me one last story, saying, “You’re going to laugh your @#%$ off when you hear this.”

There used to be a Coast Guard base in New Bedford. Once in a while, at lunch time, he would stop by the Coast Guard cutters. The crews of the cutters would come out to buy their lunches from the lunch truck. “Then they would come over and buy watches and stuff off me.”

One day he pulled in and noticed there were a number of state police cars parked near the Coast Guard cutters, but he didn’t think anything of it. What he didn’t know was that there was a ship offshore dumping bales of marijuana into the ocean, and letting it drift into the harbor. The state police and the Coast Guard were watching and waiting to see who would run out and try to pick up those bales of marijuana floating out there. So he pulled up in his van, not knowing this was going on. He opened the back doors of the van, and shouted, “Hey, get your hot stuff here!”

“All of a sudden I had about a hundred guns pointed at me,” he said. “I went like this,” –he sinks down into his greasy blue parka and puts his hands up– “and I said, Whoa, whoa! They came over and a couple of them went through the whole van and saw that all I had was some things to sell, you know, all legal. When they got done I asked a trooper, What’s going on? He said, There’s this ship offshore dumping marijuana and letting it drift into the harbor. Another cop says to me, Next time, I guess you won’t say ‘Hot stuff to sell,’ will you? Jeez, I’m telling you….” He shook his head remembering it.

“The next time I came in to sell stuff to the guys in the Coast Guard, they all came out and started laughing at me,” he went on. “One of them says, ‘Ya got any hot stuff to sell?’ I said, no, no.”

Just then, the light turned green (for the third time). He put the van in gear, “Hey, nice talking with you. Take care, OK?” I told him to stay warm, and he drove off.

Saronic wave

On our walks across the bridge to Fairhaven for the past couple of days, we’ve been walking by the bow of the Saronic Wave. She’s one of the larger ships that comes into this port (7326 gross ton), and is docked over by the Maritime Terminal building. (When I first saw her name on the bow, I read it as “Sardonic Wave,” but that was too good to be true.) Today, we saw that they were unloading pallets of oranges, or rather Clementines, from her hold. It can be difficult to find shipping information on the Web, but we found Saronic Wave and learned that she passed through the Port of Gibraltar on 14 November, spending less than ten hours there on her way from Nador, Morocco, to New Bedford. She must be mostly unloaded by now: looking at her Plimsoll line, there can’t be all that much left on board.

Dangerous clams

When Carol and I were at the Working Waterfront Festival on Sunday, we met an author named Doug Campbell, who was there selling his book The Sea’s Bitter Harvest. Campbell was a long-time reporter for the Philadeplphia Inquirer, and he got assigned to report on the story of four deep sea clam boats that went down in January, 1999. (Much of the deep sea clam industry is based in southern New Jersey, not far from Philadelphia — thus the Inquirer’s interest.) Campbell’s interest in the topic grew, and next thing he knew, he found himself writing a book.

I’m most of the way through The Sea’s Bitter Harvest, and it’s a fascinating read. Not only is it a suspenseful story, but Campbell gives us a picture of the life of clam fishermen, which is very different from the long-line fishing that you’ve probably read about in The Perfect Storm. And one of the boats that Campbell writes about, Cape Fear, was based in New Bedford before she sank, so he also gives a picture of this less-well-known side of the New Bedford fishing trade. (I learned that the clam boats are the ones with the big black hose coiled on the stern and a steel clam dredge on either the stern or off to one side.)

One interesting point that Campbell makes is that the men and women who go out on New Bedford fishing boats not only have easy access to drugs down on the waterfront, but because fishing can be so lucrative they have also lots of income to spend on drugs. Of course, many in the fishing trade will have nothing to do with drugs. But like stockbrokers, fishermen and -women are in a high-stress job that pays extremely well. No surprise that some people in both lines of work use drugs.

Fascinating book, and worth reading.