It’s 1:30 a.m. when the phone rings. I climb out of bed, cross the room and answer it. The dispatcher gives me a much too hearty good morning and tells me the tug Sea Raven and its barge ATC-23 have firmed up for a 3:00 a.m. sailing from JPA6. He gives me a rundown of the current river traffic and visibility. There should not be any fog this morning unless the wind dies. I thank the dispatcher, hang up and start to gather myself together for the morning.
After five years of phone calls in the middle of the night my wife is somewhat acclimated to this brief interruption of her sleep. I dress quietly (depending on who you ask) and head downstairs to grab my handheld VHF radio and make a cup of coffee. While my coffee brews I check the predicted tides and currents, some weather apps and a few NOAA links pasted on my smart phone’s home screen along with the projected vessel traffic for the coming day. The weather is always a big consideration. The “sail” area of a boxy car ship or a loaded container ship means that the wind can dramatically change the handling characteristics of a ship.
By 1:50 a.m. I am in my car and headed to JAXPORT’s Talleyrand terminal and around 2:20 a.m. the dispatcher calls to inform me that there is an inbound Crowley barge that is passing Trout River. I thank him for the information, which is good news; the large ro-ro barge and its assist tugs should pass and be clear of the Sea Raven’s berth by 3:00.
At 2:30 a.m. I pull up to the security gate at Talleyrand and show the guard my IDs. He lets me through the gate and I drive through the terminal over to a designated parking space near the tug and her partially loaded tank barge. I grab my backpack and jacket and head towards the gangway. I step onboard and one of the tug’s crew leads me across the barge and into the tug, loads me into the one person elevator and sends me up 5 decks to the wheelhouse. I step out of the elevator and greet the Captain, who lives near Virginia Beach, and he informs me that he and his vessel are ready to sail. His assist tug, for undocking, is passing the US Gypsum Berth and will be alongside just before 3:00a.m. which is when the Crowley barge will be past and clear. Next I go over the pilot card which has the dimensions and characteristics of this articulated tug and barge (ATB) unit. She is 535’ by 75’ with a deep draft of 24’ on the barge. The Captain and I discuss the outbound transit; expected vessel traffic, currents and estimated time we will clear the jetties. The Sea Raven’s next port is Brunswick, Ga. They should arrive at the sea buoy there a little after noon today.
As the large Crowley ro-ro barge is maneuvered past our berth our assist tug puts a line up on the port bow of the barge and the Sea Raven’s deck crew starts to slack her mooring lines so the linemen can cast them off. A few minutes later the vessel is turned around and headed down river. I give a security call on VHF channel 13 to let any other vessels know I am headed outbound and make tentative meeting arrangements with the first of five inbound vessels we will encounter during our outbound transit. Initially we have an extra push from the outgoing current, but by the time we pass under the Dames Point Bridge the current is nearly slack. We meet the first inbound, the Horizon Navigator off of Blount Island at the eastern end of the Dames Point – Fulton Cut Off and soon after we meet the car ship Hoegh Singapore in St. Johns Bluff. After rounding Short Cut turn we meet the El Yunque and the Orient Spirit in Training Wall reach and start to feel the flood current which slows our outbound progress. After passing by Mayport Village we turn onto St. Johns Bar Cut and set up to meet the MOL MAXIM, a 990 foot by 140 foot post pana.m.ax container ship drawing over 39 feet. This is a typical Friday morning, with the container liner service vessels keeping to their appointed schedules. We clear the last inbound and continue out the jetties and through the last set of channel buoys. Steady on an easterly heading, I turn the con of the Sea Raven over to the Mate and head down to the pilot boat that is running with us on the starboard side. The pilot boat slides into position alongside and I step across from the deck of the barge to the boarding platform on top of the pilot boat. On the way back in I text my brother to let him know when the Sea Raven will be arriving at the Brunswick sea buoy. A few minutes later he texts back thanking me for the heads up. Their schedule had the Sea Raven showing up at 8:00 p.m.
I step off of the pilot boat around 6:30 a.m. and head home. Night is starting to give way to dawn, but the sun has not yet crept above the horizon.
I walk through the front door a little before 7:00 a.m. and am greeted by my oldest who has been up since 6:00 a.m. getting ready for school and enjoying a little peace before her siblings join her. Mornings are normally chaotic and its not long before I start reminding my 3 kids to get dressed, put down the cat, eat breakfast, brush their hair, brush their teeth, find their jackets, put on their shoes, pack their lunches, etc. Getting everyone ready for school is like herding cats. By 7:30 a.m. everyone is in the kitchen waiting to leave for school. My wife loads them in the car and starts the morning carpool run before heading to work herself. As they leave I head upstairs for a shower and well deserved nap. I check my schedule before drifting off, to see when it will be my turn in the rotation again.
I wake up a little after 1:00 p.m. feeling refreshed and call my wife to see if she needs me to pick up the kids. She does, so I start the afternoon carpool run. The tentative
schedule has me getting a job at 4:00 p.m., but the schedule is subject to change. When I check back at 2:00 p.m. the next job has fallen back to 6:00 p.m..
Will I have the chance to eat dinner with the family tonight? No. Not tonight. The dispatcher on the day shift calls me at 4:30 p.m. to give a choice between two outbound vessels from Talleyrand. I choose the car ship Pyxis Leader over the container ship Orient Spirit because I piloted the Pyxis Leader inbound the day before.
I head to Talleyrand like I did early this morning and a.m. onboard the vessel by 5:40 p.m.. The vessel’s stern ramp is still down since they have just finished cargo operations. She has discharged over 1,000 vehicles since the start of cargo operations at 8:00 a.m. this morning. Our assist tug and docking master arrive a few minutes after me. Once on the bridge I check the ship’s VHF radios and listen to channel 13. There are a few other vessels moving or preparing to get underway from their berths. A Crowley ro-ro is about to get under way just up river from us and should be clear of us in about 15 minutes. About 30 minutes later the ship has her ramp and gangway secured and is ready to start dropping lines. The Orient Spirit has already gotten underway from her berth and is following the outbound ro-ro. The ship drops her lines and the ship is backed down Terminal channel until there is room to turn her around.
By 6:45 p.m. the vessel is fair and headed outbound. The docking master turns the con over to me and the outbound transit commences. This trip, unlike this morning, there is only outbound traffic and with the Orient Spirit ahead of me I pilot the ship down the river. As the ship passes Blount Island, another car ship the Cary Rickmers, gets underway and falls inline astern of me. Once clear of the entrance buoys each ship is turned southeast to create a lee for disembarking.
It is around 9:15 p.m. before the pilot boat has collected the three of us. The pilot boat heads back to the dock to drop off the other two pilots. I remain onboard and the boat takes me back offshore to meet a 10:00 p.m. inbound vessel, the car ship Hoegh Trooper. We meet the inbound well east of the sea buoy and I make a quick visual check of the ladder hoping that the ABs who rigged the ladder were paying attention in knot tying 101 and make a quick grab and step onto the ladder. After a few quick steps and I am up the ladder and trying to follow the ship’s officer who missed his best chance as a competitive speed walker.
10: 05 p.m.
By 10:05 p.m. I am on the ship’s bridge where the Captain and I discuss the vessels handling characteristics and the conditions to be expected during the transit. He tells me that everything is working properly, there are no deficiencies; the machinery is in good order and satisfied with the information exchange I assume the con and take control over the courses and bells. We will have the current with us once inside the jetties, and will meet the last two outbound vessels of the night between the Sea buoy and the first set of channel buoys. The inbound transit to Blount Island is uneventful.
We pick up our tugs and a docking master around 11:15 p.m. off of Blount Island. Once he arrives on the bridge we perform a pilot to pilot information exchange and once he is satisfied I turn the con over to the docking master and he goes to work. I get home after midnight and quickly ready myself for bed. Forget about dinner. A look over the ship schedule tells me I will be back out again tomorrow in the afternoon, so I’ll get some sleep and be ready to do it all again.