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Tug captain offers his transit tips

Capt. Bill Brucato started out as a deckhand on his father’s tugboat almost 40 years ago and has been “licensed and steering” tugs for more than 30 years. He is based in New York Harbor, but ranges as far as Bucksport, Maine, and Norfolk, Va. He serves as master of the articulated tug barge Nicole L. Reinauer for Reinauer Transportation Co. in New York.

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Brucato shares some thoughts about how boaters should — and should not — transit the East River and Hell Gate.Q: From a commercial captain’s perspective, what’s your opinion of the boaters you see on the river?

A: While I understand and appreciate the desire to get out on the water and have a day of sun and fun, I see too many boaters ignoring simple common sense when it comes to commercial traffic. I don’t for one minute believe they would park their family car in the middle of the turnpike and just sit there and expect everyone to go around them, yet we see it all the time.
I can’t paint all recreational operators with the same brush, since the boaters who exercise good judgment and care are notable because they don’t impede others or put themselves in harm’s way unnecessarily. The problem we see most often is the total lack of comprehension when it comes to large commercial traffic. Crossing ahead under the bow and out of sight in a narrow channel is one of the worst things a small boat can do. The confidence one has in their ability to get out of our way is completely dependent on their engine working. Anyone who owns a boat can attest that mechanical things don’t always give you fair warning just before they die.
If that happens halfway across my bow, I’ll never get 20,000 tons to turn in time, much less stop. If I’m moving at 11 knots, that means 20,000 tons are covering roughly 18 feet per second. In 30 seconds, I’ve traveled my vessel’s length through the water. Even if I tried to stop, it would take nearly 1 nautical mile.

Q: What are boaters doing right?

A: The boater that gives a wide berth to commercial traffic is taking the safest approach for a good time. We need to maneuver based on current, traffic and available depth of the water. We generally need the deep water. Holding fast to the middle of the East River with a fair current and not sliding off to one side or the other for a tug and barge because you believe you have the right of way will get you dead.
Rule 9(b) should be tattooed on every boater’s right hand to remind him or her that vessels less than 20 meters or sailboats “shall not impede the passage of a vessel which can safely navigate only within a narrow channel or fairway.”

Q: What recommendations do you have for boaters using the river?

A: In the East River, tugs, tows and generally all commercial traffic operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. You’re playing in our world. We’re happy to give you any advice or assistance you might need, but we see you as a guest in our workplace.
If you need to get past us, call. If we’re at anchor, stay well ahead of our anchor wire or just go astern of us. If you are unsure if we’re towing something, call us on channel 13. We’re monitoring channel 13 while under way as a rule. It’s a really bad idea to pass astern of a tug, only to find yourself hung on the tow wire with a barge bearing down on you.
Get familiar with what our towing lights mean. Three whites on the mast means there’s something even bigger following the tug 200 meters or more astern. Read the rules we all operate under and follow them.
All commercial traffic over 26 feet is required to participate in the New York Vessel Traffic Services. The East River between Throgs Neck and the Brooklyn Bridge is directed and monitored on channel 12 by the vessels making transit and the Coast Guard. Tune in and listen. You’ll be able to get a report of all traffic approaching from either direction and prepare accordingly.
Planning to transit Hell Gate with a fair current should be a primary consideration. Large commercial traffic usually plans to transit the Gate at or near slack water; an hour either side of slack is normally seen.

Q: What should boaters do to prepare for that passage?

A: There should be at least two people on board who can handle the boat. Make sure you have a marine radio and that everyone knows how to use it. Cell phones are terrible offshore, and the East River has a dead spot or two. Be certain someone else aboard can properly identify the boat’s position and is capable of relaying the information on position, type and color of the boat. Keep a radio tuned to channel 16.
Have a chart of your route. Get familiar with the names of landmarks along the way. If you need help, you have to be able to tell someone where you are. Be aware of major traffic lanes and harbor approaches.
Check the direction and strength of the expected currents over the route you plan on taking. They will have a huge effect on your fuel usage and speed over the ground.
Make sure all the safety equipment works and is at hand, and its use is understood by more than one person aboard. If you have radar, turn it on, tune it in and use it. It’s not doing you any good if it stays as shiny and new as it did when it came out of the box. Learn how to use it properly.

Q: Any other thoughts for boaters?

A: The planning that needs to go into a day on the boat is serious and should be treated as such. Weather, fuel limits and safe operation are paramount.
The weekend warrior with a six-pack and a set of keys seems less cognizant of the environment he’s entering and the rules for surviving in it. Rental boats and PWC, in general, are operating on the edge of disaster every time they get near a tug and tow or ship under way. If they dump it in front of us, they’re in line for a very bad day.
I would think water-skiing on the East River is a bad choice, but we see it. I’m stunned to see teenagers riding PWC on the river. I don’t understand the thinking behind speeding up and down and making suicidal moves near commercial traffic. Did I mention we can’t stop?
Above all else, remember BBGF — also known as the “Rule of Tonnage.” Although it’s unwritten, the overall sentiment of “big boat goes first” is good advice.

See related articles:

- Destination: New York City

- Resources/Water Tours/Marinas

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue.