S UNDAY F ORUM
Elizabeth River is a seaport, not a playground
N. VENTKER Iread J. Daniel Ballard’s
complaints last Sunday,
“Speeding tugs are a
menace on the Elizabeth River,” and I cannot
help but respond.
The captain on the
tug boat Mr. Ballard encountered most likely began his “day” when he
went on watch at midnight. If this watch was like many others, he
experienced the following events: By 12:30
a.m., he was dispatched to assist a ship docking or undocking at one of
the coal terminals in this port. Referred to by some as “tide ships,”
many of these vessels can leave the terminals with their precious cargo
only at peak high tide.
If the tug is
late, the ship can’t sail. If the ship can’t sail, the berth at the
terminal is unavailable for the next empty coal ship, waiting out by
the Bay Bridge-Tunnel to be escorted in and docked by other tugs.
2:30 a.m., the tug may have been ordered to the Newport News Marine
Terminal to help dock or undock a container ship. The river currents
are treacherous there under any circumstances, but a heavy rain, any
amount of wind, and other vessel traffic further aggravate the
If the tug is late, this
terminal, too, is tied up, and the next ship waiting at anchorage can’t
come in to take on or offload its cargo. If the tug is late, a ship
facing a difficult situation under the best of circumstances might
suddenly find itself in trouble, endangering itself and the terminal
At 4:30 a.m., the tug may
have been dispatched to meet another ship coming in from anchorage,
perhaps on its way to Lamberts Point Docks. The tug must meet the ship
promptly if the ship is to keep its schedule — any delay risks further
congestion in the port, costing dollars and risking jobs.
6 a.m. the captain was probably relieved by his mate and, if conditions
allowed, he went to his bunk to get some sleep. His next watch would
start in six hours. This “routine” is repeated every day, 24 hours a
day, day in and day out until the captain is relieved 20 days after
beginning his shift.
Tugs and their
crews were at work on the Elizabeth River when Hurricane Isabel came to
town. They’re at work during every nor’easter and snowstorm, when Mr.
Ballard and his friends are sitting warm and dry at home. They are on
the river every day and every night of the year, doing their jobs and
keeping the port in operation.
the tug moving so quickly, as Mr. Ballard complains? Because it was
working; it had places to go, deadlines to meet, ships to service. If
this tug, and the dozens of others that work on the Elizabeth River,
can’t get where they’re supposed to be, when they’re supposed to be
there, then every job in this port is at risk.
tug captain would, quite frankly, prefer a more leisurely pace — tug
engines, some rated at more than 3,000 horsepower, drink fuel at a
ridiculous rate when they’re simply idling. Apply even half throttle to
meet a ship on a schedule and the rate of consumption goes up
considerably, which means the cost of operation goes up.
is the tug in such a rush? Port security operations cause delays. Ships
(and even tugs) with mechanical problems cause delays. Bridge openings
cause delays. The weather and the tides cause delays. Recreational
boaters who’ve had a little too much Chardonnay or who are otherwise
oblivious to the world around them cause delays (and routinely endanger
their own lives and the lives of others on the water).
the industrial areas of the Elizabeth River, tugs are restricted to a
speed of 6 knots. They typically operate at lower speeds around
Hospital Point. Even so, it can take a half-mile or more for a tug to
slow its speed enough that its wake does not disturb the comfort of a
The port of
Hampton Roads will soon become the largest commercial port on the East
Coast. With any luck, this will bring more commercial vessel traffic
and more tugboats.
My advice to Mr.
Ballard: The Elizabeth River is not a playground — it’s the heart of a
working, world-class seaport. If you see tugs on the water, get out of
their way and let them do their jobs. We all depend on them.
David N. Ventker is a Norfolk attorney practicing maritime law; he
represents a number of tugboat companies. E-mail him at