Going the long way

The view from the tugboat Thomas as it transits the three-week voyage from Rotterdam to Ascension Island.

In the 2020s, the sight of a U.S.-flagged tugboat in a Dutch port is a rare one. But Weeks Marine’s Thomas was there all the same in July 2021. 

A friend shared a photo of the 4,000-hp tugboat in a slip in Rotterdam and it begged for an explanation. 

Weeks Marine is using Thomas to support an infrastructure project on Ascension Island, the remote British territory in the South Atlantic nearly 1,000 miles southwest of Liberia and 1,400 miles east of Brazil. The run to Rotterdam was just one part of that job, which was ongoing as of press time in mid-February. 

It took some preparation and work to get Thomas ready for the five-week voyage between New York City and Ascension. Main Iron Works of Houma, La., performed numerous upgrades to the 46-year-old tugboat in 2020. The work included overhauling its two EMD 16-645-E2 diesel engines, which drive 110-by-81-inch stainless-steel propellers through Falk gears, and its two Detroit Diesel generators. 

Crossing the equator at 14 degrees west on the 4,600-nautical mile run from New York to Ascension Island.
Crossing the equator at 14 degrees west on the 4,600-nautical mile run from New York to Ascension Island.

Key electronics also were upgraded and satellite TV and satellite communications were installed in a nod to crew comfort. The system lets crewmebers communicate with family, the home office and with Weeks’ customers. Weeks also had a US Watermaker Workboat 3 Series installed that can provide up to 1,500 gallons of potable water per day.

Thomas left the Weeks Greenville Yard in Jersey City, N.J., on Nov. 21, 2020, with a tandem tow of two deck barges loaded with supplies for the project. The tug made one fuel stop in Trinidad before completing the final hop to Ascension Island. The tow arrived Dec. 28, 2020, after an uneventful voyage covering 5,496 nautical miles.

Thomas typically carries five crewmembers: master, mate, chief engineer and two able seamen. For the New York City to Ascension trip, the boat carried a sixth crewmember, a maritime school graduate who was classified as an A/B but could also fill a wheelhouse position if needed.

Once on site, Thomas went to work with three other tugs setting up the job site and developing a rhythm of moving the products from shipside to shoreside. Thomas brings empty barges out to ship and then puts up a line to keep the vessel stable in the seas. Then, smaller and shallower tugs move the equipment from shipside to the pier for unloading. 

The view from the tugboat Thomas as it transits the three-week voyage from Rotterdam to Ascension Island.
The view from the tugboat Thomas as it transits the three-week voyage from Rotterdam to Ascension Island.

That rhythm changed in summer 2021 when Thomas sailed to Rotterdam, Netherlands, to return a deck barge. Once in port, the tug brought back another barge with Metis, a Damen multi-cat, for additional shallow water support. 

Planning for this project started well before the tugboat got underway from New York. Weeks Marine Services Division, Schuyler Line Navigation Company (SLNC) and the Thomas crew focused on planning for work that would be needed for this project. That included getting Subchapter M and ABS audits conducted before departure.   

SLNC is an American-owned company operating commercial U.S.-flagged and Jones Act vessels worldwide. It provides a variety of liner, chartering, parcel shipping and logistics services. SLNC vessels call at some of the most remote and austere environments around the world, a description that would certainly fit Ascension Island, which has only about 800 permanent residents. 

Thomas Capt. Paul Sander said the crew spends limited time on the island, which has rugged mountains, craggy lava fields and spectacularly beautiful beaches. Work on the tugboat tends to keep them busy.

“We do send two crew members to shore weekly for supply runs via a crew boat,” he said. “On the island, some basics are available, but because of the remoteness, most of Thomas’ stores come via a monthly ship that is loaded in Cape Canaveral, Fla., with food and vessel supplies.”

Those trips shoreside offer more than a chance to restock some essentials. The two crewmembers who make each run can set foot on dry land — a luxury for anyone who spends extended periods on a vessel. Sander said the runs tend to boost morale.  

Unfortunately for the crew, there’s no time to properly immerse themselves in Ascension Island culture. The closest thing to that is an occasional cookout at the job site that Thomas crews attend. “Socializing with the shoreside personnel outside of work duties does a great service to helping put a face behind a radio voice,” Sander said. “Interacting with these people aids us all in understanding each other’s perception of the job and jobsite.”

Thomas and its barge depart Rotterdam.
Thomas and its barge depart Rotterdam.

Life aboard Thomas in Ascension Island is not that much different than working off Terrebonne, La. The two deck crew alternate cooking tasks. A/B James Darr is avid fisherman who keeps the tugboat stocked with fresh fish almost every day. He takes great pleasure in coming up with new fish recipes and truly enjoys his cooking duties.  

The crew often joke that Darr has a future operating a roadside fried fish stand. This would merge his love of fishing for mahi mahi and grouper with his joy of cooking. Fellow A/B Mario Potts is finishing up his TOAR book and upon completion of this trip will start his career in the wheelhouse. Mate Jules Bentley is the newest crewmember, but one who has blended well with the others. Engineer Drew Pojednic has been with Weeks for 13 years. He started out on the smaller boats learning the ins and outs of the marine industry while working on getting his DDE 4000. Drew is very involved in the ongoing maintenance aboard Thomas that keeps her running smoothly. 

Sander has been with Weeks for over 16 years. He is the master of Thomas and has a love for bluewater sailing since his days longline fishing across the Pacific Ocean. He spends a great deal of his time at sea scrutinizing weather. You could ask Sander a question about some Pacific Island, and his answer would include the direction and speed of a prevailing wind, or what side of the island had shelter. He is fond of saying, “Sometimes the long way is the short way,” when it comes to factoring in weather conditions and current.

The tug and the crew of Thomas have been Weeks Marine’s “go-to boat” for long tows. Before Ascension Island, Thomas had been to Italy, Guam, the Marshall Islands, and a number of places in between. The job at Ascension Island is expected to last through May 2022. Once it’s finished, the tug will likely head back to New York, or to another distant spot on the globe for its next assignment.