Dredging up pleasant memories of life aboard Stuyvesant

The author in the galley on a break with John Gaudet, the drag tender who served on his watch.

I always make myself available for relief work during the holidays, to give a deck officer who might otherwise be stuck on the ship the chance to be home with his or her family. This past Christmas, for the 13th year, my tradition continued. On Dec. 17, 2007 I flew from Sea-Tac airport near Seattle to Houston, and then to Panama City, Panama, to catch the US-flag dredge Stuyvesant, relieving a young mate from Maine so he could enjoy his Christmas at home.

Everyone on Stuyvesant works a 12-hour shift every day, more if necessary due to repairs or other problems. I was on watch from 1200 to 2400 on the first half of my tour, and from 0000 to 1200 on the second half. Unlike a typical merchant ship, on a dredge the senior deck officers on each watch are called dredge masters, and the operators who control the drag arms during loading are called drag tenders. During my tour I gained a respect for the deck officers’ close-quarters ship handling, the pipe men’s finesse in controlling the drag arms, and the engineers’ heavy workload keeping the ship’s engines operating almost constantly — all skills which are required on this type of vessel.

Operated by Dredge Operator’s, Inc. of Metairie, La., Stuyvesant was built in Avondale Shipyard near New Orleans in 1982. The ship has a documented length of

Johnie Miller, the AB on the 1200-to-midnight watch, getting ready to check the draghead before it is secured following dredging.

340 feet. Actually, including the stern anchor back aft and the discharge piping extending off the bow, the ship is nearly 400 feet in length overall, with a 72-foot beam. Her light and deep drafts range from around 17 to 36 feet; and when fully loaded, the ship holds about 7,000 tons of sand.

Officially known as a trailing suction hopper dredge, Stuyvesant carries a crew of around 22, though the number of officers and sailors required varies depending on whether the ship is involved in dredging operations or is on a sea passage from one location to another. This tour we were working in Balboa, on the Pacific side, not far from the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal.

I had never been on a dredge before and found the ship’s systems fascinating. When the ship is dredging, two large drag arms are lowered down to the ocean floor. Water jets stir up the sand, which is then essentially vacuumed up and loaded into the hopper, a large hold in the center of the ship. Water is allowed to flow overboard, and gradually the sand sifts to the bottom and the hopper fills. We loaded sand in an assigned area near the Pearl Islands, several hours offshore from Balboa, and then headed to port for the discharge.

The discharge area was next to Panama Ports Co. container terminal No. 17, and our job was to provide infill for the terminal’s expansion. We’d hook up to a floating pipeline, and then water was put into the hopper and allowed to mix with the sand. It took about two hours to pump most of the sand-water mixture ashore. The remainder we would then dump.

The hopper with almost a full load of sand, about 1.4 million pounds.

The hopper is equipped with bottom doors below the waterline, which are hydraulically opened and closed. Before the dredge dumped the remaining sand, the floating pipeline was disconnected and pushed out of the way by an assist tug. We would then maneuver to within about 30 feet of the dock, open the bottom doors and the remaining sand would slide out. Afterward, with the doors closed and resecured, we would back out of the slip and head out for another load. The total turnaround time for one complete load-discharge cycle was between 12 and 15 hours.

Stuyvesant is a hard-working ship. The officers and crew know their jobs and are top-notch professionals — and they are good shipmates, too. I enjoyed my tour as an officer on Stuyvesant, and wish Fenton, Bryan, John G., John S., Matt, Marcalm, Yusef, both Daves, both Johnnies, Yeti, Tommy, Sanchez, Manny, Brett, and the rest of the crew all the best until we sail together again.

Note to readers: I have included some pictures of the ship and crew with this column. You can check out more of them on the Professional Mariner Web site: www.professionalmariner.com.

Till next time I wish you all Smooth Sailin’.

By Professional Mariner Staff