Landing craft provides vital ‘barging’ in Thousand Islands

1 Seawaysupplier

Capt. Jakob “Jake” Van Reenen was watchful as the 10-wheeler fuel truck inched down the dock and into the cargo well of Seaway Supplier, a 1954 landing craft.

The instant the truck’s front tires touched Seaway Supplier’s deck, it began to push the vessel away from the dock. Van Reenen reacted, throttling forward to keep his vessel flush with the dock, until loading was completed safely. The fuel truck was then carried across the St. Lawrence River to Grindstone Island to deliver its cargo. At the dock on Grindstone, the same careful control of the vessel throttle was necessary for an uneventful offloading.

Seaway Supplier is the newest acquisition of Seaway Marine Group, owned and operated by Van Reenen in the St. Lawrence River town of Clayton, N.Y. His other boats are smaller and associated with TowBoatUS, although Seaway Supplier is also used in small boat salvage. His family has spent summers in the Thousand Islands since his great-grandfather kept a houseboat there. He now lives in Clayton year-round.

Locally, what Seaway Supplier does is called barging. A customer would say something like, “What is the charge for barging my car over to Grindstone?” But whether you call it a self-propelled barge, LCM-8, or Mike-8, as others say, Seaway Supplier is U.S. Coast Guard-certificated and classified as a freight ship. It was launched in 1954 as U.S. Army LCM-8010, a product of Higgins Industries in New Orleans. Two twin-pack Detroit Diesel engines (four 6-71s) generate about 600 hp, turning two 34-inch-diameter three-bladed screws. The outboard engines of each twin pack also drive air compressors for the air-assist ramp and steering. The inboard engines are belted to battery chargers as well as dewatering and fire pumps.

Capt. Jakob “Jake” Van Reenen operates the controls, keeping the vessel aligned during the loading process.

Talk to deck hand Patsy Parker if you want to understand how valuable a landing craft is in the Thousand Islands, a stretch where Lake Ontario flows into the St. Lawrence River between Ontario and New York state that goes by a misnomer, given that a strict count tallies 1,864 islands, almost all of which are inhabited at least part of the year. “There’s no bridge, so it’s small boats for people and barges like Seaway Supplier for anything bigger,” she said.

Parker was born and raised on Grindstone Island, where she still lives with her husband.  At three miles by seven miles, Grindstone is the fourth-largest island in the area, and its winter population of 10 households balloons to 700 people for the summer.

During the nine ice-free months of the year, Parker commutes across the St. Lawrence, about a mile and a half, in an 18-foot Grady White to Clayton, the same way she traveled many years ago to Thousand Islands High School. Some of her elementary school years she studied on Grindstone in a school now closed. Parker or her husband use the Grady White to deliver mail to some of the islands.

Seaway Supplier’s certificate of inspection (COI) rates it at 97 gross tons, requiring the operator to hold at least a 100-ton master’s license with radar observer unlimited endorsement. The COI allows for an unlicensed deck hand, as long as the deck hand is enrolled in the company’s drug testing pool. “I know how to drive the boat in an emergency,” Parker said.

Deck hand Patsy Parker signals the driver of a fuel truck during unloading.

The Thousand Islands are an ideal location for landing craft. In fact, a second certificated 1954 Higgins, Maple Grove, ex-LCM 8168, also serves the Islands from a nearby dock in Clayton. “There may be 20 to 25 landing craft on the East Coast, but only the two certified boats I’m aware of in Clayton, passing inspections under Subchapter I and Subchapter T. The Coast Guard calls this an ‘IT boat,’” Van Reenen said.

During the ice-free months, April until December, everything travels to and from the islands by boat: fuel trucks and septic tank trucks; construction equipment, including excavators and crawlers; pickups and larger flatbeds transporting building materials and prefabricated houses, buildings and docks. “Several years ago, my brother’s house caught fire,” Parker recalled, “and because it was too far inland to use the Clayton fireboat, they barged a firetruck over to put out the fire.”

Trailers come in with cattle, llamas and alpacas. Later, some of the cattle are returned to the mainland for slaughter. Most summer inhabitants arrive in vehicles packed with suitcases. Sometimes they bring new furniture and mattresses, coolers and boxes of food and drink and trailers with boats, four-wheelers and side-by-sides. This summer the vessel even barged a Model-A Ford. Anything that fits within the cargo well of 42 feet by 15 feet, with Seaway Supplier’s ramp closed, and weighs less than 55 tons can be delivered in a single crossing.  

Seaway Supplier was delivered to the St. Lawrence via the Hudson River and the Erie Canal in 2002. Since that time, it has operated in the Clayton area, sometimes doing fish stocking with the Department of Environmental Conservation as well as barging among the islands. “To do more than just keeping the lights burning,” Van Reenen said, “I need to find more daily and weekly work for the boat.”

Parker confers with the driver of a propane truck while Seaway Supplier approaches the landing at Grindstone Island. The vessel is a vital link for essential deliveries including fuel and construction supplies.

“Rates have been locked in, unchanged, for quite some time,” Van Reenen said. When a fuel truck comes to Grindstone, for example, the homeowner pays Seaway Marine a rate per gallon with a minimum flat fee. Cars and other vehicles each have a rate to Grindstone. For deliveries to other islands like Murray Isle and Grenell, there’s a flat boat rate per hour, calculated from start of loading in Clayton until return to the dock at Clayton. There is a contractor daily and weekly rate. When there’s a job farther away, such as doing the recent construction support 60 miles away in Ogdensburg, the weekly rate applies.

Grindstone Island gets its name from the quarry on the island, currently unused. The cheese factory on the island, which once sold its products as far away as New York and Chicago, has shut down. A winery exists, but its output is modest. When the three ice months shut down the river to all boat and ship traffic, airboats travel the archipelago as well as snowmobiles and even sometimes automobiles. “That’s when we socialize a lot,” said Parker, and Seaway Supplier freezes in. 

During the ice-free months, Van Reenen must be mindful of fluctuations in water level in the river. “Compared to spring, pool level can be as much as four feet lower in late summer,” he reported. “My fuel tank capacity is 1,100 gallons, but I lessen my draft by carrying half a tank in summer and decreasing that amount progressively into fall, and still, my landings change. Some places are too shallow later in the season.” 

A place called the Thousand Islands has an even greater number of shoals. Adequate waters in the spring could be treacherous in the fall. Even so, the Higgins design, created for the trappers and oil prospectors of Louisiana and perfected on hundreds of beaches in World War II, is ideal for the archipelago.

By Professional Mariner Staff