Moran tugs power up to meet new demands in Port of Charleston


James A. Moran idled alongside an empty bulk carrier moored in South Carolina’s Cooper River as an aluminum skiff zipped back and forth, releasing the ship’s mooring lines. Soon the bulker was free, and the 6,000-hp tug on its starboard quarter held the vessel in place as the wind and current nudged the hull.

“We’re going to kind of hold them up,” Capt. Bobby McGuire said of the bulker River Pearl, which was setting sail from a midstream mooring field near the North Charleston Terminal. “We are going to be their stern line and just kind of hold them up here.”

The job of holding, and eventually turning, River Pearl was the first of two back-to-back jobs for James A. Moran and its 6,140-hp, 110-foot counterpart Elizabeth Turecamo. James A. Moran pushed away from the North Charleston container port about an hour earlier on a sunny, warm fall afternoon and headed northeast.

The midstream mooring field occupied by River Pearl and another bulker lay less than a mile ahead in a quiet stretch of the Cooper River well north of Charleston’s historic downtown. For much of the previous week, the 618-foot River Pearl offloaded scrap metal onto barges. Those vessels in turn carried the cargo to its final destination at the Nucor Steel Berkeley mill about 10 miles farther inland.

Capt. Bobby McGuire brings James A. Moran against the bulker River Pearl at a midstream mooring field in the Cooper River.

Midstream moorings like this one operated by Maybank Industries are common on the Mississippi River but something of a rarity in big ports like Charleston. These facilities require a completely different process for tying up and releasing mooring lines. Crews aboard small skiffs set the lines, or release them depending on the circumstances, from buoys fore and aft of the ship.

Line handlers from Moran Environmental Recovery stood by as James A. Moran transferred docking pilot Warren Tawes and Charleston Branch pilot Doug Logan aboard River Pearl. From there, McGuire circled back around the ship and got a line on the port quarter. One by one, crews freed a line then zipped to the opposite side to release a corresponding rope.

With all of the lines clear, Tawes gave a series of tugboat engine orders to begin spinning the bulker’s bow 180 degrees from north to south. Elizabeth Turecamo pulled back on the starboard bow, while James A. Moran pulled on the port quarter. The empty bulker, drawing just 17.5 feet, offered little resistance. It dutifully swung around in what seemed like a matter of seconds, with neither tug expending more than 30 percent power.

The next job brought both tugs back to the vast container yard at North Charleston Terminal, where the 964-foot CMA CGM Florida was ready to go. Working a containership is a more typical job for a Charleston-area tug crew. Based on local estimates, containerships account for about two-thirds of ship-assist work in the region.

Elizabeth Turecamo comes alongside CMA CGM Florida at the North Charleston Terminal. Containerships account for about two-thirds of ship-assist work in the port.

That figure could grow as more cargo shifts to the East Coast aboard neo-Panamax ships. The South Carolina Ports Authority operates the North Charleston Terminal on the Cooper River, as well as the sprawling Wando Welch Terminal on the Wando River in Mount Pleasant. The authority is building a new container port in the Cooper River north of downtown Charleston called the Hugh K. Leatherman Sr. Terminal. It is set to open in 2021 and will eventually boost container capacity by 50 percent.

Meanwhile, three 155-foot gantry cranes have arrived at Wando to efficiently load and unload the increasing volume of cargo. Congress also has approved $138 million to deepen the channel to 52 feet, allowing ever-larger ships to call on the region.

Port authority data suggests healthy growth is already occurring at the existing terminals. Charleston container volume increased 6.2 percent to almost 2.25 million TEU in 2019 through the end of November, according to the latest port information. Break-bulk cargo grew more than 8 percent during that period.

Car carriers account for another big chunk of ship-assist work in Charleston. BMW, Mercedes and Volvo plants in South Carolina churn out thousands of luxury vehicles each month, primarily for overseas markets. In the first 11 months of 2019, the city’s terminals moved nearly 209,000 vehicles, a 1.6 percent gain over the same period in 2018. In November 2019 alone, nearly 20,000 vehicles rolled through Charleston.

James A. Moran moves into position to pull the vehicle carrier Graceful Leader off the Columbus Street Terminal dock near downtown Charleston.

Moran and McAllister Towing, the two dominant tug operators in Charleston, bulked up their fleets recently to meet the changing demands and serve larger ships. Moran’s three z-drive tugs based in Charleston each deliver at least 5,100 hp, and McAllister recently dispatched its newest 6,770-hp tug, Capt. Jim McAllister, to the city.

All of this power comes in handy for high-speed escorts involving the giant containerships calling on the Wando terminal. Crews usually get a line onto the ship’s aft centerline chock, then drop way back to avoid the cavitation from the massive prop, McGuire said. From that position, captains take advantage of James A. Moran’s massive skeg and horsepower to turn or slow the ships as needed.

“For these deep-draft ships, these 1,200-footers going into Wando, it is just a small channel and they want to get it really slow,” McGuire explained. “The wind can affect them a lot and blow them out of the channel. Basically, we are just there to manhandle them (into position).”

James A. Moran, delivered in 2011, is the first of Moran’s 6,000-hp, 93-foot escort and docking tugs built in Maine by Washburn & Doughty. More than a dozen sister tugs have been built over the years. McGuire said they are nimble, powerful and sturdy, adding that “it’s almost like they have eyes.”

Capt. Tucker Bates stands alongside one of the tug’s MTU 16V 4000 Tier II engines. Each main is paired with a Schottel z-drive.

“For an escort tug, (James A. Moran) is very maneuverable. It has some weight, so it can do a Wando escort,” he continued. “When you do an escort, it’ll shudder and then start digging, and you’ll see the (winch) tonnage meter just drive on up.”

Assisting the departure of the 5,100-TEU CMA CGM Florida at the North Charleston Terminal, Elizabeth Turecamo came along the starboard quarter while James A. Moran took a position on the starboard bow. Capt. Tucker Bates relieved McGuire at the controls. Out on the bow, deck hand Harrison Hughes celebrated a near-perfect toss of the messenger line that wrapped itself twice around one of the containership’s rails.

Hughes, like all Moran deck hands, wore a portable radio attached to his personal flotation device. After tossing the line, he looked back toward the wheelhouse to gauge whether his co-workers saw the feat. Bates, with a good-natured smirk, challenged him over the radio to do it again. Engineer Harry Nicholson, a 34-year Moran employee, was off watch below deck.

Both Moran tugs backed CMA CGM Florida away from the dock, first at 30 percent power, then up to half power. Bates swung around toward the bulbous bow as the containership crept away from the terminal, leaving just a few feet between the vessel and James A. Moran’s rubber fenders.

James A. Moran’s crew takes a break after a busy day on the water. From left are Capt. Tucker Bates, Capt. Bobby McGuire, engineer Harry Nicholson and deck hand Harrison Hughes.

He held this position for a minute or two, tracking sternward at 4 knots while the containership moved deeper into the turning basin. Bates then swung around to CMA CGM Florida’s port-side stem. At Tawes’ request, he applied full power. The tug shuddered as the twin 3,000-hp MTU mains and Schottel drives went to work. With help from Elizabeth Turecamo at the quarter, the ship’s bow soon faced open water.

“Being right at the stem is the maximum leverage we can put on the ship to spin,” Bates explained, noting that he learned the maneuver through touch and feel. It’s one that requires full confidence in the tugboat, he said.

McGuire added that such forward placement allows captains to best utilize the tug’s horsepower. There’s also a practical consideration. “If we land the tug on the shoulder and slide 200 feet forward, the tug’s bow rubber and tires will put a 200-foot black mark on the ship,” he said.

The job finished, James A. Moran returned to the North Charleston Terminal dock just a few hundred yards away. The crew change was near. Moran’s Charleston crews work seven-day hitches with 12-hour watches. The fresh crew had plenty of work scheduled for overnight.

Bates, who joined the company 10 years ago, recalled the not-too-distant past when tugs would go long stretches without work. “That’s going away, though,” he said. “These days we typically work all through the day and well into the night.”

In a busy port like Charleston, you’d expect nothing less.

By Professional Mariner Staff