Stone-moving tugboat fleet leads New York canal renaissance


In a matter of months, activity at the New York State Marine Highway Transportation Company (NYSMH) accelerated at what Rob Goldman, company president, described as a frenetic pace. “It’s nuts,” he said in July at his office in Troy, N.Y., at the head of navigation on the Hudson River.

Just a few months earlier, Goldman and partners Tim Dufel and Michelle Hayes were going about the fairly routine business of transporting cargo on the state’s canal system. NYSMH focused on Project Cargo, the company’s division dedicated to handling high-value specialized projects and heavy-lift tows on the Erie and Champlain canals and the Hudson River.

Even though the company had the lion’s share of the market among a handful of competitors, there wasn’t that much work. Commercial traffic on the state’s canals had been in serious decline for decades, a victim of aggressive truck and rail transportation and the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959. But that has changed. In 2017, the Erie Canal will celebrate its bicentennial, and the new activity on the waterways is welcome to canal aficionados.

The three partners, previous owners of Troy Town Dock and Marina, formed NYSMH in 2001 with Goldman in charge of operations, Dufel in the shop massaging aged equipment, and Hayes running the office. The bulk of their tows, linking the East Coast with the Great Lakes primarily on the Hudson River and Erie Canal, were conducted by the company’s 90-foot Super Canalers: the 1,400-hp Margot and the 1,800-hp Frances, acquired in 2001 and 2012, respectively. The 50-foot, 640-hp Benjamin Elliot was employed as a contractor support tug.

Capt. Trevor Bearham guides the tug Edna A and an empty barge through locks on the Champlain Canal.

Then, in 2016, the company landed a five-year contract moving a special grade of stone, in four separate loops, from Lock 11 on the Champlain Canal to Jamaica Bay, both the south and north shore of Long Island, and Connecticut. Each loop requires transferring the southbound loads to a different tug, and the reverse northbound with empties. Three tugs were not going to cut it. In a matter of months, NYSMH purchased five tugs — all with a bit of age and a number of companies behind them, and all with the related upgrades and maintenance that follow.

“The increase in equipment was huge for us,” Goldman said. “Our gross sales have gone up 50 to 60 percent and our staff the same, from 25 to 50 employees. We have even had to create an HR department.”

The contract is with New Jersey-based Azzil Granite Materials, a paving company engaged in, among others, a contract with New York City. The city mandates high-friction stone for paving projects in its five boroughs. The special stone is in limited supply and the price is kept high by a small number of companies.

Frustrated by the cost, Azzil Granite decided to buy its own quarry at Comstock, near Lock 11 at Fort Ann on the Champlain Canal. It also purchased 20 Western Rivers jumbo barges to transport the crushed stone. NYSMH has four of its five new tugs dedicated to the project.

Deck hand Matt Stuckey tosses a line as he prepares to tie Edna A’s tow in Lock 8 on the Champlain Canal.

Initially, NYSMH only wanted the canal portion of the contract. “But they wanted us to do all four stages of the run to simplify the operational coordination and to keep the number of vested components to a minimum,” Goldman said. Azzil is currently shipping 500,000 tons per year, but the goal is to double that, he said.

Goldman explained that the New York State Canal Corp., engaged in regenerating the dismal state of commercial navigation on the canals, was instrumental in securing the contract. “They facilitated getting loading facilities at Fort Ann,” he said.

With the bulk of the new tugs dedicated to Project Azzil, NYSMH can keep its Super Canalers, Margot and Frances, free for Project Cargo tows, transporting transformers, turbines and other equipment that is too large for highway travel. “Project Cargo operation is spot market, but we have to have the equipment available to service the contract when the phone rings,” Goldman said.

Another line-haul component of Project Cargo, called Project Stone, involves towing stone from quarries in the Catskills on the Hudson to New York City and Stamford, Conn. Yet another contract is in support of Moran Towing’s ship docking operations in the ports of Albany, Rensselaer, Glenmont and Coeymans, to the tune of about 150 assists per year.

Edna A, one of five tugs recently added to the New York State Marine Highway fleet, leaves Lock 9 on the Champlain Canal.

Two of the new tugs — the 2,400-hp Mary Kay and the 2,000-hp Sarah D — were purchased from Moran Towing. The remaining three — Edna A, Betty D and Lucy H — were acquired from General Electric’s fleet following GE’s completion of its Superfund cleanup project on the upper Hudson.

On an early morning truck ride along the Hudson River north of Troy, Capt. Dennis Wasiewski, operations manager for NYSMH, was pushing to catch Edna A before the tow left Lock 7 at Fort Edward, headed northbound for Lock 11 at Fort Ann. Fort Edward demarcates where the Hudson River meanders north to its source at Lake Tear of the Clouds; the Champlain Canal continues north, connecting the river to Lake Champlain.

“This contract is crazy, crazy,” Wasiewski said. “It was huge going from three boats working on Project Cargo and Project Stone to eight boats with this new contract, Project Azzil. And we still have the ship docking work with Moran.”

Wasiewski joined the company four years ago on a Project Cargo contract, moving corn into the U.S. from Canada through Oswego and down the Erie Canal. “It’s really bloomed since then,” he said. “It is a giant influx of new personnel and equipment into what was a small operation. Rob and I carry a license so we pinch-hit as captain on the boats.”

Mary Kay crewmen watch the Moran tug Kathleen Turecamo assist a Cosco Southern Asphalt ship at the Port of Rensselaer.

The 53-foot, 1,000-hp Edna A was still in Lock 7 with an empty barge, waiting for the water to rise 10 feet. The twin-screw push tug was built in 1980 by the Louis G. Ortis Boat Co. of Krotz Springs, La. When GE acquired the tug for the Superfund cleanup project, the company rebuilt it with a retractable wheelhouse in order to negotiate the air draft restrictions presented by numerous bridges spanning the canal system.

Once the water in Lock 7 was equalized and the doors opened, Capt. Trevor Bearham eased the tow out of the lock and began the 17-mile, six-hour run north to Fort Ann. Deck hand Matt Stuckey, called “Tex” for obvious reasons, was at the bow of the tow, communicating distances to Bearham. Both men are veterans of the GE project, conducting tows of PCB-laden bottom mud to a mitigation site. Both are experienced working on low-slung tugs, partially blinded by high-freeboard empties.

“We communicate well and I know what he is saying when he says it’s 4 feet,” Bearham said. “I know it is between 4 and 5 feet.”

Even with a telescoping wheelhouse, visibility is an issue when pushing empties. The familiar dialogue between Bearham at the helm and Stuckey on the tow’s bow is important.

Capt. Simon Uht coordinates maneuvers from Mary Kay’s wheelhouse.

The engineer, Tim Cole, a local boy who witnessed the absence of barge tows on the canal while he was growing up, said area residents are very receptive of the project. “They really like the activity,” he said.

At Lock 8, the peak of elevation on the Champlain Canal, Edna A locked through, exiting 11 feet higher than entering. At Lock 9 the tow exited 15 feet lower and Bearham headed north, dropping elevation at Locks 10 and 11. At Fort Ann, he picked up a load, turned south and completed another loop six hours later back at Fort Edward.

Later in the day at Troy, Lucy H, with 33 miles and six locks in its wake, entered tidal waters with a load from Fort Edward destined for the fleet south of the Ferry Street Bridge. The 1,000-hp, twin-screw tug, built in 1980 at Eymard and Sons Shipyard in Harvey, La., also was fitted with a retractable wheelhouse by GE. After dropping the load at the fleet, Lucy H turned north with an empty barge, logging another loop.

From Troy to Bay Ridge Flats in New York City, Sarah D makes 240-mile loops — four to six loads downriver and empties upriver, in two 20-hour segments. The 90-foot, 2,000-hp tug, built in 1975 by Putnam Shipbuilding of Palatka, Fla., was acquired by the Turecamo Coastal and Harbor Towing Corp. (now Moran Towing) in 1998.

Lucy H passes through downtown Troy, N.Y., where the tug dropped its tow of granite and headed back upriver with an empty.

At Bay Ridge Flats, Sarah D’s tows are broken up and pushed up the East River to Glen Cove by the 57-foot, 1,200-hp Betty D, built in 1980 by Bayou Black Shipyard Inc. of Gibson, La. The tug also was rebuilt with a retractable pilothouse by GE.

Back at the office, Goldman was wrestling with the unrelenting task of setting the tug schedules and, when demand required, inserting Margot or Frances into the Hudson loops when speed is needed. Both Super Canalers have been totally rebuilt and are viewed fondly by canal watchers.

Whenever the opportunity arises in the constantly working fleet, one or another of the tugs is pulled from the rotation and passed on to the port engineer, Mike Kahler, for repair and maintenance.

“We can’t afford any downtime because of the short canal navigation season,” Goldman said. “In the meantime, we still have Project Cargo going on, and it has been the year of the transformer.”

The crew of Edna A at Lock 9 on the Champlain Canal: deck hand and engineer Tim Cole, deck hand Matt Stuckey and Capt. Trevor Bearham.

Between the opening of the canal season on April 27 to the end of June, the company conducted three tows of large transformers and another of heavy equipment on the Erie Canal, Hudson River and up through the lakes to the St. Lawrence Seaway.

To punctuate yet another busy day, the call came for Mary Kay to act as the second tug in support of Moran’s Kathleen Turecamo, docking a Cosco Southern Asphalt ship at the Port of Rensselaer. Mary Kay, formerly Mary Loy Turecamo, was acquired by NYSMH from Moran in support of its ship-assist docking work.

Summing up the new contract, Goldman has reason to be optimistic. “The client is wonderful to work with,” he said. “He runs both ends of the operation and he only works with us to transport the material. We are all interested in making this work, because if we make this work, we will begin manufacturing equipment specific to the canal limitations. … At the moment we are buying tugs and barges on the open market. But if it works, we can build barges the right size for the locks and tugs with the right power to really move some tonnage with equipment built to make it very efficient.”

By Professional Mariner Staff