BALTIMORE — The pilot’s voice on the two-way radio cuts through conversation on the bridge of the Donal G. McAllister at the entrance to Baltimore Harbor where Capt. Steven Hardin has positioned his tug to await this day’s tow.
This is the beginning of a complex dance in which the 243-ton, 37-year-old tug owned by McAllister Towing of Baltimore and a sister vessel, the Kaleen McAllister, will maneuver the MV Tourcoing, 750 feet of lumbering cargo ship weighing more than 37,000 tons, from the Key Bridge into a pier.
The harbor, the ship and the tugboat are a world away from the everyday life for most people. This is a world of aging boats and sunburned deckhands, ships registered to far-off ports and of scores of tractor-trailers rumbling to and from the ships, past loading cranes like the ones said to have inspired the Imperial Walkers in “Star Wars.”
The hourlong operation begins with the harbor pilot’s command to the Kaleen to “get a line up on the port shoulder,” which is toward the front of the boat on the left side, and the Donal to “land starboard side amidships,” or wait near the middle of the ship on the right side for further instructions.
Capt. Hardin has a variety of instruments at his disposal — radios, Global Positioning System units, radar, that sort of thing — and a single wheel-like control that allows him to control his highly maneuverable boat.
Bringing this ship in requires the harbor pilot on the Tourcoing to stay in constant contact with both tugs so they can work together to execute the complex choreography she directs from the cargo ship’s bridge.
Throughout the operation, Capt. Hardin is in frequent radio contact with the pilot and the radio’s speakers are steadily alive with her voice and the voice of the Kaleen’s pilot as she coordinates both tugs.
It’s a calm day, so both tugs ride along as the Tourcoing moves through the harbor. Approaching the pier, it needs to make a turn and the Donal gets to work.
The Donal needs to slide back toward the stern of the ship and push. Capt. Hardin backs up and turns along the side of the Tourcoing, keeping the bow in contact with the ship’s hull as it moves back.
In Capt. Hardin’s hands, the operation looks easy, and he is relaxed as he chats on the bridge and keeps one ear alert to the intermittent stream of instructions from the radio.
It is much tougher and more dangerous than it looks, though. If the bow slips off the ship’s hull or goes under, the Donal could be in serious trouble. Its bow is not far from the Tourcoing’s propellers.
“It’s not a place you want to do the wrong thing,” said Capt. Michael Reagoso, McAllister’s general manager in Baltimore.
This is an arduous life. Capt. Hardin makes three to five of these runs a day and he’s on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week —14 days on and 14 days off.
He has been working the Baltimore harbor for 36 years.
“It’s a good harbor to work in,” he said, adding that it is not subject to the sorts of tidal currents of other ports, like Norfolk or Philadelphia.
The Tourcoing continues its progress toward its berth and the Donal maneuvers around to the port side as it prepares for the final approach.
The closer to the pier, the more frequent are the instructions as the tugs walk the cargo ship into its berth sideways.
As the Tourcoing comes to within a few feet of the pier, both tugboats are pressing it toward the pier as line handlers secure the ship.
After a few final adjustments, the ship is fast.
“OK, all right, thanks a lot,” comes the message over the radio.
Capt. Hardin wheels the tug around and heads back to the office, ready for the next cargo ship needing a hand parking.