A guy won’t get too many opportunities to accompany a tugboat captain as he moves a Virginia class nuclear submarine.
“Ya oughta come along Rick. Should be quite a show,” Captain Skerry said in a Facebook message. I couldn’t get my fat little fingers to the keyboard fast enough to reply “Hell ya!”
I first met John Skerry in the spring of 2010. He had a Trojan F-32 for sale, so the XO and I (and our dog Ginger Lee) headed off to the town of North Kingstown in Rhode Island to check it out. The boat had been refitted with Lehman 120 diesels, an intriguing and unusual set-up. Trawler motors in an old sport fisher? I think I was more intrigued by the fact that his name, Skerry, is also a name for a sailing dinghy. Long story short, we bought the boat, named it Ginger Lee, and lost contact with John until the summer of 2015 when he found us moored in Wickford Harbor. We’ve been friends ever since.
I had arranged to meet John at 8:00 AM at a Park and Ride in Rhode Island. About an hour and a half drive.
It’s 6:30 on a coolish, slightly foggy morning. The sky shows streaky glimpses of blue as I leave my driveway in Wareham. “It’s gonna burn off,” I say to myself, and I am right. By the time I reach my destination, it’s a full-blown sunny day. I hop into John’s F-150 and we drive to New London, Connecticut. On the salty shores of the historic Thames River, I’m transported into a world that few people ever get to experience up close, the world of working mariners. Captain Skerry’s world.
The Thames Shipyard is a hundred acres of working waterfront that includes not only tugboats and dry-docks, but both car and passenger ferries. It’s the beginning of Memorial Day weekend and the parking lot is filling up with ferry passengers and cars. John cuts a long line of idling cars and gets waved through.
“Is it crazy yet?” he asks the young attendant.
“Gettin’ there,” is the expected answer.
First, we tour the relatively new fast ferry. Impressive for sure.
But not nearly as impressive as the deluxe tour of (in my opinion) the star of the fleet the Cape Henlopen. This massive car ferry was built in the Forties and was actually on the beaches of Normandy delivering tanks during WWII. The fact that it’s still in daily operation today is a testament to the talented employees of this ship yard. Everything is maintained, repaired, and refurbished on site.
In the middle of the car deck, John opens a door marked DO NOT ENTER and I eagerly follow him down a long, steep, metal stairway into the bowels of this historic ship. It is wicked loud. I mean heart-stopping loud. I was in a rock band for forty years, so I know loud. The heat radiating from a massive diesel engine is alarming, and it’s not even running. John shouts in my ear and I can barely hear him. Apparently all the noise is coming from a pair of room-size 250 kilowatt generators. That’s a huge amount of power. To put it in perspective, I have a 3 kilowatt emergency generator that runs my whole house, heating system and everything.
We follow a prop shaft to the aft of the boat. John points out an interesting feature: this huge ship can be steered manually. If the hydraulics fail, a person could crank a gizmo and steer.
We climb out of the engine room and head up to see the wheel house. After the sauna-like engine room, the cool ocean air whacks me like a Gatorade shower.
Captain Skerry has been haunting this shipyard for so long it’s hard for him to move anywhere without stopping to say hi to someone. “This is my friend Rick. He’s the guy who bought my boat,” is my introduction, repeated many times. And everybody knows exactly what he’s talking about. Our old F-32 is apparently well-known around here.
We eventually make our way over to the tugboat side of the yard. Things couldn’t be more different. There’s no hustle and bustle; no public to deal with. The docks are strewn with all manner of stuff: welding equipment, 55 gallon drums, cables, lines, and spares. And then there are the awesome tugboats themselves. Who the heck doesn’t like tugboats?
After touring the tugboat Patricia Ann, all I can say is: I want one.