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Docking tall ships in Savannah

Jan 1, 2003

"God help the captain who puts a black mark on the Eagle," said Robert Cooey, tugboat captain and docking pilot with Turecamo Bros. in Savannah. "Our biggest concern is not damaging those ships."

"Those ships" were four tall ships from around the world that visited Savannah July 3 to 6 as part of Americas' Sail '98, a tall ship race and festival that began in Savannah and ended in Glen Cove, N.Y., a week and a half later. The three larger steel-hulled ships, the 340-foot Argentine naval training vessel Libertad, the 270-foot Venezuelan naval training ship Simon Bolivar and the 295-foot U.S. Coast Guard barque Eagle, required tugs to assist with docking. The fourth vessel, the wooden, 53-foot Meka II, was small enough to dock itself. Cooey's remarks came a week before the festival's start. Not only were the ships not damaged, but new levels of cooperation were achieved in the port, and the foreign ship captains left impressed by American ship-handling skills.

Preparations for the event by Savannah's commercial maritime community began nearly as soon as the festival was announced in July 1996. "The city of Savannah started this thing nearly a year ago and immediately invited anyone in the maritime community who would be involved to a meeting. There were about 50 people there," Cooey said.

Americas' Sail president and CEO, the Rev. William Wendler, said the event "is designed to offer the navies of the Western Hemisphere the opportunity to come together in friendly sailing competition." The event is also a cultural exchange program of sorts, bringing the culture of sailing and foreign navies to smaller cities, like Savannah and Glen Cove. By targeting smaller cities, the ships' crews get a better flavor for what life is really like in America, and small-town Americans can see ships that usually tie up only in metropolitan ports.

The challenge facing the smaller ports was how to dock the large, relatively delicate ships and how to make them accessible to the 250,000 people who saw the ships in Savannah and the nearly half-million that visited them in New York.

When the planning got down to details such as providing water, sewage pickup, electricity and other services to the tall ships, "The meetings started to scale down because nobody was doing anything, so the Coast Guard kind of took over," Cooey said. The Coast Guard asked for assistance from Cooey, who called Crescent Towing from across the Savannah River for even more help. "I dragged them into it because I thought it would go smoother with both companies involved," he said. "There was no animosity. Everybody just worked together toward a common goal."

To complicate matters, the bulkheads along River Street, where the ships were to dock well away from the commercial port, were not constructed with ships in mind; rather, they were simply retaining walls for a pedestrian mall. Gangplanks could not reach the top of the bulkhead due to the Savannah River's 7-foot-plus tidal range. The city of Savannah had pilings installed off the bulkhead, and floating docks were attached to the pilings.up extensive safety zones and worked closely with the Georgia Ports Authority, tugboat companies and the marine branches of the Savannah and Chatham County police to make sure the busy industrial port was not closed for too long. "The Coast Guard did an excellent job of coordinating the closure," Cooey said. "They worked with all concerned parties and asked us for input every step of the way. The port ended up being closed for less than three hours."The middle 300 feet of the 500-foot-wide channel was declared a safety zone, restricted to all traffic except for the tall ships, tugs and safety vessels for the parade's three-hour trip from Tybee Roads to the River Street docks. "The maritime community here really works well together, and with us," said Lt. Cmdr. Linda Fagin of the Savannah Marine Safety Office. "We've got a good relationship with the tug companies."

Only one ship was affected by the channel closure, he said. "So we just put him in the middle of the channel upstream from the event and held him there until it was over, so he was the first one out."

On the day of the event, four tugs, from both companies, escorted the ships and assisted them to their moorings. "We had to be concerned about which tugs we used," said Cooey. "These ships are thin and have spars sticking out." These could be damaged, or cause damage to a tug, he explained.

"We thought about bringing in a smaller tug, but we got one from Philadelphia that was on its way south to Fernadina Beach, Fla. We kept her here for a few weeks. It was a nice coincidence," Cooey said. That tug was the 1,800-hp, single-screw Devon Turecamo. Two other tugs, Crescent's Georgia and Turecamo's Greg Turecamo, are 4,000 hp each.

The port of Savannah is well inland, nearly 12 miles upstream from the mouth of the narrow, twisting Savannah River. The extensive local knowledge necessary to successfully navigate the river results in Savannah's being a closed port, so all large vessels must hire a pilot to enter. Ships are guided into the port by a member of the Savannah Pilots Association, a guild of experienced local mariners that dates back more than 100 years.

Once a ship arrives in the port itself, a docking pilot takes over; he or she is then responsible for the ship until it is docked by the tugs and securely tied up. The docking pilots usually work for either Turecamo Bros. or Crescent Towing.

The docking pilots were placed on the ships earlier than is usual for the Savannah River. The switch was made three miles out to allow time for possible interference from spectator craft. "The pilots were also put on board early to walk the decks and see where we could tie up the tugs to the ships," Cooey said.

Cooey served as docking pilot for the Eagle. "The biggest problem we had was where to put a line aboard," he said. "Most of the bitts were covered with seats, so the lead was terrible. The ships had tall sterns, so we couldn't push where we wanted to for fear of damaging the rudder or coming up from underneath and causing damage that way. There were also lots of guests on board the tall ships. So what we did was touch, stop, touch, stop until they were tied up." Another not-so-trivial concern was the strong tugboats pulling the bitts off the ships.

All tugs directly assigned to work the ships had their fenders dressed with white canvas to protect the three ships' white hulls from being marred. The Greg Turecamo was on call as back-up to provide assistance if anything went wrong or another tug was needed. The Greg Turecamo was loaded with guests of Turecamo Bros., and was scheduled to undock a containership immediately after the parade of sail, so her fenders were not dressed. "Both companies had the canvas made with chains sewn into the bottom so they wouldn't ride up," Cooey said.

Because of the tall ships' unique sterns, the tugs had to work without stern lines. "We docked them with a flood tide, so the stern was to the current," Cooey said.

Thousands of spectators lined the River Street docks where the ships would tie up, and that posed more than safety concerns. "We tried to bring them in close to the docks so people could see them, but far enough out to maneuver them," Cooey said. "Those ships don't handle too well with that old-style propulsion.

"The captains of all the tall ships were impressed with the ship handling," he continued. "Nothing bumped, banged or boomed. There was no damage. It went off amazingly wellwe couldn't believe it," he said.

Argentine naval commander Capitan de Fragata Jorge Godoy of the ARA Libertad said he was impressed with the way his ship was treated in Savannah. "Ever since we touched the soil of this country, we've been treated with the greatest respect and hospitality," Godoy said.

Everyone involved in Savannah seemed to take pains to make sure the credit for the event's success was properly shared. "We don't usually see the Coast Guard helping out like that," Cooey said. "It wouldn't have happened without them. The entire Savannah maritime industry came together to make this work. It's the one industry where you just get stuff done, no matter what. That's rare today."