Tugs, broncs and brawn needed to move mighty warships

By Michele Fletcher

If you’ve been at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard & Intermediate Maintenance Facility (PSNS & IMF) for long, you know that ships and submarines move around with some frequency. Sometimes they’re just passing by, returning from sea to their homeport pier. Sometimes they’re just relocating from pier side into dry dock—or back. Perhaps not long ago you watched as USS Nimitz (CVN 68) was moved into dry dock.

Some of the most common sights on the water during a ship docking are tugboats with lines strung between them and the ship, and log broncs, the smallest boats used at the shipyard, darting around wherever needed. It is no small irony that these mammoth ships with such powerful capacity and sizable crews need help from the Navy’s smallest vessels and teams of people using ropes to guide the ship. Who are the people on these small boats wielding great strength to push and pull these mighty warships—weighing upwards of 97,000 tons—around in the water?

The team

Harbor pilots, tugboat captains, engineers, deck hands and mates are part of the team that makes up Naval Base Kitsap’s Port Operations. Four-member crews are assigned to each of the eight tugboats, three which work on the Bremerton waterfront. Joining them are the port service technicians in the bridge tower, who dispatch vessels at PSNS & IMF, at Naval Station Everett, at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor and at Naval Magazine Indian Island, all in Washington State.

Jan Carlson, captain of Manhattan (YT-800), was originally hired into Shop 64 (Shipwrights) at PSNS & IMF. When the opportunity to take a job with Code 340 (Dock Master), which was then called Port Operations, came along, he jumped at it. He’s been a tug captain for 24 years.

“I’m compensated pretty well for doing this job,” he said. “Not everyone gets to play with these cool toys. Though it sometimes feels like three hours of boredom and then 30 minutes of intensity, it’s a great job to move the ships.”

Docking a carrier

Moving an aircraft carrier into dry dock is unlike a ship’s return from deployment. The ship doesn’t advance under its own power when moving into dry dock. The tug boats push and pull the carrier wherever it needs to go, positioning it for lowering onto keel blocks. This job requires absolute precision in the sometimes unfriendly environment of wind, tides and other factors that affects the operation. These tug masters often make the job look easy, but it isn’t.

Billy Dewhurst, a deckhand and retired Navy boatswain’s mate, has been with Port Operations for two years. After spending his Navy career deployed and traveling to places such as Afghanistan and Iraq, he began work at PSNS & IMF. He took a job with Naval Base Kitsap Port Operations when an opening became available on the tugs.

“Working in the shipyard was a great experience,” he said. “There are good people, good teams and they’re always working to do the best job. It takes all of us actually. If I hadn’t gotten hired by Port Ops, I’d still be in the (ship)yard, but I started on the water, and it’s just what I do.”

Inspiring teamwork

During Nimitz’s move into dry dock, Dewhurst and Steve Zudell, Manhattan deck mate, worked closely together and with shore personnel and Nimitz Sailors on the carrier to manage the lines. Handling the heavy lines correctly is no small feat, and takes great physical strength and knowledge.

The vessels on the water are impressive in their ability to quickly and powerfully maneuver, but they’re only tools. The people steering the boat or working the lines, the pilots guiding a massive ship into tight spots – they give life to the tugs and broncs. And, just as each rope has two ends, each vessel depends on teams at the other end of the lines, on the ships and on shore. Together, they ensure the evolution is successful and the needed maintenance and repair of the ship can be accomplished. Without them, the operation doesn’t end on time, every time.

Jay Anderson, a 24-year Port Operations plank owner and harbor pilot, summed up the sentiments of the entire group.

“There’s a lot of pride in our team,” Anderson said. “What we do comes down to the core values of the Navy—honor, courage and commitment. I love this job. I love what I do. Protecting the warfighter and bringing them and their ships home safely and to their families, that’s what we get to do. It never gets old.”