By Daniel Katzive
If you have spent any time at all in Riverside Park, you will no doubt have noticed the tugboats and barges that anchor in the Hudson River regularly.
They float against their anchor lines, with their sterns (back ends) facing downriver towards the harbor when the tide is ebbing; then swing around to face the opposite direction, with their sterns toward the George Washington Bridge when the river begins to flood again. For short periods, as the tide slacks (stills), usually four times per day, they sit perpendicular to the river, and you can see over their sterns or bows from the shore.
Have you ever wondered why they are anchored there, what they are for?
You’ll see many types of commercial vessels traveling the Hudson River throughout the year, serving as vital cogs in our regional economy. You’ll see tugboats pushing barges full of cement coming down from the Lafarge plant in Ravenna, New York, or barges full of sugar being brought up from Florida to be refined and packaged in the Domino Sugar plant in Yonkers.
Tugboats push or pull lashed-together groups of open-topped hoppers full of stone and gravel from quarries near Poughkeepsie. Barges full of used paper products are nudged out of the Sanitation Department’s 59th Street Transfer Station and brought to recycling facilities in Staten Island.
You’ll also see cargo vessels that are not barges at all. New York City owns a fleet of small tankers that ferry sewage sludge for processing between various plants, including the North River plant near 135th Street.
Larger foreign flagged bulk carriers also bring cargo from overseas up the river heading for Albany or the port town of Coeymans. They carry wood pulp from Sweden for paper mills and, heading for Yonkers, sugar from other foreign ports. Small foreign flagged tankers may also occasionally travel up the river, carrying oil products or chemicals from refineries in Europe or New Brunswick, Canada.
Note: foreign flagged vessels can bring cargo from abroad and pick up U.S. cargo heading to foreign ports, but they cannot carry cargo between U.S. ports because of a law known as the Jones Act. Cargo which travels between U.S. ports must almost always be on U.S. flagged vessels, and the vast majority of these are tugs paired with barges.
You will see all these types of commercial vessels passing by on the river, but most of them rarely or never anchor. The barges you see anchored are almost always oil-product tanker barges, and almost always empty.
You can tell they are empty because they sit very high in the water with their decks towering above the river. Loaded oil-product barges will sometimes pass by on the river, heading to terminals up north, and you will notice these sit very low in the water. They do not typically anchor in the river while loaded.
The location of the anchorages is not random. Rather, the area between 72nd Street and the George Washington Bridge is designated by the Coast Guard as a zone where these vessels are allowed to anchor. A spokesman for the US Coast Guard’s Sector New York responded to questions from WSR via email, noting that the Coast Guard “actively monitors” all vessels using the anchorages in the river from its base on Staten Island, but there is no requirement for tugs to reserve a spot on the river and there is no charge for parking.
Most tugs we see anchored in the river stay for a relatively short time, often less than 24 hours, and the Coast Guard normally limits anchoring in the Hudson to a maximum of 96 hours. One particular tug-and-barge combination has been anchored off West 94th Street for much longer this winter, but, according to the Coast Guard, this is an exceptional case due to particular operational circumstances.
So, what are empty tanker barges doing, anchored in the middle of the river with their attendant tugboats and crews? Simply put, they are waiting for cargo to be assigned to them and berths to open up for loading the cargo. Captain Eric Johansson, a professor at SUNY Maritime Academy who works with the towboat industry in New York Harbor, pointed out to WSR that in years past, tugs and barges might wait tied up at docks on shore, but with dock space more limited now, anchoring in the river or the harbor is the best option for these vessels.
When a cargo is ready, the tugboats will usually bring their empty barges south to loading points on the New Jersey shore, usually in the narrow body of water facing Staten Island called the Arthur Kill. As anyone who has driven along the New Jersey Turnpike knows, that section of New Jersey has some large oil refineries. A number of major oil product pipelines running up from the Gulf of Mexico also terminate in this area.
There are no major oil refineries in the northeast US north of New Jersey and east of western Pennsylvania, despite the large population living up in New England. Pretty much all the oil products consumed in the northeast, including gasoline, diesel fuel and heating oil, must either be brought up from the Gulf of Mexico area by pipelines which terminate in New Jersey, refined in New Jersey, or shipped in from New Brunswick Canada or Europe. To get crude products from North Jersey to most distribution points in New England requires it being shipped by truck, train, or…barge.
Captain Johansson of SUNY Maritime points out that a single barge can carry much more than a tanker truck or rail car. He stressed that the safety record for these vessels has been good, and that the companies have made big investments in safety and are working towards reducing emissions as well.
So where do the barges go after they fill up with diesel, gasoline, or heating oil down along the Arthur Kill? Some will motor back up the Hudson, heading for distribution points in Albany or Newburgh where the cargo is transferred to trucks or rail cars. Others will leave New York Harbor and travel up the Long Island Sound, heading for ports such as New Haven, Boston, Providence, or Portland, Maine. When they have unloaded, they return to New York empty and, if no new cargoes are immediately available, they will head back to anchorages…to wait.