It was a scene watched by people around the world - four McAllister Towing tugboats, surrounded by the Coast Guard, escorting the USNS Comfort hospital ship into New York City harbor. The ship was sent to provide extra hospital beds to ease the burden on hospitals that were nearing full capacity. For many onlookers, it was a moment of hope and a symbol of people coming together to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
The process of docking a ship the size of Comfort is a team effort. Large vessels can travel forward and backward but are limited in their ability to turn – especially the tight, precise turns sometimes required to dock the ship. In most cases, a fleet of tugboats – coordinated by a docking pilot - is needed to guide the ship safely to berth.
Captain Robert Ellis led the McAllister team that docked the Comfort at Pier 90. For the last 23 years, Captain Ellis has been docking tankers and large vessels as a docking pilot. His role is much like that of an orchestra conductor – commanding the movements of the ship bridge team and the four tugs as they work together to guide the ship to the dock. It’s a special skill that requires deep understanding of the waterways, ships, as well as the tugs and their crews, who must blindly follow orders from the bridge.
In many ways, the Comfort docking was like any other for Ellis. The navy vessel, originally an oil tanker, isn’t extraordinarily large at “just” under 900 ft long, compared to the Mega Ships that now frequent ports. Par for the course.
As with any operation, there were logistical challenges. There is the difficult, 90-degree turn leading up to the dock, which requires more maneuvering by the tugs. The current in the Hudson, caused by recent rain and snow melt, added an extra complexity.
“Current makes it much more difficult,” explained Ellis. “It’s not really predictable. We have to plan for the worst.”
But the most unique aspect of this docking was the visibility.
“The amount of publicity and the amount of people watching was the biggest thing. I’ve never had so many people watching me do a maneuver.”
Success in this, and every ship docking, according to Ellis, comes down to two things: reliable, powerful tugs and skilled people running them.
He had no doubts about the team of McAllister tug captains. “Some of the guys were deck hands when I was a captain. Now they’re captains. They’ve been doing this for years and they know what they’re doing.”
He had equal confidence in the tugs. He hand-selected his fleet a few days prior, which included two of the newest tugs in McAllister’s fleet – the Capt. Brian A. McAllister and Ava. McAllister. Built on the East Coast and christened in 2018 and 2019 respectively, the two tugs were designed to maneuver the largest ships in the world with confidence and grace. They are also the largest tugs in New York Harbor. Each tug is powered by two Cat® 3516E Tier 4 engines producing a total of 6,772 total horsepower. The Cat engines, provided by their dealer Foley, Inc., were specifically chosen by McAllister’s Engineering Manager Marty Costa for their power and responsiveness.
“Responsiveness is huge for tug engines,” Marty explained. “If we’re docking a ship and it starts to move in the wrong direction, we can’t wait 30 seconds or a minute for the engine to power up. It needs to start moving right away. Otherwise you will have things go wrong.”
With an audience watching from the shore and helicopters hovering above, Ellis and his team of tug captains patiently brought Comfort upstream and around the turn. “The key is, you go slow. You take your watch off and put it in your pocket. There’s no hurry.”
With Comfort securely docked, Ellis climbed down from the ship, evading the crowds and media at the pier, and rejoined his team on the tug. As they reflected on the whole experience, it was clear that, although they’ve moved plenty of big ships over the years, this one felt different.
“On the way back we talked about it. All the captains were feeling the same thing as me. Just really proud to be part of it. I felt like we were doing what we could to help the people of NYC. It was something that I will remember til I’m not here anymore.”
Thank you Captain Ellis and McAllister Towing for bringing the Comfort safely to berth in New York City.
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