Issue: May 2004
Cross Traffic

As many as 8,000 ships, tugs and barges transit the C&D Canal annually, and every move they make is carefully watched by a handful of dispatchers charged with keeping the traffic moving.

    

    “WB three-three, CCNI Antartico.” 

    The voice coming from the radio is calm, efficient . . . and speaking gibberish, at least to the uninitiated ear. The ear of Pete Tereszcuk, however, is time-tested, a veteran listener to VHF radio arcania. He leans into a small microphone and answers the pilot of the 675-foot container ship who is calling him, having just entered the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal from the Delaware Bay. “CCNI Antartico, three-three.” 

    "Yeah, we are just past Reedy Point.” 

    ”Captain, with these high winds we’re asking you guys to stick to the north side passing under the old St. George Bridge,” Tereszcuk says. The ship’s pilot asks for clarification. They’re working on the bridge, Tereszcuk tells him, and the tarps covering the work may blow loose in the northwest breeze that today is gusting up to 40 mph. As he talks, Tereszcuk looks at one of the eight monitors arrayed in front of him. It shows the bridge, its southern half draped in plastic tarps, and though they’re secure for now, they have indeed blown off in the past. For the ship, snagging a tarp would be like running through a backyard laundry line and catching a queen-size sheet across the face. Not exactly disastrous, but potentially very troublesome, and who needs that?

     Not the man piloting the CCNI Antartico, heading west through the canal toward Baltimore. And certainly not Tereszcuk, who, as he sits at a semicircular console a few miles west of Reedy Point, is largely responsible for the ship’s safe and uneventful transit through the C&D Canal. He’s one of five dispatchers who staff what is, in VHF radio parlance, WB33 (the official call sign is WUB33, but most mariners drop the “U”)-the Army Corps of Engineers canal headquarters at South Chesapeake City, Md. Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, they monitor the commercial vessels that transit the 14-mile canal. With as many as 8,000 ships, tugs and barges passing through annually-not to mention the thousands of recreational boats-the C&D is the busiest canal in the nation and the third busiest in the world. You wouldn’t know it today-the high winds have kept many ships and tugs snug in port, and the CCNI Antartico is the only vessel Tereszcuk will monitor during his eight-hour shift. A little boring, maybe. But in this job, it’s safe to say, boring is a blessing.

     At 35 feet deep and 600 feet wide, the C&D canal is a winding ribbon of waterway that was envisioned as early as the mid-1600s as a way to speed transport of goods to and from ports of the upper Chesapeake. Not until 1804, however, did construction of a canal begin-to connect the Elk River near Elkton, Md., with the Christina River near Wilmington, Del. In 1806, the project stopped for lack of money. It resumed in 1824 with financial backing from Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and the federal government, and with a new route-from Back Creek off the northern Bay’s Elk River, to what is now Delaware City, Del. For five years, workers slogged through the backbreaking labor of digging what now looks, in grainy black-and-white photographs, like little more than a glorified ditch. But in 1829, the $2.5 million canal opened to vessels up to 100 feet long, 22 feet wide and 7 feet deep-the dimensions of its four locks. “Horses for towing vessels may be hired at reasonable prices at each end of the canal,” an 1829 broadside stated. It also noted tolls assessed on goods, among them $1.25 for “every pipe of wine or french brandy,” $1.00 for every hogshead of tobacco, 37 cents for “every chaldron of coals” and two cents for “every bushel of Indian corn or other grain or salt.”

     In 1919 the federal government bought the canal, handing responsibility for maintenance and operation to the Army Corps of Engineers. In 1927 the Corps moved the eastern entrance of the canal from Delaware City several miles south to Reedy Point and removed all the locks. Over time, the canal has been widened, deepened and straightened-though never entirely. Today, the C&D carries 40 percent of all the ship traffic leaving Baltimore, slicing about 250 miles off a ship’s journey from Baltimore to New York City. Estimates are that it saves commercial vessels about 40 million gallons of fuel annually.

     CNI Antartico, the railroad bridge is fully open.” The voice of the Norfolk Southern bridge operator crackles over the radio. “We were just looking at it through the glasses,” the ship’s pilot answers him. Tereszcuk already knew the lift bridge’s status-for one thing, he can see it in another one of his monitors. And to his left is a beige panel with the railroad bridge in question outlined in two positions, one up, one down. Eighteen small green lights are lit up around the up bridge, as well as around the words “up, secure.” When the bridge is down-which is several times a day-20 red lights blink on around the down bridge, and around the words “down for train traffic.”

     This all happens in a nondescript white frame house at the canal’s western end in South Chesapeake City, which if it weren’t for the huge radio tower that pokes the sky beside it, you might think it’s just another local waterside home. The office, with windows on three sides, faces the canal. The dispatcher sits behind a horseshoe of desk, on top of which is a bank of eight monitors-four color, four black-and-white-showing real-time images of the canal from end to end thanks to cameras mounted on bridges and towers. With these, Tereszcuk can zoom in close enough to examine details of the CCNI Antartico as it passes beneath the railroad bridge. He can see the canal-today looking like muddy hot chocolate with mini-marshmallow whitecaps-and he can also watch thunder squalls moving through it. He can see fog lifting at one end but thick as ever at the other. (If the fog is thick enough to reduce visibility to half a mile, the dispatchers can-and do-close the canal.)

     Above the windows are five more monitors showing the grounds and the parking lot outside. A sixth is a colorful weather station display, telling Tereszcuk that it’s a nippy 35 degrees outside, with a wind chill of 14 degrees, and the barometer is 30.22 and rising. The most important number on this screen today is the wind speed (averaging 20 mph and gusting to 40) and direction, depicted by a blinking blue light that skitters around the northwest sector of the compass rose in every gust that swats the building.

     It’s a lot to look at, but there’s still more. The most vital monitor is front and center at the dispatcher’s desk, a blue screen that tracks each ship as it moves through the canal. Ships are required to call when they’re about two hours away, and the dispatcher types in the name. The computer, which holds information on about 40,000 commercial vessels, brings up the ship’s vital statistics-including an assigned number used as it passes through the canal-and an estimated time of arrival. Tereszcuk doesn’t know and pretty much doesn’t care what’s inside CCNI Antartico’s stacks of containers. What he does know is that she measures 90 feet across (an important number when it comes to two-way traffic; the canal has a combined beam limit of 190 feet), and that her last average speed through the canal was 8.38 knots. 

     On the blue screen, the canal is depicted in yellow. Key locations-including the canal’s five bridges-are highlighted in white. The ship is a small green blip moving steadily down the canal, its pointed end indicating direction. Across the screen’s bottom is information about high and low tides at Chesapeake City, as well as the current-presently 1.7 knots. Across the top, ships in the canal and their ETAs to Chesapeake City are listed, sometimes up to six at a time. Every time a ship or tug passes a point in the canal, such as the railroad bridge, Tereszcuk punches the time on the keyboard, the computer crunches its numbers and spits out a new ETA and speed. As it clears the railroad bridge, CCNI Antartico is traveling 10.4 knots (about 12 mph), ETA 42 minutes.

     There’s no speed limit in the canal, Tereszcuk says; it’s up to the pilots to know the ship and how it handles. But if something did go wrong, there’s not much a pilot could do, short of a controlled grounding along the canal’s side, which has happened more than once-when the railroad bridge, for example, got stuck in the down position. In 1939, the S.S. Waukegan rammed the railroad bridge and brought it crashing down; in 1942, the Franz Klassen hit what was then a lift bridge at Chesapeake City, knocking it into the drink. Today, even though the canal’s channel is 450 feet wide, ships up to 900 feet long pass through routinely. It’s easy to see how Tereszcuk’s job might be described as hours of boredom occasionally interspersed with moments of sheer panic, or at least high anxiety.

     “There’s no room for error,” Tereszcuk says. “When you have a couple of vessels in here and it gets foggy, even though they all have GPS and radar, it still gets nerve-racking for us in here. It’s always a relief to have them out of here and out of your responsibility, because you are responsible.”

     Pilots-the men and women who board the ships to shepherd them through restricted waters like the canal and both bays-share a healthy chunk of that responsibility too. The Delaware Bay has one set of pilots, the Chesapeake another, and they hand the ships over to each other in the canal, usually on the straightaway at Chesapeake City. Across the canal from Tereszcuk’s office is another small building with two burly boats parked out front, one steel-hulled (for smashing through ice), the other fiberglass. As the CCNI Antartico passed the railroad bridge, Tereszcuk had called the pilot’s house and let them know the ship was about a half-hour away. Now his radio is crackling again. “WB three-three, this is CCNI Antartico, portside.” More VHF shorthand; the Jacob’s ladder, a rope-and-wood ladder that pilots use to climb like spiders from the tiny pilot boat to the ship’s deck (and vice versa), will be draped over the ship’s left side.

     Finally, the CCNI Antartico creeps into view around the curve east of the dispatcher’s office, first a high, sharp blue prow looming over the trees, then yellow cranes and colorful shipping containers stacked like Legos back to the white superstructure that houses the bridge and crew’s quarters. The orange pilot boat dashes up the canal to meet her, vanishing for a while behind the ship’s massive flank. For a very long moment, the CCNI Antartico’s massive prow is pointed straight at the little white canal headquarters, the ship’s bulbous bow like a whale shoving water ahead of it. As she slowly turns and passes before the windows, the pilot boat is snugged against her side, the Jacob’s ladder dangling, and the new pilot, who will take the ship south to Baltimore, is scrambling upward. Some nights, Tereszcuk says, when two ships are passing each other right in front of the windows, “you turn on the spotlight and all you see is a big wall of steel, and you go, ‘Whoo, that was close!’ "

     The pilot transfer made, the trickiest part of the canal negotiated, CCNI Antartico rumbles west, beneath the 140-foot-high bridge at Chesapeake City and finally out of sight into Back Creek. A little while later, the radio crackles once again. “WB three-three, CCNI Antartico. We were up around Town Point about two minutes ago.”

     “CCNI Antartico, three-three,” Tereszcuk answers, punching in the numbers one more time to log the ship’s exit from the canal, and mark another uneventful, and therefore perfect, safe passage.