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Your phone, your couch, your clothes: They all arrived in NY Harbor through these dangerous channels

The CMA CGM T. Roosevelt is the largest ship ever to sail into New York Harbor. To see it is a thrill. From five miles away it resembles a filing cabinet flipped on its side. Up close it looks like an apartment complex, if someone painted an apartment complex blue and gave it an engine longer than an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

You might think it’s impossible for a ship bigger than the Chrysler Building to sneak around. Yet whenever the T. Roosevelt calls on the port of New York, no one in the city or across the water in New Jersey seems to notice. I think that’s because, in all the harbor, there exist only a few places where a person can get close to the ship, close enough to understand how titanic it really is. From Manhattan a ship this big looks hazy, abstract, more shadow than ship.

To see this oceangoing leviathan in its steel-clad enormity, then; to feel its 68,000 horsepower diesels churn the water and thrum the land; to hear the bass note of its exhaust, so low it thrills the hair of one’s neck before it penetrates the ear; to see it round a corner, which is less like a ship in motion and more like one skyscraper sliding inexorably past another skyscraper; to see 7,000 steel shipping containers perched on its deck like towers of Jenga blocks; and to glimpse the secret workings of the global logistics industry — powerful enough to deliver an iPhone built in Malaysia straight to our needful impatient fingers in three hours, rendering the “Buy Now” button on Amazon Prime an instrument of magic — one must get close.

One must go to The Kills.

The Arthur Kill and the Kill van Kull resemble rivers, but they are not rivers. They are tidal straits, which means they open at both ends to the sea. Beginning at a corner of New York Harbor five miles south of Manhattan, The Kills carve a narrow labyrinth, twisting and bending for 13 miles from Bayonne to Perth Amboy and cleaving Staten Island from the North American continent.

A map of The Kills
Illustration by Sommer Torabi

They were never meant to be the busiest, most dangerous and the most commercially important waterways in the Western Hemisphere from Newfoundland to Tierra del Fuego. But that is what they’ve become. Even their names deceive. In the 1600s, Dutch colonizers named the strait closest to Manhattan “Channel of the Pass,” or Kill van Kull, denoting an alley of water, surrounded by higher ground, clogged with oysters and mud. The Arthur Kill runs down the backside of Staten Island, so the Dutch named it “Achter Col,” or “back channel.”

For 450 years, this formulation held true. Like all the waterways in New Jersey, Long Island and Connecticut, The Kills functioned as junior satellites to the wide water of New York Harbor, the deepwater supernova for all Atlantic shipping and trade.

Today the relationship is reversed. Manhattan is the backwater, its piers silent but for angry cyclists and hypoallergenic, expensively groomed dogs.

The Kills are the tide-pumping heart of the American economy.

A deckhand secures a line from a cargo ship that Vinik Marine moved from the Brooklyn Navy Yard to Norfolk, Virgina.
A deckhand secures a line from a cargo ship that Vinik Marine moved from the Brooklyn Navy Yard to Norfolk, Virgina.
Chris Pedota, NorthJersey.com-USA Today Network

The plurality of goods imported to the East Coast makes landfall at the conjoined ports of Newark and Elizabeth. Last year, those imports included half a million cars. They included 486 million tons of clothing, 413 million tons of fish. Annual shipments of walking sticks, umbrellas, and riding crops totaled 28 million tons. Longshoremen in New Jersey moved $517 million worth of wigs, artificial flowers and fake eyelashes.

All these things arrive aboard the largest machines ever to move across the face of the earth. Every ship that docks at Port Newark must squeeze its bulbous body through The Kills, waterways significantly narrower than the ship is long.

If you live between Maine and Delaware and you wear pants, you own things that traveled The Kills. Likewise if you own a computer; use a smartphone; drive an imported car; talk to machines named Google, Alexa or Siri; drink Tanqueray gin; wear perfume; or sit on chairs.

All that stuff is worth $8.4 trillion, equal to 40 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

“The Kill van Kull and the Arthur Kill are the highways that deliver the American way of life,” said Ed Kelly, director of the Maritime Association of the Port of New York and New Jersey.

The Bayonne Bridge straddles the Kill Van Kull, connecting Bayonne, New Jersey to Staten Island, New York.
The Bayonne Bridge straddles the Kill Van Kull, connecting Bayonne, New Jersey to Staten Island, New York.
Chris Pedota, NorthJersey.com-USA Today Network

The transformation from beautiful backwaters to busy shipping lanes required serious engineering. The gentle muddy banks original to The Kills were dredged to make room for container ships, car ships and oil tankers. Under pressure from shipping conglomerates like CMA CGM, the French firm that owns the T. Roosevelt, to achieve greater economies of scale, big ships kept growing bigger. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers responded with dynamite, blasting the depths to carve The Kills into a canyon of sheer vertical walls. In some places, these underwater cliffs drop 50 feet. The initial project cost $2.1 billion; to keep the waterways clear, this year the corps spent $41.8 million to dredge mud from the smooth gray diabase rock that forms the canyon floor. Deeper ships are taller ships, so tall that ships inbound to Port Newark used to ram the bottom of the Bayonne Bridge with their antennae. Leaders of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the bridge, got tired of this. So they spent $1.7 billion to lift the bridge out of the way.

No mega-project yet has fixed the most important constraint of all: The Kills are skinny. Deer like to swim across the Arthur Kill from New Jersey to graze on the lowland grasses of Staten Island. At the spot where the Kill van Kull opens to the harbor, a person with a strong arm can stand on the stony bank of Staten Island and ping New Jersey with a rock.

The T. Roosevelt is 158 feet wide and four football fields long. In several tight turns in the Kill van Kull, the ship fills the entire navigation channel. Even with the kill all to himself, the docking pilot who guides the T. Roosevelt from the Atlantic Ocean to the piers in Newark cannot do the job alone. Instead he relies on the assistance of four tugboats, which surround the enormous ship like ducklings to their mother. Each tugboat has a captain of its own. Each captain places his boat, his crew and his life between the powerful container ship and the hardened walls of The Kills. Some tugs pull the ship with ropes. Others press their bows against the ship’s tall steel quarterpanels. Together they shove the ship through the bends.

The Arthur Kill Waterway, videos
A short documentary about the Arthur Kill Waterway and Kill Van Kull waterways, by Chris Pedota.

“You put your ass up all the way till it hurts, till it almost goes aground. Sometimes you have a few feet. Sometimes it’s inches. Then you bend the ship around the turn,” said Bob Flannery, the docking pilot who commanded the T. Roosevelt on her maiden arrival to Port Newark in 2017. “People say, ‘Get ready. Bigger ships are coming.’ Well, no they ain’t. You can’t fit em! You just cannot fit them.”

The Corps of Engineers agrees. Many vessels calling on New York today are 150 feet longer, 17 feet wider and four feet deeper than the Kill van Kull is designed to handle, according to a report published in October by the corps. So the agency has suggested a plan to dynamite the bottoms down to 55 feet, and widen the navigation channel all the way to the water’s edge, eliminating the shallows completely. The corps will hold a public hearing about the proposal on Dec. 3; comments are due by Dec. 19.

“These larger vessels have a greater risk of grounding, collision or marine casualty,” according to the corps.

Mike Vinik is a creature of The Kills. He lives for tight spaces. I’ve never seen him happier than when he’s driving a too-big tugboat into a too-small marina with very delicate and expensive things on all sides. Vinik is the founder, CEO, lead deckhand, mechanic, salesman and captain of Vinik Marine, a tugboat company based in the Arthur Kill. He will accept nearly any job that’s legal and paid. In winter he runs an icebreaker in New York Harbor. Last summer he pulled a pair of construction barges from Tarrytown, New York, into the open Atlantic, delivering one to the Bahamas and the other to Mobile, Alabama.

This timelapse shows a journey through portions of the Arthur Kill and the Kill Van Kull, narrow and dangerous waterways through which pass some of the world's largest cargo and container ships, bound to deliver consumer goods to ports in New York Harbor.
Chris Pedota, NorthJersey.com-USA Today Network

But the jobs Vinik likes best are the ones that place him in dangerous little spots, and which force him to calculate a way out. He likes to sail one of his old tugboats into skinny water in the Arthur Kill, press his bow against an inbound oil tanker, and guide the larger ship back for deep water. His favorite job in the harbor is to drive a tugboat up Eastchester Creek, just past the Throgs Neck Bridge in the Bronx. There, upstream from the New England Thruway and the Cold Mix Manufacturing asphalt plant and the Fulton Avenue drawbridge, lies Sprague Energy Company, a small oil terminal with 12 steel tanks painted white. It’s a tide job, which means the only time a captain might retrieve an oil barge from the terminal is at high tide. Vinik uses his smallest tug, yet the narrow channel affords just a few feet of water on either side. If he hits an unexpected delay, the tide will run out. Vinik’s boat will be stranded on a pedestal of mud, his propeller spinning in the air.

“I came out of there one day with 35, 45 knots of wind. It was uncomfortable,” said Vinik, 41. “I love it because you have to think. It’s technical. And it’s challenging. There’s not a lot of people that can do it. Or that would do it. But after you finish it, you’re like, ‘Yeah. That was awesome.’”

The same laws of hydrodynamics apply to The Kills. Forcing big ships through The Kills is like connecting a firehose to a kitchen faucet. Usually it works. Occasionally it doesn’t. The Kills are lined with flammable and explosive things. On the rare occasions when those things explode, cities fall.

“In this business you don’t get hurt. You either get maimed or killed,” Flannery said. “If we hit you, they’ll never find ya.”

The recession caused by COVID-19 has reduced commercial traffic in The Kills by 25% this year, Kelly said. Now imagine closing the port that supplies one of the biggest consumer markets in the world.

Tugboats pull the Cape Avinof, a cargo ship, from the Brooklyn Navy Yard into the East River.
Tugboats pull the Cape Avinof, a cargo ship, from the Brooklyn Navy Yard into the East River.
Chris Pedota, NorthJersey.com-USA Today Network

“The scenario we were always concerned about wasn’t so much a ship exploding in the Kill van Kull. It was a ship that ran aground in such a way that it closed the port,” said Rick Larrabee, who directed the Port Authority’s maritime operations for 15 years until he retired in 2015. “If that happened in the Kill van Kull, I’m not sure what we’d do. We’d be in serious trouble.”

The busiest, ugliest and dollar-per-horsepower most effective tools in The Kills working to prevent such a catastrophe are the tugboats belonging to Vinik Marine.

‘He has saltwater in his veins’

Vinik is the kind of person you’d get if you combined a seven-year-old boy with a bear. I stand 5 feet 10 inches. Vinik is a few inches taller, but on a tugboat he moves like an even larger man, in a slouch, his shoulders hunched forward. He has the growing middle of a man too busy for cardiovascular exercise. His black hair is in full retreat off the back of his head. Vinik often looks grumpy, the corners of his mouth tugging downward against his changing constellations of facial hair. That’s because he works too much, sleeps little, and is usually tired. But his soul is youthful. Vinik’s favorite place to eat is The Olive Garden. He always orders spaghetti with no sauce or vegetables, just a slathering of margarine. Once, his plate arrived at our table with a few green flakes of parsley. Vinik sent it back.  

A few months later, Vinik was piloting a tugboat through the Kill van Kull. The sun rose, and he had been awake for many hours. I thought I could watch the wrinkles around his eyes grow deeper from the exertion of staying awake.

An oil tanker approached. Vinik leapt from his captain’s chair, pressed his face to the window, and waved both his hands.

“That’s Steve Richter! He’s a docking pilot. He’s one of my heroes!” Vinik said, his voice rising an octave. “Just genuinely a good person. Humble, fantastic, very skilled. He’s just amazing.”

Vinik grew up in a 144-year-old house built and owned by generations of sea captains. It stands above the rocky beach in Keyport, a town facing the Raritan Bay in New Jersey from which sloops started delivering oysters, timber and vegetables to Manhattan in 1714.

Vinik’s dad bought him a Snark, which Vinik describes as a Styrofoam cooler stabbed through with a mast. At night he pulled the little sailboat into the backyard, just above the high waterline. In the morning he could drive his Snark wherever he wanted, so long as his mother could see his sail from the dining room window. Vinik was 8.

“He has saltwater in his veins instead of blood,” said Vinik’s father, Bob, who captained tugboats on the Gulf and East coasts for 35 years.

Mike Vinik, owner and operator of Vinik Marine, at the wheel of one of his tugboats.
Mike Vinik, owner and operator of Vinik Marine, at the wheel of one of his tugboats.
Chris Pedota, NorthJersey.com-USA Today Network

For a while Vinik got obsessed with fixing up old Jeeps. Outside of that, he cared mostly for the water. For high school he attended the Marine Academy of Science and Technology on Sandy Hook peninsula, making the daily 25-mile round trip in a Pearson sailboat. As a rare double major at SUNY Maritime College in The Bronx, undergraduate study took five years so Vinik could earn licenses as both a ship engineer and a captain.

After graduation he captained a tug and scow, dredging sand from Ambrose Channel at the mouth of New York Harbor. For a while he captained a big dinner cruise boat based in Hoboken. Parties often devolved into drunken riots. Vinik learned to carry steel handcuffs and a can of bear spray.

“We had a guest beating on his girlfriend, and this one crew member wanted to be a tough guy. He had zipties,” Vinik said. “Well, you can break zipties.”

Vinik also drove a ferry for New York Waterway, a job he considers his master’s degree for handling ships in tight spaces. He performed 70 dockings a day.

“Michael is one of the best boatmen I’ve seen in a long time,” Bob Vinik said. “He’s conscious of the winds and the tides and the vessel he’s pushing, and he knows exactly how much power to give at what time.”

Mike Vinik stands in the pilot house of one of his tugs in New York Harbor.
Mike Vinik stands in the pilot house of one of his tugs in New York Harbor.
Chris Pedota, NorthJersey.com-USA Today Network

Vinik still lives in his childhood home. It sits a few doors down from the Keyport Yacht Club, to which he belongs, and where he was married. On the rare occasions when he’s not working, Vinik likes to sit at his dining table and look out the window, which frames the southern entrance to the Arthur Kill.

“Mike is this mythical water guy,” said Greg Remaud, Vinik’s neighbor and CEO of New York/New Jersey Baykeeper. “He’s well known by boaters and sailors, folks out on the water. He’s way more essential than people know.”

If Vinik’s sense for boat-handling is rooted to the rocky beach behind his house, so is his appreciation for risk. Three miles away, at the first settlement east of Keyport, an ammunition factory facing the Arthur Kill exploded in 1918. The shockwave flattened half the town of Sayreville.

“Nineteen hundred people were left homeless. Blew out all the windows in the whole town,” said Vinik, who learned of the disaster as a child. “Pretty crazy stuff.”

Near the opposite entrance to The Kills, an ammunition depot on Black Tom Island was bombed by German saboteurs in 1916. Every building within a mile radius was blown to pieces. Water mains burst in Manhattan, flooding Times Square. People asleep in Baltimore woke to find their beds shaking.

Those disasters happened long ago. But Vinik, and every captain working The Kills, places the odds of such a cataclysm today at a number higher than zero. In the Arthur Kill, 38 steel oil tanks line the shore of Staten Island. It was here in 2003 that a barge containing 100,000 barrels of unleaded gasoline exploded. The dock and an operations building, both made of concrete, melted. Debris the size of houses splashed into the water. The blast rattled the windows in Vinik’s house.

“I was on the opposite side of the island, and I could feel it,” Flannery said. “The lights went out. I called my wife because I knew she’d be thinking it was another 9/11.”

The explosion killed two barge workers. Had it reached the terminal’s oil tanks, whole neighborhoods on Staten Island and across the kill in Woodbridge, New Jersey, would have been destroyed.

“We had a 30-ton piece of barge blocking the road,” said Mike McEvoy, the site’s former manager. He was off duty the day of the accident. “It scared the crap out of a lot of guys that have been in the business a long time. We were so lucky. It could’ve been so much worse.”

Occasionally all the dangers in The Kills — skinny waterways; lined on both sides with explosive tanks, pipelines, oil tankers and barges; plied by massive ships and powerful tugboats — combine with bad weather to make an accident seem inevitable. Two hours before sunrise on April 15, 2006, Captain John Bates was piloting the 853-foot containership New Delhi Express when a fog descended on the Kill van Kull.

“It was scary. The fog was rolling into the wheelhouse,” Bates said. “Oh, it was funky, man.”

Somewhere to the left sat a barge of dynamite, part of the Army Corps’s project to deepen the kill. To the right was IMTT Bayonne, an oil terminal. The bank was lined with oil barges and pipelines, which connected to steel tanks holding 16 million barrels of petroleum.

In sole command of the ship’s 50,000 horsepower engine, Bates was sailing blind. If he pushed his three assist tugs against the barges, he risked an explosion that could engulf the oil terminal.

He chose to avoid the dynamite. Hedging right, Bates drove the New Delhi Express into the Kill van Kull’s underwater cliff. He carved an 85-foot slice in the ship’s hull. Repairs cost $1.5 million and required 52 tons of steel. Caught between beaching his ship or risking an explosion powerful enough to destroy Bayonne, Bates feels comfortable with his choice.

“Could a big disaster happen again? Yeah. Of course it could. You got bigger ships, more powerful ships, and the Kill van Kull isn’t any bigger,” Bates said. “If you hit a rock, you close the port for six hours. That’s okay. But if we really screw up with a ship, and we close the kill for two or three weeks, everybody in New York and New Jersey goes home. Nobody works.”

Vinik does not actively worry about disasters in The Kills. But he knows all the old disaster stories, seems to carry them around in the bottom of his mind, like ballast. At every bend in The Kills, he can flick his eyebrow from his wheelhouse down to some quiet spot on the water and say: There. That’s where two oil tankers collided, erupting in liquid fire that killed 100 men. Or: here is where that barge exploded, the one that shook my house.

“For me, The Kills are pretty safe. A tug doesn’t draw much water, so I can go pretty much anywhere,” he said. “There are places where it gets tight, though. When you’re around big ships, it can get tricky."

‘This is a difficult job, absolutely’

On a late summer evening, I sat at a picnic table by the Arthur Kill in Woodbridge, New Jersey, waiting for Vinik to pick me up. The park has a boat ramp, so I kept looking behind me, expecting Vinik to arrive in his Dodge pickup with a boat on a trailer.

I wasn’t surprised when he arrived 40 minutes late — one of Vinik’s perpetual refrains is that tugboat jobs never start on time. I was surprised when he approached not from land but from the water, peeling across the kill in an inflated raft, his hand on the tiller of a huge outboard motor. It’s the kind of speedboat that’s nearly invisible on radar. I wondered if anyone else in the park thought we looked suspicious, like a pair of cocaine smugglers making a run for Manhattan.

Vinik rolled off the power and swung for the pier with one flourish of his right wrist. I sat down on the pier, lowered my feet into the boat, and gripped the plastic gunwale with my fingers. Vinik tore off. The National Weather Service was tracking a thunderstorm gathering in the west, but now the wind on our faces felt warm and pleasant.

Mike Vinik, owner and operator of Vinki Marine, answers a radio call in the pilot house of one of his tugs in New York Harbor.
Chris Pedota, NorthJersey.com-USA Today Network

“Hi! Hi! Hi! Hi! Hi!” Vinik said, his knees nearly rubbing mine in the little boat. “It’s a wonderful day!”

We made for Vinik Island, Vinik’s half-embarrassed, half-prideful name for his floating empire of junk. The centerpiece of Vinik Island is a steel barge hammered into the muddy shallows. Atop the barge squats a red 65-ton Manitowoc crane. I said it appeared to have died of rust.

“No, actually, that thing still works!” Vinik said. “It’s great. I use it to get my smaller boats out of the water.”

A second barge overflowed with corrugated shipping containers, black plastic pipes, Honda generators, old ropes, canoe paddles, and six yellow Caterpillar diesel engines lying all akimbo. Lashed to the barges, tugboats bobbed in the gentle tide. Some of Vinik’s boats work, others do not, and only Vinik can tell which is which. His first tug, the Gotham, was sitting on the bottom the day he purchased it in 2004. He yanked it from a mudflat on the Arthur Kill, beached it on the opposite shore, then lived aboard for nine months, working all winter with no heat or running water to make it run.

“When he told me he was buying one of these old boats, I said, ‘Are you nuts?’” said Jim Zatwarnicki, a container ship captain and Vinik’s best friend. “It was up there on the beach and every pipe onboard was broken. But Mike put it back together, and he ran that boat for years.”

One tug lashed to Vinik Island has a face like the Incredible Hulk. This is the Rebel, built in 1976 to drag oil platforms across the Gulf of Mexico. It could perform such work again if its twin 3,600-horspeower engines worked, which they do not.

“I mean the whole boat was underwater when I got it,” Vinik said. “If it hadn’t been dunked, it would be fine.”

In the Rebel’s shadow sat the Liz Vinik and the Nicholas Vinik, named for his wife and toddler son. The Nicholas is not as adorable as its big-eyed, curly-haired namesake, but it’s pretty cute. Built in 1971 and originally christened the Jesus Saves, the Nicholas is swoopy and stubby. If you picture “tugboat” in your mind, that’s what the Nicholas looks like. The lines of the Liz are rather more angular, like a layer cake by a high-volume caterer. It has survived six ownership changes, four new names, and a year of abandonment in the Kill van Kull before Vinik bought it three years ago. It was built in 1962.

Mike Vinik navigates heavy equipment moored on barges alongside his tugboats at "Vinik Island," his agglomeration of marine equipment in The Kills.
Mike Vinik navigates heavy equipment moored on barges alongside his tugboats at "Vinik Island," his agglomeration of marine equipment in The Kills.
Chris Pedota, NorthJersey.com-USA Today Network

Vinik Island is the most mongrel agglomeration of marine equipment in The Kills. This allows Vinik to bid on all kinds of jobs. The first time I called him, Vinik was pushing an oil barge up the Hudson River to Albany. A few years before that, he received a call about a container ship stranded 40 miles off the coast by a broken anchor motor. The twin-propeller Vinik No. 6 was the only tug in the harbor sturdy enough to brave a thunderstorm and 15-foot waves to rescue the ship.

As we approached Vinik Island in the inflatable, Vinik pointed down the Arthur Kill to Shell Sewaren, an oil terminal with two of the smallest berths in The Kills. Each berth bristles with pipelines of pressurized gasoline. Most captains fear driving a tug into such a tight space, and most tugs don’t fit.

“We do a lot of assist work in and out of there. It’s a technical landing, and it’s one of the reasons we have the small boats,” Vinik said. “Shell Sewaren has pretty much kept us in business.”

He tied the inflatable to the Agnes, a tug Vinik named for his mother. He climbed over the side, then jumped and scrambled across the decks of half a dozen tugs and barges. It took him seven minutes to reach the Liz Vinik, the tugboat he planned to run that night. When his boots finally landed on the steel deck, Vinik was scowling.

Vinik Island sits in the elbow of Port Reading Reach, the widest spot in The Kills. Yet there’s no room for a pier, which would save Vinik all this time zipping around in rafts and climbing over barges.

“This is really inconvenient. And it’s going to really suck in the winter,” he said. “In all New York Harbor, this is the only place left. I’ve looked. There’s nowhere else to go.”

The Nicholas Vinik, a tug in the fleet of Vinik Marine, guides a barge through a portion of the Arthur Kill.
Chris Pedota, NorthJersey.com-USA Today Network

Vinik donned a pair of protective earmuffs, then descended two flights of stairs into the boat’s belly. A comically big wrench was applied to all 18 cylinder heads, then Vinik flicked many switches. Twin Wartsila diesels erupted in a treble roar. Vinik climbed five stories to the wheelhouse. He turned a fat brass knob, and the steel floor of the wheelhouse jumped. The Liz Vinik slid into gear. Vinik reversed away from his mountain of rust.

We sailed north. The surface of the Arthur Kill was glassy, and the water reflected the hot gray sky. To the right passed Staten Island, green upland forests and green saltwater swamps broken by clumps of white condominiums. On the left lay fields of gray rock, the remains of factories once known collectively as New Jersey’s Chemical Coast. Ahead, the tall mound of garbage at the closed Fresh Kills landfill rose from the water like a breaching whale. After a while we approached Bayway Refinery, where a concrete building squatted by the water. Something inside emitted a high, constant scream. We passed our first ship of the night, a black oil tanker tied with long blue lines to the Bayway dock.

In warm weather like this, Vinik watches for jet skiers, which come tearing down the kill to jump the wakes of ships.

“Pleasure boaters in general don’t know what they’re doing. They’re often drunk. And they often break down,” he said. “Last year we had jet skiers right here. The jet ski broke down right in front of an oil tanker, and the ship had to take evasion maneuvers to not hit them. People don’t understand. It takes ships thousands of feet to stop.”

Vinik kept his distance. As Port Newark came into view, he knew our solitude on the water was about to end. Along the piers, gantry cranes stood with their booms pointed to the sky. The cranes resembled rows of blue giraffes. This meant the longshoremen had completed their work, and the ships were empty. Beside the cranes, six huge container ships sat in the water. Each had its engines running — Vinik could tell by the yellow-brown smoke coiling from the stacks.

A tug pulls a barge from "Vinik Island," a group of moored barges in New York harbor where Mike Vinik of Vinik Marine stores equipment.
Chris Pedota, NorthJersey.com-USA Today Network

The ships were ready to leave.

“It’s busy tonight,” Vinik said. “Lotta radio traffic.”

The first to go was the Vienna Express, an 1,100-foot container vessel. It nosed into Newark Bay, caught the ebb tide, then swung a wide turn around Bergen Point. The turn was not designed to accommodate ships of that length, according to the Corps of Engineers, which found in its latest study that “(t)he bend at Bergen Point into Newark Bay Channel is very narrow and the turn very tight.”

Halfway through the turn, the ship crossed the spot where the oil tanker SS Texaco Massachusetts speared the hull of the MV Alva Cape, which carried 4.2 million gallons of highly flammable naphtha. As the entangled ships burned, the Coast Guard enlisted every available ship to push the wreck away from a nearby oil refinery. The crash happened 13 years before Vinik was born. He knows about it in every detail.

Vinik throttled down, giving the Vienna Express plenty of room.

The sun disappeared without fanfare, just a grayscale slide to black. Vinik’s phone rang.

“Y-ello?” he said. 

It was the captain of the tugboat Genesis Eagle, Vinik’s boss for the evening. The Genesis Eagle is a monster of a tug, possessing twice the horsepower of the Liz Vinik and twice the weight. Yet it was lashed to a thing that made it look small. This was the GM 11103, an oil barge shaped like a shoebox that stands five stories tall and holds 111,000 barrels of petroleum. Combined, the tug and barge are longer than most destroyers in the U.S. Navy. The barge has a yellow deck festooned with pumps and pipes, yellow cranes and harsh white floodlamps. As Vinik approached, we saw men in high-visibility vests speed-walking the deck, preparing for our arrival. The men resembled ants.

Vinik already knew the rough outline of the job. The GM 11103 was tied to a dock on Staten Island, where maintenance workers were giving it an overhaul. The barge overhung the dock by a hundred feet, beyond the reach of the workers’ extension cords. They needed someone to push the barge into the Kill van Kull, spin it 180 degrees and push it back to the dock, facing the opposite way.

The Cape Avinof, a cargo ship, was moored at the Brooklyn Navy Yard before it was transported to Norfolk, Virginia by Vinik Marine tugboats.
The Cape Avinof, a cargo ship, was moored at the Brooklyn Navy Yard before it was transported to Norfolk, Virginia by Vinik Marine tugboats.
Chris Pedota, NorthJersey.com-USA Today Network

A simple job. But as Vinik listened, the captain of the Genesis Eagle described a complex plan. The larger tug would act as the accelerator, he said, pushing the GM 11103 from behind. The little Liz Vinik would be the steering wheel, pushing against the bow to spin the barge counterclockwise.

Vinik said nothing. Immediately he knew the captain’s plan was impossible. To understand the physics of this, consider a little sumo wrestler. On land, he can exert pressure against a big sumo wrestler by pressing his heels into the mat, even if the heavier man is pushing him backwards.

In a traditional tugboat this principle does not apply, for the simple reason that the propeller never gains sufficient purchase on the water. The Liz Vinik can push forward only in forward gear. It can push backwards only in reverse.

It cannot do both simultaneously.

Vinik stalled for time.

“Huh,” he said, and pressed the mute button on his phone. 

The moment grew awkward. Additional factors impinged. From the southwest, the predicted thunderstorm arrived. Vinik lowered a wheelhouse window to watch the first raindrops splatter his deck. He considered the boss’s plan. As the GM 11103 advanced, its high steel wall would become a sail, catching wind from the storm. If the wind was strong enough, it could blow the barge across the kill toward IMTT Bayonne, the same oil terminal John Bates feared ramming with the New Delhi Express. The Liz Vinik, powerless in retreat, could do nothing to stop it. Meanwhile, five container ships were warming up their engines, waiting to leave Port Newark. For ships of their size, the only route to the Atlantic is the Kill van Kull. In a few moments the ebb tide would slow, high slack tide would arrive, and water in the kill would lie deep and still. Given the complex hydrology of The Kills, this lull may last an hour in some places, 20 minutes in others. Docking pilots view it as money time, the safest window to loose their lines, leave Newark, and sail for the sea. In heavy rain, Vinik might not see a ship coming until it was too late.

New homes in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, can be seen from the Arthur Kill, a narrow sea lane that separates Staten Island, New York, and New Jersey.
New homes in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, can be seen from the Arthur Kill, a narrow sea lane that separates Staten Island, New York, and New Jersey.
Chris Pedota, NorthJersey.com-USA Today Network

All of which meant losing control of the GM 11103 now would be like jackknifing a tractor trailer across the New Jersey Turnpike at rush hour on a Tuesday morning.

Still Vinik said nothing. On this job, he had no authority; the Genesis Eagle captain was in charge. If Vinik dared give advice, the other man might take offense. The Genesis Eagle captain could get little Vinik Marine blacklisted from any future jobs with Genesis Marine, a behemoth in the coastwise movements of oil, with 41 tugboats and 91 barges operating between Boston and Catoosa, Oklahoma.

Vinik un-muted his phone. He chose his words with care.

“I mean I . . . I’ll do anything you want me to do,” Vinik said. “But if it were me? I’d put the Liz on the other side with a line up, pulling. I can do more to help you if I’m in reverse. But like I say, I’ll do whatever you want.”

The Genesis Eagle captain was silent. After a few seconds, he agreed. Vinik exhaled. He pressed the throttle to slow ahead. The little Liz Vinik tapped the big barge with a thunk. From the bow, Vinik’s deckhand tossed a rope 40 feet straight up, landing it in the hands of a tankerman. 

“Whoa, that was awesome!” Vinik yelled out the wheelhouse window. “I can’t believe you made that! By the skin of your teeth, Matt!”

The storm arrived. Without looking, Vinik reached above his head to flick on a spotlight. Rain slashed sideways cross the beam. In a double flash of lightning, we saw water pouring from the barge’s deck like a waterfall off a mountain.

Mike Vinik and Corey, a deckhand, in the pilot house of a Vinik Marine tug.
Mike Vinik and Corey, a deckhand, in the pilot house of a Vinik Marine tug.
Chris Pedota, NorthJersey.com-USA Today Network

“Yeah,” Vinik said. “This is a serious storm.”

The engines of the Genesis Eagle and the Liz Vinik powered up. Their tenor drones masked the thunder. The barge began to move. The captain of the Genesis Eagle put down his phone and picked up his radio, where Vinik and all the deckhands could hear.

“OK. We don’t want to get moving too fast. Are we movin?” the captain said. “What’s going on? Talk to me!”

Deckhands on the barge responded in a similar frenzy. Screaming into their radios, their voices cancelled each other out. Eventually it was confirmed the barge was moving.

“Roger,” said the captain. “You’re not having any trouble holding it there, are you Mike?”

“Nope, we’re just fine,” Vinik said. “I don’t think you’re going to have any trouble. The wind’s out of the southwest at like 30 or 40 knots.”

Vinik replaced the handset to its cradle. He spun a brass knob, and the Liz Vinik clunked into reverse. Vinik watched the rope grow taut between his bow and the barge. When it gained purchase it quivered, shaking off water like a dog after a swim. The steel floor of the wheelhouse shuddered as the tugboat assumed the load, and I wobbled on my feet.

Tugboat company specializes in moving barges on the Arthur Kill waterway
Mike Vinik is owner and operator of Vinik Marine, using his fleet of tug boats throughout the Arthur Kill and beyond.
Chris Pedota, NorthJersey

Everything moved but Vinik. He stood with his face halfway out the window, left hand on the throttle, still. I asked why he seemed so relaxed, and why the Genesis Eagle captain seemed so freaked out. 

“Well, this is a difficult job, absolutely,” Vinik said. “He has limited control over the barge and what it’s doing. And it’s tight. He doesn’t have a lot of water behind him.”

It’s also true that one masters what one does. Vinik navigates by the inch. In the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, the Genesis Eagle captain plots turns by the mile. He works exclusively with big tugs and big barges, never with boats like the Liz, which is small and maneuverable. He berths at steel oil docks with reinforced fenders, which can withstand a beating. But tonight the pier is made of wood. With a skoch too much throttle, he could split it to splinters. 

“This guy?” he said, flicking his eyebrow to the towering bridge of the Genesis Eagle. “He’s conditioned to doing the same thing every time. For probably the last 15 years, all he’s done is move a really big oil barge very meticulously. That’s it. You forget how to maneuver. You forget how to do basic stuff.”

The GM 11103 advanced into the Kill van Kull until it blocked the channel completely. Vinik checked his corners. Out the window to the left, rain obscured the lights of IMTT Bayonne. The oil terminal was a distant orange haze. Behind, he saw nothing but black. This was good. No lights meant no container ships. Out front, the Genesis Eagle’s engines roared. The GM 11103 turned. As the barge swung to face the wind, the storm lost grip against the tall steel sides. Vinik eased his engines, allowing the wind to catch the barge on the opposite side and continue the spin. The floating steel box nuzzled back to the pier. On the radio, the employees of Genesis Marine remained in a barely controlled panic.

“Get a line on if you can,” the Genesis Eagle captain said quickly over the radio.

“Say that again?” called a deckhand.

Mike Vinik moves about the deck surrounding the pilot house of one of his tugs.
Mike Vinik moves about the deck surrounding the pilot house of one of his tugs.
Chris Pedota, NorthJersey.com-USA Today Network

“WE NEED A LINE TO KEEP US FROM FALLING BACK,” the captain bellowed.

Vinik held steady. The Liz Vinik had the GM 11103 pinned to the dock; the big barge wasn’t going anywhere. The storm calmed. Vinik didn’t move. He kept his face by the window, watching. Deckhands threw lines from the GM 11103. Above Vinik’s head, the radio buzzed. The container ships in Port Newark were on the move. The first to enter the kill was the Grande Sierra Leone, followed by the MSC Madrid, two small ships bound for Baltimore and western Africa, respectively. More tugboats appeared, pushing oil barges in all directions. Vinik’s phone rang. It was the Genesis Eagle captain. He talked with excitement about the tricky maneuver they’d just accomplished, and the storm, and the next job to come.

“Yes! We did it! I had every faith,” Vinik said. “The rain was coming down so hard I could barely see you at all.”

Vinik reversed away the dock. We sailed for Vinik Island. A container ship called Gerda Maersk passed by, heading for the Mediterranean. At Port Newark, the final ship began to move. We saw it first in silhouette, a whale-shaped shadow backlit by the orange lights of the New Jersey Turnpike. The ship sailed down Newark Bay, rounded the turn, and advanced toward us in the Kill van Kull.

People say big ships resemble mountains. Up close, the metaphor doesn’t hold. This thing was defiantly of the water, not of land. Its bow was brutalist in size and complexity, forming a tip so concave as to hang horizontal above the smooth black water. From this point aft the ship grew radically fat. On its deck, steel containers sat 18 boxes wide.

“Yeah,” Vinik said, “that’s a big one.”

The tiny Liz Vinik and the enormous ship sailed under the Bayonne Bridge at the same moment. I read its name, the CMA CGM Magellan, painted in white letters on the bow. The Magellan is 19 inches shorter than its sister ship, the T. Roosevelt. All metaphors fell away. The ship was not a shadow. It was not a mountain. Watching it move, I had no important thoughts. I’m pretty sure my mouth hung open. This, I suppose, is the experience we call awe. I stood at the rail of a tugboat. Above me stood one of the largest machines ever to move across the surface of the earth. Behind me, the master of The Kills pointed to a tugboat he used to drive, and another he may someday acquire. Up on the Bayonne Bridge, drivers saw nothing beneath their cars but wet concrete. The CMA CGM Magellan sailed for the Suez Canal en route to Port Klang, Malaysia.

Mike Vinik is a tugboat pilot and the owner and operator of Vinik Marine.
Mike Vinik is a tugboat pilot and the owner and operator of Vinik Marine.
CHRIS PEDOTA, NORTHJERSEY.COM-USA TODAY NETWORK

Christopher Maag is a columnist for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to his unique perspective on New Jersey’s most interesting people and experiences, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: maag@northjersey.com Twitter: @Chris_Maag