West Side Rag » Houseboats (and other large boats) in your backyard

Posted on March 30, 2022 at 8:07 p.m. by West Side Rag

By Daniel Katzive

If you’ve spent any time in Riverside Park, you’ll no doubt have noticed the tugboats and barges that regularly drop anchor in the Hudson River.

A barge and a tug anchored in the Hudson. Photographs by Daniel Katzive.

They float against their mooring lines, with their sterns (rear ends) facing downstream towards the harbor when the tide goes out; then sway to face the opposite direction, with their sterns toward the George Washington Bridge when the river begins to overflow again. For short periods when the tide goes out (stills), usually four times a day, they sit perpendicular to the river and you can see over their stern or bow from the shore.

Have you ever wondered why they are anchored there, what they are for?

You will see many types of commercial vessels sailing the Hudson River throughout the year, being vital cogs in our regional economy. You’ll see tugboats pushing barges full of cement down from the Lafarge factory in Ravenna, New York, or barges full of sugar coming from Florida to be refined and packaged at the Domino Sugar factory in Yonkers.

A bulk cargo ship bringing raw sugar to the Domino factory in Yonkers passes a paddle boarder.

Tugs push or pull together clusters of open top hoppers full of stones and gravel from quarries near Poughkeepsie. Barges full of used paper products are pushed out of the Sanitation Department’s 59th Street transfer station and brought to recycling facilities on Staten Island.

You will also see freighters that are not barges at all. New York City has a fleet of small tankers that transport sewage sludge for treatment between various plants, including the North River plant near 135th Street.

Larger foreign-flagged bulk carriers also carry overseas cargo upriver to Albany or the port town of Coeymans. They carry wood pulp from Sweden for paper mills and, in the direction of Yonkers, sugar from other foreign ports. Small foreign-flagged tankers may also occasionally travel upriver, carrying petroleum products or chemicals from refineries in Europe or New Brunswick, Canada.

Note: Foreign-flagged vessels can bring in cargo from overseas and pick up US cargo bound for foreign ports, but they cannot transport cargo between US ports due to a law known as Jones Act. Freight that travels between US ports must almost always be on US-flag vessels, and the vast majority of them are tugs paired with barges.

A loaded barge being pushed north.

You will see all of these types of commercial vessels passing through the river, but most of them rarely or never drop anchor. The barges you see at anchor are almost always oil barges, and almost always empty.

You can tell they are empty because they sit high up in the water, with their bridges towering over the river. Barges loaded with petroleum products will sometimes pass on the river, heading towards the terminals to the north, and you will notice that they are very low in the water. They generally do not anchor in the river when loaded.

Barges at anchor.

The location of the moorings is not random. Rather, the area between 72nd Street and the George Washington Bridge is designated by the Coast Guard as an area where these vessels are permitted to anchor. A spokesperson for the US Coast Guard’s New York Branch responded to WSR’s questions via email, noting that the Coast Guard is “actively monitoring” all vessels using the anchorages in the river from its Staten Island base, but there is no obligation for tugboats to reserve a place on the river and parking is free.

Most of the 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 combination of tug and barge has been anchored off West 94th Street for much longer this winter, but the Coast Guard says this is an exceptional case due to unique operational circumstances.

A loaded barge combination passing an anchored tug/barge.

So what are the empty tank barges doing, anchored in the middle of the river with their tugs and their crews? Simply put, they wait for the cargo to be assigned to them and for the docks to open to load the cargo. Capt. Eric Johansson, a SUNY Maritime Academy professor who works with the tug industry in New York Harbor, told WSR that in years past tugs and barges could wait moored at docks at land, but with more limited quay space now, river or port anchorage is the best option for these vessels.

When a cargo is ready, tugboats usually bring their empty barges south to loading points on the Jersey Shore, usually in the narrow body of water facing Staten Island called Arthur Kill. As anyone who has driven along New Jersey’s Turnpike knows, this section of New Jersey has major oil refineries. A number of major petroleum product pipelines from the Gulf of Mexico also terminate in this area.

There are no major oil refineries in the northeastern United States, north of New Jersey and east of western Pennsylvania, despite the large population living in New England. Almost all petroleum products consumed in the Northeast, including gasoline, diesel fuel and fuel oil, must either be transported from the Gulf of Mexico region through pipelines that terminate in New Jersey or refined in New Jersey. Jersey or shipped from New Brunswick. Canada or Europe. Getting raw products from North Jersey to most distribution points in New England requires shipping by truck, rail or… barge.

A barge loaded with sugar heads for Yonkers.

Captain Johansson of SUNY Maritime points out that a single barge can carry much more than a tanker or railcar. He pointed out that the safety record of these ships is good and that the companies have made significant investments in safety and are also working to reduce emissions.

So where do the barges go after refueling with diesel, gasoline or fuel oil along the Arthur Kill? Some will motor up the Hudson, heading to distribution points in Albany or Newburgh where cargo is transferred to trucks or railcars. Others will leave New York Harbor and head up Long Island Sound, heading for ports such as New Haven, Boston, Providence or Portland, Maine. Once unloaded, they return to New York empty and, if no new cargo is immediately available, they return to the anchorages… to wait.

Earnest A. Martinez