Where: Aboard the Escambia, a Ship Docking Module (SDM), towing a gasoline freighter into the Port of Tampa
Public access: None. You either have to work for Sea Bulk Towing, or have the company allow you on board.
Element of danger: None, not on a perfectly calm Friday afternoon with water like glass.
Why we went: The Port of Tampa is the ninth busiest in the country. Towing a mammoth tanker into its space to offload millions of gallons of gas is a delicate operation that requires two tugboats, considerable skill and a lot of precise radio communication.
What we discovered: The Sea Bulk Mariner — 188 meters long, 32 meters wide and bringing in 14.28 million gallons of gasoline from Corpus Christi, Texas — is incapable of navigating a sharp right turn, docking and lining up its hoses to the hose ports on land.
That's where an SDM — aka a fancy tugboat — comes in. The Escambia is an oval-shaped vessel with a control tower in the middle and ample deck space. The flat-bottom boat can go in any direction, and perform a 360 in about 12 seconds.
During our tow, affable captain Phil Vallandingham operated the Escambia from a seat in the enclosed tower, flanked by computer screens and instruments. He controlled the boat by gently moving two joysticks, one in each hand. His engineer, Heath Scott, stayed on deck and worked on maintenance projects during the operation, pausing to throw a tow line up to crew members on the Sea Bulk Mariner.
We met the large ship not too far out in the channel, and linked the Escambia to her via an 8-inch-thick rope. Responding to terse communications from the gas tanker's captain, Phil's boat and the other tug maneuvered the Sea Bulk Mariner into the port. Sometimes the SDM pulled, sometimes it pushed, and sometimes it held steady. The job took about two hours, and when Phil returned to his dock, he found out he had another tow in an hour.
Phil and Heath are the Escambia's only crew members. They work seven straight days, followed by seven days off. When working, they're on call 24 hours a day. Tug operations take place at all hours. The two live on the boat during their weeklong shifts, and although their quarters are cramped, Phil says, "I've got waterfront property, and I don't even pay taxes on it."