Friday, July 21, 2017  

Workhorse of the Bay
The Captain Johnny  

One lazy summer afternoon my wife and I were strolling down Prince Street in the historic area of Tappahannock Virginia marveling at the many old buildings still existing in the area. Buildings like the Old Debtor’s Prison dating back to 1769, Beale Memorial Baptist Church constructed in 1728, the Ritchie House built in 1706, the old Henley House built in 1710 then operated by the Emerson family starting around 1757 as Emerson’s Ordinary, and our favorite: the grand old McCall-Brockenbrough House circa 1763. Old Archibald McCall, a successful merchant and county justice remained loyal to Britain and was run out of town by some of the county’s foremost gentlemen. McCall returned from exile in Britain after the war and regained his business and social standing. Such is the forgiving good nature of Virginians.

Weary from our walking tour we paused for a rest by the side of the curvy shores of Hoskins Creek just in time to watch the 65 foot cruise boat Captain Thomas heading out to the Rappahannock River for a daily cruise to the Ingleside Winery. As we reminisced about the time we took the tour and recalled the many American Bald Eagles we spotted nesting in the trees on the shores of the river, a massive grain barge suddenly appeared silently heading for the granary further up the creek. The 195 foot barge appeared wider than the creek as it turned to port to clear a small dock on the right side of the creek. In moments the tugboat Captain Johnny, firmly lashed to the stern of the massive barge, effortlessly slipped past us as the Captain gave us an enthusiastic wave.

Navigating the narrow and winding creek to the Perdue Granary is no easy job in a cabin cruiser. Steering a 195-foot grain barge pushed by a 65-foot tug is mind boggling for any skipper. Captain Jay Ward does it often and makes it look easy. Jay is a fourth generation tugboat captain. The tug he operates, Captain Johnny, is named after his great grandfather Captain John T. Ward, affectionately known by all as Captain Johnny. He was the first of a line of waterman in the Ward Family. John T. Ward came to Deltaville in 1921 from Crisfield, Maryland. Captain Johnny’s favorite boat, of the numerous boats he owned, was a 55-foot Buyboat the IVA W that is now on display at the Deltaville Maritime Museum.

In 1970 Jay’s dad Captain John Melvin Ward Jr. and Captain Floyd Gene Ward established their own watermen business. Jay practically grew up on the boats and learned the business from his dad. Established in 1990, Bay Freight Inc. now has a fleet of three tugs. The nationally known and revered artist John Barber has immortalized several of the Ward boats in his paintings.

Jay grew up on Lover’s Lane in Deltaville just a short walk from Jackson Creek where the family tugs are often docked. He worked on the tugs summers all through high school and on weekends when school was open. After graduation from Middlesex High school in 1995, Jay spent the next four and half years at the Apprentice School of Ship Building at Newport News Shipbuilding Co. Although Jay worked at Newport News Shipbuilding and earned certification as an inside machinists, he knew in his heart he wanted to be on the tugs. After successfully obtaining his 100 ton Master’s license, Captain Jay ward joined in the family tradition as Tug Captain.

The Wards started out as watermen fishing and hauling grain with nine wooden boats. The early Wards hauled seed oysters and planted oyster shells in summer. They dredged for crabs in winter. In the early 1950s, during the off season they used their wooden freight boats to haul some grain from smaller granaries. As the farms grew bigger and the demand grew the Wards switched to tug boats full time. Their primary customer now is Perdue Grain and Oilseed LLC which is a division of the Perdue Chicken Company. Perdue has several granaries. The Wards now haul corn and grain from places like Tappahannock to Salisbury, Maryland or Norfolk, Virginia. Grain brought to Salisbury goes to the Perdue chicken farm while the grain brought to Norfolk is generally of a better quality and is exported.

The Captain Johnny was built in 1965 in Louisiana. She is 65 feet long and 24 feet wide. The power plant was recently up graded at Miller Marine in Deltaville with two QSK 19 Cummins Engines which produce 670 horsepower each. The deck crew aboard the Captain Johnny includes Iain Evererton and cousin Gary Ward. Jays says Iain is his first mate and Gary is his right hand man. Jay explained that he runs the tug in an informal way with everyone being treated equally without any obvious separation by rank. Having spent some time with the crew this writer can attest to the camaraderie that prevails among the three members, a good thing considering the hours they spend in close quarters.

On a typical run from Portsmouth Virginia to Salisbury Maryland the tug will be underway from about 24 hours non stop. Each crew member shares in the cooking chores. Jay said: “I don’t think that because I am the Captain that I am by any means above doing anything that I would ask a crew member to do.”

The majority of the tows are massive grain barges like the approximately 1900 ton fully loaded, 195 foot long, 35 foot wide barge with a draft of 10 feet, we watched in Hoskins Creek. The Wards have towed a flat barge all the way from Wanchese, North Carolina to Egg Harbor New Jersey when they moved a whole boat factory along with heavy machinery, boat moulds and boats to a new location. There were boats as big as 65 ft lashed to the deck of the barge. Jay made the trip four times to move the entire cargo. Some times their barges are filled with sand dredged from places like the waters of Washington DC or crushed rock from the quarry to a rock yard. In the course of a year the tug will travel approximately 25,000 miles much of it at 6 miles per hour.

Jay and his crew pride themselves on their concern for safety. It has been a family tradition for the Wards to try to anticipate the possibilities of what could go wrong at any time. The tugs are equipped with state of the art navigation equipment, but Jay makes every effort to avoid fog and rough seas. When the waves get to over four feet it may be possible for seawater to get into the cargo. He has a constant eye toward the sky and an ear to the weather channel. Jay has never had a serious accident.

We asked the crew of the Captain Johnny about their encounters with pleasure boaters. The unanimous sentiment was that pleasure boats anywhere near the tug or barge have to be carefully watched. Jay said: “You just don’t know what the fellow in the other boat knows and what he doesn’t know or what he is liable to do.” Sometimes the towing cable is 800 feet long and you never know if the pleasure boat Skipper coming up astern knows about the cable or will possibly attempt to cross it. Especially at night, you watch their lights and hope they know the dangers. Jay talked about some of the dangerous things Jet Skiers do. He said they seem to like to cut right in front of the barge. Jay recalls one that came so close to the front of the barge that he lost sight of the Jet Ski. Moments seemed like hours for Jay as he waited fro the Jet Ski to reappear. All aboard agree that too few boaters understand the massive weight of the barge and the tug makes it impossible to stop short.

We asked Jay his advice to boaters who encounter a tug. Jay advises boater to stay as far a way as possible. He recommends boaters switch over the marine radio from their normal listening channel 16 to channel 13 to know what the tug is doing. Jay said we doesn’t mind a bit if a boater calls him on channel 13 and asks about the boat or where we are going. In fact, it breaks up the monotony of a long tow in open water. A pleasure boater himself, Jay enjoys meeting new people and chatting with them when he is not in the middle of a tricky maneuver in a tight channel.

We asked Captain Jay to recall his scariest moment. He said: “I don’t think I have ever been scared on the water, not because I haven’t been nervous, but I pride myself that I haven’t let myself get into a scary situation. My father, my uncles and, I believe, my grandfather have always played things on the safe enough side that we haven’t let ourselves get into a really scary situation. I do recall one situation where one of my crew members fell overboard at the dock.

Richard Dant actually fell over between the barge and the dock as the barge was coming into the dock. My other crewman radioed me that Richard had fallen overboard. I was at a point where I couldn’t see anything on that side of the barge. I knew where he was and I knew about where he fell over. There just wasn’t anything I could do, but pray.

The barge was about a foot from touching the dock. Richard fell overboard and bounced off the big fender tires on the dock. It just happens that he was in between two tires. Two big farmer guys just happened to be standing on the dock. They got down and grabbed Richard before he even knew what happened. He didn’t get a scratch on him. That was the scariest moment of my career.”

For recreation Jay likes to take his 43 foot Hutt Sports Fishing boat, the Island Retriever, along with some friends off shore about 30 to 40 miles out to fish for Tuna or Dolphin. Boats for Jay Ward are a way of life. In season, Jay also likes to hunt.

Captain Jay Ward is thrilled to do what he does in a tradition that goes back four generations. Jay said: “I find the work very rewarding. I love the challenges we face every day.” We asked Jay what was the funniest thing that every happen to him on the tug. He thought about it then said with a laugh: “Everyday is funny.”

The Captain and crew may not know where they will be that afternoon. They could get a call at any moment to pick up a loaded barge in Tappahannock and take it to Baltimore or take empty barges from Portsmouth to Salisbury Maryland.

Most of all their Captain and crew of the tugboat Captain Johnny obviously like each other and enjoy doing what they do. That indeed is a rare gift. In the rivers and on the bay dotted with pleasure boats of every size, shape and description you are very likely to see the big grey tugs with the big Ward W on the stack. Steer clear and give them a big wave. They are the burdened vessel and workhorses of the bay.