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Dear Simpson Bay Bridge Tender

I am working under the assumption that you have a boss that you need to report to and I also assume that he/she would like for you to operate your bridge as efficiently as possible, minimizing the time that it is open and thus traffic on the road crossing it is stopped. I hope that perhaps with this letter I could influence you to adjust your methods for doing so a bit so as to increase safety. Specifically I am referring to your radio tactics which “encourage” sailboats wishing to transit into moving right up to the yet-to-open bridge. Note that I use the positive word “encourage” even though I have heard the term “bully” used to describe your tactics from several other Captains.

Perhaps you have never operated a boat before. I have to guess that this is true because telling a boat to “hold position” 10 meters off a structure which could cause serious damage to it is foolish if not negligent. You may not be aware of this but getting a boat to “hold position” is not an easy thing to do, especially when it is being influenced by wind and/or current. A boat that is not moving has no steerage and one that is stopped that close to a bridge, and the shore, is in an extremely precarious position.

Case in point is our own outgoing transit of the Simpson Bay Bridge at 11:00 AM of December 27th. We were the first boat in line and following your commands, we moved closer and closer to the still-closed bridge. Perhaps from inside your enclosed booth you were not aware of the weather on that day. The wind was blowing 15-20 knots directly at the bridge with frequent gusts to 25 and above. It was the combination of this wind and the fact that I allowed you to influence me into taking our boat closer than I should have that almost put a sudden end to our cruising.

With the bridge only just beginning to open, the wind caught our stern and pushed us beam-to the bridge, with precariously little room to maneuver fore and aft. After more than 5000 miles of sailing, that is absolutely the closest we have come to having our boat wrecked and I am not ashamed to admit that for several tense moments both my wife and I were both very scared! It was only at the last second, with full throttles on both engines (we sail a catamaran), that I was able to bring the vessel around so that we could get through the bridge that you, by then, had open. Do you remember sarcastically yelling “Thank you very much” to my wife as we passed your booth? Apparently you were upset because we were so inconsiderate to have delayed the other boats behind us for a few seconds during the drama that nearly destroyed our boat!

Imagine what would have transpired had I not been able to bring our boat back under control. Our vessel would have either been pushed onto the rocks adjacent to the bridge, blocking other boats from transiting or even worse for you, smashed into the structure itself. With the bridge on the French side having now been out of service for a month, do you think that you would have been all that popular had you contributed to the Dutch bridge being damaged, blocking all access to and from the Lagoon? I don’t think so.

It’s my opinion that the few seconds that you save on each opening by attempting to force boat operators into moving closer to the bridge than is nautically prudent is false economy. By allowing, and even better, encouraging vessels to maintain a safe distance from the bridge until it is open, you are doing your part to protect property and perhaps even lives. I am quite certain that the automobile operators sitting comfortably in their cars waiting for the bridge to once again close will not even notice the difference in time.

Sincerely,

Mike Sweeney

Where it all almost came to an end!

42 Comments

  1. The bridge tender at Burlington Bay, Ontario gets visibly nervous if anyone comes within a hundred feet of his lift bridge. He’ll block traffic and hoist that thing when an approaching ship is half a mile away. And that’s the only safe way to do it: you’re better off slowing down car traffic for a few minutes, rather than stopping car traffic for two months when a ship hits your half-open bridge.

  2. I’ll only add to what you already know.

    It takes time to stop traffic for a bridge opening, probably 30 seconds. There’s a bell, falling gates and flashing traffic lights that alert the waiting boats of the impending bridge opening. It takes some time to open a bridge, at least 30 seconds, probably more. Since a boat can easily move at 10 feet/second, closing 2 football fields is possible with no delay and sitting back 100 meters is normal, good seamanship, and accepted by all bridge operators I’ve ever met. I doubt I’ve ever waited closer. I doubt most bridge opperators would risk that sort of crowding and the sort of incident that they would be drawn into.

    If asked to get within 10 meters I would have politly said that I could not control the boat in that close. Any engine glitch and you were toast. I’ve waited as much as an hour for certain scheduled openings, generally a few hundred meters away, moving up to 100 meters for the last 10 minutes. What you were asked to do is plain crazy.

  3. I am a bit puzzled by your bridge problem. Normally I expect a twin engine cat to be able to go astern and control her position perfectly without using the rudders at all. This is supposed to be much easier than going ahead when the bows can be blown off line. I can’t readily do it with a single engine, but it still works for me too. Could it be that your twin outboards are not very powerful when in reverse? Don’t see why though since I only have a central outboard. Altogether, as I say, I am a bit puzzled!

    Mike

    • Mother Nature can have a HUGE influence on a boat, especially one with a fair amount of windage. The two engines definitely help to keep you in line but it is still difficult to “hold position” when it is gusting.

    • Catamarans have a significant amount of windage as they have keels to speak of. In 20 to 25 knots as described here, it is nearly impossible to ‘hold station.’ The best solution in those types of wind is to do a ‘jiggle’ in place at an angle to the wind that optimizes for blowing off the excess force.

  4. Since when does road traffic have the right of way? I thought it was always the boats go first. Many times I have sat in a line of cars for what seemed like an hour or more waiting on a boat to pass. The bridge tender would hold the gate up for so long that we’d have time to walk down to the river or bayou to see if the coming boat was a barge or sail boat, then get back to the car before it passed. Is this just something that they do in Simpson Bay?

    • The bridge is across a main road with scheduled openings for ingoing and outgoing traffic. During the time that it is open traffic does back up a fair ways which I assume they are trying to minimize.

  5. Maybe somebody needs to make him drive his car UP the bridge as it’s lifting and see how much he enjoys it…..

  6. Mike, I sure hope your letter works! I suggest cc ing it to the Department of transportation, bridges and roads section, and to the legislative body. A copy to the press might be very effective, as well.

  7. If the story as relayed by the writer is factual, accurate and truthful then the writer makes a valid point.

    However, the master of a vessel is the final word on where he positions his vessel. The Draw Bridge Master’s suggestions regarding where to position a vessel as merely his suggestion and NOT a command.

    The Master of the vessel in this case has evinced a very weak and fragile ego and level of confidence. The writer who complained should take some Coast Guard Courses on proper maritime operations and boat handling.

    • I agree completely! The “mariner” in this case is clearly badly schooled mariner. The Draw Bridge Operator made suggestions. The “mariner” who placed his vessel in danger by “holding position” near the bridge is the one who fouled up.

      The Master of the Vessel is the final word on where the vessel is placed. The complaining “mariner” should not have placed his vessel in danger. The draw bridge operator’s suggestion is not a legally binding command of any kind.

      One of the oldest laws of the sea is that the Master of the Vessel has the final word in all matters while he is in command of the vessel.

      If the writer of the complaining letter did not feel the suggestion was safe to perform then he should not have taken the suggestion.

      To sum it up—the complainer has only his own poor martime skills and self to blame for jeapordizing his vessel’s safety and his wife’s safety as well as his own.

      The draw bridge operator is not to blame–the complaining mariner is to blame.

      • So let me get this straight. I want to make sure I understand what you are trying to say:

        “The Master of the Vessel has the final word on where the vessel is placed”?
        “The final word on where the vessel is placed comes from the Master of the Vessel”?
        “The Master of the Vessel has the final word on where the vessel is placed”?
        “The final word on where the vessel is placed comes from the Master of the Vessel”?

        Just making sure I got that point.

        One more clarification..the “Bridge Tender”, whose actions operating the bridge could have lethal implications for cars and boats if not done correctly, is in no way at fault in “suggesting” (directing/commanding) that a vessel maneuver in a way that is unsafe for pretty much all boats?

        NO fault or accountability?

        Instead they come here and place blame on a guest in their country. A guest that was trying to follow directions in an area they are unfamiliar with. I would be concerned about the competency of the bridge tender to safely operate the bridge.

        “A poorly schooled Bridge Tender”

        Perhaps on your brochure you should add beware the incompetent bridge tender.
        Dani

    • Zach Lee Wright AKA Bobby Jones AKA Thomas Meyers (AKA Thomas Malory AKA Shelley AKA…)

      (All three of these comments came from the same IP address, along with 6 more comments posted today that I did not approve)

      YOU ARE RIGHT. I should have ignored the bridge tender’s instructions. That is what makes me most angry. I will never make that mistake again!

      However, his instructions were not “suggestions.” He is in charge and directing the vessels. When a police office is directing traffic, it is not a “suggestion.”

      I do seem to have struck a nerve with you though. I can only speculate as to what would prompt someone to reply to a post 9 TIMES (up to this point)!?!?!?!

  8. The catamaran operator is the one at fault. The Draw Bridge Tender suggested something and the boater who is complaining should have not taken the suggestion.

    At the end of the day–the boat operator is the final word on what to do or what not to do.

    The U.S. Coast Guard offers courses on proper boating skills and methods and the catamaran boater operator should avail himself to these courses because he clearly is in need of learning the laws of the sea.

    • as posted above…

      Zach Lee Wright AKA Bobby Jones AKA Thomas Meyers (AKA Thomas Malory AKA Shelley AKA…)

      (All three of these comments came from the same IP address, along with 6 more comments posted today that I did not approve)

      YOU ARE RIGHT. I should have ignored the bridge tender’s instructions. That is what makes me most angry. I will never make that mistake again!

      However, his instructions were not “suggestions.” He is in charge and directing the vessels. When a police office is directing traffic, it is not a “suggestion.”

      I do seem to have struck a nerve with you though. I can only speculate as to what would prompt someone to reply to a post 9 TIMES (up to this point)!?!?!?!

      • Perhaps it’s the bridge tender!! lol.

        • LOL Dave you must be spot on… why else would the poster get so exercised in defense of the bridge tender. However, this bullying behaviour on the part of a bridge tender is not that unusual. We experienced it on the West Coast at the Ballard locks train bridge on several occasion. It frequently happens when there is a high volume of noisy car traffic. I always figured it had something to do with road rage and the fact that drivers of cars can get out and get “up in the grill” of the bridge operator while we boats are somewhat disadvantaged in expressing our frustrations.

          Mike, you know what you’ll do next time which is a good heads up reminder to all of us. Bridge tenders do have the “authority of a cop directing traffic on the street”, but ultimately as captains of our vessels, we must when appropriate tell the bridge guy to go to hell. It would also probably help to get on the VHF and stage a riot with the other boats making sure -everyone- waiting for the bridge holds off 100m. Not much the bridge tender can do if you’re all hovering there together.

  9. Wow, reading the specifics of that incident really illuminate how close you came to a real disaster.

    If those who operate these bridges could see the situation from this perspective they’d surely be more considerate, to the benefit of all.

  10. Excellent letter. Now how do you get it to the bridge tender’s boss?

    bob
    s/v Eolian
    Seattle

  11. Always amuses me how people can turn a post ugly ie make you the problem, not the victim. Guess thats why I blog about knitting, Hard to find too much fault with yarn.

  12. The law of the sea is one thing Gentleman.

    The law of life at sea is an other, the “book” view is largely different than what you find in different country.

  13. Mike I feel your pain. Great Letter. I hope action is taken. I am very glad you were able to control your boat and avoid disaster. I have also dealt with difficult bridge tenders. It’s not easy to just “do what is best” when you have other boats around, a bridge tender shouting orders, and you in an unfamiliar area.

    Goodluck with this!
    Dani

  14. I have been in the same position before. I was going down the Chicago River into the lake after a long winters layup and the tender wanted me to move in closer to the bridge before he opened it.. I told him that I was close enough and would proceed once the bridge was open. I knew that I did not want any kind of emergency condition in the middle of downtown chicago in case the 30 year old Atomic 4 decided it wanted to hickup. Guess what, after two more exchanges with the same response, he opened the bridge. You are the Captian, You are responsible for Your vessel. Hope you learned a valuable lesson, glad that nothing but pride was damaged. Trust me he would have opened the bridge, especially if others were behind you and calling on the bridge also.

  15. Hi Mike,
    I was in a similar situation several years ago. We were approaching a bridge over an inlet with a strong out going following tide. The bridge tender told us to get closer. We did,he did not open.The out board motor was not powerfull enough to stem the tide in reverse. We tried to turn the boat but did not have room . We struck the closed draw bridge. The falling wooden mast fell between the skipper and myself. Fortunately no one was injured. We did however learn a valuable lesson. The master of the vessel is always responsible for the safety of his or her vessel.Even when the bridge tender told us to get closer we should have held off.
    P.S. my girl friend and I met you guys in the anchorage by Barnegat Inlet NJ when you were just starting your trip.It’s great that you have sailed so far,best of luck and I look foward to
    following the rest of your trip.

  16. I saw this video today and instantly thought of your post. I figured you would empathize with the crew of this boat: http://nasailor.com/2012/01/05/crash-of-the-week-just-cant-quite-fit-it-in-there/

    • OUCH! On the bright side, if you’re going to scuff up your mega yacht, St. Martin is a pretty good place to do it though. Lots of businesses/people there to fix it.

  17. love a good fight, go get them skipper

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