Maritime boats in New London Harbor

The Tugs that escort Submarines by Lee Palombo.

The first in a series of stories about the men and women who work so hard to keep New London’s harbor alive. 

Have you ever wondered about the tugboats we see on the Thames River accompanying submarines in and out of the harbor? I had an opportunity to see them in action recently.

The mighty tugs John P. Wronowski and Paul A. Wronowski are contracted by the U.S. Navy from the Thames Towboat Company. 

A tug or tugboat is a special class of boat without which various large or less maneuverable ships cannot get into or out of a port or harbor. Tugs help in mooring ships by either towing or pushing a vessel and can move barges or other craft that do not have their own power.

Tug Master Jeff Robbins captains the Paul A Wronowski.  His job is to get Navy Ship Pilot Rich Willette onto the submarines, assist the submarines as they transit up or down the river from their homeport at the Submarine Base in Groton, and help them moor, if needed. 

Captain Robbins has been with Thames Towboat for 42 years and is very familiar with the river and all the traffic that he will encounter at his job.  He has to be prepared for ferries, commercial traffic, as well as recreational boaters, to cross his path.  It’s a challenge to say the least, especially in the summer.  Many recreational boaters do not understand the rules of the waterways, which can create issues with the commercial traffic using the river.

Navy Ship Pilot Rich Willette, has a long list of accomplishments. Growing up in South Dakota, he joined the Navy at age 18, first serving on surface ships and then becoming a ship pilot. 

While captains are in-charge of ships, the role of a ship pilot is equally important. The pilot is not a member of a ship’s crew but a local maritime expert familiar with tides, currents, navigational aids, and charts of the area. The pilot helps the ship captain and crew in maneuvering the ship while arriving or departing a port. Pilots are licensed and often expert at assisting in the maneuvering of ships of various sizes and types.

With 19 years of Navy Ship Pilot service, both as a uniformed member of the Navy and now as a civilian working for the Navy, Pilot Willett brings lot of experience to his job.  He has worked both in Asia and across the United States, and has moved a lot of ships.

The day I was on the tug, was a beautiful winter day, but very cold.  One of the problems that all the boats encounter is weather.  The weather adds a dimension to the work that they have to do problematic. Sometimes the waters out in Long Island Sound are very rough.  This could make the transfer of the pilot very difficult, with the tugboat and the ship to be piloted pitching back and forth.  In the cold weather, the workers need to be very careful due to freezing conditions and slippery or icy decks.  The wind and sometimes rain can also cause accidents. Safety is paramount.

Tug Paul A. Wronowski is a custom tug, built in 1980 at the Thames Shipyard and Repair Company, in New London, Connecticut, with hull #104. Outfitted with a special engine called a Z-Drive type of marine propulsion unit, the tug does not have a conventional rudder. The Z-Drive, specifically the azimuth thruster, can rotate 360 degrees allowing for rapid changes in thrust direction and thus vessel direction. It is the first boat ever built on the east on coast with these drives to assist in maneuvering submarines.  It is 80.5” long, with a 30” beam, and has a 3400 HP Cummins Engine.

Tug John P. Wronowski, was built in 2004, by the Eastern Shipbuilding Company of Panama City, Florida with hull #836.  It also has a Z-Drive on it.  It is 91.4” long, with a 33’ beam and has 3400 HP Cummins Engine.

Both tugboats are fitted with drop down ramps allowing for the transfer of the pilot to the ship to be piloted.

Pilot Willette often uses humor as he helps the captains of submarines train junior officers, who may be driving the submarine on the surface for the first time.

“I’ll ease the tension and say, ‘You see those buoys?’ They’ll say ‘Yes.’ ‘You see that lighthouse?’ They’ll say ‘Yes.’ ‘You see the ferries?’ ‘Yes.’ And, I’ll caution, ‘Don’t hit any of that stuff!'”

Pilot Willette has safely guided more than 4,000 military vessels in and out of port.

Just a little insight into the tugs, submarines, and professional mariners plying the Thames River.