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Tugboats play critical role on Panama Canal

Since starting his shift at midnight, tugboat captain Ronald T. Church has helped ease only one ship through the Panama Canal, but his day is about to get a whole lot busier as he picks up the Clementine, a 622-foot bulk carrier bound for Houston, at 9:18 a.m.

The tugboat fleet plays an essential role on the canal, positioning vessels so they enter the locks correctly and then staying close in case they lose power or steering and become runaways.

The Clementine has already crossed two sets of locks on the Pacific side of the canal and it has been a tight squeeze. The British Marine vessel is 105 feet wide, leaving only 2½ feet on either side when in the locks.

Thick coils of rope bind Church’s tug, Pequení, to the stern of the Clementine and Church will accompany the vessel until it passes the Centenario Bridge and is ready to enter the widest part of the canal, Gatún Lake.

“Right now we’re in the narrowest part of the channel — Culebra Cut,’’ said the veteran captain, who comes from a long line of canal workers. His grandfather worked for the Panama Canal Co. operating launches and dredging vessels when the Americans controlled the canal. His father worked for the U.S. Department of Defense and his mother at a social club in the Panama Canal Zone.

Church, 65, was born in the zone and worked as a crane operator before entering the apprentice program to captain a tug in 1982. He retired in 1998, the year before the United States relinquished control of the canal, but then returned in 2008 to work under contract for the Panama Canal Authority, which now governs the canal.

His contract runs through 2014 but with the Panama Canal undergoing expansion and plenty of work available, he’s not sure when he will retire for good.

“This is history. We’re bringing in mates, mates, mates and training them’’ so they’ll be ready when the expansion is completed in 2015, says Church. “We have more tugs than are needed now and some of them will move over to the new locks.’’

He peers into an LCD screen that shows the entire length of the canal from Pacific to Atlantic and the ships that are waiting to make the crossing, but his domain is a 17-mile stretch from Gamboa to the Bridge of the Americas near the Pacific entrance to the canal.

At the moment, the Pequení’s engines aren’t engaged and the Clementine is pulling the tug, giving Church a moment to peruse the sports section of the newspaper.

But if the big ship needs assistance, the Pequení is ready.

During his long career, he has helped ships avert several near-disasters, like the time when the canal pilots were celebrating New Year’s Eve at the Diablo base and a ship was heading straight toward the dock. An assist from his tug helped steer it away.

The mates untie the Clementine, and Church’s tug chugs up the canal to pick up the Panama-flagged container ship Cosco America. As the ship nears the Pedro Miguel locks, the Pequení engages its engine and pulls to nudge the hulking ship into position for entry into the three-chambered lock.

As the Cosco America enters the first chamber, the Pequení moves on to its next tasks: working in tandem with two other tugs to push a Wan Hai container ship into position and then backing off to help the Freja Lupus, a red-hulled liquid bulk carrier out of Copenhagen that is heading toward the Pacific end of the canal.

“Pequení push full, push full now,’’ crackles the voice of a canal pilot from the radio.

As the gates of the canal swing open, the Pequení and a sister tug hold the ship in place until lines from small electric locomotives that will help guide it through the lock are attached to the Freja Lupus.

Even with the extra half shift he picked up for an absent captain, Church should have been off the water by now. But a tugboat captain can’t pull back in the middle of maneuvering a ship, so by the time Church arrives back at the Paraiso base, he has put in a 13 ½ hour day.

And at midnight, he’ll return for another day on the Panama Canal.

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