The little tugboat that could stay

By John Kelly
Saturday, November 20, 2010; 6:47 PM

What do you know about the tugboat anchored in the middle of the Potomac River just south of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge? It's been there a long time.

- John Niccolls, Round Hill, Va.

Answer Man went over to take a look at this vessel the other day and found it to be just the cutest thing, with a blue hull, a white wheelhouse and a red, white and blue smokestack. It looks like it should star in a children's TV series: "The Sedentary Tugboat." For, you see, this particular tugboat - which is called the Bourne - hasn't gotten around much since its anchor was dropped about two years ago.

"We definitely have received complaints about the vessel in the past, mostly from concerned citizens asking, 'Why is it out there?' " said Lt. Cmdr. John Burns, chief of the U.S. Coast Guard's waterways management division for this area.

Well, why is it? It's out there because it's allowed to be. A boat may anchor anywhere that it does not obstruct a waterway's "navigable capacity." All a vessel the size of the Bourne must do is display a white light on its mast at night.

The Bourne is owned by J Way Leasing and Marine, a company based in Avon, Ohio. The company does dredging and other marine construction work. The tug was last used a couple of years ago on a job involving the Pentagon's water intake, said company president Alan Johnson. As it would be very expensive to move it to J Way facilities in Norfolk or Jacksonville, Fla., the Bourne is kept in the Potomac, he said.

"It gives us a competitive advantage to be real close to where the work will be," Alan said. He allowed as how he hadn't thought there would be so quite much time between jobs. He was hoping to use it on the 11th Street Bridge project, but lost out on that contract. (He said none of the marinas in our area can accommodate a vessel that draws as much water as the 100-foot Bourne.)

"Fortunately or unfortunately, being an eyesore isn't necessarily against the law," said Lt. Cmdr. Burns. "We have to ensure everyone has equal rights to the waterway. If it's not appropriately lit or not operated in accordance with navigation rules, that's when we would have additional concerns."

The Bourne has occasionally been a cause for concern. It was originally on the other side of the river but last winter it dragged its anchor (possibly becµause it was pushed by ice, though Alan thinks vandalism may have been involved) and ended up in the channel. The Coast Guard took action and the Bourne was moved out of the traffic lane.

Another time, the Bourne was briefly "federalized" because of concerns over oil in the bilge. Lt. Cmdr. Burns said the Coast Guard took ownership of the tug to get the oil off of it, then charged J Way for the work.

The Bourne isn't the only fixture near the Wilson Bridge. A barge anchored nearby is owned by Melka Marine, an Alexandria-based company that does dredging, pile driving and commercial diving.

What about the notion that the river should be kept pristine, free of barges and boats that sit in one place for years on end?

"The river wouldn't be pristine if it wasn't for people like us who help keep it that way," Johnson said. He's thinking of moving the Bourne to Norfolk for the winter.

Next week: Another maritime mystery.

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