America’s Commercial Mariners Critical to Navigating COVID-19

Tug DR. MILTON WANER with Barge HMS 2605 resupplying diesel to terminal in New York Harbor. (Credit: Brian Moore)
Tug DR. MILTON WANER with Barge HMS 2605 resupplying diesel to terminal in New York Harbor. (Credit: Brian Moore)

Published Apr 20, 2020 7:25 PM by Jennifer Carpenter

The United States has historically looked to its mariners to help us navigate through national emergencies, and that remains true for the pandemic we are battling now.

Recently, President Trump signed bipartisan legislation to honor the United States Merchant Mariners of World War II with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor Congress can bestow. This recognition was exceedingly well-deserved – these long-overlooked heroes were a critical part of the war effort, transporting servicemembers and vital supplies across the ocean to battlefields overseas. The U.S. Merchant Marine suffered the highest per capita casualty rate of any of the armed services during the war, but America’s mariners never hesitated to serve their nation in that time of global crisis. 

Today, the mariners of the American tugboat, towboat and barge industry carry on that selfless effort to transport the nation’s cargo on the water, in good times and bad. They are accustomed to serving their country in the regular course of their work – every year, the men and women of this industry navigate America’s rivers, coastal waters and Great Lakes to deliver over 760 million tons of fuel, agricultural products, building materials, manufactured goods and other commodities that drive our nation’s economy. 

They operate as part of the safest, greenest and most efficient form of freight transportation in the country, as it takes more than a thousand trucks to move the same amount of cargo as a standard 15-barge tow pushed by a single towboat. And they are proud contributors to the nation’s security, whether by transporting military fuel and equipment on domestic waters, providing ship-assist capabilities to guide large Navy vessels safely into U.S. ports, or serving as “eyes and ears” on the water for the U.S. Coast Guard in support of its homeland security mission.  

America’s commercial mariners do all this and more in normal times. And as the United States now grapples with safeguarding public health from the spread of COVID-19 while maintaining the viability of our economy despite social distancing, our nation’s mariners are indispensable to the fight.

While the economy is undeniably struggling during this challenging time, the tugboat, towboat and barge industry continues to deliver the supplies needed to keep it running, helping to electrify our homes, fuel our cars and put food on our tables. Even as many barge and towing companies are still working to recover from last year’s historic high-water conditions in the Midwest, this industry remains resilient in fulfilling its everyday mission under today’s difficult circumstances.

These mariners’ efforts are also helping take the fight directly to COVID-19. The Navy hospital ships USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy were able to deliver medical assistance to two of the nation’s hardest-hit cities because American dredges ensured the Manhattan Cruise Terminal channel was deep enough to accommodate the USNS Comfort, and tugboats helped each ship depart safely for their destinations and dock safely into port upon their arrival in New York and Los Angeles, respectively. 

Meanwhile, towboats in the Pacific Northwest are transporting pulp and woodchips to make the packages and paper goods, from takeout boxes to toilet paper, on which we are all relying today, while tank barges in the South are transporting industrial alcohol to make hand sanitizer and petrochemicals to make masks and other protective gear. 

The Department of Homeland Security recognized the urgent importance of this work when it identified maritime transportation workers as Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers during the COVID-19 response, and the men and women of this industry continue to perform these essential services with great dedication and sacrifice. Tugboat, towboat and barge companies are working tirelessly to keep crews and communities safe while delivering the nation’s cargo, and mariners are continuing to work through all kinds of conditions, away from their families, to get the job done. 

To honor these everyday heroes, and help them continue to help all of us, we need to ensure that waterways infrastructure like locks, dams and ports continue to operate smoothly during this critical time. We also need to make sure that maritime transportation workers can get to their jobs seamlessly across county and state lines, which is why The American Waterways Operators has created template letters on its COVID-19 webpage to help companies identify their mariners to state and local authorities as Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers per DHS guidance.

Most especially, we need to offer our deepest thanks to American mariners, their companies, and their families, for helping our nation navigate to calmer waters. 

Jennifer Carpenter is President & CEO of The American Waterways Operators, the trade association of the American tugboat, towboat and barge industry. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.