Working the off shore shaft on Lake Sakakawea was always interesting and challenging. We worked a small crew and each shift had a tugboat operator who transported supplies back and forth from shore. The tugboat also transported our crews at shift changes. Surprisingly, good tug boat operators were very hard to come by. We were in an area that didn’t normally see much off shore work. In the areas of a lot of tugboat activity the good tugboat operators were never out of work. The poor and mediocre operators were most likely to end up on small projects like ours.
We were working on a typical North Dakota afternoon. The wind was holding 35 to 40 miles an hour and pushing in four and five foot swells from the north. The tug boat was on it’s way to our work barge with a supply of bagged cement stacked on pallets. The cement was on a barge and the tugboat pushed it from behind. The tug was pushing into the wind coming from shore, would go past our work barge, make a big loop, and come in on our leeward side to deliver the cement. This was a normal daily activity for the tugboat operator. Part of his job was calculating his speed, accounting for drift from the wind and waves, and safely approaching our work barge to get tied off.
The crew was working in the shaft over 100 feet down while suspended in a work cage held in place by our 100 ton crane. The 100 foot boom of the crane was centered directly over the shaft, but the barge was not connected to the shaft. It was stabilized in position with four large steel spuds on each corner embedded in the bottom of the lake while the barge floated on the water. The spuds reduced the movements of the barge from wind and wave action. As I walked on the barge the tug boat was coming at us way too fast. The operator was trying helplessly to adjust his drift in the wind. He had let the wind carry him too far and was on a collision course with us. I told Joe the crane operator to blow the crane horn, our pre-arranged danger signal. Joe locked the boom and the brakes on the crane. I ran to the shaft and screamed for the crew to get in the middle of the cage. When the tugboat and cement barge hit I thought surely the spuds holding us in position would shear. It was a big hit and everybody held onto something to keep from getting knocked down. As soon as we recovered we threw ropes and tied off the barge. We had a few messes to pick up, but no serious injuries or damage.
The tugboat operator didn’t get off easy……..he got to stack the dislodged cement bags back on their pallets.