The secret life of a bridge tender

Guest perspective: Greg Jones

I am a bridge tender. Some call bridge tenders America’s first line of defense, ever-vigilant monitors of the nation’s maritime lifeline. Some. Maybe. Maybe our mothers, who long ago despaired of us becoming doctors or lawyers.

Others are, necessarily, less flattering. Mention the subject of bridge tenders, and every sailor within conversational range will have a contribution. While the subject isn’t quite as laden with opinions as, say, anchoring, everyone will have an anecdote or two to support their argument.

Bridge tenders are a cursed necessity, some say. Others will opine that the job is a perfect example of a taxpayer-funded sinecure and that bridge tenders should get a real job. Still others candidly offer that the job seems like a great one, noting that the regimen is hardly an aerobic pursuit. “Whadiya work, 10 minutes every hour? How d’ya get a bridge-tender job?”

Leaving that question unanswered (since nobody seems to know), they then order another round and hoist a glass to their local bridge tender. The chances are very good they’ve never met the voice on the other end of VHF channel 13, but they know the voices of the local bridge tenders. They know which bridge tender will hold the bridge open an extra minute or two, and they’ll know which voice seems to be an automaton, opening and closing on a protocol so rigid and unspoken that it may have been inspired by the Vatican’s Swiss Guards.

These are sailors we’re talking about here. Whatever else they may think of bridge tenders, all will agree that the lonely bridge tender is there to assist the sailor. The only friction concerns how that role is performed.

Change the conversational demographics to the drivers of land vehicles, who sit in an ever-growing queue while the bridge cycles through an opening, and the discussion makes an observable tack to windward. The seas get rougher and the crew grows restive.

However, the swingbridge is not there for the benefit of the vehicles. That much ought to be obvious by the simple fact that its utility in allowing vehicles to pass from one landmass to another is eliminated when the bridge is being used for its intended purpose: opening for boats. Other bridges, non-opening spans with a singleminded devotion to vehicle traffic, serve their wheeled masters constantly. The bridges that open are not always is there for vehicles. They open and the vehicles must stop.

Is that necessarily a bad thing? It doesn’t need to be.

Rarely do the drivers and passengers take advantage of this blameless (and free) recess from the day’s otherwise predictable and often boring activities. Do they turn off their engines and walk to the bridge, the better to see the boats? Do they simply get out of their vehicle and stretch their legs?

The drivers do not envy the lonely bridge tender. They probably do not even like him for the most part. He is not there for them; worse, he is there to hinder them. His loyalty is to the boats, and, in this, the bridge tender is backed by the full authority of the United States Coast Guard.

In the event that a bridge will not be able open and close, the default mode must be in favor of the boats. Vehicles can turn around and find another way to get to the other side, but a boat cannot.

Most opening bridges operate on some sort of schedule. Perhaps openings will occur on the hour, or the half-hour, providing there is a “customer” needing the opening. The skipper will call the bridge, usually on VHF channel 13, and request the next scheduled opening.

Drivers who have to cross the same bridge often will know the schedule and try to time their arrival accordingly. Sometimes things don’t work out according to plan. Here’s why:

In the few minutes prior to opening the bridge, the bridge tender contacts the local emergency services to coordinate emergency vehicle traffic with the temporary road closure dictated by bridge openings. This sometimes means the opening for boats is delayed until the ambulance/fire truck/police car crosses the bridge.

This change to the normal schedule can sometimes have unexpected results. One hot summer afternoon, the opening was delayed to allow an ambulance to cross the bridge. For reasons not explained by the police dispatcher, the ambulance did not end up crossing the bridge, and I was then cleared to open the bridge to boats.

I lowered the crossing gates 15 minutes after the usually scheduled time. The first car to stop for the gate honked his horn, got out of his car, and walked over to my control booth – a tidy little spot slightly larger than the shower in a cheap motel – and began to yell at me.

“I live on the other side of this bridge,” he said. “I know the schedule, and plan my trips. Now I’m sitting here . . .the bridge should be open!” The more he talked, the louder he got, making it difficult to explain why the bridge was off-schedule.

I tried to explain the emergency vehicle thing (harder to do because of the ambulance’s no-show), that it wasn’t him, that there was no vendetta, and that we could still be friends, but he wasn’t having any of it. He turned around to go back to his car, and then, like Colombo turning around at the door, came back to me. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I just had to vent. I know it’s not your fault.”

He got higher marks than some other drivers. As the gate comes down, they try to squeeze by, hoping to fit just one more car, anything to avoid being delayed. They clear the first gate, but now the gate on the other side is down, and there they are, stuck in the middle.

The cure is to open the gates to let them out. With all the gates now open, one of the cars stopped for the bridge decides to go for it. He heads across the bridge, and the other cars now join in. It’s a vehicular prison break, but with no searchlights or sirens.

Drivers have driven into the gate, a mishap that stops everything until the mess is cleared. Bridge tenders are sometimes at fault as well, a violation of our sacred oath as bridge tenders, and certainly enough to keep the guilty party out of the Bridge Tender Hall of Fame.

There was the case of the bridge tender who did not reply after several radio calls from vessels. Finally, someone contacted people wearing uniforms and driving cars with flashing blue lights. They went to the bridge. Was he ill? Being held for ransom? Abducted by aliens? Would there be a miniseries on some obscure cable channel?

None of the above: He was asleep. Radio traffic among the boats that had been waiting for the bridge now featured people making snoring noises and laughing. No nominations into the BTHoF for this bridge tender.

If the road leading to the bridge is closed, the bridge tender might still have to be there. Some bridges cannot be left permanently open for boats because of their design. Well before the bridge is closed, signs are posted explaining why there are jersey barriers and red traffic cones the size of oil drums. The signs all say, “Road Closed.”

There are, however, motorists in whose hearts beats eternal optimism. They maneuver past the signs, the jersey barriers, and the red lights on the gates to ask me if the bridge is really closed. Perhaps they could get by? They can see their destination, so near that maybe desire will be sufficient to get them to their goal.

Through all this, the lonely bridge tender tends to his appointed duties. In moments of fellowship with other bridge tenders, we discuss our chosen career. Perhaps a better uniform would give us more recognition, a boost in status; maybe we could develop “branding.”

We imagined a Class A uniform for formal occasions like bridge dedications, where politicians take credit for the good things their predecessor did. For events like that, we considered taking inspiration from bantam republics in Central and South America: high-peaked hats and fitted jackets with Sam Brown belts and rows of medals.

Not the right image, we decided. Too brash, not in keeping with the tradition of serving in quiet anonymity. The folk legends of the heroic, singlehanded bridge tender are celebrated in song and story. Let others compose the epic tales while we tend to our bridges. America, sleep well tonight. Your bridge tenders are ever alert and watchful.

Greg Jones and his wife Barbara returned from their 21-month cruise to the Florida Keys and the Bahamas in June 2015. They sail Chamba, their 1979 Gulfstar 37, in Buzzards Bay and nearby waters when they’re not exploring farther afield. They live in Dartmouth, Mass., and are members of the New Bedford Yacht Club.