Bridge Watch: He provides ‘necessary service’

“Water before roads” rules Winston Joyner’s job as one of three bridge operators at the Beades Bridge on William T. Morrissey Boulevard, he says in noting that Coast Guard laws give boaters the absolute right of way. “We are a necessary service” for public safety, he adds.

Many people do not want to stop for the drawbridge, and try to race through before the gates have closed, Joyner said in a recent interview. Pedestrians and bikers might be unaware of the bridge, while others are on their cell phones, not paying attention, he said.

Joyner recalled a “few crashes through the gate.”

One car whose driver was apparently asleep charged ahead, despite a stoplight, a horn at the light and on the bridge, and bells on the closing gates. The nose of his car stuck in the crack of the opening bridge, but the driver was only “a little shook up.” Joyner said.

Joyner said he told the driver that “somebody upstairs likes you,” and later discovered that the man was a priest.

The bridge takes about five minutes to rise and five minutes to settle back into place, and usually only one or two boats go through at a time, Joyner said. When a boater calls for “an opening,” the bridge operator does not usually check the height of a boat, Joyner said.

“We’d rather open for them than have them get a little nervous” about getting stuck or breaking their boat, Joyner said. He laughed, and said the policy is to raise the bridge “within discretion,” not for something as small as a rowboat.

When a boat has called and is nearing the bridge, the bridge operator must switch on power to the drawbridge. Nothing more can happen until he switches the traffic lights to red, and then slowly lowers the safety gates that prevent vehicles from trying to cross. Once it is safe to raise the bridge, Joyner lifts it just enough to separate the interlocking sides before opening it with full power. To close the bridge, one side is lowered almost completely before the other is lowered to nestle against it again.

Bridge operators always have a ship-to-shore radio set to Coast Guard channel 13 for emergencies, Joyner said. Boaters usually call on the telephone, however, to request a bridge opening ahead of time. Joyner said he typically would respond by saying “an opening will be coming up shortly,” while he looks for a break in traffic.

“Whenever they (boaters) call, we’re there for their service,” Joyner said.

Joyner estimated that the bridge is raised for about 800 boats each year.

Until June, bridge operators fill two shifts a day: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 4 p.m. to midnight, Joyner said. From June until October, a bridge operator will be present at all times, with the three operators splitting the 24 hours. During rush hour on weekdays during the boating season, from 7:30 to 9 a.m. and from 4:30 to 6 p.m., operators provide a “downtime” for uninterrupted traffic.

Because only one operator works each shift, when something goes wrong, there is no one else to blame, Joyner said. “I’m like my own boss.” He said he passes the time listening to National Public Radio and other radio programs.

Joyner said he trained for about two and a half weeks when he began as a bridge operator in 1994. He practiced operating the bridge during day, afternoon and night shifts, to experience the differences.

Joyner and the other bridge operators are employed by the Department of Transportation, but used to be employed by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. “Don’t ask about the pay,” Joyner said. According to the Massachusetts Open Checkbook, his annual salary is $38,148.

Before he became a bridge operator, Joyner worked in heating, ventilation and air conditioning maintenance at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Institute in Boston.

“I’ve got grandkids; that’s a challenge,” Joyner said with a laugh, when asked what his greatest challenges have been. He also mentioned that he has been married for 43 years. “We’re still friends after all these years and not many people can say that,” he said.

Joyner will be 74 years old in August. He said he appreciates that there is no forced retirement in this type of job because the medical benefits are important.

Eva Botkin-Kowacki is an undergraduate student in the Northeastern University School of Journalism.