Many years ago several of us, girls who worked for Wall Street law firm partners, would meet to have lunch at Sloppy Louie’s near the Fulton Fish Market. After lunch we’d walk out to the end of the closest pier, hoping to see a tugboat docked or coming in to get lunch at Sloppy Louie’s. If we were really lucky, we’d be invited aboard for a tour of the galley and the crew’s quarters. We all thought the tugs were neat boats and that working on a tugboat must be a wonderful job.
What impressed us, getting on the tugs, was the honest look of the boats. Unlike the pleasure craft we were used to seeing and using on the weekends, here was a true workboat, all muscle, heavy chains, thick rope and huge bits with truck and aircraft tires strung around the hull. This was a boat made for heavy duty contact with other ships and docks. Old tires were used, they told us, because of the durability factor and aircraft tires had more plies so they were used in the bow area and the truck tires protected the sides of the hull.
Fast forward, over time, several jobs and careers late
r, I met people who actually worked on tugs, captained or crewed, and most agreed that even with the time constraints of being away from home for long periods, they loved what they did and didn’t think of it as the hard work it really was. They always looked forward to the next trip, to the challenges of the weather, even to solving mechanical and operational problems. They were not put off by change and being away from the mainland on their own gave them a sense of control that they said no mainland job would give them. In the words of tug Captain Chris Brogan, “This is one of the last jobs on the face of the earth where you can be the absolute master of what you do.” Chris Brogan is a tug captain for the Sun Transportation Company’s New Jersey Sun.
There are three basic types of tugs: ocean, harbor and river. The ocean tug is the largest, doing salvage, rescue and towing far from the shore. The notch tug was developed to move the tug and the tow as one so it can safely move faster. The notch tug has a long, narrow bow that slides into an opening in the stern of the barge it is towing so it actually pushes the barge from behind. There are also articulated tug and barge combinations that are often used together but can be separated.
The harbor tug is what most of us have seen and are familiar with. These are the tugs that move ships and tankers into the harbor and in and out of berths that are often just a few feet longer than the ships or tankers being docked. Harbor tugs, although smaller than ocean tugs, are among the most powerful. Ocean liners today are often more than 1100 feet long, container ships are bigger, over 1300 feet long and oil tankers are often over 1200 feet long.
Harbor tugs include the old, conventional propeller and rudder type that are useful and efficient for towing jobs. Harbor tugs also describe the tractor tugs that are often defined as tugs that supply traction for vessels that are not capable of doing it without help. Their power comes mostly from z-drives (azimuth thrusters) located under the hull about amidships. Eliminating the need for rudders, z-drives can rotate 360 degrees, which means the vessel can turn on a dime, stop and reverse direction quickly, move sideways and become as maneuverable as you need it to be. Another benefit of z-drives is that they can be repaired without hauling the boat.
River tugs are called pushboats or towboats and are the smallest and lightest of the three types of tugs. They are the tugs that move the grain and other farm products through rivers to coastal ports and on the return trip these tugs and barges bring in supplies used in the mid-section of the country. These are more likely to be older tugs that are doing the towing. Tugs have a long life and can be repowered and refurbished over and over. Some of the older tugs have added Kort nozzles to increase their thrust. The MARCON INTERNATIONAL Tugboat Market Report, an overview of the tug market, says that of the 4600 tugs they tracked worldwide, 8% were over 50 years old and three were 75 years old.
Smaller tugs do a lot of the barge and ship parking in smaller harbors. They do local shorefront work including bulkheading and marine based construction. Older single screw tugs can do whatever jobs come up. Some companies like Tymac in Vancouver Harbor, British Columbia, have a mixed fleet of small tugs, pilot boats, water taxis and single and twin screw tugs to service ships alongside their piers and making deliveries to ships in the harbor.
Tugboats are often manned by a crew of a captain, a mate, a deckhand, an engineer and a cook. The captain, who is licensed, is well paid. Captains work about 180 days a year, usually 2 weeks on, 2 weeks off, with a median salary of a little over $100,000 a year. For captains and crews that like to travel and have the freedom that is part of merchant marine work, there is increasing demand for their services. Engineers can make higher salaries than captains. The benefits, beyond travel, are the freedom and the early start. On-the-job experience can start with summer jobs. Only the engineer has to be a college graduate with an engineering degree. Tug captains need at least 30 months experience, of which at least 12 months of that time has to be as a steersman (tugboat apprentice mate). The mate works closely with the captain and is considered the second captain with the designation Mate of Towing. The captain is the Master of Towing, the first captain. The Coast Guard issues the certificate to work as a tug captain.
Tugboat work isn’t all beautiful sunsets, freedom and the wonderful smell of salt water. There are risks that go beyond the rogue waves that are now thought to have sunk the 730 foot ore carrier, the Edmund Fitzgerald, in Lake Superior in 1975. Onboard a small vessel crammed with the business end of towing – winches, bits, chain, heavy metal hawsers – on a wet, slippery deck, accidents happen fast. Tugs navigating in tight quarters are often bumped by other tugs – no big deal if you see it coming and hold on for a minute, but the cook may just have taken a pot of soup off the stove. Heavy weight on deck and very low freeboard contribute to the capsizing of tugs. The recoiling heavy metal hawser can snap and sever a deckhand’s arm or knock him overboard. Accidents are so common on barges and tugs that OSHA’s safety booklet covering these boats starts by describing slips, trips and falls and how to avoid them.
Tug companies have a wide range of specialized work that they do. McAllister Towing, founded by Capt. James McAllister in 1864 after he arrived from Ireland, operates a fleet of more than 70 tugs, crew boats and barges in 17 locations on the East Coast of the US from Maine to Puerto Rico, docking ships for more than 1,000 steamship companies, harbor and coastal towing and bulk transport. Moran Towing was founded in 1860 by Michael Moran who had recently arrived from Ireland. The company specializes in oil and dry bulk transport. K-Sea Transportation moves petroleum products with their fleet of 35 tank barges, 3 tankers and 18 tugboats. Don-jon Marine does dredging, ice breaking, salvage and tug and barge transport but is best known for their salvage work. Great L
akes Dredge and Dock does dredging of channels and harbors and restoration work.
What do tugs and their crews do for fun and entertainment? In New York City there’s the Annual Great North River Tugboat Race and Competition. Held on the Sunday before Labor Day, more than 15 tugs usually assemble at the starting line on West 70th Street at Pier 1 in Riverside Park. The race starts at 10:30 and the boats head for Pier 84 at 42nd Street in Hudson River Park. Awards are given for line throwing, the best dressed crew, the best tattoo, the best mascot, the best team spirit, a spinach eating contest and a nose-to-nose pushing contest between tugs. Other races are held on the west coast in the State of Washington and inland on several rivers. A more sophisticated event, a ballet, takes place in Germany every year in May at a festival celebrating the anniversary of the opening of Hamburg as a port. Eight tugboats perform choreographed movements for an hour to the tunes of waltzes and other dance music.
People who try working in the merchant marine area usually find out with their first trip that they really like the work or never want to go out on a tugboat again. Nancy Taylor Robson, the author of “Woman in the Wheelhouse,” wrote about her six year experience as a cook, deckhand and then as a licensed mate, “It was like the first taste of a drug, intoxicating, seemingly harmless, but the beginning of a slowly growing addiction.”