There is one type of boat common to every port in our ever shrinking and trading world. That vessel is the mighty yet comparatively little tugboat. Tugboats push and pull every type of vessel from gigantic ocean liners into their berths to multiple filled barges up and down coasts from Nova Scotia to South America. They are the tough guys of the seas.
I got hooked on boats at three yours old when my father read me the Golden Books “Scuffy”, about a hard working tug and “The Sailor Dog” who was a marooned sailboat captain. Once I could read myself, I wore those books out. I kept them until Sandy literally floated them away. (Get it? “LITERALLY- floated”?). Then came films on “Million Dollar Movie” including “Tug Boat Annie” and the best film ever made”On the Water Front”. Man, did I want to be Terry Malloy, a former boxer played by Marlon Brando who worked as a longshoreman. I wanted to box like him, have his attitude and talk like him “I could have been a contender instead of a bum which is what I am!’’ In the background scenes, ships came and went while tugs pushed, pulled and whistled. Going to high school on the East River only hooked me more. It still shows sixty years later in some the nuances of my speech patterns.
I never became a tugboat captain nor are my sailing skills of the quality that would make “The Sailor Dog” proud. But these influences shaped my love of the sea and boats with a special affinity for tugs. Having owned all types of fishing boats, I once considered buying one of those fancy “pleasure tugs”. I went up to several dealerships in Connecticut and found them far too “cushy” for my taste. I wanted something that smelled like diesel, sweat, and wet lines, which weren’t offered as an option, so I abandoned the idea.
Before the age of the great sailing ships, most vessels used a combination of both sail and oar. From the time of the ancient mariners, this made docking easier. The Greeks and Romans, Vikings and Medieval sailors would use their oars to navigate into docks. Most of these vessels were small enough to row or sail them right on to sandy beaches and leave at high tide using their large crews to push these vessels back into the sea and then row until the wind would catch the sail. As trade increased during the Renaissance, bigger and bigger ships were built and though in many case oars were stilled used (Capt. Kidd preferred them). Beyond a certain size oars became impractical. To compensate for this, other methods were developed.
Ships could either “lay out” anchored in the harbor and large open boats could be rowed out to take off passengers and cargo or they could trail out long hawsers (thick lines), attach them to the ship and the dock crews would slowly heave way to bring the ship to dock. None of this was easy and as ships grew in size during the 18th century new solutions needed to be found. The answer came in the form of steam power.
Steam power came into its day in the late 1700s. The dawning of the 19th century saw smaller boats being fitted with steam power. It made these boats very maneuverable and required less manpower to crew them. The first designed tugboat was steam powered and patented by Jonathan Hulls of Gloucestershire in 1736. There is no record of one of his tug designs ever being built and tested. The first built tug was patented in Scotland by William Symington in 1802 and named Charlotte Dundas. He fitted a 10HP steam engine on a paddlewheel boat and took 20 passengers and two barges in tow up the Forth and Clyde Canal in Glasgow. She made only one trip. The owners of the canal feared the action of the paddle wheel would damage the shores of the canal so where she docked, she stayed and rotted.
Artist and Engineer Robert Fulton was born in landlocked Lancaster, Pennsylvania in1765. He was a jeweler and artist specializing in portraits in Philadelphia. In 1787 he traveled to Europe where his painting was not up to par with the Europeans so he began studying ships and propulsion. Two methods intrigued him, water jet propulsion ejected by a steam pump, and the mechanical steam-powered paddle method. Fulton proved that a single stern paddle gave the most thrust and control. While experimenting, he was also engineering canals, inventing and building the first practical submarine called the Nautilus, armed with torpedoes, which he tried to sell to Napoleon who rejected the idea as a “dishonorable “ way to fight the British.
In 1801 Fulton met Robert Livingston, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a very wealthy New Yorker, while in France. Livingston invested with Fulton and they developed a steamboat while Fulton was also selling his submarine idea to the British to fight Napoleon. (Man, when it comes to profiting off weaponry there is no bounds to the skullduggery!). The British used his submarine in two unsuccessful attacks on the French and then abandoned the idea. Meanwhile, Livingston had made a deal with New York State for the exclusive use of steamboats on New York waterways so back to the good old USA Fulton went. If he couldn’t blow up ships in Europe he would take his ideas elsewhere.
Back in the USA in 1807, he began engineering a new steamboat with Livingston while trying to sell his submarine idea to the U.S. Government (again with the submarine - What is it with this guy?). His first successful Hudson River steamboat was the Clermont. He went on to build other boats and inventions but spent a fortune defending his patents and died nearly bankrupt in 1815. He never imagined the source of propulsion he championed would be the basis for the most powerful little boats ever built - the tugboat. (arriving at the Pearly Gates the first words he said to St. Peter were “Can I interest you in a submarine”!)
Mariners and engineers watched these new fangled steamboats ply up and down the rivers. By 1825, the first true tug and towboat, the “Rufus King”, was towing large sailing vessels into New York Harbor, gently pushing them into berths to unload passengers and cargos. This technique spread to all major harbors in America and beyond. Large barges, built to be towed by tugboats, were a faster, more economical way to move goods in harbors, rivers and canals. In pursuit of more power and maneuverability, paddle wheels were replaced by screw propellers, multiple engines and more durable, hydrodynamic hulls fashioned from steel. New “ocean going” capabilities brought additional income by salvaging ships wrecked on sandbars or dead in the water without power.
By WWI steam was being replaced by diesels. There can be as many as three engines on today's tugs. In WWII, radio communication became standard enabling tugs to stay in action for longer periods. By the late 1950s navigation and radar equipment became indispensable for all tugs. These improvements reduced the number of tugs needed. Years ago large crews worked primarily on a daily 8 am to 4 pm schedule. Today tugs can stay out working for 24 days at a time with smaller crews. They are universally used in every large port, ocean, river and large commercial lakes like our Great Lakes.
In our mid-Atlantic area Homeport is “Tugboat Alley” on the North Shore of Staten Island. It is a salty place almost ten miles long from a little past the Verrazano and all along Kill Van Kull to the Bayonne Bridge. Today, this is the world of Terry Molloy, the real ‘On the Waterfront”! It’s a shoreline of working boatyards and docks, smells of decaying bulkheads and tug company offices. It’s a place of swirling seagulls and tugboat crews who have crusty lingo, year round sun and wind burns and hands that can crush oysters when they want them with a cold beer.
Here is found all sizes and shapes of tugs. There’s the standard “Scuffy” type tug with tires hung over its gunnels to protect her and the vessel she’s pushing and the “Truckable” tugs with flat bottoms and high flat bows. They are small and can be hauled onto a flatbed and trucked to a destination. You see them often helping on bridge construction and maintenance. There’s big “push boat tugs” with flat fronts pushing heavy tonnage barges with more control than towing tugs. I’ve seen them push as many as fifty barges at once. From these shores, you look across to Jersey and see container ships unloading and the stacks of the giant cruise ships now too large to dock on Manhattans west side. All these huge ships have been aided by those tugs that have names like Moran or McAllister or other smaller companies on their sides.
I end this short testimonial to tugs with the biggest, most powerful tugboat of them all, the 6,500HP “Edward J. Moran”. She works out of Port Savannah helping giant liquid nitrogen gas tankers into port safely. The “Edward J.” has the most sophisticated steering and monitoring equipment available. Her wheelhouse is like the Kennedy Space Command Center. She can come to an immediate dead stop, turn, and pivot on a dime. She has to. She is delivering giant vessels loaded with highly explosive materials safely into port. She would make “Scuffy” proud and if “The Little Sailor Dog” saw her, he would be in awe!