- by Carol Standish
Virginia Thorndike’s On Tugboats - Stories of Work and Life Aboard (Down East Books, 384pp, $18.95) is an extensive and detailed survey of the contemporary use of tugs and towboats throughout the United States. Meticulous research and many interviews with builders and restorers, pilots, masters, deck crews and fleet owners—who tend to be both frank and funny—combine to make this book a highly readable overview of the industry.
Being from Maine, the author worries that the book is disproportionately focused on the Maine tug scene but that concern seems unfounded as she follows both personnel and boats from many ports on their harbor tasks and offshore and coastwise journeys from the Texas coast to Newfoundland. West coast operations (San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle) are also considered.
In the first chapter, “Tugboats 101” the development of the physical attributes of tugboats is discussed in detail. All sorts of shapes, lengths, widths, drafts, power plants and trains, propellers, hawsers and wires, weaves, diameters and tensile strengths of tow line materials and various concoctions of “pudding” (fendering systems) are explained relative to the specific jobs of different types of craft. Most amazing in a maze of extraordinary mechanics and gear are the 90’ x 50’ ovoid “ship docking modules” powered with azimuth drives both stern and forward. (You’ll just have to read Thorndike’s description.)
Thorndike goes on to discuss the business of tugboating—from the entrepreneurial single boat owner to the large fleets that dominate a harbor or whole segment of the industry; from the busting of the union in the 1980s to the viability of the Jones Act (using U.S. built boats in U.S. waters).The future of the industry is then assessed by men and women working in it today.
Interviews with tug boat people delve into the many specific tasks of these unique vessels and their crews. They assist larger vessels in and out of tight places. They push and/or pull barges full of every conceivable commodity from garbage to petroleum. They cross oceans, tiptoe down the intracoastal waterway (there are 600 bridges between Virginia and Florida—most of them on bends) and navigate the narrow creeks of harbor cities. On 9/11 working tugs assisted the city fire boats in supplying water to fire fighters and ferried evacuees to New Jersey.
One of the best stories from the working tug boat community goes like this: Captain Melissa Terry, working as a deck-hand was off-watch, asleep in her room on a 3,900-horsepower, twin-screw tug with an empty 100,000 barrel manned barge in tow that had unloaded its cargo of gasoline. (The left-over vapors make a light barge more explosive than a full one.) They were headed down Long Island Sound toward New York City, towing the barge “up short” because of heavy fog and heavy traffic. Feeling a lurch in her sleep, woke up suddenly and ran up to the galley. The crew there had “‘eyes like saucers and were white as sheets’.” They had just missed a tanker—by ten feet. All they saw out the window when the two boats passed each other was red bottom paint. The 700’ ship was making 16 knots, the tug and 400’ barge, 10.
Offshore tugboaters like it dull and quiet. “Boring is good.” And then you receive the order to steam straight into Hurricane Floyd to search for a loose barge in 40’ seas after its own tug has sunk. “Sometimes you’re too scared to be seasick,” says the captain who took that trip. Nevertheless, the consensus is that the tugboating life is a good one. “ ‘Sometimes its like driving a taxi-cab through a snow bank with the doors open,’ ” says one captain, and “ ‘sometimes it’s like being a cowboy in complete control of your horse, herding and making the cows do just what he wants,’ ” says another.
The last section of the book focuses on restoration efforts of old boats by tug aficionados and “character tugs” like Theodore Too who has a face painted on his false stack with moveable eyes and shows up all kinds of watery events, especially when there are kids in attendance.
Thorndike has done a great job covering a massive and varied industry and it sounds as if she had a lot of fun in the process. The book is full of frank waterfront language and humor which conveys the strong flavor of work on board. Who knows, you may turn into a “tugnut” and move aboard your own perfectly restored antique some day.
Notice to Mariners: Captain Bob Peterson who runs a tug for Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Company told Thorndike in the course of their conversations, “ ‘If there’s one message you can get out there it’s to tell yacht people in general to find out where the commercial vessels are working on the radio—usually its channel 13—and at least have the courtesy to communicate with us...I would be happy to talk with you and let you know what I want to do, what I’m going to do. When I call someone and they answer, it makes my day. Often they’re intimidated, think we don’t want to be bothered, but I would rather be bothered than dragged off in chains.”