Tugboats…those diminutive yet all so powerful workhorses of this nation’s deep water ports…such as those of the great Chesapeake Bay. We learned to love tugs as children; they continue to hold a certain fascination for us as adults.
The tugs present a maritime cornucopia of sensory stimuli. Their size, shape, and color are as varied as the unique names displayed on their bows. Massive engines, some boasting more than 4,000 horsepower, are responsible for the pungent aroma of diesel fuel and the dark smoke belching from tall stacks. Whistle toots and ear shattering horn blasts, the secret language of the tugs, occasionally interrupt the stillness of the harbor. Somehow the tugboats evoke an emotional response from many of us, be we nautical buff, seaman, or landlubber.
It has been noted that the tug is nothing more than “a floating power plant needing only to be big enough to provide an adequate base for her machinery and strong enough to withstand the rigors of her trade.” Tugboats are, however, more than steel and diesel fuel; they are the working address of a special group of freshwater sailors – the affable gentlemen of the harbor.
The tugmen come silently down the pier as solitary beings. Each is a part of his (or her) own world, with its inherent joys and tribulations. Some have traveled hours from homes far from the seagull’s cry. Their nondescript manner of dress lends no credence to the landlubber’s vision of a tug boater. Each carries with him his daily kit, perhaps a newspaper, and the makings for breakfast or lunch, maybe an extra set of clothes.
As they climb aboard the first boat of a three-tug raft, they seem to take in little of their expanded environment, being cognizant of no more than what is underfoot. For they have traveled this path before, more times than they would care to remember. Arriving at almost the exact minute of scheduled departure, each crewman goes directly to his station. Down into the tug’s enormous engine room goes the engineer to shift the diesels from standby to full power. The mate ascends the narrow steps to his darkened wheelhouse, awaiting the casting off of lines. Deckhands grapple with the cumbersome six-inch diameter hawsers, heavy with the night’s dew. The captain goes directly to his private cabin, readying himself to board the day’s first arriving ship. They are a crew now. Five men depend on each other’s skill for their very lives.
Dawn is still more than an hour away as the mournful wail of the whistle signals the beginning of what will probably be a tiring ten to twelve hour day. The marine radio crackles with static intermixed with the heavily
accented voice of a merchant ship captain, anxious to discuss procedures for the underway transfer of the tug’s captain. The tug will rendezvous with its charge at the outer limits of the Baltimore Harbor, where the Patapsco River flows into the Chesapeake Bay.
Traveling via an ordinary house ladder or by a dangerously dangling rope and wood Jacob’s ladder, the tug captain will cross to take the ship’s helm. Under his guidance, the tug or perhaps tugs will gingerly maneuver the larger vessel to within the grasp of the waiting line handlers. This procedure or its mirror image will be repeated time and time again before the shore based dispatcher instructs the tug to return to the “barn” as the men affectionately call the Fells Point terminal. Satisfied with another day’s assignments completed without injury or damage, the men will go home to rest before returning for the next shift. Such is the life of a world port’s workhorses and their dedicated, if not at all times appreciated, crews.
The tugmen’s work is often hazardous, occasionally grueling and at times even boring. They exhibit a cool professionalism in the process of their sometimes awesome responsibility. While no sea shanties celebrate their exploits, nor are they the stuff of bestselling novels, the tugboats have been and continue to be an important, almost romantic segment of our maritime heritage.
My valued friendship with one of the port of Baltimore’s senior tug captains enabled me to experience the sights and sounds of the commercial harbor from the “other man’s” vantage point. If an opportunity arises, visit the tugman as he and his boat rest between assignments. Scratch the surface of his sometimes defensively gruff exterior and find a caring, articulate individual. Should an offer be extended to come aboard for a cup of coffee, listen to the sound of the engines. Feel the texture of the hawser, the strength of the deck underfoot. Imagine a ship’s mammoth hull so close it’s almost within reach. Tugboats have served and will continue to serve as the all-important middlemen of the shipping industry.