In Remembrance: Captain Fred Kosnac Jr. (1928-2004)

Tuesday, November 02, 2004
Capt. Fred Kosnac was the first tugboater I ever met. If a career can be considered in spiritual or symbolic or abstract terms to be "a life," then Fred Kosnac would rightly be called the patriarch of mine, as a writer and photographer and admirer of tugboaters and tugboats. The matriarch was of course a tugboat proper, the Hay-De, which Capt. Kosnac, based on a phone call out of the blue in 1980, made available to a curious and impressed young journalist. You mean something that works so hard, and has been at it since 1887, is still intact? I was fascinated, awed even, and saw a thousand idealistic morals in this particular tale. Capt. Kosnac, on that summer afternoon at his Wall Street yard, was indifferent to my awe.

He'd grown up around a lot of old junk, and this was merely older. But he was also indulgent as I scrambled around the boat, sticking my lens through windows, setting the angle of the deck in a way that would tell about tugboats - asking for the first time an ongoing question: if there's a soul in a tugboat, how do you get it on film?

The article I promised Capt. Kosnac didn't run, or at least wouldn't for another 22 years. My editor was fired before it was finished. Still, in what I would call an involuntary pattern, I kept bumping into old tugboats. The next was then called the Eileen Ann, three years older than Hay-De but, as I later found out, built in the same yard.

I became conscious of the infatuation in 1998, standing on the Museum pier at Hyde Street in San Francisco, where the beautiful and romantic square-rigger Balclutha sat, diagonally opposite the decorous Victorian-style sidewheel ferryboat, Eureka. Both were a vision. But it was the one in between them that I couldn't take my eyes off, the large and regal tug Hercules. She was built in 1906, also in the same yard as Hay-De.

The article I'd promised Capt. Kosnac, I then realized, was still being written. The next chapter began a couple months later, driving along the Staten Island shore. But isn't that the old Hay-De tied at that dock, there? The boats tied around her all had big K's on their stacks, and that was a clue.

Was I being followed? Who was following whom? By the year 2000, for a publisher in Canada, I was making a video about New York tugboats.

I contacted the Tugboat Enthusiasts Society to root around for background, and was invited to their convention. After I accepted, I found out that Capt. Kosnac and Veronica would be attending.

Yeah, that was his name, Fred Kosnac. I looked forward to meeting his wife, and continuing a 20-year-old interview. But when we were introduced at the TES banquet, it was a younger Fred Kosnac, and his sister. Still, could I go on the tour the next day on their boat?

The Margot?

If the older Fred Kosnac had been sort of a spiritual father, equally these would be my spiritual stepbrother and stepsister. I wanted to get acquainted.

I finally met the original Fred Kosnac, Fred Junior as they called him, at the beginning of this year, 24 years after that meeting at Wall Street. It was amid his friends, his family, and the families of his family at a party in his honor. I remember saying, when I shook his hand, that we'd begun talking way back in '80. I don't remember what exactly I said next, but it was probably like "and look, I've become such a hotshot that they asked me to photograph your 75th birthday!" Was I trying to please him?

We met for the final time a couple months later, in a Staten Island restaurant, to wind-up the interview. Fred III and Veronica and their mother June had had to talk Capt. Kosnac into coming, as he'd had a few mild strokes and was sometimes forgetful. His family said he was afraid he'd be embarrassed by any lapses. But lapses are fine, I'll take 'em. It's not the parts you leave out in a tale like this; it's the parts you keep in.

Capt. Kosnac passed away from a larger stroke the day before the story went to press. I would have liked him to see it in print, to show that I keep promises. But I imagine he'd have been no more impressed than on that day when I first climbed, all enthused, all over a tugboat. Lots of people had done the same with the same enthusiasm, and plenty of them wrote stories. She was a piece of junk, but she was a good piece of junk. As for keeping promises?

Plenty of that has been done, too, maybe by more people than he knew. Promises kept, and stories told. For anyone steering out of the harbor, it should be a satisfaction to think such came to port under his tow.

–Don Sutherland

Maritime Reporter June 2014 Digital Edition
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