A Tale of Tugs of Two Cities Year: A Tough Season on the Circuit

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

By Don Sutherland

Fun and Games with a Purpose

It's been a rough year for tugmeets. Charleston, Boston, and Portland, whose Musters we've covered in the past, were respectively, skipped, canceled, and postponed. The World Ship Society tells us they'll be back next year with the Boston event, and the Portland muster, pre-empted by Hurricane Charlie, is taking place as this is written. We wish we could have gone north. While there are all sorts of good reasons to attend a tugmatch, we, being media people, think mostly about the good press they bring the business. The way things are shaping-up in such realms as national security, the price of fuel, environmental cleanliness and such, waterborne transport displays more and more advantage for the good of all. The one tug and barge that can move the load of some sixty 18-wheelers is something to think about. We're not anti-truck, but our population's still growing and more stuff's moving. The highways and streets are reaching saturation, and costs are reaching the breaking point. Wouldn't the world like to know how a strong maritime industry makes its contributions? These tug get-togethers provide an opportunity to bring the subject up. There's more to such events than just fun and games. There are personal challenges too. If you miss the bollard in a line toss, the world will probably forgive you sooner than you do. But also, if your boat wins the race, the bragging rights are another form of good press.

One more reason we like tugmeets is that they get us to ports afar from our native New York. We'd cover the midwest and the Pacific too, if we got word in time to work-out arrangements. Our reviews of the Charleston and Portland meets were also substantially profiles of those ports in general. And we've found common issues everywhere we've gone. It's hardly a scoop here that the pressure's on to displace maritime facilities with upscale residences. This may make rich people happy, along with whomever's cozy with developers, but we're not sure it serves the interests of the rest of the citizenry. This pressure is exerted to varying degrees in the Atlantic harbors, with perhaps Baltimore at one extreme and Portland at another. In New York, of course, we learned some implications of a waterfront without tie-ups on 9/11/01. A consciousness-raising seems due nationwide, and a bunch of great tugs duking it out good-naturedly - what kind of press could be better? And the two events we did get to this year - in New York harbor on Labor Day weekend and, a few days later, upstate at Waterford, the gateway to the canal system - were extra-spectacular, each for its own reasons. Each brought out more great tugs than usual - though the two sets of vessels were as different from each other as the towns that played host. If you're a tugnut, the second week of September was a good time for sightseeing.

The Intrepid Tug Whatever- the Homeboys Take a Hit

What's in a Name?

With the continuity of the Boston muster interrupted this year, the meet in New York becomes the longest continually running annual event of its kind. Or maybe it does. As the "Intrepid Tug Challenge," it ran for a decade. Then, a couple years ago, it got renamed "Intrepid Tug Festival." So even though hosted by the same organizers, anyone with a literal bent of mind would say this was only the second "Intrepid Tug Festival." It probably seems a pedantic point in the face of the grandeur of the actual event, but we can't help ourselves; "Tug Festival" sounds sissy. The term "festival" brings to mind jugglers and clowns and merry-go-rounds, all of which is swell. But that's not what the visitor finds at the event called, by most of the folks on the harbor, simply "the tug races." The event is much more than just races, of course, and the races, while stirring, are not the best measure of a vessel's success as a tugboat. Power is more the tugboat's mandate, and most observers seem to agree this is more clearly demonstrated in the nose-to-nose pushing contests. Those aren't definitive either - who has what current can be influential independently of vessel design - but they're more clearly descriptive of a tugboat's daily chore. As for the line-toss, the organizers in New York have designed the most challenging one they could imagine.

It's made from a charging boat that must not hit the dock, and the winner's whoever rings the bollard in the shortest time. Aside from a fair cooperation between deck and house, the trick here is to be fast enough but not too fast. It's a test of skill which accurately portrays what tugboating's about,. We're sire that's a challenge; not so sure it's so festive. Not a juggler or clown was to be seen, but the stars of the show, the tugs, were stunning. There were fourteen officially, though a few more may have been lurking. They ranged from the sparkling-new Patapsco, delivered to Vane Bros. in Baltimore just last April and a brute in every way, to small restorations and museum pieces. The 1901-built Urger came down from the canal, while the wooden W.O. Decker, built 1930, came around the corner from South Street Seaport.

The diminutive Emil P. Johannsen and the Fred Johannsen were back from up the river a piece. The Janice Ann Reinauer and the Dace Reinauer came out for the afternoon, and two tractors arrived from McAllister, the converted Kaleen McAllister , and the Vicki M. McAllister, down from Portland. Sea Bull and Sea Ox were there, looking tough, as was the Brandon C. Roehrig. K-Sea sent the Baltic Sea and one of its giants, Coral Sea, which graciously gave us our ride.

We take it back, there were clowns - or at least people clowning around. Each year the training tug Growler comes down from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy with the gents aboard, the future of the industry, dressed as something else. This year they were Romans, though their togas may have been a bit scant for the brisk, overcast day.

In the few hours they were at it, the collected tugs probably burned more than a few thousand gallons. At today's fuel prices, we'd call that a challenge. Chivalry Afloat Maybe it's not talked about so much, but there are traditions among tugboaters that seem downright chivalrous. Outright gallant, even. Consider something in our report from Portland last year. We described how the Vicki M. McAllister, a 98-ft. 5000-hp dual-Schottel tractor built in the year 2000, found herself pushed backward in the nose-to-nose contest by the 68-foot, 400 hp Fannie J, built in 1874. What a show of pluck and fortitude by the oldest working tugboat! The Vicki's Capt. Brian Fournier recalled something afterwards, about having forget something he was supposed to do with the clutch. We could say that spirit prevailed in New York on the Labor Day weekend.

What goes around comes around, and things were made easy for the Vicki. People all over the place - New York people - overlooked something they were supposed to do with the clutch. We could say the homeboys gave the visitors a break.

We could say it, but not with a straight face. The Vicki was one of two visitors from afar, here on other business, which dropped by the Challege and kicked butt. The second was the Patapsco, having brought a light barge from Baltimore.

The out-of-towners were of course the two newest tugs in the heat, and the Patapsco proved the fastest in the race. Although some have said that a race is decided in the first couple minutes, the Vicki took an early lead, with K-Sea's Coral Sea closing. All of a sudden, there was the 100-foot, 4200hp Patapsco at the head of the pack. And that's where she stayed till the finish.

After the race came the pushing matches, where all heck broke out. Boats went into frenzies of pushing, orgies of pushing - everyone squared-off with their favorite competitor or, if their competitors were occupied, they squared-off with their buddies. Sea Ox and Sea Bull had at each other, as did Kaleen and Vicki M. McAllister, to say nothing of Dace and Janice Ann Reinauer. There were probably other odd couplings all around us, but we have eyes in only one side of our head. It was a free-for-all, a vein-popping brawl. Before long, even the NYPD launch was going at the retired fireboat John J. Harvey.

The homeboys put on a good show, but ouch, we couldn't look. We were murdered. You've gotta have a lotta respect for anyone from out of town, who can come to New York and mop up. Their home town newspapers should have sent reporters.

Another Big Win Out-of-Town

Canalers at the Canal

Plenty of newspapers sent reporters to the Waterford Tug Roundup, five days later, 150 miles north of the Big Apple. The Record, the Times-Union, and the Gazette arrived from Troy, Albany, and Schenectady respectively, while the local affiliates of ABC, CBS, and NBC were also said to have paid a visit, along with Fox and Time-Warner. TV cameras love tugboats, of course, but even radio was there, in both FM and AM. The number of citizens who heard about tugboats that weekend was massive, out of which an estimated 25,000 actually turned-out over three days at the gateway to the Erie Canal.

It's not as if people upstate are lacking diversion. But the Tug Roundup has all the attributes of a country fair, with an amazing collection of tugboats as centerpiece. Vendors sell snacks and beverages, decorative items, models, books, and photos. There are lectures, a bodacious chicken barbeque, and a festive - right word, this time - fireworks display on Saturday night. There is the pageantry of a tugboat parade all the way from Albany, which takes a couple hours including a pause while everyone gets through the Federal lock at Troy. A lot of people on waterfront lawns and parklands sat and watched.

It was utterly appropriate that the launches of numerous authorities - The Rensselaer Sheriff's Department, the Albany Police Department, the New York State Police, and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation - escorted the procession through their jurisdictions, and they added immeasurably to the display. We would like to thank Rensselaer Sheriff's Dept. Marine Patrol Coordinator Don Abrams for having us aboard to photograph the parade, and also for not tossing us in the slam for obstreperous behavior.

The sense of scale and grandeur of the Waterford meet is not lost on the public. It culminates in the one thing they can do at Waterford that they can't elsewhere: board the boats, and climb all over them.

All kinds of people are attracted, but it's substantially family fare, with kids gaping at engines and wheelhouse controls. The W.O. Decker came up from South Street to give rides, and the 102-year-old Urger was back on home waters, pleasing the crowds as always.

It was the slightly more recent tugboats that dominated the view at the bulkhead, more this year than ever. In addition to the diminutive Benjamin Elliot from Troy Town Dock and Marina, there were four, count 'em, four fullsize canalers of the retracting wheelhouse breed, Jakobsons and Busheys.

They were the Crow from Empire Harbor Marine in Albany, which works the canal regularly; the Frances Turecamo, representing the North River Tugboat Museum, the Chancellor, formerly of the Museum and now being received by the Waterford Maritime Historical Society; and the Margot, from Kosnac Floating Derrick. Co., of New York City. We rode up on the Margot, with the nostalgic realization that she was leaving New York for good. Built as Hustler II, later Margot Moran, the Margot, a fixture on New York harbor in Kosnac orange, is a single-screw tug. And whether by law or by simple preference, New York is a twin-screw town. While Kosnac's year-old twin-screw June K. has been practically a perpetual-motion machine, Margot was idle. And that never does a tugboat much good.

"I called Rob Goldman months ago," Capt. Kosnac recounts, "and told him 'you need this boat.'" Rob Goldman of Troy Town Dock agreed, as she would fit into a new venture by the name of New York State Marine Highway Transportation, LLC. The new company will specialize in canal transportation, for which the Margot was built in the first place. On a narrow canal, a single-screw tug, with its wheel centered, is said to have an advantage.

A new feature this year, and "probably a keeper," according to Capt. John Callaghan, one of the puller-togetherers of the event, was a head-to-head pushing match. Evidently the fever had come up the river, perhaps having been brought by the Urger. The Chancellor, the Crow, the Benjamin Elliot, and the Urger went at one another, the Urger in a particularly aggressive mood. There were a lot of loud thuds. And the crowds gasped and cheered, the kids squealed, and writers from all over wrote it all down.

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