A Tale of Tugs of Two Cities

Thursday, October 10, 2002
There's N.Y., and there's N.Y., N.Y. They are as unalike as two places can be. One is upstate, the other is downstate. One is composed of small and medium-size towns, the other ranks with the biggest cities in the world. One is a land laced with rivers and canals, the other occupies islands on one of the Atlantic's broadest harbors. Attitudes and styles are different in both places, too. Ed Koch, a television personality who once campaigned for governor, can tell you from experience that a big-city boy never mentions "gingham dresses" north of White Plains. Waterford and Manhattan are a three-hour ride apart, two if you speed, but even the language sounds different in both places.

But they both have their tugboats. And everyone loves tugboats. Whether big and burly or snappy and small, they speak of a life some fear has vanished. Hard work, inventive solutions, skill, pride - such things show less on resumes than in day-to-day practice. But in two very different places, four days apart in September, tugs - new to very, very old - were the common denominator all over the state. The Intrepid Tug Challenge New York City isn't only big, it's fast. We don't know if anyone has measured, to the nearest nanosecond, exactly how long a "New York Minute" is, but it's gotta be quick. "The town without foreplay," is how Playboy magazine once phrased the New York experience, whose mantra might be, "get down to business or get outta my way." That being a local imperative, it must be doubly frustrating to New York crews that tugs do as much waiting as they do. The ocean's not always on New York time. But the Intrepid Tug Festival was on time this Labor Day, despite gray and rainy weather. It took true believers to line the floating dock at the stern of the Intrepid, but they were there to get down to business.

So were the tugs. Not all were from NYC proper, but among those that were, most were unmistakable. New York, the city that nurtured the skyscraper, has very tall tugs. They push very large barges dense with petroleum products, up sometimes winding courses like the Kill Van Kull. Helps if they can see where they're going. Some form of pilot house extension is almost standard on barge-handling tugs in N.Y., and some of K-Sea's boats were tall before they were extended. You can stand seven stories above the water on some of those boats.

"Tugboat races had been a tradition," the Intrepid's Andrew Yamoto told us, "but died out since NY had ceased being a major port. Intrepid reintroduced them in 1993." For most of this decade, the Intrepid's event has been called the "tug challenge." This year it was the "tug festival."

The original is more New York-like. Tugs face challenges every day, this day being different only insofar as they challenged each other. Are they festive? That's a matter of opinion. Sure, the skippers and crews know how to have good times. But we think of "festive" as traipsing through tulips, and we saw none of that on that drizzly afternoon.

The major events were narrated over large public-address speakers, typically with insight and good humor. To a world accustomed to the play-by-play, it can help to be formally told that the parade has begun, and that when the tugs reach the yacht basin a mile upriver, the great race will begin.

And what a race! A dozen or more giant tugs, running at top speed, can make quite a slop of the surface of a river. The North River's broad enough that the wakes peter out before reaching shore, but the vessels themselves find plenty to splash through. Horns blazing, they make a multimedia spectacular for visitors aboard and onshore. The high-pitched narration - which for those churning downriver is heard more in tone than in word - assures all within earshot that this no ordinary race.

One of the things that makes it so is, of course, the nature of tugboats. It's nice that they're fast, but their objective is power. Nobody needs a petroleum barge skimming the harbor at 20 knots. As thrilling as it is, and despite all its spectacle, the race is second to the bow-to-bow contests for measuring performance. That, and the line-throwing contest.

In some tugmeets, the line-toss is held on the land, by a guy nearly as bolted-down as the bollard itself. In New York, that grand, tough old town, the line is thrown from the bow of a charging tugboat. The challenge facing deckhand and skipper is to get close enough so the line will be able to reach, without crashing the dock. The exercise underscores how far we've come since direct-reverse tugs.

One of the tugs did land with a wham. From what we could tell of the spectators, this was the crowd-pleaser of the day. Of course no one was hurt, and there was no damage - well, not much. A special trophy, made of two pieces of scrap and a pair of welding rods, was the impromptu award presented that tug at the ceremonies later. The next day, with tongue still in cheek, the Intrepid announced, "The line throwing contest was taken by the Mary H., and made even more thrilling by the highly aggressive spirit of another tug which demonstrated the old saying, 'tug boating is a contact sport.'"

Is it festive to crash into a dock? No, but it's a challenge not to. But also, New York is a town in transition, whose waterfronts are increasingly given over to the environmentally inclined on one hand, high-rise dwellers and their builders on the other. They seem to think industrial processes are ugly, and should be transferred … out of sight, out of mind. After the challenging events of the day, the public goes home, though the tugboaters linger to hobnob and hang-out. On this gray and wet day, the Intrepid set-up some eats, and of course the awards ceremony, inside of ships. Even so, the day felt too short. But it's a long drive back to Mariner's Harbor and then there's the car ride, so, like so much in New York, it's been fun but we've got to get going. The Waterford Tug Round Up If the Big Apple is N.Y., N.Y., its upstate counterpart the next weekend was Waterford, Waterford. There's a Village of Waterford, and there's a Town of Waterford. Whichever the actual buildings and streets belong to, you could probably fit all in a corner of the Bronx.

It would be incorrect to say that nothing has changed in a century upstate, because everything has changed in a century everywhere. Time ticks away just as quickly upstate as down, but there's less of a urgency up north. The industrial bustle wasn't just conveniently placed out of sight, as in the Big Apple. It simply ran out of steam.

Tug-and-barge systems remain vastly more economical than truck for bulk transports, but the vehicular infrastructure has developed more fully for the wheel than for the propeller. At one time, it is said, the people in charge wanted to fill-in the canals, pave them, and bring-in more trucks. Today's Canal Corporation is under the Thruway Authority, but the inland waters now target economic bases other than industrial. We may be in a recession, but people who can afford boats can often enough afford to run them. Wherever they go, they're bound to spend money. The Waterford Tug Roundup, under the auspices of Waterford and the Canal Corporation, make a strong argument that the upper Hudson and the canals are great places to visit.

The Canal Corporation's tugs are all smallish, even compared to the familiar ex-canallers that migrate to coastal harbors. At least one of the craft, the Seneca, began life as a yard tug for the Navy. Others, like the Waterford (the boat, not the town or village) was built for the canal system proper. The canal tug getting our vote for best good looks, the Govr. Cleveland, started out in the late-1920s as an ice-breaking tug for the State Department of Public Works. The Corporation's goodwill ambassador, the 1901 Urger, of course led the parade into town, a piper in the bow. An ex-Corporation tug, the Buffalo, was also on display in quest of restoration funds; about $500 was raised during the Roundup. Other Corporation craft, including a 75-ft. self-propelled scow with crane, and the wooden W.O. Decker out of South Street, formed a floating nucleus that quickly swelled to capacity. If many more craft or visitors had shown up this year, it might have felt like New York City.

Two of the visiting tugs were in private commerce - the Cheyenne, owned by Bart Brake of Empire Harbor Marine in Albany, and the Benjamin Elliot of Troy Town Dock & Marina. Two more harbor-size tugs came up from Steve Trueman's North RiverTug Museum (see "Save the Tugs," MN February 25, 2002), both recent acquisitions: the Chancellor, a Bushey-built canaler of the late 1930s, and the Susan Elizabeth, whose hull goes back to 1886 and the New York Central.

Unlike the tugmeets designed for tugboaters as such, the Waterford Roundup is designed for the public. Long docks at the bulkhead give access to each of the vessels, and visitors ranging from toddlers to seniors climbed aboard, over, and around various craft. In such a public setting, the Waterfront Museum Barge, from Red Hook, was a fitting centerpiece. In addition to its standing exhibits related to maritime history, it hosted panel discussions on maritime issues by in-the-know folks. The barge's proprietor, David Sharps, reported the loss of his berth in Brooklyn, and as of the Roundup looked a little like the flying dutchman.

The nautical display was impressive, and all the boats handsome. The expected yachters showed-up, themselves often arriving in tug-inspired designs. No, they weren't real tugboats, since real tugs are workboats. But they illustrated how fine the lines of tugs look, to people who could probably afford any look they like. If the New York City event was a Challenge, this one was the Festival. Over 40 vendors set-up booths, a few - with paintings and books and boat models and general tugobelia - actually had maritime themes. The others were standard state-fair displays. You could buy gobs of fried dough, and burgers by the ton, but at a waterside festival in Waterford, Waterford, you couldn't buy a fish fry.

The Canal Corporation got the chance to demonstrate its technical prowess, when a crack appeared in a main gangplank. Unnoticed, it might have produced a nasty collapse.

But it did get noticed and, to the delight of many onlookers, repaired with the aid of the self-propelled mule. It may not have been in the program, but it was a highlight of the show. Relatively few of the estimated 20,000-30,000 visitors came by boat, of course. Waterford is a quick drive from Albany, so there were arrivals from everywhere. Since there was nowhere else for the boaters to go, the parties for two nights ran well after-hours. They were loud only to the extent that folks sometimes sing loudly. Marine News got a first-hand demo of how a skipper can quaff a beer while standing on his head.

Education and cultural heritage are today's waterborne commerce on the canal. Opposite Waterford is the old Matton shipyard, sadly in decline but capable of restoration. It needs an occupant. And at the Roundup, a prospective tenant arrived. Steve Trueman's collection in Kingston - five tugs, a Pennsylvania railroad barge, and an early 20th-century drydock recently acquired from Caddell's - is crowding its present quarters. "Matton's screams for Steve's residency," said John Callaghan, one of the principal organizers for the Canal Corporation. "I know Steve's first choice is Kingston - but I think he would make a bigger splash up here. And it's the only way to save the shipyard and correctly interpret the site."

Trueman voices concern about how to transport and site his huge drydock, which is to be made available at-cost for maritime preservation projects, and believes the ice further north might be another problem. But if the logistics could be resolved, said Trueman, "the fact is if an attractive offer were made, we would probably have no choice but to come to Waterford." A "Mystic Seaport" for power craft? With real maritime industry thrown in? And the tourists still coming? If that came together, the after-hours revelers might really have things to sing about.

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