Feature: Boston Tug Muster 2003 Classic Powerhouses and Modern Behemoths

Monday, July 07, 2003

There was a tense moment at the Boston Tug Muster, held this year on the last day of May. At 10 A.M. sharp, the official opening moment of this 19th annual event, there were no tugs at the rallying point, Pier 4, Charlestown. At 10:05, still no tugs. By 10:10, only Innovator, possibly the shortest tug in town, had cruised by. It passed along the pier as if looking for old friends, and finding none, performed its trademark about-face and seemed to be departing. Maybe the gents aboard had got the date wrong? Last year's Muster, after all, was in August. On the pier itself, among Muster officials, a nasty question was starting to form: What if you gave a Muster, and nobody came?

Then, at precisely 10:15 by the official MarineNews watch, a large, regal vision appeared on as much of a horizon as the compact Boston Harbor provides. The stately 1954-built vessel glided almost silently to the pier, seeming confidant that even among a hundred tugs, all eyes would be on her. She was exactly, perfectly what springs to mind, has sprung to mind for a century, when people say the word "tugboat." Compounding her nobility was her glistening sheen, her spiffy and spanking cleanliness, as if she just had been sandblasted and painted (she had, leaving the yard only the day before). The colors themselves were McAllister-like, but the stack bore the letter P. The gentlemen from Portland had arrived, and the Boston Tug Muster was on.

Innovator returned, entertaining the spectators - both those on the pier, and plenty more in various pleasure craft arriving for a look - with its whirligig maneuvers, spinning like a top before rushing off in a whoosh to some other spot on the stage. Underway, Innovator leans aggressively forward in its hellbent determination to reach its destination, presenting an opposite appearance to classic tugs - they're mostly raked the other way.

The Big Toot was next to arrive, more of a general workboat in appearance with her broad, open afterdeck, but certainly fitting to any gathering of tugs. Her expansive aft section bore what looked like the most bodacious barbecue of the fleet, and with its large complement of young'uns served to remind that the Muster has always been about boaters, their boats, and their families. There's no telling who among them will steer a vessel into the 35th Boston Tug Muster.

Waukegan was the next arrival, also in a McAllister-like livery - though unlike Portland Tugboat LLC, a division of McAllister, the 1953-built ex-Army classic of Sterling Equipment Co. in East Boston adopted its burgundyish superstructure and yellow stripe from another previous owner. "We just liked the colors," said the company's Marine Manager Norm Bourque, "asked them if they minded our keeping them, and they gave their blessing."

The 2000-hp single-screw tug was "upgraded for ship-assist work by the first owners after the government, Sanches Towing. For Sterling, she's going to work in the construction business as one of four tugs - she being the oldest and largest - to herd the company's fleet of about 90 dredges and construction barges. "The company was started in 1995 by Jay Cashman to be the equipment company for his construction operations," said Bourque, "but we've been supplying all different construction companies up and down the eastern seaboard."

New Kid on the Block

The final arrival for the Muster's formalities was the newest tug on Boston Harbor, Boston Towing and Transportation's Z-drive Freedom. "She was delivered in March," said the company's president, Vincent D. Tibbetts, generally known as Jake. " She was built by Washburn Doughty in East Boothbay, Maine. They're the best. We worked with them continuously, and things couldn't have gone smoother.

"They have a standard 92-foot design, which our head of constrution, Bill Skinner, modified here and there for our particular purposes. We had the luxury of watching Moran build seven or eight boats ahead of ours, and they were very generous about letting us look over their shoulder. Altogether we made about 500 changes, though numerically most were details - put this plug here instead of there. But we were pleased to learn that some of our larger modifications were incorporated into the standard design."

Tibbetts was so pleased with the whole venture that the yard built a sister boat for Boston Towing, with delivery due about two weeks after the Muster. "We've named her Liberty," quipped Tibbetts, "and maybe someday we'll have a third we call Justice."

The primary occupation of the 4400-hp tugs, which come at a price between $4-$5 million apiece, is to assist LNG carriers and gasoline tankers through Boston harbor. "The fire system can pump 6000 gallons per minute, and has a deluge system - covering the boat itself in water - so we can get up close to a fire if we have to. We also made modifications to improve visibility all around - lowered the stacks, among other things."

Equipped with Rolls-Royce Z-drives, the two sisters are the first new boats commissioned by the venerable company, whose fleet includes boats unmistakable as classic railroad tugs. "Z-drives are the future of ship docking work," said Tibbetts, "although the first time I sat in Freedom's seat, I felt like a potato farmer."

A boat that can drive sideways at will, and astern at 13 knots, obviates some of the piloting skills required of single-screw classics. But unlike some operators of Z-drives, Tibbetts doesn't think skippering the new boats is necessarily a young man's profession, straight from school to the pilot house. "We promote from within," he said, "because when a deckhand finally gets to the pilot house, he knows what to expect and what not to, from his own deckhands. That doesn't change just because the propulsion system does."

Tibbetts had plenty of praise for the crews picked for the new tugs. "The people we picked for these boats are grabbing the ball and running with it - it's amazing how quickly and how well they pick it up. We sent our guys to Foss and to Moran, who have been very generous for training. They also do the simulators down in Newport."

Just as some of this Muster's boats bore McAllisterish colors without being, strictly, McAllister boats, Boston Towing's fleet bear more than a passing resemblance to Reinauer's livery. "Boston Towing was started by Bert Reinauer in 1932," we were told. "The Tibbetts and the Reinauer families have been associated for a long time. The boats used to have red houses and black hulls, but in 1967 Franklin Reinauer went south to buy the Gulf Hustler - which became the Janice Ann Reinauer - and asked if he could use colors red & buff. Crescent Towing used those colors, although in their case the upper house is all buff."

Struttin’ Their Stuff

The main event of the Boston Tug Muster, as far as observers are concerned, is the parade around the harbor, followed by various random, impromptu, and sometimes unlikely-looking head-to-head pushing contests. Although a sixth tug, Capt. Tom, arrived at Pier 4 shortly before the Freedom, she was apparently called away during the time of the parade - though did return for a pushing contest or two. "We used to get dozens of tugs at the Muster," said Philip Michaelman of the World Ship Society, the event's main mover, "but in recent years it's slackened-off greatly. We're not sure why. We don't get very much publicity - even Offshore magazine didn't run our announcement this year - but that would affect the spectator turnout more than it would the turnout of tugs themselves."

Norm Bourque speculated that the early date of this year's Muster - advanced to coincide with other harbor events put on by Boston agencies - may have had something to do with the sparse attendance. "It snuck up on a lot of people," he said, "and this early in the season, doesn't give you enough time to paint the boat."

"Don't forget all the construction going on in Boston," reminded Capt. Brian Fournier of the Stamford. "Everybody's busy. The reason we were in the area was that we had a ship job here around 4 in the morning. We're from Portland, Maine, and we were in Boston for a job. What does that say about the local boats getting sucked-up for work?"

One of the things it says, or at least underscores, is the kind of ironic doublethink that comes with a tug rally. The organizers, liking tugs, want as many boats on-hand as possible. But also, the organizers, liking tug people, want them to prosper - which means being too busy to take a day off.

If the central purpose of the Muster is to bring tugmen together for a day of hobnobbing and, maybe, bragging, it doesn't matter all that much how many boats arrive. MarineNews has covered tug meets with as few as four participants, and those gatherings were no less successful for — how should we phrase it? For their exclusivity? Their intimacy?

Four great tugs still make an impressive display. Boston's display of five great tugs this year was that much more impressive - shall we say by 20%? The day's outing's the thing, as are the burgers and cole slaw, and the line-toss, and the chance to socialize. Still, as the parade circled the harbor, plenty of additional tugs - classics by the score - were visible tied-up individually or in clusters. How come they weren't out strutting their stuff, too? "The boats were idle," offered Fournier, "but the crews were not."

As it was, this year's parade was a bit of a wonder, visually speaking. From the two splendid '50s classics - Stamford and Waukegan, looking almost like members of the same fleet - the odd Innovator made a startling visual departure, and The Big Toot was a whole different exercise in workboat design. Whether trained or untrained, the eye could learn a lot about maritime diversity from even this select grouping. With the Boston Fire Department's Fire Fighter enlivening the festivities with its airborne jets of spray, the parade was an eye-catcher with a rousing flair.

It was, of course, Freedom that completed the sense of variety and, to a large extent, of good-natured braggadocio of the day. Might as well demonstrate what it means to run astern at 13 knots, or to turn in one's own length, to run sideways, and to blast the skies with its own water cannon. Aboard the Stamford at least, which had become something of the Press Boat, an air of hilarity and not-quite-grudging admiration was apparent for the antics of the town's newest tug.

Getting Good PR

Besides MarineNews, Stamford played host to the Boston Globe, which sent a reporter and a photographer to cover the event. MarineNews having suggested, once or twice before, that the lay press doesn't "get it" when it comes to harbor industry, we were curious about the take this Beantown counterpart to The New York Times would have on the proceedings. So, in a form that might have been mistaken for a conversation, we interviewed their interviewer.

The Globe's initial interest had been in the larger Boston Harbor festivities, but the Tug Muster, perhaps a novelty in the collective psyche of an inland newsroom, was deemed worthy of a feature. We obtained a premonition of the newspaper's report from the look on the reporter's face - the wonder, somewhat wide-eyed, at the grandeur and complexity of the working wheelhouse. And the correspondent's assigned task was to look it all over, take it all in, write it all down. It was not an experience we thought the reporter would soon forget.

The article, under Ron Fletcher's byline, did well with the spirit of the event, and conveyed much of the tugman's pride and joy. It's quite widely said that most people who work tugs could enter other lines of work, possibly for better money, less risk, less responsibility - except that the business is "in their blood." That kind of description is itself novel, possibly a bit of an inspiration, in a world-at-large where the quick buck and unaccountability have become the cultural norms.

What the lay press writes, most tugmen seem to think, is inconsequential to their lives. What does it matter if Ron Fletcher's article doubles the spectators at next year's Muster? Tugs operate B2B. They don't serve the tourists who come to see the U.S.S. Constitution or the other historic vessels in the Navy Yard vicinity. They don't buy diesel engines or hawsers or charter tug services, so whatever they think - or read in the newspapers - should be generally irrelevant to the industry's objectives. Shouldn't it?

Well, maybe. The towing industry's famous insularity may well suit its daily chores, but no industry's an island unto itself. In a city, especially a big city, especially a city of big changes like Boston's Big Dig, there are things called politics. There are ambitions. There are issues to address, and lobbying to conduct. Or does anyone believe that a mayor or a town council would design a port for its industry's needs because they read Scuffy the Tugboat as kids? Probably, other forces are moving them.

The article in the Globe gave good-natured, sympathetic insights into the nature of tugboaters. It was the press at its friendliest, giving good PR. There's no telling how it will feed into urban design and city planning, or broader undertakings that could draw or repel business in that port. But it could do no harm.

It would do all the more good if good coverage happened more often in response to events like the Boston Tug Muster. Portland's own rally on August 17 should be media-friendly, staged as it is as a benefit for the Multiple Sclerosis society. Public relations is a "soft" science, whose return-on-investment is difficult to measure. But at the very least, it should relieve some of those tense moments that come up at showtime.

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