Feature: Keeping the Port in Portland

Thursday, October 23, 2003

We rolled into town on the last train north, arriving Portland, Maine at 2:00 a.m. Half an hour later we were at the dock, hauling our kit - and when Marine News travels light, we're like Hannibal crossing the Alps - over silent tugs resting abreast: Captain Bill, Justine McAllister, Stamford. On the phone a few days before, Capt. Brian Fournier had said something about leaving a light in Stamford's forward port cabin, and there, finally, it shone. But something brighter had caught our eye, and could we believe it? Last time we saw something like it, it was in Aberdeen, Scotland. Now, from Stamford's starboard rail, it loomed and glistened four hundred feet away - rising nearly as high - a pair of deep-sea drilling platforms, afloat waters barely up to their ankles. Our mission in Portland, at Capt. Fornier's invitation (see "The Boston Tug Party," MN June 30) was covering their Tug Muster, just seven hours off. But in the glow of those huge twin towers, we were reminded that Portland's tugs have greater purpose than a Sunday afternoon's races.

Mention major Altantic seaboard seaports, most people think of New York and Charleston, with their vast bays and surging tributaries. But besides their geographical scale, modern-day ports are measured by economics and throughput as well, and on those accounts Portland's six nautical miles of shoreline are high on the charts. Measured according to its inbound foreign tonnage, according to Port Director Capt. Jeffrey Monoe, Portland's the biggest in the U.S. Operated by the City of Portland, it has another distinction to think about: it's returning a profit to its owner. The $.8 million Capt. Monroe cites would not run the city, but could pay for a lot of schoolbooks.

Mention Maine harbors, most people think of picturesque wharves with fishing boats and their nets, lighthouses, and schooners packed with tourists, which are all surely found in Portland. Likewise the lobstermen, who tend their traps within view of the restaurants and sometimes smack between those huge drilling towers and the Stamford. But besides everything stereotypes predict in a New England harbor, there are the tugs - all sorts of tugs, plenty of tugs, all anyone could ask for.

Local Tug Crowd

Portland Tugboat LLC, founded by Brian Fournier's father, Arthur, and bought by McAllister in December 2001, has seven tugs altogether, including the state-of-the-art tractor, Vicki M. McAllister, previously of Philadelphia. Winslow Marine operates two or three tugs based out of Portland and elsewhere according to demand, notably the Eliot Winslow and a more recent acquisition, Peggy Winslow, ex-Pegasus out of New York. "We do coastal towing, and about anything else that needs doing," Capt. David Winslow told us.

Coastal towing is the main occupation of the third tug company due at the Muster, Hartley Marine, whose Penobscot and Seguine move a lot of concrete to Boston, and various tows "as far as Florida" according to Capt. Greg Hartley. Portland Tugboats' tugboats can tow too, although Arthur Fournier long ago decided there's not enough money in it. "Ship handling experts" is the slogan emblazoned on company shirts, and there are plenty of ships to handle in Casco Bay. Besides the large bulk carriers for wood chips and road salt and the like, there's oil. Lots and lots of oil.

A pipeline was established in Portland just after World War II, and under a consortium working as Portland Pipeline Corp., it supplies petroleum to Canada. The depth of the channel to the pipeline is 45 ft., according to Capt. Monroe, and 40 ft. to the inner harbor and docking. Moving the huge tankers through the busy harbor, the narrow Casco Bay drawbridge, and up against the dock presenting the head of the pipeline, takes a gingerly touch. "When I first heard that OPA '90 was a reality," declared Arthur Fournier, "I said the tug industry has been reborn." Though he no longer directs Portland Tugboat LLC - that's Brian's job - the senior Fournier works with the firm as a ship-docking pilot. Indeed three of the best ship-docking pilots in town work through Portland Tugboat, and Brian recently took his exam.

So when tugboats in Portland convene for a day of strutting, racing, and head-to-head pushing, their good-natured fun could be serious business.

All for a Good Cause

We awoke to the thumps of thick shoes on steel decks, and discussions about the placement of flags. The sun was dazzling and the air was humid, the sort of day when it's easy to like being on the water. Some of the crew were told in advance they'd find a guy from Marine News, while the rest, what the heck, they expected all sorts of strangers that day. Soon as we get these pennants hung, we're off to the Maine State pier and everyone's kids and wives and girlfriends.

For all the excitement, the Portland Tug Muster was the finale in an event spanning three days, going collectively as the Portland MS Regatta Harborfest. The MS is for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Maine Chapter, designated beneficiary of proceeds raised by the Harborfest. This year's was the third with participation by the tugs, an expansion attributed to organizer Merle Hallett. "The tug captains also believe in the cause," said a MS release. "They raise money by getting sponsorship through businesses that they frequent. This year's tugboat sponsors include Unum/Provident, Dead River Company and Cianbro," the latter constructing, among other things, the enormous towers next door. "Some of the Captains also solicit funds from their crew and guests."

Five tugs from Portland Tugboat - Stamford, the Justine, the Vicki, Fournier Boys, and Fournier Girls - converged on the public pier, alongside the Eliot Winslow and the Seguine. Also joining the party was the charmer from Cianbro, the tug Fanny J, large parts of which were assembled in 1874. Now under the auspices of Capt. Billy Van Voorhis, the small tug remains faithful wherever 400 hp will do.

Verona came to Portland for a break from ship docking in Searsport and Bucksport, a role she was born to when built at Staten Island in 1913 as Hamburg-America No. 3. With her stack set back from the house in the fashion of the coal-burners - which she'd been till 1959 - Verona filled the last gap in the day's history-on-parade: from the tiny rivoted-ironwork of the post-Civil War era, to a form of tug that goes backwards and sideways at will - and undoubtedly would once things got underway. Between those poles 130 years apart were a diesel-electric (Verona), an ex-YTB, 1971-vintage (Seguin), another ex-YTB, 1942-vintage (the Eliot). Portland Tugboat's tugs stepped through the decades, from the late 1960s (Girls and Boys) to early '50s (Stamford) and late 40s (Justine McAllister, skippered at the Muster by Jeff Monroe).There's lore aplenty for Portland's tugs, with names like ESSO and Witte, Moran and McAllister in their past. Crewmen also say that under another name, the Girls went down and took a man with her, and ever since is sometimes haunted.

All the muster's boats but two were single-screw tugs, the exception being Fournier Boys, a twin - and, of course, the tractor. "I used to say it, and I was sure of it," said Brian Fournier, "that there was nothing I could do with a tractor that I couldn't with the Boys. I was sure of it, but I turned out to be wrong."

A classic car or aircraft meet with displays dating back to 1913 (they couldn't go back to 1874, of course) would be noted for its historic range. It probably says something about tugboats that, unlike museum showpieces, their classics still put in a day's work. You'd think that would draw a crowd, just for the novelty of it all.

A Day at the Races

The plan for the morning was more-or-less standard, opened by a parade to the Casco Bay Bridge, back past the viewing pier and out into the bay.

Where other musters suffice with a single race, there were four heats in Portland on August 17. Exactly how they were categorized is not clear from the MS tally, which shows four boats in the first race, three in the second, six in the third and seven in the fourth - in a field of eight boats. There was free-for-all mixing with the Vicki in three races out of four (and first-place in two out of three), Verona in the first, third, and fourth races, the Fournier Girls in the second and fourth, and the Boys in the fourth only. Fannie J. is absent from the published race results, though she was easy to spot (just look way downward) amid her descendants as they chewed the surface of the harbor.

Where Fannie J. does appear, straightfaced in the record, is in the pushing contest - tieing the Vicki. Brian Fournier insists he did not back-off on her 5,000 horsepower, though later mentioned forgetting the clutch. Only two more head-to-heads are recorded, one won by the Fournier Girls, the other by Seguin. But as happens at such events, tugs ambled toward each other with intent to play - and anyone can play, officially or otherwise, at a meeting like this. The Fournier Girls beat the Fournier Boys this time, the opposite of last year. Some of the crew thought it was the wheel.

It's extra-clean fun when two boats from a single outfit take each other on. And to the crowd watching from the pier, it was all healthy sport. Still, there was a background radiation that gave some of the contests, as one participant put it, "so much of the Hatfields and the McCoys."

Looking back on it, skippers seemed to agree it was the best of their musters yet - though with refinements to come. "Right now it's mostly for show," said Capt. Hartley, "but in the future they'll probably do more to define classes." Capt. Tomlin found the race course a little short for the 1,750-hp Verona, as "a lot of that raw horsepower [of the bigger engines in other tugs] on a sprint start can get them off fast, but we were gaining on people. If we had another mile we would have won" in lieu of the second, fifth, and sixth places in Verona's three heats. Capt. Winslow agreed, or maybe not. "The race is won in the first 300 feet," he mentioned, "then they stay even all the way down at about 13.5." Perhaps if the course is extended next year, it will settle the debates and shed light on hull shape and layout, among other possible factors beyond horsepower.

Greg Hartley told us the Multiple Sclerosis Society made about $115,000 from the three-day event, though couldn't specify the share of the contribution from the tugs. MS personnel could not be reached for verification.

Exciting the Citizens

Both Capts. Hartley and Winslow thought more people came to watch this year than before. It's nice having an audience to show-off for, and a worthy cause to joust for, but how big a payoff does it really bring? The amount of fuel consumed by eight tugs at full throttle is probably less than Brazil's annual output, but it's still a lot of diesel. Is there really advertising value, where the contenders sell services to a specific, limited, everybody-knows-everybody b2b market?

Besides advertising, however, here's PR. One sells specific products, or the yearning for same, the other creates an atmosphere to nurture and maintain the yearning. In that regard, Portland is more successful than other ports we can think of. Keeping its maritime identity conspicuous for the voters is important to Portland's Department of Ports and Transportation, just as it is to the authorities of the other ports. But it's an easy sell in this case, Portlanders already having declared that they like it that way.

As elsewhere, Portland may have been a seaport before it was a city, but its city today makes it more than a seaport. "The Portland Museum of Art," according to a handout from CruiseMaine, "[houses] a permanent collection of paintings by Winslow Homer, Renois, Degas, Monet, Picasso ... a cobblestone's throw from there is ... the State Theater and the Portland Performing Arts Center, offering concerts and other events." Among other attractions are the Maine Historical Society, the Portland Harbor Museum, and the Portland Observatory. The Amtrak Downeaster has three arrivals most days, and Capt. Monroe, besides Director of the Port of Portland, is also Director of the Portland Jetport.

The Old Port part of town - Portland's restored historic district, its counterpart to New York's South Street Seaport or San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf districts - supports a large tourist contingent with gift and souvenir shops, microbreweries and pubs, and a dozen restaurants clustered around a half-mile or so of Commercial Street. There's Becky's at one end of the strip, maintaining its diner decor and elbow-in-the-ribs cordiality, and there's DiMillo's, in a former Jamestown ferryboat poshly redone, "where the President eats," someone told us. It's the sort of area that has goes upscale without trying too hard, and there are those who might like it to try harder.

"The port began to gentrify in the 1970s," Jeff Monroe told us, "and in the mid-80s, somebody bought a pier and built condos. This stimulated a lot of debate over the future of the port and its directions, and that resulted in a referendum. The voters chose to retain the essence of the seaport, and much of our zoning and regulations reflects their wish." Certain structures erected in places likely to have a marine significance - upon piers, for example - are asked to leave their dock-level floors to maritime activities.

"We have enough pier space," grumbled one Portland Tugboat crewman, discussing a residential row whose construction had been halted "they should let them finish."

More than one of the Portland Tugboat crew have small sidelines in real estate, so maybe even mariners have a stake in a growth market for, say, apartments. But also, mariners know that rust is easier to prevent than remove. "Zoning is a tool," said Capt. Monroe, "but it's not written in concrete. There are such things as variances. The best tool is continued vigilance."

Capt. Monroe says his department is "in the economic development business. That sometimes gets lost in other ports, and they become political footballs. Everything we do has to make sense, without subsidies from the taxpayers. There are no political appointees in our staff, no wannabes - just about everyone has a maritime background." And although acknowledging that more Portland residents make their livings completely apart from maritime, he describes a brisk trade on his waterfront, which hosts ferries to nearby islands and to Nova Scotia, and which beckons to the cruise lines as the "gateway to the New Atlantic Frontier." "We have 65,000 people in the city," Jeff Monroe continued, "and 350,000 in southern Maine - and millions of people move through our port. Do the math - what does that tell you?"

Most of those passersby work outside of the maritime industry too, but the port's raw potential for large-scale construction is shown in the towers just off the Stamford's starboard side - a hundred-million dollar project underway for a year and a half. "We have to learn to integrate" said Capt. Monroe of the various waterfront interests, "and tell people 'come watch 'em build the oil rig - sit on our deck and have a cold one.'"

The tourist allure of the double colossus was shown routinely during our stay. Motorboats with families ambled into the basin and stopped for a gander at the structures, and excursion boats passed daily with their commentaries on the towers to their loads of sightseers.

One evening, as we returned from a fried-clam dinner, the security gatehouse was swarming with Cianbro supervisors in a state of agitation. A photographer, in a motorboat, was taking pictures of a young lady who kept changing swimsuits, using the oil rigs as backdrop. "The same thing happened last week," said a Ciambro foreman, "I couldn't get any work out of my guys for an hour." The structures' twinking lights and long, rigid towers could hit the spot in a swimsuit ad, of course, and perhaps further define Capt. Monroe's concept of "integration."

Wandering Giants

If there's an irony in Portland, it lies in its largest waterborne construction being undertaken by a non-maritime builder. Or, at least, non-maritime until Amethyst.

Cianbro's trademarked slogan is "The Constructor of Choice," but its resume cites constructing bridges and power plants and industrial mills, among others. Describing itself as employee-owned, the company pursued marine construction after its president, Peter Vigue, determined that the construction of offshore drilling rigs was within its capacities. An ideal site for such construction happened to be at-hand at the former Portland site of Bath Iron Works, with its deep-draft capacity. The site is planned for hosting a multimillion-dollar cruise ship terminal, but in the interim gave Chianbro a chance to show its stuff.

The towers had been started in Friede Goldman Halter's shipyards in Pascagoula, Miss., and Orange, Texas, when bankruptcy hit. Cianbro submitted its bid to Petrodrill, for whom the platforms were under construction, and got the contract.

The pontoons were towed to Portland in April 2002, submerged, and welded to their 5,500-ton decks as they were floated into place.

Ciambro's brief also includes installing the remaining mechanical equipment, piping, cabling, propulsion systems, the drilling equipment, and delivery of the whole works to sites off Brazil.

Equipped with thrusters, the rigs will use GPS guidance to maintain position over their sites in deep water.

Top speed under their own power was expected to be about 8 knots, and the possibility was discussed of their trip toward the equator on their own.

The New Centerstage

When Arthur Fournier first arrived in Portland, he already had a string of tugboat companies behind him - beginning in Boston, down to New York, back up to Boston, then sprinkled around Maine. He was in business with both Capts. Hartley and Winslow during his advance on Portland, which until then had been a Moran town. "Arthur just kept underbidding Moran," said Capt. Monroe, "and they finally tossed it in." Portland Tugboat LLC ties-up at 40 Commercial Street, integrated into the middle of the action, alongside Cianbro's pier, directly opposite and a couple minutes away from the pipeline terminal.

"If you want some excitement," said Captain Sweet, as Arthur is sometimes known, "Lock yourself in with the polar bears at the zoo. They'll only kill you once." He's alluding to a legal killing, of course, a killing in court, back in Boston years ago, after he fought a ship fire for days. It was one of those fires that most don't imagine - spontaneous combustion in a hold full of metal chips, the type that doesn't care if you flood the hold with water, keeps burning anyway. Arthur enumerates the number of clamshells that melted in scooping-out the inferno, and the quantities of cable, and other equipment lost in the battle. No mention of a nervous meltdown, however. Suffice it that the fire finally went out, the owners declined to pay, Arthur sued for several hundred thousand. The defendants fought, the award mounted to the low eight figures - the judge thought Arthur himself deserved a million or so for bravery - so yes, the polar bears will probably kill you only once.

Arthur's yarns are told with the flair of the practiced raconteur - no, you're not hearing them for the first time, though the twinkling eyes, animated face and gestures could make you think otherwise. But also, long before you meet Arthur, you'll meet people who've met Arthur, who have their own versions of the Arthurian legends: "I remember the day Arthur Fournier went around the hull of New York Central 16 with a chain saw and cut off the bottom" (the upper section to this day resides outside a restaurant in Bourne Mass) and "I remember the day two dozen tugs tried blockade him during the strike, and he charged them, and they parted, but not before pumping five bullets into him ... "

It was actually twelve bullets, Arthur told us, but it was during a robbery attempt ashore, during which he fired back and felled one of his attackers. Oh yes, there was the tug blockade, but he claims he simply radioed his adversaries to ask if their papers were in order, as he was calling the Coasties. One of his tugs did take a bullet - in the ceiling - on the way up the Cape Cod Canal, and it could have been because of the strike - or maybe some hunter missed the cow in his crosshairs. As for the NYC 16, Arthur used a torch over a period occupying two tides.

For all the lore, for all the acquaintences and events across a half-century in a rough business, for all the shrewd planning, victories, defeats, friends and otherwise, Arthur describes himself as simply a kid who loved tugs. His father, who worked in sales for the Sunkist orange company, indulged his attraction to the boats. School bored the young Arthur, who was fed chocolate pudding by tugboat cooks and who, by age 17, was a skipper. One of his crew was a year older, the other a year younger. "They called us the ship of fools," he tells us.

Will the unraveling of the human genome reveal a tugboat gene? Says Brian Fournier, "I'm a tug geek. I was conceived on a tugboat. My earliest memories are of sitting with my father, looking at tugboat engines in magazines. I love tugs." He was driving his first at an age too young to drive a car - such things being then permissible, of course. Brian had expected to take-on an administrative role in a family tug busines - "My brother, Billy, was the hands-on one," he told us. Billy was a captain by age 20. And hands-on guy that he was, he went down when one of his crew didn't come out of an airless barge. Neither survived.

Return on the Investment

Arthur Fournier has started a new company, Canal Towing, on the Cape Cod Canal. But the new company's address is the same as Arthur's home in South Portland, overlooking the bay of his most recent conquest. Perhaps it seems paridoxical that he goes on to say, "Selling Portland Tugboat freed me from the day-to-day concerns of running the outfit, and I could concentrate on ship docking. Everything you need to know to dock ships," he mentioned, "you can learn from handling salvage." In any case, moving flaming and otherwise distressed vessels gave him the master's touch.

To Brian falls the responsibilities of the day-to-day for Portland Tugboat LLC, with just the slightest handicap, we surmise. He can't be another Arthur - the job's already taken, and continues full-ahead - nor another Billy, who gave the business everything. With those options taken, the President of Portland Tugboat LLC has a style of his own to generate, which so far is gregarious, good natured, and, as if another of those genetic things, very much in-charge. "Nothing stops someone from coming into Portland after our busines," which might seem a temptation in a port groomed for growth. "All they have to do is beat what we've got. We've got the Pete — " a 125-ft., 7,000-hp monster being serviced in a drydock during our time in Portland " — and we've got the Vicki. Between them and our other tugs, we're set for the biggest ships that come into the port. If competitors feel like some excitement, the first thing they'd have to do is get themselves a Vicki and a Pete. Then they could try taking us on as mariners."

Sounds like that gene again.

We'd planned to spend three days in Portland, maybe four, covering the Muster, riding a few tugs, getting the sense of things. But one thing led to another, and we remained two weeks instead. We found that fourteen days in a tugboat yard are different from fourteen nights. By day the place bustles, with routine maintenance between tows - chipping, painting, minor repairs - keeping the fleet spiffy and tip-top and ready for all tasks. Skippers pitched-in alongside the deckies, as good-natured chatter rose and fell amid the clang of tools against steel decks and houses.

And then there was the downtime, when all were home to bed. For us, as we mentioned, home was forward port cabin - Room Five - on the stately old Stamford, and the galley where we set our computer and worked on each day's photos. The yard with its six dormant tugs was far from silent, though the cacophony of daytime gave way to something more symphonic. Waves lapped the adjoining craft, and echoed up from the pit of the Stamford - now and again, mimicking syllables in a distant, echoing conversation. The ferries blasted their departures, and large white birds, on their own schedules, swooped in great swarms with their mad cackles. Wakes rolling in gently got caught in the trough between tugs, picking up speed, slapping about wildly as they frothed past the boats - to return a few moments later, rebounding from shore.

Over it all danced the lights of the harbor, and of the two huge towers across the way - dazzling, hypnotic in a way, beautiful, tranquil, serene. We could well understand why people yearn for waterfront homes, with their comforts and amusements, TVs and Gameboys and phones. But all those distractions, their own lights and noise, counter the delicacies that greeted our senses aboard Stamford. They weren't there for yuppie condos. The were there for working tugs.

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