On Tugboats

Tuesday, January 11, 2005
By Don Sutherland

There have been plenty of books published on the subject of tugboats in the past few years, sharing a cookie-cutter similarity - they're large, handsome, colorful, well-produced coffee-table volumes, which pretty much cover the same introductory material in the same glancing way. In all those regards and quite a few more, Virginia Thorndike's On Tugboats is a different sort of book. For starters, it's not large nor particularly handsome, and not all that well-produced - a standard paperback printed in black-and-white on paper that will probably not last for centuries. But then, it is a book crying out to be read, where coffee-table books ask merely to be seen. On Tugboats certainly should be read, for the reason expressed in its subtitle: "Stories of Work and Life Aboard." That's a type of work and a style of life without many parallels in other lines of business, which seldom has been examined. The other, more glamorous volumes may introduce the mate and state what time he gets up in the morning, his routine duties and what he eats for supper. Such matters are more in the background in On Tugboats, which goes on to portray what the mate - and the skipper, the engineer, the deckhand, the tankerman, and those they have known - feel and think. For these reasons alone, this book is bound to be read by many who work in this business. The sheer narcissism would be embellished by heartfelt chuckles, as the mariner recognizes familiar situations or, at least, situations that could have been familiar. As well, there's a certain amount of in-talk and gossipy stuff unlike that found on the "lifestyle" page of your hometown newspaper. Does everyone know everything, for example, that links the tugs Fournier Girls and Mary L. McAllister? Everything? Well, even this book may contain less than everything, but perhaps more than you knew before. It doesn't appear in any single place, though, under a subhead, "Links between the Girls and the Mary L." The info comes out in dribs and drabs. Like genuine gossip, it arises from several conversations, and it's left to the reader to spot and correlate the connections.

Speaking as an Insider Some of this same clannishness could pose a problem for the book, however, to whatever extent it aims to appeal to the lay public. They might be drawn to the pretty pictures of the coffee-table volumes. But On Tugboats, meant to be read, may put the newcomer at a bit of a disadvantage with its technical jargon and nomenclature, which is dispensed as almost the King's English. The fact is that work and life aboard tugboats is suffused with specialized equipment, unique requirements, techniques and skills which are frequently unknown even to other mariners. A lot of this jargon may seem dense, particularly in the opening chapter, and although there's a glossary in the back, it may yet be challenging to the lay reader. "The eight-strand blend braid is more resistant to abrasion than the same blend in laid line," the text reports early-on, "because it spreads the pressure over a wider surface and offers fewer proud edges." This might not be Greek to a tugboater, but it could elicit some head-scratching for, say, the wives or kids of the tugboater. They may take-up the book, the better to understand what their significant other actually does during those weeks away from home. Such readers should be consoled and counseled - hold-on, mateys, there's smoother sailing ahead, as the lingo lightens up. The opening chapter is jargon-laden because it defines the tugboat, its principles of design, its purpose, construction, and operation. It's required reading, to set the stage for the neophyte reader. Explanatory footnotes would help, but would slow the narrative down and make the book like what it is not, a textbook. Once the yarns get underway, the book adopts a unique pose, in a white-knuckle sort of way. Just a few pages past the foregoing quote, for example, the relevance of a towing line to things besides towing comes at the reader with a visceral impact. "Nylon lines store up tremendous energy when they stretch, which makes them potentially lethal when they part. 'I remember one report from over thirty years ago,'" a captain is quoted, "'where a crew on a ship was attempting to move a spare anchor using a nylon line. The line snapped, and amongst the dozen or so injured and killed, several were cut completely in half.'"

Like it is The tales are told in their tellers' voices - we gather the author used a recorder - in their own distinct lingoes, with a vocabulary more profane than sacred, accents and dialects intact. The author's tone, meanwhile, is the same as in her previous (and more genteel) works like "Windjammer Watching on the Coast of Maine," her characteristic style as raconteur being level and restrained, sort of a plain-vanilla against the Cajun spice (or, if you prefer, Seaboard brine) of her subjects.

The style fits the subject. Rarely, during the course of work and life aboard a tugboat, are moments of drama preceded by ominous music on the soundtrack. One minute you're in the galley having coffee. The next, your cup still in hand, you're battling to save the ship. Defying death is not the daily drill on most tugboats - it's merely risky out there most of the time - but this book makes clear, in more than one recounting, just what the stakes can be: "He was asleep, and wasn't aware of any of the events prior to the general alarm," the author tells us. "That he heard. 'I could feel the boat backing down. I threw on my shorts, a shirt, shoes, grabbed my lifejacket and a survival suit ... ' Joe started to go out by the hatch by his room, but the heat of the fire drove him back ... 'the fire on our barge [was] probably two hundred feet high -- huge.' "'The smoke was black, black, and there were cinders, like when you poke a piece of wood on the fire. Those cinders falling on us were three feet wide — big old cinders from the rubber and paint and things on the barge. It was HOT, very hot ... I stayed back there till I couldn't stand it no more -- I knew if I didn't do something, I was gonna die -- ... so I jumped in ... and started swimming away ... Ka POOM! I put my hands over my head, afraid metal might land on me. None did, so I started swimming again ... Then there was a whistling, more and more intense, more and more, till there was another explosion ... I could feel it go through me like nothing I'd never want anyone to deal with ... I covered my head again, and I thought, "I'm gonna die right here."' "One guy on the boat had had his son with him, a boy of twelve or so. In the water, the kid kept climbing on his father, who asked Joe to help him. 'Come here, Stevie,' Joe called, and then Stevie jumped on Joe's back. 'My instinct pushed him off. "Go back to your dad!" It's something I'm not proud of ...'" The average soldier, more than the average mariner, might expect such conditions on the job. The point being that Joe in this story, like the joes in the book's other tales of tribulation, aren't soldiers. They're in the private sector, doing a job for a wage, two weeks on and two weeks off, and then back home to the wife and kids. The Joe in this story, when the crisis began, didn't even have his shorts on. The setting was supposed to be so homey that a shipmate could bring his kid. Think that lad will go into this business, after a day with dad at the office? Such melodramatics in real life come up more than anyone likes, though still by far they're the exception. But even in routine work and life aboard, you've got to proceed carefully. And the perils are not just apprehensions of crybaby deckies. "It's the kiss of death if you can't see the deckhand," naval architect Bob Hill is quoted on the design of a tugboat wheelhouse, "you go to back down, and he's still got his arm in the bight." Mr. Hill's sentiments return a few pages later: "Every once in a while it dawns on you that people are riding around in your boats in all weather -- you're responsible for these people. You hear of a casualty somewhere, and think, "There but for the grace of God ..."'"

The Seven Seas, Plus One Besides hazardous cargoes, beyond the wrath of weather, on top of all the treacheries of the sea, the mariner also must steer through the bureaucracies that now inundate his work and life aboard. "There are times when Steve wonders," the author tells us, "if he wants to be in this job anymore. 'The other day, coming through the tropical depression, I couldn't see the bow of the barge.' ... there are probably five hundred oil wells in the Gulf, many of them not lit, some nothing more than a big pipe coming out of the ocean. The radar doesn't pick them up in the rain all that well. 'If I have an accident when I'm doing everything right, they'll yank my license for a year, maybe longer. If I'm smoking dope -- yeah, go ahead and take my license forever. But if I'm doing everything right, they shouldn't have that ability. Times like that, I think it's just not worth it.'" Now, now, folks. We'll have none of this talk, for it makes such bad press. We wouldn't want to scare the new recruits. It's not like port cities could survive without their tugboaters. Yet already we're facing problems concerning where the next generations will come from, so shouldn't we sugar-coat the narrative? Even today, how many boats can you board where a deckhand, this time last month, was greasing cars at a Citgo? Or who is a great guy, but doesn't speak English? There's nothing at all new about landlubbers or foreigners boarding tugs, and learning the ropes quickly, the hard way. It's sort of traditional. What's new is the intensity of the administrative eye placed upon it all. "The new Coast Guard licensing regulations are making it more difficult to enter the field, and they're also causing some older towboaters to leave," the author tells us. She quotes a skipper who's been in the business for forty-five years and is on the ninth renewal of his ticket. "'I'm sixty-three years old, and have my Master of Oceans license. I've just renewed it, but to keep it next time, I would have to go to about fifty-five schools ... They're gonna tell me I'm not qualified? I'm not gonna do it.' He feels the Coast Guard has made a terrible mistake. 'Losing people like me -- they should have tried to grandfather some of us in.'" The Coast Guard's jurisdiction and responsibilities have increased since the book was prepared, but even before 9/11 there was a wide perception of "two" United States Coast Guards - the earnest and often heroic mariners who selflessly risk (and sometimes lose) their lives in behalf of others in distress, and the bureaucrats-in-uniform sometimes presented as petty authoritarians throwing their weight around simply because they can. This second Coast Guard raises some question of how well an organization with a hierarchical structure, defined rules and strict chain of command, can interact with the adventurous spirits and masters of improvisation who have historically been drawn to tugboating. The author cautions that "Despite all the efforts being made by ... different agencies and organizations, there are people in the industry who are skeptical of the whole thing and feel there is no coordination whatever ... They say a complete overhaul is needed, with one industry-wide set of rules and regulations being applied fairly and consistently. "An oil spill is now considered a criminal offense, and a whole list of charges can be filed after a spill incident. According to several people I've spoken with, the Department of Justice won't be happy until someone goes to jail. If there's one dead bird, then you're guilty of violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. And there's the Refuse Disposal Act ... Tugboaters aren't blase about oil spills -- far from it -- but they worry that their own careers may be ended by an overzealous bureaucrat. 'It's a notch in somebody's gun to send people to jail,' says one captain." Says another, who did spill about three thousand gallons in New York Harbor, "They docked my license for three months. I couldn't work or make a living. And now, every time I go to do something with the Coast Guard I have to re-explain what happened. I've done my time. I had to go back to school, take a three-week training course. I did what they asked me to do, but I still have to go through this.' "Says another captain, ' ... if I spill oil in the Gulf or the Atlantic Ocean, and I'm not even negligent, I'm going to jail. Instantly. They take me to jail first and then they ask questions." According to a study called The Freedom Project, which reports on the use of DNA testing to prove the innocence of men who are incarcerated and even on Death Row, the single most frequent cause for their convictions was the suppression or falsification of evidence by police departments and prosecutors. Evidently, apprehensions about ambitious or overzealous officials are not entirely paranoia.

Tugboating in the Age of Anxiety In the private sector too, the inconsistencies in planning, or perhaps in non-planning by those charged with planning, have probably grown worse since On Tugboats was written, as the imperatives for security grew more fervent. In some cases these have led not to plans, but to absolute clamp-downs that eliminate the need for plans. Such will be found at many a terminal where, despite having been cleared to get aboard in the first place, tug and barge crew are prohibited from leaving their vessels. This is a lawyer's view of security, reducing the terminal's liability without necessarily reducing peril. There are tales of truck drivers, even their wives, even their kids, arriving from landside at these very terminals, boarding the tugs, being accorded guided tours by friendly crewmen who were confined aboard, leaving the boat and driving away. Real security plans are undoubtedly requisite in our brave new world, and undoubtedly someday will be universally instituted. Until then, gents possessed of a free spirit, self-reliance, a sense of responsibility, and perhaps a history of accomplishments shared by few in the general population, may wonder increasingly why they should tolerate suspicion and disrespect. If anything, these are the people best placed to observe and report goings-on, a point that should warrant cultivation. In all the ways described and in myriad ways additional, On Tugboats discloses much more indeed than what the mate ate for supper. Undoubtedly there are those in the business, and many surrounding it, who would have preferred a little less scrutiny. They could argue correctly that the book identifies far fewer solutions than problems. But what the book does provide, when there are few proved solutions so far anyway, could be more vital: it provokes discussion. The substance and texture of its concerns are all subject to revision, and discussion encourages revision for the better. For these reasons and others, the book has already been labeled "important" by some commentators. Maybe as well, it will grow into a "classic." By definition this will take time - years - and the judgment of retrospect, before the term becomes more than marketing hype. But as an expose of the world it claims to cast light on, On Tugboats is both affectionate and frank as few others have been. No book as complex or as lengthy (354 pages of text, plus introductions, appendices, glossary, etc.) is likely to get everything right, or at least indisputably so, and there have been murmurs of inaccuracies here and there, mostly in detail. And, when so much of a text involves oral history - what people remembered, and said about what they remembered, some of it second-hand - some amount of discrepancy is bound to emerge. Folks remember selectively, and sometimes self-servingly, and all of it depends on the author's own filters. The truth of these items will be known only to those directly involved, who might never speak up - so the version as published becomes gospel evermore. Errata does beg for correction, but against the breadth and depth of this book, such criticisms are insubstantial. They'd clear-up easily in future revised editions.

Switching Gears If On Tugboats is a letdown at all, it's in the chapter titled "Tugs and Friends Respond to 9/11," Chapter 9 in a 12-chapter book. So near the summation, one might expect this to depict some of the finest hours of New York's tugboaters, along with the other mariners who responded to the call for "all available vessels." No one took actual count, but estimates cite somewhere between 500,000 and a million souls who were evacuated, some probably saved, by that spontaneous rally of New York's boats. Bits and pieces of that remarkable effort have been reported, though it's not clear that it's all been told entirely, or even satisfactorily. A Chapter 9 with this title, in a book of this name, might be expected to fill-in the blanks. Instead, it skirts the opportunity and concentrates on the exploits of just two vessels, one not a tugboat at all. The John J. Harvey was built as a fireboat, a technically and historically significant one, but still not a tugboat. The work and life aboard a fireboat have little in common with that aboard a tug. That goes for a commissioned fireboat, populated by firemen. The Harvey, retired, is operated mostly by enthusiasts - "Old Irish, dot-commers, lesbians and gays, colorful New Yorkers of many descriptions ..." That may be work and life in the Big City, but it's one step further removed from work and life aboard tugs. The author seems aware of these discrepancies, and devotes a fair space to a rhetorical tapdance around them. Yes, the Harvey doesn't really fit, she seems to acknowledge, but it's a good story, so let's tell it anyway. And it is a good story, would be even charming were it not for the anguish of its context. It's also a widely-told story, having made the local newspapers within days, the pages of MarineNews not long after, and was even, within a year, transformed into a childrens' book, heaven help us. It' s an awkward fit in a book where everything else is so relentlessly original. Nothing can detract from the Harvey's contribution over days ongoing, its crew and proprietors deserve all the praise they get, and the city should be forever grateful. Most members of FDNY's Marine divisions certainly are, for they needed the Harvey's pumps to help quell the fires just upland. But also, it was they who went ashore to man wrecked equipment, and to begin the search for lost brethren. It was they who remained not for days, but for a couple of weeks. What the John J. Harvey accomplished was certainly real. It's the media responses that were imbalanced, and escapist: The children's book is "The little engine that could for our time," according to the Washington Post in a review. "Particularly exciting, uplifting, and child-sensitive ... revisits the tragedy without the terror," in the words of another reviewer. But there are some who revisit the terror. They include members of FDNY's marine division. If a book swerves from the course of its title and its stated theme, it's being perhaps expansive. But then it should expand all the way, to include work and life aboard fireboats with the same sense of purpose as tugboats. It's an understandable wish to be "soothed and uplifted" by the events 9/11, but it's also a daydream out of place amid the fresh insights On Tugboats serves-up so broadly elsewhere. The second boat presented in Chapter 9 is K-Sea's Adriatic Sea, a tugboat at last, and its skipper, Vernon Elburn, fills-in some sense of what the Evacuation of Lower Manhattan was like. But with barely more than one page of the book, this only scratches the surface. As it reads, the chapter seems as if the source material - so bountiful throughout the rest of the book - had suddenly run out. In fairness to the author, it's probably true that a large number of that maritime community seem reticent to go into the events of 9/11, for public consumption at least. For most of the world, 9/11 was a TV program. It was no videotape on the water that morning. There in the thick of it, having no idea from moment to moment what would happen next, it was an unfolding drama that could lead anywhere. Not easy to discuss without sounding melodramatic. And in the end, all anyone did was what anyone would do. They did what they could. They did what they had to. And a Few Grins, Too. For all the earnestness of its content and the occasional solemnity it provokes, On Tugboats is also, in places, a funny read. This is because a lot of the gents in the business are funny, in a gallows humor, we're-just-cannon-fodder-and-then-there's-divorce-court sort of way. "'That's another real important aspect of this job -- crew change,' said Len, 'And you try not to talk to each other when you're off. I don't want to hear anything about a tugboat when I'm home. My wife doesn't understand when I want to go sit in the living room by myself, all quiet. I tell her, "You try being penned up in our kitchen for two weeks with the lawnmower running.'" How does anyone who works the deck, the engine room or the house, on a cork where the natural environment does not support breathing, explain his existence to residents of the so-called real world? Neither the soap operas nor the Sunday supplements, the local PTA nor the barber, have much they can use as a reference. Most folks on your block know more about space, the final frontier, in the 25th century, than about tugboats today. Maybe that's why so many tugboaters have second jobs or businesses for their days off. It gives the neighbors something they can relate to. And now there's On Tugboats, which could put friends and others on scent.

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