Vessels: Year Two A Tale of Tugs of Two Cities

Monday, November 24, 2003

By Don Sutherland

It's been a year since MarineNews linked the dual tugmeets of the first week of September, one in New York City, the other upstate, at Waterford. Coupled, they make an interesting study, for their differences as much as their similarities. The tugs of New York City come in all sizes, but are typically large. Just as New York is a city of (many) skyscrapers, so it's a city of (many) monster tugboats, as harbor craft go. Waterford, a few miles north of Albany, is the gateway to the Erie Canal - is actually on the canal. While New York State's canals have renewed potential for commercial service, they're known most widely as recreational attractions for people who drive (many) large and pricey boats. Even were the canals to go into full commercial swing, their tugs would remain smaller than (many) city-based tugs. Waters found normally in New York Harbor would be quite alarming if found in the canals. It is choppy by nature, made all the moreso by the recent resurgence of ferries and such. The Big Apple and Waterford are only 150 miles or so apart, but their indigenous craft collectively portray a big picture. There are a lot of different ways to move things about on water, and congrats to our species for thinking-up so many.

Part 1: New York, NY

"The Blue-Collar Laborers of the Harbor Get to Play," announced a headline in the New York Times the day after Labor Day. At MarineNews, we scratched our heads. Blue-Collar Laborers of the Harbor? What's that, a new football team? Rap group? Had we known it would become an issue, we'd have paid more attention to the sartorial exhibition at the 11th Annual Intrepid Tugboat Festival and Challenge. We recall seeing no one in football uniforms, and our largest recollection is people in T-shirts, with no collars at all.

Our photographs do reveal one blue collar at the event, worn by Jerry Roberts himself, an organizer of the Challenge, and Vice President of Exhibits at the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum. He's the guy who calls the races in that famously edgy style. Not only was his collar blue, his entire shirt was.

So what's this about blue collars? What does it mean? We wondered if the dictionary could shed any light. "Of or designating work or workers in industry not requiring well-groomed appearance," stated one in defining "blue collar." That certainly didn't describe Jerry Roberts. Stated another definition of "blue collar," "Of those who work for wages esp. manual or industrial laborers." Well, if you stretch those terms a little, you come a little close to conditions aboard tugs. There is, for example, the steering wheel, under the steady hand of a skilled pilot. The chief uses his hand to press the button that starts the engine and runs the whole thing, so sure, there's a lot of manual labor on a tug. And yes, everyone who works tugboats works in the tugboat industry, so you could say they're industrial laborers and be technically correct.

But the next definition threw us: "party of the propertyless proletariat." Does this refer to some political movement of times past? Today's tugboaters are hardly propertyless, the tugboat itself being "property." Proletariat? Doesn't that mean sorta like a commonplace kinda folk? Most of the tugboat folks we know would not be described as commonplace.

We checked a thesaurus. Synonyms for "blue collar" included "manual, proletarian [again], physical, labor-intensive." So everyone seems to agree that blue-collar people work with their hands, and from there probably their arms and their aching backs, much more than they work with their noodles. And theirs is probably a very fine vermicelli to begin with, some might think. Aren't these the same guys who sit around in hardhats at construction sites, saying lewd, degrading, sexist things to young women? Is this someone you'd bring home to dinner? Is this someone who reads the New York Times?

The antonym given for "blue collar" was "white collar." Another can of worms. We didn't have all day to spend with our noses in dictionaries and thesauruses.

But as we've heard the term, "white-collar" has meant work or workers requiring, for starters, well-groomed appearance. Office workers. 9-to-5ers. Suit-and-tie people, except on casual Friday. College educated with well-filled noodles, less spaghetti-like than ravioli. Service-economy people, proud standard-bearers of the future when all sunset industries, petroleum for example, will have finally expired, or at least moved so far beyond the horizon that they're invisible from high condo windows.

If "white collar" is the opposite of "blue collar," one might wonder why the Times reader would stop to read the article? Well, of course, idle curiosity could lead the eye, assuming the reader had time. But given the paper's apparent disdain for a passenger ship terminal, and indifference to maritime activities except when something goes wrong, it would not be completely surprising if a headline about the tug races was perhaps subtly unflattering.

The term "blue-collar," like many terms used to describe large groups of people, changes meaning according to who uses it, and how. In its own website, the Waterford Roundup describes Waterford as a "blue-collar" community. The organizers don't plan to get run out of town, so they do not use the term as an insult. Still, from a standpoint of accuracy, is the phrase "blue-collar laborers" the best possible description? Why wouldn't a headline read, "The hard-working guardians of the harbor get to play," or even "the uncelebrated heros of 9/11 get to play?" As long as we're using one term to describe (many) people, why not something that comes close to the facts of life?

Labor Day in NY

Labor Day does, in fact, theoretically celebrate the laborer. That is, the blue-collar proletariat.

But it becomes laborless for the white-collar. As the Times article mentioned, the Austin Reinauer, the boat that hosted the reporter, had a job in New Haven after the races.

Indeed, it's actual work, real tugboating, that challenges the Tug Challenge organizers the most. Many's the time an intended participant cancels, because a job came up. Who's to complain? On Laborless Day, on our way to the races aboard K-Sea's mighty, towering Viking, we spotted the June K., the newest tug on the harbor, the first custom build of the Kosnac family in three generations. Everyone fully expected she'd make her "debut" at the Intrepid this year. As we crossed the Upper Bay on our way from Mariner's Harbor, we spotted the June pushing an oil barge. So much for a day off. Viking is one of several K-Sea behemoths, and one of the most interesting rides in New York. Built in 1972, 130 feet long, 4300 HP, Viking is quite a set of monkeybars. Viking's primary mission is a life in the notch, but, as the day would prove, she's hardly a staid performer. New York specializes in mighty tugboats. A lot of petroleum goes a lot of different places from origins near Mariner's Harbor. The typical New York tug has at least a pilot-house extension. K-Sea's ex-Maritrans fleet, plus the recently-added Volunteer, all painted white, resemble a flock of swans from a distance, their long necks rising the equivalent of seven or eight stories above the water. Viking is celebrated for its long, naked climb up its 40-step ladder (or is it 50?), all in the great outdoors. The crew are remarkably well-mannered and hospitable, for mere proletariat. As for their skill at their manual labors, they showed that off later that day, too.

New York, like all harbor towns, has changed, in ways sometimes startling as you turn left from the Kill Van Kull into the bay. Some say it doesn't look right, without the World Trade Center. But the biggest transformation comes from what's been added, not what's lost. For over a century, the spires of lower Manhattan have defined New York City, and separated it from the flat, broad river at its feet, and the flat, lowrise skyline of New Jersey. That skyline is flat no longer.

The gold coast of New Jersey has festooned with highrise structures, offices and homes and hotels, facing-off their traditional counterparts on the other side. The two shores remain, legally, in two separate, sovereign states, New York and New Jersey. But to the eye, it's now all New York, a single field of bunched asparagus with a stream up the middle. Henry Hudson would be dazzled.

The river today is considerably narrower than in the time of the Dutch. The drive to expand the New York Island has been relentless since the beginning. The fort that stands a half-block inland in Battery Park started-off 150 yards offshore. They found ships that had sunk, been left there and buried in landfills, when they dug the IRT subway around 1911. They found a bunch more when they dug the pit for the WTC.

The entirety of the land upon which Battery Park City today stands didn't exist when JFK was president. New York is a pioneer at urban sprawl, and practices it in its most literal form. It's a city risen from the sea. If it can throw the very ocean around, imagine its sway over things afloat.

The skipper, Mike Tobin, hadn't expected to be out that day. He's normally assigned to the Taurus, as was the mate, Bill Romeo. Capt. Tobin had expected to have the day off, like (many) Americans did, and take it easy with the game on TV. He didn't exactly say so, but he somehow seemed to imply that he'd have preferred watching the game than driving the Viking in the Intrepid Tug Challenge.

Patterns of change continue to appear as Viking heads upriver, with playing courts joining the view. In the Chelsea Piers will be found boutiques and studios and "venues," for all occasions. We once attended a press conference held by Hewlett-Packard for a new digital camera, hosted by Penn Jilette of the Penn and Teller comedy team. A different set of folks than the ones in the pictures on permanent exhibit, showing the piers in their days of serving ships.

For all the gentrification and modernity of the redeveloped waterfront, the ride to the races shows several preserves of maritime culture. South Street Seaport's masts were off at a distance from Viking's course, but visible nonetheless. And just north of the Chelesea Piers, even adjoining them, is the North River Historic Ship Society, an association of individual historic-boat owners. They include the legendary fireboat John J. Harvey and the in-loving-restoration tug Pegasus - authentic, working mementos of the city's maritime tradition. If a movie producer wanted to recreate New York harbor at almost any time in history, the floating stock would be a lot easier to assemble than the skyline.

And finally the Interpid itself. An aircraft carrier is an imposing display of marine architecture, and the aircraft a fascination. Add a destroyer and a sub, and you've got a world-class naval history museum. It's a fitting fixture of a city whose shipyards once delivered some of the country's finest naval ships.

A Day at the Races

"Labor Day weekend, when the sun is out," begins the Times review, "the air is 70 degrees and the sky is as crisp and fresh as laundry on the line, is a good time to muse on life's philosophical questions. Like this one.

'Are you going to kick butt this year?'"

"The woman smiled as she yelled out the question, her voice struggling against the throbbing of tugboat engines as they slogged up the Hudson River yesterday afternoon. Inside the pilothouse of the Austin Reinauer, the captain and crew gave an affirmative murmur.'We'll try,' said Bert Reinauer." The Times succinctly articulates the positive but serious determination exhibited by all tugboat skippers at all times.

"It was getting on toward 1 p.m., and the Austin Reinauer and eight other tugboats were lining up in the river at West 79th Street like a pack of thoroughbreds, ready to race down to the finish line at the aircraft carrier Intrepid near 46th Street." A pack of thoroughbreds. That they were. Several of the town's most imposing tugboats. Thoroughbred bison.

Besides the Austin, Reinauer sent the Lucy, both good-looking brutes of imposing authority. Ludwig E. came in for Moderen Continental. We first encountered the Ludwig at the Boston Tug Muster in 2002, when recently delivered to its Boston-based owners for a long-term contract towing between Albany and Queens.

Newest tug at the Intrepid Challenge this year was Sea Bull, a 2002 build 82 feet long and 2400 HP.

Viking was the fourth-oldest in a field of nine, the longest, with the highest horsepower (tying with the one-year-younger Lucy Reinauer). The oldest entry was also the smallest, the 1957-built, 51-foot Emil P. Johanssen. Next-oldest and next-longest was the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy's 400-HP, 1967-built training tug Growler, tying for length at 65 feet with the 1981-built, 910-HP Mary H. McAllister's 1961-built, 2000-HP Brian McAllister, bearing McAllister management from as far off as Portland, has a look that's almost becoming classic. As for the Austin Reinauer, the one hosting the New York Times, she dates from 1978, 110-feet in length, and at 3900-HP second only to Viking. Viking took an early lead in the race churning downriver. Both the Austin and Lucy Reinauer soon seemed to be gaining, but Viking never lost the lead. It was Ludwig E. that came-in second, the Lucy third and the Austin fifth, behind the Brian McAllister (these being the Interpid's records - the Times gave a different sequence of winners).

In New York, the line toss is a display of true proletariat skill and excellence in manual labor, to say nothing of wheelhouse-deck collaboration and some possibly dicey steering as the tug charges the Intrepid's dock. It must get close enough for the deckhand to reach the bollard - "casting heavy nautical lines 12 feet or so" as the Times describes it - and arrest forward motion before touching the dock. In that maneuver, the pilot pursues conflicting goals. If he hits the dock, he'll hear about it for years, so he can't go too fast. But also, the Intrepid gives points for timings - the shorter, the better. Tobin and deckhand Braden Hunter and the Viking got their act together and tossed a ringer in 9.38 seconds, according to the museum's record, compared to the 9.85 seconds of the Mary H. and 14.25 seconds of Ludwig E.

As the linetoss is the test of human skill, the head-to-head pushoffs are the barometer of all-round tugboatness. The race is the crowd-pleaser, but pushing is something tugs are built specially for. We don't know the official score, and were too busy taking pictures to take notes, but we know Viking entered at least three pushing matches (against both Reinauers and the Ludwig), and we don't remember going backward.

As indicative as it might be of a tug's overall performance, the pushing sessions are not judged. "This used to be a judged competition," according to the Intrepid's Andrew Yamoto, "but in the last few years it's been decided to make it an exhibition event as it's quite complicated to coordinate and announce. We pretty much let the captains do what they want to out on the river and just try to point it out to the spectators when we see something happening."

Indeed there is a spirit of determined horseplay during the half-hour or so when the tugs square-off nose to nose. Competitors push competitors, they push others from their own companies, absurdly large ones push absurdly small. It's the sort of free-for-all where anyone will do anything, and the sprit's infectious. Pretty soon, you expect to see the seagullls head-to-head with the crabs.

Trophy Heaven

Of all the tugmeets we've attended, the Intrepid's is the most liberal with the trophies, even without judging the pushoffs. The race recognizes three classes of tugs according to horsepower, and first through third places within each. Each gets an award, this year in the form of brass propellers mounted on varnished stands, built in the Interpid's very own shops. Additional awards were given for best classic tug, best-dressed crew, best tattoo, and best mascot, among others.

The ceremony is all smiles and sincerity, but not entirely serious. The tattoo competition, Capt. Roberts announces, is to be judged on the spot, in public, and tattoos must be on anatomy suitable to public display. The mascots must be living, and nonhuman. The grand award, called the "Head of the River" award, stays at the Intrepid but adds each year's best tug to its inscriptions - this year, Viking. It's crowned by a folky, welded tugboat, and sports industrial-strength handles that look tugboat-tough. "It's like the Stanley Cup," Mr. Yamoto told us, "although not quite as lucrative."

A mystery ship, a rather venerable-looking tanker in rather spiffy condition, shadowed the race and the pushoffs, sometimes coming so close as to almost join the action. A VIP reviewing stand for the Intrepid's best friends, we presumed. But when asked, Mr. Yamoto replied, "Actually, that was quite a mystery to us! We'd be interested in whatever you could find out about her!"

The Times reported the name of the event as the Intrepid Tug Festival, a name that popped out of nowhere with last year's edition. Last year, we mused that no bands and fireworks and other constituents of "festivals" are present at the event. What is present is plenty of challenge, from everyone to everyone. We're sure we heard Jerry Roberts' commentary refer to "the Intrepid tugboat challenge and festival," a diplomatic compromise but maybe unofficial. "It always used to be the Intrepid Tugboat Challenge," Mr. Yamoto informs us, "but our Marketing Department decided that 'Festival' sounded better. More family friendly? Who knows?" Yes, maybe that, and maybe challenge sounds a little blue-collar, the kind of thing that could lead ladies to shout about "kicking butt."

Part 2: Proletariat Hordes Swarm Over Tugboats

The Intrepid Tug Festival and Challenge and the Waterford Tugboat Roundup are the Gemeni twins of New York State tugboating. They're fraternal twins, of course, sharing little more than their high-spirited intentions and affection for boats. But what different boats. Where the typical New York City tug today is a brute, the largest tugs in regular service around Waterford - at the head of the Erie Canal — are compact, and not often much over 1000 HP.

There is a class of canalers that is bigger, and they're found at work in ports as nearby as Albany. Cheyanne and Crow, both by Bushey in Brooklyn, retractible pilot houses and all, are two of the common sights in the livery of Empire Harbor Marine. Bushey, Jakobsen, and local Matton canalers have proved successful in the Big City, too. Two New York for a good number of years are Moran's Robert Turecamo, and the Margot. Capt. Kosnac often speaks of the single-screw Margot as others do of yachts.

Other ex-canalers can be found all over New England, proving that harbors and canals do have things in common. But why aren't the canalers on the canal? Traffic has dropped-off, as everyone knows, although more and more people are wondering why? The bombardment of trucks by tunnel and bridge into New York City is a frequent complaint. There have been talks, upstate and down, about the benefits of tug and barge. Some cite the produce and dairy products originating not far from Waterford, as cargoes suited to transport by barge. They also make wine upstate. Waterfront farmers' markets have been suggested for cities along the Hudson, all the way down to the Big Apple.

These are all high-minded themes we find mixed-up with tugs. Quality-of-life and environmental issues, technological history, the growth and decline of cities and towns. So what did they do in Waterford? They took these highbrow vessels with their lofty missions and opened them up to the public. To anyone. Even the proletariat.

The tugs at the Intrepid do not encourage boarders, except for the invited handful. The spectator turnout, on a glorious sunny day, was probably in the hundreds. It's a refined culture, a very "in" thing, this tugboat business in New York City. At Waterford, they spend three days with anyone who can reach the Capital Region (by car up the New York Thruway, by boat up the Hudson or down the canal, by plane into Albany, by bus and Amtrak into same, by foot from the town or maybe a nearby farm) invited to go on and in and over tugboats, willy-nilly to their hearts' content. The turnout has been estimated at 20,000 to 30,000.

Farmers inspecting tugboats? Sure, why not? Out ot 20,000 to 30,000, there had to have been at least one. A motor's a motor, but a tugboat motor is a sight. All sorts of people could show up, including, quite likely, some blue-collar laborers.

The intermingling of people who work with their hands, among people who work with books, among people who work with machines, among people who work with cows, has the sort of social egalitarianism that you'd think a New York Times would adore. Everyone loves tugboats, and look, everyone is coming.

If any single interest seemed to dominate at Waterford last September 6-8, it was the interest of boaters. But of course, boaters are of more than a single interest. Tugboaters and yachtsmen share the common interest of not wishing to sink, but there's diversion from that point onward. At Waterford, both boating mindsets and many in between were comingling with the proletariat.

The Roundup got underway in the late afternoon, with the "traditional" (this was the fifth) parade from Albany through the Federal lock. Plenty of real tugs arrived (some after the parade, having jobs that first afternoon). The tug Urger was at the head, with a piper aboard playing stirring tunes. Tug Benjamin Elliot (or Elliiot - both spellings are on her boards) came in from Troy, as did Shad, a pushboat we would not be surprised to find working yards, looking all-business.

The Eighth Sea, a small tug with an ex-army look, also arrived from Troy, while the pusher Herbert P. Brake - said to have been hand-built by Bart Brake from this and that - came in from Albany. Pricey-looking pleasure craft with tug-inspired lines also fell-in, under names like Aloha and Charity. The Patrolman Walberger, a converted police launch we last saw at Pier 63, N.R., on the Fourth of July, was also among the eclectic assemblage strolling into the Roundup - apparently, the only Big Apple native to come up for the parade (South Street Seaport's wooden charmer, tug W.O. Decker, arrived to give rides the next day).

From Kingston came the Frances Turecamo, donated by Moran to the North River Tugboat Museum last winter. The boat was a longtime fixture of Albany, and the museum's Steve Trueman keeps alive the memory of her well-liked skipper of old, Capt. Ralph Carpino. The 1957 retractable-house boat is another of the larger tugs built as a canaler, she being the one that stayed in the region. At the Roundup, she moored alongside the museum's wooden Pennsylvania Railroad barge already in place. It would serve as the site of lectures, talks and displays for the duration of the Roundup.

Besides the 1901-built Urger, now the mascot and goodwill ambassador of the New York State Canal Corporation, the canal's 1926-built Govr. Cleveland arrived, as handsome a tugboat as ever has floated, and an amusing sight with her lifeboat, mounted above her classic clerestary, a yard higher than the wheelhouse. Canal Corp.'s Waterford, a mighty mite of a tug built in 1951, also strutted by in New York State colors.

What was surprising, for some odd reason, was the enthusiasm of the lay public as they swarmed over the boats. We had a closer look at it this year than last, as we set-up our digital photo studio in Urger's crew quarters. Every couple hours, we return to download digital camera files to a notebook computer. It can take 15 minutes or more, during which there's not much to do but crawl into a bunk and snooze.

"Look, there's a porthole!" one voice outside would shout. "Wow!" would reply another. Wow was in the air - people were ready to be impressed, and they were. "Look, there's the crew quarters! It has bunk beds!" "Wow!" If you think bunk beds was a crowd-pleaser, you should have heard their reactions to the Atlas Imperial diesel.

And sometimes the remark was, "Look, there's someone sleeping!" "Wow." Sometimes we'd arise to greet the guests. They just assumed we were part of the crew. We could have told them the Urger was rocket-powered, and it would have been all over town the next day. And the actual news is, most of the people who poured in had never seen tugs before. Yes, there were real tug people, too - we had a chat with a gent who was driving in the 30s - and they admired the assemblage of boats, too. But the joy of discovery - and joy was the right word a lot of the time - came from the newbies, the uninitiated, getting their first hands-on tugboat experience.

One of the points we mentioned last year was that New York and Waterford both have two names. It's New York, New York, as in city and state. And it's Waterford, Waterford, as in town and village. But in the year between, our vision has matured. The similarities go only so far. New York is a county, too, and Manhattan is in it. So the Intrepid's match is in New York, New York, New York. The Waterford Roundup is in Waterford, Waterford, New York. They both have three names, but not three matching names. Somebody could probably find a big distinction in that.

More to the point they both have big shows. Big in different ways - one in the numbers of turnout, the other in the scale of the setting. They're both very impressive. The whole world should find out.

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