Skip to main content

Gentlemen of the Harbor

A day aboard a working tug in Baltimore

My valued friendship with one of the port of Baltimore’s senior tug captains enabled this small-craft sailor to experience the sights and sounds of the commercial harbor from the “other man’s” vantage point. The view from the wheelhouse led me to write “Gentlemen of the Harbor: Stories of Chesapeake Bay Tugboats and Crews,” from which the following is excerpted.

Tug men reported to work as early as 2 a.m. if they were scheduled for what was fondly called the “day shift.” Unlike their counterparts serving for 14 days at a time on the oceangoing coastal tugs, these men worked the “bucket boats,” returning home each evening. Harbor tugs are so called because the crew was able to take along their meals in a bucket, or more likely today in a brown bag. The powerful tugs awaited their orders at Recreation Pier in historic Fells Point.

Docking tugs, usually 100 feet and capable of 3,500 horsepower, would steam toward the Francis Scott Key Bridge at the harbor’s entrance to rendezvous with an arriving vessel. Ships’ masters, unfamiliar with local shoals, tides and currents, relied on the tug captain’s knowledge and skill when they asked for tug assistance. Arrangements for docking were made through shipping agencies, each maintaining long-term contracts with a particular towing company. To facilitate rapid handling, thereby reducing labor and fuel costs, tug captains would immediately establish radio contact with the bay pilot in command of the vessel. After the always friendly, almost formal pleasantries were exchanged, meeting procedures were discussed and agreed upon.

The two deckhands, mate and captain find the tug illuminated, diesels purring and the coffee pot steaming — the boat’s engineer is traditionally instructed to report 30 minutes prior to departure time. After storing gear, extra clothing and the ingredients for meals (for which each was personally responsible), the sailors cast off lines.

While the difficult approach is made, the captain readies himself for the potentially dangerous crossing. He takes with him his portable radio and bills to be signed by the ship’s master. Should the ship have not already lowered a wood-and-rope boarding ladder, the deckhands will prepare the tug’s aluminum ladder for the crossover. High decks and elevated boarding hatches on modern container and automobile transport vessels necessitate the ladder being placed on the tug’s boat deck (above) or even atop the cluttered pilothouse roof. With one end of the ordinary house ladder held firmly by trusted fellow crewmen and the other in the hands of sometimes uncomprehending strangers, the captain crosses to take command of the ship.

When finally directed by the dispatcher to return to the company pier, the men have put in a long and tiring day. They waste no time in securing the galley, changing into shore clothes along the way. Minutes after docking, the crew will be homeward bound, eager to leave the waterfront behind, if only for a few hours.

Once on board the bridge, the docking pilot contractually becomes a member of the crew, charged personally with the safe and speedy docking of the ship. With the aid of his tug and perhaps that of others, he instructs the shipboard personnel in the intricate process of laying a multimillion-dollar vessel alongside an uninviting concrete pier. By way of his radio, the captain re-establishes contact with the tugboat. His mate will be instructed as to where he is to position the tug, the initial spot usually being against the bow. A polypropylene heaving line, with weighted monkey’s fist attached, is skillfully tossed aboard the ship by a deckhand. Ship’s crew then pull over the heavy towing hawser and fix it to massive cleats.

Longtime tugboat enthusiast Bill Eggert and his wife, Nancy, explore Chesapeake Bay aboard their Ranger Tug, Just Limin’, which they keep on the West River, not far from Annapolis, Maryland. Eggert’s articles and photographs about tugs have appeared in such publications as Sea History, Chesapeake Bay, Lekko and Sea Classics.

November 2014 issue