Historic tug needs ‘youthful energy’

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The tug Pegasus has been a fixture of the New York waterfront for most of its 108 years and a passion of Capt. Pamela Hepburn’s for the past 28. This summer, money problems drove the historic vessel off Pier 25 at Hudson River Park to a free berth at a drilling company’s shipyard on the industrial Morris Canal in neighboring New Jersey.

Capt. Pamela Hepburn has done all she can to keep the tug Pegasus (here with the Waterfront Museum barge) on the water.

The Pegasus Preservation Project — the tug’s not-for-profit owner — couldn’t afford insurance to keep the 100-footer as an attraction in the park’s historic vessel fleet. Pegasus will remain tied up at the Warren George yard while its board of directors searches for a high-energy group that can move forward with a new vision and save the tug from the scrapyard or a future as an entertainment venue. “The boat needs operating capital [of about $100,000 a year],” says Jan Andrusky, the board chairman and manager of a fleet of 14 tugs for marine construction company Weeks Marine, of Cranford, New Jersey. “That’s too much for us to sustain.”

The directors have two proposals in hand — and soon may have a third — consistent with their goals to preserve Pegasus and use it as a platform for teaching about the “harbor’s value as a rich natural habitat, as a historic waterway that shaped this city’s history and as a thriving commercial port crucial to today’s economy,” Andrusky says.

That’s good news to Hepburn. “Pegasus could use an infusion of youthful energy,” she says. Hepburn is tired after years of doing all that she could to keep the tug on the water. She wants to keep Pegasus’ educational mission. “A lot of New Yorkers don’t understand the waters around them — their harbor,” she says.

But others think Pegasus’ future would best be secured by turning it into a “beer hall,” which Hepburn says “is not as attractive to me.”

After crewing on tugs for more than a decade, Hepburn, 68, bought the 100-foot steel-hulled Pegasus in 1987 for $25,000, becoming one of the first female tugboat owner/captains. She fixed the tug up and put it to work in New York Harbor, towing oil barges and “car floats” — barges with tracks to roll railroad cars on and off.

A meticulous caretaker, she lived on the historic vessel for nine years to keep an eye on it night and day, and raised her daughter Alice on board, often taking her to work on towing assignments. “[Pegasus] is just a wonderful-handling vessel,” Hepburn says. “She’s got a big rudder and a sweet hull configuration.”

But the 900-hp diesel that replaced the steam engine in 1953 isn’t beefy enough for much of the heavy harbor work that requires a tugboat, so Hepburn retired Pegasus after 10 years to life as an education vessel. The tug took on the character of a floating museum, receiving visitors at dockside, offering work-study programs for teens, bringing school groups aboard — “soup to nuts,” Andrusky says.

Capt. Pamela Hepburn

David Sharps, president of the Waterfront Museum — a 101-year-old covered wooden barge converted to a floating museum, classroom and theater — partnered with Hepburn from 2004 to 2009 on tours of towns on the Hudson River. Pegasus would tow Sharps’ museum barge from its berth in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn to Hoboken, New Jersey; Brooklyn Bridge Park; Hudson River Park; and Poughkeepsie, Kingston, Cold Spring and Hudson, New York, offering visitors dockside entertainment, maritime education programs and museum visits. “It’s a good thing to have a friend who has a tug,” Sharps says. “We went together nicely.” But the tours were too costly, and there was no grant money to sustain them.

In 2011, Pegasus was awarded one of three berths set aside for historic vessels at Hudson River Park, but even at that high-profile location the tug could not draw enough revenue to stay in the black. Hepburn took no pay as the project’s executive director and tug’s captain, and she sank a lot of her own money into Pegasus, Sharps says.

There’s one saving grace: Structurally, Pegasus is in pretty good shape. Under Hepburn’s watch, it has undergone $1 million in renovations — 900 square feet of new steel in the hull and 500 square feet of new steel in the bulkheads, all to the original thickness, and a rebuilt wheelhouse. “A lot of problems have been fixed, but there will always be more problems because it’s a boat,” Hepburn says. “Always.”

Pegasus is carrying about $200,000 in debt, much of that owed to individuals associated with the tug who loaned money to keep it afloat, Andrusky says.

The Skinner shipyard of Baltimore built Pegasus in 1907 as S.O.Co. No. 16 for Standard Oil of New Jersey. It was one of four sister tugs designed to service Standard Oil’s waterfront refineries and terminals, dock ships, move lighter barges and work as auxiliary fireboats. In 1953, Standard — then called Esso — sold the vessel to New York-based McAllister Towing for work as a harbor tug under the name John E. McAllister. Hepburn Marine bought the tug in 1987 in Norfolk, Virginia, where it was doing transport work, renamed it Pegasus, and moved it back to New York.

Hepburn, who has been involved with Pegasus for most of three decades, says she’s ready to pass the torch to a new generation that’s as dedicated as she is to maintaining the tug as an ambassador for New York’s waterfront. “I’ve gotten old and tired,” she says. “I just want to get a small boat now and enjoy the harbor and enjoy my garden.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue.