New Yorker story about tugboaters: “Towheads”

April 20, 2010
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Jessica DuLong


The April 19th issue of The New Yorker features a story about tugboats and tugboaters called “Towheads: The far-flung adventures of a tugboating family” by Burkhard Bilger.


It’s a great read. But I have to admit I had a little mamma-bear moment when I read this description of early tugs:


“The early tugs were expensive to staff and almost comically difficult to steer. … Every time the tug needed to reverse direction, the engine had to be stopped and restarted, by which point the boat might well have run aground.

“Wheelhouse and engine room were only tenuously connected. To change course or speed, the captain had to send his orders down to the engineer via a system of gongs and bells threaded through the boat, as if by phoning a foreign country.

The busiest tugs, Matteson writes [That’s George Matteson, author of the lovely and highly recommended Tugboats of New York], averaged more than 500 bell commands in an 8-hour shift. On trickier maneuvers, the rate could rise to six per minute.”


My mamma-bear moment stemmed from a defensive need to stick up for these old boats that I love. The tug I run, ex-army tug Gowanus Bay is powered by a direct-reversing Atlas Imperial engine, of the type Bilger describes with his: “to reverse direction, the engine had to be stopped and restarted.”


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And fireboat John J. Harvey is a bell-boat that we operate by commands conveyed through telegraph chain that rings bells at the control pedestal in the engine room, “as if by phoning a foreign country.”


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Okay, maybe I am feeling defensive of the boats that I love, or maybe it’s just a little blow to the ego to hear my daily boat life described (though accurately, I do admit) in such quaint, charmed, and surprised terms. Sigh. I run some seriously oldie-timey shit.


If you’re interested, here’s a passage from My River Chronicles that describes steering a direct-reversing tug:


“Everyone keeps telling me, if you can run this tug, you’ll be able to run anything. The Gowanus Bay’s antiquated, single-propeller, direct-reversing configuration provides limited maneuverability. The boat has no neutral, so if the engine is running, the propeller is spinning and the boat is in motion. At idle speed, the propeller turns 111 rpm. Considering that this 10-knot boat tops out at 275 rpm, it’s clear that even at her slowest, the boat moves pretty fast. She doesn’t sashay out the starting gate, she leaps. So when I pop the engine into action, I have to be sure I mean go.

“And once I have her going, there’s the problem of stopping. Boats don’t have brakes, so to halt forward motion, I shift into reverse to apply counterforce. But unlike modern vessels, this tug can’t shift immediately from forward to reverse. It’s a direct-reversing diesel that has no transmission, no gears. Going backward requires shutting down the engine, waiting for the propeller to stop spinning, then starting the engine again, this time in reverse. To avoid hitting anything, I have to take things slowly, plotting my moves like a chess player, thinking several steps ahead, ever ready to adjust for the unexpected.

“But I only get so many tries. Starting the engine requires compressed air, and because the air system can only make and store so much air at any given time, each maneuver must be carefully chosen. In tight quarters, I “fly” the tug using little bursts in the direction I want to go. Though many helmsmen would turn up their noses at running an oldie-timey boat like this, I like the mindful intentionality she demands: Waste nothing. I have to take into account the wind and current, using the immutable, natural forces to my advantage instead of barreling through them like I might if I steered a more modern vessel, with bow thrusters and joystick controls. Every fragmentary decision counts in shaping the form and the flow. It’s like writing poetry.”