Tugboat Anatomy, Part I

One of the main characters in my novel, An Island Away, is a tugboat captain named Nathan Beck. Captain Beck washes ashore on the island of Aruba after his boat sinks in a storm. During my seventeen years working on the Philadelphia waterfront and beyond, I had the pleasure of knowing several tugboat captains very well, not to mention the others that I sailed with every now and then. My friend Harry owns the High Roller, which is shown below.

The High Roller is your typical general purpose tugboat built about 40 or so years ago. Yes, when well cared for, these boats last a long time. I worked with this boat for about six years, towing barges down the Delaware River, into the Atlantic Ocean, and some other places (most times I found my way back). One thing you’ll notice is the bow fender on the front of the boat. Tugboats push as much as they pull. The fender protects both the tug and whatever it happens to be pushing against. It took me a long time to get used to the idea that you actually bump into things when you’re working on tugs as opposed to land vehicles where touching is usually a bad thing. In the center of the bow you’ll see the bull ring where a line can be passed through before leading to a pier, barge, or ship. It is made fast on the front bit by turning figure eights. That first level of deckhouse is bunkrooms and the next level is the wheelhouse. All the way at the top is another steering station used to see over the top of tall barges.

Let’s go inside.

Above you’ll see the two throttles, one for each engine. The view from the wheelhouse is actually pretty good when looking forward. There are windows all the way around but plenty of blind spots to the stern. There is a stern steering station outside, but from there, of course, it is hard to see forward. You have to learn to anticipate your moves, judge how far something will move, and how fast it will move there. Anyway, push the throttle forward one notch to engage the wheels (propellers). Further than the first notch increases the speed of the propeller (not necessarily the boat). Steering is accomplished with a small lever. Sorry, no big, wooden ship’s wheel here. Above the windows is a panel that is shown below.

The two dials show your engine rpm and the center needle is an indicator for the position of your rudder. That’s Harry in the reflection on the computer screen. (He just turned 79. He and his father performed some heroic deeds when a tanker burned at the dock back in the day). If the screen were on, you would see a chart plotter image that ties into the GPS system to show where you are. Comes in handy, especially in the fog. Here is the view down onto the foredeck.

In the center, you see the bit, which is shaped like an H. The bit on the left (port side) is a single bit with a horn that you could also use for making a line fast. These bits are used to lead lines in different directions depending on your purpose. (By the way, Harry’s other boat in the frame there is called the Purple Hays. He has a sense of humor when it comes to naming boats.)

In An Island Away, Nathan Beck is the captain of a much larger tug, but the anatomy is the same. Beck’s grandfather was in the merchant marine during the Second World War, serving as a cook on ships that were torpedoed and sunk on Atlantic Convoy duty. Thus, the older Beck opened a restaurant with a view of the waterfront in Philadelphia. Well, Nathan Beck was raised by this grandfather because his own father abandoned him there at the restaurant. He grew up with a view of the river and the tugboats roaming about. Captivated by these stout vessels he made them his career, ultimately becoming the man who would wash ashore in Aruba, encounter Sam, Luz, and Charlie (yes, of Charlie’s Bar mentioned earlier in my blog).

Part II will take a look at the main deck and what goes on there.


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  1. […] found this great blog about tugboat anatomy.  This guy answers those two questions right at the outset, plus he writes about the history of […]

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