Crescent Towing crews use power and finesse to get the job done in Mobile

The 5,225-hp J.K. McLean chugs north in the Mobile River on its way back to the company dock at the Port of Mobile.

Having the right tool for the job can make all the difference, and that is certainly the case for Crescent Towing’s Mobile, Ala., tugboat crews.

The company’s 20 or so full-time mariners primarily run the 92-foot tractor tugs Lisa Cooper and J.K. McLean. The two 5,225-hp tugs entered service a decade ago.

“This boat has power and maneuverability,” said Lisa Cooper Capt. Ronnie Walker. “There is just about nothing in this harbor we can’t handle.”

Most of Mobile’s port facilities are located along the Mobile River near the city’s downtown. Commodities moving through the port include metals, coal, lumber and agricultural products. The city’s container ports handled more than 424,000 TEUs in 2020, according to Alabama State Port Authority data.

“We’ve been getting ships in the 960-foot range regularly, but the 1,000-footers and the 1,100-footers are coming,” said Travis Stringfellow, general manager for Crescent’s Mobile operation.

Crescent’s crews move between 35 and 45 ships in a typical week. Shipping activity in the region could pick up even more once the 45-foot channel is deepened to 50 feet. Meanwhile, a newly-opened roll-on, roll-off terminal should attract vehicle carriers to the region.

“I just enjoy pulling on ‘em and pushing on ‘em, however we have to do it,” Walker said of the larger ships starting to call on Mobile. “With these boats, it takes the work out of your hands. The boat does the work for you if you know how to run it.”

Walker, a 35-year Crescent employee, leads a four-man crew working a seven-day rotation. His son, R.J. Walker, is the mate, while Ricky Shumock is the engineer. Jose Ojeda is the deck hand.

“This man right here, he can probably tear down everything on this boat,” Walker said of his engineer.

Capt. Walker is a third-generation tugboat captain. He followed in the footsteps of his father, Joe Tucker, who retired from Crescent about 15 years ago. R.J. Walker joined his father in the business.

“It has its ups and downs sometimes,” R.J. Walker said with a knowing smirk aimed at his father, who laughed at the joke. “But I love it. I have been doing it 14 years and I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.”

Many of Crescent’s crews started as deckhands and worked their way up to engine or wheelhouse jobs. It’s a model that’s not unique in the industry, but one Walker said leads to close-knit crews who know their jobs well.

“I know when the boat cranks up, my deck hand is coming,” Walker said. “I know what my engineer is capable of … and when we get another guy on board, chances are I’ve worked with him somewhere down the road. To me, you couldn’t ask for anything better than that.”

By Professional Mariner Staff