‘Tales from a Tugboat Captain’ rides high on offshore adventure


My first trip out into the ocean was exciting because it was a new experience. All the other guys aboard the boat had done this many times and were just glad the weather was calm. So now I start hearing all the sea stories. During the 40-some years I have been working on the water, I have heard all kinds of harrowing tales of extraordinary seas, wicked weather and terrifying storms. I am certain that all accounts of rough seas and bad weather have been grossly exaggerated. Some stories are probably just rehashes of questionable legends told over and over to the new kids on the boat. Tugboat guys have been known to stretch the truth about the weather. And most other subjects, too.

“It’s gonna be as slick as an onion out there, Cap.” Most days on the water are really nice and calm. This is due to the lack of any strong wind.

“It’s just like a lake out there.” Most tugboat guys have said this at least once in their career. I can’t remember any time the Atlantic Ocean was “just like a lake.” These comments come from sailors who know that if the wind has been calm for a few days, the seas in the ocean will also be calm.

“The wind was blowing a hundred miles an hour, from all directions!”

“It’s probably gonna be a little splashy out there today, Cap.”

“It’s gonna be a little bumpy out there today. We’ll probably have to put her on a short string before we head down the beach.”

What the hell are you trying to say? Translation: If the seas on the ocean are too rough for pushing gear, the barge will need to be towed astern of the tugboat on a hawser before they head south out of New York along the New Jersey coastline. If the tugboat has a towing machine, the guys will tow the barge astern on the towing cable.

“It’s a nice day if you are a duck.”

“Even the seagulls are weather-bound.”

Weather-bound is the term that tugboat guys use to explain why they cannot perform a job or why they will not continue (or begin) their journey. The prevailing weather is just too severe to safely operate or navigate.

“It was so goddamned rough out there we went over one and under two!”

This is how the guys describe running into a large head sea. The tugboat rides up over the first oncoming wave, and then it falls down into the trough of the sea only to be covered by the next two oncoming seas.

“There’s some holes in the ocean!”

That’s how it feels sometimes when you are in a rough sea. You try to pay attention to the rhythm of the waves and anticipate how to react to the motion of the ocean. But the ocean is not that predictable. Just as soon as you think you know how it’s going to feel, the bottom falls out and it feels like the boat is falling into a hole.

The weather dictates how tugboat guys prepare to make a tow. The geographical area in which you will be towing is another factor to take into consideration. Tugboat guys are supposed to make the best decisions on how to safely and efficiently tow a barge from one place to another. We try to make the job as easy as possible without taking any dangerous shortcuts. We are constantly watching the weather. When the weather changes during our trip, we sometimes need to change our mode of towing.

The most efficient mode of towing a barge is to be in pushing gear. The tugboat is positioned at the stern of the barge. Steel cables or new Spectra lines are used to keep the boat attached to the barge. This is the preferred method of towing a loaded barge in calm weather. But if the weather is starting to change for the worse and the captain is not quite sure if he can remain in pushing gear, he might make a statement like, “When in doubt, put it out.” He is referring to putting the barge on a hawser or a tow wire. Or, “I’d rather be towing astern wishing I was pushing instead of pushing and wishing I was towing.” These statements are made by experienced men who know that it can be dangerous to change the mode of towing in rough weather. Rather safe than sorry.

I worked in the Gulf of Mexico for three months plus one year aboard a 110-foot tugboat. Our job was to tow oil rigs to their deepwater drilling site. Most of our trips were offshore, as in 100 to 200 miles offshore. There was no place to hide or find safe haven from a storm when you are that far from land. When foul weather hit, we just had to ride it out as best as we could and hope that our vessel was sound.

Thankfully, I never experienced a hurricane while working in the Gulf. But I did survive a storm that produced winds up to 100 miles per hour. We could see the ominous line of black clouds approaching in the distance. We secured all portholes and weathertight doors in preparation for heavy seas. It was fortunate for us that we were not engaged in towing at the time the storm hit. We did not have to worry about losing an oil rig if our tow cable parted in heavy seas. When the storm hit, it ripped the flag halyard from the mast and it broke two radio antennas. There was no hail, but the rain was fierce. Sideways rain, as they say.

The seas quickly began to build and within the hour had reached heights of 20 feet or more (NOAA weather reported waves of 25 feet). The heavy winds lasted only a few hours that afternoon, but the seas were rough for two days! When the seas are that big, we must be vigilant while steering the vessel. There is the danger of rolling the boat over if we get caught broadside to the sea. If we approach a wave at a 90-degree angle, we could turn the boat over end for end; “pitchpoling” is the terminology for this tragic event. So we must take the seas on an angle as best we can at about 30 degrees.

Inside the vessel things are happening. Even though we are well prepared for working offshore, there is always something that breaks free and is thrown around in severe weather. It is usually something harmless like pots and pans, and it is noisy and amusing until someone catches the culprit and secures it in a locked cabinet. The boat is completely watertight except for ventilation to the main engines. They need air to operate. The air inside the vessel quickly becomes stale. Diesel fumes waft up from the engine room. Someone usually gets seasick when conditions are this rough. Since the boat is “all buttoned up,” you will surely smell the stench of vomit when someone regurgitates his last meal. Hopefully the poor seasick sailor will make it to the head.

In heavy seas, the boat will thrash around violently. There will be no cooked meals for several days. Walking becomes a dangerous chore and sleeping is impossible. When you get off watch, you prop your mattress up with life preservers or spare blankets to form a wedge facing the bulkhead. Most tugboats have bunk beds in each cabin. Space is limited, so you usually need to share the room with another crewman. I always slept in the upper bunk. During rough weather, you must time your jump into your rack to coincide with the motion of the boat. If you jump up when the boat is going down, you will most likely crack your head on the overhead!

When you get into your bunk, your stomach gets butterflies as if you are on a roller coaster. Actually, it is much worse because you don’t know when the ride will end, and there is no rhythm to the violent motion of the sea. While you are lying in your bunk, feeling the power of the ocean, you hope that your boat can withstand the punishment without sustaining any damage. You hope the engines do not fail. There is very little rest to be had when you are in severe weather in the open ocean on a tugboat.

Thomas Teague began his career in the towing industry when he acquired a full-time job as a deck hand on a tugboat in 1974. He is licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard as master of self-propelled vessels of less than 1,600 gross registered tons upon oceans, and master of towing vessels upon oceans and Western Rivers. The book is independently published and is available on Amazon.com.

By Professional Mariner Staff