The Browns of New York: Traditional boats, traditional skills

Top, in an era when harbor tugs have power plants that exceed 5,000 hp, Thomas J. Brown has a mere 1,000 hp. Below, Capt. Jimmy Bauers maneuvers the 63-foot Thomas J. Brown in New York Harbor. (Photos by Brian Gauvin)
On Dec. 11, 1962, the steel tug Thomas J. Brown was delivered to Thomas J. Brown & Sons, New York, from Gladding-Hearn Shipbuilding, Somerset, Mass.

The tugs are used primarily to tow construction barges and barges carrying railcars.

For Jim and Tom Brown, New York Harbor was their childhood playground.

“I was 8 years old when I started,” said Tom. “We used to work the summers. If we were bad, my mother would say, ‘You can’t go out on the boat.’ That was the punishment.”

The brothers are the third generation of Browns to operate the company founded by their grandfather, Thomas, in 1929, with one old wooden tugboat. Today Jim runs the 78-foot, 2,600-hp John P. Brown, named after his father. Tom is the company’s boat engineer and works the lines while Capt. Jimmy Bauers maneuvers the 1,000-hp Thomas J. Brown.

“She’s only a 63-foot boat but she’s got a 6-foot wheel,” said Tom, as he slipped deftly around the Cat 398 coupled to a Cat 3192 gear. “It’s a great package that Cat put in here,” said Tom. “That’s the last year they made the combo package.”

Working with smaller, less powerful equipment is fine with Tom. A master at working lines, Tom is somewhat scornful of the trend to use horsepower in place of skill.

The tug is powered by a Caterpillar 398 coupled to a Cat 3192 gear turning a 6-foot prop.
“Nobody does stuff like that anymore,” said Bauers, watching Tom fasten the tug onto a barge and give the go sign for Jimmy to nudge the barge and let the line hinge it around. “The Browns have their own way of doing this stuff. It works beautifully.”
Tom Brown tosses a line onto a construction barge. He believes that boat-handling and line-handling skills, rather than power, are the keys to success.

“Tugboating has changed dramatically. Horsepower has changed everything,” Tom said, explaining that his company still depends on the boat-handling skills of its crews. “Get a line out. Get it on the right spot. It’s all done with lines. That’s the way we do it.”
John P. Brown, a 78-foot, 2,600-hp tug, teams up with Thomas J. Brown to move a barge of rail cars across the Hudson River.
The Brown family has long been looked at with respect for their skill and professionalism. John Brown passed away this past May, leaving Jim and Tom as the last of the family working in the business.

“We have no visions of getting big,” said Tom. “When we retire, that will be the end of T.J. Brown.”    •

Above, the classic curves of Thomas J. Brown’s pilothouse are expressive of the company’s rich history. The boat was built in 1962 for a company founded in 1929. It is now operated by two brothers, who are the grandchildren of the Thomas J. Brown who started the company.
By Professional Mariner Staff