Tug captain’s career spanned era marked by progress and conflict

Capt. John Willmot with his wife Peggy at their home in St. Petersburg, Fla. Beginning his career at age 18 as a deck hand on a steam tug, he retired at age 70 in February from Moran, where he served as captain of a z-drive. (Brian Gauvin)

One can imagine the Florida Room jutting out from Capt. John Willmot’s home in St. Petersburg as a spacious wheelhouse with large windows on three sides revealing water, in the form of a pool, stretching across the patio. Inside, the large round table can take a chart with room to spare for the coffee mug, never far from Willmot’s hand.

“This is my kingdom," said Willmot, recently retired from Moran Towing in New York. He started as a deck hand on a steam tug at 18, and retired Feb. 17, 2009, as a captain of a z-drive, at age 70. Among his peers he is something of a legend, more for the way he went about his business in the wheelhouse than any incident or event.

“I gave him the name •Pops’ because he had a fatherly attitude, but not in a condescending way," said Paul Roura, a delegate for Local 333, United Marine Division of the ILA on Staten Island. Roura started as a deck hand under Willmot in 1990 on Kathleen Turecamo.

“He was always there with advice. John’s authority came from experience — been there, done that. He was easygoing, but you knew he wasn’t kidding if something had to be done. He had so much experience and he made everything look so easy."

Capt. Dennis Holmes, now with Metro Pilots, also trained under Willmot. He recalls, “John would set a coffee cup on the window sill in the wheelhouse and tell the training mate if any coffee spills, you landed too hard."

Coffee mugs seem to be Willmot’s default training aid. In 2002, when he was 64 and training to operate z-drive tugs, he used two cups to simulate the joysticks used, instead of a wheel, to steer a z-drive. “I used to sit at this table right here with two coffee cups. I had diagrams to show which way to turn them to make them do whatever, with the cups."

“This guy has hands-on trained probably half the tug captains and mates across all the companies that used to and still operate in New York Harbor," said Steve Leen, chief engineer on Gramma Lee T. Moran. “They don’t build ’em like they used to. John is a true classic." When they first met, Willmot told Leen that he could be difficult, “But he is truly the nicest man I have ever had the privilege to sail with," Leen said.

Peter Keyes, vice president and general manager for Moran in New York and for the company’s offshore operations, recalls that, “During the 1990s, whenever we were moving a person from deck hand into a steering position, we would try to send them to work under John. He taught them the ropes. Over a period of 10 years or so we probably had at least a dozen mates who were groomed under John."

Willmot’s wife, Peggy, refills the coffee cups, produces a mountain of doughnuts, then sits, listening attentively to her husband reminisce, beginning with the Arundel Corp. steam tug Brooklyn in 1957.

“We were towing mud out of New York," he said. “The man I started with was Capt. Harvey Cooey, towing three scows a trip. Each intermediate hawser was made up of 500 feet of 1 3/4-inch wire rope. You had to lay it down, stand there and coil it to put it on the next scow. We handled it four times: Take it in, put it on the scow, go out to sea and pay it out. My pay then was $1.78 an hour. My 96-hour paycheck for the week was $202. The younger generation today, I don’t think they could handle that job.

“Harvey Cooey was quite a man. He was an ornery son of a gun, but anytime there was something interesting he’d say •Wake up the boy,’ which was me.

“He would show you something and you would put it in your memory bank. You wouldn’t sit around. We had no TVs, no computers, no cell phones. I would spend the whole watch in the forepeak with a mallet and fid splicing nine-inch sisal line. When you spend six hours in the hold doing that you come out with a lot of splinters in your hands." Willmot joined Local 333 on Jan. 2, 1958. After Arundel, he worked in turn for McAllister, Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., Red Star, and weekends on the 69th Street Ferry, before settling in at Montauk Oil until 1963. He made captain in 1964 after he had gone back to Great Lakes dredging, a job he liked very much.

During that time Willmot participated in reshaping a good deal of New York Harbor and the rivers. “We were bringing sand into Port Elizabeth Channel, which was just a little mud hole back then, and Throgs Neck Bridge. We dumped rock for that bridge, then for the Newburgh Bridge. And there was all the sand we brought in for Howland Hook. Then there was Battery Park, where you see the marina. We brought in all that sand. Manhattan, where the UN is, filled all that in. Jones Beach. And Boston, we worked up in Boston Harbor."

Willmot left Great Lakes on Jan. 31, 1976, and joined Turecamo Maritime, remaining with the company and Kathleen Turecamo when Turecamo merged with Moran Towing in 1998. When he retired he’d been with the combined companies for 33 years.

“It’s funny. If you go to Moran’s yard and you walk two blocks up the street — that’s where I went to grammar school. Right next door to Moran’s yard used to be the Richmond water dock. That was the shopping district of Staten Island then. They had five fire hydrants there. All the boats used to go in there to get water, get grub. Even when I became a teenager, that corner down there is where I used to hang out. One never knows, one never knows."

Roura said, “It’s hard for me to recall any drama aboard because it didn’t have a place on a boat Pop ran. My first trip with Pop to Wilmington, North Carolina, was supposed to be tranquil. We hit two hurricanes. They were mystery storms that came out of nowhere. No one knew they were coming. That’s when he showed he was quite a sailor, not just in the harbor, but also a very apt coastwise sailor. Not a lot of people transcend those two. Despite the adverse conditions, the soup was maintained in its proper spot atop the galley stove."

“John is a self-proclaimed soup master," added Holmes. “He always said a well fed crew is a happy crew." Willmot took up galley cooking after the strike of 1988 when the union lost the position of a cook on board, and his now famous soup pot was born. Along with the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and learning how to operate a z-drive, the strike of ’88 presses to the top of Willmot’s emotional memory.

Local 333 lost weekend overtime after the strike, and captains were reclassified as management, barring them from the bargaining process. President Reagan’s campaign against unions and his embrace of deregulation shaped the political climate. Unskilled replacement workers arrived to man the boats, and the pendulum hung over the company’s side of the table. The union ranks thinned and Local 333 was in the doldrums. In recent years the pendulum has swung back, heralding a reformed union staff and a favorable employment climate for mariners. The cost of liability insurance to the companies has made unskilled replacement workers a bad choice.

“People lost their families, their jobs," said Roura. “It was like the civil war around here. The wound is just now being healed."

“I’m a 50-year union man," said Willmot. “That strike is a sore spot in my heart, very sore. They threw us out, men who were dedicated to those companies. Afterwards our relationship grew strong again but it’s different. Before you were committed to the companies, but after that it was like taking the candy bar away from you."

“Pop never crossed," said Roura. “He never lost his commitment to the union. John is a captain that always was able to find the common thread that kept company and the union both content with his boats. The Kathleen was the best looking boat in the harbor. Always."

Prominent among Willmot’s collection of awards and photos is a Transportation 9/11 Medal, a citation presented to him for his services after the terrorist attacks in 2001.

“Well I’ll tell you that is a big memory in my head. They called for help and every boat available was there. God bless everybody, all the men, all the boats that were there."

Willmot and his crew aboard Kathleen Turecamo were loading passengers from the Battery wall in Manhattan and ferrying them, 150 at a time, to Brooklyn, Staten Island, Hoboken, wherever they needed to go. He recalls that at each destination there were paramedics, firefighters, police and ambulances ready to look after the evacuees. “They really pulled together on that one," he said.

“I can remember two things very distinctly. There was a carriage over near the Coast Guard Station. A stroller. All covered with ash and you said to yourself •Where are they?’ It really made a mark on me, that stroller, because, you know, I have grandchildren.

“And then towards evening everything became very, very quiet. The fire department made the restaurant down at the Battery their command center and everything became dead quiet. All you could hear was a bell ringing. The clang was an indication that they had found one of their own. And I’ll tell you, that brought tears to your eyes when you heard that.

“But there are a lot of people that didn’t get recognition. We were designated as a supply boat and I went over to Pier B in Jersey City. They said, •I don’t know if you can get in there,’ and I said, •I’ll get in there one way or another.’ And we got in there and they had a tractor trailer loaded with water, bread, peanut butter, drinks, orange juice, everything. You’re talking 150 to 200 feet from the boat. I saw people from all walks of life get on that bucket brigade and pass that stuff down to the boat. It was incredible."

On their second trip, the Jersey City firemen and police were there to help load the boat, but Willmot was concerned that his crew of five was too small to unload a tractor-trailer load of supplies. “A whole squad of firemen got on the boat and we went into Manhattan and we delivered it to each area. The Jersey City Fire Department and the Police Department didn’t get the recognition they should have."

Then Kathleen was designated a body boat and loaded with body bags destined for the Battery, but there were no bodies, only ash.

“We watched the planes hit and we watched them (towers) come down. And everybody in New York Harbor, any commercial vessel that was available was there, and my hat goes off to every one of them. That was one of the highlights of my life. At least we got recognition that you’ve done something in your life that someone recognizes."

In 2002, Keyes asked Willmot to go to Savannah, Ga., and train on the tractor tug Diane Moran after Kathleen was dispatched to Albany, N.Y., permanently.

“I got in that chair and I was scared to death, because I’ve been training men since the ’70s when I was with Great Lakes. I’d train a man maybe six or seven months then get another man. And now all of a sudden the trainer was becoming the trainee.

“I told the fellows in Savannah, •I know nothing.’ And they worked with me for a few months. It was hard because it was a hands-on job and I was scared to death. But somebody had made a comment that the old man was too old to be trained. I said •Too old to be trained! I’m going back to New York to prove that the old man can do it.’

“There were two guys that were great to me, Ricky Tillman and Rodney Magwood. Rodney, I guess he stands six-two, six-three, and he’d put his arms around me and say you turned them (joysticks) the wrong way, you turn them this way. Those two men really showed me a lot.

“Peter Keyes was the one who was pushing me. He had faith in me. And when you have a man that has faith in you, you know you can do it."

Keyes knew John was a natural teacher. “That was my primary reason for pushing John toward taking over that type of tug," he said. “Training is something that John does well. He relates well to the younger guys. That was an important part of his new tractor tug career, because as he continued to develop mastery of the vessel, his natural role was to spread the skills to others."

Willmot persevered, developing and perfecting the hand-brain coordination necessary to steer two independent azimuthing z-drive units, the antithesis of conventional twin-screw propulsion, correctly. Then, of course, you have to take into account currents and tides and all of the everyday concerns of a tugboat captain. Operating z- drives has been described as rubbing your tummy and your head at the same time in opposite directions. But the stakes are higher.

After a couple of months on Diane in Savannah, and after completing the obligatory week-long training course at Marine Safety International near Newport, R.I., Keyes sent Willmot up to Washburn & Doughty Associates in East Boothbay, Maine, to bring out Gramma Lee T. Moran. She was the company’s newest z-drive at the time. Willmot was her captain until last year when he went back to Maine to bring out Laura K. Moran, named after Peter Keyes’ late wife. That was a particularly prideful assignment for Willmot, given his close relationship with the Keyes family. He was her captain until he retired. “And bringing out two new z-drives. That was a real honor," he said.

“I love my work. Believe me. And it’s hard for me to be walking away from it. I’m one of the fortunate people in life. Two weeks on, two weeks off. Equal time. How can you go wrong? I got paid to play with a boat. The more you work with them (z-drives) the more confident you get. You say, •I’ve never done that before.’ And so you try it and now I’m trying it and now I can do it.’ I enjoyed everything I did. I’ve towed the coast from Bangor, Maine, to Miami, Florida. I’ve traveled the Inland Waterway from Cape May to St. Augustine, Florida."

Willmot is very aware that his strong relationship with his wife was a big factor in allowing him to enjoy his life on the water.

“In this industry a man has to have a great partner. A man that has to worry about home life is a man that has to quit the job," he said. “She’s my buddy, my pal."

“He’s a great guy," responded Peggy. “My buddy. It’s good to have him home. It’s great when he’s home and he does all the cooking." •

By Professional Mariner Staff