Easing up on the throttle, skipper Paul Perkins noses his tugboat into the center of Boston Harbor's shipping channel. Sunrise is an hour away. So is the Soviet container ship loaded with plywood that he will dock.
Captain Perkins has been docking ships in Boston Harbor for 40 years. For the first 30, he pushed a fair share of US Navy ships in and out of port. But in the last 10, the bow of his tug has rarely nuzzled the telltale gray of a Navy hull.
In less than a month, that may change. The US Navy is scheduled to announce its decision on where in the Northeast it will base a five-ship Surface Action Group (SAG) consisting of a battleship, a cruiser, a destroyer, and two guided-missile destroyers.
''This tug can handle anything that floats,'' says shipmate Steve Driscoll as he takes over the tug's helm. ''I sure want the job pushing that battlewagon.''
His sentiments are shared with many Boston officials, as well as officials with the ports of Newport, R.I., and New York. Each city has been bidding against the others, trying to convince the Navy that it can ''handle'' and ''push'' the battle group if it is based there.
The selection process stems from the Reagan administration's plans to rebuild the Navy to a 600-ship fleet and from Navy concerns that the current concentration of so many ships at Norfolk, Va., and San Diego, Calif., makes its fleets vulnerable to a Pearl Harbor-type attack.
If the Navy has its way there will be a total of four SAGs. The battleship New Jersey is already based in Long Beach, Calif. The Iowa is slated for the Northeast. A third SAG will be based at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. And a fourth ''somewhere on the East Coast,'' according to the Navy. Funding for the third and fourth SAGs has been requested, but so far Congress has not approved money for them.
Each Northeast candidate is making the best offer it can of wharf, shop, and office facilities, housing, schools, and recreation.
Bidding is spurred by a desire to preserve or revive ship-fitting facilities, which would then be available for civilian contracts as well.
The payoff would be a $68 million Navy payroll when some 3,300 sailors walk down the gangway, plus 3,000 civilian jobs generating another $75 million in paychecks. The civilian job estimates are based on 1,300 one-time construction jobs and 1,700 marine-related jobs, depending on the port and the needs for rehabilitation.
To date the Navy has a firm ''no comment'' on which of the three has the inside slip for the task-force berthing.
''Choosing a site is an incredibly complex undertaking,'' says a Navy spokesman. The chain of command for the final decision works its way up to Navy Secretary John Lehman, who has the final say. One nuance the Navy wants clear is that at this point, the decision made in August will be a ''preferred alternative.'' The port chosen must still undergo an environmental-impact statement.
Preparation costs to the Navy, as estimated by the three bidding cities, range from a low of $17 million to a high of $51 million for Newport; to $57.1 million for the Boston site; to a $77.3 million and $141.2 million figure for two possible New York sites. The decision will not be based on cost alone, the Navy emphasizes.
''Dollar estimates we've received from each city are really them making the best possible case for their own port. This is understandable, but we may not want to do with the facilities what they are suggesting we do,'' says the Navy.
The Northeast was a prime choice for the Navy because of its large industrial base. For each of the ports, which have lost thousands of blue-collar and skilled industrial jobs in recent years, the fact that the Navy would choose one of them prompted an assessment of industrial capability, presented in its most favorable light. Easy and direct access to the open sea was also a primary consideration. All three ports provide this.
For Boston, it has been 10 years since the Navy pulled out. The Navy's decision this summer comes at a time when harbor development proponents are concerned the waterfront is in danger of making the final transition from a working port to a scenic backdrop for condominiums and tourists.
Brian Dacey, director of the city's Economic Development Industrial Commission, says, ''By getting the Navy in, we'll assure that Boston always stays a working port.''