Tugboat captain recalls Boston's lost glory in today's lean times

Tugboat captains can have long memories. And Capt. Paul Perkins of the Cabot is no exception. From the bridge of the tugboat Cabot, he can tell you of a time when passenger vessels, freighters, and United States Navy vessels came and left Boston harbor in such numbers that tugs had plenty of work to do. From the viewpoint of the tugboat business, Boston Harbor has seen better days.

Captain Perkins is in a good position to notice changes in Boston's shipping. For 40 years he has piloted tugs the width and length of the harbor.

''The ferries used to dock over there. . . . Over at those empty wharves they used to do ship repairs. . . . The passenger vessels put in over there. . . . It's a shame to see the former Navy Yard abandoned,'' he says, pointing to the remains of the Boston Navy Yard, closed by the US Department of the Navy in 1974 . ''We used to do a good business helping the Navy vessels in.''

Captain Perkins has noticed one improvement, though - local waters have become cleaner during the past five years. Thanks to enforcement of city, state, and federal antipollution laws, the harbor bottom is more clearly visible in some areas.

The large-scale redevelopment of historic waterside buildings into condominiums also has restored the attractiveness of some harbor areas, others have noted. And there is increased use of the harbor by recreational sailboats and motorboats.

But this is limited consolation for the tugboat crews who depend on the number of tug-assisted visits of passenger, freight, or military ships for their livelihoods.

In terms of cargo tonnage handled, Boston ranks below the top 13 ports in the United States, according to 1981 figures of the American Association of Port Authorities. New York City; Puerto Rico's San Juan; Seattle; Oakland, Calif.; Los Angeles; and Baltimore take the top places.

Figures from the Massachussetts Port Authority (the quasi-state agency that owns and manages several port properties) show that the number of vessels arriving is down from 1,492 in 1969 to 1,001 in 1981 and 861 in 1982. But the decrease, which means less business for tugboats, looks less severe when tonnage of cargo is examined. Each modern large ship carries more than did its smaller predecessors.

Boston's decline as a shipping port is a consequence of a number of technological and economic changes that have had major impacts on the shipping industry, according to Hank Marcus, associate professor of maritime systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

Steamship companies, he notes, seek maximum economies by using larger and larger ships in fewer and fewer calls. This means the larger harbors with modern , spacious port facilities - such as New York - are in greater demand than small ports such as Boston. It also means that the larger harbors are able to finance and build capital-intensive container-loading facilities for cargo handling and temporary storage. These harbors have an advantage over smaller ports, where limited harbor usage makes it harder to finance the facilities that could attract a greater number of large, modern ships.

Then, too, in the old days, transporting cargo overland to New England from ports such as New York was so expensive that Boston was a cheaper point of entry to New England. But with the growth of cheap inland truck transportation, products bound for the Boston area no longer need to come in through a regional port like Boston Harbor. Thus, large-scale shipping steamship companies operating through New York can offer ship and truck rates to New England, thus undercutting rates for shipping through Boston Harbor. Cities with good rail connections to the Midwest, such as New York, also have an advantage over Boston.

Another factor, Professor Marcus says, is the weakness of the Boston area in producing exports. It is less financially attractive for shipping companies to use Boston Harbor when, after unloading imports in Boston, they have trouble refilling their vessels with products for export.

While large ports attract the large modern vessels, smaller ports appeal to the smaller steamship companies, Professor Marcus points out. These companies may run conference liners (not part of a ratemaking cartel), and their vessels usually are smaller and older. These smaller companyes, sometimes neglected by the busy larger ports that seek to attract the big companies, gravitate to the smaller ports where they are appreciated and can get greater service. Smaller ports, such as Boston, have the opportunity to focus on the small shipping companies as well as on certain commoditites - such as cars, lumber, or scrap metal - that larger ports might overlook.

Because fewer vessels are visiting Boston, officials of the major tug competitors - the Boston Tow Boat Company and the Boston Fuel Transport Company - say they strive to offer better service as a way of winning a bigger share of a ''diminishing pie.''

By buying the Ross Towboat Company in 1979, the Boston Fuel Transport Company has increased its tugs from four to nine, according to manager-owner Vince Tibetts. Mr. Tibetts maintains it is possible to compete successfully, despite the drop in the number of visiting ships.

By contrast, Boston Tow Boat's fleet of six is two fewer than a decade ago. Still, these figures can be misleading because a number of the company's tugs are larger and more powerful than their predecessors, says one of the company's captains.

Even so, today the tugs face longer periods of idleness between jobs than they did when the harbor was busier - a situation that has forced some cutbacks. Says Captain Perkins, ''We used to have six crew members on each tug, including a chef. Now, we're down to four, and we brown-bag it.''

Tugs like Captain Perkin's Cabot don't look much different from their 19 th-century forefathers - except that they no longer carry the tall, slim, smoke-belching stacks of old. But what the Cabot lacks in traditional lines, she gains in power. Her two engines total 3,000 horsepower and form a mighty tugging team when joined on the job with sister tugs such as the 3,000 h.p. Daley and 2, 000 h.p. Walton.

One of Boston's earliest tugs, the steam-powered William Sprague, began service in 1857. This was the first such vessel to be run in the Boston Harbor by the T Wharf Tow Boat Company, forerunner of today's Boston Tow Boat Company. But steam towing in Boston Harbor can be traced back at least to 1846 and the twin-propeller R.B. Forbes.

Aboard the Cabot this October morning, thoughts of the harbor's decline can be temporarily put aside. The neatly painted red, white, and black Cabot has its work cut out today. Captain Perkins revs the twin diesel engines and gently slips the 95-foot Cabot away from home dock in East Boston. Twin propellers push her smoothly across the harbor toward South Boston, where the Navy's USS Guadalcanal is laying over for a few days at Boston's Pier 5.

This morning the Guadalcanal, a towering, 600-foot-long helicopter carrier, will need assistance to help cast off and get under weigh into the harbor.

Joining the Cabot are two mates, the Walton and the Daley - tugs also operated by the Boston Tow Company. Once they all arrive at Pier 5 it will take about an hour for the team to escort the Guadalcanal out to sea. It will cost the Navy $328 for each of the three tugs doing the job - a relatively short run.

Towing rates reflect the high costs of running a tugboat business. At 90 cents to a dollar for a gallon of fuel oil, a tugboat can burn from 40 to 115 gallons per hour - depending on its size and the nature of its work. (The Cabot's fuel tank holds up to 30,000 gallons.) The average job takes about two hours. The tugs are costly: The 13-year-old Cabot originally cost about $2 million and would cost about $3 million to be replaced today.

With the Cabot at the fore, the three tugs maneuver for position beneath the giant gray Navy vessel. What happens next is a time-honored practice: Captain Perkins disembarks to board the Guadalcanal and disappears inside the bridge of the Navy ship. There he issues the commands that delicately maneuver the carrier away from the pier - while coordinating by radio the pushing and pulling of the three tugs below.

Finally, as the small flotilla reaches the middle of the harbor, the Walton and the Daley break off for the run home to East Boston. In the clear morning air, the Cabot continues her run next to the Guadalcanal, maintaining exactly the same speed as the huge warship so that Perkins can come back aboard his own vessel.

As Perkins descends a ladder to the Cabot, dozens of officers and seamen watch from the Guadalcanal's flight deck above. It is 10:25 a.m., and the Guadalcanal is outward bound.

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