In Seattle, little boats push the big boats around

When you say "tugboat" to Brian Armstrong, he thinks: "Ferrari." Do you? I doubt it. These workhorses of the water may be painted red, like the sleek Italian sports cars. But fast, powerful, and agile?

OK, probably not fast. But they are very powerful. The tug shown here is 85 feet long and has two 2,400-horsepower engines. That's like having two locomotives onboard. And agile?

Some of today's tugboats can change direction very, very quickly. In fact, if you're not hanging onto something during an emergency stop, you might be knocked over.

Tugboats have to be strong and maneuverable. How else could they push and pull fully loaded, supersize ships? A Tioga Z-Drive Tractor Tug, for instance, is 105 feet long and weighs 275 tons. A typical container ship wanting to "park" in the port of Seattle might be 800 to 900 feet long and weigh 60,000 tons, fully loaded.

Harbor tugs perform "ship assist" work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Without them, many of those cargo ships could not come into port. Tugs are the unsung heroes of the harbor.

But tugboats do more than help huge ships dock. Some escort ships through narrow channels or push barges and other freight over great distances. Some rescue ships that are disabled or have run aground. Tugboats operate in rivers, lakes, and oceans, as well as in harbors.

Tugboats come in three basic types: harbor tugs, oceangoing tugs, and "pushboats." Harbor tugs have the familiar compact, layer-cake cabins, low-slug decks, and well-padded hulls. (Used truck tires usually do the trick.)

Oceangoing tugs have high, wave-breaking bows. The bows on pushboats might be square. That's so they can lock onto cargo-carrying barges. Tugs and barges are a common sight on the Mississippi River. A pushboat may guide 20 barges, lashed together.

In Seattle, the Monitor got a firsthand look at harbor tugs at work.

Tug mate Armstrong, who works for Crowley Marine Services, says modern harbor tugs are technologically advanced. The most modern tugs (like the one shown here) have Voith-Schneider drives. Instead of a screw-type propeller, the tug has two spinning disks with vanes on them. They're like giant eggbeaters, and they make the tug very maneuverable. That's important when you're trying to find just the right place to push on a lumbering oil tanker.

If pushboats are the railroad locomotives of the waterways, harbor tugs are the valet parking attendants. They push on the hulls of giant ships or pull on lines (ropes) attached to them. The blue-colored tow lines are eight inches in diameter.

The big ships are made primarily to go in a straight line, forward or backward. It takes a long time for them to turn, stop, or reverse direction. That's where the tugs come in. They make it possible for the unwieldy ships to pull up to a dock without smashing it into splinters by mistake.

Recently, Crowley tugs have played a supporting role in increased waterway security at the entrance to Puget Sound. The tugs have helped anchor a number of ships the Coast Guard has boarded and inspected since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

A tug pilot needs to see everything around him, and even overhead, so the wheelhouse has windows in every direction. It's like a fishbowl. That gives him excellent visibility. But on sunny days, it also turns the cabin into a solar oven. Time to turn on the air-conditioner.

Working on a tugboat means working long hours, long days, and sometimes long weeks or months.

The Crowley crews that work Puget Sound, in Seattle, are generally on the water constantly for a week or two at a time. But if they work one week, they get the next week off. If they work two weeks, they get two weeks off.

Tugboat crews consist of four to nine members. On smaller tugs, a captain may be accompanied by a mate, an engineer, and a deckhand. Two crew members alternate being on duty. They work for six hours, then rest for six, and so on. (This schedule is common on many ships. Submarine crews follow this pattern, too.)

The idea of such a schedule is to keep everybody fresh and alert, since the assignments come at all times of the day and night. Last-minute assignments are not uncommon.

Besides tossing and securing lines, deckhands cook most of the meals, which are hearty and eagerly anticipated. (At the time I visited, two deckhands on one Crowley tug were competing to see who could make the most delicious bean soup.)

Reggie Guinn, a deckhand, says he swore he'd never be a mariner like his father. His family has always "gone to sea," though, and now he's a seasoned crewmen of many years.

When not on duty, Mr. Guinn and his mates may watch TV or pop a video into the VCR. Guinn has his own small cabin, complete with bed and laptop computer. He says he reads three or four good-size books during each two-week stint he works.

Before cellphones, crew members used to rush for the pay phones whenever their tug docked. Now, practically everybody has a cellular phone. Guinn says he talks to his daughters almost daily.

The crew of an oceangoing tug, though, may be at sea for weeks or months. Earlier this year, a Crowley tug towed the battleship Iowa from the East Coast to the West Coast. It took 40 days. In 1999, the company's 7,200-horsepower Sea Victory hauled a decommissioned aircraft carrier 21,540 miles from California, around the tip of South America, to a scrap yard in Texas.

Three Crowley tugs now are towing a huge offshore oil-drilling platform from the Arctic to Sakhalin (an island on Russia's Pacific coast) to be rebuilt. The voyage may take 50 days.

On its own, a tugboat can go 12 knots (17 miles per hour). But hauling something so huge can slow things down to a snail's pace.

George Reid, a tugboat expert, once spent 68 days towing a floating dry dock across the Pacific. Was it boring to be on such a long-haul job? Actually, he says, it was much less boring than driving a car on an Interstate highway.

"You have the sea conditions to contend with," he says. "And you have the animals at sea - the porpoises, dolphins, and whales you encounter, as well as the sea birds."

Given the low speeds, he says, it's even possible to drop a line over the side and catch supper.

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