Photo by Garrett Parker on Unsplash

They may not travel to exotic ports thousands of miles away. They may not work at sea for months on end. But it’s time we give tugboat crew members the respect they deserve. After all, they do a lot of heavy lifting (or tugging) in the merchant marine.

Crew members of a tugboat lead very different lives than deep-sea mariners working on container ships. Tugboats also play vastly different roles in the maritime economy than oceangoing vessels. Out2Sea.com believes these differences are worth celebrating.

Tugging the world along

Tugboats haul freight on the ocean, harbors and many inland waterways in the United States and throughout the world. On the rivers, they can be seen towing massive barges from astern, or “pushing ahead” and moving a barge from behind. It isn’t uncommon for a single tugboat to maneuver dozens of barges at the same time. Hazards abound on rivers, and captains must navigate narrow, often curving waterways, bridge abutments and other boats. This makes tug captains who charter river channels some of the best boat handlers in the merchant marine.

Tugs also play a key role in the offshore drilling industry. Something has to move those massive, 30,000-ton oil rigs, and tugboats and their crews are well-equipped for the job. Modern tugs can generate about 6500 horsepower, meaning it may only take one boat to move an entire rig. A small but powerful watercraft, tugboats are quite dependable. Last summer, when the offshore oil rig Transocean Winner crashed on a remote Scottish island, two tugboats came to the rescue, helping to refloat the rig and transport it to a nearby harbor for repair.

Of course, tugs also pull more than their weight in seaside harbors throughout the world. And this weight seems to grow heavier as companies build larger and larger ships. Having to intercept a massive container boat as it speeds quickly into port, and turn the ship 180 degrees to stop its momentum, may sound terrifying. But really, it’s just another day on the hitch for tugs and their crew.

Life on the hitch

While tugboat crews handle a wide variety of duties, as demonstrated above, a typical stint of work, or a “hitch,” looks vastly different than it does for deep-sea mariners. For one, a hitch usually lasts between 3-6 weeks, as opposed to a couple months for oceangoing sailors. And although tugboat workers need to perform many of the same duties as seamen – standing watch, cleaning and maintaining the boat, docking it at port – much of their work is distinctly different.

Tug crews who work on the rivers need to know how to build tow – that’s tugboat lingo for tying barges together. The average number of barges transported together on our nation’s main inland waterways is 15. And crews must tie up these barges using chain-link rigging and heavy, 65-75 pound ratchets. This is one of the most labor-intensive jobs any merchant marine has to perform.

Those who work on harbor, or deep-sea tugs must learn to hitch their load to the boat using a “hawser,” or a full coil of nylon line. Crews must tie this coil fast to a metal bit on the stern in order to connect the load, often during inclement weather conditions. When the tow is done, the crew must then haul in the thick coil and prepare it for the next load.

This doesn’t even begin to explain the difficulties tugboat operators face when escorting larger ships farther out at sea. Even amidst a powerful storm, it’s nearly impossible to slow down when escorting a cargo ship. Large, ten-foot-high waves may crash on either side of the boat, but the hitch must continue. Captains must also be extra careful when operating in areas of heavy ship traffic. While a tug gets in position to attach a line, it isn’t uncommon for the larger ship to generate wake. This could force a tugboat in the perilous direction of another oncoming vessel.

Whether on the river, or the ocean, making (or building) tow is often the most hazardous part of the job. But, it’s a job that should command the respect of the entire maritime industry. They may not always have the world on a string, but without the tireless work of the merchant marine’s unsung heroes, commerce would grind to a halt.

Do you, or someone you know, work on a tugboat? Tell us your story by leaving a comment!


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