The Misadventures of Tugboat Teddy – Tales with Tidewater Teddy

Every sailor has a sea story, and I have my own tales from the sea. One of my most memorable tales took place in the summer of 2014 when I was hired as a deckhand at a tugboat company. Back then, I knew very little about boats, so I was green as grass. Little did I know that I’d be out at sea for nearly a month.

Now, a month at sea is nothing for a sailor, but this was a different situation. First off, the company didn’t have a schedule. Most tug companies have a set schedule, such as a week on and week off. Not us. We just worked whenever. I’d barely been working at the company a month when the Port Captain called me and said I’d be underway for about a week.

Okay. Cool. No problem. I was excited to get underway at sea and live a pirate’s life. Up until this point, I had only been doing harbor work, where we pushed barges or towed them at the hip (that means alongside the tug) in the rivers and bays, and I was going home every night.

On this voyage, we were towing a naval barracks barge from Virginia to Maine, so this was going to be my first real seagoing adventure. And, let me tell you, it was an adventure. Or a misadventure, I should say.

We picked up the naval barracks barge somewhere in the Elizabeth River. (I forget exactly where, but it’s not plot relevant.) We towed her on the hip until we had crossed over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel and entered the Atlantic Ocean. There, we had to release the barge from the tugboat’s waist and tow it behind us.

This is one of the many difficult parts about working on a tug. I had to grab this thick tow line called a “hawser” and toss it out, foot by foot, into the sea. That thing is so freakin heavy, and it’s even worse when you have to pull it back in. But I’ll get to that later.

We got the barge towing astern of us, and it was smooth sailing, right? Heck no! There’s constantly work to do, especially with such a small crew. On most tugs, there are only four crew members: a captain, a mate, an engineer, and a deckhand. Everyone has their jobs, but there’s some overlap between them. For example, when the engineer is off watch, it’s the deckhand’s job to make engine room checks every 30 minutes.

On top of that, for 6 hours each, two crew members are on watch and working while two crew members are off watch and resting. Guess who gets the graveyard shift from 12am to 6am? That’s right. The lowest of the losers: the mate and the deckhand.

Let me tell you something. Staying up from 12pm to 6pm and from 12am to 6am every day for weeks on end is a mission. You never get a full 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep, so you’re almost always tired. The night shift is the most difficult because your body wants to fight you to fall asleep, especially from 2am to 5am. There’s no adapting to the schedule. You just tolerate the insanity and pray for deliverance.

Okay, so we’ve established the crazy hours and schedule. Now, let’s talk about the crazy crew. Tugboat crews are a different breed, and they are not far removed from pirates. I’d say they’re basically pirate rednecks or redneck pirates. Same difference, really. They don’t hold their tongues, and they definitely aren’t the most politically correct. So, if y’all have a beef, you’re going to have a hard time.

Even if you absolutely love your coworkers (which I can’t say I had a whole lot in common with mine), you can probably agree that you would never want to be stuck with them in a small, isolated space for days on end. Now, imagine yourself in the middle of the ocean, no privacy, no means of escape.

For me, this was complete cultural shock. In the past, I’d stayed in hostels and shared rooms and facilities with strangers, but “the tug life” was another level. When I was interviewed for the job, and the Port Captain said, “It’s a sink or swim mentality out there”, I should have taken him seriously. I definitely did a lot of sinking out there, especially on this voyage to Maine.

As a deckhand, you are the bottom of the totem pole. You are saddled with all the responsibilities that nobody else wants.

At many jobs, you can screw up, and everything will be fine. Not on tugs. One wrong step, and you’ll find yourself in Davy Jones’ Locker. Lines can snap and cut you in half. Barges full of hazardous materials can explode. The entire tugboat can capsize and plunge into the cold abyss. There’s little room for error, so you can’t be sloppy or clumsy.

Then, there’s me. Because I had so little knowledge about boats, I was often flailing around like a severed tentacle. One of my responsibilities was cooking breakfast and dinner for the crew, but cooking for grown men felt super weird. I barely knew how to cook for myself, so cooking for my crew felt like an impossible task. The captain hated pretty much everything I made and did not miss an opportunity to let me know. I think the only food I made that he liked was meatloaf.

If I’d been hired as a cook, I could understand it, but I had no training or experience in culinary arts. Yet, the company expected the engineer and I to cook for the crew, instead of hiring an actual cook. What’s crazy is that this is not something exclusive to this company. MANY tug companies only have four crew members, and they do NOT have a cook or chef among them because it saves them money and space on the boats. So, yeah, there’s that.

The actual voyage up the east coast was pretty uneventful. We cruised along at a steady 8 knots, and I saw some beautiful sunrises and sunsets. I occupied my time by playing Jurassic Park Builder on my phone and stress eating.

One evening, the engineer asked me to clean out the engine room overnight, and he pointed to a bucket of something called Purple Power. He told me to use it to clean the soot from the walls. Easy task, right?

Well, during the night, I took as cleaning rag and stuck my entire hand into the bucket of this mysterious, miraculous cleaning substance. Soon, my hands started to hurt, and I developed small cuts all over them. That’s when I learned Purple Power is a corrosive acid. No wonder it was so good at removing soot from the engine room walls and removing flesh from my hand.

Thankfully, the effects were not permanent. Like I said before, you don’t want to mess up on tugboats. Had that chemical been something more hazardous, I could’ve lost my hand or worse. God is good. Thank you, Jesus.

Anyways, we got up to New England, and we took a shortcut through the Cape Cod Canal to save time. I went up to the wheelhouse to get a better look because I’d never been to Cape Cod before.

The canal was narrow, and there were a lot of boats flitting about. The views were gorgeous, and I was amazed at the sights. Then, all of a sudden, the captain looked at me and pointed at the barracks barge and said, “If we have to stop suddenly and that barge overtakes us, it will capsize this entire boat”. So much for relaxing and taking in the sights.

Many hours later, we finally made it to Maine. I can’t remember the exact timeline, but I do remember that the air in the Gulf of Maine was cold, even though it was July. I also remember the lighthouses posted at the mouth of the harbor.

At this point, we had to break the tow, so a Navy tug could come pick up the barge. Here comes my least favorite part of this job. Remember how I said I that hawser was coming back to haunt us? Well, now, I had to pull it back onto the boat, and it was going to be even heavier because the slack was floating in seawater.

On the plus side, we had a mechanism called a capstan, which mechanically does all the heavy lifting by winching the line onto the stern. But someone had to stand on the stern to stow the line as the capstan hauled the line aboard. That someone was me.

This was a perilous task. The captain had to keep the boat steady, so the hawser didn’t swing to port or starboard and dismember me, and I had to lay the line on the stern quickly while also not falling off the boat. Luckily, we had no issues, and we got the barge alongside us, and the Navy took it off our hands.

But our voyage didn’t end there. No, we had to get home. We headed back “light boat”, which means without a tow, and cruised down through the Long Island Sound. This part of the trip was pretty cool because the Long Island Sound becomes the East River in New York City.

As the sun began to set, we entered the city that never sleeps. Between Randall’s Island and Astoria, Queens, there’s a narrow section of water called “Hell Gate”. The name is very fitting because Hell Gate is basically a whirlpool, and it’s just as treacherous.

Because everything looked so amazing, I decided to stay awake, even though I was off watch. I sat on the bow and watched the boiling waters swirl around the hull.

Beyond Hell Gate, we could see Manhattan. The brightly lit skyscrapers and the rumbling subways were a sight to see. This wasn’t my first time visiting New York, but this was my first time seeing it from the water. I could see the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and the One World Trade Center. And, to top it all off, we passed under the Brooklyn Bridge and saw the Statue of Liberty.

Never in my life did I think I’d be doing this, but I did. This small part of the trip made it all worthwhile. What’s wild is that we didn’t even end up going home from here. A light boat doesn’t make any money, so they wanted to find us some work. We ended up spending several days in New York harbor tied up to a dredge and did absolutely nothing. We still had to pull watches, though.

Next thing we knew, boom! Work. We took a dredge pipe down to Philadelphia and spent a week or so there.

By now, I was beyond ready to go home. I’d been underway for almost a month, and that was more than enough for me. My captain was ready to go, too. So we piled into a company truck and drove home. The captain drove like a maniac, and because it was just me and him, it was a pretty awkward ride, but we made it home intact. After that, the Port Captain didn’t call me for a week, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

And so my tale ends here, but it is definitely not my only sea story nor is it my only tugboat tale. I have many more stories to share, so if you want to hear about them, please give this article a like and follow Tidewater Teddy. Thanks for reading, and have a great day!

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