Tugboats at work

I grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, the so-called “Tavern of the Seas”.  Its harbor hosted vessels from all over the world as they made their way around the Cape of Good Hope.  It boasted several hard-working tugboats, busily bustling from berth to berth as they assisted with the docking and undocking of all sorts of ships.  Their crews and captains were mostly experts at their trade . . . with a few exceptions.  I’ve watched tugs come boiling up to a ship at what looked like a dangerously high speed, only to put their propellers into reverse and come to a gentle stop exactly where they needed to be – most of the time.  On a few memorable occasions, the captain left it too late, and there was a loud thump as tug’s bow met ship’s hull.  (This was usually accompanied by loudly screamed profanity from both vessels, that my youthful ears fortunately couldn’t understand very well.)  More modern tugs, equipped with steerable thrusters, could stop much more easily and even turn in their own length.  They could pull ships while going sideways if need be.

It was always fun to watch the tugs at work, particularly for a small boy who was enthralled by the clouds of thick black coal smoke rising from the stacks of the older ones, and the ear-splitting tooting of their high-pitched steam whistles (usually answered by the deep bass tones of a freighter’s or liner’s horn).  Here’s one of them, the T. S. McEwen (built in 1925, and named for a senior South African railways and harbors executive) assisting what looks like a mail ship of the Union-Castle Line in windy conditions.  The world-famous Table Mountain is in the left and center background, with Lion’s Head to the right.  (Click the image for a larger view.)

T. S. McEwen was renowned for her funnel smoke.

She was better know[n] in Cape Town as Smoky Sue, due to the fact that she put out huge palls of smoke from her coal-fired boilers. She got this name from the shipping journalist George Young.

One time when she assisted the Cunard cruise liner FRANCONIA by docking, she put out a spectacular pall, which enveloped everybody on the bridge and prevented them from seeing ahead.

When assisting the liner FAIRSKY one time her smoke was drawn through the ventilation system of the vessels and many passengers thought the vessel was on fire.

(EDITED TO ADD: Here’s a brief excerpt from an early 1970’s video of T. S. McEwen at work. You can see how she got her nickname!  Compare the black coal smoke from her funnel with the white oil-fuel smoke from the liner moored at the dockside.)

I was reminded of the tugs in Cape Town by an amusing post over at Hawsepiper’s place this morning.  Here’s an excerpt.

We swap out tugboats constantly, and the cadre of experienced New York-based tugboaters is in high demand for their skills. While NY doesn’t have the ripping giant tides of New England, neither does anywhere else in the lower 48, and compared to the docile rivers and bays of the south, where the current might be fast but is predictable, New York’s rivers, bays and harbors are a crucible that purifies the skills of a tugboater, forcing the dross out.

Or, you know, forcing employers to pay for all the destruction the dross causes, which is also a strategy.

Well, we have a diverse bunch of tugboaters in our stable. The NY-based guys are in great demand, as they can moor and unmoor without crashing, or at least with controlled crashing.  The Out-Of-Towners are more variable. Some are excellent boathandlers no matter where they are. Others are just wrecking ball operators, treating their tugs like a Peloponnesian war galley.

There’s more at the link.

The image he chose just cracked me up.  I think I’ve met some of the same tugboat skippers he has . . . or, at least, their South African relatives!  I wonder if they’re descended (in spirit, at least) from those early Peloponnesian galley captains?



  1. Harbor tugs are usually captained by the most capable. Still, when they make a mistake, such as hit a dock, the costs are unbelievable, and the damage remarkable. It's hard to believe they can do so much damage.

  2. For NFO,
    Getting a little to close to a SSBN on a YTB will cause it to have a 9 inch curl on the tugs propeller tips.
    Always wondered what that sounded like inside the sub.
    But, that incident was a exception not the rule.

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