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Gentlemen, start your tugboats

From the cliffs of Weehawken, on New Jersey side of the Hudson, the tugboats do not appear so fast

Elisha Cooper | NYT 

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

As annual New York competitions go, the is, not surprisingly, a bit of a plodder. Organised by the Working Harbor Committee, the 25-year-old race is contested over the same mile of Hudson River, often by many of the same entrants, year after year, generally to little fanfare.

Last Sunday’s edition was just like many of the ones that came before it: not so much a race, complete with a bit of starting-line gamesmanship, but a showcase of hard-working, river-churning power and tradition. To those who hold the race dear, this is what matters, maybe even more than the trophy and the year’s worth of bragging rights that go to the winner. For the captains who ply New York harbor, the busiest harbor on the eastern seaboard, it is a chance to celebrate their river and their boats and a vital city industry that chugs along, rain or shine, in the shadows of skyscrapers.

An early start

Staten Island, dawn. Two white — the Susan Miller and the Catherine C. Miller — head out into the fog of New York harbor. The Millers are small: Susan’s horsepower is 1,200 and Catherine C.’s is 1,500 — about six times the power of a New York City bus — and named for the wife and aunt of the owner of the marine services company Miller’s Launch. Tugboating is often a family business.

It starts to rain. The Millers plow north toward the Hudson, and the start of the race.

The favourite wore red

“It’s like Nascar, brother! It’s Nascar tugboating!” proclaims Brian Fournier. A tugboat captain from Maine, and a Red Sox fan, Fournier has won this race seven times, but who’s counting. (Fournier is counting.) Today he’s coaching a younger captain at McAllister Towing — one of the oldest tugboat families in the country, started in New York in 1864 — and has reason for sounding confident. McAllister is unveiling a state-of-the-art 7,000 horsepower tug: The Captain Brian A McAllister. Low-slung, blood-red, intimidating. Fournier spells out their strategy: start quick, stay out of the wake of other boats, win. 

‘There is no strategy’

In the wheelhouse of the Susan Miller, its captain, Joe Ternila, has one hand on the throttle and the other on a spear of cauliflower (he missed breakfast). He’s also talking race strategy. “There’s no strategy,” Ternila says. “When they say ‘Go!,’ I put down the throttle.”

Jumping the gun

Thirteen gather off Pier 84, then parade upriver. The captain of the Catherine C. Miller shouts across the water to Ternila, aboard the Susan Miller.

“Wanna see the bow of the Catherine?” he yells. “Because in the race all you’re gonna see is the stern!”

Above Pier 99 the wheel and turn, forming a wobbly starting line. The rain stops. Over the radio, the official in the starting boat counts down: five minutes, one minute, 10 seconds. At the count of nine, one tug jumps the start. Another follows. It’s tugboat anarchy. The river churns and the tugs surge forward, faster and faster, their wakes flashing white as they race downriver.

One mile down

From the cliffs of Weehawken, on the side of the Hudson, the do not appear so fast. They slide slowly from left to right in front of a foggy Manhattan skyline grandstand.

The Capt. Brian A. McAllister, despite being one of the only tugs that didn’t jump the start, surges past the other boats over the one-mile course and crosses the finish line first. The W.O. Decker, operated by the South Street Seaport Museum — and the last surviving wooden New York tugboat — comes in a dignified last.

A playful postgame

After the race, the face off. They push, bow to bow, to see who’s stronger. This is what were made for. They look like sumo wrestlers, if sumo wrestlers were hundred-ton belching smoke and kicking up water. Or maybe square-dancers, because after each “dance” the tugs move on to a new partner (some pairings are better matched than others).

© 2017 The New York Times

First Published: Fri, September 08 2017. 22:58 IST