We go forward, the Palomar pulls back, now we're coming into the side. It seems like we’re moving fast.
  • We go forward, the Palomar pulls back, now we're coming into the side. It seems like we’re moving fast.
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“Oh yeah, it's dangerous work. We almost got turned over. We had a split headline up. It was like this: we worked the tug out to a 90, right down here at South Navy. It was on a Mother's Day, I forget the year. The other tug was the Cuyamaca; I was on a tug called the Sand Jacket." Speaking is Gary York, 50, tugboat engineer for Foss Maritime, working out of San Diego harbor. Gary has a Midwestern farmer’s face, the kind you’d find in a coffee shop back in his hometown of Muncie, Indiana. He’s clean-shaven, wrinkled, sunburnt, has blue eyes, short gray hair.

Foss Maritime does most of the commercial tug work, such as it is. The firm has four tugboats and three crews of three men.

Foss Maritime does most of the commercial tug work, such as it is. The firm has four tugboats and three crews of three men.

“We was up there, and we put on a stern line and held it at about a 45. The wind was blowing like hell, and the pilot had the vessel back out from the pier too fast. The tugboat rolled all the way over on its side, and I walked right up to the wheelhouse. The water almost come through the stack.”

We climb aboard the Pacific Queen. The grit of a tugboat — like a caboose, like a cabin, like a shed — has always called to me.

We climb aboard the Pacific Queen. The grit of a tugboat — like a caboose, like a cabin, like a shed — has always called to me.

“I don’t get it, the tugboat was...”

“...All the way over on its side, completely. The pilot on the vessel we were assisting started screaming, ‘You’re sinking the tug!’ He took some turns off the ship.”

“What’s ‘turns off the ship?’ ”

Frank Roche.  I am directed to the stern with Gary and Frank. Three sailors wearing life jackets and helmets, holding automatic weapons on the ready, guard us.

Frank Roche. I am directed to the stern with Gary and Frank. Three sailors wearing life jackets and helmets, holding automatic weapons on the ready, guard us.

“Decreased the speed, brought the sucker to a dead stop. When he did that, the tug rolled back up towards level. Then he put them turns back on, and we rolled right back over again. I had boots on, and I got ready to kick them off. I didn’t know if it was going to help, but I didn’t want them big boots on when I hit water."

Gary York: "Ask Andy what happened to him at 24th Street. Submarine got under the goddamn barge. Come right up underneath the barge, then slid out and come right out the stern."

Gary York: "Ask Andy what happened to him at 24th Street. Submarine got under the goddamn barge. Come right up underneath the barge, then slid out and come right out the stern."

“When did you know you were in trouble?” “Don was on another tug with this other operator, and they had a stern tow. We knew we were in trouble when we heard Don yelling, ‘Bill, they’re gone! They’re gone, Bill!’ ”

I glance to my right. “What did you think about that, Don?”

“It was a bad situation.” Speaking is Donald Gwathmey, 63 years old, five-foot-eight, thin, 165 pounds, short gray beard. He seems to walk with a stoop but doesn’t, chuckles constantly, almost like a facial tic, and wears shorts to work every day of the year. Don is senior tug operator with Foss Maritime. “That pilot just wanted to save his own ass; he didn’t want to wipe that pier out. He wasn’t even thinking about that tug. We saw him. He came out on the vessel’s deck, saw that tug going over, hollered to the wheelhouse, ‘You’re rolling the tug over! Stop!’ And they did, they stopped, and unbelievably, the tug rolled back upright. I couldn’t believe that it come up after being that far over.”

Andy Anderson, right; Mark Jennings, left. “This was a dead-stick tow, dead stick is when you have no power on the ship."

Andy Anderson, right; Mark Jennings, left. “This was a dead-stick tow, dead stick is when you have no power on the ship."

“The tug was laying completely over?”

“Laying almost on its end. Usually once they get that far, they don’t come back.”

It’s as close to a unique job as you’ll find in mainstream San Diego, working on a tugboat docking commercial ships. Despite being the second largest city on the west coast of North America, San Diego has an insignificant commercial port. Last fiscal year’s tonnage, measured in metric revenue tons, was 558,154 compared to 75 million in Long Beach, 3 million-plus in San Francisco, 15.7 million in Oakland, and about 15 million each for Tacoma and Seattle. Here, Foss Maritime does most of the commercial tug work, such as it is. The firm has four tugboats and three crews of three men. Nine full-time, on-the-water employees, that’s it.

"If they say, ‘We’ve got too many operators, you’re gonna be laid off,’ I can go down to the next step and bump the lowest engineer out."

"If they say, ‘We’ve got too many operators, you’re gonna be laid off,’ I can go down to the next step and bump the lowest engineer out."

At an apartment in Coronado, I get up at 5:15 a.m., put on coffee. It’s late fall but still warm. Night’s darkest has just passed, moments ago. A wee brushstroke of black-red peeks over the eastern horizon. One kitchen light glows across the street.

The tug men begin to gather at 6:30 a.m. at the Foss office, 1839 Water Street. I drive past the guard booth at the Tenth Avenue pier, take the first left, park underneath the east foot of the intrusive, grotesque San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge.

One walks into the warehouse side of a modest building. The warehouse doors are open, and a brown cafeteria table sits on cement floor. Beyond the table are 14 wall boxes filled with men’s gear: life jackets, gloves, coffee cups. Off to one side are two desks partnered by two old swivel chairs. Over one of the desks hangs a small calendar featuring a curly-haired woman in meager black lingerie, her naked and absolutely perfect alabaster ass guarding the room’s purpose.

The shift starts at 7 a.m. The men arrive well before that. They greet each other, pour coffee into their own coffee cups, take a seat around the cafeteria table.

“Tell you what. I’d be more afraid of a woman cop than I am of a guy cop.”

“They’re trigger happy.”


“Hey, rum-dum, good news,” someone says to an arriving deck hand. “Yeah.”

“Clinton says you can be a fag and join the Navy.”

Big laugh.

“Had a Halloween party. I almost killed one kid. I mean literally almost killed this kid. The apartment manager was there with his niece and nephew. His kids go to Sacred Heart. I said, ‘You must know the Monsignor?’ This kid breaks in, ‘Yeah, he’s an asshole.’ The manager and the Monsignor are very, very good friends. I go, ‘I don’t think you should be saying that.’

“Kid says, ‘I can say what I want to. He’s a jerk.’ Kid kept being an asshole, throwing shit. He took a kid’s hat off and threw it into the apple bobber, punched another kid in the mouth. And I told him not to go out by the pool. The kid goes out by the pool. 1 said, ‘Look, I told you six times, don’t go out by the pool.’ Kid says, ‘Don’t tell me what to do.’ ”

“So did you bounce him?”

“My wife wouldn’t let me. Says we’re responsible. I go, ‘Fuck that kid.’ He goes down to the game room and pisses all over the toilet seat so the girls couldn’t go to the bathroom.”

“How old is he?”

“Eleven, twelve years old. If he were my son, I’d bust his head open.”

On the other end of the warehouse is a small office, occasionally used by the Gwathmey.

I walk in. We do the hiya, hiya. I ask, “How long have you been here?”

“I started down here, at this terminal, full time, in 1974.1 began as a deck hand and went up to engineer, ended up as operator.”

“They don’t call you guys ‘captain,’ they call you ‘operator’?”

“Yeah, the Coast Guard created a Tow Boat Operator’s License. My license is restricted to under 200 gross tons, and I can only go 200 miles off the coast.”

“That seems far enough for what you do.”

He laughs. “That’s plenty for me.” Laughs again. “Our tugs are under 200 gross tons. After you go over that, then you need big papers, you have to have a big license, have the required mates, AB’s on deck. I imagine you’ve got to have at least two engineers, licensed. So you’re talking big bucks in salaries to operate that kind of a vessel.”

“Where were you born?”

“Long Island.”

“How did you get to the West Coast?”

“My parents migrated here during World War II — defense. Dad had a job at Convair. I was 14 when we moved here. Went to Kearny High School, graduated in ’47.”

“What did you do then?”

“Traveled around the country with friends, ended up working in Wyoming. It was a resort place, I was the general everything.” Chuckles. “About two miles from Yellowstone, the east gate. They didn’t have much going on in the wintertime, but there was always snow to shovel. I met my wife there. After we got married, we came back to California. I didn’t have a job, so I applied everyplace. The first place that called me, in fact, the day after I applied, was Star and Crescent Ferry Company.”

“They had the Coronado ferry?”

“No, they had the pedestrian ferry that ran to North Island.”

“From downtown?”

“Yeah, it was called the Nickel Snatcher. It left from the foot of Market Street.”

“When was that?”

“I started in 1956.”

“Jesus. You’ve been working in San Diego harbor since 1956?”

“Yeah. I started as a deck hand for Star and Crescent, just tied the boat up when it came in for the landing, secured the lines, opened the gates, let the passengers out. You had to count to see how many you had. You’re only supposed to have 450 people on the boat. It wasn’t long after that, within a few months, they had me working on the tugs in the harbor. They also ran the harbor excursion. They put you to work all over the place. We didn’t have a union, you just did what they wanted you to do.”

“Was the money good?”

“No, the money wasn’t too good. They weren’t known for high pay,” he laughs. “I think we were on monthly wage at that time. I got $253 a month.”

“Did you ever dream of being a deep-sea sailor, or were you happy in the harbor?”

“No, I was happy. I didn’t feel like going out to sea much, but then the owner went to sea, and 1 got to be a member of his yacht crew. They picked me out for doing that. We’d go up to Alaska in the summer and down to Mexico in the winter.”

“That was the owner of the Star and Crescent?” “Yeah. Mr. Hall.”

“When was this?"

“Back in the late ’50s on up to ’65, I suppose. After the owner — old Captain Hall — passed on, his boys split up the company, and they sold the tugs. Pacific Tow Boat and Salvage bought them and moved down here in April 1972. The harbor department leased them this spot."

“How long until Foss came in?”

“That gets technical because of all the companies. I think Dillingham purchased part of Foss at that time. It got very complicated. As it turned out, I forget how many companies we went through, but it finally ended up that Foss took over the whole thing.”

“What was it like for the employees? Was it just a different-colored paycheck?”

“There was no difference in our operation. I came on at Foss as a deckhand, and then I went to engineer and operator, so that gives me privilege now. If they say, ‘We’ve got too many operators, you’re gonna be laid off,’ I can go down to the next step and bump the lowest engineer out. I can bump on down and knock off the lowest deck hand. If you went through the steps coming up, you can go back down that way. That’s how it is with the union contract.”

“So you’d be the absolute last man?”

“No matter what happens, that’s it.”

“How has the harbor changed in the last 36 years?”

“Big change, all the building and stuff, like the whole town. There’s a lot more yacht traffic; that’s become a big business. The harbor department has promoted it. The tuna boats are gone. There used to be 250 tuna boats home-ported in San Diego. There were three canneries operating here. They’ve all folded up.”

“Was there more commercial activity in the harbor 30 years ago?”

“Right after they built this terminal, in ’58 or something like that, at its peak this Tenth Avenue Terminal probably averaged 40 to 50 ships a month. Now we’re lucky if we get 2 or 3. Things have really dropped. I mean, everything you can imagine has gone downhill.”

“What happened?”

“Well, for one thing, the longshoremen went on strike, and then the railroad to the East went out, so then everything that goes by rail had to go through Los Angeles.”

Don looks at his watch. “This morning’s first job is 7:45, we better get out there. It’s a Navy tanker, operated by Military Sealift Command [MSC].”

Don gathers his papers, and we walk out of the warehouse to the parking lot, then onto a wooden pier, and climb aboard the Pacific Queen. The grit of a tugboat — like a caboose, like a cabin, like a shed — has always called to me. One steps inside to a floor-bolted eating table, on its two sides a wall-mounted booth. Sleeping quarters are aft. Forward is the galley with cheap microwave, TV, stainless steel fridge, stainless steel sinks. To one side, up a staircase, is the wheelhouse.

The Pacific Queen has been idling. I climb up to the wheelhouse, watch the engineer and deck hand pace the deck, cast off. We surge backward in a graceful arc into the main channel. I turn to Don. “So what is it that you do? A ship enters the harbor and then…”

“We put a line onto the vessel to assist them because when they get into tight quarters, they can’t maneuver anymore. The only way a ship maneuvers is by using its rudder. They’re in sui h tight quarters they can’t do that, so the tugs push the ship around. As the ship comes in, one tug is on the bow, and one’s on the stern, and we move her this way and that. They can go ahead and back, but we assist them in their turning.”

“So it’s two tugs her ship?”

“Usually. A pilot gets on board, and he brings the vessel into the harbor. When we get up to the area where they’re going to dock, the pilot will tell you to come in, how many lines to put up, and what he wants you to do. And all you do is what he tells you to do. He’ll say, ‘Come ahead,’ which always means, unless otherwise instructed, come at a 90-degree angle to the ship because, like I said, what you’re doing is pushing the ship. He can’t steer.”

“How do you know which ship to assist?”

“It used to be the first one out to the ship got the job. You had to race out there — first one to get a line up was the one that had the work.” He laughs. “Now everything is sophisticated, handled through agents.”

“Where do you meet the ships?”

“If they’re going to Tenth Avenue, we meet them by Broadway. If they’re going to 24th Street we usually meet right here (underneath the Coronado bridge), although sometimes they’ll have us run down by the naval station and stand by there.”

“What boat are we getting today?”

“It’s called the Hayes. We’re going to dock it at South Navy, that’s where the MSC offices are, and this is an MSC vessel, and their ships are run by civilians, so they use civilian tugs.”

I watch as the deck hand and engineer roll out canvas to cover the string of rubber tires spread across the tug’s bow. We are running north past Broadway, taking position opposite North Island. Don looks through a pair of busted binoculars, spots our ship. “This isn’t what I thought it was, I thought it was going to be a tanker.”

Don reaches up, switches on the radio, adjusts its microphone so it hangs down from the ceiling at mouth-level. As if cued, the radio comes to life. “Pacific King?"

“This is the Pacific Queen, captain. Loud and clear.”

Pilot: “Who’s with you?”

“The Palomar. ”

Pilot: “Palomar, how do you read me?”

A new voice snaps from the radio. “This is the Palomar. Read you loud and clear. Good morning. Captain.”

Pilot: “We’re just going to use the Queen up there in the bow, you stand by.”

Don: “See, we’re going on the bow.” Reaches for the radio, calls the pilot, “What are you going to have for lines, Captain?”

“Just a regular head line.”

Don: “Just a head line. Roger that.”

Pilot: “Should be over there on the port side. South Navy pier."

Don leans out the window, speaks to his crew. “One line on the starboard bow, we’ll need canvas on that side, too."

I ask, “Do all big ships need tugs?”

“Well, the new ones have bow thrusters, but it’s hard to control the stern of the ship when you don’t have a tug back there. But if the tide’s right, they can do it, because they swing around as they head into the tide. If it’s a good flood tide, you can let the tide help the ship in.”

The Hayes, 3677 gross tons, 247 feet long, 23-foot draft, makes its way towards South Navy pier. We are tied to its stern, away from the pier. I’m standing in the wheelhouse sipping coffee. I ask Don, “Is he under his own power now?”

“No, he’s just riding now.”

Pilot: “Okay, Queen, are you ready to work?” “All ready. Captain.”

I try to picture all of us in a large bathtub.

“So the idea is they drive straight ahead while you push them in?”

Don: “Yeah, as long as they are moving at this speed, they can still steer with the rudder. If they get too far in towards the pier, then he’s got to get it back out. In order to do that, he has to turn the rudder the other way and give it a shot of speed. So he’ll have the tugs back away and pull the bow back out if he needs to.”

“What’s he doing now? Is he trying to get parallel to the pier?”

“We’re out quite a ways. I can’t tell what’s on the other side, she’s 75 feet wide. I have no idea how much room he’s got between himself and the pier. And if the pilot is on a vessel that’s new to him, he doesn’t know exactly how it’s going to handle.”

Pilot: “Work out to 90 now, Queen. ”

Don: “Work out to 90.” The tug ropes cry, scream, ehhh, ehhhh, ehhhh, ehhhh, ehhhh, ehhhh.

“The idea is to be at 90 degrees to the ship, lashed with three lines, so the ship will most accurately respond to the tug.”

Pilot: “Come ahead easy.”

“Ahead easy.”

Pilot: “Queen ahead.”

Queen ahead.” Engine’s rpm rips higher and higher.

Pilot: “Queen stop.”

Queen stop.” Ropes screech.

Don: “Well, when you’re coming into something for the first time, it’s better to leave yourself a little room. He’s always got the Palomar to push him over. Right now, he’s working the stern over with his engines. It’s a twin screw vessel so he’s twisting it, making it go over on the stern. When the bow starts coming out, he’ll tell us to come ahead easy and hold it there.”

It’s like being back in algebra class. “I was wondering about that. You’d think if you push on the front, the back end would swing out and away.”

“Well, it did.”

Pilot: “Queen stop.”

Queen stop.”

Queen back easy.”

Queen back easy.”

Pilot: “Queen stop.”

Queen stop.”

Pilot: “Queen stop.”

Queen is stopped, captain.”

“Okay, thank you.”

Queen’s ropes grind under pressure, cannot imagine how they stand the strain. I look up at the 20-story ship. We are belly to belly, or more precisely, we are nose to ankle.

Pilot: “Queen back easy.”

Queen back easy.”

Queen stop.”

Queen stop.”

The Hayes is, apparently, next to the pier. Pilot: “Queen, go ahead and cast off, assignment completed. Thank you for your services. Well done. See you later on. Be careful going out. We’re still doubling up our anchor.”

“Roger that, Captain. We won’t bother you at all.”

We glide back into the main channel. I ask, “Is that a courtesy, calling the pilot ‘Captain?’ ” “Oh no, he is a captain.”

“Pilots are captains?”

“Oh yeah, most of them have a Masters Unlimited license.”

“Huh. Why be a pilot?”

“Well, you can make more money, probably, as a pilot.”

The Queen is in the main channel. A sea gull lands on the bow wench, tucks a foot up. Nap time. I look out the wheelhouse windows, make a slow turn, ask, “I’ve lived around San Francisco Bay. This harbor is so much smaller. How deep is it?”

“Not very. In this area it’s only 40 feet at low tide, the mean low. When you go to a minus tide, sometimes it’s down to a minus 2 feet. That doesn’t leave you much water if you got a ship that’s coming in drawing 37 feet or so.”

“Is it 40 feet all the way south to the naval yards?”

“It’s dredged at an angle. You get past the bridge going south, the channel gets closer to the shoreline till you get down to the naval station. There really isn’t that much — most of the harbor is very shallow, about 11 feet down there.”

“What does a destroyer, cruiser draw?”

“The bigger ones are drawing about 26, 27 feet, most of them draw 21, 22.”

“So at low tide it gets close.”


I look down at enigmatic gauges, point to two big iron balls, say, three inches in diameter, racked on either side of the ship’s compass. I ask Don, “What do you do with these things?”

He laughs. “They’re made out of iron, and they help to compensate the compass, cut down magnetism. See, we’re in a steel hull vessel, and that’s why they’ve got little magnets stuck around the compass — to compensate, to keep the compass right. They constantly change the magnets because steel haul vessels have a tendency to pick up magnetism as they get older. The Navy, out at Ballast Point, has a Degaussing Station. They wrap cables around their ships to demagnetize them. We don’t do that. We have to keep having our compass calibrated. They keep adding magnets,” he laughs again, “to compensate for the ship’s magnetism.”

Look down at crazy-quilt collection of halfinch by quarter-inch magnets, tacked around the compass like a kid’s first tree house.

As the Pacific Queen steams south, I go out on deck, watch white water hit the bow, look at San Diego’s skyline, duck into galley for coffee. I’m poured a cup by engineer Marty Kellough. He’s a young-looking man, curly black hair, muscular, wiry body, crisp voice. I ask, “What are your hours?”

“I work 7 to 3, Monday through Friday, but there’s breaks. Like tonight, I’m going to sea, I’m going to L.A. on another tug. We’re doing a tow up to L.A. and back. And we got a tug that’s coming down from Seattle right now, it’s been gone for 15 days. So we not only bring ships in, the local stuff, we do outside stuff as well, which is nice. It’s a variety.”

Marty pours himself a cup. “But this is my main thing. I’m assigned to this boat. I’m responsible for this machinery and the maintenance of it, electrical, plumbing, you name it.” “Are these original engines?”

“When the boat was built it had Jimmys, big Jimmys, 12-cylinder Jimmys down there. We have Caterpillars now, but they’re old as hell.”

“What does it take to keep them going?”

“I would say, in general, about 12 hours a week. You change filters, you make sure they’re clean, you check the oil. You check the oil every time you start, always. Make sure that the water has chemicals in it to keep it from contaminating the engine. You do oil analysis, set the valves on a routine basis. Make sure the oil filters, air filters, everything is clean.”

“Are these engines like airplane engines, so many hours until they need to be rebuilt?” “These engines don’t get a lot of hours. I think they get 10 or 12 thousand hours and that’s it. They have to do a complete overhaul because engines on a tugboat, number one, they’re either full ahead or full astern — you’re not easy and easy. It’s either full one way or full the other, so you really ruin an engine on a tugboat, everything is full, full, full.”

“How did you get started?”

“When I was 21, I was the youngest chief engineer in the tuna fleet. My father was a chief engineer for almost 40 years.”

“Did you have to pass any tests for that?” “You had to pass the Coast Guard test.” “How long have you been working for Foss?” “Eight years.”

“Was it a hard job to get?”

“For me, I lucked out. A lot of guys wait two or three years to get in, because it’s a union job and they go by seniority. When I went to the hall eight years ago, all they had was deck hands and captains, it’s not an engineer’s hall. I went in there with my engineer’s license. The hall was in L.A. I said I lived in San Diego, and I was working here within three weeks. So I slid right in.” “How do you like it?”

“It’s a good industry in some ways and in some other ways it’s not. If I had it to do all over again, I probably would have done something else.”

“What would you have done?”

“I don’t know, I really don’t know. I’m sick and tired of San Diego. I’d like to relocate. I’m a native San Diegan, but the traffic, too many people, way too much crime. You can’t go to the store and spend less than a hundred bucks in this city. I remember what it was like 20 years ago, and it sucks now. To me the land of opportunity is up north — Portland, Seattle, up there. Property is a lot cheaper.

“I’ve got an eight-unit apartment, five-unit apartment, and I can’t sell anything. I mean, real estate has gone down the tubes. I leveraged everything out right before the recession hit, so I can’t sell anything now. It was a great asset before the recession, you spread out a million dollars’ worth of property, and I was thinking, ‘Oh boy, anywhere from five to ten percent annually off my property. Hey, man, that’s a hundred thousand dollars a year equity. Shit, another eight, ten years I’ll be doing great.’ Fucking recession.”

“Are you married?”

“Yeah, I’m married for the second time with my second family. I’ve got four kids: two kids from my first family and two kids from my second family. I got a 16-year-old, and now I’ve got a sixth-month-old and a year-and-a-half-old.”

“Jesus, how old are you?”

“Thirty-eight, I just turned 38. I’m making it through my second marriage still paying for the first. I’m paying $900 a month for my first two kids. I got three years to go on that, but I’m learning as I get older, just kind of take things as they come, don’t worry about it. Tomorrow is another day. Shit happens and it’s out of your control — it just happens.”

Night, 11:30 p.m. We’re going down to the shipyards to move a Navy vessel, the Errard, out of dry dock, literally around the corner to a pier. After a round of coffee, operator Andy Anderson, deck hand Frank Roche, engineer Gary York, and I climb aboard the Pacific Queen, cast off, glide back into the harbor, head south. We are followed by the Palomar and the Pacific King.

Gary, Andy, and I are in the wheelhouse. Andy points to mid-channel. “There’s a two-man submarine, those fuckers running around here all the time getting under ship.”

Gary: “You can see the glow on the water.”

I follow their eyes. “I’ll be damned, looks like Captain Nemo.” I watch two brightly lit orbs, like huge insect eyes, appear at the front end of the tiny craft just at water line.

Andy: “I once worked with the bridge crew, had a little boat, and we’d come out here at low tide, bring the working hands out to the job, they’d work off the boat. We moved the tires that ring the bridge piers. They were state workers so they didn’t work too hard. We were sitting there three o’clock one morning, taking a break, and this one guy was telling ghost stories about people jumping off the bridge. All of a sudden that little two-man submarine popped up.”

Gary: “Ask Andy about the mud run. What happened to him at 24th Street. Submarine got under the goddamn barge. Come right up underneath the barge, then slid out and come right out the stern. Andy liked to shit.” Laughter. “Anybody want some coffee?”

Chorus: “Yeah.”

“Straight up all the way around?”

“Just right.”

We continue south, silence broken by pilot on the radio, “Pacific Queen, I want you as far aft as you can get.”

“Just ahead of the Palomar there?”

“No, you’re going to be all by yourself aft.” “I can handle it.”

Pilot: “You have to hold me up. When we get clear of the dry dock, we’ll turn around leaving the power tug as she is, and then you two will come ’round to the other side and respectfully hang up a headline, and we’ll back in.”

“Roger that, one line on the port quarter as far aft as practical."

Tugs hop to, the King is pushing up against the Errard, and we’re moving back and away. Looks like our lines are free. Now we’re cranking on at good speed, around the stern of the ship, the Palomar is tied fast, almost right on the stern. The vessel appears dead; there are some yellow lights on deck, but it looks like a hotel under construction. Now we’re coming around to face the Palomar. We go forward, the Palomar pulls back, now we're coming into the side. It seems like we’re moving fast. The Errand is still swinging out into the channel. We’re pushing, coming out to a 90. It’s funny when these vessels finally do swing, do move, they really move. Amazing how quick it goes once they get going. We’re turning on a dime. Amazing. All this to move one boat out of dry dock, turn it, park it at a pier next door.

We are told to stand by. I ask Andy, “What did we just do?”

“This is a floating dry dock. When we came up to it, it was already down. The ship came out, the power tug was aft, the pilot put us alongside, and he had the King at the stern. The dry dock trolley pulled the bow back, the Palomar was helping. When the bow came across that sill, that’s when the Navy stopped paying for the dry dock. As he came on out and swung around, we were just holding him in position as he backed out. Then when he got out to the channel, when he was clear, the pilot had both of us pushing, and we swung him right around.

“This was a dead-stick tow, dead stick is when you have no power on the ship. When you dock a ship normally, just a straight dock, you have a tug on the bow, but then you’ll do a three-line make-up. What the pilot wants is to keep that tug out to 90 degrees to the hull as much as he can. The aft tug, he wants the same thing, but you can’t normally do that. The ship’s got its own power. When the ship slows, he loses steerage way at a certain point — his rudder doesn’t have enough water pulling across it to give it any steerage. He’s helpless and that’s usually about the time he’s trying to make that pier.

“We usually use three lines so that the tug is locked in at 90 degrees. The tug can back or go ahead, and when he’s locked in there with these three lines, you get almost instant response.’’

“Are tugs like cars — there’s a Ford Fairline and a BMW? Is this a standard tug?”

“No, this is something they designed themselves. Each company designs what they think they need. They didn’t leave much room for working on the deck. That’s the one thing about it that’s not good for harbor work. But the handling is pretty nice, they’ve got flanking rudders, cord nozzle.”

“What’s a cord nozzle?”

“The propellers are in a nozzle. It directs the flow. A propeller ordinarily throws water out, not only back, but all the way around. If it’s inside the nozzle, it can only go straight out. So you get more power because all of what’s wasted, being pushed around going off to the sides, now comes straight out. You gain considerable more horsepower that way, thrusting power.

“Then they’ve got rudders for backing. They have rudders in front of the nozzle for when the boat’s going the other way. It makes it convenient for working ships because you can hold your tug at 90 degrees, which is handy when the ship moves ahead because you have a tendency to flop alongside of it. With this tug, you’re steering with those rudders, and it will stay at a 90 as you’re backing.”

Pilot: “All right King and Queen and Palomar, cast off. Assignment completed. Thank you for your services. Well done to all of you.”

Andy backs into the channel. “The new ships, man, they don’t show mercy when they build ships anymore. They don’t allow for tugs; they don’t leave you a place to work. The older ships had nice easy grounds to them. Look at that Star Gran when we come up there. Now they build fucking tug eaters.”

Late morning, boarding the Pacific Titan with Don, Gary, and Frank. We’re going out 20 miles or so to be searched and seized, possibly violated by the U.S. Coast Guard. Looks to be clear, flat seas. We pass Broadway, wave at a solitary fisherman. Gary sticks his head into the wheelhouse. “Want some coffee?”

“You bet."

I turn to Don. “So what’s the plan today?”

Don: “First we’ll pick up some observers.” Alarms go off. I duck involuntarily. Feel like I’m in the middle of the Lubbock, Texas, fire station. We nose into a rickety pier, north end of the harbor, pick up two Navy observers, arc back into the channel, pass North Island, then the sub base. Overhead, high cirrus clouds. It’s a very warm, calm fall day. Another alarm goes off.

Gary returns to the wheelhouse with coffee. I ask, “Gary, how many alarms?”

“That last one was a bilge alarm. The first one was the expansion tank in the starboard main. That was for all the water that slurped around after we slowed down and went ‘Burp.’ So now we got it for a while, I reckon.”

We hit the sandbar just west of the harbor entrance, the swells get a little bit bigger, and two high-speed boats filled with Navy Seals roar past us.

Don’s at the radio listening to the Navy: “... rendezvous point should be 27-42 or 27-43 in that vicinity. You’re doing an operation with the Coast Guard Cutter Sherman. She should show up about 1500.”

“Roger that. Thank you very much. Pacific Titan clear.”

I feel the two-foot swell, begin to imagine what it would be like if it was blowing out here. I turn to Gary. “It must be a son-of-a-bitch to work the engine room in a six-foot sea.”

“It is. You got to watch when you walk around, you can bounce into something mighty hot. That’s why it’s not good to have slimy or slippery decks.”

“Do you get sick?”

“If it’s bumpy, sometimes I’ll get sick. I’ve got to get cool air blowing on me, ’cause otherwise, if I was up here in the wheelhouse I’d be sicker than a freaking dog. Got to get air. Lot of people get sick for a couple of hours and get over it after they throw up. A lot of times I’ll get sick and I’ll stay sick. All you want to do is lay down and Not Get Back Up. You don’t want to move. You don’t want to eat, you don’t want to smell food.

“Me and Don one time were going out on a mud run on the Sand Jacket, and this deck hand, he run into a doorlatch and the latch went right into his gut, made a big hole in it. It was on the side of the door, went right into his gut, made a big old hole. So he’s laying back in the galley, and the onions and potatoes fall on his head. He just sets there and lets them hit him in the head.”

Don: “I yelled, ‘What the hell are you doing? Why don’t you pick them up?’ He says, ‘No sense picking them up, they’re only going to come back down again.’ ”


I go out on deck and watch saltwater break over the bow. Big, hulking vessel straight ahead, a half-mile off. Hard to see detail in the haze.

Looks big enough to be Coast Guard. The beast comes closer. Now I see what they mean when they say warship. The thing is big, fast, menacing.

I go back inside and ask Don, “Do you do any kind of avoidance?”

“When we get started in the exercise, we’ll try to play like we’re getting away.”

“What do they do?”

“They’ll board the tug looking for weapons and that kind of stuff. When they go into a war zone and see a civilian vessel, they have a right to stop and search them. So we’ll practice. We’re the vessel that’s trying to sneak guns in.”

“It’s pretty easy to catch a tugboat, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, pretty easy catching, but for practice, they mostly want to see how the men handle the search, because they can do some very stupid things.”

“Like what?”

“Well, they usually give you a gun or something. The last time I was out, 1 put the ship’s papers down here in a drawer, and I put an automatic weapon alongside them so when I opened the door to get the papers, they could see the weapon. So this one guy was standing here, he saw the weapon, and he says, 'Hey, there’s a weapon down there.’ But they didn’t touch it, they just shut the door again and left it sitting there.”

“We have fun with them. We used to have harassment exercises, where we go out and attack them. A lot of times we’d take a rubber raft and come out here and wait for them to leave the harbor. We wouldn’t let them get all the way out before we’d hit them with water balloons — that was our weapon, we had balloon shooters.”

“And sometimes they were waiting for us, and they’d turn the firehoses on us. We were catching a Navy ship that was coming into the harbor, met them off the sub base. We pelted them with the water balloons just as a Coast Guard cutter turned the corner. The cutter impounded us and the raft for harassing a Navy ship.”

Don reaches for the radio. “Let’s decide on a working frequency here.”

Radio: “Roger. Switch to channel 10, give you a radio check there.”

Don moves down to channel 10. “This is the Pacific Titan. ”

Pacific Titan, read you loud and clear, sir. Commence exercises.” Pause. “Pacific Titan, this is a U.S. warship, you have 7 minutes to bring engines to all stop.”

Don trots out a credible peasant accent. “I thought we had 5 minutes, now we have 7.1 wait a little longer maybe you give me 20.”

“You are ordered to divert your course.”

“What course you want me to go?”

“You are ordered to maintain your position. Am I speaking with the master of the vessel?”

“Ah-haw, yeah, you are.”

“What is the nationality of the vessel?”

“This vessels is Red. What you want to know all these things for?”

“What is your international radio call line?”


“What is your name?”

“My name Hamous Abdula.”

“How do you spell it?”

“Do you want the whole thing?”

“The whole thing.”

“Hamous. H-A-M-O-U-S.”

“Do you have your registry?”

We are boarded an hour later by a dozen very young men. It takes four passes to get the crew boat alongside and the boarding personnel onto the tug’s deck. I am directed to the stern with Gary and Frank. Three sailors wearing life jackets and helmets, holding automatic weapons on the ready, guard us. We are not handcuffed as was recently the practice. All of us stand and wait. The search lasts an hour and 20 minutes.

Finally the men leave, the warship departs. We are 20 miles offshore, and the sun is setting with an explosion of oranges and reds. I look towards shore, back to the west, step into the galley, pour a cup of coffee, climb the ladder to the wheelhouse, nod to Don and say, “Let’s just keep on going.”

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