Biographies & Memoirs

Tales from a Tugboat Captain

By

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Synopsis

Starting as a deckhand, Captain Thomas Teague chronicles his adventures on tugboats in the waters off the coast of Delaware and in the Gulf of Mexico in the early 1970s, delighting readers with humorous tales. He introduces colorful characters while injecting information about what it’s like to live onboard a tug for weeks at a time. From towing oil drilling rigs to the unique jargon of the tugboat industry to the very real dangers that lurk on every deck, this first book of a series gives readers an inside look into the world of tugboats that only Captain Teague can offer.

How it All Began

(This is a true story but I'm going to tell it anyway.)

"We can drink beer for breakfast but we have to wait until after lunch before we can have whiskey, right?”

Captain Ted Conrad glared at me and said, “That’s right Tiggy, you son of a bitch.” (One of my many nicknames was Tiggy. The guys in Chesapeake City pronounced Teague as Tig; just as they pronounced league as lig.) “We won’t get anything done if you start drinking that Southern Comfort before noon!”

“All right. I just wanted to be clear about the rules before I sign on for this adventure.” (At the time, Southern Comfort was bottled at 100 proof only. Now you can buy it at 70 proof as well. I prefer the 100 proof variety.)

This spirited conversation marked the beginning of my career on the water. Ted Conrad owned a commercial fishing boat and needed help with his operation. Ted and I had been friends for several years. We thought it would be fun to work together, and it was. The year was 1972, the year of Watergate, but we didn’t have anything to do with it. We had just graduated from Bohemia Manor High School in Chesapeake City, Maryland. I was 18 years old and had a full head of hair, nice blond hair. Good hair. Ted Conrad had a full head of hair too. He was 19 years old. He had a chicken breast chest and the ring finger on his left hand was shorter than normal, but other than that he was OK. I thought he was OK.

Chesapeake City was a great place to live and work and party so I moved in with Ted. I was fed up with living at home and it was just the right thing to do since we were going to be working together. Convenient. Logical.

Ted had the license required to fish with gill nets in the Chesapeake Bay and in the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. The nets were used to snag striped bass by the gills as they migrated north up the Chesapeake Bay to spawn. We were allowed to catch only the small fish, none over 15 pounds. Eventually the Department of Fish and Wildlife banned all gill net fishing because the fish population was dwindling at a rapid pace. This ban put the fishermen out of business. The striped bass population has recovered, and today, the only way you can legally catch a striped bass is with rod and reel. You cannot keep the small fish. The regulations vary from state to state but the fish must be a biggun’; at least 18 inches long.  All the local folks called the striped bass “rockfish.” No one knows why. No one I asked knew why. I still don’t know.

We sold the fish we caught every day to the seafood guys on the dock at Schaefer’s. Schaefer’s Restaurant and grocery store had a dock long enough to accommodate many fishing boats so trucks came there from wholesale markets to buy the fresh fish. They paid for the fish with cash. Since Ted was the owner of the boat he was in charge of the financial transactions. “The boat gets one third, I get one third and you get one third.” That’s how he divided the money. At least that’s how it was supposed to be. If we needed more cash, we would split the boat’s share between us. We did not have much overhead as the boat was paid for and Ted’s parents did not charge us rent for living in their little one room “in-law-suite.” Mrs. Conrad provided breakfast for us most mornings and for lunch we ate Dinty Moore beef stew on the boat, right out of the can. We did need a lot of cash for whiskey, beer, cigarettes and of course, other expensive products that were readily available in the 70’s.

The fishing season lasted only three months and we had spent every dollar we made so we had to look for other ways to make money. A captain nearby, Captain Temple, owned tugboats and his dock was not far from where Ted and I were living. We decided to ask if they needed any deckhands.  

The tugboats that Captain Temple owned were old but well-maintained. There was not always steady work for the boats so Ted and I signed on as part-time deckhands. I was excited to get a job on a big boat with a crew and a real captain! There were bunks on the boats and a stove and hot food and plenty of coffee. You could live on the boat for days. Compared to a 30-foot wooden fishing boat, this was luxurious. I had no way of knowing that these old tugboats were the beginning of a long and successful career.

Decking for Captain Temple was a part-time job so on my time off I was always looking for steady full-time work. I worked at a gas station for a while and then I worked on a farm, but my thoughts always returned to working on a tugboat full time. Captain Temple was aware of this but could not offer full-time employment so I decided to enlist in the United States Navy. The recruiter told me he would put me on a tugboat after I completed basic training. I halfway believed him but some of my older friends who had been in the military warned me that recruiters will tell you anything to get you to sign up. I was 20 years old and wanted to do something. I wanted to go somewhere. I completed all the written tests that the recruiter gave to me and he was convinced that I could be a good sailor.

During the period that I was bouncing around working at part-time jobs, Captain Temple had told his two sons that I was looking for a full-time position on a tugboat. Luckily, his sons obtained a new tugboat and were starting a marine towing business of their own. The year was 1974 and their tugboat was only seven years old. This was considered “new” compared to the other Temple tugs I had worked on. Unknown to me, but it was my good fortune that the Temple brothers had purchased a boat and started their own marine towing business.

I had been living at home with my parents off and on during this period and was still set on joining the Navy. I was at home preparing to go to Baltimore, Maryland to meet with the recruiter to “swear in” to take the oath to serve my country, to see the world, to get that job on a Navy tugboat, when the phone rang. There was no caller ID back then. When the phone rang someone usually answered it and said hello and the party on the other end would have to identify themself. Then you could decide if you wanted to talk with that person or just hang up. The person who called was Captain Dennis W. Warner. He was the senior captain on the new Temple tugboat. I definitely wanted to talk with him! He wanted to know if I was still interested in working on a tugboat. I could not believe the timing. I was scheduled to meet with the Navy recruiter the very next morning.

“Yes sir, I am very interested in working on a tugboat!”

“Can you start tonight?” he barked.

I didn’t miss a beat. “Yes sir, I can start right now!”

“OK,” Captain Warner said. “I’ll pick you up at your house tonight and we’ll drive to Delaware to get aboard the tug.”

“That’s great. I’ll be ready.”

My first full-time tugboat job was on a tug owned by the Temples. It was the spring of 1974. I was hired as a deckhand for wages of $35 per day. Seven days at $35 per day equals $245 per week. The Navy was going to pay me $280 dollars per month! Easiest decision I’d ever made!

I was hired over the phone as a deckhand. In 1974 there was no interview, no employment application, no U.S. Coast Guard bullshit. I was hired to perform the duties of a deckhand as directed by the Captain of the vessel. Period. Once aboard, I received a lot of instructions from the mate and the engineer and the other deckhand. But there was none of the bullshit that is required today just to apply for a job. I was what today is called a “hawse piper.” I wasn’t called that at the time; that term wasn’t even used back then. I was just a tugboat guy. The guys who were fortunate enough and rich enough to go to a maritime school were called “cadets.” Today, of course, it is impossible to just “walk on” a tugboat. Every tugboat company requires many weeks, months, or years of training at your own expense just to qualify for an interview and fill out an employment application.

When Captain Warner picked me up at my house that night, he introduced himself and began talking about the job of being a deckhand on a tugboat. Captain D. W. Warner was a typical looking tugboat guy: big belly, slicked-back black hair and yellow teeth from smoking cigarettes, unfiltered Camel cigarettes. The guys who smoked those short unfiltered cigarettes had a special ritual that had to be followed. The first thing they needed was a Zippo lighter, not matches. When they pulled a cigarette out of the pack, they had to bump it against their Zippo to pack it down a little bit. Then they would put the cigarette in their tightened lips, squint at least one eye, then strike up the Zippo. Light the Camel. Noisily snap the Zippo shut, take a big drag while looking up, then exhale strongly while looking down. They needed to look down because they needed to spit out some loose tobacco they just sucked in. They repeated until all they had left in their yellow, nicotine-stained fingers was a little roach to suck on. Captain Warner did have all of his fingers, so I guess he never worked on a dredge boat.

And he was a talker. He never stopped talking. Anyone who knew Captain Warner can verify this fact. He was never at a loss for words. He always had a tale to tell. If you were able to interrupt him and relate one of your own stories to him, he would listen for a while then he would tell you a similar story in which he was involved that was bigger, better, scarier, or more heroic than the one you just told. He would start his tall tales with the exclamation, “Hey! That ain’t nothing!”

Most of the guys he was bragging to were not sure how true his stories were but did not bother to confront him on the validity or accuracy of the events that had been so painstakingly described. Maybe it was out of respect for his title or maybe they just did not care. Some guys just walked away from him when they had heard enough.

The only man I knew who would confront him was Donald Howard. Donald was one of my first acquaintances on the boats and had known Captain Warner before he was a captain. Don was a no- nonsense kind of guy. If Warner was telling a bullshit story, ol’ Don was quick to tell him to take that shit somewhere else and tell it to someone who didn’t know any better.

The ride to the tugboat in Delaware that night took only 30 minutes from my house but it seemed a lot longer. The anticipation of a real job on a real tugboat was very exciting. Adding to my anxiety was the fact that my first tour of duty on the boat was going to be two weeks! That is, two weeks away from all the fun stuff that you could enjoy when you are 20 years old and the year is 1974. I loved the 70’s! And I had good hair!

The tug was on charter to tow a waste acid barge from the dock in Delaware to the “long dump” in the Atlantic Ocean. The long dump was a general location 100 miles offshore and not named on the chart. I had worked on tugboats in the ocean towing barges up and down “the beach” but we traveled as close to the shore that was as safe and practical as possible. Towing 100 miles offshore was going to be a whole new adventure for me.

It was nighttime when we arrived in Delaware in Captain Warner’s truck. He approached the gate at the plant where a guard came out of his little shack and greeted us. He said “Hello, Cap!” and let us drive in to go to the dock to board the tug. The guard recognized Captain Warner so no questions were asked and nothing else was required. That was a long time ago. In today’s ultra-secure, paranoid and suspicious world, that simple event no longer happens. No one enters any waterfront facility without advance notice and proper identification. Some oil refineries allow no visitors for any reason. Back in 1974, the world was a very different place. The industry was much less regulated and people trusted each other.

We drove through the facility in the darkness to get to the dock. As we approached our vessel and barge, I stared, amazed at how bright all the tug’s lights were. The older boats I had worked on had DC or direct current generators and so they had a limited amount of electricity. Those boats had ample lighting but nothing as brilliant and abundant as what I was introduced to that night. This was a new boat with AC (alternating current) generators! Wow!

Captain Warner and I walked down the dock to get aboard the boat. The tug was made up in pushing gear to a big orange, ugly barge. We had to cross the barge to get to the tug. Captain Warner talked to the captain he was going to relieve and I introduced myself to the crew. Happy and excited, I walked around the new tugboat, my eyes as big as compass balls to see the excellent paint job and the new deck lines in the gleaming lights. Inside the vessel all the rooms were paneled with nice wood. I didn’t know what kind of wood but it was all varnished and looked really nice. The older boats I had worked on had some sort of plywood or asbestos paneling on the bulkheads and had about 100 coats of paint on them. Some rooms on the older boats only had painted steel bulkheads. The old boats were clean but hardly as fancy as this one.

I was directed to my room and told where I could stow my gear. Then I was given the fifty-cent tour of the boat. This boat had a washing machine and a dryer! I had become accustomed to washing my clothes in a five-gallon bucket, then hanging the stuff to dry on the railing in the fidleys of the old boats. This method of doing laundry produced stiff and stinky clothing that still reeked of diesel fumes. However, no one could actually detect the smell until getting off the boat and away from the ambient odor of the vessel.

The new tug also had plenty of wash water and potable, or drinkable, water. This meant you did not need to flush the toilet with a bucket full of river water. Back then, and I hate to remember this, the heads flushed directly overboard. All commercial vessels now have marine sanitation devices onboard that perform like a mini sewage plant. Only treated water goes overboard.

When I was shown the wheelhouse of the tug, I knew this was where I would spend as much time as I was allowed. It felt right. It felt good. You know how you get that feeling when you enter a new house or a new restaurant and you can determine right away if you like it or not? I got that deep, good feeling right away. Nice captain’s chair, big radar, gyro compass, autopilot, and LORAN. This boat even had windshield wipers. I asked the senior deckhand, “Why are there two throttles on each side of the console?”

He snapped back, “This boat has two engines, kid. Twin screw.”

This boat was first-class and ready to work. This was where I wanted to work. I knew now that my life had changed when Captain Warner called me for this job. We left the wheelhouse and finished the tour of the tug but I knew exactly where I would spend most of my time. Learning how to steer and navigate a tugboat and its tow was my main goal and my new life. 

About the author

I am a tugboat captain and have worked on tugboats since 1974. I've met some colorful characters and seen incredible sights. I want to share my story of what it's like to live and work onboard tugboats. view profile

Published on November 27, 2019

40000 words

Worked with a Reedsy professional 🏆

Genre: Biographies & Memoirs

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