Aboard the tugboats churning through New York harbor are workers who push and pull with their hands and their lives. Their mission is expediency. Their goal is to get home safe to the families and dry clothes they left on land. Theirs is a profession of shaky finances and grueling work; a life of sameness, despite sailing on changing waters. They are blue collar to the bone and blue lipped to the wind.
Santo Agosta and Joe Durning sit in the cabin with the heat turned up to stave off the early morning chill. The progress on their Daily News crosswords is evidence of how long they’ve been sitting. They drink coffee from New York Mets mugs stained from the many cups before.
Jim Brown, the captain, arrives at 7:25 a.m. He jumps on board with a quick leap as if there were no distinction between land and boat, climbing to the captain’s deck as Santo, the deckineer (deckhand and engineer) and Joe, the deck mate, untie the ropes holding the John P. Brown tugboat to the pier.
Jim starts the engines. The pulsating vroom that emanates from below the main deck sends seagulls flying in every direction. Santo and Joe, who already have five o’clock shadows, are dressed in dirty sweatpants, sweatshirts and jackets. After loosening the ropes from the pier, the two return to their couch in the cabin. Jim stays up top. Even though there are only three men onboard, he tries to keep some semblance of a hierarchy.
The John P. Brown tugboat, with its green base, red floor and black lining, inches away from the docks on the northern shore of Port Ivory, Staten Island. Other tugs in the local area do the same. It’s shove off time in the harbor.
With Staten Island fading behind them, New Jersey in the foreground, and Manhattan and Brooklyn on the horizon, Santo, Joe, and Jim have begun their workday. The thrill and novelty of the open water is lost on them. They’ve shoved off thousands of times, and they’ll do the same tomorrow. Now, it’s just a matter of clocking the hours.
As the sun rises, directions change over from north, south, east and west to bow, aft, starboard and port. The John P. Brown is one of two tugs owned by Thomas J. Brown & Sons. Jim inherited the company from his father, who inherited it from his father. The Brown is the typical family-owned tug. Five, six, sometimes seven days a week, the Brown sets course pushing and pulling barges around the five boroughs of New York City and the eastern shore of New Jersey.
Santo and Joe sit in the cabin, which sports a television, a refrigerator filled with eggplant parmesan and uncooked chicken for lunch, a stove, a couch, a couple of beds, and portholes to view the outside deck.
Above the cabin are two decks, and above these is where the captain works in his quarters. All three levels sit above the 2800 horsepower engine, which drums so loud in its cavernous cage, Santo and Joe occasionally need earmuffs. Near the stern of the boat is a control panel, inviting in its simplicity. There’s a green button for Hydraulic Pump Start and a red button for Hydraulic Pump Stop.
Hanging over the side of the tug is rubber, lots of it. The Brown, like other tugs, is lined with rubber for protection from bumping boats. The majority of tugs use truck tires that hang off the sides. The Brown goes one step further and uses defective airplane tires; their larger size makes bumping less damaging. Santo says the tires cost $150 a pop. “We recycle everything,” he says.
As the Brown approaches its first appointment in New Jersey, it cuts through the harbor waters, polluted with floating bottles and torn candy wrappers. The tug makes its way under the Bayonne Bridge, slowly turning portside away from Staten Island toward the Jersey shoreline. As the journey continues, the Brown passes its competition on the water, other family-owned tugs: Charles D. McAllister, Margaret Moran and the William E.
The tug’s first task of the day is to flip a barge 180 degrees for the Essex Cement Company at the Port of Newark. Tugs have human names, while barges are usually identified by non-descript numbers and letters. This one is called the AJP-1998.
In order to turn the barge 180 degrees, it is first required to do what tugs are best known for: bump. The bump gives the captain a chance to rest the tug alongside the barge. The only separation between the boats is the airplane tires, which squeeze and bend into contorted positions, screeching like a skidding car.
For Santo and Joe, the bump is a signal that their help is needed on deck. The two emerge from the cabin and quickly climb aboard their client’s boat. The two take ropes from the Brown and tie them to metal cleats on the side of the barge. The ropes are then tied to the tug’s cleats, to make for a taut connection. Joe works with gloves in order to reduce the amount of rope burn. Santo leaves his hands bare.
The two must work within a degree of perfection. If they are still holding the rope when it goes taut, their hands will be yanked with the combined weight of both boats. In order to prevent possible amputation, Santo and Joe have developed a routine. Up, around, down, under, around. Again. Up, around, down, under, around. This tying technique continues until the cleat, which looks like a stationary anvil, is full of double-looped rope. Any tugboat worth its salt will have the paint on its cleats completely peeled from years of tying and retying.
Once tied, what seemed impossible begins to occur. The barge, rusted with barnacles and years of oxidation along its belly, begins to slowly move out from the pier. The tugboat then moves around to the other side of the barge to do the exact opposite. Rather than pulling, the tug pushes the barge into place.
Finished, Santo and Joe leap down from the barge onto the wet bow of the tugboat with no assistance from a rail or helping hand. “What’d he say?” Jim shouts from the captain’s deck to see what the owner of the barge told his workers.
“He said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and something about ‘the greatest deck hands in the world,’” Santo jokes.
Santo is the liveliest of the three workers. He works with a smile, even though the monotony gets to him. Back on the Brown, he looks up at the AJP-1998 and knows he’ll be back in a few days to do the same exact thing. During the cross-harbor trek to the piers of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, he smokes a cigarette and takes in the view. Joe, now wearing a faded red t-shirt that shows off a barbed wire tattoo on his right bicep, joins Santo on the main deck.
As the Brown passes other tugs pulling or pushing barges, it slows down to help keep the waves and wakes to a minimum. It’s an unofficial rule of the harbor.
The sight of the bulky barges being towed by little “Tugboat Annies” is striking in its symbolism. The big corporations, whether gas, railroad, government, or supply, still need the everyman, the tugboat operator. Like literal leeches on the corporate body, Santo, Joe, and Jim know they might not have much, but they certainly have job security.
The tug arrives in Sunset Park to pick up a barge topped with railroad cars from the New York-New Jersey Rail. The land workers know Jim by name. As the tug approaches the pier in the early afternoon hours, the sequence begins. Bump, jump to barge, tie off (up, around, down, under, around, again), get hands out of way. This time, though, the barge is not being flipped around. The behemoth is being pulled across the harbor, all the way back to New Jersey.
Once in New Jersey, the railroad cars will be taken off and the empty barge will be brought back, a process that will occur three times today. The miniscule space between the tug and barge as they tango their way across the harbor is about six inches. The waves, which roll through the small space, cause constant splashing on the main deck.
Santo and Jim are Staten Island natives. Joe commutes to work from southern New Jersey. Santo, 36, has been in tugboats for 13 years. He’s been with the Brown for three years, but before that, skipped around.
“It’s not uncommon to go from company to company,” he says. “But Brown is one of the oldest companies.”
Santo finds his work unapologetic. He gets a decent rate of $28 per hour (Jim gets $30, and Joe gets $28), but the hours are unrelenting and scattered. Besides the physical danger of the job, there’s the emotional and platonic danger as well.
“It’s hard to keep a girlfriend or a wife,” Santo says. “Unless you have a girl before, then they understand the life.”
Santo is married, and his father-in-law was a tugboater, so his wife understands the time commitment to the job. “My wife grew up around this,” he says.
Although all of the crewmembers would love more money, the problem with the tugboat business is less financial. The problem is that once they shove off from their Staten Island pier, there is no telling when they may return. On early days, 10 hours. Longer days, who knows? And after hours of draining work, there is not much chance for rest. The next day the engines rev up at 7:30 a.m. sharp.
“It’s the nature of the beast,” Santo says. “You’ve got to go with it.”
While carting the train cars back and forth across the harbor from Sunset Park, the Brown also finds time to pull a Buchanan company barge filled with rocks to the mouth of the Gowanus Canal in Red Hook.
Jim, who remains in the captain’s quarters for the entire day, never once descending below, navigates the Brown through the unmarked corridors of the harbor. Late in the afternoon, the last of the railcars dropped off in Sunset Park, the sun begins to set.
As Santo and Joe reel the rope back onto the tug, they become tangled and start joking around.
“We’ve been together so long, he thinks I’m his wife,” Joe says.
“They never see this,” Santo says about the public not knowing the life of a tugboater. “They see firemen, policemen, truck drivers, but they never see the harbor.”
John Soltes is a journalist who works in New Jersey. For the Rail, he has written pieces on Nigerian Catholic priests and the tug boat business.