I knew I was going to set up this web-page, based on a Courier-Post news article by Eileen Stillwell, as soon as I saw it in the paper one Sunday morning. My friend, Dave Boone, well known for his paintings of tugboats, who has helped so much with the website through by scanning countless images of tugs and ships on the river, first called my attention to the subject a couple of years ago. 

After you finish with this page, be sure to check out Life and Work on the Delaware River on this website, a set of pages with images of tugboats, ships, and Camden's waterfront along the Delaware River.

Phil Cohen
March 11, 2007

Camden Courier-Post - March 11, 2007

Tugboat life tense, tedious

Courier-Post Staff

When Capt. Sean Taylor nosed his tugboat into the side of a massive cargo ship with less force than it takes to crack an egg, tension drained from his face.

Piloting a 4,200-horsepower tug headlong into a 739-foot ship with a bellyful of Russian steel can be tricky. Tricky, but necessary to guide the ocean-going ship out of port into the navigational channel of the Delaware River.

Every incident -- no matter how small -- triggers a drug-and-alcohol test and possibly litigation. Too many incidents can cost a tugboat captain his job.

A native of North Camden, Taylor, 38, has been drawn to the river since boyhood. He enjoyed hanging out at Pyne Point Marine Works, observing the tides, sizing up the professionals who work the river and checking out the weekend boaters. A family friend was a tugboat captain.

Within eight years, he worked his way up from deckhand to captain with McAllister Towing, the oldest family-owned tug service on the East Coast.

Now he commands a crew of three on the Brooklyn McAllister, a 115-foot powerhouse of a tug that plies the Delaware between Trenton and Cape May -- pushing barges, escorting tankers, delivering pilots and anything else that requires power and speed.

"You can't run a modern port without a vibrant tug and towing industry," said Capt. David L. Scott, U.S. Coast Guard commander of the Delaware River and Bay. "They are major contributors to our economy. Without them we could not sustain a port with six refineries," he said.

Last Thursday, Taylor parked his car at the McAllister dock in the Philadelphia Navy Yard, grabbed a duffle bag filled with sheets and clothes, and jumped aboard the Brooklyn for a two-week, round-the-clock shift, to be followed by one week off. Typically, he works about 35 weeks a year, but his work week is seven, not five, days.

The tradition of living aboard a tug boat dates back to Mark Twain. Taylor and his crew are on call 24 hours a day for two weeks. He is not permitted to be at the helm more than 12 consecutive hours a day, followed by 12 hours of rest.

His mate and fellow captain, Paul Stinglen, of Ridley Township, Pa., spells him at the helm. The crew is permitted to leave the boat as long as they can be back in place in 30 minutes or less.

"It's a strange life, but I'm used to it," said Taylor, a compact, reserved, single man.

"Cell phones and laptops have really helped to reduce the feeling of confinement," he said.

"I enjoy the river, how it changes from night to day, season to season. That's the best part. The long hours can be tough at times, even boring. Then, I'm always thinking about the risks, things that could go wrong, and dodging crazy recreational boaters. The winter is really the easiest time. The crowds are gone and the wind is less," said Taylor.

Built in 1986, the Brooklyn is spacious, but no five-star hotel. It has four bedrooms, five TVs, a full kitchen, bath, washer and dryer, stereo, printer, outside barbecue, lounge chair on deck and a comfortable wheelhouse. It is clean and odor-free.

Its low, beamy design makes it rock steady. On a recent 30-degree day, the wheelhouse was toasty warm and quiet despite the powerful diesel engine. Engineer Ed Devine of Bellmawr, who keeps everything running, was dressed in a T-shirt.

Only the deckhand, 19-year-old John Bissinger of Cochranville, Pa., worked outside hauling wet, heavy lines linking the tug to whatever it is moving.

The Brooklyn is one of three tractor tugs on the river. Though it looks like a conventional tug with rounded edges wrapped in rubber tires, it has, instead of a rudder, bronze propellers that rotate 360 degrees. This allows the boat to move sideways, giving the captain more maneuverability. Its value is estimated at $6 million.

An average captain earns between $60,000 and $70,000 a year, said Frank Huesser, vice president of McAllister. Deckhands, who do all the grunt work, including cleaning the tug inside and out and running food and drink to the captain, earn $140 for a 24-hour day. Each crew member receives a $14 per diem for food.

"Getting people to work on the river gets harder and harder these days. We welcome women and have had a few, but it's a rough man's world and few people physically can handle being a deckhand," said Huesser.

Women are rare on tugs, yet the river is rife with tugs named Susan, Vicki, Theresa, Elizabeth and Nancy.

Tug work was unionized until a bitter strike along the East Coast in 1987. After that the industry became less attractive, said Muesser.

But McAllister perseveres. Headquartered in Manhattan, the company will move its Delaware River fleet of five tugs next month from Philadelphia to the Gloucester Marine Terminal in Gloucester City.

And to survive, McAllister and its competition are juggling a couple of competing trends.

Larger ships mean fewer ships, therefore less escort work for tugs. Some ships, particularly passenger cruise ships, are equipped with automatic bow and stern thrusters which eliminate the need for tugs.

At the same time heightened security issues and increased demand for foreign goods tend to generate more work for tugs.

Because of all the bridges along the Delaware and the density of the population, few ship moves happen without tugs.

The Brooklyn's first job last week was to undock a Panamanian ship carrying 21,000 tons of steel slabs at Packer Avenue Terminal in Philadelphia and escort it 26 miles north to Kinder Morgan, a steel distribution center in Fairless Hills, Pa. Local regulations require the ship to be escorted by one tug with another standing by for docking at the destination.

It was during the docking at Kinder Morgan that the 4,200-horsepower of the Brooklyn was most evident.

About 2.5 miles before the dock, Brooklyn attached itself on the port side of the Lioness C and a companion tug took the starboard. Together they managed to slow the ship so it could approach the dock at a reasonable speed. Ships loose their steering power when traveling at speeds under 5 miles per hour.

The 3-hour routine trip under more than six bridges took four hours because the channel was blocked temporarily by a barge loaded with coal. Its tug -- not a McAllister -- had broken down.

On the return trip, the Brooklyn was scheduled to move a sludge barge from a treatment plant in Philadelphia to a dumping ground near the Schuylkill River.

Joseph Balzano, executive director of the South Jersey Port Corporation, said tug boats prove size does not matter.

"When you see those tugs pushing those huge ships around, I always think of the "Little Engine that Could.' They are amazing machines," said Balzano.

Camden Courier-Post - March 11, 2007

Capt. Sean Taylor climbs aboard the Brooklyn McAllister, docked at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, on Thursday.

Capt. Sean Taylor looks on as the tugboat heads up the Delaware River to Kinder Morgan Co. in Fairless Hills, Pa., on Thursday.

The Brooklyn McAllister approaches the Lioness C, a Panamanian ship, on Thursday. With the help of its sister tugboat, the Susan McAllister, the Brooklyn will pull the Lioness C out of port.

First mate Paul Stinglen, of Ridley Township, Pa., watches through the wheelhouse window as the Brooklyn McAllster guides the Lioness C, a ship from Panama, into port at Kinder Morgan Co. in Fairless Hills, Pa., on Thursday.

The river pilot climbs up the side of the Lioness C from the deck of the Susan McAllister on Thursday. The Susan and Brooklyn McAllister escorted the Lioness C upriver.

Capt. Sean Taylor steers the Brooklyn McAllister down the Delaware River on its return trip Thursday to Philadelphia.

Deckhand John Bissinger, 19, pulls a rope to secure the Brooklyn McAllister to the Lioness C, under the watchful eye of first mate Paul Stinglen on Thursday.