We’re Off to the (Tugboat) Races!

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

Sometimes the best ideas are the last-minute ones.

We’d carefully planned the Labor Day holiday weekend, balancing work, rest, paddling, and socializing, and after due consideration we’d agreed that the best strategy would be to work and run errands on Saturday, followed by a long paddle on Sunday, which had optimal currents and weather forecast.

Then Vlad said, “Would you like to go see the tugboat race this weekend?”

Well, of course! We both love everything maritime, and tugboats in particular. And we’d talked for a while about wanting to see this event—the Great North River Tugboat Race & Competition, hosted each Labor Day weekend by the Working Harbor Committee, in which a dozen or more NYC-area tugboats parade up the Hudson, race, and then engage in various contests (pushing contests, line tosses, and who knows what else). And it was all happening this weekend!

Except that meant changing all our plans, because the tugboat race was on Sunday—the day we’d planned to paddle.

No matter! Vlad bought tickets on the Circle Line, which was running a special Spectator Boat that would put us in the middle of the action, and we rejiggered the rest of our weekend plans.

And so, on Sunday morning, caffeinated and breakfasted, we headed to Pier 83 on the West Side of Manhattan, from which the Circle Line boats depart.

It was a fine day, a bit overcast and not too hot. The Circle Line boat, the Manhattan, departed from the pier at 9:30 AM and stood off in the middle of the river. At first, there was nothing much out of the ordinary to see. But gradually, looking down the Hudson, we saw a slightly greater-than-usual density of tugboats milling about. Slowly, the crowd of boats expanded as more boats steamed up the river.

Over the Manhattan‘s loudspeaker system, the race organizers described each boat as it passed by:

Susan Miller.

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… Freddie K Miller.

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Meagan Ann

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Pegasus

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Growler

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W. O. Decker

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Lincoln Sea

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Vulcan III

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Weddell Sea

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Maurania III

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Gage Paul Thornton

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… and a number of others—21 tugs in all! (A nice lineup of all of the tugs is here.)

The largest and the smallest: Lincoln Sea and The Bronx

There were big tugs (the largest was the 12-year-old Lincoln Sea, an imposing beauty with dual 4,000 horsepower engines) and small tugs (the adorable The Bronx, with just 180 horsepower). Each carried crew, family, and friends. (The Bronx also featured mascot dog “Salty”.) And each one was prepared to go for the glory.

The Bronx with “Salty” on the rear deck

The day’s events would include a tug parade, as the boats cruised up the river to the starting point of the race just south of the 79th Street Boat Basin; the race itself (with an overall winner and four divisional winners); strength and skill competitions (nose-to-nose pushing contests between the tugs and a line toss); and general festivities at Pier 84 (a spinach-eating contest, “best tattoo” contest, and the awards ceremony).

We knew that somewhere out there would be our friends who shared our passion for things maritime: Tugster, Frogma, and likely Bowsprite (whose artwork adorned T-shirts for sale at the event). (Later in the day we indeed encountered Tugster and Frogma, as well as several other friends from the NYC boating community.)

The tugs slowly organized into a long line for the parade and proceeded up the Hudson. By 10:30 AM, they had arrayed themselves into an impressive starting line stretching across the river. We were told there were 22 boats present—the largest contingent since 2008. (In fact, only 20 participated in the actual race.)

Smokestacks belch smoke as the race begins!

The crowd on the Manhattan counted down with the race organizers: “Ten… nine… eight… seven… six… five… four… three… two… one!”

And they’re off!
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Weddell Sea overtakes the Miller boats…

… leaving chaos in her wake

Almost right away, the Weddell Sea pulled into the lead, leaving the other tugs bouncing in the chaotic water behind. Some of them had quite an exciting time of it—this video shot from the Thornton Brothers, one of the slower tugs, shows an apparent collision, or near-collision, between two of the Miller boats.

The Weddell Sea is a relatively young boat, launched in 2007, with 4,500 horsepower engines—the one tug that could compete with the giant Lincoln Sea. And indeed, at first it seemed the Weddell Sea would maintain her lead. But the Lincoln Sea accelerated slowly and steadily, closing the gap, then pulling out ahead. No surprises there: The boat with the greatest horsepower would very likely win.

The giant Lincoln Sea pushes a wall of water in front of her as she accelerates past

But what’s that over there?

Meagan Ann sneaks through on the inside!

A boat I hadn’t noticed before, the teal-blue Meagan Ann, was pulling out in front of everyone but the Lincoln Sea. The Meagan Ann, with 2,250 horsepower, isn’t a particularly overmuscled boat. But her captain was cleverly keeping her close to the Manhattan side of the river—a shrewd move since the race was against the current, and the current would be weakest there.

Slowly, steadily, the competitors sorted themselves out: The Lincoln Sea was clearly in the lead—but from what I could tell, the Meagan Ann kept tenaciously in second place, followed by the Weddell Sea and the rest of the pack. And the valiant little The Bronx was at the end.

As the tugboats steamed by, they raised impressive wakes, which consolidated into waves large enough to rock the Manhattan.

The fireboat Three Forty Three welcomes the finishers

The winning boats took just a few minutes to cruise the mile or so down the river to the finish line at Pier 84. The rest of the boats took a bit longer, but the entire race lasted no more than about 15 minutes.

The Lincoln Sea was clearly the winner. But who had come in second? Was it the Meagan Ann? We wouldn’t find out until later, when the official results would be announced.

Meanwhile, the show had just begun! Following the race were the nose-to-nose pushing contests, in which the tugboats paired off and tried to push each other up or downstream. The match-ups were often amusing:

David vs. Goliath: Vulcan III vs. Lincoln Sea

Two Miller boats shove each other as The Bronx passes by

The oldsters fight it out: Pegasus (built 1907!) vs. Thornton Brothers (1958), with Gage Paul Thornton (1944) passing by

This video shows what this last contest looked like from the point of view of one of the participants, the Thornton Brothers.

Gage Paul Thornton vs. Vulcan III

Meagan Ann vs. Buchanan 1

At times the battle became a free-for-all, with three or more boats shoving each other.

A Miller melee

Four against one: the Millers surround Gage Paul Thornton!

At times, we had a sense that we’d seen it somewhere before…

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We spent quite a while oohing and ahh-ing the boats, waving to the crews and families, and laughing at the pushing contests.

The tugs line up for the line toss

Then it was time for the line toss. Each participating tug pulled up to Pier 84 and a crew member tossed a looped line over a bollard. The winner would be the tug that lassoed the bollard the fastest (they each got two tries) without actually touching the pier.

Maurania III has a go

Unfortunately we couldn’t get particularly close to the action—the best vantage point for that was on shore. But we could judge the success of each line toss by the appreciative roar of the crowd.

By 11:30 AM the show was over—the part on water, at least. The Manhattan pulled into Pier 83 and we all disembarked. Vlad and I had pretty much decided we’d head out after that—a spinach-eating contest sounded amusing, but we had things to do. But we decided to head over to Pier 84 to take “just a quick look” before we left.

Wow, are we glad we did! As we walked up the pier, we saw an impressive lineup of docked tugs—and smelled the scent of barbecues as the crews and their families fired up their on-board grills.

How many tugs can you spot in this photo?

Ice cream would go down better…

And in a few minutes, the spinach-eating contest began–complete with the soundtrack from Popeye. In the first round, the competitors were kids, ranging from 4 to 11 years old. We crowded in close and were immediately overcome with delight at the photogenic lineup. The rules were simple: Each contestant was to eat a (cold) can of spinach from a plastic bowl, using (or not using) fork or fingers. Contestants signaled the completion of the round by putting the bowl upside down on top of their heads.

The moment of victory!

After the spinach-eating contest, we were in for an unexpected treat: The line tosses were still going on.

Freddie K Miller’s line toss—unsuccessful

And we were just in time to to watch the teal-blue Meagan Ann (she of the second-place finish) steam in for what we shortly learned was the winning toss: 22 seconds and flawless.

Now it’s Meagan Ann’s turn…

Success!! The celebratory fist pump, horn blast, and smoke as Meagan Ann backs away from the pier

Frogma was also there to see the action, and has posted a video of the Meagan Ann‘s successful line toss here.

Meagan Ann had clearly won the line toss. But how did she do in the race?

Prizes await…

Fortunately, the awards ceremony was next. Vlad and I were getting

hungry, and I was hoping to learn the race results right away. But first there were some other important awards to be given out…

… Best-dressed crew, which went to the merchant marine crew of the Growler

The Bronx’s “Salty” has won in the past, but this year had to give someone else a chance

… Best mascot, which went to “Duke” of the Pegasus

… and Vlad’s favorite, the best tattoo competition. The winner was an engineer from the Lincoln Sea, but I think Vlad preferred this tattoo:

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.Or perhaps this one:

By the time they started handing out the race awards, our hunger had gotten too strong to ignore—and, given the length of the speeches, we figured there might be another hour to go before we’d learn the final results. So we retired to P.D. O’Hurley’s restaurant on Pier 84—too far away to hear the announcements, but close enough to enjoy a nice view of the tugs.

About halfway through our burgers, the tugs began casting off and steaming away—and I still didn’t know whether my Meagan Ann had gotten the prize!

But wait—who’s that? We spied Tugster coming towards us. “Will!” I called. “Who won? Did the Meagan Ann win her division?”

Sure enough, Tugster confirmed that Meagan Ann had come in second overall—and first in her division. I was as proud as if she were mine—although as Vlad pointed out, I hadn’t even known the tug existed until a few hours ago.

All in all, it was a wonderful morning. Sometimes the best decisions really are the last minute ones!

The big Tugboat Race trophy, awarded to Lincoln Sea this year—but with special recognition during the awards ceremony to the second-place finisher, Meagan Ann!

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More of Vlad’s photos are here.

The race organizers, the Working Harbor Committee, have posted a description of the day here. And the official results are here.

Mitch Waxman of The Newtown Pentacle, who was on the officials’ boat, has posted a slideshow of his photos here.

Tugster, who was on the Maurania III during the race, has posted a selection of great photos—as expected!—here, here, here, and here.

Frogma, in addition to her videos of the line toss here, here, and here, has a series of posts describing the individual tugs and the events of the day here, here, here (tugboat gallery), here (the race), here (the spinach-eating contest), and here (the line-tossing and nose-to-nose pushing contests).

Two videos shot from the Thornton Brothers, the first covering the entire race and the second some of the pushing contests, are here and here.

58 responses to “We’re Off to the (Tugboat) Races!

  1. thanks i really enjoyed your day, MJ

  2. Wow, what a fun day! So many awesome photos of that event. And so funny on the tattoos part. Lol.

  3. I can’t hit “Like” enough times on this post. What a blast!

  4. What a great event! So much fun to read about and see the pictures. I think I would have been rooting for W. O. Decker though. Reminds me of the tug boats in Curious George.

  5. It is an expressive report with great photos. I like the little boats, there seemed to be human on your pictures!

    • Johna Till Johnson

      They seemed to be human in real life, too! And the crews had families and friends on board, which made it all the nicer…

  6. Great fun! Wish I were there! :-)

    • Don’t know what I love more the pictures or the story. What a fantastic time!!! Would be something I would be interested in seeing next year. You make us all feel we are right there with you, can see the tugs pushing, and feel the lines hitting the docks. Thanks again for a great adventure :-)

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks for commenting! And there’s always next year!

  7. I love the way you combine a great story and great photos! Sounds like a wonderful event.

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks! We’ll try to plan better next year… as the post mentioned, it was totally a last-minute decision to go.

  8. you’ve certainly tugged on the heartstrings here with these sturdy movers and shakers. thanks for sharing your day

  9. What an amazing display indeed. Thanks for taking me along too. Love the photo of the ‘largest and the smallest’. :) Wonderfully entertaining post, Johna and Vlad. :)

  10. Thank you for sharing the exciting day with us! Glad Vlad bought tickets…

  11. Thanks for sharing your day and your great photos. I’m from the prairies – never even heard of tugboat races!

  12. Love it – wish I had seen the races when I lived in NY, but I sure saw plenty of beautiful tugs pass by my window on Staten Island. Glad you linked to Tugster – a great blog. Love that photo of the biggest & smallest tugs – go Bronx!

  13. wowzers, that looks truly exciting and a fab day out! We have a similar thing with trawler boats down the South in England, only [as far as I'm concerned] it’s not half as exciting as your tugboat races ^-^
    Mrs B (N. Wales, UK)

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Hey, to us Yanks, “trawlers” sound exotic! One of our goals is to paddle in and around the British Isles, particularly Wales. (Vlad is British, at least according to his passport–that’s what happens when the country you’re originally from no longer exists).

      Thanks for reading (and posting)!

  14. What a wonderful post & pics! I love that photo of the Lincoln Sea and the Bronx. Thanks for the story.

    • Johna Till Johnson

      You are most welcome, glad you enjoyed it! Yes, that photo really gets across the size disparity, doesn’t it? It’s also worth noting that some of the tugs are over a century old, and some are just a few years old–quite the range.

  15. This post is incrdeible. the information and the way you showcased the photos made me feel like I was there. I can’t believe how many tugboats there were … and … crashing into each other. WOW …. it sounds like it was a mesmerizing thing to watch. Thanks for directing me here. I thoroughly enjoyed it. ~~~~ : – )

    • Johna Till Johnson

      So glad you did! Tugs are amazingly photogenic, Vlad commented that most of the photographers got versions of the same shot.

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  17. my goodness, how did i miss this one? ah, it’s an amazing post! i could spend an hour with each image! i always wanted to convert a tug or tow boat into a house/studio. these make me wistful! thanks for the great post! Z

  18. This is a very nice account of the events and the photos are fantastic too.

  19. Can’t wait to show this to my daughter… she loves tugboats and wants to be a tugboat captain! :-) Great post, thanks!

  20. What a FUN day this must’ve been! And who can beat that fabulous setting!

    I haven’t taken a good look around your blog in awhile so don’t be alarmed by seeing multiple likes/comments from me today!

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