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She Thinks My Tugboat's Sexy

New York Press

August 29, 2007

For a day, harbor tugs push against each other, not super cargo carriers

“We generally take home one or two a year,” says the white-bearded owner of Reinauer Transportation Company, pointing at more than twenty burnished trophies lining a wooden shelf in his handsome office headquarters.
Like Bert Reinauer himself, the room conveys an aura of some consequence, owing in part to the mounted cups, whose slight dissimilarities suggest they were long in the gathering. The shelf is a bit high, so you’d have to stand on tiptoe to understand that the cups are not exactly as consequential as they appear. In fact, it’s all kind of a big game.
One day a year, the tugboat industry dresses up its hardworking vessels and parades them before judges, showing off fresh paint jobs, displaying horsepower in nose-to-nose pushing competitions and a one-mile sprint up the Hudson. Tug operators play rodeo cowboys, demonstrating their skill by roping a cleat from a moving vessel coming toward a dock.
And those are the earnest categories. Equally coveted are the trophies for best tugboat pet and best dressed crew, best crewmember tattoo (that can be legally displayed), and best mascot.
The event’s lightheartedness in no way means it is not taken seriously. Reinauer compares it to a tractor pull, and anyone who’s ever been through the middle of the country knows how the heartland loves its diesel. It would not be going overboard for a crewmember to get a tattoo specifically for the competition. “I don’t know for a fact" whether that has happened, says Reinaur, "but it wouldn’t surprise me. Some of the tattoos are really ornate and pretty unique.”
“For our industry, it’s the highlight of the year.”
The Sunday of Labor Day weekend was not always a maritime holiday.
In 1992, Jerry Roberts, who then worked at the Intrepid, decided to bring back the tugboat racing that had ended in the 60’s or 70’s when big companies started buying out family-owned tug operations, tugs started striking, and camaraderie in the business went downhill. He started calling around, and got a lot of maybes.
Companies were concerned with insurance issues, but mostly, about taking a loss by taking a day off. Cargo comes into the port every day of the year, so there are no industry-wide holidays.
“It’s difficult to pull a working vessel out of your fleet, and come in here and dedicate to a day’s events that are really non-revenue producing,” says Reinauer. “It just depends on how your schedule works out.”
Only a little bit daunted, Roberts kept plying the phones. “I really called everybody, sent out letters, and I got a bunch of them to say, ‘You know what? If we have a tugboat that day, with a standby crew, that doesn’t have a job that morning, we’ll send it. But no guarantees.’”
The night before the first race was tense.
“So that first year, I waited on the dock in the morning. We had already alerted the press, we already had some publicity. My reputation was kind of on the line because, you know, a bunch of people coming to watch a tugboat race, and if in fact no tugboats showed up, or only two tugboats showed up, I knew it would be the last year of the event.
“And I sat there watching. First one or two, and then more, and McAllister Towing Company sent five McAllister tugs. In combination with the other tugs that showed up, I think we probably had eight to ten tugs that year, which certainly was enough to have an event.”
Five years later, hundreds of tug-loving spectators were attending and tugboat companies were calling Roberts, instead of vice versa. “Because what it quickly evolved into was a great – forget the spectators for a minute – it became a great celebration within the tugboat community. And it was a chance for the tugboaters to bring their families on their tugs, deck them out with flags and stuff.”
On September 2nd, the 15th annual New York Tug Boat Race & Competition will begin at 10:30 a.m. at Pier 84 (at West 44th Street) with a parade of tugs, a fireboat spraying water and a Coast Guard Cutter.
Roberts is expecting between 10 and 20 tugs, but big as the event has gotten, the roster will never be set in advance. “They can’t tell two weeks out necessarily which tug will have gotten a job working at this pier or taking a barge to Boston or something,” says Roberts. “They’re not going to turn down a $20,000 job to race. But, they may have another tug. Or they may have a tug visiting from Galveston that they can throw into the race. So until the day of the race, you don’t know for sure.”
“Whoever can spare the tug power,” says Reinauer, “we’ll go out, rain or shine.”

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