There is something about tug boats. In a world where anyone can be anything, and tools with a mindboggling number of varied uses exist, the quiet power and solidness of a purpose-built vessel is almost a reassurance. A reminder that there is a magic place in the world for the singular, ordinary, and functional.
I love the form of tugs, as well as their function. The juxtaposition between all that raw power, the precision of their function and the gentleness with which they perform it is a source of perpetual fascination. The research and technology involved in evolving such an effective, complicated ship wrangler is immense, but the goal of this creation is simple – to bring the ship to shore, in a manner of speaking.
And ensuring the relationship of form, function and method are the tug crews. In the metropolitan ports of Perth, Western Australia, tugs run with three crew members :
– Tug master, who is the skipper
– An engineer
– An Integrated Rating (IR), who is a qualified general able seaman.
As far as I have been on them, each large vessel coming into port is assisted to berth by a pilot aboard, and two tugs. I was on the tug Bunbury one Friday with the night shift crew. It was a quiet, fairly routine night for the crew, but afforded me a little bit of a peek into their working lives.
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“Sixteen knots,” Bruce, the night shift’s master, says. Alan, who is the engineer, grins.
“Three point two,” I tell them drily, from where I was studying one of several LCD screens. “I’m looking at the right one now.”
The Bunbury moves smoothly towards the month of the port, awaiting her first tow. Bruce points out channel markings, contours and our tow route on one of these screens, a two dimensional plate of shifting colours.
He then brings my attention to the red and green lights out on the water that mark the port’s entry and exit route for carrier vessels, explaining other marker buoys and beacons, without my needing to ask.
He has obviously done this before, I think. He is a good teacher, patient, clear, methodical. Observant of my rate of absorption.
I was a bit scared of Bruce when he and his crew came aboard the Bunbury for the night shift. Alan, the engineer, is charming, affable, British. Gino, the IR (Integrated Rating, or deckhand), expressive, opinionated, adventurer. Bruce is quiet, poker-faced, and almost somber. His responses to questions and conversation are unrushed, considered, no-nonsense. I mistook this early on in the night for a preference not to take part in the random bits of conversation I was having with his crew. I was wrong, and glad to have corrected that perception quickly. I wouldn’t say Bruce is soft spoken, but he is quiet of manner, a restful ocean on a calm evening.