On A Tug: Center Stage In A Briny Ballet

`Cover your ears," yells the tugboat's chief engineer as he grins a crooked grin. "What?" I scream back, just in time to be jolted by a boom that sounds to me like a Space Shuttle launch. It's only the engine starting up, he mouths, as I jam my hands over my ears. Eddie Christensen is used to it. After more than 35 years as a tugboat engineer, it's a sound as familiar to him as the currents lapping against the bow.

I scan this noisy, hot pit of machinery that looks more like a contraption from a Dr. Seuss book--not what I had ever imagined the engine room of a tugboat would look like. A generator hums while the 3,300-horsepower engine warms up. A switchboard lights up to show any electrical mishaps. On the sides of the walls, metal tubing circulates salt water that cools the machinery.

This is Eddie's home away from home. Eddie and the four other members of the Margaret Moran crew spend two weeks on the tug, working 12 hours on and 12 hours off. Then, they have a week off before another two-week hitch. Eddie is 66, but the work along the waterways of the New York Harbor has kept him fit. His legs, for example, look to be as sturdy as any 30-year-old's--from constantly running up from the engine room to the deck to keep on top of things. He has been engineer on the Margaret Moran since 1986 and has worked for Moran Towing & Transportation Co., a top operator of tugs on the East Coast, since 1957.

"STRANGE FACE." Much has changed in that time. Although the harbor still berths ocean liners and cargo ships from around the world, it's a shadow of its former self. Rival West Coast ports are grabbing Pacific Rim trade, Baltimore and Norfolk are fighting for business, the great liners are mostly gone, the U.S. Navy left the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and other shipyards are silent.

But on this hazy summer morning, the harbor sure looks busy. The waterways are speckled with barges, U.S. Coast Guard cutters, freighters, ferries, tour boats, and cabin cruisers. Yet old salts such as Eddie remember when the now-rotting piers along the Hudson were so crammed that it was like trying to find a parking space in midtown.

Sitting comfortably at the helm, smoking a cigarette, is Gene Poissant, captain of the Margaret Moran. As the Manhattan skyline fades in the haze, the tug makes its way out of the upper harbor and past the Statue of Liberty. "We get jaded about it, but God, it is beautiful," he says, steering the tug with cavalier ease, his tanned hands loosely curled over two levers that control the engines. "Some mornings, when we're coming through the fog, she just comes out of nowhere."

Poissant is a gruff man with a dry, snappy sense of humor. He has a nickname and a story for every tug captain he passes. He calls one old captain the Cadaver. A boat with the name Jacqueline A passes. "A strange face," Poissant says, explaining that new vessels stick out because the harbor is like a neighborhood--the captains know everyone on the block.

Our first job of the morning is docking a container ship at Port Elizabeth in New Jersey. The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey operates the port for both states, but Manhattan and Brooklyn long ago lost the big freight business to the more modern facilities on the Jersey side, and the city has been trying ever since to get some of the business back--to little avail. In late August, a City Planning Dept. study raised the question of whether New York should continue pouring money into its money-losing terminals.

CREAMED CORN. Within 15 minutes, we are suddenly dwarfed by the 700-foot-long Saudi Makkah out of Dammam, Saudi Arabia. You can still make out its former identity--as a ship of Polish registry--from old, painted-over raised letters. The two vessels are introduced gingerly. The Margaret Moran is encased in thick black rubber--sidings and old tires. (A rusty gash on the Saudi Makkah's side is the handiwork of the unprotected bow of some ill-steered tug, Poissant notes.) Because the container ship is so huge, it needs another tug to help maneuver it toward the pier.

This is a routine job for Gene, but he still waits for orders from the Moran-contracted pilot, Kevin Gadow, who has climbed way up a ladder to the Saudi ship. After an hour of nudging and wheeling and sloshing water and radioed orders, the docking is done, as signaled by the pilot. To me, it seemed like a very smooth job. I ask Poissant if he is always so relaxed. "It's just like driving on the road," he says.

It's a telling comparison. The harbor has rules just like a highway--and its share of jerks. However, these days, traffic jams are rare. Twenty-five years ago, 10,338 passenger and freight ships were logged into the harbor. In 1985, there were 6,085, and Moran handled 50% of them. Last year, the number had dropped to 4,537, and Moran's share to 39%.

On the bridge, I'm removed from the groaning steel and sweltering busywork. The air conditioner in the pilot house breathes cool air, and down below the deckhand is preparing our lunch, which turns out to be a real feast: steak with baked potatoes, creamed corn, homemade chocolate chip cookies. I'm impressed, but I'm told this is nothing in comparison to when a full-time chef used to cook elaborate meals for them. "All you could eat," Poissant says.

Things changed in 1988 when, because of declining business, Moran cut back amenities and overtime pay and changed the work schedule from one week to two-week gigs, says Poissant. Unions representing the crews are in negotiations with the Greenwich (Conn.)-based tugboat line, which declines to comment. In the meantime, deck hands cook and do the shopping for the crew. Poissant says he got so spoiled on board that his wife's cooking didn't taste the same. His wife, he says, has been a very good sport about his work and adds that the new two-week schedule is a blessing, despite longer hours. "Just about the time that we start getting after each other, I have to go back to work," Poissant jokes.

While business may be off for the tugs and for the City of New York, the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey says that more cargo is actually coming in. It's just coming on fewer, but larger container ships. New $19.5 million rail facilities in Port Elizabeth will nearly double the amount of containers that can be loaded and unloaded directly onto rail shipments to and from eastern Canada and the Midwest. Already, that helped the port snag the Hyundai Corp. car account away from Portland, Ore.

If the New York port hopes to fend off West Coast rivals, particularly Long Beach-Los Angeles, which have naturally deeper waters, it will need much more dredging to accommodate the current crop of superships the Asian yards specialize in building. Easier said than done in this era of ecological concern: After years of struggle by environmentalists, the harbor's striped bass fishery is just now making a comeback.

Poissant isn't optimistic about the future of the harbor but stays because he's stubborn, he says. And he clearly loves the water. "I did trucking for a year, but it just wasn't the same," Poissant recalls. Little wonder: New York City brine was the first thing he ever smelled. "I was born on a coal barge in 1938. My mother couldn't get off of the barge because of a storm, so the doctor came on board and delivered me."

UNHEEDED ADVICE. Poissant is actually a third-generation tugboat man. His father quit sixth grade in order to toil on the tugs, but later warned Poissant that changing times made it a bad line of work. Poissant scorned that advice--only to repeat it to his own son. "I keep telling him to stay away from this business because it's dying. Thirty years from now, all of this will be scrap yards and marinas. The piers used to be busier than hell. Now, they are ghost piers."

At 3 p.m., the Margaret Moran pauses in her rounds to drop me back off at the seawall at the Battery in Lower Manhattan where it had picked me up at 8 a.m. As I leave, I say goodbye to Christensen. "I don't know how much longer I will stay," he tells me in parting. "I will stay here until I can't do it anymore."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.