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Written for the Lakeshore Guardian as part of a history series tied to the Great Lakes.


See this article posted at http://www.lakeshoreguardian.com/_2002/082002/

Tug Tiff Churns Detroit River
A Little History

Imagine two farmers sharing a beer in a bar. One of them challenges the other: "I'll bet my tractor is faster than yours!"

It would never happen. Speed is the least important characteristic of a tractor-or a tug. Yet according to local lore, that is exactly how the races began: two tug captains in a bar.

The actual origin is more prosaic. Morgan Howell, Frank Becker, Frank MacLean, and Robert Zeleznik formed a Tug Race Association in May 1950. All were members of the Detroit Propeller Club, an organization of companies involved in the commercial marine business. The founders wanted to promote the event as a tourist attraction, and according to early reports, they succeeded. First-years crowds were estimated at 100,000, and there was every expectation that the size would increase in succeeding years.

The first race included eight tugs, and was won by a tug named, appropriately enough, Atomic. Many of the early tugs were coal-fired steamers, and in the no-holds-barred effort to generate speed, they often belched more coal than they burned, blackening the skies above Detroit.

The competition was intense. In the Detroit Free Press of May 17, 1951, Frank Becker, captaining a tug named after himself, knew his boat was too slow to win in a straightaway contest, but said he might have a chance if "free-for-all, knockdown and no-holds-barred conditions" prevailed.

The Detroit Festival News reported in 1951 "…this tugboat racing is full of thrills and chills. Expurgated accounts of skippers' comments promise hair-raising action, but there probably will be no violence."

Even Hollywood got into the act. In 1954 the new film Tugboat was in production, and its star, Preston Foster, flew to town to take part in the race that year. He sailed on the Atomic, which also won that year.

The organizers bought a cup, the England Trophy, to honor the winners in the same way as the Stanley Cup. The captains and crews of each year would be inscribed on silver plates attached to the base. After the races finished in 1960, the Cup ended up in the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle, where it will soon go on display.

For all its intensity in those early years, there were not a lot of regulations. In fact, It was a Detroit Times clip noted "There were no rules for the race." The organizers were American, and the focus of the promotion was American as well. That was the way it remained for ten years.

Then, in 1961, the race was called off because the tug owners were "too busy to play," according to Stan Dupont, owner of McQueen Marine Ltd. It was not a case of sour grapes-McQueen owned the Atomic, winner of the races of '50, 51, and 54. He said that the owners couldn't afford to race for fun during their most lucrative season.

There followed a 17-year hiatus, and when the race was resumed in 1976, it was due to the efforts of the Canadians. Windsor Harbor Master Rod Beaton got the ball rolling again. The first of the new races was held during Canada's International Freedom Festival on July 2nd of that year, and billed it as an international race between U.S. and Canadian tugs.

In the latest incarnation last June 22nd, 17 boats competed in various power classes. The course remained a straight shot, beginning at the Ambassador Bridge and heading north to the Windsor Casino.

Detroit's only contribution to the race was the tugs that came from her harbors. Although the race is clearly visible along the miles of waterfront in downtown Detroit, nary a single spectator was there to witness boats as they rumbled, belched, and powered northward under full steam. One might wonder why the City's efforts to promote Downtown Detroit do not include the Tug Races, which cost the city nothing.

Rule Changes Affect Participation

Entries were down a bit this year after the sinking of the tug Westcott II on October 23rd, 2001. The tug capsized as it approached a freighter to deliver a passenger, and two people drowned. It's still not clear exactly what happened, but since then the rules for the tug race have been stiffened-or changed-or made worse, depending on whom you talk to. The rules for this year's race were made up by a committee that included (among others) tug captains, Windsor Harbormaster Bill Marshall, and Windsor Marine Race Commander Sergeant Dave Perpich, representing the Windsor Police.

The changes included registering all crew and passengers on each tug in advance, the obligation that each tug have a communications radio; no drinking on any boats; that all passengers wear life vests on boats under 60', and have life vests on larger boats; that the captains sign off as having received and understood the rules; and the full responsibility of the captains for all passengers.

Some tug captains saw no need for expanding on the rules that had always been used for the races, that is, the International Navigation Rules. Windsor Harbormaster Bill Marshall disagreed.

"Times have changed from a security standpoint," he says. "It demanded a closer look at safety. After the tragic sinking of the Westcott II, the safety issue could no longer be avoided.

"Certainly, it's a competitive event and there is a risk when trying to make it a social event as well. What we did is put in rules that make it safer for the captains. When they are racing, they can't keep an eye on their passengers."

Bill Hoey Senior, owner of the Gaelic Tug Fleet, decided not to participate in the race this year, based largely on the rule changes. He is considered by many to be the most knowledgeable tugboat man in the City,

"The race itself is not a big deal for those of us in the tug business," he explained.

For Hoey, however, the event is a business proposition. "It costs money to outfit a tug and crew and send it out," he said. "But we also use the race to promote our company. We invite our clients and potential clients to come aboard if they wish. We try to make it a special party for them. We often don't know who's coming until race time, or which tug they may be on. But then to have to tell them, 'You all have to wear a vest, and oh, by the way, no cocktails during your ride…' It just doesn't make sense for us to enter the race with the new restrictions."

The alcohol was a sticking point for him. "We're all professionals, of course, so those of us operating the tug don't drink. But no alcohol aboard? Back when Molsen sponsored the races, they used to throw cases of beer on the tugs, and nobody said anything about alcohol then. Nobody got drunk either. There never have been any accidents, so why are the rule changes necessary?"

Staff sergeant Dave Perpich of the Windsor Police, the Windsor Marine Race Commander, believes that the good safety record to date is not reason enough to stand pat.

"We have had unconfirmed information of people falling overboard and being picked up right away," he says. "No one was drowned or even injured. To make sure the situation stays that we, we need things like the number and names of passengers so that if, God forbid, there were a tragedy, we would know who and how many to look for."

He agrees that the race captains know the waters much better than he does-he has only been the Race Commander for three years. He  doesn't have four decades of experience on the waters the way Hoey does. But that doesn't mean that the safety aspect of the race should be left entirely to the tug captains.

"Last year two tugs didn't have radios. If one of those tugs had started sinking, no one would have known immediately. Believe me, in water rescues, minutes make a life-and-death difference. Requiring radios is a simple, reasonable precaution.

His concern goes beyond simple enforcement of the rules, however. "Can you imagine what would happen if someone died during this race? The family would sue the City of Windsor, the Port Authority, the Marine police, the organizers, the tug owner… We'd never have a tug race again. We want to make sure that doesn't happen.

"As far as the alcohol, we're just enforcing laws that have always existed: no open containers near the crew."

Then he added, "We were all at the awards ceremony after the race. I know most of these guys, and if they don't like something, they'll let me know. Not a single captain who participated in the race complained to us about the rules."

Don Schmidt, one of the race organizers for the last 22 years, believes "we'll get [the rules problems] all straightened out for next year."

But tug owners vote with their boats, and participation was down considerably this year. The captains, both those who participated and those who sat it out, will compare notes over the coming months. The number of entrants next year will be a good indication whether most tug captains think the rules changes benefit the race, or hinder it.

My First Tug Race

I had the good fortune to be invited ride in the race itself along with with Brian Williams on his tug Acushnet, which he bought last year for the express purpose of winning this contest. I figured to have landed on a ringer. Even though the tugs are divided into horsepower classes for individual awards, there is a special respect for the boat that finishes first overall, regardless of its size or engine.

Brian Williams comes from a family of tug enthusiasts. His dad, Robert, participated in the Tug Race for eighteen consecutive years, selling his tug after the race last summer. Co-founder of Inland Waters, a pollution control company, Robert Williams' first tug was used to mop up oil spills in Detroit waterways in the mid-70s.

When his tug became the object of vandalism in the off-season, he took to sinking it in the Rouge River each autumn, then refloating it in the spring. The Rouge, though small, never freezes because of the warm water pouring out of the factories upstream.

But now that oil spills are infrequent, his company's need for a tug has diminished. This year, Williams has passed the baton to his son, Brian.

There had been severe thunderstorms the night before the race, but the weather had not cooled at all. As the morning sun climbed, burning off much of the haze, the temperature followed it into the 90s. Tugs of all classes began to gather near the Ambassador from about noon for the scheduled 1 PM start.

As race time approached, Brian Williams began to worry. The race was going to be held along a course a little over three miles long, from the Ambassador to the Windsor Casino. His tug, the Acushnet, was anchored on the Rouge River, four drawbridges from the Detroit River. We were sitting on the deck swapping yarns when word came that two of the four bridges were not working-their controls had been fried in the storm of the previous evening. Brian waited for word of finished repairs, but none was forthcoming.

Finally, at noon, one of his colleagues, Rick, offered to take me out to see the race from his cabin cruiser. He asked Brian if he wanted to come along, but the Captain was going to stay with his ship whether it went out or remained in port. "If we get out, you can jump aboard before the race," he told me.

We took off. Rick's boat was docked some miles away, so we had to hurry. Fortunately there was a freighter in the channel at the time of the scheduled start, and it gave us just enough time to get there.

On the way up Rick radioed Brian. "I'm at the start," Brian told us, but we arrived too late to make a transfer. The starting horn went off just as we reached the clustered contenders.

The formation of tugs plowed ahead toward the Ambassador, more or less in line. Once they passed the bridge's mid-day shadow, it was every tug for himself.

We were able to keep abreast of the leaders easily-tugs are not very fast. They rode on or through each others' wakes. I couldn't hear the taunts, epithets, boasts and challenges that were no doubt shared among the captains and crews-I was too far away. I could only hear the engines pounding and whistles blowing.

I thought I saw the Acushnet's distinctive black-and orange paint, but Rick said, "Naw, that's the Brenner, his old boat. It's painted the same, but the Acushnet's a lot bigger." The Acushnet was nowhere to be seen.

I was disappointed for Brian Williams that he had not been able to compete. In the end, the Elmer Dean won the race. When we met after the race, it turned out Brian had been aboard his old ship, the Brenner. He didn't place, but at least he was there.

"This won't happen to me next year," he said with determination. "I'll leave my tug on the Detroit River." Let the other captains be warned.



Side bar: If tugs are so powerful, why aren't they faster?

Speed is made up of two factors: hull configuration and propeller pitch. Most tugs are short and wide, and they are not built for speed at all. But even the most powerful tugs are not very fast compared to other boats with much smaller engines. That is because of the pitch, or angle of the blades, on their propellers. The pitch is so small that even at top speed, a tug is essentially in low gear.

"If you take a tug and put its nose against a pier, you should be able to rev it up to its top speed and not harm the engine," explains Bill Hoey, owner of Gaelic Tugs. "Try that with a pleasure boat, and either it won't be able to maximize its RPMs, or the engine will burn out. Or both."

That was how the tiny Atomic won so often in the 50s, according to Hoey. Its owner hauled it out of the water before the race and changed the propeller, putting on a prop with a much greater pitch.