The Little Tugboats That Could

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In Boston's inner harbor, tugboats are the little engines that can. They pull and guide barges and massive tankers that supply every drop of heating oil, gasoline, and jet fuel to New England.

Almost all those tankers are bound for the Chelsea River...and one of the tightest squeezes known to local mariners.

WBUR's Chris Burrell takes us along, as four tugboats thread a tanker "through the eye of a needle" at the Chelsea Street Bridge.


CHRIS BURRELL: George Lee is the docking pilot aboard a tugboat called the Harold Reinauer. The tug and three others from Boston Towing pull free of the East Boston docks and turn hard right for the narrows of the Chelsea River.

GEORGE LEE: The bridge is the apex of our career. It's the last thing we do because it's the most difficult.

BURRELL: Here's why: Fuel tankers that serve this region are 600 feet long and 90 feet wide. That makes for a really tight squeeze at the Chelsea drawbridge, where the opening is just 96 feet. Lee explains the nautical physics.


LEE: As you enter the bridge, the ship is actually moving sideways, and you need to stop it so you can go through the bridge and not do any damage. What happens is, using the ship's engine as a rudder, you work against tugboats on the bow and stop the slide of the ship.

BURRELL: At 49, with close-cropped gray hair and a perpetual game face, Lee waits on deck of the Harold. The truck tires that buffer the tugboat's flanks squeak and crunch up to the tanker's hull. With no harness or clips, Lee grabs hold of a swaying wood-and-rope ladder. He clambers up some 20 feet and swings a leg over the rail to board the fuel tanker, New England, which has sailed to Boston from a refinery in New Brunswick, Canada.

Lee makes it look easy, but the danger is no joke. As recently as 2006, a pilot on the Chelsea River fell to his death from such a ladder.

With Lee now safely aboard the tanker, the tugboats motor into positions.

The throttles on the Harold hiss as Captain Mike Hickey waits for Lee to radio commands down from the fuel tanker. With Lee's direction, Hickey is all action at the helm. Grabbing steel throttles. Turning the chrome wheel.

HICKEY: I'm gonna slide in here and work up against this caisson.

BURRELL: The stern of the New England tanker looms above the tug as a deckhand tosses a tie line across. Tankers here are the length of three football fields. The tugs are no longer than a 30-yard pass.

Hickey takes it from here.

HICKEY: Then I'll have control of the starboard side of the ship as we make our approach to the Chelsea Bridge. You'll think it's too late. I'll let my line go. I'll stop and hold the boat there, he'll just drive by me and go through the bridge.

BURRELL: There's no margin for error in this work. The tugs whistle in answer to every command from the docking pilot.

BURRELL: The fuel tanker's cargo is protected by a double hull, but its own fuel is not. A collision with the bridge could cut a gash that would spill tens of thousands of gallons of diesel into the river or knock the bridge out of alignment. But on this day, everything goes just fine. With a quartet of whistles, the tugboat fleet from Boston Towing squeezes another behemoth through the straits at Chelsea Street Bridge.

HICKEY: The New England is transiting the Chelsea bridge now... we'll take that full opening... proceed three-quarters. Thank you, sir.

BURRELL: Tugboat captains and pilots call this a ballet. And with tugs sporting names such as Hercules and Ethel, this dance happens just about everyday from dawn to dusk in the Chelsea River. For WBUR, I'm Chris Burrell.

This program aired on June 16, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.