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The Workhorse of the Waterways
By Marcie B. Bilinski
Since 2002, Marcie B. Bilinski has served as one of two representatives from the sport diving community on the Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources. She is an avid technical diver who logs more than 200 dives annually in the waters of Massachusetts and is a true shipwreck enthusiast.
As you stroll along the waterfront or go cruising out in the harbor, it is certainly an ordinary, every day occurrence to spot a tugboat somewhere within your sights. However, it is not so ordinary to experience the adventure one has while exploring a tugboat resting 170 feet below the surface.
Whether it is a harbor, coastal, or ocean-going tug, maneuvering skills are the mainstay of these vessels, which abound in Massachusetts waters. Towing, pushing, or steering the many barges and ships entering and exiting the Bay State’s ports is how tugs earn their keep.
Tugboats are quite strong for their size, which is why they have become known as the workhorse of the waterways. Today, diesel engines provide their power—though in earlier times, steam engines did the job. For safety purposes, the engines in tugboats, often the same as those used in railroad engines, have duplicates of each critical part built in for redundancy. The most common seagoing tugboat is a “standard type” that tows its payload on a hawser (i.e., a heavy-duty wire or fiber rope). There are also “notch tugs,” which are secured in a notch at the stern of a specially designed barge. Additionally, there are “integrated units” in which the tugboat is locked together with specially designed vessels.
Regardless of their type, tugboats have always been commonplace above the surface in Boston Harbor. And, thanks to divers discovering the Baleen in 1994, visiting tugboats below the surface is now possible, too. Today the Baleen rests 170 feet beneath the surface, well beyond the “recreational” limits of scuba (130 feet is the maximum depth recognized by the customary certifying agencies), but nonetheless, she is one of my favorites to visit and I’d like to share the journey with you.
It has been said that if you can dive in New England you can dive anywhere in the world, and a good day of scuba diving in the Boston Harbor area is any day you come back alive. I prefer to think of a good day in this area as any day with calm seas and good visibility. However, more common are days spent in rough seas “Braille” diving; in other words, very little to no visibility so all we can do is feel our way along the wreck.
One day last fall, our four-person team set out to explore the Baleen. It was a great day by scuba-diving standards. The day was warm and sunny, and the seas were calm like glass. There was virtually no current and the visibility was about 40 feet, which is above average for the Boston Harbor area. After gearing up topside in our long johns, dry suits, hoods, gloves, and boots to protect against the warm 38-degree temperatures, we then donned the rest of our equipment. It would be an understatement to say that technical diving in the deeper waters is an equipment-intensive sport. We rely on double-steel tanks on our backs, decompression bottles under our arms, lights, regulators, buoyancy-control devices, masks, fins, computers, and other redundant equipment too excessive to mention. Imagine all this just to make possible a view of the water-world below. Entering the water wearing close to 200 extra pounds provides a respite from hauling our heavy gear as we become weightless below the surface. We slowly descend our anchor line to the wreck site, and being such a great day, the Baleen begins to take shape as we near 130 feet. We land on the wheelhouse at 150 feet, double check that the anchor line from our boat above is securely attached to the shipwreck, and then off we go to explore the splendor and times gone by as it comes to life in front of us.
The Baleen, built in 1923, was first named the John E. Meyer, a 102-foot long steel hull tugboat with a 23-foot beam. She was an innovative vessel for her time, built with a triple expansion steam engine and also equipped with a steam powered towing winch on the stern. After more than 40 years of service in the fresh water of the Great Lakes for numerous owners, she was sold again. This time it was in the late 1960s, and after some rebuild work, shewas put into service off the coast of Florida. As she changed owners she also changed names until in 1969 she was given her final name, Baleen. After being sold for the last time, she was put back into service towing barges between New York and various New England ports.
On October 29, 1975, she left New York towing an oil barge. The next day, about 2 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, a fire broke out on the Baleen. After the crew unsuccessfully tried to extinguish the fire, they finally had to abandon ship. Fortunately, the Coast Guard was able to rescue the entire crew and there was no loss of life. The fire was finally extinguished the following day and the slow job of towing her to Boston began. Unfortunately, while under tow in the early morning hours on November 1, 1975, she started taking on more water, riding lower and lower until she finally gave up and sank to her watery grave where she lies today.
Non-divers can also see the nostalgia of tugboat history right in Boston’s backyard. The Luna, a National Historic Landmark, resides on the east side of Commonwealth Pier in South Boston and depicts some more of our local tugboat history. Designed in 1930 by the naval architecture firm John G. Alden Company, the Luna was the first of her class built for commercial use. She was a classic wooden-hulled tugboat, more than 90 feet in length, and one of the last of her kind built. She worked out of Boston Harbor for Boston Tow Boat Company from 1930 to 1971. The Luna was built with a diesel-electric drive system, which was innovative as it allowed the Luna to tow or push barges with great ease in maneuverability. The Luna became both an office and a residence after retiring in 1971, but sank in the Charles River in 1992 where she remained for more than a year before being raised and restored. Tours are now available and can be arranged through the Luna Preservation Society volunteers.
For further information call (617) 282-1941 or visit the tug’s website at www.tugboatluna.org.