Tugboats: Small Boats that Control Large Ships

If you have ever taken a cruise or walked near a port, you may have been intrigued by the tiny boats that seem to effortlessly control ships many times larger.

These tugboats are a crucial aspect of helping today’s megaships navigate small ports safely and efficiently. 

What are Tugboats Used For? 

Many large ships are not capable of maneuvering through shallow waters to pull up close to piers on their own. These ships are often too large and react too slowly to safely get themselves into tight ports, often just a few feet from a wooden dock. Tugboats provide cargo ships, barges, cruise ships, and other large ships with a bit of extra help by pushing or pulling them into ports or out to deeper, more open waters where they are easier to manage. 

History of Tugboats

The steamboat was the earliest type of tugboat. This breed of riverboat appeared in the late 1700s and was the first kind of ship to carry a steam engine. This gave the captain a higher level of independence in controlling the steamboat’s route, rather than being fully dependent upon the wind for power. These early boats that first had a greater capability to power themselves were later modified to be able to push or pull (or “tug”) larger ships, which significantly contributed to the functionality of boats for passenger travel and the ability to create larger and larger ships. 

The Charlotte Dundas is believed to be the first tugboat to receive an official patent. It was constructed in 1802 by William Symington, and the Scotsman’s invention quickly spread throughout the world. While early steamboats were mainly intended for carrying passengers up and down rivers, the idea evolved to use the same technology to increase the agility of a wide variety of maritime vehicles.

While most modern tugboats are used to help ships navigate, they can also be used to transport defunct ships that are in poor condition or no longer run at all to scrap yards, where they are taken apart and the metal may be used to create new ships.

Tugboats and Cruise Ships

While tugboats are tiny in comparison to the floating cities that are modern cruise ships, only two or three tugboats are typically needed to help fully-functioning a cruise ship navigate into or out of ports. The same is true for many other types of large ships. However, tugboats can also be helpful tools in returning damaged ships to shore or preventing them from hitting smaller ships in port during especially rough weather. For example, the Carnival Triumph was towed back into port using several tugboats after a fire disabled its engines in 2013. Many ports provide their own tugboats for cruise ships and other vessels to use, and some even require special captains who know the port especially well to assist in docking the ships. 

Tugboats in Popular Culture

Like any type of vehicle, steamboats and tugboats can be found in popular culture throughout history. One of the best-known examples is Steamboat Willieone of the earliest Mickey Mouse cartoons. Other children’s books and TV shows also feature tugboats and other types of boats, often as main characters. 

Tugboats can also be used for various forms of entertainment. Annual tugboat races are held in many rivers and near ports in prominent maritime cities, and a “tugboat ballet” can even be found in Hamburg, Germany. At this event, eight tugboats perform a show of movements that are set to music.       

Tugboats have played a vital role in helping both the shipping industry and passenger maritime travel to grow into what they are today. Because these small boats help large ships maneuver ports, harbors, and even canals more efficiently, ships can continue to increase in size, which makes transporting more passengers and more goods for trade possible.