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. 

Skipjack: The Best Boat for Oyster Dredging

There’s nothing like fresh-caught seafood, and oysters are no exception.¬†

Skipjacks are Chesapeake Bay sailboats used for oyster dredging, or collecting oysters from along the ocean floor in a basket. Learn more about them so you can spot them in action the next time you go to the coast.

What Is a Skipjack?

Skipjacks are sailboats with a single sail mast. The boom is usually as long as the ship deck itself, and the large surface area of the sails are designed to work with the light winds of the area. It has a wooden hull with a small cabin, and the entire ship is only forty or fifty feet long.. The design mirrors sharpies from Long Island Sound. Because these ships are built entirely for the purpose of dredging, they have rollers and bumpers mounted on both sides to control the equipment. This boat design took advantage of the increasing availability of wood planks, which made them cheaper to build and easier to repair.  

The one thing you won’t find on a skipjack is much in the way of motorized power. Maryland used to completely ban the use of powered vehicles for collecting oysters. So the boats only have a motor for the windlass, which hoists buckets and anchors.

The History of Oyster Dredging Along the East Coast

From 1820 through 1865, Maryland banned the practice of dredging for oysters. Once the law was changed in 1865, however, Maryland still forbade the use of steam-powered vehicles. So shipbuilders had to be creative. They started with the bugeye, a log-based canoe that was too small, and then the brogan. 

But their log-based construction used up a lot of valuable wood at a time when supply was scarce, so builders modified sharpies into cheaper, easier alternatives to bugeyes toward the end of the nineteenth century. The laws were changed again in 1965 to allow for limited motorboat use. That decreased the demand for skipjacks, and the last one was built in 1993. Less than thirty skipjacks remain actively fishing today out of the approximately 2,000 boats ever created for Chesapeake Bay oyster dredging. The deadrise was another late nineteenth oyster dredging boat in the area, though deadrises were also used for crabbing.

Oysters from the Chesapeake Bay area peaked in 1884, and the popularity of dredging in skipjacks has dropped ever since. However, the Chesapeake Bay area is constantly trying to restore the deplenished oyster beds, so skipjacks might be making a comeback.

Traditional oyster dredgers could be in the bay for weeks at a time, collecting oysters for delivery to the ports or local restaurants. 

Some Fun Trivia About Skipjacks

  • Skipjacks are the Maryland state boat. Maryland named the famous working boat their official state boat in 1985.
  • No one is quite sure where the name came from. It might come from an old English word for a servant, or it might come from a colloquial name for flying fish in New England. But two places it didn’t come from are skipjack tuna and skipjack shad, two other kinds of fish. ‘Skipjack’ is just too popular and divergent a name for historians to track it down.
  • The Chesapeake Bay has a long oyster history. People may have been gathering oysters in the area for more than 6,000 years. Skipjacks became popular during the tail end of gathering this popular treat.
  • People are planting oysters. The Oyster Recovery Partnership in Maryland is trying to keep a healthy oyster population in place. They’ve planted 8 billion back in the bay to counteract overdredging. 

While skipjacks may not be as active as they used to be, Maryland preservationists maintain the remaining boats in the Chesapeake Bay fleet. You also might see them dredging on days when motorboats aren’t allowed or during celebrations.