Livin' the tug life

This is a story about me, my parents, and a tugboat. Yep, sounds weird, doesn’t it? I can assure you there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for it, though. And it isn’t just because I was born into an absolutely crazy family. Okay, okay, I admit it. It IS because I was born into an absolutely crazy family. You see, my family didn’t move into the house I grew up in until shortly after I was born. Before that, they rented a place in a nondescript housing estate in another part of the same village. One of their neighbours in that other part of town was one of those old-style mariners, one who had scaled back to commanding a tugboat in the port of Hamburg for the last years of his career. To be totally honest with you, that guy scared the hell out of me when I was a boy. His handshake hat all the force of of a hydraulic excavator, and his gruff manor left me distinctly uncomfortable during my younger years.
Fairplay IV leaving the tugboat pier in Hamburg back in 1988.
He did get on great with my dad though, and soon, those two began spending time on our friends tug, Fairplay IV, with my dad often spending entire watches on there, and occasionally even taking the helm, with approval, and initially with supervision of our friend, of course. Since my mom was working full-time at the time, and I had just started school by the time this whole thing started, we were only able to join on the odd weekend. It was still fascinating, and I’m pretty sure my love for all things maritime was born on those rare occasions when we were allowed to join him on board. However, it was dad who did most of the visits. Then came the spring of 1988, specifically May 7th. In Hamburg, this is the traditionally the date of the Hafengeburtstag (literally port birthday), a huge maritime festival. Our friend, let’s call him Lars to protect his identity, invited us to enjoy the spectacle from his tugboat. I don’t think I have to tell you how enthusiastically we accepted that invitation. For those readers out there who are more sports-minded, this is like standing in the coaching zone during a Champions League final. 
Now, before I go into the events of that day, let me just explain some facts about the port of Hamburg and the Hafengeburtstag. The port of Hamburg is huge, and was so even back in 1988. It covers an area of 73 square kilometres, with a total of 35 kilometres of docks and wharves stretching along several branches and arms of the Elbe river. And that’s just the active docks. It is Germany’s gateway to the world, and one of the busiest ports in the world, despite being almost 100 kilometres inland, at the very end of the Elbe estuary. Even in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the port handled over 60 million tons of cargo a year. It is big however you view it. All this officially started on May 7th, 1189, with the foundation of the port, as stated on an old document supposedly signed by Frederick Barbarossa, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. This document was later found to be a forgery, but that did little to dissuade any festivities. On the festival weekend itself, dozens of ships are usually open for tours from small launches and barges to large sailing vessels like the Kruzenshtern from Russia, to modern cruise liners and even warships.  In 2017, for example, the German supply vessel Bonn (A 1413) and the mine hunter Pegnitz (M 1090) took part in festivities. Before opening for visitors, these ships enter the port in an opening parade, before dispersing to their respective berths. The districts bordering on the port, and the waterside part of downtown Hamburg are awash with music, cultural events, concerts, and all kinds of booths. It is a real waterside carnival, and draws hundreds of thousands of visitors during the festival weekend. So having a seat on a tugboat really is a major advantage.
The Russian, no back in 1988 it was still Soviet, sail training vessel Kruzensthern, formerly launched as the Padua, one of the legendary Flying P Liners of German shipping line F. Laeisz, is a regular guest at the Hamburg Port Festival.
Since sailing vessels with their sails lowered are about as manoeuvrable as a delirious manatee, they require tugboat assistance whenever they enter or leave port. 
Of course, that is a job for Fairplay IV as well.

Despite it’s huge size, all traffic at the port of Hamburg is forced into half a dozen narrow river channels and a dozen or so basins, so space on the water is at a premium, and because the port is such a crucial element of the German economy, it cannot stop even for a few hours. Even during the Hafengeburtstag, a more or less constant stream of freighters and tankers of all kinds is arriving and departing, with many of the larger ones requiring assistance from tugboats at some stage. This is as true now as it was back in 1988. So, the tugboats were bound to be busy all throughout the weekend. Not least because they were the stars of the show on Saturday with the traditional “Schlepperballett”, or tugboat ballet. I don’t want to spoiler too much, but it looks and feels a lot more glamorous from land.
But that story is best saved for a later paragraph. For now, I’ll concentrate on my first taste of tug life. It must have been mid to late morning when we boarded, after all the drive from our home to the tugboat pier still takes about 90 minutes in light traffic, and there’s no such thing as light traffic in Hamburg during the port festival! As expected, the port was busy despite the festival, so Fairplay IV slipped her moorings almost immediately after we had boarded to head out on a job. My dad showed me around the ship while Lars and his First Mate were on the bridge, and a few deckhands were preparing the next job. I must have been pretty wide-eyed, although I distinctly remember being less than thrilled about seeing the engine room. You see, the tugs two diesel engines produce a total of 1750 horsepower, and you can imagine the noise in the engine room when they were running even at cruise speed. Even with hearing protection, it was a bit too scary for me. By the time I had seen that, we were at our first job. My memory is a bit jumbled, but I’m pretty certain that we were supposed to assist a car carrier, half-lovingly referred to as “Keksdose” (biscuit tin) within the family, leave it’s berth at the O’Swaldkai terminal. The job went off without a hitch, but it certainly was impressive to be up close and personal with such huge ships, especially since ships look even larger than they actually are when you’re six, although in fairness, I was almost seven at the time!
We stayed with the car carrier until probably around the Waltershof area, from where she would be able to make her own way down the Elbe and to wherever she was heading. We turned around to head back upriver. That’s when things started getting unreal. Lars manoeuvred the tug to the side of the channel, and a deckhand brought a stool to the helmsman’s position. Then, Lars motioned for me to come over, and take a seat on that stool. I could look out over the console ahead of me, and could easily reach the controls. He proceeded to give me a quick rundown of the controls and how to operate them. Fairplay IV does not have a standard rudder/propeller setup like you see with conventional ships. Instead. She is equipped with two Schottel rudder-propellers, which are electrically driven propellers mounted in swivelling engine pods under the stern that can rotate 360 degrees. Therefore, instead of a classical wheel, she sported two control levers, one each to the left and right of the helmsman’s position. You pushed them down to accelerate, and turned them in unison to change course.
Yep, that's me. I still can't believe my luck at being given this chance.
Anyway, back to business. I've got a ship to steer. As you can see from the control lever, we're currently underway.
Then, Lars effectively turned over control of the ship to me. A six year old boy. Looking back, it i obvious that he took quite a risk in doing what he did, but back then, I was totally chuffed to drive such a “big” ship. I pushed the levers down, and brought Fairplay IV back into the main channel, before turning upriver. Lars gave me general instructions on where to go to get to the next job, and initially stayed very close to me, ready to take over when needed. As we made our way up the Elbe, I noticed that he stepped farther away from me, giving me more space. As for myself, I was just trying not to screw up, keeping the ship on a straight course, and apparently going a semi-decent job, otherwise Lars wouldn’t have backed up. I actually heard afterwards that Lars went below to the mess to get a coffee while I was at the helm, leaving his first mate to keep an eye on me. No sooner had he returned than something caught his eye.
"See that guy? Keep an eye on him."

Everything under control, nothing to report.
We were just passing the St. Pauli Landungsbrücken, hotspot for tourist activity in the port. Even during the port festival, sightseeing boats as well as scheduled passenger ferries shuttled back and forth from those landings almost incessantly. One of those sightseeing boats was just coming up on our starboard bow. Lars told me to speed up, so I pushed down on the levers, slightly corrected to port to give us some space, and started catching up, and eventually passing that boat. When they were off our starboard side, Lars pointed out an innocent looking button on the ship’s main console. It turned out to be the ship’s horn, and as the bridge doors were open, we got the full sound of it. I nearly jumped off that stool, through the roof of the wheelhouse, and well past the tip of the mainmast in shock. That shock was apparently replicated over on the tourist boat, as I was later reliably informed by family members. Remember that the doors to the wheelhouse were open, and that it was clearly obvious just who was at the helm. Alerted by the horn, the tourists on the other boat turned around to check out the noise, did a huge double-take, and moments later that boat began listing noticeably to port as everyone wanted to get a lock at the little guy driving a tugboat! Oh, and did I mention that Lars and his Crew had ducked below the windows of the wheelhouse so that it seemed like I was the only one on the bridge?
Things calmed down as we slowly pulled ahead and left the sightseeing boat in our wake. I followed the main channel until shortly ahead of the Elbbrücken, where our next customer was waiting for us, a cargo ship moored at the Baakenhöft, which was still an active cargo terminal back then. As we approached the ship, I eased up on the throttles, and Lars took over the controls again, and positioned Fairplay IV to help ease that ship out into the main channel, with the help of other tugs. I never got the chance to do something like that again, but it certainly is something that will stay with me for all my life.

So will the Schlepperballet, although for very different reasons. You see, this tugboat ballet is all about the tugs in the port of Hamburg showing off their manoeuvrability and other capabilities, so basically it’s all about showing off. That means a lot of twisting and turning like a… twisty turns thing, to quote the legendary Stephen Fry. That also means that the tugboats will list to port one minute, before swinging over and listing to starboard the next, with movements that can sometimes be similar to what you would experience in the open North Sea on a choppy day. It's no real problem when you have your sea-legs.
The problem is that I hadn’t developed mine yet, and I would find out what that meant on another port festival weekend. The day had started as usual, with the drive to the port, and a few towing jobs. One of them still sticks in my mind, for no other reason that the freighter in question had a bright orange hull, something you didn’t see too often back then, and which is still rare today. However, after we had delivered that freighter to it’s berth, the regular work was done. Our next job was to be part of the tugboat ballet, and boy did we do it. I lasted all throughout the first three our four figures, but after the second pirouette, that was it for me. Mind you, I did not have to pray at the porcelain altar, or give a sacrifice to Neptune over the side, but for most of the show, I lay on a bench in the wheelhouse, feeling sick as a dog. While I haven’t been able to get any word out of my parents about their reaction, I’m pretty damn certain that the crew of Fairplay IV laughed their asses off. Hey, I would have if I had been in their position.
The days when the entire family was out on the tugboat were unfortunately quite limited. 
Fairplay IV sailing off into the sunset... that is if any sunset were visible in the Northern German weather.
Unfortunately, this adventurous part of our life ended when Lars finally retired a few years later., although unbeknownst to all of us, the real adventure would only start five years later. I’ve been pretty tight-lipped about this story, since it is just too unbelievable to be true. However, my dad and I recently stumbled across a photo album containing the long sought after proof. Most of the pictures in this post come from that album, and were made presentable again by my dad, who is a photo wizard, and has always been one. And it’s episodes like these that make me glad to not have been born into a “normal” family ;) 
Fairplay IV is still in service, by the way. Following the reunification of Germany, she was transferred to the port of Rostock-Warnemünde, where she spent a large part of the 1990s and early 2000s. Nowadays, she’s operating out of the Polish port of Gdynia, and flies the Polish flag. You can easily track her exploits by following her on websites like As far as I’m concerned, it’s good to see the old girl still plowing the seas.


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