For tug captains, race just the start

Robin Paterson, left, who owns the tugboat Joe with his wife, Kae, pilots the vessel to victory in the first heat of the 2010 Harbor Days races Sunday on Budd Inlet.
Robin Paterson, left, who owns the tugboat Joe with his wife, Kae, pilots the vessel to victory in the first heat of the 2010 Harbor Days races Sunday on Budd Inlet. The Olympian

Olympia - For a tugboat captain, success is measured in how well your boat can pull its payload. However, during the 37th annual Olympia Harbor Days vintage tugboat races Sunday on Budd Inlet, those same captains were content talking tug and having fun, all the while trying not to blow an engine.

The event provided both the casual fan and the professional boater the ability to hop on a racing, albeit slow, tugboat. In total, 12 boats raced in two separate heats, a sharp decline from last year’s 31 boats, says event coordinator Nancy Sigafoos.

A combination of the sluggish economy and relocating the boats to a smaller dock while Percival Landing is closed are to blame, she added.

But for the tugs that did participate, the race was just a fraction of the fun.

Well before the starting gun sounded, captains and crews showed off their boats to the general public and each other while moored at Port Plaza.

Jan Carlson, a tugboat captain out of Port Orchard, brought along the Fox, a 45-foot tug that was formerly used by the Army. Carlson has competed in previous races, but this was the Fox’s maiden competition.

His strategy for the race, like many of the other captains, was slow and steady. Winning? Not really all that important.

“I think we’re going to hold back this year,” he said. “Just let her roll along.”

Winners of the two individual heats were Joe from Gig Harbor and Galene from Seattle.

The Sand Man out of Olympia marked its 100th anniversary by taking part in the races and finished fifth in its heat.

Aboard the Thea Belle, a 1941 tug whose history includes helping clean up Pearl Harbor after it was attacked, captain Jim Bennett of Port Orchard said his race goal was to fare better than its last-place finish in 2009.

“I’m going to try not to repeat that this year,” he said.

Bennett purchased the 61-foot tug in 2008 and entered the Harbor Days races a year later. This time around, it placed sixth out of eight boats in its heat.

And though tugs cut through wakes from their competitors during the race, speed was not the ultimate goal for most.

Bennett and his crew weren’t going to push their tug’s limits – the tug had been having engine problems during its 8-hour trip from Port Orchard. During the height of the race, Bennett estimated his boat reached 9 knots, or about 10.3 mph.

Guests on Thea Belle ranged from Washington friends and fellow tugboat captains to an Oregon couple who traveled up for the races.

Sitting at a picnic table on the boat, friend Charity Skelton said she hadn’t stepped foot on a tugboat before meeting Bennett.

And now?

“It’s really exciting,” she said. “It’s an amazing thing to experience.”

Terrence Shinn, who operates a research vessel out of California and worked on tugs for about four years, moors his boat near Bennett’s and said it’s great to see what people have done to improve and maintain the classic tugs.

Others have made tradition out of the races, even though they have never owned or operated a tug.

For the past 15 years, John and Arda Earle have made the 200-mile trip from their Sweet Home, Ore., home for the races. John Earle, a member of the International Retired Tugboat Association and a self-proclaimed tugboat lover, said that the tradition began decades ago when the couple was heading for a squash festival in Sequim.

“We never got to the squash festival,” he said.

Once the races were over, members of the crew and their guests snacked on the deck and enjoyed the intermittent sun breaks while waving to people on other boats.

Chugging along back to the dock, Bennett joked about achieving his personal goal while sharing the real meaning of the event.

“I know I wasn’t last, so I moved up,” he said. “It’s more fun getting together with the crews and captains than the actual race.”

Nate Hulings: 360-754-5476 nhulings@theolympian.com