Tugging for Bermuda’s heritage

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  • Histoic mission: The tug Gladisfen assisted Dr. William Beebe in his deep dives off Bermuda in the 1930s.

    Histoic mission: The tug Gladisfen assisted Dr. William Beebe in his deep dives off Bermuda in the 1930s.

  • Tug team: The crew of tugboat Justice, with inset, Horace Cann of Somerset, its pilot for a period.

    Tug team: The crew of tugboat Justice, with inset, Horace Cann of Somerset, its pilot for a period.

  • The tugboat Justice moored at Dockyard next to Admiralty Floating Dock no 48.

    The tugboat Justice moored at Dockyard next to Admiralty Floating Dock no 48.

  • A portrait of John S Darrell, owner of the tugboat Clover about 1910.

    A portrait of John S Darrell, owner of the tugboat Clover about 1910.

  • The crew of the steam tug Bustler at the Dockyard about 1900.

    The crew of the steam tug Bustler at the Dockyard about 1900.


We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now. — Martin Luther King Jr

Next to pilot boats in this watery realm of the Bermudas, tugboats are one of the icons of the maritime world in local channels and harbours. Perhaps more than pilot boats, which direct rather than push or pull, tugboats are more iconic worldwide, not only at sea, but in one’s imagination. Before tug boats, there was the tug of war, later a symbolic tussle, but as an early expression taken to mean a decisive battle or conflict, wherein the winner takes all. In many places, heritage is in a tug of war with ‘development’, a noun that can usually be understood as the wasting of all that existed before and replacing it with buildings that maximise the profit for the constructor, or ‘developer’.

Development, in modern parlance, is a tug that few can resist, with its push and pull of potential cash mountains, much based on towing natural and cultural heritage into the maelstrom of oblivion. The land equivalent of the tug boat is the caterpillar tractor, which like the eponymous bug, eats all in its path, slowly and inexorably, leaving but holes in history to mark its passage.

Pilot boats could operate by manpower or sail, but the modern tugboat only came to the fore (or aft) with the Age of Steam in the mid-1800s. Using a vessel driven by steam engines, boats were designed that could push or pull at will, rather than depending on the vagaries of heavenly airs. Made to provide a massive towing or pushing capacity, tugboats became the Davids to the Goliaths of the ocean seas and inland waterways. Much navigation today would be impossible without tugboats, whereas computerised GPS machines may mark the end of the tradition of piloting, much as the navigator in a car has been rendered silent by Garmin and other digital pathfinders.

Most of the early tugboats in Bermuda were associated with the Royal Naval Dockyard at Ireland Island, which was the central hub of the North America and West Indies Station, headquartered at Bermuda, but ranging from the Canadian Maritimes in the north to the islands of the British West Indies to the south. Tugs were essential in the confined waters of the Camber and later additionally the South Basin, where warships had limited mobility and the floating docks none at all without the assistance of the pushers and pullers of vessels such as the steam-powered Bustler of the late 1800s. That boat was possibly the ex-Conqueror of 346 tons, an iron paddle tug, purchased by the Royal Navy in 1896 and sold out of service at Gibraltar in November 1921.

Bermudians were early employed on tugboats and the present service is almost entirely manned by local personnel, now charged with corralling behemoths such as the latest classes of cruise ships. Towing, the pulling part of tug boating was, and is, a very dangerous business and entries for some vessels note that a crew member was ‘discharged dead’ due to accidents and drownings. That danger is seen at a smaller scale in injuries reported from tug of war contests, wherein finger, hand and arm amputations are not that uncommon, when such appendages are catch in a loop of rope.

Nonetheless, many are drawn to own and work on tugboats and one of the earliest proprietors in Bermuda was John S Darrell, who obtained the steam tug, Clover, from the estate of Somerset resident, John D Gilbert. In October 1872, the Clover helped to rescue the Royal Mail Steamer Delta, which was in difficulty on the reefs, an example of a major role tugboats play for ships in distress. That drama was recorded in a painting by Edward James, now in the collections of the St George’s Historical Society.

One of the more famous historical tugs was the Gladisfen, which was an active salvage boat and towed vessels like the Richard P Buck into Bermuda’s calm harbours; she also took part in the rescue of passengers and crew from the wrecking of the Madiana in 1903. In 1908, she assisted other tugboats to move the old floating dock to Spanish Point, after the Royal Navy considered it would sink in the Camber at Dockyard during its demolition operations by a German salvage company. The Gladisfen also assisted in scientific research, when the learned Dr William Beebe, with Otis Barton’s ‘Bathysphere’, made a number of record-breaking deep dives off the eastern coast of Bermuda in the early 1930s.

Salvage tugboats are to a degree the descendants of privateers, for there is often much to be made in the rescue of distressed vessels, such as the British bark, Stella, under tow by the tug Sanford, after grounding on the Southwest Breaker in January 1875. The activities of the Bermudians involved was such that the London insurers became suspicious and a Commission of Investigation was held, to inconclusive results. The Governor of the day described the case as one where ‘all the resources of self-contradiction, denial, evasion and shortness of memory, not to say undoubted perjury [were] resorted to’!

The end of most Bermuda tugs is somewhat obscure, but the Justice, originally built in the Second World War as an Empire-class vessel, the Empire Lola, went out in a hail of maritime glory, or at least bullets, as she was sunk off the east end of the island by gunfire from HMS Leander in 1967, perhaps the last time the Royal Navy fired a shot in these historically military waters. Its heritage in shattered steel and iron now lies some many fathoms on the seabed below.

Since that time, a tug of war has been created on land between tourism (with its major caches of largely neglected heritage assets) and the other so-called ‘international business’, a disastrous policy that overlooked an ancient maritime saying, lately restated by Martin Luther King Jr, that we are all in the same boat together, no matter our origins or inclinations. The boat of our tourism state has been severely rocked in a number of ways in the last generation, such that the vessel is in danger of capsizing, much perhaps to the amusement and profit of other island destinations. We should be, in Bob Marley’s words, ‘All in the same boat; Rockin’ on the same route’, towing the ships of tourism and international business in tandem.

Dr Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is Director of the National Museum at Dockyard. Comments may be made to director@bmm.bm or 704-5480.

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Published Feb 16, 2013 at 8:00 am (Updated Feb 14, 2013 at 6:14 pm)

Tugging for Bermuda’s heritage

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