Tugboat life: Ridgefielders christen the Jeffrey McAllister

With the cracking of green glass, a foaming spill of champagne, and some words of blessing from a priest, the tugboat Jeffrey McAllister was christened in Charleston, S.C., on Feb. 11. A gang of close to a dozen Ridgefielders joined in the celebration, hosted by Capt. Jeffrey McAllister, for whom the $11-million vessel was named.

“I’m fifth generation in the tugboat business of McAllister Towing,” said McAllister, who has lived on Lake Mamanasco with his wife, Stacy, for 28 years.

It was 1864 when James P. McAllister founded the enterprise.

“My great-great-grandfather, who started the business, actually came from Ireland and was shipwrecked in Labrador or Nova Scotia and made his way to New York to start the business,” Mcallister said, “and I’m a direct line from him.”

The tugboat, 100 feet long and 38 feet wide, was built in the United States, at Eastern Shipbuilding Group in Panama City, Fla.

McAllister Towing has about 70 tugboats, working at ports up and down the East Coast, from Portland, Maine, to San Juan, Puerto Rico.

“They’re just sprinkled,” McAllister said. “Portland has six, New York has 17, Norfolk has 12, Charleston has six — just all the way down the line.”

What’s a tugboat do?

They do two basic kinds of work.

“Half the business is moving barges around, whether oil barges or container barges, and the other half is ship docking, and that’s our real specialty,” McAllister said. “We dock container ships, oil tankers and a sprinkling of passenger ships.”

McAllister works in New York Harbor, and at Port Elizabeth and Port Newark, N.J.

“In New York you have a two-pilot system,” McAllister said. “That ship that comes from England, she gets to Ambrose (channel) and she takes on a Sandy Hook pilot, and the Sandy Hook pilot brings the ship to the middle of New York Harbor, and then it receives the tugboats and a harbor pilot.”

And that’s what McAllister does.

“My services as a harbor pilot come with the tugboats,” he said. “If you need the tugboats, then you need a harbor pilot.”

Whether the tugs and pilot are needed depends on big the ships are.

“I think if it’s under 10,000 tons they can dock themselves, if they like,” he said.

“Some yachts are getting so big they have to take a pilot, but most yachts don’t. Believe it or not, Trump’s yacht had to take a pilot when it went to Atlantic City.”

Life at sea

The crew of a tugboat that helps dock a large ship is usually five, maybe six people.

There are a couple of ways into the profession.

“The normal way now is you go to a maritime academy, whether Kings Point or Fort Schuyler  — those are both in New York at the western end of Long Island Sound, one on either side of the Throgs Neck Bridge,” he said.

“Or, you just get hired the old-fashioned way: Apply for a job and hope you get picked.”

“It’s a very different lifestyle,” he said.

“I work in New York four days on — down there for four days — then I come home to Ridgefield for four days.”

He doesn’t sleep on a tugboat.

“We actually have living quarters down there, in just a small — it’s a barge, but it’s been converted into an office building, and we have living quarters on that,” he said.

“My favorite thing about this job is the lifestyle it provides me of going in to work for three or four days and having three or four days at home, uninterrupted. So I’m not commuting every day, I’m going in every three or four days.

“It just provides a really nice lifestyle because when I’m home, every day is Saturday.”