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Facts about tugboats

Tugboats are interesting creations. They are small and strongly built vessels which are used to guide large oceangoing ships into and out of port. They can also tow barges, dredge and salvage equipment, and help disabled vessels (see video) get to shore. Although seemingly tiny and stout, they can pull along ships that are many times larger and heavier than them. Tugboats have been used for decades and they continue to serve an excellent purpose in seafaring communities and commerce.

Two tugboats
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Anyone who lives near a port has undoubtedly seen a tugboat from time to time. Below are a few facts about them that you might not have heard before:

• Tugboats range in overall length from 70 to 210 feet.

• Tugboat engines generate from 750 to 3,000 horsepower.

• Steam power dominated tugboat design until diesel and diesel-electric drives were developed. By the 1960s, most tugboats were diesel operated.

• Most tugs are built of wood or metal-sheathed wood since the resiliency of a wooden hull prevents damage to both tugboat and vessel in berthing operations.

• Tugboats are very easily maneuverable. Various propulsion systems have been developed to continuously ensure and increase their maneuverability as well as heighten their safety features. Tugboats must be able to handle well even in very rough and trying waters.

• Tugboats can occasionally be used for fun. For instance, tugboat races are held annually in Seattle, New York and Michigan. In Germany tugboats even take part in an on the water ballet! Every year since 1980, in Hamburg harbor, eight tugboats perform choreographed movements to the sounds of the waltz and dance music!