There are two nearly 65-foot tugboats that call Vineyard Haven home. They conduct the operations of Tisbury Towing, a business owned by Ralph Packer, and are an integral part of the Island infrastructure. Heating oil, gravel and other raw materials arrive on the Island in barges, nosed into slips at Packer’s commercial quay in Vineyard Haven by a 40-something year-old tugboat named Sirius or Thuban.
In order to figure out how long he’s been Thuban’s captain, Randy Jardin had to subtract from his age to get a ballpark.
“Twenty-plus years,” he said.
He was distracted. For two hours Randy had been in and out of the water trying to hammer blocking into place that would support the hull of the 50-ton tugboat, as a winch from the top of the railway cranked it out of the water.
His crew included 19-year old deckhand Henry Abbott and barely-retired commercial sailor Billy Mabie.
“I’ll watch the level,” Billy called out, when the forward set of blocking was as tightly in place as a 10-pound maul could drive it and the boat started to inch up the railway.
On the ground at the water’s edge Fabio Alves carefully drove a big forklift down the steep gravel slope to bring materials to the guys working in the water.
Neridio Silva assembled wooden timbers into wedges of blocking. With Henry and Randy, Neridio fastened the timbers into place along the top of the cradle, wherever they would most likely keep the boat from tipping.
“You hear a creaking, just stop everything,” Randy said.
The heavy wire running through the block at the front of the car made the steel block sing and the tugboat resumed its steady march up the iron tracks.
“I feel like I’m on vacation,” Randy said as he swam out with a second set of stacked timbers when it was time to secure the back end.
“Henry, where do you work you get to go swimming at the same time?” Randy asked.
In the water, wrestling blocks into place beside him, Henry smiled.
“He’s gotta work tonight, maybe he should get some rest,” Billy suggested from the deck of the boat, where he was watching the boat’s level.
Henry was scheduled to work on Sirius that night for a trip to New Bedford.
“You want your shoes?” Henry asked Billy when he got out of the water. Henry’s pants and shirt were soaked up to his shoulders. He was barefoot beside a pair of sodden loafers.
“You can leave them right there,” Billy said.
Randy shuffled back in the water with Neridio, who was wearing a pair of waders.
“All the rocks are on this side. I feel like I’m in Rhode Island,” Randy said.
Randy and Neridio fastened the last set of blocking above an area on the railway bed where the heavy gravel was so large it was hard for them to get their footing. Both were laughing when they finished.
“The boat has to get recertified every five years by the Coast Guard,” Billy said of the day’s work. “In between you’re required to do a midterm examination. It’s all good stuff. It keeps people safe.”
But when the Coast Guard comes to see the boat, you have to pull it out of the water, he added.
“I love this work,” Fabio said. “Always something new.”