Another Phoenix By Don Sutherland "Liberdad to Dorothy Elizabeth," said the voice on the VHF radio, and everyone in the wheelhouse looked puzzled. "Liberdad, Dorothy Elizabeth," repeated the voice. Everyone looked puzzled because the Dorothy Elizabeth was 20 miles south, at the yard in South Amboy -- whereas the Liberdad was just off our portside, visible from the window as she approached on the Con Hook range. Capt. Mike Vinik took the microphone. "Charles Oxman, Liberdad," he replied, and the two vessels settled their arrangements -- the Liberdad would take the Charles' stern. "What a difference a paint job makes," said someone in the wheelhouse. The case of mistaken identity was understandable enough. Until recently, there's been only one tugboat on New York Harbor painted in red, white, and blue bands, and that was the Dorothy Elizabeth -- ex-Gotham, ex-Mobil 11 (and the subject of our article, "The Phoenix Rises Again" one year ago this month). Now the 3,600 hp Charles Oxman, formally christened on April 15, shared the highly recognizable, boldly unmistakable colors of Vinik Marine. What a difference a paint job makes, indeed. For other than the colors, the Dorothy and the Charles are about as different in profile as two tugboats can be. The 1951-built Dorothy, by anyone's standard, is a classic, with a boot-heel wheelhouse and a considerable space between it and the stack. The 1940-built Charles, by contrast, by anyone's standard is a different-looking tugboat. Her red and white bands, strong horizontals, thankfully decelerate the vertical thrust of her wheelhouse. A real visor would be even better, but the Vinik Marine colors help keep the eye from rolling off the top of the Charles Oxman. Before her present color scheme, the house was all-yellow as the St. Petersburg. With her orange stack jutting from an extra-high wheelhouse, and no visor, she looked a little stylized, generalized like the pastry molds chefs use for "tugboat" shaped cupcakes. It sounds terribly unkind, but Capt. Vinik himself, on the phone from Florida months before, when he was first negotiating the purchase, called her "the ugliest thing I ever saw. She's yellow and the paint's terrible, and she has no visor." But she was a tugboat. She needed fixing, and Capt. Vinik was accustomed to boats that need fixing. His mainstay, the Dorothy Elizabeth, is reportedly the only tug still working that was previously written-off twice as a total constructive loss. The Dorothy has worked steadily since her hands-on repairs by Capt. Vinik and crew, but in a sense that bred problems. There was an initial charm about young guys and their patched-up tugboat, but time flies and the world is real, and Vinik Marine promises reliability. To be sure of keeping the promise, a back-up boat seemed prudent. And most of the controversy about the boat applies to the upper works, especially the missing visor. The rest of the boat could grow on you, given a chance. The hull is massive, an 89-footer originally housing a two-cylinder, 600 hp Skinner Uniflow steam engine within its riveted members, all with a pronounced, eyecatching sheer. When you stand at the Charles Oxman's bow on the main deck, you can practically step to the boat deck of the Dorothy Elizabeth. And the power plant now is a 16-cylinder ALCO, rated at 3,600 hp, double the Dorothy's. "A lot of pilots are surprised when we do ship assists," says Capt. Vinik, "that a boat this size is single-screw." But she steers astern quite well, and has deftly bumped large barges into tight spaces along such waters as the southern Arthur Kill. It's the high, lozenge-shaped, browless wheelhouse that draws the remarks. Then again, they're probably nothing, those remarks, compared to the remarks before she was rebuilt. Art Deco Float? The design school called Art Deco was in full flower when the H.S. Falk was launched in 1940. Originally beholden to a "machine esthetic," the theme pervaded all facets of the designed environment, from bookcovers to skyscrapers. Streamlining joined Deco's visual jargon in the mid-1930s, with rounded edges, tapers and flares, all much in fashion up to the 1950s. Even on boats. Not many boats, but some. For awhile. The 1935-vintage ferryboat Kalakala, for example, in service on the SeattleBremerton run until the late 1960s, is probably the best-known Deco-influenced boat still extant. Three New York ferryboats commissioned in 1937 for the Staten Island run -- the Mary Murray class -- were rounded and flared, but retired from service well over thirty years ago. 20 · MarineNews · May, 2007
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