Volume 73, Number 47 | March 24 -30, 2004


Tug pioneer, Downtown mom, restores ship

By John Arbucci

Downtown Express photo by John Arbucci

Pamela Hepburn, one of the first female tugboat captains, near her Pegasus, a 1907 vessel that is now on dry dock on Staten Island.

Some people dedicate their lives to rebuilding old cars. Others take up woodworking. Tribeca resident Pamela Hepburn is doing something different. She’s restoring a 97-year-old tugboat.

Hepburn, 57, who has lived on Murray Street for more than 25 years, is a licensed tugboat captain who works in and around New York Harbor. She started out as a deckhand, worked her way up to captain, and eventually bought her own boat, the Pegasus, in 1987. Since retiring the boat in 1995, Hepburn has struggled to find the resources to restore the Pegasus and save it from the scrap heap. She and the boat are something of a nautical odd couple: Hepburn is one of the first of her kind, and the Pegasus is one of the last of its.

Norman Brouwer, a maritime historian at the South Street Seaport Museum who has known Hepburn for over 20 years, said, “There haven’t been too many tugboat captains who are women. Pamela was the first in this area.”

Brouwer also said the Pegasus is an important link to the past. “It is the classic design of a tugboat which is now disappearing.”

Hepburn still has the New England accent she acquired growing up in Concord, Mass., where she learned to sail with her family. By the time she was a teen, she knew she wanted to work on the water.

“I’m boat crazy,” she said. “For years I’ve been more comfortable on boats than on land.”

When she looked for a job after graduating from college, however, she felt there were no opportunities for a woman on the water. Instead, she worked as a sign painter. Then, when she was 28, a friend found a job as a cook on a tugboat on the Erie Canal.

“I said, ‘You’ve got to get me on that boat,’” Hepburn said.

Hepburn not only got on that boat, she worked on it as a deckhand for four years. Then she got a job as a deckhand on tugboats owned by Exxon.

It was a mixed experience. Because those tugs carried a relatively small crew of five, everyone had a measure of privacy. But the boat’s small size also meant that when someone was out to give Hepburn a rough time, it was difficult for her to avoid him.

“Sometimes it was gender-driven stuff,” Hepburn said. Other times, she said, it was simply one unhappy person trying to make everyone else on the boat equally unhappy.

Eventually, she returned to smaller towing companies, working her way up to captain. In 1987 she decided to go into business for herself.

That’s when she purchased the Pegasus for $25,000. The boat had been built by Standard Oil in 1907. Originally steam-powered, it was converted to diesel in 1954 and outfitted with a World War II surplus engine.

The boat was “a wreck,” said Hepburn. The plumbing and heating pipes had rusted out and the roof of the captain’s cabin needed replacing. Undeterred, she decided to move anyway and got to work.

“I ended up living on it because I was kind of worried about it,” Hepburn said. “I was worried it would take on water, and about people vandalizing it.”

Several months later, the Pegasus was ready to run, transporting railroad barges for the New York Cross Harbor Railroad. The barges ferried railroad cars between Brooklyn and New Jersey.

Hepburn continued to live on the boat when her daughter, Alice, was born in 1990.

When Alice was old enough to have her own room, Hepburn converted the engineer’s quarters, located in the back of the boat, for her bedroom. Its rear portholes looked out over the harbor and Downtown Manhattan. Even now, while the Pegasus is in dry dock in Staten Island and undergoing major repairs, that room still shows signs that a child lived there. Cutouts of animals, including a giraffe and an elephant, decorate the lintel above the original tongue-and-groove paneling.

As a preschooler, Alice often went out with the boat.

“She was always looked after,” Hepburn said. “And there were very strict rules.” The two most important rules were: don’t sit on the rail, and keep two feet on the deck at all times.

Because Hepburn was still living on the boat when Alice became school age, she attended classes in Jersey City. Later, when they resettled in their apartment on Murray St., Alice attended P.S. 234 for 5th grade. She is now in middle school in Chelsea.

By 1995, Hepburn was forced to retire the Pegasus.

“Nobody really wanted to run her because she was underpowered for the work we were doing,” she said.

And the boat needed further repairs, some of them serious.

“The wheelhouse wanted to fall off the boat,” said Hepburn.

She earned a living by captaining other tugboats while trying to figure out what to do with the Pegasus.

“I wanted to save a boat that had supported me,” she said. She also said that the tug, with its gracefully curved lines, was too important to sell to a scrap yard. To her it is a survivor, an artifact of a time when men built metal ships by hand and boats of all kinds crowded New York harbor.

She gradually worked out a plan. In 2000 she had the boat placed on the National Register of Historic Places. She then set up the Tug Pegasus Preservation Project, a not-for-profit organization that now owns the boat. Chelsea Piers donated a docking space.

While casting about for something that the boat could do, she met Charles Ritchie, who heads a maritime adventure program for teens at the Police Athletic League. Ritchie, who works out of the P.A.L. headquarters on E. 12th St., had already set up youth programs with some of the ships at the South Street Seaport.

“Pamela said she had a 100-year-old tugboat, and wanted to know if we wanted to work with her to restore it,” said Ritchie.

They did. Hepburn also taught the teenagers how to do chart work, and keep watch in the engine room and on deck.

Even though the classroom was a boat, the lessons taught at Chelsea Piers were meant to be used everywhere.

“We don’t intend to make the kids sailors,” Ritchie said. “We’re teaching them about working together well.”

Last December, in order to keep the Pegasus working well, Hepburn had to take the boat out of the water. The steel hull, riveted together almost a hundred years ago, needed to be sandblasted, patched and painted. She also has plans to replace the wheelhouse windows and install a new railing on the second deck.

To help fund all these repairs, the Tug Pegasus Preservation Project received a matching grant worth $150,000 from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Hepburn has raised about $20,000. Much of her time these days is spent in her office, trying to raise the rest of the money.

Once the repairs are complete, the Pegasus will return to its home at Pier 62, at the end of W. 22nd St., in the berth provided by Chelsea Piers.

The Pegasus will have a job: working with teens through the Police Athletic League and educating people about the once-thriving port business that used to encircle all the boroughs of New York City.

And it will also have a captain who will be relieved to have the repairs – and the fundraising – behind her.
“It’s more fun to work on the water than it is behind a desk,” she said.


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