Like His Father Before Him, a Brave Tugboat Skipper Battles Wind and Sea to Bring Great Ships to Port

updated 10/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

His men call him Cheeks, though never to his face. Paul Mahoney, skipper of the tugboat Judy Moran, does not take kidding lightly. A man of proud Irish blood, Mahoney, 35, inherited a pugnacious spirit to match his fleshy jowls and ruddy complexion. "On this boat," he says matter-of-factly, "everyone knows who rules the roost."

Perched in the wheelhouse of the Judy on a misty Friday night, Mahoney cranes his neck as a giant, black-hulled freighter lumbers by, temporarily blocking his view of the shimmering lights of Manhattan. Despite his occasional gruffness, Mahoney has never lost the sense of wonder he felt at age 4, sitting on his daddy's knee behind the wheel of a tugboat. And like his father, who left Ireland for America during the Depression and earned the nickname "Battling Tim" as he muscled his way up from deckhand to captain, Mahoney feels privileged to be entrusted with squiring oceangoing ships into New York Harbor.

Tonight, the Moran Towing and Transportation Company, a 127-year-old family firm whose fleet of 24 tugboats plies the harbor like a private navy, has dispatched Mahoney and the Judy to help move the San Juan, an 18,000-ton container ship just in from Puerto Rico. "We're like a little Volkswagen without any brakes trying to move a big tractor-trailer," says Mahoney, positioning the Judy off the San Juan's stern. From his vantage point in the wheelhouse, a window-enclosed structure boatmen call "the glass box," Mahoney moments later finds himself staring at a huge, rust-encrusted, 20-ton anchor just 18 inches away from the box. For the next half-hour his face is flushed as he carefully coaxes the Judy to nudge and push the San Juan, ever mindful of the great, looming anchor. "With a tight job like this, 10 seconds can feel like an eternity," Mahoney says later. "One wrong move and I could easily take the glass box right off this boat. Afterward the adrenaline keeps pumping for a while, and I feel an incredible high."

Among his peers Mahoney is known as a guy who is always demanding, always pushing. "I never show fear," he says. "I like riding the razor's edge." The bravado can be grating at times, particularly for the six crew members who have to live in close quarters with him on the 100-foot-long tug 24 hours a day, seven days at a stretch. But his bravery when faced with life-and-death situations is legendary.

On the Fourth of July 1986, just after the Statue of Liberty was rechristened with a massive fireworks display, some 40,000 small pleasure boats made a mad dash out of New York harbor and created a dangerous traffic jam on the city's waterways. Around midnight at Hell Gate, the violently turbulent meeting-place of the Harlem River and the East River flowing into Long Island Sound, Mahoney noticed that a 28-foot cabin cruiser had stalled in treacherous currents and caught on fire. "An elderly woman was screaming for help, and several young kids were being buffeted around like rag dolls because of the rough seas," Mahoney recalls. "The boat was beginning to break up, and I knew that if those people ended up in the water, they would either drown or get run over." Mahoney quickly executed a difficult series of pirouettes to bring the Judy alongside the cruiser, and his crew pulled 12 people to safety one at a time. Eventually, the boat sank. Says Rosalind Pio Costa, the woman who had been calling for help: "We thought this tugboat must have been sent from heaven."

For Mahoney the incident brought back memories. When he was 10 years old and already had his mind set on becoming a boatman, his father had driven him out to a bluff overlooking Hell Gate to watch a sunken tug being raised. "I stood there silently with him for more than two hours while the boat was pulled up with a crane," Mahoney says. "Much later I learned that the captain who died on the boat was old Charlie Scouten, who had skippered the first tug my father worked on back in 1933. Charlie got tripped up in the Gate towing two barges, and his boat took on water like a colander."

While Mahoney was growing up, his father discouraged him from becoming a boatman. "He was adamant about it," Mahoney says. "He said, 'I don't want you to be a monkey like me. I want you to go to school.' " So in 1972, when Mahoney dropped out of New York City Community College and took a maintenance job on a harbor excursion boat, his father was furious. "I thought he was going to kill me," Mahoney says. But a year later, the elder Mahoney relented and arranged for his son to work as a deckhand under his command.

Mahoney couldn't have found a more demanding boss. "Once my father concluded he couldn't talk me out of going into the business, he wanted to make sure I was tough enough to survive," he says. "Every morning he'd have 9 million jobs for me to do, while the other deckhands always got off easy." Within six months Battling Tim Mahoney was dead from emphysema. But his son was ready to carry on his legacy. "When things get rough," Mahoney says, "I like to think my father is still watching out for me."

Soon after his father's death, Mahoney learned a harsh lesson about tug work firsthand. He and his decking partner Dennis Mohen, an old buddy from his Brooklyn neighborhood, were tying a barge to the tug when the line snapped. "The rope grabbed Dennis' leg like a snake and shattered it," Mahoney says. "That put him out of commission for about five months." After a four-year apprenticeship as deckhands, then as first mates, Mohen and Mahoney became skippers of their own boats. Then, one night in May 1978, Mahoney woke up with a start, absolutely convinced something terrible was about to happen to Mohen.

Two days later Mohen was towing a sludge barge in the harbor when the Taiwanese container ship Ming Giant broadsided his Ocean King. Mohen was thrown overboard in the collision. "For me it was like something out of The Twilight Zone," says Mahoney. "They never did find Dennis' body."

Losing his friend hit Mahoney hard. "It made me realize you can get killed in this business in the blink of an eye," he says. "No matter how much care you take, you might just get unlucky."

Heavy weather is the bane of tugboat work, one of the routine forms of ill fortune. "It can be miserable during a heavy blow," Mahoney says. "That's when you'd rather be home patting Mama on the behind." Bouncing around in rough water, crew members stake their lives on their skipper's seamanship. "If you want to feel safe, Ma-honey's the man to work for," says deckhand Ronnie Ruiz, 46. "Yeah," adds Ruiz's partner, Bobby Waldeck, 35, "we know he's not going to hang us all out on a limb. Some guys would."

Despite the respect he has earned from his crew, Mahoney can be harsh and makes no apologies. "It's a little fiefdom here," he admits. "I'm here to do a job, not to make friends." Ruiz and Waldeck often bear the brunt of Mahoney's quick temper. "I call Ruiz the Beaver because he gets into trouble so often," says the skipper, "and Waldeck is always correcting him, so I call him Wally." While Ruiz and Waldeck carp at each other on deck, Chuck Ramsey, 43, the engineer, spends most of his time in the bowels of the boat, his nerves made taut by the deafening roar of the Judy's 3,300-horsepower engines. Craig Flinn, 32, the first mate, has a coveted diploma from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and a pocketful of licenses that qualify him to skipper the boat. He pays for his education in ribbing; Mahoney needles him for being a "schoolkid." Only Jack Combs, 52, the genial cook, stays out of the line of fire. Renowned for his homemade soups and biscuits, Combs keeps a pot of fresh coffee brewing in the galley and has been known to blast the theme from Victory at Sea on a tape player when the Judy heads into choppy waters.

All of the Judy's crew are family men who divide their time between the boat and their suburban homes on a regular seven-days-on, seven-days-off cycle. Mahoney, who works the same schedule, earns $60,000 a year and in 1979 bought a three-bedroom colonial on Staten Island for his wife, Anne, 33, and their daughters, Maureen, 9, Lauren, 6, and Kathleen, 4. Though Anne has a business degree and would eventually like to get into nursing administration, she devotes her life now to Mahoney and the kids. "She worries about everything," Mahoney says, "including whether I wear extra socks in cold weather." The worst part of his job is missing out on holidays with his family.

On a busy night, though, Mahoney has little time to dwell on the hardships. After a late dinner of Jack Combs' special lamb chops, he returns to the wheelhouse around 10 p.m. to dock the Jinmu Maru, an inelegant, boxlike ship bringing in about 5,000 Japanese cars. Nearly 800 feet long and 90 feet high, the Jinmu Maru is roughly the size of a 66-story skyscraper laid on its side. "Just imagine moving the Chrysler Building," says Mahoney. Steering blind from his position at the Jinmu Maru's stern, Mahoney takes radio directions from a harbor pilot aboard the ship and toots the Judy's whistle in a coded sequence to acknowledge specific orders. Pushing the Jinmu Maru around Bergen Point, a tight 90-degree turn at the mouth of Newark Bay, he throttles back, and the Judy leans over and shakes from the strain. "When you're hooked up and hard over like this," shouts Mahoney, "it's like trying to hang on to a very dangerous bull by the tail." Gradually, clumsily, the Jinmu Maru makes the corner and is gently eased to her berth.

Moving through remote reaches of the harbor late one night, Mahoney marvels at the hellish beauty around him. Passing the modern container-ship terminals at Port Elizabeth, N.J., just south of Manhattan, he looks in awe at the brightly lit 200-foot cranes that look like the great striding fighting-machines in The Empire Strikes Back. "I'll bet Steven Spielberg spent some time out here," says the skipper. Nearby, down a tidal estuary known as the Kills, sprawling chemical and petroleum factories sparkle like light-jeweled palaces, casting dazzling reflections over the water.

At midnight Mahoney withdraws to his cabin, which is not much larger than a prison cell. With Craig Flinn at the helm, the Judy will keep moving through the night, docking ships and shifting barges. So Mahoney rests his head on his pillow, uneasily at first, while the Judy's engines rumble in his ears and rattle his bones. But not for long. Six hours later he is back in the wheelhouse, powerful and alone at the helm, where he has wanted to be all his life. As his father must have done long before him, he lets the salty breeze swell in his chest as the sun rises over the harbor like fire.

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