Source: Sherman Publications

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Just tugging along
Township resident competes in annual International Tug Boat Race in Detroit

by David Fleet

June 29, 2011

The Jessie T (far left) sails north on the Detroit River at the start of the tugboat race on Saturday. The tug, owned by Vassall finished second in his class. Photo by Bob Flath.
At 12 knots or about 13 mph, most boats would not win many races.

Unless it's a tugboat.

On Saturday, Brandon Township resident and tugboat owner Paul Vassall piloted his vessel the "Jessie T" to a second place finish in the 35th Annual International Tug Boat Race in Detroit.

Vassall, 60, was one of 13 tugboats participating in the race, which started at the Ambassador Bridge on the Detroit River and runs to the finish line off Windsor's Dieppe Park. The June 25 race was the eighth for Vassall, who served in the Navy during the early 1970s and was first assigned to a destroyer tender, then to a tugboat in the Mediterranean Ocean from La Maddelana, near Sardinia, Italy.

"Back then we pushed nuclear submarines around when they came into port," said Vassall, who served on the Navy's 109-foot Ocala, a tug named after a Florida Indian tribe. "There was nothing we could not push."

Years later, Vassall's attraction to tugboats prompted him to purchase one of his own. So in 2002, Vassall purchased the Elizabeth, a 61-foot tugboat with a 17-foot beam, then docked in New Bedford, Mass. He and five friends sailed the tug from the east coast past New York and up the Hudson River through the Erie Canal before docking in the Detroit River.

Vassall said the speed of the tugboat is based on several factors.

"For starters, my tug weighs 70 tons, which includes concrete in the hull for stability," he said. "The pitch of the five-feet high prop, which is powered by twin 6-110 GM diesel engines producing 800 horsepower, also makes a difference. I'm slow—the gear ratio is made to push or pull, not race anywhere."

During the race, the tugs take off from a dead stop in the river and with big diesel engines roaring, take off against the current. The Jessie T finished close behind the tugboat Josephine in class I, the largest of six catagories in the race.

"I was nervous of blowing an engine," he said. "We all kick out some pretty serious waves heading against the current. At one time tugboats were all over the Detroit River and St. Clair area. Today, with shipping down by about 70 percent in the area due to the economic downturn, there's just not as many tugboats around. Many have moved out of the area to find work."

When Vassall's not sailing on the river, the boat is docked at Kean's Detroit Yacht Harbor.

"There's plenty of really nice fancy boats docked at Kean's," said Vassall. "But a lot of them end up stopping by and checking out the Jessie T. I'm typically in the engine room covered in grease—that's where I'm at home."