A Harbor View

Summer jobs led this school administrator to author a book on Baltimore\'s tugboats and their crews

By Rita Buettner  |  Photos by Malia Leary

Bill Eggert, M.Ed. '74, on his Ranger Tug on Maryland's West River

Long before Captain Bill Eggert, M.Ed. ’74, ever thought of writing a book about Chesapeake Bay tugboats, he had a childhood affinity for the working boats of the city’s busy port.

When he became a special education teacher, he filled his summers with jobs, including some around the Inner Harbor—such as one where he gave passengers a narrated 90-minute tour on a skipjack called the Minnie V.

“It was a little bit of being a teacher and a historian and a proud Baltimorean all in one,” said Eggert, who spent 20 years working seasonally on charter boats and water taxis, which were often docked in Fells Point, then the home of the city’s two largest tugboat companies.

A freelance writer and photographer, Eggert was curious about the tugboats. So one day about 33 years ago he sent a letter to the Curtis Bay Towing Company asking if he could go out on a tugboat. They wrote back and told him to be there at 3 a.m. on a certain day.

“I was thrilled and scared at the same time. It was the middle of the night! I knew boating and was confident on a vessel, but being on a tugboat is really different and very dangerous,” said Eggert, who lives with his wife, Nancy, in West River, Md. “We spent the long day going up shaky aluminum house ladders, crossing over to huge freighters as we pulled alongside. I was too afraid of looking bad to not follow the much older captain up the steps.”

And it was there that—without knowing it—he started collecting the first photos and stories that would become his book, Gentlemen of the Harbor: Stories of Chesapeake Bay Tugboats and Crews, which he published this summer.

“I’ve sort of had the makings of a book in a box, carried from house to house. I’m not sure what eventually possessed me to say, ‘Darn it, I’m going to do this book,’” said Eggert. He worked with his wife and a graphic designer and her team to publish the book. Now he and Nancy are busy handling the marketing.

But Eggert wasn’t thinking of a book back in 1980, when this son of a cabinetmaker first stepped onto a tugboat, finding it easy to be among honest, hardworking tradesmen.

“I found myself comfortable with the five-man crew,” he said. “Before I knew it, I wasn’t a guest anymore. It was ‘Bill, if you want something to eat, you can fix it yourself.’”

Over the next two years Eggert was invited back on the tugboats many times, and he took photographs and got to know the men who worked on them.

“As much as I came to love the boats, I developed this real admiration and affection for the crewmen” he said. “That’s what I try to show in the book. Shipping couldn’t work without tugboats, and yet their crews have never received the recognition they deserve. I think people have a misconception of who these people are. They truly were gentle people who were a family, looking after each other’s lives.”

This photo of Herbert Groh, a tugboat operator and Eggert’s friend who passed away this year, hangs in the boat’s cabin.

Gentlemen of the Harbor focuses on the people behind the tugboats, delving into the personalities who played a part in the history of an industry that is still alive in Baltimore today.

When Eggert requested permission to have his photo taken on a tugboat near Fort McHenry for the book, he realized how much times have changed. He had to be escorted by a representative of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to bring him down the pier. Then someone from the boat had to come meet him, he had to put a life preserver on, and he watched a video about safety. And the boat never even left the dock.

Eggert realized then how fortunate he was to have spent time on tugboats 30 years ago.

“You wouldn’t be able to do it today. Really, my window of opportunity closed,” he said. “I had a bird’s eye view of something not many people get to see.”

A view of an osprey from Eggert's boat during a summer ride on the West River

It was during his first year as a teacher that Eggert had his first chance to help a friend and colleague caulk and paint a wooden sailboat. And, as he watched friends getting drafted into the Army, he decided to sign on for two years of active duty in the Navy Reserves. He spent his time in Florida, serving on a destroyer and guided missile cruiser.

Once his enlistment ended, he returned to teach in Baltimore County, where he taught special education for 21 years before moving to Anne Arundel County and became an administrator.

“I really enjoyed working in special education,” said Eggert, who is currently an assistant principal at Broadneck High School. “They were caring kids, regular kids who had a learning disability. I just had a feeling for those kids. It was sometimes two steps forward, one step back, but they eventually picked up the material. You were their teacher, their counselor, their confessor, their friend, and I liked that part of it.”

Eggert and his wife, Nancy, a retired teacher, spend many hours steering their boat through the Chesapeake Bay.

At school he is “Mr. Eggert,” but on the water he is “Captain Bill.” And when Mr. Eggert isn’t teaching, as long as the weather cooperates, Captain Bill and his wife—and sometimes his 26-year-old daughter Molly —are likely spending time on their Ranger Tug, Just Limin’, on the Chesapeake Bay.

And with retirement maybe a year or two in the future, he’s already planning the longer trips they’ll take on their boat.

“The dream of most boaters is to go south on the Intracoastal Waterway,” he said.

No doubt he’ll slow down to take photographs of passing tugs along the way.

Learn more about Gentlemen of the Harbor.

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