The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

crooked boughs

with 3 comments

– photo by Mitch Waxman

This Tug, the Gramma Lee T. Moran, was mentioned in a Newtown Pentacle posting of November 26- “loose and displaced“. As it’s one of my favorite tugs in New York Harbor to shoot, I felt a little bad that the starring role in that posting had gone to a cargo ship- and that Gramma Lee T. Moran had to share the second banana position with another Moran Tug- the estimable Marion Moran.

Can’t tell you why I like the esthetics of this ship so much, nor can I say why exactly it always reminds me of the Millennium Falcon (from the Star Wars movies) as it slides along the Kill Van Kull.

from wikipedia

The Kill Van Kull is a tidal strait approximately 3 miles (4.8 km) long and 1,000 feet (305 m) wide separating Staten Island and Bayonne, New Jersey, USA. The name kill comes from the Middle Dutch word kille, meaning “riverbed” or “water channel.”

Kill Van Kull connects Newark Bay with Upper New York Bay. The Robbins Reef Light marks the eastern end. Historically it has been one of the most important channels for the commerce of the region, providing a passage for marine traffic between Manhattan and the industrial towns of New Jersey. Since the final third of the 20th century, it has provided the principal access for ocean-going container ships to Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal, the busiest port facility in the eastern United States and the principal marine terminal for New York Harbor.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

These two shots are from just a few months ago, captured in the fall of 2011. It’s always odd seeing a tugboat operating without a barge, or tending a larger vessel which can be hundreds of times larger than itself. The majesty of these ships, and their crews, come alive when they are tasked with bearing such sisyphean burdens.

Can you imagine what it must be like guiding a fuel tanker into the narrow Kill Van Kull or down the East River? It must take nerves of steel to muster the confidence needed to Captain such tasks.


Tugs are “displacement” hull vessels, the hull is designed so water flows around it, there is no consideration for having the vessel “plane”. Because of this the hull form is limited to a maximum speed when running “free” that is about 1.5 times the square root of the waterline length. As the tug approaches this speed when running “free” it is perched between the bow wave and the stern wave. Since the hull cannot plane, application of additional power when approaching maximum hull speed only results in a larger bow wave, with the tug “squatting” further into the trough.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The shot above, and the one below are from earlier in 2011- April to be exact.

Moran is a well established company which operates tugs all over North America. A century and a half old, the company’s fleet can be found on the USA’s Pacific and Atlantic coasts and within the Great Lakes, both along the west coast of- and in the Gulf of- Mexico, and within the inland waters of the eastern United States. They’ve been known to operate periodically as far away as the Caribbean Sea and South American waters.


The LEE T. MORAN is an expression of brute power and utility that belies the refinements of technical engineering below her waterline. There, twin ports are cut into the steel hull to make room for the tug’s Z-drive units. On the floor of the shop they look like the lower units of giant outboard engines. Made by Ulstein, a subsidiary of Rolls-Royce, the Z-drive functions much like an outboard. Imagine two outboards extending straight down through the hull, each having the ability to rotate 360 degrees. That makes even a heavy, 92-foot tug with a 450-ton displacement very maneuverable. “It can turn on a dime,” says Doughty. “The hull bottom is slightly flatter to adjust to the two drive units. By turning each drive out 90 degrees, the captain can go from full-ahead (14 knots) to a dead stop in no time.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Perhaps it’s the low slung aspect of the wheelhouse, or the gentle curves observed in its hull… I can’t say, but there is just something pleasing about the design of this boat. A big toot goes out from this, your Newtown Pentacle, to one of my favorite citizens of the NY Harbor- the Gramma Lee T. Moran.


Moran Towing began operations in 1860 when founder Michael Moran opened a towing brokerage, Moran Towing and Transportation Company, in New York Harbor. In 1863, the company was transformed from a brokerage into an owner-operator of tugboats when it purchased a one-half interest in the tugboat Ida Miller for $2,700. Over time Moran acquires a fleet of tugboats. It was Michael Moran who painted the first white “M” on a Moran tugboat stack, in 1880.

Written by Mitch Waxman

December 14, 2011 at 12:39 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Great site and nice post about this craft. I completed an apprenticeship as a shipwright at a small yard in Adelaide, Australia back in 1971(!). The company, Adelaide Ship Construction (ASC) specialised in building tugs with a hull design known as the hydroconic or towmaster type. I have always admired these tough little ships. There may not be much to them, but they pack a lot of power in their small hulls. Unfortunately, ASC closed in 1973. It just couldn’t compete with the Japanese who were dominating the internation shipbuilding industry at the time. Coincidently, one of the tugs I worked on during my apprenticeship is for sale as of this entry here:


    December 16, 2011 at 10:53 pm

  2. […] Gramma has been described in some detail at this, your Newtown Pentacle, in the posting “Crooked Boughs” from back in December of […]

  3. […] when the gargantuan Cosco Osaka container ship came into view, shepherded by the Gramma Lee T. Moran […]

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