Baltimore's a port, and the Athena is a survivor

THE LITTLE TUGBOAT THAT COULD--AND STILL CAN

December 14, 1992|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

The Inner Harbor has been a shopping mall for more than a decade; private marinas have taken over the waterfront from Key Highway to Canton; and fewer and fewer adults remember when watermelon barges from the Eastern Shore docked at Pratt Street.

Sometimes it's easy to forget that Baltimore is still a working port. The tugboat Athena is a dirty little reminder.

Old, tough and battered, it is the harbor equivalent of a junkyard wrecker that will not die, a floating tub of welded steel named for the Greek goddess of wisdom.

Below the Athena's rust-pitted deck churns a second-hand generator that once powered a circus, an 820-horsepower diesel engine considered a weakling alongside the 5,000-horsepower modern tugs and an electrical panel that looks as if Dr. Frankenstein used it to jump-start his monster.

Behind the tug's stack flies a U.S. flag that looks like a survivor of the bombardment of Fort McHenry.

And on board are a trio of sea dogs from Denmark, South Baltimore and Liverpool, England: Capt. Kai Erik Hansen, 52, from the island of Fyn; his first mate, Mark Rooney, 29, born on Covington Street; and engineer Gary Cowin, 37, who grew up about a mile from the Cavern Club where the Beatles got their start.

On a crisp, cloudless autumn Sunday night, the Athena waits for its crew at a rotting wooden pier on South Clinton Street.

After most people have finished dinner, Captain Hansen, his mate and his engineer board the tug in old work clothes for a simple trip they have made many times.

With an empty barge lashed to its bow, the Athena will sail north through the C&D Canal to Marcus Hook, N.J. The barge will be filled with 5,000 barrels of sodium hydroxide, also known as caustic soda, and hauled back to a chemical plant in Curtis Bay.

There, the W. R. Grace & Co. will convert the caustic soda into chemicals used in the processing of gasoline, heating oil and diesel fuel, and sell them.

When Mr. Cowin cranks the Athena's engine, the whole boat vibrates.

"The Athena is a thing of the past," Captain Hansen says. "The only reason she's still around is she was built to last."

As the lights of downtown fade behind the stern, the skipper's Danish accent announces over a marine radio for all harbor craft to hear: "Security call, security call. Tug Athena pulling out from Clinton Street with a light chemical barge on the nose. Turning around and heading up the canal. The tug Athena."

The son of a shipbuilder, Captain Hansen was born in a house built with brick from a 12th-century Danish fortress.

He ran away to sea at 16 and sailed around the world before landing at the foot of Baltimore's Broadway in 1958. Back then, the Broadway Market was a wooden shed that sold live chickens and almost every business in the neighborhood was tied to the waterfront. Captain Hansen sailed in the U.S. merchant marine during the Vietnam War, worked on local tugs when the war ended and bought the Athena in 1986.

Mr. Rooney, the first mate, is convinced that his love of ships saved him from street-corner foolishness and neighborhood crime during a South Baltimore childhood.

"I had no interest in just hanging around my neighborhood," he says. "I wanted to do things. I wanted to work on boats."

Mr. Cowin arrived in the United States nine years ago and lives in Canton. The son of a retired marine engineer, he says that unemployment is so bad in his English hometown that someone sawed the arm off a statue of the Beatles' fabled "Eleanor Rigby" to sell as scrap metal.

"Kai hasn't been that busy lately," says Mr. Cowin. "But if I were back in England I'd have no job. I'd be on the dole."

'Little work on waterfront'

These are all men who are happiest when earning their living as sailors, men who would be happier if there were more opportunity to do it in Baltimore. In all of September, the Athena did not leave her berth on Clinton Street once.

"For five weeks we didn't have one job," says Captain Hansen. "There's so little work on the waterfront and so many people out there trying to get it."

A few dozen harbor tugs in Baltimore dock ships, push barges and tow cranes and derricks. Some of them are independent, like the Athena; others are owned by railroads and other corporations.

While cargo tonnage and ships making calls in Baltimore have risen over the last year and a half after three failing years, no one expects the port to return to its glory days of the 1960s and 1970s.

At least the Athena can count on its monthly trip to New Jersey when W. R. Grace contracts with the Vulcan chemical company of Birmingham, Ala., for 5,000 barrels of caustic soda.

Vulcan ships "the caustic" from its plant south of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, up the east coast to New Jersey on the Chilbar. For the past five years, the Athena has been the mule in the middle

of the deal.

'Sit and wait'

The Athena arrives in the Delaware River early Monday morning, expecting the Chilbar and its belly full of caustic soda to be ready at 8 a.m., an event that shows no sign of happening any time soon.

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