ALBANY, N.Y. -- Capt. Ralph Carpino nosed the stubby bow of the tugboat along the port side of the cargo ship.
The tug was nothing pretty to look at, its thick bumper of old tires forming a kind of waterline goatee, but the contact it made with the ship was as soft as a mother's hand brushing a child's cheek.
The Hudson River was slate gray and as placid as a mountain pond. The noontime tide was slack, the day windless. A few granular snowflakes fell like salt from a shaker.
At 156 tons, the 85-foot tug Frances Turecamo was a mouse wrestling an elephant, with the ship M/V Unicondor measuring 550 feet and weighing 17,500 tons.
The ship's vast, three-story cargo hold was empty, and the Unicondor rode high in the water, its hull as shapely as a champagne flute.
The Unicondor, with a Peruvian crew and registry from the Netherlands Antilles, was scheduled to be loaded with massive General Electric Co. steam turbines bound for several Asian ports. But first, it needed the guiding hand of a tugboat captain.
"Just watch Ralph work," said Joel Constantino, vice president of New England Steamship Agents Inc.
Constantino had been hired as agent for the Unicondor. He had coordinated the ship's pilot, longshore crew, customs and other services and watched from the dock as the tug guided its progress into the Port of Albany.
It was the tug's job to turn the ship 180 degrees in the shallow, narrow river basin at the Port of Albany in order to have the Unicondor's bow pointed downriver for departure after loading the heavy GE cargo.
The maneuver is as challenging as parallel parking in midtown Manhattan, or snaking in a breaking, downhill 30-foot putt on the 18th hole in golf. Normally, if the wind is ornery and the tide contrary, such a turnaround is a two-tug job and another captain is called to assist. But the ship's pilot decided Carpino, 71, could dock the ship solo.
Constantino was on a cell phone as he watched Carpino throttle up the Frances Turecamo's two 1,800-horsepower diesel engines into a throaty rumble. The tug churned up the river as Carpino dug the bow into the ship's flank and slowly spun the Unicondor around in the river basin as easily as one would turn back the hands on a clock.
"Ralph is as good a tugboat captain and ship handler as you'll find," said Frank Keane, general manager of the Albany Port District Commission.
More impressive was the fact that Carpino performed the solo turn with one of the oldest tugs around - a bulbous, low-slung and swaybacked antique painted in shades of red and mustard yellow and outfitted with only a single propeller. Double propellers, known as twin screws, common in newer tugs, make for much crisper maneuverability and easier docking.
"Anybody can handle a twin-screw boat," Carpino said later. "You work a single screw and you better know what you're doing."
Fifteen minutes later, the Unicondor was tied up alongside the dock, bow pointed downriver. The gangplank was dropped and the Frances Turecamo chugged down the Hudson to another job.
The last working tug at the Port of Albany. A 40-year-old relic. Last of a breed.
Carpino is an antique, too. He's a river rat who has never been far from water and working boats since he served as a Navy gunner aboard merchant ships in World War II.
If it floats and has come in or out of the Port of Albany since 1976, chances are Carpino and the Frances Turecamo shepherded the ship.
Carpino is a short, stocky man with a round, weathered face, wiry gray hair and a gravely voice. He drives a 1990 Plymouth Horizon with 187,000 miles and commutes from his home in Kingston, N.Y., to the Frances Turecamo, which stays docked at the Port of Albany.
The Frances Turecamo was built in December 1957, at the Jakobssen Shipyard in Oyster Bay on Long Island.
"There wasn't a shipyard on the East Coast that built a tug as good as Jakobssen," Carpino said. "But they're long gone, and that stretch of the north shore of Long Island is all condos now."
Changing tastes and the march of progress mean little to the tug and its captain.
"This engine is original, 40 years old this month, and she's still going strong," Carpino said. "A tug like this will run forever if you take care of her."
As tugs go, the Frances Turecamo is old and small, with its 1,800-horsepower diesels pip-squeaks compared with the 4,000-horsepower behemoths being built today. But a skilled captain like Carpino can make the decades melt away from its ice-battered steel hull.
That's another unofficial job description for Carpino and the Frances Turecamo: icebreaker.
"All tugs are not made equal and the Frances has a good bite to the water and can really move the ice, even though she's small," Keane said. "Ralph has broken up a lot of ice at the Port of Albany for us."
"The Coast Guard will bring its big, fancy icebreaker up once a year for show," Carpino said. "They're nice boys who go home at five o'clock. But they're not real icebreakers."
The tug is named for a sister of Turecamo Coastal and Harbor Towing Corp. founder Bartholdi Turecamo, who came from Isola Lipari, a flyspeck island between the northern coast of Sicily and the toe of the boot of Italy. As an immigrant in New York, Turecamo worked in road construction.
Turecamo started a road construction company and bought a tug in 1927 to haul road stone from the wharves in Manhattan to his plant in Brooklyn. His son, Bart, added more tugs and expanded the operation into the New York Harbor trade. A third generation, Bart Jr., succeeded his father, who died in 1983.
Pub Date: 2/01/98