Kai E.F. Hansen is one of a vanishing breed of independent tugboat owner-operators doing business in the waters of the Port of Baltimore.
Mid-morning Thursday, a persistent chilly northwest wind buffeted his tug. The Athena, with its gray and white superstructure and blue stack, was docked at a weed-strewn Thames Street pier in Fells Point with an empty 195-foot gray barge on its hip.
Hansen, sitting in a comfortable chair in the warm, wood-paneled main cabin, the smell of freshly brewed coffee in the air, was explaining to several visitors why he had decided to sell his boat and go to work for its new owner.
"We're a dying breed," he said. "All the work has dried up, and the companies don't throw any bones to the little guy anymore. It's really hard to find steady work around Baltimore."
With Hansen in the Athena's cabin was the vessel's chief engineer, Herman "The German" Metz, wearing a dark blue knit watch cap and oil-stained cotton work gloves. Born and reared in Germany's Black Forest, he has been at sea for eight years. He scooted in and out of the cabin, making adjustments and tending to the diesel rhythmically whining in the engine room below.
The engine was somewhat cranky, as if it didn't want to depart on the day's planned 18-hour voyage, to deliver the empty barge to a chemical plant at Port Richmond near Philadelphia. There, the barge would be filled with some 5,000 barrels of caustic soda weighing nearly 1,200 tons, and the tug would commence its return journey to Baltimore. With favorable tides and no problems, Hansen and his crew of three could look forward to an early morning arrival today at the Grace Chemical Co. plant in Curtis Bay.
"Ah, the main engine is getting warm," said Hansen, interrupting the conversation.
Suddenly, an unusual sound gurgled upward from the engine room, its air heavy with the smell of warm oil. Hansen looked at his chief engineer, but didn't seem too concerned.
"She's talking right now," said Metz, sounding like a proud papa, a big smile crawling across his face. "She's an old girl, but she keeps on going."
Hansen, 60, born and raised in Denmark but a U.S. resident since 1966, looks a little like Santa Claus with his wiry beard and rimless silver glasses framing a set of porcelain blue eyes. He is a jocular man, no Captain Bligh. He's well-liked by his crew, who describe him without reservation as a man with a "good heart." A beefy man with well-worn hands, he is dressed in a heavy, dark flannel shirt and blue jeans. A dark blue Greek seaman's cap adorned with a silver anchor sits atop a head of thick, gray hair.
He has been at sea since he was 14 and now contemplates an uncertain future.
"Growing up in Denmark, there were three things open to you. You could be a farmer, go to sea or go to jail. So I went to the sea," he says. "If I had been a farmer, I would have been retired by now."
Working aboard schooners, yawls, colliers, buy boats, ferryboats, freighters and tankers (and a stint in the Danish Navy in the early 1960s), he worked his way up from deck boy to mate. He earned his captain's ticket in 1978 from the Harry Lundeberg School of seamanship in Piney Point.
Filled with stories from nearly 50 years on the sea, he recalls routine as well as exciting storm-tossed voyages. The boredom of one 26-day trip from Chile to Japan, he said, was momentarily broken one day at lunch when a steamer passed by and blew its whistle in salute. Otherwise the only other living thing he saw, besides his crewmates, were the albatrosses that wheeled overhead.
Now a resident of Liverpool, Pa., on the Susquehanna River north of Harrisburg, Hansen moved to the United States and Baltimore in 1966, brought here by his wife, a Baltimore girl. After working on coastal tugs and on the Great Lakes, he bought the Athena, then called the James A. Harper, in 1986 with a partner he later bought out.
"I am the captain, cook, and I clean the toilets. It's a boring job, and you're never more than two seconds from disaster. The main thing is not to panic," he said.
The Athena was built in 1939 at a Hudson River shipyard ("She's one year older than me," he cracks), and, with a 12-foot draft and powerful diesel engines, is ideally suited for pushing or towing barges at five or six knots.
Now his boat has a new owner in Philadelphia, and soon he'll begin sailing the Athena from there. But on this day, still in Baltimore, he climbed up into his wheelhouse, ready to stand a six-hour watch at the wheel until relieved by his mate, Mark Rooney.
Leaning against the tugboat's dark oak wheel, Hansen busily made last-minute preparations for the day's trip up the Chesapeake Bay, through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal to the Delaware River and its destination at Port Richmond. He hopes to be back in Baltimore early enough today to decorate the tug and take part in the Lighted Boat Parade that will tour the harbor this evening.
The father of a son and two daughters is asked if his son will follow him into the business. He explodes into laughter.
"I told my son, `If you become a lawyer, I'll shoot you. Being on the sea is punishment enough,'" he said.