Capt. Ralph A. Kirchner Jr., tugboat captain, dies

Veteran captain and docking pilot spent his entire professional life aboard Baltimore harbor tugs

  • Ralph Kirchner
Ralph Kirchner
March 17, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun | Baltimore Sun reporter

Capt. Ralph Avery Kirchner Jr., a retired Baltimore tugboat captain and docking pilot who was a World War II veteran, died Sunday of Parkinson's disease at Hospice of Queen Anne's in Centreville.

The former longtime Arnold resident, who moved to Kent Island 20 years ago, was 84.

The son of a tugboat captain and docking pilot and a homemaker, Captain Kirchner, who was descended from a long line of mariners, was born in Baltimore and raised in Hamilton.

As a youngster, he often accompanied his father, captain of the tug Point Breeze, to work.

Aug. 23, 1933, was a day he remembered for the rest of his life.

He was aboard the Point Breeze that day when a hurricane roared into Maryland, which caused running seas of between 5 and 6 feet in the Chesapeake Bay and Patapsco River.

As the Point Breeze steamed past Sparrows Point, it began listing, which increased until it began sinking off the old Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse in the Patapsco River.

His father "told the crew to stay on the boat, but some of them panicked and jumped over the side," said a daughter, Debbie Halperin of Ellicott City. "He then succeeded in running the tug up on to a shoal."

The tug's chief engineer drowned and his body and those of five other crew members were picked up by a lighthouse keeper in a tender, while another tug rescued the officers and other crew members, according to news accounts at the time.

"Even though he was 7 years old, he remembered his father being in charge of the situation," said Mrs. Halperin.

While in high school, Captain Kirchner began working on harbor tugs as a deckhand. He was 17 when he left Polytechnic Institute before graduation to enlist in the Navy in 1943.

"He always loved the water and was too young to be in the Navy, so his mother had to sign for him," said another daughter, Eunice Thomas of Wachapreague, Va.

Captain Kirchner served as coxswain aboard the attack transport USS Hanover in the Pacific during World War II. After being discharged from the Navy at the end of the war, he resumed his career working on tugs as a first mate until earning his captain and docking pilot Coast Guard ticket in the 1950s.

In the early years, he worked aboard tugs pulling barges loaded with construction material used in the building of the original Bay Bridge. As a tugboat captain, he moved the sloop of war Constellation to various local shipyards for maintenance.

His career spanned the era of coal-fired steam tugs until their eventual conversion to diesel-powered engines.

Captain Kirchner worked for Curtis Bay Towing Co. and later Baker Whitely Towing Co., where he served as captain of the Resolute, Holland, Scandinavia, Columbia, Progress, America and Britannia.

He retired in 1984 from McAllister Towing Co., which had purchased Baker Whitely Towing Co.

"I worked with his dad and of course knew Ralph. He was a nice guy and a good shipmate," said veteran Baltimore tugboat captain and harbor pilot Capt. Herbert Groh, who retired from Curtis Bay Towing Co.

"We called him a 'roamer' because he worked for several towing companies. But young Ralph was a good man with a good reputation," Captain Groh said.

Capt. Gregory G. Lukowski is a docking pilot who worked with Captain Kirchner from 1974 until his retirement.

"He was definitely a throwback to the era of steam tugs, which is where he began his career," said Captain Lukowski. "When he started, ships were 600 feet long, and today, they're over 1,000 feet. He used to handle a ship with one tug moving them around or steering them into slips."

Captain Lukowski recalled him as being a somewhat superstitious mariner.

"He always said a northwest wind was good docking weather. He'd never allow you to wear anything blue aboard his boat because it was bad luck, or allow whistling. He said whistling always made the wind blow," he said.

"He had a stellar career and had paid his dues as a 7-year-old. He went out in all kinds of weather and never had any trouble or problems," said Captain Lukowski.

Another tugboat colleague was Capt. Basil Green, a retired Chesapeake Bay pilot.

"Ralph was a nice, friendly guy. He was always pleasant and calm," said Captain Green, who retired in 1994. "He was a good ship handler and always knew what he was doing."

Manuel R. Alvarez, who is also retired, had been a chief engineer aboard harbor tugs for years.

"I worked with Ralph aboard Baker Whitely tugs, and he was a very good captain," said Mr. Alvarez. "He enjoyed his work and his crews, who had the highest regard for him."

Even though he had been retired for 27 years, Captain Kirchner never gave up employing maritime terms. He also enjoyed sailing his own boat and fishing.

"When he was in your car, he'd call out port and starboard for directions rather than left and right," Mrs. Halperin said with a laugh.

Captain Kirchner was a great-grandson of Capt. Salem Avery, a prosperous Anne Arundel County seafarer whose Shady Side home is now the Capt. Salem Avery House and Museum.

In 1990, Captain Kirchner presented an 1857 family Bible to the museum and home, which was built in 1860 and is owned and operated by the Shady Side Rural Heritage Society.

He was married for 57 years to the former Ruth Coleman, who died in 2006.

He was a member of Calvary United Methodist Church and the Glen Burnie Masonic Lodge.

Services were Thursday.

Also surviving are a son, Ralph A. Kirchner III of Queenstown; another daughter, Janet McCabe of Plant City, Fla.; a sister, Adele Blum of Baltimore; nine grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

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