Take a Ride on New York Harbor’s Historic Tugboat

One Sunday evening a few weeks ago I was standing in the middle of New York Harbor with one foot propped up on the ledge of South Street Seaport’s W.O. Decker, just inches above the foamy waters. The other was tucked into a carved-out ledge which served as a step. With the pull of my hand on a pole, the knowledge that there was a rope on the boat’s side and the supportive words of a crew member, I lifted myself into the wheelhouse of a restored tugboat that has been plying these waters for almost a century.

But let’s go back to the beginning — for the Decker, that is. Herbert Hoover was in the middle of his only term as president. The Mickey Mouse comic strip debuted. The W.O. Decker was built by the Newtown Creek Towing Company (then named the Russell I after its first tow company’s owners) and was launched amid the depths of the Great Depression. From 1930 until 1986, the wooden tugboat worked the harbor — keeping freighters and tankers moving as they made their way to and from the piers that lined the city’s waterfront neighborhoods, from the Brooklyn Navy Yards to the Far West Side’s rail yards. 

After more than 50 years of service, the Decker was donated to the Seaport Museum, its steam engine removed and replaced with a diesel motor. In 2018, the tug underwent an overhaul and restoration which allowed the Seaport to put the Decker back in service this summer for public sailings.

On that recent Sunday, with the sounds of a concert in earshot from nearby Pier 17’s rooftop, there sat the Decker docked at Pier 16 waiting for us to board. We pushed off with a crew of three and seven passengers. The boat can accommodate up to 16 people, according to one crew member. 

We made our way past Pier 11’s bustling NYC Ferry hub. We slid past the Battery where, just a few feet above the water, the incoming Staten Island Ferry with its orange and blue paint job seemed even bigger than when you’re onboard. 

The ride on the Decker is a leisurely one —just a few knots per hour — and that’s by design on two fronts. 

First, it gives you time to savor the view. The ride gets you up close to the Statue of Liberty, Governors Island as well as other harbor traffic that includes sailboats, motorboats and a few adventurous jet-skiers. There’s something about being out on the water on a beautiful summer day that makes everyone a little happier. As we passed other boats, smiles and waves were exchanged across the water. 

The other reason is because tugboats aren’t built for speed; they are built for power, which helps them guide massive freighters through the particulars of New York Harbor’s shipping lanes. Without these small but mighty tugs, massive ships that carry hundreds of containers, cross oceans and keep the global economy afloat, they’d never make it to their ports of call. 

As much as the impeccable restoration of the W.O. Decker gives you a sense of the boat’s history, so does its crew. That Sunday evening, the tug was helmed by a captain who had worked the ship from 1977 to 1985. Standing in the wheelhouse with him, as the boat passed between the southern tip of Governors Island and a Bayonne-bound cruise ship, he tracked harbor traffic. He worked the horn to alert other ships of which lane we were going to take. He logged details of the trip while sharing stories of his days on the boat when it was a working freight tug. 

With the sun drifting below the horizon over New Jersey, we made our way back to the Seaport. I wish the ride had been longer. After all, I’m the person in my friend group who talks up the idea of renting a lighthouse for a weekend or catching a ride on a freighter going down the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes on its way to a northern port at the western edge of Lake Superior. But you don’t need to hear the call of the open seas as much as I do to enjoy the opportunity of riding a historic boat and getting incredible views of the Statue of Liberty or the Lower Manhattan Skyline. Don’t miss your chance. Tickets to ride the Decker are on sale through September.