Gray Buzzards Towing Service

Some stories just beg to be shared. And in a spirit of light-heartedness and fun, this one’s a keeper.

I have membership in a recreational rowing club called Whaling City Rowing, located in New Bedford Harbor. Our club is made up of teams, and the crew I row with, is called The Gray Buzzards. The name, I must say, confuses me because we’re all so young and exceedingly good-looking. I’ve been with this band of merry men for twelve years or so and have long since forgotten who named us or why.

IMG_4462We share the waterways around New Bedford Harbor, which is connected to Buzzards Bay and the Atlantic Ocean beyond throughout the year with many commercial fishing vessels, sailboats and powerboats. Other recreational rowing clubs also enjoy the harbor and lower Acushnet River as well. As a matter of safety and courtesy, (as boaters should do everywhere) we also look out for one anther and offer assistance whenever it seems needed.

Some of our club members at Whaling City Rowing also belong to the New Bedford Rowing Club, which focuses on rowing racing shells. And a few of their members also row whaleboats. So it’s not uncommon for the “good morning” shouts out on the water to one another to also include a few “Hi John’s”, “Hey Bill” or “Hello Sara’s” as we pass one another on our early morning rowing workouts.

Whaleboats, for those unfamiliar with their shape, are wide andbeetle-1 stable enough for team members to stand up and carefully move around one another while underway. (Photo at right, from another club, will give you an idea.) Racing shells, by contrast, are like rowing and sitting on toothpicks, where little more than a sneeze could send its rowers overboard in an instant. This is why they always row with some of catch boat nearby while underway. (See photo of shells below)


Occasionally we have a little fun with them too, threatening to “come aboard,” which of course would be disastrous. They humor us, knowing that rowing whaleboats is as efficient as rowing bathtubs, and they sometimes challenge us to a race, offering to give us a quarter-mile handicap…which, in all likelihood, we’d still loose!


IMG_4463In early July the “Buzzards,” were rowing one of our club’s twenty-eight foot whaleboat with just four rowers, down one from the usual five pulling on oars. It was early, about 6:30 AM, and we were headed north on the upper harbor, when Bill, rowing stroke, noticed the “catch boat,” a pontoon-sided outboard used to coach and assist the rowing shells that belonged to our neighbor club, dead in the water and drifting slowly southward. We rowed over to the disabled boat and offered our assistance. We exchanged pleasantries with the young skipper, who thanked us but declined our offer to help.

I was steering our whaleboat that day, and upon hearing his decision, said that we’d stop on our way back down river to see how he was doing. We supposed that he was hoping, like anyone would, that he’d get his boat going again soon and wouldn’t need any help. His outboard was running fine, but the steering linkage, which works from behind the two pontoons, was apparently broken, preventing the catch boat from being steered anywhere at all.

As we rowed away some of us who own boats of our own and know what it’s like to be in situations like this, were perplexed by the boat’s operator’s decision to decline our help. The north side of the bridge is very quiet in the morning with hardly any boats coming by who could offer assistance, let alone offer a free tow. The harbormaster rarely comes north of the bridge, and since it didn’t appear that the catch boat operator had a marine radio, waiting for a professional tow boat might take a while. He did have a bull horn, however, which they use to communicate with the racing shells during practices, etc. As our team rowed away up river I had this mental image of the guy drifting about in the upper harbor hollering on his bull horn to anyone who might hear.

As offered, we stopped on our way back to offer help once again. This time the stranded boater accepted our offer to tow him back to their dock on the south side of the bridge. We had to tie our bow and stern lines together to use as a tow line so that the disabled boat wouldn’t hit our steering oar that extends eight feet off the stern of our whaleboat. For some strange reason the pontoon boat didn’t have any forward cleats, eyes or rigging to tie off to, so the young man, standing at the center console, said that he’d just hold onto the line that we threw him. Fine, I thought to myself, let’s see how this is going to work.

IMG_4464With just for rowers, it was a hard pull, but we were so tickled to be seen out on the water towing in a powerboat that the guys gave it their all and off we went. However, as predicted, because the skipper was standing essentially amidships and holding onto the tow line, his pontoon boat began to turn sideways, making it even harder for us to pull him along. So we asked him to move towards the bow and sit down on the meshing between the pontoons, still holding the line. This corrected the sideways drag and made things a bit easier for the four men rowing and towing along.

In addition to our whaleboat towing the outboard, we now had a small flotilla of shells of various sizes following along behind their malfunctioning catch boat. Now, instead of the catch boat dutifully following and protecting the racing shells, they were following him, who was being towed by us! Go ahead, call whaleboats cumbersome and slow all you want, but our sturdy workhorse, a replica of the past two centuries, historically known as the James Beetle Whaleboat, was getting the job done now! 

And as luck would have it, Bill, in addition to having spotted the disabled boat earlier, also brought with him his compact camera, and in between strokes Bill snapped the photos you see here.

IMG_4465Next came the bridge that both whaleboat and boat being towed needed to safely navigate underneath without hitting the stone bride supports on either side. The wind and tide were going in opposite directions that morning which made our approach and pull through tricky. But with good, seasoned and strong rowers (and exceeding good looking too) we made it through and rounded the next bend and headed for the home dock of the shells and pontoon powerboat.

We came alongside their dock and on my call had the young skipper drop the towline. He drifted slowly up to his dock and was home safe and sound.

We, having completed our little rescue mission, we’re rather satisfied with ourselves as we rowed onward and headed home to our own dock a short distance away. Of course tomorrow it could be our crew that needs rescuing out on the water, but for today at least, just call us the Gray Buzzards Towing Service.

Text by Kevin Lee

Photos in Gray Buzzards whaleboat by Bill Connolly

Some models of early James Beetle Whaleboats

Author: Kevin Lee

In a nutshell, Kevin fesses up to the following: He's a retired youth advocate-counselor, a blogger, writer, photographer, rower, Friends Minister, grandpa of six and married to a terrific woman for 43 years and counting!

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