Tug Boat Dreaming

Photographers that pursue long term projects usually possess a great amount of knowledge around their chosen subject matter, whether through extensive research, sheer curiosty, the love of it, necessity, or all of the above.

At the outset of my now-labelled Realistic Project, I feel it’s important to establish that I know next to nothing about my chosen subject matter at this time, and that you’ll be following me on my journey of getting to know tugs, as well as my experiences of being on them.

Tug boats, or the industry that they serve, have always been cloaked in romantic fancy for me, until the day I decided I wanted to experience it for real, and a Magnum Photos workshop made it possible. This episode that started at the Workshops was me following blind instinct, playing out some buried compulsion. I’d not stopped in the March to August gap between my first and second experiences aboard a tug, to think about why I was so drawn to them. All I knew was that I was really keen, and someone-get-me-on-a-tug-boat-now.

So why am I so drawn to tugs?

It comes down to two things:

1. I like being on the water

copyright Charlene Winfred

No maritime background, or lineage of proud/rogue sailors in  my family’s runaway past. My father is a mad keen fisherman though, and that’s probably where it started. Dad would disappear for days on these extended fishing trips in the South China sea when I was little, bringing back ice chests full of all sorts of fish and a bunch of awesome stories each time (he is a sensational story teller). I begged to go for years and kept being told it would happen as soon as I was old enough.

So that was my 8th birthday present. My parents worried for their small, sickly child out at sea during the onset of the monsoon season, but as Dad would recall about 20 years later, I’d positively flourished in those 5 days. That was the beginning of yearly trips in Malaysian waters.

The things I remember about being at sea: Stormy days – large approaching masses of angry water waiting to eat the boat, securing anything that would fly when being tossed around. Listening to the boat creak and moan woefully in the thrash. Afterwards, small fish roiling on the water as the clouds moved away, far as the eye could see in every direction; a lone marlin worrying a frantic ball of its prey in the water, the glorious still-frame of a sailfish in flight, a line of sunlight gleaming off its saltwater lacquered dorsal fin, down curved flank and flashing off its sickle of tail. The curious, heady mix of brine and diesel fumes (and in this case, old fish) that to me, will always mean “port.”

But what I retain most about those days is staring up at clouds puffing into existence, wavering shards of sunlight converging conical to a point in the water, or at a horizon that was never really still, the way it is on land. I never took to fishing, but it allowed me to spend days dreaming in any available spot on the boat, with or without a rod in hand.

Now older, I am rediscovering my sea legs in that imaginary place, surprised to find it crossed the ocean with me.

2. Tug boats have a mystery working life.

Little non-industry specific stuff has been featured about tugs, as far as I have found. They don’t possess the impressive mass of large cargo ships, the holiday mystique of ocean liners, the romance of historic tall ships or the popular draw of recreational vessels. They are the worker bees of the ports, one variety of cog in the machinery of shipping, there to provide a service. You see them, but they don’t excite the imagination.

Unless you’re fascinated by working lives. How people do all the things that make the world go round. Why the thing that traps one man in a miserable existence is necessary to the beat of another’s heart. How people find wonder in what they do. What the reasons for that are.

And this is a working life one on the water, replete with “big boys toys,” to quote one tug master, patting a bulkhead fondly.

I find the combination irresistible.

I had plans to run away to sea fresh out of high school. As a good (or, trying to be so) Asian child, further study was the only choice I had at that point and I’d found, in the recesses of the motherland’s post secondary education options, a lotto win. A working life at sea. Perfect! It was vetoed by my parents, who probably had a very good idea of what was going on in my head, and so I came to Australia. Which was a big win of another sort entirely, but not too relevant to this story.

But a decade and a  half on, I’ve come full circle in idle daydreams where I am actually of some use at studying. I probably never will be a real sea farer, but documenting that life is something I can do, and have been given the opportunity to do by the good folks at Svitzer, and I still can’t believe my luck.

Jean Gaumy articulates perfectly for me, why the sea, and why tug boats:

March 1984 – I’ve been photographing now for fifteen years. Sometimes hard pictures, difficult moments. Combine them one day with the other pictures: moments of rivers, winds and shores. They belong to the same world. It’ll come on its own. I don’t know how.  I want to go out to sea and the desire already contains this seed. It can’t be about reporting. It’s about someting else. I don’t really know what. I’ll have to describe. Simply describe. Avoid deception, the heroic being. Stick with just man.
– from Men At Sea


Thanks to Flemming, who knows about following what’s in your heart, for the title of this post.


  1. Ray K says:

    Tugs have always drawn my attention as well. I believe it is the combination of precision and power. The gentleness of the work they do with so much power, in such a small container. Just a regular working guy getting through the day in port. Nothing fancy just total competency.
    Great post Charlene, great images and I sure hope for more of both.

    1. charlene says:

      I think you’ve hit the nail on the head Ray. I had another very long paragraph planned on the tug element itself for next post, but your first 2 sentences pretty sum it up. I imagine you’ve got some crazy images in your head from when you were on tugs. I have heard all these stories from tug crews (simplified for the landlubber) that just make me want to never leave.

  2. Mark says:

    I enjoyed this tremendously. Looking forward to checking out past posts.

    1. charlene says:

      Thank you Mark, and also for visiting :) Definitely more to come.

  3. “glorious still-frame of a sailfish in flight…” What can I say, it was worth the wait, it was worth the effort, I love the writing and sharing in your passion for the sea and tug boats. The little anonymous boats that can. They’re like all the president’s men, the big cruise liner but can’t do anything without the tug boats.

    It really is special to be able to follow your dreams and passions here, discovering it along with you. Very inspiring as well to see the joy and energy you get from pursuing this. I say rather fight for our dreams no matter how hard it is than living a sedentary life of regrets.

    That first image, that is going on a future wall of mine some day :) Third image I really like too, the scale is dramatic.

    Now, I must re-re-read from the beginning and anxiously await the next entry in Tug Boat Dreaming!

    1. ehm, and that was supposed to say “big cruise liners get all the glory but”…darn keyboard!

    2. charlene says:

      Heh! Thank you. I’m humbled and a little bit thrilled at everyone’s response to this so far. It’s taken me about three decades to get past all of my doubts and stuff to just walk up to something and grab it by the horns. Intoxicating stuff, glad I have a far more experienced wanderer to share the journey with.

      Don’t get too anxious about the next one. It’ll prolly take me another 2 weeks to write. It’s really hard not to ramble when I have about 72 other things (related or otherwise) to say for every sentence!

      1. Erin Wilson says:

        I think you’ve got that ‘grab it by the horns’ thing down now :)

      2. charlene says:

        Not quite. Hope I will some day though!

  4. I’ll admit to having no interest in tugs prior to reading this post, but just looking at your images has inspired interest. As for the photos themselves – just wonderful. I love the lighting, the sense of scale and detail. I look forward to seeing the completed project someday!

    1. charlene says:

      Thank you, and for visiting. Glad I’ve piqued someone else’s interest in tugs! :)

  5. great collection of images and fantastic stories/writings Charlene. really tells of your passion. and once again great snaps of everyday items that i’d just walk straight past. as i’ve mentioned before you really have a wonderful way of capturing them and telling a story in your photos.

    i especially liked your story on the fishing trip you talked about. I have such fond memories of going away camping with my dad and grandad on what I consider being my first time fishing- but turns out i’d been a couple of times before haha.

    it’s important to hold onto those- and you sure have done that.

    1. charlene says:

      Thanks Stephen. It would be a bit hard to walk past a tug and not notice it though. Tiny in the context of a big cargo ship, but the first time I got on one I was all “holy crap this thing is big!”

      I have a lot of memories of fishing trips. They were a little bit of magic in my childhood, and a lot of it had to do with being transported to another world, another way of living, another state of mind for a few days. Been spoilt by fishing on a boat though (even if it is a rickety, falling-apart wooden thing). Bring me fishing on the beach now and I’m all “pleh, there’s sand everywhere!”

      Ahh your love of camping has a history!

  6. Cathy says:

    Great post and lovely, lovely images. It sounds like you’re making things happen here, and that is very exciting! Looking forward to seeing the rest of this project.

    1. charlene says:

      Cheers Cathy :) I have started this project, but I have no idea how or when it’s going to end. Everytime I engage with these photos it jolts some old memory to the surface, so it seems to be doing the rediscovery/holding on for me while I work on it.

  7. christian says:

    Fantastic images, first and third for me are brilliant.

    1. charlene says:

      The first and third are probably the best images I’ve ever taken. For the subject matter, and the overall experience.

      Thank you :) Means a lot coming from you.

  8. alison says:

    Charlene ………….what a wonderful story teller you are ! In images and in words. Really loved them all, especially the first one . I live by the sea unfortunately my photographic skills are not as great as yours. But you are very inspirational!

    1. charlene says:

      Thanks very much for stopping by Alison. Keep shooting and share some of your work :) Do you have a site at all?

      1. alison says:

        Not yet ! I `m just learning really. I`m taking lots of photos (most not very good!) Also studying a lot of other peoples work . It`s really interesting to see different photographer`s take on the world ………………………………….. I want to ask you a million questions but I will bide my time!

      2. charlene says:

        No worries Alison. Keep shooting!

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