Tugs Aweigh

Holt family’s tugboat work spans generations and Maine, N.H. borders

By Nancy Cicco
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A ride on a tugboat is a tour through history.

No local family understands this better than the Holts, whose time on the tugs stretches back far longer than any towline they may use day-to-day to guide ships to safe harbor.

Dick Holt Sr., a senior ship pilot and captain, reflected on that history recently from inside his Portsmouth Pilots Inc. office, which overlooks the tugs tied up at the Ceres Street wharf along the Piscataqua River.

"We go back to the late 1800s," Holt says, invoking the name of Henry B. Holt, his great-grandfather. Not long after the end of the Civil War, Henry Holt found work on "Little Round Top," a tugboat that worked on the Union River in Ellsworth, Maine. The tug was named in honor of the hill where Col. Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine’s troops won the day at Gettysburg.

"What tugboats did back then was (take) big sailing ships in from the mouth of the river to where they were going to tie up," Holt says.

Fuel engines have replaced steam power in the tugs, but their mission remains virtually unchanged: Ship pilots and tug crews work with ship captains, who are often unfamiliar with the ebb and flow of local waters and the geography of regional channels, to bring the larger vessels safely to dock.

A generation after Henry Holt worked the trade, Dick’s grandfather, Shirley H. Holt, rode the tugs up and down the Maine coast, and the Piscataqua River, which defines the border between New Hampshire and Maine.

Shirley’s work helped quench Portsmouth residents’ thirst for their favorite local beverage. The sailing ships of Shirley’s day often brought hops and wheat to port for use at the city’s Frank Jones Brewery.

The Piscataqua River tugs as well played a critical role in a national tragedy. Shirley Holt was working as a pilot on May 23, 1939, when the USS Squalus submarine, built at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, sank during a test run about five miles off the coast. Flaws in two of the submarine’s valves caused the Squalus to take on water. Although a pressurized diving bell invented by Navy officer Charles "Swede" Momsen lifted 33 of the Squalus’ crew members to safety, 26 others died as the submarine fell some 240 feet to the ocean floor.

Shirley Holt was responsible for towing the Squalus back to the Navy yard after it was raised.

The Navy yard took control of the local tugs during World War II, about the time the industry’s steam-powered tugs were phased out. After the war, the private tugboat industry "really got active" on the river, Holt says.

By then, Dick’s father, Shirley Holt Jr., got in the game, working as a tugboat captain and ship pilot. Among other jobs of the day, the locally owned tug business, Portsmouth Navigation, brought coal to a former power plant on the site of what is now Harbour Place.

Steeped in maritime tradition, Dick and his brother, Shirley H. Holt III, came of age on the water and worked with both their grandfather and father. Dick recalls often working on one vessel as his father passed by on another. The brothers both attended Maine Maritime Academy, graduating with U.S. Coast Guard licenses as deck officers and ensigns in the U.S. Naval Reserve.

"And then you go and do things on the water," Holt explains. Both young men went on to active duty. Shirley served on an LST (landing ship, tank) for three years, an amphibious ship so designated because it can land on shore and is large enough to carry military tanks, among other equipment.

Shirley went on to work in the Merchant Marine. By 1958, Dick was enrolled in submarine school and was stationed out of New London, Conn. There, he served on a submarine built in Portsmouth and named the USS Sailfish, which was also the name given to the Squalus when it was recommissioned, he says.

By 1961, Dick returned home, to work alongside his father on the tugs, as Shirley Holt Jr. was then battling cancer.

"Someone had to come back here and train with my dad," Holt says. Brother Shirley returned home two years later to join Dick and their father, before the elder Holt died.

Along with Holt, today, Portsmouth Pilots Inc. employs both his son, Dick Holt Jr., and Shirley’s son, Chris Holt. Joining the family clan in that work is Matt Cote of Eliot, Maine. All of them have backgrounds in tugboats and are also tugboat captains. The employees share a building on the wharf with Moran Towing of New Hampshire. That company supplies the tugboats for pilotage jobs.

Modern-day regulations require a ship pilot to have a U.S. Coast Guard federal pilotage license in order to work federal waters such as the Piscataqua. The waters are defined as such because they are maintained by the federal government and support interstate and foreign trade. But the federal license will only enable a pilot to work on American flag ships, which today are in dwindling supply. To board foreign vessels, each pilot must also acquire a state license.

To get that certification, candidates must serve as apprentices with veteran pilots. To learn how to work the Piscataqua River, Holt estimates that apprenticeship can last for at least five or six years. Indeed, he says his son, Dick Holt Jr., has worked as a pilot for 15 years, having apprenticed for some eight or nine years.

Apprentices need that time to learn ship handling, the waterway’s cross-currents and back eddies. Tug crews do their best to avoid working on the river when the current is running its fastest, up to 4.5 knots in some spots.

"The Piscataqua River is a high-anxiety, unforgiving (river)," Holt says. "Anybody coming here on a ship the first time … they are very, very apprehensive when they see where we’re going."

As a reminder of what it takes, Dick keeps a quote from writer and one-time Mississippi steamboat pilot Mark Twain close at hand in his office.

"A pilot must have a memory of substance; but there are two higher qualities (that) he must also have," the quote reads. "He must have good and quick judgment and decision, and a cool, calm courage that no peril can shake."

Chris Holt, 40, Shirley’s son, is currently serving his apprenticeship, and "should be ready to handle just about anything" by the time Dick, now 67, retires next year after his 44-year career.

"I love tugboats, working with the tugs and the men. I really worry about missing (it)," he says, before mentioning Chris’ brother, Steve Holt, also works the river as the captain of the tugboat the Eugenia Moran.

"I’m blessed to work with all these family guys."