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Workin’ “Robby Bay”

Every spring begins as the birds migrate, the snow melts and the little white and green tug boat sitting in Massena, New York is brought out to play in its very own giant bathtub, the St. Lawrence River. 

Robinson Bay, Robby Bay as its handlers call it, ventures out each March roughly a week before the opening of a new navigation season to help prepare the Seaway for traffic. Thick ice sheets stand no chance against the 103’ long, 2,000 horsepower tug, which could easily steal a scene straight from the children’s storybook of The Little Engine That Could. Leaving the dock in the early parts of spring when there is ice flush against its hull can make it challenging to get out and do the duties at hand. Once free of the dock, Robby Bay provides an interesting ride for those onboard as it crashes through the ice, breaking it up into small chunks primarily between the Eisenhower and Snell Locks to allow for upcoming ship traffic to flow freely along that portion of the Seaway.

“This 2010 opening period was mild, with minimal ice throughout the region.  We have seen similar conditions the last couple of years. Our tug broke out from her home port at the Marine Base in Massena and had to open up the channel between the two U.S. Eisenhower and Snell Locks. There were no other icebreaking assets needed in the area for the opening of the Seaway.” said Patrick Broderick, Chief Marine Services for the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation (SLSDC) and Captain of the Robinson Bay.

Broderick, who has an extensive marine background, came aboard the tug back in 2007 when he assumed the role of Chief and became responsible for overseeing the operation of Robinson Bay. In addition to being at the helm as he and his crew ride along the river breaking ice, Broderick is also responsible for all U.S. floating and fixed aids to navigation on the Seaway, including buoy positioning, retrieval and deployment. Also, hydrographic surveys and sweeping operations, emergency response, tug assists for vessels, channel maintenance, ship inspections, ballast water testing and supervision of the marine crew all fall under his watch.

Not only does the Captain have an extensive background on the water, but the Robinson Bay itself has quite the story, too.

The SLSDC owned Robinson Bay was built back in 1957 in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin at the Christy Corporation Shipyards. The vessel was later christened in April of 1958 and transited to Ogdensburg, New York between April 19 and April 26 of that same year. It was there that the SLSDC on April 27, 1958 accepted its delivery.

Then in 1963, the Robinson Bay took on the duties formerly held by the US Coast Guard which included the management of some 200 navigational aids for commercial shipping based below Massena and extending all the way to Lake Ontario, a distance of more than 100 miles. Just last year, a portion of Broderick’s 12-person crew took that long journey up the Seaway and all the way to Hamilton, Ontario to deliver the tug and its barge for work needed. In addition, before making that trek, the Robinson Bay participated in the 50th anniversary ceremonies at the Eisenhower Lock.

The tug’s last major facelift came back in 1991 when the Robby Bay was re-powered in Cleveland, Ohio.  The upper pilothouse was also added at this time, something that was desperately needed to increase the visibility and safety of operations onboard the tug. 

Last month, the 12-person crew took to the water following icebreaking duties and set out to re-commission the navigational aids needed to ensure safe travel for the 700-foot freighters in the region. “We have overnight stops in Ogdensburg and Clayton during our de/re-commissioning periods.  These stops provide deep water access and dock storage for our aids to navigation as well they provide overnight accommodations for our marine crew.” explained Broderick. Throughout the winter months the navigational aids could be seen sitting along the shore in Clayton and during the last week of March those aids were picked up by Robby Bay and its barge and put back into the river.

After all is settled back into place the Robinson Bay takes the slow ride back to its “home base” in Massena, a ride that from Clayton to Massena take hours to accomplish, until there is reason for the little tug that could -  to travel back into our neck of the woods.

By Michael Folsom/

Michael Folsom is a regular contributor to TI Life.  He covered the Seaway’s Birthday Party in July 2009 and often writes about the Seaway.  Michael is an avid ship watcher and hosts a popular web site,, as well as a twitter site: His work has been featured in the Thousand Islands Sun, as well as on and  When not watching ships or writing about them, Michael works for the Syracuse Crunch, a professional hockey team.  He season ended this month, so expect to see Michael and his wife Christie on the River soon. 

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Brian Johnson
Comment by: Brian Johnson ( )
Left at: 8:45 PM Friday, April 16, 2010
Hi Mike,
great article on a well known ship that we really see so little of.
when you hear her name on the seaway radio channels it always means spring is just around the corneror... another season has come and gone!
Great story!!

Brian Johnson