[Times photos: Toni L. Sandys]
George Steinbrenner greets a guest at the christening of the Independent. Marine Towing of Tampa represents a return to the maritime industry for Steinbrenner's family, though he is not directly involved.
Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio christens the Independent, the newest boat in Marine Towing of Tampa's fleet.
Steve Swindal is a partner with the Yankees as well as the chairman of Maritime Towing.
"We've been itching to get back in the business," he said.
TAMPA - Dark morning clouds threatened, but they did not stop the cutting-edge, $5-million tugboat Independent from strutting its stuff for the local media in the port waters behind the Florida Aquarium.
Like a pro jockey handling a thoroughbred, Capt. Lawrence LeDuc took the Independent's powerful dual Rolls-Royce drives and Caterpillar engines through their paces. LeDuc turned the tugboat in a perfect circle to show its maneuverability, each hand on a maritime joystick. Through the tug's windows, 360 degrees of port scenes flew by.
When LeDuc piloted his first tugboat in the Tampa port in 1963, he had 325-horsepower at his command. On the tugboat's high-tech bridge Tuesday morning, LeDuc had 5,000-horsepower at his beck and call. In the busy ports around Tampa Bay, there's no container ship, no bulk cargo ship and no cruise ship that this muscular, 92-foot vessel cannot direct and gently dock.
There's something about the unveiling of the Independent that reminds me of another recent and splashy debut: the signing of baseball superstar Alex Rodriguez by the New York Yankees.
Both, it turns out, are now the properties of George Steinbrenner and family.
After a seven-year hiatus, the Steinbrenner family is returning to the maritime business. The family last year purchased a majority stake in a private tugboat company called Marine Towing of Tampa and ordered the building of a new vessel.
Tuesday afternoon, the Independent was formally christened by Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. As the contents of the champagne bottle splashed the mayor as much as the tugboat, Iorio noted that Tuesday was her birthday and, courtesy of the christening, now the tugboat's. Both mayor and tug, she added, were born in Maine. The tug was built in Boothbay.
The addition of the Independent - Marine Towing's fourth tugboat - is the Steinbrenner family's way of saying the young company wants to become a bigger player serving the various ports of Tampa, including Big Bend and Port Manatee.
The Steinbrenners have been in the maritime business since their ships hauled goods across the Great Lakes in the late 19th century. The Independent is named after one of those ships: the Kinsman Independent.
Family patriarch George Steinbrenner, best known as "The Boss" and the demanding owner of the Yankees, continued that shipping tradition in Tampa with his American Shipbuilding Co. That business hit hard times from cutbacks and conflicts in Navy contracts in the late 1980s. It sought bankruptcy protection in the early 1990s.
The last of the Steinbrenner family's maritime empire, a major area tugboat operator called Bay Transportation Corp. was sold to Fort Lauderdale's Hvide Marine in 1997. Hvide's business later morphed into a company called SeaBulk, whose area tugboats compete directly with Marine Towing.
Marine Towing was founded four years ago by former SeaBulk employees who earlier had worked with the Steinbrenners at Bay Transportation.
George Steinbrenner attended the Independent's christening, but is not directly involved in the tugboat company.
Aboard the Independent, Marine Towing chairman - and George Steinbrenner's son-in-law - Steve Swindal served as tour guide, showing off the air-conditioned, mahogany-trimmed bridge as well as the ear-splitting engine room. Swindal also served for 10 years as Bay Transportation's chairman, so he has a personal stake in getting back into the tugboat business.
"The port is the nerve center of Tampa," said Swindal, who turns 50 this summer. "We've been itching to get back in the business."
Not that this local tugboat business will fill Swindal's plate. On his finger rests an oversized and bejeweled New York Yankees World Series ring that reflects Swindal's other job: as one of the rising general partners in the Yankees organization.
When Yankees manager Joe Torre recently agreed to a three-year, $19.2-million contract extension, who was a major player in the negotiations? Swindal.
When some sports writers close to the Yankees speculate about a likely successor to the 73-year-old "Boss," whose name often heads the list? Swindal. Even ahead of Steinbrenner sons Henry and Harold. Harold is vice chairman of Marine Towing.
Swindal, born and raised in Tampa and married to Jennifer Steinbrenner, is not one to toot his own horn. But there's obviously a lot of family confidence in him to revive the family's shipping heritage.
Swindal enjoys the tugboat business. From his Davis Islands home, he said, he can hear the shrill whistles and penetrating horns of the tugboats as they navigate the port's canal that leads to Tampa Bay.
How grand is Swindal's vision for Marine Towing? "The pie is only so big in Tampa," he cautioned. But the 25-employee company will grow as the ports around Tampa grow, he said. He sees more tugboats in the future.
That's no surprise. Everybody knows how the Yankees play any game.