Tugboat Tommy Decker is captain of the Slackwater Towboat Co., the scruffiest fleet on San Francisco Bay.

Boldly emblazoned on his shabby craft is his motto: "If there's no wind and no tide, we'll two anything, anywhere."

"I was born and raised on the Richmond waterfront. And I've had a lifelong love affair with tugboats," he said.

The 33-year-old graduate of the University of California's Davis campus has an irresistible attachment to tugs "because they're so strong and they have so much character."

The 68-year-old Panama is the flagship of his fleet.

"I heard about an ancient tugboat that gave up the ghost and slid unceremoniously to the bottom off Berkeley," said Decker.

"Her owners said 'good riddance.' I inquired about salvage rights. 'Take her,' said her owners. 'Take her. She's yours.'"

It was a dream come true. Decker raised the Panama from 18 feet of water and the Slackwater Towboat Co. was born.

"Everything about the Panama is fine until you get 8 inches above the water line," said Tugboat Tommy as he stood on the rotting deck.

The steel rails have long since pulled loose from the hull and rusted spikes dangle in the rot.

"She's a rot bag, but she's seaworthy. She's legal. Her 10-ton Atlas diesel (engine) still klunks steadily along," said the bachelor tugboat captain with obvious pride.

During the eight years Decker has owned the Panama he has towed scores of loaded barges, houseboats and fancy yachts around the bay and up rivers.

"I've towed loaded barges as far as Stockton, 75 miles up river," he noted. "It took 32 hours to make the run up and back.

"She shakes violently every inch of the way, but there's great strength below her water line."

With his earnings from the Panama, Decker has added two other rot bags to his burgeoning fleet. The 73-year-old Hilda he bought for $12,000, and the 52-year-old Margaret Lauritzen cost him $5,000.

The Margaret Lauritzen is on the way to being outfitted with new planks on the stern.

Because of the condition of his craft, Tugboat Tommy's rates are the lowest in the bay, but he never sails in high winds and rough seas.

Recently in an upriver scrap pile he found an old pilot house from a tug that died half a century ago. Now he's looking for a boat to fit the house.

"Being under way on a tug for me is the ultimate blast," said the master of the frayed fleet with a wide grin.

"Tugs get you away from the city. It's just you, your deck hand and the radio, that's it. Peace and quiet. No one to bug you.

"On your own up the river or out in the bay..."