A tugboat with sails makes about as much sense as a Sherman tank with snow tires.
Sails are supposed to be reserved for sleek, trim racing yachts, not homely, steel-bottom work boats that push around barges filled with sludge and garbage.
That, at least, is what Lane A. Briggs, a 47-year-old sea captain, believed until he started fooling around in his tugboat with some old bedsheets and a sky diver's parachute.
Briggs was pulling two pile-driving barges from here to Baltimore one weekend five years ago, when he decided to put up the makeshift sails. "First thing I knew, we was picking up speed," Briggs said.
After five years of experimenting and persuading his banker that he was not crazy, Briggs has launched the Norfolk Rebel -- the first steel-bottomed tug boat in the world especially designed to use sails in addition to its conventional diesel engine.
Briggs, whose reddish beard has been bleached white by two decades on the Chesapeake Bay, smashed a bottle of sourmash whisky on the tug's bow before sliding into into the water last month. "I felt a good hard boat like deserved a good hard whisky," Briggs explained.
Since the price of diesel fuel has become the overwhelming worry of Chesapeake Bay Watermen, the federal government and Norfolk officials say Briggs' sailing tug deserves not only hard liquor, but a hard look. Last week, the National Marine Fisheries Service agreed to give Briggs about $72,000 in federal money to outfit his tug and test it for fuel economy. The state-run Virginia Institute of Marine Science has agreed to do computer studies of the tug's sailing efficiency.
At the tug's christening, which was attended by about 600 people, Norfolk Mayor Vincent Thomas called the Rebel "the greatest thing that's happened to Norfolk since the end of the last yellow fever epidemic (in 1885)."
In a good, stiff wind, the sailing tug should save up to 40 percent in diesel fuel consumption, according to John Luce, who has made some preliminary studies of the craft for the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. If he is correct, the savings on a round trip to Baltimore, for example, could be up to $500 in fuel.
"You've got your brigantine and your barkentine," Briggs said, referring to sailing vessels. "Well, we got out tugantine.''
Briggs, who wears a gold earring in his left ear, has a knack for knowing a good word when he stumbles upon it. He registered his word "tugantine" as a trademark and, through a marina he runs here, has sold more than 2,000 "tugantine" t-shirts.
His son, Jesse, 22, has delivered a tugantine paper at the International Tug Conference in Hamburg, Germany. And Briggs has put together an elaborate plastic-covered fact sheet on his boat, which is still docked in his marina awaiting its sails. The fact sheet includes a "Norfolk Rebel Bibliography," and 17 newspapers and magazine articles that have mentioned his tug.
The captain doesn't mind a little self-promotion. He has an ear for the catchy name, and once he finds one that he likes, he stays with it. Briggs has named nearly everything in his business "Rebel," including his marina, both of his tug boats and his dog.
"That's right," says Briggs the son of a North Carolina dirt farmer turned tugboat master. "Everything with me is Rebel." Indeed, the whisky bottle he bashed on the bow of his tug was labeled "Rebel Yell," the only brand that Briggs claims to drink.
Briggs makes no apologies for trying to attract attention to himself and his boat. "If you have a dream, you have to get the peoples' attention."
The dream for which Briggs has successfully attracted attention is a 51-ft. long, 66,000 pound tug that will be powered by a set of sails that will be attached to two masts and a 320 horsepower diesel engine, when the winds are low. The masts are short so they can fit under all the bridges in the Intercoastal Waterway.
When the Norfolk Rebel is ready for work, probably sometime late this summer, Briggs says he'll use it for salvage, towing and commercial fishing. What will he do it he's pulling a barge into the wind?
"I'll take down the sails," said Briggs. "Obviously, you can't use the sails with a lead wind and you can't tack into the wind when you're pulling a barge. But we figure we can use the sails about 60 to 70 percent of the time on the bay."
With 1,048 square feet of sails and a 30-mile-an-hour wind, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science has estimated the tug can save up to six gallons of diesal fuel an hour. The tug would normally use about 12 gallons an hour.
Clifford Hubbard, a longtime by sailor and maritime writer for The Virginian-Pilot, calls Briggs' idea "an authentic first" and says he's surprised no one else ever came up with the idea before.
"There's a lot of going for this tugantine besides fuel (savings)," Briggs said. He claims a tug with sails rides smoother in rough water, that an engine will last longer and that there's always the "come-home capability." By that, Briggs means that if his engine conks out or he runs out of diesel fuel, he can sail home -- if the wind is blowing.