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Living the life of a woman on the water
A Tugboat Captain Who Loved His Women Crew
A Tugboat Captain Who Loved His Women Crew New Hampshire - Captain Frank Lambert, Jr. (1924-2012), the father of six daughters, died peacefully May 11 following a brief illness. His wife of 65 years, Debbie, was at his side. Throughout the 1970’s, Frank was owner and operator of the tug “Babe” on the Chesapeake Bay, a 1906 converted steamer with 450 horsepower. He later owned the DPC tug “Nanticoke”, nicknamed the “Nanny Goat” on the Bay for the number of women in Frank’s crew. (The converted steamer was nicknamed tug "Babes").Based on Frank’s motto, “If they can do it, so can I,” the Lambert family had some of the slowest commercial tugs on the Bay but never gave up acquiring their own grain barges. Single-screw and with most tugs passing them by, they hauled Delmarva Peninsula grain to the international ship trades in Norfolk and Philadelphia. Frank’s wife and daughters lined up on deck and stood by their non-union captain in confrontations with longshoremen on the docks. They were often praised for riding out 12’ seas in nor’westers, which required top seamanship down to their 13 year old, but they in fact didn’t have the horsepower to outrun nature’s poundings. With pet cats and dog mascot, “Toto”, Frank’s wife and teen daughters lived aboard their beloved tugs as home. They held watches, did half-hour engine rounds, hauled the hawser, wasted no time on shoes, and hand-sewed red-gingham curtains for the portholes. Viet Nam vet Zeke Bernard, the outnumbered bo’sun in charge of the teenage girls below decks, often wondered if war made more sense.Wife and first mate Debbie Lambert became the first woman in the United States to be a licensed tugboat operator. She was the first woman Able Bodied Seaman licensed in the port of Norfolk, followed by two AB daughters, one after losing her hip in a winch wheel in Thimble Shoals. Frank and Debbie tried to balance sea life by playing music in the galley and teaching their teen daughters how to waltz by the old diesel stove. The tugboat adventures of the Lambert family is captured in Emily Lambert’s book, “Tugging On A Heartstring.”Frank Lambert, Jr. was born in South Dakota in 1924, the son of Reverend Frank Lambert and Barbara Arden Murless Lambert. Living in Cambridge, Maryland prior to WWII, the Reverend Lambert at one point spotted his son Frank, and his younger brothers, sailing a stolen skiff on the Choptank River. His sons tried to disappear under the gunnels of the stolen boat but in fact sailed directly under the steamboat being chartered by the Reverend’s church - and crowded with members of his parish. He quickly got Frank his own skiff. Frank, in his heart, never came ashore again. He sailed skipjacks from Cambridge to Baltimore with loads of watermelons and produce, for a dollar a day wage. Upon the outbreak of WWII, Frank dropped out of high school, lied about his age, and tried to join the Navy; they wouldn’t take him because he was deaf in one ear, his ear drum blown out by a fire cracker on a Fourth of July in Cambridge. He joined the U.S. Merchant Marine, sailing convoys to Europe and advancing to 3rd Mate. After serving six weeks in an Allied prison for striking an officer on the bridge, Frank sailed ammunition ships in the Pacific because the pay was higher with live ammunition. After the war, Frank’s natural preference to be outdoors was complete. He went to Cornell University’s Agricultural School and with his new bride, Debbie, began a life of dairy farming followed by years of harness horse racing, from Maine to Maryland. Racing harness horses as a competing driver later helped his instincts in docking barges.The USCG banned the Lambert family and their 50’ wooden bugeye sailboat in the late 1960’s from a Chesapeake port, along with their flotilla of three other bugeye families, known as the “Dinghy Sinkers of America” for their propensity for singing into the night and sinking the dinghies of anchored yachts in the harbor. The Dinghy Sinkers, however, would always place the contents of the crafts on top of the flipped hulls.Frank briefly returned to college, got his masters in English, and taught school; however, within a handful of years he returned to the merchant marines as an Ordinary, upgrading to the wheelhouse and finally buying tug “Babe.”After selling their tugboat company, Frank and Debbie lived on a 51’ Morgan ketch, the “Deborah”, for 17 years with no telephone whatsoever. They fished for supper, drank rum, read books, and sailed throughout the Caribbean and alone trans-Atlantic to “see Debbie’s cousins in that damned Switzerland.” And they had a ball. Captain Frank Lambert, Jr. leaves his best friend and first mate, Debbie, their six daughters, eight grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
Correction: After reading this obituary, Debbie Lambert pointed out one mistake. Frank didn't serve time in an allied prison for striking an officer on the bridge at that point, but for peeing off the deck of his ship onto some Army troops.