Natick class harbor tugs help to move large, unwieldy vessels safely in and out of ports. The tugs are equipped with one 2,000-horsepower diesel engine driving one propeller. They are approximately 109 feet in length and 29 feet wide (beam), have a draft (distance between the waterline and the bottom of the ship) of 13 feet, and typically have a crew of 12. These tugs push and pull U.S. military vessels, ranging from 102,000-ton Nimitz-class aircraft carriers to guided-missile destroyers, out of their moorings and into the open sea and bring them back to their berths when the ships return. In addition to its tug duties, the Natick class tug has firefighting equipment to fight harbor and ship fires.
In 1961, construction began on the first of the large harbor tugboats, or tugs. Of the 76 tugs of the class that ultimately would be delivered to the U.S. Navy by 1975, four were named for Alabama cities: the USS Tuscumbia (YTB 762), USS Opelika (YTB 798), USS Eufaula (YTB 800), and the USS Tuskegee (YTB 806).
The USS Tuscumbia was built by the Southern Ship Building Corp. of Slidell, Louisiana, and was delivered to the Navy in 1961. It began service in San Diego, California, and then moved to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Tuscumbia was stricken from the Navy List in 1995 and is currently moored with the Suisun Bay Ready Reserve Fleet, also known as the "mothball fleet," near San Francisco Bay.
The USS Eufaula also was built by the Southern Ship Building Corp. and was delivered to the Navy in 1969. It served in Norfolk, Virginia, and Naval Station Rota, Spain, until 1992, when it was stricken and also transferred to the Maritime Administration National Defense Reserve Fleet.
The USS Opelika was built by Marinette Marine Corp. of Marinette, Wisconsin, and was delivered to the Navy in 1969. After extended duty in Subic Bay, Philippines, the Opelika was transferred to Yokosuka, Japan, where it currently serves. It is the last of the four Alabama-city-named Natick class tugs still on active duty as of 2012.
The USS Tuskegee was built by Peterson Builders of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, and delivered to the Navy in 1970. This vessel served in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, for its entire career. Stricken in 2006, it was sold in operational condition by the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service to a private company in 2008.
At one time, the Navy owned and operated hundreds of tugs in ports around the world. Today, Yokosuka, Japan, is one of the last bastions of the large harbor tug operated by the Navy. Even there, only five large Navy harbor tugs still operate, the USS Opelika among them. The Navy has increasingly contracted with commercial tugboat companies to provide services as required. This trend is expected to continue until all Navy tugs have been decommissioned. Of the 76 original Natick-class tugs, only 15 remain on active duty.