July 25, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A group of seven men affectionately known as The Havana Mafia drink, smoke cigars, and solve the world’s problems on Thursday afternoons at Havana Garage in the Old Market.

Picture this scenario: on one Thursday afternoon this spring, the group heard a summery statement from member George Perlebach.

“Let’s take the boat out,” he announced.

The seven friends, armed with sandwiches and cigars, were soon riding the waves on Cunningham Lake at the slow, steady pace of nine knots—about 10 miles per hour—on Perlebach’s tugboat. Some of these lawyers, doctors, judges, and media professionals came straight from work and were not dressed for boating. Perlebach, though, looked a bit like Jimmy Buffett and boasted an adventurous attitude reminiscent of Hemingway. His flip-flops, sunglasses, and relaxed vibe seemed straight out of “Margaritaville.” Riffs of Buffett’s signature song drifted from the radio as the sun set.

It’s a perfect night, according to Perlebach, who believes boating is all about hanging out with friends.

Perhaps that is why he wanted a tugboat. Perlebach retired as a family practice physician two years ago, about the same time he purchased the boat; a mini-tug. Whatever the reason, he can’t wait to spend more time on the water. Perlebach, 65, has been obsessed with boats since childhood, when he built models of ships out of anything, including boxes. He always wanted to move to the coast.

“The sea gods cursed me and I ended up in Nebraska,” Perlebach said, laughing.

The former doctor found jet skis and pontoon boats too boring. Why not buy one built for the ocean? Tugboats are typically ships that push or pull other vessels and are rarely seen on the lakes and rivers of Nebraska. He found a slightly used 21-footer, the smallest available, for sale in Virginia. Perlebach, along with his fiancée, son, and two grandchildren, rechristened it the Pelican with a champagne bottle made of sugar. He wanted it to be named the Lazy Pelican, the Drunken Pelican, or even the Kinky Pelican, but all those names were too long.

“The pelican has a perfect life,” he explains. “It sits by the ocean, gets hungry, and eats fish. What could be better than that?”

The 2014 tugboat, like its namesake, won’t get anywhere in a hurry. The diesel engine, a Volvo D1-30 three-cylinder, runs at 30 horsepower, roughly the same as some lawnmowers. The good news is it burns about a quart of diesel an hour at full throttle. A 20-gallon tank can fuel the boat for about 350 miles. It barely tugs itself.

The outside is red, white, and tan. It has authentic brass porthole windows and a gold barometer clock. Although it looks old-school, it has been modernized with an emergency radio and GPS depth finder. A bed could be placed below deck and fit two tightly. The Pelican is ready for long stays on the sea, including such necessities as a toilet. The teak wood has been polished to a bright shine. A gold plate taken from a boat his father owned hangs inside, proclaiming, “Nobody’s perfect, except the captain.” A storage area fits swimsuits, tank tops, and towels. A refrigerator keeps beverages cool while a stove is ready for use under one of the white seats. It has windshield wipers and a heater so the Pelican is ready for stormy weather.

So far, the little tug has seen time on Lake Michigan, Branched Oak Lake, and Lake Cunningham, but the boat, and its owners, are about to find new adventures. Perlebach is building a home in Valley, Nebraska, on the sandy shores of Bluewater, which features seven miles of beaches and lake depths that average 40 feet. He hopes to take the Pelican out every weekend, or even every night, after he moves.

For now, Perlebach is grateful for every chance he gets to feel the wind in his face with friends and family by his side.


This article was printed in the August/September 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

George Perlebach and his tugboat

George Perlebach and his tugboat, the Pelican, at Blue Water Development. The Sluggish Pelican Swoops Down on Nebraska