Theodore Tugboat, from TV star to Maritime ambassador

Posted on May 28, 2021 | Avery Mullen | 0 Comments

For nearly a decade in the 1990s and early 2000s, children around the world could learn about Nova Scotia’s maritime industry, 15 minutes at a time, from their families’ living rooms.

For a province rarely noticed outside of the Maritimes, the Theodore Tugboat television franchise was a boon. It was a popular, widely syndicated show that was made in Nova Scotia and showed one of the province’s most crucial and historically significant sectors in an unambiguously positive light.

The series aired on television stations in 80 countries, including public broadcasting behemoths PBS and the BBC. It told the story of anthropomorphized tugboats rescuing oil rigs from storms, patrolling Halifax harbour during winter freezes and helping repair broken-down fishing trawlers.

The 130 episodes were shot using model boats against a reproduction of Halifax’s skyline that included landmarks like the Macdonald Bridge and the office towers at Purdy’s Wharf. Most of the characters were named after places in Atlantic Canada, including Halifax’s Brunswick Street and the Newfoundland town of Bonavista.

The show was created by Andrew Cochran, a journalist, businessman and occasional university instructor. After Theodore Tugboat ended, he went on to become the CBC’s head of news strategy and spearheaded the public broadcaster’s switch to a “digital first” format. He also founded media consulting firm Cochran360.

In 2000, the series also spawned a life-sized replica of its titular character, christened Theodore Too. The real-life tugboat was operated as a tourist attraction, first by Cochran’s now-defunct media production company, Cochran Entertainment, and then by Murphy’s on the Water and later Ambassatours.

In March, 2020, Theodore Too was bought by industrialist Blair McKeil of McKeil Marine, who plans to use it as an “ambassador” for the marine industry. He said in an interview that his team will sail the tugboat around the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway region over the next year.

“I think it’s about creating a social awareness and also an awareness that there’s great work, whether you’re working a shore yard, or on the docks, or on a ferry, or whatever that is,” he said. “But it’s a holistic approach we’re taking, so it’s not about something where I might have a particular interest in… a certain business.

“We’re thinking Theodore is going to be just a great ambassador for all the things that are great about this country, but primarily water and the industry around it.”


Theodore Tugboat in Halifax Harbour, 2003. (Source: Creative Commons/Kelly Nigro)


Theodore Too is a large-scale imitation tugboat based on the fictional tugboat Theodore from the television show Theodore Tugboat. Shown here at Murphy’s cable wharf in Halifax Harbour, 2012. (Source: Creative Commons/Dennis Jarvis)

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