The Operation of Tugboats on the Great Lakes – Spring 1981


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The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By Theodore N. Ferris

Tugboats seen in Great Lakes rivers and harbors are of two basic types. Probably the most familiar are the little 80-foot harbor tugs, which spend most of their time within the protected waters of harbors and rivers, towing freighters and other large ships to their berths. They rarely leave the harbors, usually not more than five or six times in a season. Since they operate so close to port, their crews live ashore. Even meals are taken ashore, so there are no galleys on the tugs. If a tug is going out into the lake, however, the towing company usually provides groceries and all requirements for life at sea.

Four men usually make up a harbor tug crew: the captain, engineer, and two deckhands, called linesmen. Three full crews are assigned to each tug in order to keep the vessel ready for use twenty-four hours a day. To accommodate the night crews when the boats are not in action, from three to four bunks, supplied with fresh linen, are tiered in the small V-shaped fo’c’sle in the prow under the foredeck. Each man makes up his own bunk, and each has a locker.

The other type of tug is especially built for dredging service. It is wider than the harbor tug and often considerably longer. Its sides rise higher from the water, and it has a special rubber or rope bumper at the stern for pushing back against dredge barges to keep them in position.

These tugs often move from port to port on twenty-four-hour duty and thus must be equipped to accommodate two or three full crews at once. Their crews consist of eight to ten men, including a cook-steward, who is in charge of meals and linens. These more commodious tugs are each equipped with a galley and two showers, as well as bunks, linens, and blankets.

Frequent dredging of channels in river, harbor, and dockside areas is required to maintain sufficient channel depth for deeply laden ships. This work is mostly done under contract by dredging companies that maintain their own fleets of tugs and barges. During the dredging operation, tugs nudge, pull, and push the barges on which high dredging cranes are mounted. These dredges are moved slowly over the channels as they bite into mud at the bottom and bring up dripping scoopfuls to be dumped into scows tied alongside. These tugs also tow the filled scows to designated, environmentally controlled dumping areas in lakes where they are emptied by opening hoppers in the bottoms of their hulls.

While a tugboat is in operation, the captain usually stands at the controls in the pilothouse, or he may sit on a high chair-stool provided for that purpose. A padded bench, extending across the pilothouse behind the captain, and a toilet in a tiny cubicle that opens onto the afterdeck are the only other comforts the vessel affords.

Upper level of the EDNA G. engine room. Image from the Library of Congress.

The greatest space on a tug is occupied by the 1,200-1,400-horsepower diesel electric engine and its 2,400-2,500-gallon fuel tanks. The engineroom is kept spotlessly clean and the engine in tiptop working order. Its power turns the 8½-foot propeller at the stern of the vessel, which pushes against the water to force the tug forward. When the motion of the propellers is reversed, the curvature of the blades causes them to push in the opposite direction and move the tug backwards. Steering is accomplished by turning the rudder at the stern, operated by the captain at the wheel, or steering lever, in the pilothouse, which is located in the foremost part of the cabin, where the captain has maximum visibility. The long, flat deck of the tugboat that extends to the stern is called the fantail and is kept clear at all times to allow the linesman to move freely while working with the heavy 8-inch towing lines during operation.

The tug’s silhouette is long and low against the water, and every inch of its design is engineered to provide stability under all types of strains and maneuverability in the tight quarters of river and harbor. Its appearance resembles that of a waterbug that lies flat against the surface and darts about, skimming the water. The tug does not skim the water, however, but sits deeply, her resistance to the water providing “traction” and adding to her power to move forward. Some tugs carry ballast of iron and concrete deep in their hulls, below the engines, to keep the propeller deep in the water for greater driving power. These small crafts are veritable powerhouses for pulling and pushing vessels many times larger than themselves.

During the spring, the tugs clear harbors of the dozens of vessels that have been tied up there through the winter. Besides their regular duties, they sometimes go into the lake, often during severe storms, to assist a stricken ship and pull her safely into harbor. Occasionally, tugs must circle about a storm-tossed wreck, assisting the Coast Guard and other vessels in picking up survivors. In case of disaster, the closest vessels – regardless of size or normal duty – race to the scene to offer whatever aid is possible.

In handling the giant freighters, the action of the tugs is mostly that of nudging or pulling the ship’s bow or stern from side to side to steer her, rather than pulling her through the water. The big ship’s own engines usually provide the thrust to move the vessel, and the tugs push or pull to give the prow or stern direction. The tug captain advises the ship captain by whistle blast and radio-telephone how to control the ship’s engines and rudder. If the ship cannot be turned around after unloading, she must be guided down the river, or out of the harbor stern-first.

Many modern freighters are now equipped with bow thrusters, and stern thrusters, propellers in their bows and sterns that let the big vessels move their prows or sterns from side to side. When the propeller blades churn toward the right side of the ship, the bow or stern is pushed to the left. When they churn toward the left side, the bow or stern is pushed to the right. Freighters equipped with these thrusters can follow the kinks of a narrow river, such as the Cuyahoga at Cleveland, Ohio, without benefit of tugboats- if all goes well.

The churning action of the thrusters, however, forcing water against the banks of a river, or narrowly confined harbor, has an undermining effect on the shores. In a narrow river, use of a tug can prevent much of this under- mining. It also relieves the ship captain of the need for watching over both bow and stern of his long vessel at the same time.

Once free of the confines of a harbor, the tugboat casts off the towline.

The big ship is free to proceed under her own power.

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About the Author: Mr. Theodore Ferris is an Assistant Editor of INLAND SEAS®, and the compiler of our Great Lakes Calendar. His interest in the Great Lakes has taken him to all their shores and connecting waterways. Mr. Ferris is also the author of three books of verse: Man’s World, Cloudview, and his latest, published in 1980, Spectrum, a quite unique collection of varied concepts and observations, ranging from intimate and personal, to life in general.

In addition to writing, Mr. Ferris’ talents include teaching and acting. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, and a Master of Arts from the University of Chicago.


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