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BC company’s tugs, barges prove to be vital for remote coastal loggers

Apr 29, 2016 04:04 PM
Storm Away Towing co-owner Bela Love at the helm of her 54-foot tugboat Stormaway V.

Storm Away Towing co-owner Bela Love at the helm of her 54-foot tugboat Stormaway V.

The alarm on the travel lift sounded and the operator lowered the 70 tons of heavily built tugboat back into the water, adjusted the straps and tried again. This time there was no alarm but the lift was at the hoist’s maximum allowable. The stern cleared the water to reveal a pair of props in nozzles.

Bela Love, who together with her husband owns Storm Away Towing Ltd., looked on from a nearby float and explained, “I pulled a boom chain into the starboard nozzle and bent that prop. We’ll get it off into the shop so that we should be back in the water this afternoon.”

Love’s comment was typical of the owner-operator of a tug who just wants to get back to work. Independents also understand the importance of good suppliers. “I phoned Ron at JJ Propeller in Mission. We pulled the prop that afternoon and he had it back the next day,” Love said. “He got a Storm Away shirt in appreciation of his service.”

The vessel has well-protected nozzles set firmly onto the stern.

As long as they had the boat out, Love and her husband Jim Brandon had a couple of other small repairs done. It was mid-afternoon of the following day before the boat was back in the water. Brandon left by truck to rejoin the couple’s other tug, the 1944-built 76-foot Glen Rover, as Love backed the 54-by-16-foot Stormaway V into the currents of British Columbia’s Fraser River at the Shelter Island shipyard.  

Although based in the Campbell River, halfway up the east coast of Vancouver Island, Love regularly tows her loaded 175-by-51-foot ramp barge down past Vancouver and about 35 miles upriver to Maple Ridge. She had recently brought it up with a load of 350 cords, or 44,800 cubic feet, of old-growth cedar blocks to be made into shakes. 

On this dark and rainy afternoon at the end of January, she was headed back upriver from the shipyard to pick up her barge for another trip north. It was 1420 when the boat was finally ready to leave the yard. Making her way out to the main stem of the river, she turned the wood-rimmed metal wheel to put the tug’s bow against the combined current of the river and the ebbing tide. With the GPS showing 7.1 knots against the 1-knot current, Love, who was born in Portugal, explained how she came to be running a tug on the British Columbia coast. “When I was 2, my parents moved to Canada,” she said. “First to Labrador then Montreal and eventually to the pulp-mill town of Powell River on the B.C. coast.”

Mate Mark Brideau puts a line up on a barge the quick way.

It was from there that Love first went commercial fishing as a 20-year-old. She trapped prawns, trolled for salmon and eventually for tuna off the Oregon coast. In time she earned her 60-ton master’s ticket. Seventeen years ago she married Brandon and together they own the little fleet of three tugs. “Jim wants me to upgrade my ticket so that I can also run the Glen Rover,” she added, “but when am I going to go to school for that? This tug works over 300 days per year with a two-week shutdown over Christmas.”

The story of Stormaway V’s migration from Europe to British Columbia is no less remarkable. Built in Holland in 1975 by the famed Damen Shipyards at Hardinxveld-Giessendam, the tug was brought through the Panama Canal and registered in Canada in 1988. Its Dutch origins explain the relatively low profile of the bright green and yellow superstructure, as well as the moderate shear of its black hull. A new Damen 55-foot Stan-class tug shows a very similar hull form with a well-fendered bow stem carried well below the waterline and a full-bodied hull form carried well aft. The low-profile deckhouse with galley/mess aft and bridge area forward has full windows all around. Secondary command stations, with their own engine controls and jog sticks, are on top of the wheelhouse as well as on the towing winch aft of the deckhouse. 

By 1445 Stormaway V was passing under the Alex Fraser highway bridge about 20 miles from the sea and just below New Westminster and the Fraser Surrey ship docks. Love handed the wheel off to her deck hand, 45-year-old Dwayne Bennett, who until a year ago was a banker. While he finds that being a full-time mariner comes with a steep learning curve, he is clearly pleased with the dramatic change in the tone of his life. 

Stormaway V boasts a big beamy stern with manual tow pins.

Love moved to the galley table where she compares cellphone pictures with mate Mark Brideau. The barge that they tow has a hydraulically operated 19-foot-by-38-foot ramp. The British Columbia coastline is riddled with inlets and strewn with islands. To log this coast, most of which has no road connections, all of the heavy equipment to build roads up the mountains and load and unload the logs and even the trucks to haul the logs back down to tidewater must come in by water. Brideau showed a set of images that had construction equipment off-loaded to a narrow bit of level land. A clearing was made and a large rock outcropping was charged with explosives. Then the equipment was loaded back onto the barge. The tug moved it a safe distance away and the dynamite was set off. 

The equipment was then moved back to site where the operation could be repeated until a site for the logging camp had been created out of the base of the mountain. Other images show heavy equipment being loaded on or off the barge. A cellphone video shows a helicopter carrying a net full of cedar shake blocks on the end of a 200-foot line and swinging the 1,000-pound bundle into place on the barge deck ready for piling by workers brought in by crew boat. The video shows the helicopter making a complete circuit in two minutes. Other videos show a cougar swimming across an inlet and countless still photos show spectacular sunsets among the islands. An equally spectacular video shows the tug’s spotlight flashing off huge seas cascading over the wheelhouse on a tow in heavy weather off the exposed west coast of Vancouver Island. The three crewmembers on this boat are as endlessly excited by their work and their tug as they are by the varied cargo and scenery. 

Inside the round-chined hull, some interesting arrangements have a storage area and head in the forecastle with access by short ladder from a watertight hatch on the port side of the wheel. Another couple of steps down takes one aft to a companionway with a twin bunk cabin to port and a master’s cabin to starboard. This places the accommodation area low in the hull, much closer to the middle of the vessel. This would give the crew a better rest in heavy seas than bunks in the forepeak or above the deck level. 

Brideau sets the lines on a barge.

Aft of that, another watertight door leads to an immaculate white-painted engine room. A pair of 400-hp Cummins engines takes up a good bit of the space, with ample room for a walkway between. The starboard engine has a hydraulic pump for the towing winch. A genset in one corner provides for the needs of the tug’s electronics. Twin Disc gears turn short shafts coupled to the nozzled propellers. For a boat of this size there is a lot of space fit in below the waterline. 

At 1645 the tug is six miles downriver from its destination in Maple Ridge. In another hour it had pushed up against the current to reach the barge. There is little tidal effect this far upriver, but the river flow is strong enough to slow the tug. When the boat does come up to its Maple Ridge destination, the barge is at a right angle to the river current with its ramp down and the port side being held by piles on the downstream. Brandon is there with the couple’s larger tug, Glen Rover, made up to the barge for safety. 

It took a bit of maneuvering to trade places with Glen Rover and get the smaller tug made up to the starboard stern quarter of the barge. Already loaded on the barge was a shipment of culvert pipe for an up-coast logging show to use in road building. Near the pipe were two huge cedar burls that had been brought down the coast and were destined for a woodworker friend in Campbell River. Two tank trucks for diesel and gasoline that Love’s subsidiary company, Bela Fuels, uses to supply isolated camps were ahead of the pipe. A large front-end loader/forklift for handling heavy cargo sat beside a big flat-deck truck to be used later to load animal feed for a monthly visit to farms on Lasqueti Island. In other places where there are local roads, the truck can be taken ashore and used to haul cedar shake bolts out of the woods. Despite all of this equipment, half of the barge deck was fully available for other freight that will be picked up on the southern portion of the coming 12-day voyage. 

The single-hook towing rig.

With the tug lines all secure to the barge, Brideau started up the barge engine and raised the hydraulic ramp. Then he and Bennett let go the mooring lines and climbed back aboard the tug. Love went up to the top controls and cranked the throttles to begin moving the barge out into the darkness and the river current. “This is not the best time to come out of here,” she said calmly. “It can be a bit tricky with this current.”

Once clear of the riverbank, Love swung the barge so that its bow was upstream. “It is easier for the crew to grab the bridles with the bow of the barge up into the river current,” she explained. 

On the stern of the tug, Brideau stood ready with a pike pole and hooked the rope bridle as the tug’s stern swung past. The two legs of the bridle are spliced to shackles. This assemblage was dropped onto a hook that Bennett was holding ready on the end of the 3/4-inch towline. With the barge hooked up, Love swung the 175-foot barge 180 degrees to head back downstream. It was 1845. The barge hookup is made simple by the use of a strong hook on the end of the towline. When asked if there was any danger of the hook falling out if the barge surged, Love acknowledged that it has happened a couple of times, but even in a running sea the crew are quickly able to reattach.

The Stormaway V crew lets go of the 178-foot ramp barge Elmo No. 1 before making up to the hip to push it into the slip. The barge has an operator’s cab for shelter while lowering the big ramp.

The three crew share the cooking responsibilities and had managed during the barge work to get pork chops into the oven. Now a prepared salad came out, and potatoes as well as Brussels sprouts were put on to boil. The tug and tow were making 9 knots going with the current. By the time the food was ready, the bridges at New Westminster were in sight. A highway bridge and a skytrain bridge are high enough, but an old rail bridge has a tricky swing span. A tug and tow have to approach the gap by favoring the south side so as to line up properly and pass through without damaging anything. Love told the crew to go ahead and eat while she took the tow through this tricky spot. She stayed on the wheel for a second railway swing span a couple of miles down at the entrance to the North Arm. She chose this route so as to pick up the load of animal feed at a barge dock on this channel. 

Finally in a straight stretch of the channel, Love got a chance to sit down to her pork chop. She explained that once they left the river terminal, the tow would go up Howe Sound, just north of Vancouver, to pick up the tops of two heavy 80-foot railway flat cars that will be used to create log dumps in an up-coast logging camp. Then they would travel west to Lasqueti Island, south to Chemainus on Vancouver Island to pick up a big grapple yarder, northeast to the mouth of Jervis Inlet to drop off spools of cable, across the Gulf of Georgia to drop off the grapple yarder at Campbell River, then to an isolated logging camp to pick up another grapple yarder, and the list goes on with stops up the mainland coast in Rivers Inlet, Draney Inlet, Burke Channel and finally Cousins Inlet to Ocean Falls. Along the way they will have picked up a load of logging equipment from one camp to be delivered to another camp near Klemtu some 350 miles north of Vancouver, although the tug and barge will have traveled much farther with all the side trips. 

Brideau tends to Stormaway V’s twin 400-hp Cummins engines. The white-painted engine room has an ample walkway and plenty of space. The starboard engine features a hydraulic pump for the towing winch.

Love expected the voyage to take about 12 days, although the many stops can make things unpredictable. She is following a proud tradition of supply service on the British Columbia coast that once included passenger and freight steamers. Decades ago, passengers and light freight moved to air travel, but with heavy equipment there remains a call for barge service. Logs come out by barge or booms of log bundles, but the high-value cedar blocks come on the Storm Away barge. 

As with all maritime ventures, there are risks. Love said how they once broke a towline off Cape Caution, a notorious place on exposed coast north of Vancouver Island. 

“We managed to pick up the bridle,” Love explained in her matter-of-fact manner. “We tied a bowline in the tow wire to get the barge into shelter in Smith Inlet. Then we fixed it properly.”

At 2130, the tug and barge arrived at the loading site on the river’s North Arm. They were still about 10 miles from the sea. Making up to the hip of the barge again, Love swung it 270 degrees in the narrow channel so as to approach the barge-loading pier at the best angle. The animal feed freight was waiting to be loaded onto the barge’s flatbed truck. Brideau said, “I can load the barge, you go ahead and get a nap. We have a long night ahead.”

Love considered for a moment and then, ever conscientious, said, “I’ll come up and show you.”

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