Veteran ocean captain serves up tug tales with side of adventure

I first met Capt. Chris Common about 25 years ago when I rode out with him on the tug Coos Bay to put a pilot up on a ship. As the ship followed us back in across Oregon’s Coos Bay Bar, he told me of the time when the Coast Guard saw his tug lay over on its side so far that they could see his prop. On board, water sprayed through the keyhole in an old-style wooden wheelhouse door. 

Common also spoke of his father, the late Jim Common, who was then a pilot in Long Beach, Calif., but had begun his career ferrying Miki tugs across the Atlantic to Europe in World War II. I later met Jim in Los Angeles — he was retired then — but his tales of ocean towing were the stuff of a mariner’s dreams. 

Chris retired from his work with the pilots in 2016. He had often taken time off to do a long ocean tow, and now with retirement, he has had even more time for the long voyages of his choosing. Coos Bay is a small port, but it is home to some remarkable towing companies. One of the pilots he knows owns a series of big classic tugs and often hires Common to embark on ocean towing jobs. 

Like most skippers, Common keeps a personal log alongside the ship’s log. Recently, with the aid of these logs, he wrote accounts of voyages on eight remarkable tugs between 1999 and 2016. The result is “Go South ‘Till The Butter Melts: My Seafaring Adventures on Oceangoing Tugs.” Each long ocean tow reported in the book has unique aspects, with a variety of tugs, weather and routes. 

As most tugboaters know, the work can be long days of tedium punctuated by intense and urgent labor. On more than one occasion, Common introduces us to the Orville Hook. Invented in Coos Bay, this simple apparatus can be suspended in the water and towed in circles until it catches the pigtail or bridle chains of a barge or tow that has broken away. This generally happens in heavy weather when work on the low-slung afterdeck of a tug can be particularly dangerous. 

Common has made several passages through the Panama Canal. On a number of occasions, he towed surplus ships from San Francisco or Hawaii to the breakers at Brownsville, Texas. When possible, the tug’s owners would pick up return tows from the Gulf Coast to the West Coast. On one occasion in 2006 with the 143-foot Marine Commander, powered by a single 20-cylinder EMD, Common towed two large tugs from Louisiana around to Coos Bay. The tow, a contract for Sause Bros., involved the 121-foot Tecumseh and the 136-foot Nakoa. Both of the twin-screw tugs had their props removed and stowed on deck for the voyage. 

Another challenging job was towing a concrete dry dock from San Diego to Peru with the 122-foot Roughneck. Both the dry dock and tug had been sold to a Peruvian fishing company. Somewhere off the coast of South America, the tug took on fuel from a tuna seiner before proceeding to the delivery port. 

The final voyage covered in the book was to deliver, light boat, the Coos Bay Towing Company’s 121-foot tug Teclutsa. The immaculate boat had been sold in 2016 to a Canadian buyer in Thunder Bay on Lake Superior, the port that is the very head of shipping on the Great Lakes. The delivery required Common to take the boat up the East Coast of the United States to Halifax, Nova Scotia, on up through the St. Lawrence Seaway, then through four of the five Great Lakes. This was an exciting departure from the challenges of taking pilots out over the Coos Bay Bar. 

On all of his voyages, Common took photos of the boats and the ships that he towed, and he has put a good number in the book. He also has supplied detailed specifications for each of the eight tugs on which he sailed. With his engaging style of reporting, Common has shown the way for other tugboat captains to share their experiences through a self-published account. The result is a rewarding read for mariners who long for the challenges and discoveries of ocean towing.                      

“Go South ‘Till The Butter Melts: My Seafaring Adventures on Oceangoing Tugs” is available for purchase for $35 plus shipping. Email cjcommon@charter.net or call (541) 297-8213.