Family tugboat business serves growing ‘saltie’ trade at Thunder Bay

1 Towing

Couched in the lee of Lake Superior’s legendary Sleeping Giant, the tugs Glenada and Miseford slipped through the water of Lakehead Harbour, fronting the city of Thunder Bay, Ontario, heading for the James Richardson International Terminal and the grain-laden ship BBC Mississippi.

Capt. Nathan Dawson maneuvered the 1,200-hp Glenada to the ship’s stern. Capt. Stan Dawson, at the helm of the 900-hp Miseford, navigated to the bow, nose to nose with the ship.

Both tugs put a line up to the ship and waited for the pilot to give the command to let go the ship’s mooring lines. Capt. Stan applied throttle to Miseford’s Detroit Diesel Quad-71 pack. The four Detroit Diesels wailed loudly, churning the single screw into a boil of water as the tug began to nose the ship back.

Capt. Nathan took up the slack in Glenada’s line and applied only enough pull on the ship’s stern to counteract the wind’s intent to push the ship back to the dock. Too much pull and the bow of the ship could slip between the large dock fenders, potentially damaging the structure and/or the ship, and causing a headache of paperwork.

Once clear of the terminal, Miseford moved to the port shoulder of the ship and Glenada to the port quarter. The tugs pushed and pulled respectively, turned the ship outbound and let go the lines. With the ship’s stern receding, the tugs headed back to their moorage at the Agricore United Terminal slip near Intercity. Historically, Intercity was the demarcation between Port Arthur and Fort William, often called the Lakehead, before amalgamating into the city of Thunder Bay in 1970.

Capt. Nathan Dawson at the helm of Glenada.

Capt. Gerry Dawson, the owner of Thunder Bay Tug Services, is Nathan’s father and Stan’s brother. Gerry’s wife, Sharon, and son Davis manage the company office. The company’s founding coincided with the completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, opening up the Great Lakes to larger international ships, or “salties” as they are called.

Gerry’s parents — Elliott, an engineer on a cement laker, and Wealthy, a lab worker at a Canada cement plant in Point Anne, Ontario — met, married and bought the 38-foot Joyell.

“They sailed up to Thunder Bay on a whim and saw there was a need for a bum boat,” said Gerry Dawson. The couple formed Thunder Bay Marine Services in 1959 and, with Joyell, began selling goods and services, including film processing and dry cleaning, to the crew of ships at anchor. Later the couple acquired the 58-foot Rosalee D., Thunder Bay’s original pilot boat. The boat’s large stern deck lent itself to line-handling and hauling garbage from the visiting ships.

“I bought my parents out in 1983,” said Gerry. “In 1989 there was a 16-month strike and there were no tugs here.” To fill the void, Capt. Roger Hurst and engineer Roland Frayne rented the tug Ivan Purvis from Purvis Marine in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and formed Thunder Bay Tug Services.

Thunder Bay Marine Services had no ship-assist experience at the time, but Gerry Dawson decided to take a chance and bought the tug Robert W. from the logging company Kimberly Clark in Long Lac, Ontario, to work with Thunder Bay Tug Services, assisting its tug Ivan Purvis. “I did my first ship-assist job that Halloween,” said Gerry. “The Robert W. got us into the tug business and the tug paid for itself in a month.” In 1993, Gerry bought 50 percent of Thunder Bay Tug Services, and the other half in 1998.

Capt. Gerry Dawson, owner of Thunder Bay Tug Services, with Glenada. Dawson’s parents founded the predecessor company in 1959.

The 60-foot, 800-hp Robert W. was built by Russel Brothers Ltd. of Owen Sound, Ontario, in 1948. It was originally powered by two 175-hp Cummins NHMS six-cylinder marine diesel engines, and later repowered with two Cummins NT380M marine engines producing approximately 400 hp each.

“It arrived in Thunder Bay in three parts on a flatbed truck and we had it welded back together and painted it the company colors,” said Sharon Dawson. Currently Robert W. is primarily employed on barge tows and, when necessary, as a fourth assist tug.

Stan Dawson has worked on tugs on the West Coast and elsewhere, but has logged 20 or more years on Lake Superior — mostly at the helm of his brother’s tugs. He is at home in any of the company’s tugs, including the aging Miseford.

Low slung and pleasing to the eye, the 80-foot single-screw tug was built in 1915 in Welland, Ontario, by M. Beatty & Sons Ltd. for Alvin J. Misener and Erwin G. Tedford. Subsequently, following 18 years employment with Ontario’s Ministry of Game and Fisheries, Miseford was passed around a few times until Thunder Bay Tug Services bought the vessel in 2005 from Nadro Marine of Port Maitland, Ontario.

Originally powered by a triple-expansion steam engine with two coal-fired boilers, Miseford, after a grounding in 1965, was rebuilt and repowered with a Detroit Diesel Quad-71 power pack, consisting of four Detroit Diesel 6-71 marine engines mounted on a single Twin Disc gearbox. It’s a tidy configuration that would be a formidable contender in a decibel contest. 

The century-old single-screw tugboat Miseford underway in Thunder Bay Harbour after assisting the  grain carrier BBC Mississippi.

“The Miseford was purchased with monies obtained from the City of Thunder Bay,” said Gerry. When the city built a causeway on Island Drive, it was too low for Glenada and Point Valour to clear. As compensation, the city allocated funds to be used to retrofit the two existing tugs. Retrofitting Glenada proved to be feasible, but Point Valour was another story. “Rather than retrofitting the Point Valour, which would have been a lot more involved, we chose to use that money to purchase another tug that could get under the causeway,” said Gerry.

Glenada is a 73-foot, 1,200-hp tugboat built in 1943 by Russel Brothers Ltd. It is one of 11 Glen-class tugs the Owen Sound company built for the Navy during World War II. The class came in two designs, A and B. Glenada is an A design, which comes with a longer main deckhouse than the B-design tugs. After it was decommissioned in 1956, Glenada was leased by Sandrin Bros. of Sarnia, Ontario. The tug was acquired by Thunder Bay Tug Services in 1995.

The vessel was originally powered by a supercharged Vivian 320-hp, eight-cylinder main engine. In 1977 Glenada was widened by 4 feet and repowered with a Caterpillar D399 V16 turbocharged, 1,200-hp main engine coupled to a Caterpillar 7261 marine gear at a 3.18:1 ratio, turning a 70-inch, four-blade, stainless-steel ice-class propeller. 

“The boat has good power for its size,” said Nathan Dawson. “She hasn’t backed down from anything we put her up against.”

In 1996, the crew aboard Glenada assisted in the rescue of the 110-foot Grampa Woo. The vessel had broken free during a big storm and was adrift near Grand Portage, Minn. Gerry Dawson and the crew of Glenada were called out from Thunder Bay. In 15- to 20-foot seas they managed to get the two crewmembers off the ship near Trowbridge Island on the Canadian side of the border. Gerry and crew on Glenada were able to get a line on the Grampa Woo on Passage Island where it had foundered off the tip of Isle Royale. For their part in the rescue, Gerry Dawson and engineer John Olson received Canada’s Governor General’s Medal of Bravery, and deck hand James Harding received the Star of Courage.

Chief engineer Dave Gurney at the engine room control panel aboard the 1,800-hp Point Valour. The recently overhauled boat is the most powerful vessel in the Thunder Bay Tug Services fleet.

The 98-foot Point Valour was acquired by Thunder Bay Tug Services in 1992 from Eastern Canada Towing of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Stan Dawson drew the card to make the trip to Les Méchins on Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula and bring the tug to Thunder Bay. In a nod to maritime history, Dawson took the 180-foot James Whalen in tow from Luzon, Quebec, and brought home the historic icebreaking tug, built in 1905 for the Canadian Towing & Wrecking Co. of Port Arthur. James Whalen is now a museum tug on the Kaministiquia River.

At 1,800 hp, Point Valour is the most powerful tug in the Thunder Bay fleet. It was built as Foundation Valour by the Davie Shipbuilding company in 1958 for the Foundation Maritime Co. Point Valour is powered by its original Fairbanks 38D 8-1/8 slow-speed diesel, turning at 750 rpm. The engine is coupled to a Faulk 14MB gear at 3.95:1 ratio and a 108-inch, four-blade ice-class propeller.

“It’s a good engine overall, but parts are hard to come by,” said Capt. Stan. “We overhauled her this year.”

But let us not forget Rosalee D. The little tug, built in 1946 at Northern Shipbuilding and Repair of Bronte, Ontario, is powered by a 6-71 Detroit Diesel. Primarily employed as a dive tender and log salvage tug, Rosalee D. still runs supplies and parts to ships at anchor and acts as a pilot boat.

The day after assisting the outbound BBC Mississippi, Glenada — this time with Capt. Gerry at the helm — and Miseford with Capt. Stan in control were headed up the Kaministiquia River to assist the 465-foot cargo ship Transhawk at Western Grain Terminal 10. The object was to move the ship, partially loaded with lentils, to Mission Terminal at the mouth of the river where the vessel would take on more cargo.

Deck hand Zack Reid lets go a line on Glenada. Thunder Bay Tug Services acquired the 73-foot single-screw tugboat in 1995.

It was a beautiful northern Ontario day, but it’s one thing to operate a tug fleet in Thunder Bay in the summer months and quite another to muscle ships bound in ice during the winter. With several miles of river to transit, Capt. Stan had time for a few stories and an explanation of the icebreaking technique employed by Thunder Bay Tug Services.

“Ice conditions are the most challenging,” he said. “Ice is a constant factor from December on. It is something you have to contend with all of the time. Water is not so much fun when it’s solid. I load the tug up to the gills with fuel and water, and the tug creates a huge bow wave that breaks up the ice. I push half the lake in front of me and drag the other half behind me. As long as I can get enough speed up and get the wave working against the ice, I can break up this whole river.”

When the tugs reached Western 10 and the waiting Transhawk, deckineer Martin Blanchette on Miseford put up a line onto the starboard shoulder of the ship. With his father at the helm of Glenada, Nathan Dawson, taking a turn as deck hand, put a line up on the ship’s starboard quarter.

At the pilots command, the tugs pulled the ship off the dock, turned it and rode with it downriver for some three miles. “I’m in neutral and so is Gerry,” said Capt. Stan. “The ship is dragging us along at 4 knots.”

At the mouth of the river, the approach to Mission Terminal turns on itself around a can buoy. “We go slow, 1.5 knots, to take the ship around the hairpin turn into the slip,” said Stan. The tugs, in control of the ship, started the swing and took it around the turn with the ship aiding the maneuver with its bow thruster from time to time. Once around, the tugs lined the ship up with the slip, eased the vessel into position and then pushed Transhawk into the dock. Then it was back to the Agricorp slip to ready for more ship moves in the offing.

“Last year was our best year ever, and this year looks like it’s going to be the same,” said Gerry Dawson. For comparison, 60 salties visited Thunder Bay in 2005. Last year Thunder Bay Tug Services assisted 110 salties. “We’ve had two phenomenal years.”

By Professional Mariner Staff