Hawaiian night run swell stuff for Young Brothers tug crew


The overnight cargo run from Honolulu to Kahului, on the Hawaiian island of Maui, was more or less uneventful. The pre-dawn approach into Kahului Harbor was anything but.

Ten- to 12-foot swells followed the tugboat Montana and deck barge Maka’ala into the protected harbor, battering them as they approached Young Brothers’ dock. Capt. Jeff Page maneuvered alongside the barge’s starboard hip, and with some difficulty the assist tug Mikiala II got a line onto Maka’ala. Together, the two tugs guided the barge astern toward the berth on the harbor’s east side.

“The surge is amazing in here. We are getting tossed around like a cork,” Page said. “There is just a lot of swell in here today.”

The deck barge Maka’ala is guided out of Honolulu Harbor.

Courtesy Jennifer Lim/Young Brothers

Some 36 hours earlier, a massive winter storm rolled through Hawaii. Winds exceeding 60 mph tore roofs from houses, and huge waves closed beaches on Oahu’s North Shore. Higher elevations received a blanket of snow. The ocean remained unsettled for days, particularly in the notorious channels separating the islands.

Even so, conditions couldn’t have been better the evening before as Montana prepared to get underway from Honolulu, on the island of Oahu, with six crewmen. Page was joined by first mate Ed Claunch, second mate Ryland Brown, chief engineer Drew Carr, cook/AB Moki Makaio and AB D.J. Ryan.

After a dinner of fresh-caught tuna, lasagna and garden salad prepared by Makaio, the crew got to work making the tow. Makaio climbed onto Maka’ala to retrieve a line connected to the massive towing bridle. Using the Markey winch, crewmembers hauled the bridle out of the water and connected the 2.25-inch towing wire. Towing pins secured the wire in position.

Capt. Jeff Page monitors the cargo barge during docking at Kahului, Maui, on a challenging February morning.

Casey Conley

Page eased the barge off the dock with help from the tug Pi’ilani, operated by Foss Maritime, Young Brothers’ parent company. Pi’ilani took a position at Maka’ala’s port quarter and helped turn the 340-foot barge into the main channel. Hololulu’s compact harbor was quiet as the vessels passed Matson’s cargo terminal, the Aloha Tower lighthouse and downtown skyscrapers reflecting the setting sun.

Page brought the tow to 7 knots after reaching open water, and Claunch slowly paid out the towline about 100 feet at a time as the ocean deepened. Ultimately, about 1,800 feet of wire separated the tug and barge.

“We use as much wire as we can. The more wire, the better,” Page explained, noting that the length helps reduce the load on the line. “The catenary is surge protection, so we are not surging on the wire.”

Page took the first watch of the 93-mile voyage, guiding the vessels east-southeast at 9.6 knots. Seas were a relatively calm 2 to 4 feet as Oahu offered a lee from relentless swells that arrived the next morning. Within an hour, the sun had set and just a handful of lights were visible on the horizon.

Cook/AB Moki Makaio attaches a chafing block to the tow wire on Montana. The device prevents the wire from being damaged by friction with the towing pin table.

Casey Conley

Roughly 13 miles ahead, another Young Brothers tug, Hoku Loa, appeared on the radar. The two tugs often meet at about this part of the voyage, one nearing home and the other just departing. Page steered to starboard to make his intentions known. The tugs passed port-to-port with about 1.5 miles between them.

Given its location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Hawaii naturally gets most of its supplies by boat. Most cargo from the U.S. mainland arrives in Honolulu via Pasha or Matson ships, at which point it is separated and sent by cargo barge to neighboring islands.

Young Brothers’ deck barges carry a diverse cargo from one island to another. Typical runs involve construction materials and equipment, personal vehicles and property, livestock, agricultural products and a smattering of other containerized cargo. The company serves each island at least once a week, while the cities of Hilo, Kahului and Nawiliwili have multiple weekly runs.

The tow passes Matson’s container terminal on Sand Island on the outbound voyage from Honolulu.

Casey Conley

Hilo, at 24 to 30 hours from Honolulu, is the longest voyage and often one of the roughest — particularly in the Alenuihaha Channel between Maui and Hawaii, also known as the “Big Island.” Kahului takes about 12 hours, give or take. Kaunakakai on Molokai is the closest destination, at about seven hours from Honolulu. Turnaround time varies, but crews typically have eight to 12 hours between arrival and departure.

Claunch, who lives in Florida and comes from a family of tugboat captains, returned to the wheelhouse at about 2000 to begin his watch. Aside from a few fishing boats and the occasional jet flying overhead toward Honolulu, the horizon was completely dark.

“Usually all you’ll see is tugboats. Sause, Kirby, that’s usually all it is,” he said, noting the lack of recreational boats. “There is a lot of ocean and a lot of space.”

The tug made good time as it approached the shallow Penguin Bank west of Molokai. The normally unsettled Kaiwi Channel between Oahu and Molokai was unusually calm, and so was the ride. Less than five hours into the voyage, Montana was already 90 minutes ahead of schedule. The crew dialed back the engines to conserve fuel and avoid reaching Kahului well before the tug’s expected 0630 arrival.

Pat Rossi illustration

“It’s rare to get these conditions,” Claunch said. “Normally, we are getting tossed around pretty good.”

The tossing started a few hours later during second mate Ryland Brown’s 0000-to-0400 watch. The tug encountered 10-foot seas landing on the port side as the tow reached the eastern edge of the Kalohi Channel, which runs between Molokai and Lanai. The swells caused Montana to roll to starboard, then dive into the troughs.

Montana’s round trip to Maui was one of its last under charter to Young Brothers. The company is replacing its older tugs with four Tier 4 Damen-designed tugboats, and Montana played an important role while those tugs were built. The crew was sad to see her go. Montana, based on a proven oceangoing design developed by Western Towboat, is spacious and comfortable, and with a six-person crew everyone got their own room.

First mate Ed Claunch operates the Markey towing winch while docking the barge Maka’ala in Kahului on Maui.

Casey Conley

During its charter to Young Brothers, Montana proved itself versatile and capable, particularly when trying to guide barges into tight landings on islands without an assist tug. The z-drives were another advantage in a fleet otherwise comprised of conventionally driven vessels. “It’s a great tug. It’s got a lot of power … and it makes good speed,” Page said.

The 4-year-old vessel, built by JT Marine in Vancouver, Wash., has twin 3,000-hp GE engines, Schottel z-drives and electrical power from John Deere/Kohler gensets. Markey supplied the double-drum towing winch and hawser winch on the bow.

Sea conditions remained unsettled for the rest of the voyage as the tug encountered swells from the north. Brown guided the tow northeast through the Pailolo Channel west of Maui, then around the island’s rugged west side. Page returned to the wheelhouse at about 0345 for the final leg.

He slowed the tow to about 6 knots as the vessel came within three miles of Kahului Harbor. Meanwhile, Claunch started shortening the towline to avoid snagging reefs. At about this time, the 3,300-hp Mikiala II came alongside in 12-foot swells and got a line on Maka’ala’s stern.

The Foss Maritime tug Mikiala II, painted in Young Brothers livery, assisted Maka’ala into its berth on a rough February morning.

Casey Conley

Roughly 200 feet separated the tug and barge as the vessels entered the harbor, which faces north and is exposed to the northern swell. Several times the tug dove into a trough before the barge, causing the wire to rattle around and nearly escape the towing pins. “She’s surfing,” Claunch said at one point as the barge rode high atop the swells.

Safely inside the harbor but still exposed to the swells, Page spun Montana to starboard and took position on the barge’s starboard hip. Mikiala II captain Alan Armstrong moved to the barge’s stern. Together, the two tugs backed Maka’ala stern-first into the landing.

Crew from Mikiala II and Montana climbed onto the barge to serve as forward and aft lookouts. Claunch and Brown called out distances as the barge got closer to the dock. “Let’s not get too fast,” Page warned as the wind and swell continued unabated.

A few minutes later, at 0630, crew announced the first mooring line was secured on Maka’ala. It was right on schedule, Page noted, down to the minute.

By Professional Mariner Staff