Last of Navy’s original ‘Big’ harbor tugs still shines in Puget Sound


Even though the crew of Pokagon (YTB-836) is civilian, they still have to worry about the brass. The gleaming brass aboard their impeccably maintained tug, that is.
Based at Naval Station Everett in Washington, Pokagon continues to assist the Navy’s assets in Puget Sound, even though the Navy now has new azimuthing stern drive (ASD) tugs designed by Robert Allan Ltd, of Vancouver, and built by J.M. Martinac, of Tacoma, Wash.

We’ll get to the brass later, but first some particulars. The keel of the 108-foot tug was laid in October 1974 at Marinette Marine in Marinette, Wis. Pokagon was launched on April, 9, 1975, and was delivered to the Navy in Puget Sound on June 24, the same day and year the tug’s present captain, John Trail, was born. The tug’s delivery displacement was 286 tons light and 346 tons full-load. After extensive modifications and the addition of new winches in 1998, the YTB had a displacement of 298 tons light and 422 tons full-load. The draft averages 15 feet.

A former YTB craftmaster in the Navy, Capt. John Trail now guides Pokagon around Everett, Wash., where the 36-year-old boat assists aircraft carriers and destroyers and moves bunker barges.

“We move all the United States Navy’s floating assets around the Pacific Northwest,” said Trail. The assets include aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, submarines, Military Sealift Command vessels, large crane barges, water barges, bunkering barges and construction barges. The YTB also assists military ships visiting the ports in Puget Sound. “We assist anything from an aircraft carrier to a destroyer, or moving a fuel barge for bunkering,” Trail said.

Trail was a Navy YTB craftmaster in Pearl Harbor between 1994 and 1997. He worked a fleet of 33 home-ported ships and, for two weeks each year, 66 incoming and outgoing foreign military vessels. They conducted maneuvers during the biennial Rim of the Pacific naval exercises. “We would be busy from 0300 in the morning to midnight moving ships, subs and other assets,” said Trail. “This gave me excellent knowledge and experience for what I am doing now.”

Trail and his crew may be civilian, but they all have a Navy background. The switch to civilian crews came about as a result of military reductions in the early 1990s. Cost analysis and research pointed the Navy towards transferring its maintenance and tug operations at Naval Base Kitsap, in Bremerton, Wash., to the civil service, which it did in 1994. “Luckily for the region many of the new employees were ex-Navy engineers, deck hands or mariners that had served on ex-military tugs that had been previously sold to civilian tug companies,” said Trail. “So it was a very smooth transfer.”

Chief Engineer Robert King on watch at the control station.

Aboard Pokagon, the four-man crew — Trail, Chief Engineer Robert King and deck hands James Denney and Sam Trinh — represent 76 years of naval service and training.

You can take the boy out of the Navy, but you can’t take the Navy out of the boy. Trail likes to keep the original look. Fortunately, the crew is of one mind when it comes to the boat’s appearance. Denney and Trinh have taken on the brightwork with a strong sense of pride, driving their shine cloths — so much so that Denney reminds the crew of the Charlie Noble tradition.

“In the 19th century, Charlie Noble was an English skipper who had his galley stove stack shined to such a bright sheen that it could be seen from miles away and became synonymous in the Navy for any topside shining brightwork,” said Trail.

With naval regularity, the pair rubs and polishes to a “shave your face” gleam. They shine the 12 porthole rims, original Danforth spherical compass, rudder angle indicator and engine rpm housings, searchlight handles in the pilothouse, Y-gates and fittings on the two topside fire stations, fire axe supports and the deck access caps and covers “and of course, the tug’s working whistle and the Kahlenberg Chimetone T-3A tug horns,” said Trail. For starters, they had to remove all of the paint from all that brass before they could shine it.

The crew has worked diligently at painting and getting the topside spaces preserved, including sanding, painting and shellacking name boards on the stack. “Their ownership of the tug shows with the detail that they have put into her maintenance,” said Trail. “Not to be outdone, the chief engineer, Robert King, even shines the brass and bronze pipes and fittings in the engine room.”

It is truly a pleasure to duck into an old engine room that sparkles and invites touch. There are no pools of oil or smears of grease in the well-lit domain that King has fashioned below deck. There is a lot of machinery packed into a tight space, but it invites rather than repels exploration. Bright colors abound and nameplates sparkle.

Pokagon has a single screw that is a stainless steel, four-bladed, 12-foot diameter propeller, driven by a 1938 Fairbanks Morse 10 cylinder, opposed piston, 2,000-hp diesel engine. The ship service generators are two 4-71, 60-kW Detroit Diesels. The fire pump delivers 2,000 gpm.

On deck, working conditions have improved with the installation of a double drum Markey DYSD-32 winch forward and a single drum Markey DYSF-32 winch aft. The forward winch has 300 feet of four-inch Spectra double-braided line on each drum and the aft winch has 600 feet of six-inch Spectra double-braided line. The winches are rated at 75 tons of braking strength. The tug’s bollard pull is 65 tons ahead and 35 tons astern.

“The Navy used to have a crew of 12 personnel aboard these tugs, and with all the other military duties combined, it was not easy for them to keep the tug up to such high standards of maintenance and cleanliness,” said Trail. The installation of the fore and aft Markey winches made deck work so much easier that the crew was reduced to four seamen.

That’s quite a reduction from the original Navy crew, but then you have to consider the equipment the crews worked with back in the day: two large capstans and large H-bitts fore and aft. A capstan required three men to operate it safely — one to man the lever, one to wrap the H-bitt and one to put the bitter end, or eye, of the line onto the barge or up to a vessel. The man on the lever, which had a dead man switch, had to ensure that the line did not walk up on and override itself on the capstan. The man on the bitter end sometimes had to board the barge or vessel with the line. Only one of the two capstans could be operated at any given time because operating both at the same time pulled too much electrical load.

“I can operate winches from the pilothouse as soon as the deck hand puts the line over on the barge’s bitts or cleat,” said Trail. “This frees them up to work the after lines while I am making up the bow.”

One of the demanding makeups that the crew of Pokagon undertakes is mooring and unmooring Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, particularly USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72), presently home-ported at Naval Station Everett.

“Our usual position for assisting the other tugs and the ship when bringing her into a safe berth is for the pilot to position us off the port bow of the flattop,” said Trail. “When the pilot is ready, he calls us in to pass a three-line makeup called ‘line abreast,’ and I choose which Dutch bollards I will use.”

The choice is between three, four and five, or four, five and six, all of which are four to five feet above the waterline. Then Trail falls in flat with his starboard beam abreast of where his headline will be made up. “If we are bringing her into her berth, we use just the eye. If she is standing out to sea from the pier we rig to slip.”

With the headline passed, Trail puts on a little port rudder and swings in the tug’s stern to allow the deck hands to put up the aft stern line. With the stern line up, Trail puts his rudder amidships and slides the tug forward so that the tug’s bow is abreast of the bollard that will accept his port line.

“This is all done while the aircraft carrier is underway making about five to six knots and sometimes while making a slow turn,” said Trail. “Once we are made up, I inform the pilot and we then hug the freeboard of the ship, keeping pace with her speed.”

Another tug is made up similarly on the port quarter. A third tug is on the bow using the bullnose, and a fourth at the ship’s stern, off the flat transom.

“Once the ship is slowed and turned, the pilot will have me come out to a 90 degree angle from the keel,” said Trail. “To do this I have to put the rudder over to starboard and come ahead on the engine. At the same time I’m heaving around on my port line and slacking my stern.”

Once perpendicular to the keel line of the carrier, Trail cinches up the lines and brakes them, a process that locks the tug into position. “This maneuver puts a lot of strain on the lines, winches and fittings, especially if the ship is still moving ahead or astern.”

Next, Pokagon and the tug on the port quarter — both still made up “line abreast” — laterally move the ship in and out of the berth. The tugs on the bow and stern are used for movement forward and aft.

With the ship positioned to moor, Pokagon and the tug on the port quarter push into and hold the carrier in while the ship’s mooring lines are passed and made up.

“There is never a dull moment here, and no two jobs are the same,” said Trail. “Some days the shipping traffic is heavy and we are on extra alert, and other days we feel that we are the only souls on the water.”

By Professional Mariner Staff