Little tugboats handle big variety of jobs at Vancouver Harbour fleet


“Here comes a man who can show you how to move a barge,” the dispatcher on the Tymac Launch dock said. The bow of the company’s new A.G. McIlwain-designed tug appeared around some nearby boat sheds as he spoke. The 35.9-by-16-foot Tymac Tide is the first purpose-built, twin-screw vessel in Tymac’s fleet of tugs that, together with several aluminum water taxis, provide general service transport needs in the Port of Vancouver, British Columbia. 

As Tymac Tide moved into sight with the “sails” of the Pan Pacific cruise terminal behind it, Capt. Struan Richardson swung the barge so that it was stern-first and facing a slot between two sets of floats. At 70 feet by 32 feet, this was one of Tymac’s smaller barges, but Richardson worked it just as he would a larger barge. With the tug’s 30-foot-by-3/4-inch wire bridles snubbed tight on the winch drum, he was able to work the tug on the front end of the barge to walk it back into the slot. Using the tug’s well-fendered stern counter, he moved the 35-foot beam of the barge to a point of the float where there was a space — between a moored barge and another boat — only slightly longer than the barge’s length. “You can basically walk the barge sideways,” Richardson said.

Capt. Struan Richardson at the helm.

With the barge in position, he directed the deck hand to let go the bridles and swung the tug around to go down between the neighboring floats and the outside of the barge. Nudging the side of the barge, he made enough space to turn the handy little tug to push directly on the side of the barge and quickly had it parked parallel alongside of the float. The deck hand put lines out to the float and all was secure. Richardson had perfectly demonstrated the owner’s rationale for building a small tug for work along the Vancouver waterfront. 

Like many of the employees of Tymac, Richardson has a long service with the firm. In his case, it has been nearly 15 of his 25 years on the water. Starting his maritime career on fish packers, he moved to fishing boats and to eventually owning his own small gillnet boat. It was on the fish boats that he developed his competence and confidence with single-screw maneuvering. 

Tymac Tide’s Keypower Equipment towing winch carries 800 feet of 3/4-inch wire.

Tymac has a diverse fleet of boats, with a single-screw 1920s-built wooden tug, a single-screw aluminum tug and a single-screw steel tug. Tymac Tide is the company’s first twin-engine tug. The company has several 12-passenger water taxis and a 50-foot pilot boat that it operates for the BC Coast Pilots. “We all run whatever boat needs an operator,” explained Richardson. “In one day we can jump from the 27-knot pilot boat to a taxi and then to a tug making 6 knots towing a barge.” 

This meant that when Tymac Tide arrived from its builder, Sylte Shipyard, it was not such a challenge for the operators to take advantage of the twin screw. There is no doubt that the twin screw gives easier control when doing a maneuver like backing a barge into a tight spot, “but some guys just prefer what they are used to,” added Richardson. A lot of barge work in the Port of Vancouver, as in other ports, involves servicing ships at anchor or when alongside their piers. Vancouver had more than 240 port visits by 29 Alaska-bound cruise ships in 2014. With more than 800,000 passengers, they generate a lot of garbage. The Tymac fleet of tugs and barges are kept busy through the summer months taking off the garbage and transporting it to a land disposal site. With more than 20 anchorages both outside and inside the First Narrows, there are typically a dozen ships awaiting berths. These often call for a delivery of lube oil, facilitated by driving a tank truck onto a Tymac barge via a loading ramp and then towing it out to the anchored ship for the transfer of the lube oil. 

Richardson uses Tymac Tide’s bow to nudge a barge to a Vancouver dock, demonstrating the usefulness of a small tug in the harbor. The boat is the company’s first twin-screw tug.

After parking the smaller barge in its slot at the Tymac dock, Richardson was tasked by dispatch to go and pick up one of the company’s larger barges from a mooring buoy out in the harbor. With a freshening November Southeaster starting to kick up a bit of a chop, even in the protected waters of the harbor, Tymac Tide made good speed. The twin John Deere engines each deliver 365 hp at 1,800 rpm to 42.5-by-41-inch propellers in fixed nozzles, giving the little tug a 10.5-ton bollard pull. “It is more than we need most of the time,” Richardson said as the boat pushed along at over 9 knots and only 1,700 rpm, “but last night I was assisting in the docking of a big, heavy gravel scow and the extra power came in handy.”

Arriving at the moored 125-by-46-foot scow, he nudged the bow up against the side. Deck hand Robin Pascall set an auxiliary handrail in place next to the stainless-steel bow staple and a set of steps. This handhold made for an easy and safe transfer over the bow to the scow. With a pike pole he fished the wire bridles up off the stern of the tug and dropped them on the barge’s port and starboard bollards. Then he let go the hefty synthetic lines that had moored the scow to the buoy. As they floated, he dropped them back in the water for easy retrieval when the barge was returned to the mooring. 

Tymac Tide with a 125-foot-by-46-foot scow in tow.

Meanwhile, Richardson had moved from the wheelhouse to the deck controls. Releasing the brake on the winch, he payed out about 100 feet of the 3/4-inch wire rope from the 800 feet carried by the Keypower Equipment towing winch, and applied the brake. This impressive little hydraulic winch is, in accordance with Canadian law, fitted with three abort switches. One is in the wheelhouse, one on the deck control console and one at the flying bridge console on top of the cabin. The winch is fitted with an automatic spooling gear. Pascall, a qualified tug master, described the abort system on Tymac Tide: “They all do the same thing. Depress the button and the winch clutch and brakes are instantly disengaged by hydraulics and the winch is able to then run free and pay out tow line until the button is twisted and pulled back up and the brake comes back on.”

Later, Richardson added that there is a fourth abort switch. “The three main abort buttons are for when the system is working as it should, but they are on a charged or live system,” he said. “So if there is a hydraulic leak or failure they may not work as planned. There are warning lights at each station to tell you if there is such a problem. The fourth abort is a manual emergency abort in case the other system fails.”

Deck hand Robin Pascall, who began his career on the Great Lakes.

While there is decent visibility aft from inside the wheelhouse, Richardson climbed the ladder to the flying bridge. He pushed the throttle down, and the tug had the tow in motion and traveling at a good speed very quickly. The wash out from the stern counter showed the advantage of the 7.8-foot hull depth keeping the props in solid water. At just under 36 feet, the tug’s beamy 16-foot-wide hull gives it a nearly 2:1 length to beam ratio. This is characteristic of McIlwain-designed tugs and makes them especially well suited to work in the tight confines of harbors. While the compact 730-hp Tymac Tide is smaller than the big 3,000- to 5,000-hp z-drive tugs that are typically docking ships in the world’s ports, the boat does share some of their features. “We are often working around ships,” Richardson said, “so the addition of overhead windows in the wheelhouse is a real plus for us.”

With a hefty half-inch plated steel hull and robust framing, the tug has no-nonsense workboat credentials. But creature comforts are recognized with a thick rubberized membrane between the hull and the aluminum deckhouse, making for a quiet cabin interior. While this is a day boat, the comfort makes for a safer work environment when busy days call for a full 12-hour shift. 

Deck hand Pascall started his maritime career crewing tall ships in the Great Lakes and has since put in time on a large variety of vessels as he worked toward the master’s ticket that he now holds. With the variety and quality of boats that he gets to spend time on at Tymac, he shares Richardson’s opinion that they have found the perfect workplace.

By Professional Mariner Staff