Log towing in troubled waters

Much of the marine traffic down the Inside Passage along the British Columbia coast passes through the tidal bore at Seymour Narrows, but for log-towing tugs the preferred route has always been through the three “rapids”.

The 90-foot, single-screw Yacata Spirit uses its 1,000-hp engines to tow log booms 1,250 feet long and 280 feet wide through the three rapids. The logs in these tows are typically valued at between $3 million and $5 million.

While Seymour Narrows provides a relatively broad and deep passage, it leads to the open waters below Cape Mudge where wind and tide will destroy a log tow on most days of the year. The longer and narrower series of tidal bores and channels to the east, along the mainland shore, provide more protection for the log tows.

Called booms on the West Coast, these slow-moving rafts of logs have evolved over the past century to a form that is now composed of 66-foot-square sections of log bundles held in place by “boom sticks” and “swifter wires.” The number of logs in a cable-wrapped bundle is defined by the size of the logs and the cradle in which they are built, but they typically float 3 or 4 feet above the surface of the water with a similar draft. The boom sticks that encircle the boom are 66-foot-long logs with holes drilled near each end; through these are passed boom chains with approximately 4-inch links around 6 feet long. A large ring on one end and a toggle on the other hold them in place.

A boom to be towed through the rapids is typically made up of 72 sections arranged four wide and 18 long for an overall width of 280 feet and a length of 1,250 feet. This equals nearly 10 acres of wood containing more than 25,000 cubic meters of wood valued between $3 and $5 million (U.S.) being towed astern. In the tight spots, or holes, the tug tows with an “irons” length of wire out from the winch to the 50-foot pennant. This is around 150 feet long – just enough so that the tug, should it lose power or need to maneuver, can flop back around the corner of the tow. In transit through any one of the holes, it will be around a quarter mile from the bow of the tug to the tail of the boom.

All log tows run southbound from up-coast logging camps on their way to saw and pulp mills on the south coast of British Columbia and on the Fraser River. Pacific Cachalot Towing, based in Campbell River, British Columbia, halfway up the east coast of Vancouver Island, operates a fleet of five log-towing boats. To successfully make the trip south, Pacific Cachalot’s boats must navigate the 20-mile stretch down through the Greene Point Rapids, the Dent Rapids and the Yaculta Rapids.

The right tug for the job

The company’s 90-by-24-foot single screw tug, Yacata Spirit (ex-Comox Argus, ex-Weldwood Spirit, ex-Lady Theresa) was the second vessel of four in line to enter the rapids one night last February. It was built at England’s Cook, Welton & Gemmell Shipbuilders at Beverly in 1963. Her original engine has been replaced by a venerable 16-cylinder Caterpillar 399 currently producing just more than 1,000 hp at 1,200 rpm. The reliable old engine turns an 84-inch propeller in a Kort nozzle. For quick maneuvering around the booms a tunnel thruster has been added to the bow.

Capt. Rick Hollingsworth followed his father and grandfather into log towing and keeps the tradition of neither shaving nor washing his coffee mug from the start of the trip until he has cleared the rapids.

The big boat had started her tow from Beaver Cove on the morning of Feb. 19 after waiting three days for the weather to improve. A high pressure area had been holding in the interior and dumping cold outflow winds over the coastal mountains and down the mainland inlets. These winds can raise a good chop on the upper Johnstone Straits, but even a 3-foot chop can break up a log boom sending millions of dollars worth of logs drifting and crashing onto the beach.

Yacata Spirit‘s master, Capt. Rick Hollingsworth, has seen a lot of log spills over the years. One that he recalled was when he was still a deckhand. “It was 72 sections, the same as we are towing tonight,” he recalled. “I’m not sure just how it happened, but he was going through Gillard Pass, and the starboard side of the tow hit the island. It ripped the tow wide open. The flood tide carried most of the log bundles on through the pass – some caught up in the eddies. With five or six boats we spent about five days collecting all the bundles up in a big bag boom and then we towed them 20 miles down to Teakern Arm to be boomed up again. For a big break like that, they close the area to log salvage operators and then hire some of them to come in and help with the clean-up.”

A man who can read the wind and tide conditions far enough ahead to avoid being caught in an exposed position is highly valued in the log-towing industry. Hollingsworth is such a man. Before him his father, Lee, was legendary for his knowledge of the Yaculta tides and before that his grandfather, Granville, worked the coastal tides.

The weather held for the tow down Johnstone Straits. With a maximum speed through the water of 2 knots, log towers take every advantage of back eddies along the shore when bucking tide, although a growing number of salmon farms in the coastal bays has made this difficult in some places.

Using his skills, Hollingsworth came 30 miles down Johnstone Straits to Windy Point in 27 hours. This got him through the first exposed section of the route and turned into the more protected waters of Cordero Channel. But the narrow channels also increased the tidal velocity so that at 0200 on Feb. 21 he had to tie his boom to the bluff in Forward Harbor and wait for the north-running ebb tide to slow enough for him to get through a narrowing in the channel called Wellbore Channel.

Six hours later he was riding the flood tide through the pass, and by 1100 he was clear and able to let out a few hundred feet of the 1 1/4-inch tow wire from the 2,200 feet on the single-drum Burrard Iron Works winch. At 1600 they came abeam of “the waterhole.” This is a spot where for decades towboaters have taken advantage of a clear mountain stream that has been fitted with a pipe and hose to replenish freshwater supplies. The water is deep alongside the waterhole, and a boat can run its bow up against the bluff while the hose fills the vessel’s freshwater tanks. Hollingsworth let the tow drift while he took on fresh water, as his father had before him.

Tanks filled, Hollingsworth ran the boat around the tow, checking that all of the chains and wires had withstood the strain of coming through Wellbore Channel. This was an important precaution because ahead were three tidal narrows to be navigated that were even more stressful for the boom and the crew. If a boom chain pulls out of the end of a boom stick it can be the broken link that causes the whole boom to disintegrate in the middle of a tidal bore.


The 37-foot, 700-hp Shaymar works the boom with a single swing line and helps Yacata Spirit maneuver the tow through the rapids. It also works as a yarding tug and is equipped with serrated teeth for biting into logs.

Greene Point Rapids

The first of the three tidal bores is the Greene Point Rapids. Tows are met above the Greene Points by an assist tug that will work the tail end of the tow. On the evening of Feb. 21, Norm Calwell drove Pacific Cachalot Towing’s powerful little 37-foot Shaymar 40 miles north from Campbell River and through Seymour Narrows, lower Johnstone Straits and Blind Channel to rendezvous with the Yacata Spirit just north of Greene Point Rapids. Calwell is Shaymar‘s only crew until he is working a boom. When he needs assistance, one of Yacata Spirit‘s five crew joins him aboard Shaymar.

Shaymar is known as a yarding tug with serrated steel teeth at the waterline on her bow for biting into logs and a pair of 12V71 Jimmys giving her more than 700 hp through her Kort-nozzled propellers. Despite the steel teeth, the tug normally works the boom with a single swing line.

Because of earlier weather delays, four tugs and tows were waiting their turn to make their run through the Greene Points. Taking their order through the rapids according to their arrival, the four captains arranged the passage of the tows. Seaspan Corsair would go first, allowing her to get through the Greene Points and the Dent Rapids on the first part of this flood. She would then tie up her boom to the bluff at Mermaid Bay on the bottom side of Dent Island. Yacata Spirit would go second but would have only enough time to get through the Greene Points and then down a couple of miles to tie up to the beach at Burnt Bluff, just above the Dent Rapids and about 10 miles below the Greene Points. Third into the Greene Points would be the Chieftain III with only 62 sections and a route that would take her through the Greene Points and then down Nodales Channel to Seymour Narrows on her way to Campbell River. Fourth in line, Pacific Chief, heeding the old towboater’s adage “better safe than salvage,” elected to wait for the next tide before entering the Greene Points because she wouldn’t have enough time to get to a safe tie-up before the tide turned.

Seaspan Corsair lined up for the Greene Points and began to tow into them as the ebb slacked so that when it turned they would be able to move on through.

Hollingsworth allowed Corsair enough time to get clear of the rapids. Then, at 1945, with the Shaymar pushing full on the tail of the tow, he lined up for the gap and towed full. A half hour later she was in the boiling water of the rapids and passing Griffiths Light – the DGPS showed her flying over the bottom at 5.2 knots. Another 45 minutes and the current had slowed, but a fair tide still pushed the tow along at more than 2 knots. Hollingsworth let out more towline.

Once through the rapids, Calwell catnapped on board Shaymar while Hollingsworth continued on past the usual midnight watch change. For the passage through the three rapids, the captain traditionally maintains the wheel watch. On board Yacata Spirit, Hollingsworth observed another tradition – neither shaving nor washing his coffee mug from the start of the trip until he has cleared the bottom end of the Yaculta Rapids. While the boat handling required the highest of log-towing and water-reading skills, no one denied the value of a little luck.

Dent Rapids

In the moonlight the coastal mountain ranges loomed black against the skyline. Hollingsworth kept the tow over on the Sonora Island side of the channel to avoid the back eddy and cross-boil that can set up on the mainland side. The radar showed all three tows, and then the Chieftain moved off down a side channel and only Yacata Spirit rode in the center of the screen with her tow stretching aft. Eighteen hundred feet off Yacata Spirit‘s bow, the tail of the Corsair‘s tow stretched ahead another 1,800 feet to the tug’s bow. Corsair passed through the Tugboat Pass of the Dent Rapids and made the turn into Mermaid Bay just ahead of the tide’s swing to ebb.

At the same time, Hollingsworth eased his tow across the boil and alongside the steep granite shore at Burnt Bluff. The deck crew, with the aid of the tug’s searchlight and headlamps, went out on the boom and picked up a heavy wire that is mounted into a ring bolt set in the granite. They shackled it to the boom’s towing gear while Yacata Spirit and Shaymar held the boom against the bluff. Secondary wires moored the body of the boom. Hollingsworth entered “all fast” in his log at 0450 on Feb. 22.

Hollingsworth called for another coffee in his still-unwashed cup. He stood watch through the ebb tide as it flowed out of Canoe Pass, a side channel around Dent Island. By daylight, more than 3 knots of current was pulling on the starboard lead corner of the boom where it projected beyond a sheltering granite ridge. While the boom, with a fair tide, may move over the ground at more than 5 knots, this was a greater force of water than is customary. “I’m not so worried about the head end,” said Hollingsworth. “But the eddies have been known to come in on the tail and break a boom off the beach.”

Off to port, white water foamed nearly across the full width of Tugboat Pass, pushing current down onto the side of the boom. Hollingsworth sent the crew out onto the boom to check the chains in the boom sticks and add “preventer straps” where required. As the ebb reached its maximum velocity, he had Chief Engineer Rod Palmer restart the main engine in case anything let go. At 0900, as the ebb slackened, he moved up to the head of the boom. Mate Dan Webster and Deckhand Ron Collins went out on the boom and released the mooring wires and then climbed back aboard the tug to help make up the towline. The other deckhand, Rod Lowes, went aboard the Shaymar to assist Calwell as the tug pushed the tail of the boom out into the weakening ebb. The challenge, explained Hollingsworth, was to move to port across the current to hold position in a back eddy behind Little Dent Island and then move out into the stream so as to be towing up into the last of the ebb just as it slackens and begins to flood. There is virtually no slack water in the rapids and virtually no room for error. “Except for the small tides,” said Hollingsworth, “you’ll be bucking to hold your own one minute and the next you’ll be moving through on a fair tide.”

By 1000, the seagulls that had been feeding on fish brought up in the tidal turbulence went to rest in the bay while a pair of eagles watched the tug work up to the pass from a tall tree on the point. “I think we’ll give her a try,” Hollingsworth told Calwell on Shaymar.

“I’m pushing at 1,000 rpm now,” said Calwell. “Do you want me to do 1,500, or open her up?”

“Fifteen hundred will be good for now,” replied Hollingsworth, as he focused his concentration on the point of Little Dent Island. When the bow of the tug was 40 yards off the point, he eased out into the stream and positioned the boat so that the starboard lead corner of the tow would clear the tip of the island. As the tow moved up into Tugboat Pass between the two Dent islands, carpenters working on one of the million-dollar “summer cottages” that are taking over these once-empty shores stopped to admire the towboater’s skills and the floating sea of logs.


Yaculta Rapids

A mile or so ahead, Corsair, having left the security of Mermaid Bay, could be seen entering the Yaculta Rapids round Jimmy Judd Island. As the tail end of the Yacata Spirit‘s tow cleared Tugboat Pass, Mermaid Bay opened up on Dent Island to port. Hollingsworth eased the tug over and towed the boom hard into Mermaid Bay and along the bluff with Shaymar pushing. As the boom slid into place, Hollingsworth moved out to the aft controls and backed down while the crew unshackled the towing pennant. He then employed the bow thruster to spin the tug around and move into position to push against the head log. Meanwhile, Shayma backed on the tail end of the tow in order to stop the boom at the point where some tugboating wag had installed a highway stop sign on the bluff to mark the tie up point.

Above the stop sign, the signboards of generations of tugs that have moored there waiting on a favorable tide are nailed to the trees. Names like Kingcome, Hecate Straits, Harmac Cedar, Victory V and others bear witness to passing tides and a century of log-towing stories centered on the Yacultas.

It was just two hours from the time of leaving the moorings at Burnt Bluff to the stop sign above the Yaculta Rapids. It was just a short hop around the corner, but the time it would take to “do a two-holer,” as tugboaters call making two rapids on one tide, would be too much for the 1,000 hp Hollingsworth had available and the size of the tides this time of the month.

It was an unusually sunny day – a welcome respite from the heavy rains common along this part of the West Coast. The sunshine made life easier for the crew as they were joined by Hollingsworth on the boom to inspect for weak points and add wire straps from the tug’s supply. Until recently the drilled boomstick through which the boom chains are fitted were sold along with the other logs, but now they are towed back north again and reused. This practice causes an increasing number of “pulled sticks,” when the chain pulls out of the end of a worn or rotted log. It concerns towboaters whose reputations hinge on keeping their booms together. Before starting the tow and at each stop, the boom is walked to search out such potential breaks. At Mermaid Bay, the boom’s four coal-oil lanterns were also brought aboard the tug for cleaning and refueling. While battery-operated lights have been tried for marking the four corners of the tow, the reliable storm lanterns are still more common. Hollingsworth told of another skipper whose tow was hit by a speedboat full of drunks. It was dark, and one or more of the tow’s lights had burnt out, so the tug’s skipper was found to be at fault.

It was a relaxed day at Mermaid Bay with time for one of the deckhands to do a little fishing from the fantail with a spinning rod. The boat also carries a variety of prawn and crab traps to add variety to the menu. When towing the logs, the boat maintains just the right speed for trolling salmon, so a heavily weighted line is rigged on a fishing pole out the side of the boat.

The layover at Mermaid Bay, like that at Burnt Bluff, was for a full tide, as the boats only run the rapids on the beginning of the south-flowing flood. Hollingsworth pulled his tow back into the stream just before 2100 on Feb. 22. He had two choices for the passage ahead. To the west of Jimmy Judd Island is Gillard Pass, 250 yards wide and 18-fathoms least depth. To the east of Jimmy Judd is Barber Pass, 400 yards wide and 9 fathoms least depth. Hollingsworth calls Barber Pass the Big Hole. “We most often take Gillard Pass, but it depends on how the tide coming down Bute Inlet is pushing out of Arran Rapids,” he said. “If it pushes too hard, I move to the west of Jimmy Judd and take Gillard Pass. It is hard to predict what it will do, so I line the tow up in the slack water behind Jimmy Judd and wait for the ebb to slacken.”

As the tide slackened, the 1,250-foot boom was bent hard in the middle by cross currents. On Shaymar, Calwell moved around the boom keeping things straight. Hollingsworth was monitoring his radar and DGPS to measure his side drift and anticipate his next move. “I just love these electronics,” he said, checking the recently installed Raytheon Bridge Master radar that showed a bow in the boom. “It looks like we’ll go for the Big Hole.”

With the boom straightened out astern, Hollingsworth towed up the back eddy to the point of Jimmy Judd before moving to port and bucking into the last of the ebb tide. The DGPS showed his speed over the bottom at a tenth of a knot. A few minutes after 2200, the tide rip marking the back eddy followed him out and, without even a moment of slack water, the back eddy overwhelmed the ebb to become the new flood tide. The tow moved into the pass and began to pick up speed. At 2227 it was still bucking, so that the 1.5 knots through the water was reduced to 0.7 knots over the ground. At 2232 Yacata Spirit was doing 1.2 knots; at 2239, 2.3 knots; at 2242, 3 knots; at 2244, 3.6 knots; and at 2252, with back eddies forming to either side, the tow was doing 4.2 knots. Two minutes later it was up 4.6 knots, and at 2257 it was flying by the lights of Stuart Island at 5.1 knots. Ten minutes later, the tow’s speed dropped dramatically as it hit “the wall of water” caused by fresh water flowing out of Bute Inlet and around the bottom of Stuart Island, which slows the flood tide at the bottom of the rapids.

Shaymar was released to buck back up through the darkened rapids and make its way back home to the Campbell River through the Nodales Channel to Johnstone Straits and down through Seymour Narrows.

On board Yacata Spirit, the Hollingsworth tradition in the Yaculta secured with another safe passage, the crew went back to the six-on, six-off watch rotation for the relatively relaxed three-day tow to the Howe Sound log-storage area near Vancouver, British Columbia. Hollingsworth turned over the watch and went for a shave and a clean coffee cup.

By Professional Mariner Staff