Older tugs earn their salt by keeping it simple

In a workboat world swelling with big powerhouse ASD tugs and satellite electronics, there are lean companies plying the ports, back bays, sloughs and shallow reaches of America with resurrected tugs and barges, often without even a computer and e-mail.

Larry Jay makes do with a cell phone, a tight skilled crew, and a couple of well-maintained Navy tugs built in 1945. Located in Tacoma, Wash., Jay TC Inc. is often referred to as Jay Tow.

Tied to a couple of Jay’s barges are his two 61-foot tugs, Tom White, acquired in the early ’80s, and Fury, acquired in the early ’90s. Both of the single-screw vessels were identical, built in 1945 as YTLs (Yard Tug, Light).

The 500-hp Tom White has a model bow and is used mostly as a spare boat. The engine, described by Jay as ancient, is a 12-cylinder Caterpillar 397 with a 4:1 ratio Caterpillar gear turning a 58-by-40-inch propeller. Fury, Jay’s primary workboat is powered by a V8 Caterpillar 379 with a 4:1 ratio Caterpillar gear turning a 68-by-44-inch propeller. Fury has a whopping 25 more horsepower than Tom White. Equipped with push knees and an elevated wheelhouse, the tug does most of the company’s work. Ninety percent of the jobs entail pushing barges.

The 61-foot Fury is a former U.S Navy YTL built in 1945.

Both boats boast the dents and bent steel of seasoned workboats, but are sparkling in coats of yellow and black paint. On the gloriously sunny February morning that I visited the Jay Tow yard, Capt. Doug Paterson and deck hand Travis Larson were doing maintenance.

“Our bread and butter is unloading barges in places that don’t have unloading facilities,” said Paterson.

Larry Jay, the owner of Jay TC Inc., has found a secure niche for his business, transferring materials such as aggregates between deep-draft barges and the shore.

Jay Tow does other types of work, but the bulk of the business is transferring aggregate materials, gypsum, lime, coal and the like from the bigger deeper-draft barges to construction sites, sand and gravel yards, manufacturing operations and ready-mix plants in the Puget Sound area and on the San Juan Islands.

The typical operation is to position one or more barges between the payload barge and the shore. The configuration determines where the loader and conveyer and ramp for truck access are positioned. The loader transfers the material onto the conveyer, which walks back and forth, shooting material into dump trucks for land transfer.

“We’re the last 50 feet,” said Jay. “If you want to bring in a big barge and can get it to within 50 feet of where it needs to be, we will get the material onto the beach. Sometimes that means creating a chain of barges.”

“We push Fury really hard because we have to be in position when we’re needed.” Jay explained that, with millions of dollars worth of tugs and barges waiting on the water and 15 or 20 trucks waiting on land for him to connect it all up, he can’t afford to be late. “I’m the little cog that could cause a lot of problems if I’m not there.”

Jay works extensively with Western Towboat. “We’ve been working on the Point Ruston Superfund site for five or six years now. We built a containment dam and then shot the contaminated material into trucks, which dumped the material into the dam.”

The company also does a fair amount of salmon enhancement work. “We lay a fan of naturally occurring round rock along the beaches for the salmon to spawn on.

Actually, Jay owns more than twice as many loaders as he does tugs. Until a few years ago, the company moved from place to place, mooring here and there. Three years ago Jay bought six acres of waterfront on the tidal flats of the Hylebos Waterway on the east side of the Port of Tacoma.

It’s a highly industrial waterway lined with refineries, stone crushing plants, scrap yards and more. The air is pungent with the smell of fresh cut wood from the wood chip plant next door. Jay’s operation fits right in: loaders, conveyors, big winches, excavators, ramps and barges crowd the waterfront. “We can do the jobs in many different ways,” Jay explained with a sweep of his arm. “But we look bigger than we are.”

Salvaged boat lives

To the north of Tacoma at the Puget Sound Naval Station, in Bremerton, Kern, a 58-foot pushboat named after a river in California, is enjoying a distinguished second life with Hurlen Construction. Kern is the tender for the construction of Pier Bravo, an aircraft carrier dock.

Kern was abandoned in the late 1980s, left to rust for 10 years on the beach at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Hurlen Construction salvaged the tug 11 years ago. Hurlen is now ACC Hurlen, the marine division of American Civil Constructors.

Kenny Mathisen has worked as a deck hand on Kern since the vessel’s resurrection, and he knows her well. “They put her on a barge and towed her south (to Seattle),” said Mathisen. “She floated and started right up after changing the batteries and fuel filter. That’s a good ad for Detroit Diesels.” At the time she had twin 671s in line, with the reduction gear in between them. Now she has three Detroit Diesel 12V71 diesels producing 1,100 horsepower.”

Kern and Mathisen have worked many marine construction jobs since then, driving piles, dredging and constructing piers, wharves, docks and marinas. According to Phil Bland, who prefers the title boat operator to captain, the Bremerton job is a great way to weather a recession that has seen many layoffs by the larger towing companies.

“Kenny and I have the best job in Puget Sound,” said Bland. “We’ve had 18 months of steady work, six days a week. There is no better job in Puget Sound. You’re home every night, and it might not be the cleanest work, but you can keep track of your life.”

As the tender for the entire site, Kern is put to work pushing four derrick barges and several barges loaded with piles that are being cast onsite. Kern’s strength is versatility. Equipped with push knees, ample aft deck space and a towing winch, Kern can push, pull and haul equipment. It’s all in a day’s work.

Primarily Kern pushes barges, but also pulls them and sets their anchors with the stern towing winch. The aft deck has floated all manner of equipment — excavators, compressors, bobcats and even backhoes, to, from and around the job site.

“She draws six feet of water, so she’s very good in tight and shallow construction sites,” said Bland. “She’s a good boat. You need a boat like this to do this kind of work. The new z-drives and big new tugs won’t do this kind of work. There is some advantage to the old school and this boat is definitely old school. These little boats will always be around because they can make more money.”

“These little boats are cheap to buy and cheap to operate. They will always be working,” Bland said.

By Professional Mariner Staff