Strong timbers make strong tugs

While the era of working wooden tugs has passed in most of North America, they still play a valued role in the harbor of Vancouver, British Columbia. Their continued employment is partially due to the high quality of the timber used in their construction, but mostly it just makes good economic sense.

Tymac No. 20 is up in the shipyard getting some leaks fixed,” said Bob Merritt as he took time from operating a boat on the Vancouver waterfront to fill in as dispatcher for Jim Phillipson’s Tymac Launch Company. Merritt went on to explain that the in busy summer cruise ship season the company has a lot of new operators on the little wooden tug, “and most of them aren’t use to operating a wooden boat and they bang it into our steel barges.”

As the mid-October days shortened, the last of the Alaskan cruise ships departed for warmer ports and Tymac’s operation, with its fleet of high-speed fiberglass and aluminum launches and three wooden tugs on the Vancouver waterfront, settled into a slightly less hectic winter season. The port of Vancouver has a number of deep-sea piers and anchorages around the inner harbor as well as anchorages for a dozen more ships just outside the harbor. In addition to a contract to move pilots to and from these ships, Tymac takes agents, crews and others between the ships and the company pier at the foot of Main Street. The tugs tow one of the company’s four barges, which range in size from 70 by 24 feet to 90 by 33 feet, to pick up garbage and other waste or to deliver fresh water, lube oil and general supplies to the ships. To move these barges around they keep three of the prettiest little wooden tugs still working anywhere in North America.

In fact, these tugs represent one of the larger fleets of wooden tugs still working, which contributes to the difficulty of getting operators that still understand the challenges of handling powerful little boats around big steel ships and barges. The largest and newest of the three tugs is the Tymac No. 22 (ex Charles H. Cates IX) built by Osborne Shipyard in 1964 as a ship docking tug for C.H. Cates and Son Ltd. of North Vancouver. Terry Waghorn began with that company in 1953, “scraping barnacles off boats,” and retired in 1991 as president. Terry explained that the boats were designed as ship-docking tugs, which was unusual in that time. The cabin set well aft with a trunk cabin forward allowed the boats bows to work in under the ship’s counter. Starting about 1945, the company built a total of 10 boats to this very successful design. The first five were built at Vancouver yards.

David Osborne, who recently retired from a life of boatbuilding with Osborne Shipyard, recalled Charles Cates coming to his father’s shipyard in 1949 to negotiate the building of the first of what would be the final five boats in the series, which Osborne Shipyard would build over the next 15 years. The first two of these were built at the family’s Port Alberni yard on Vancouver Island and the last three were built on leased space in Vancouver. The boats have an overall length of about 45 feet and a registered length between the fore part of stem, to the fore side of the head of the rudder stock, of 42 feet; their beam is 12.3 feet. The 7.8-foot molded depth yields an interior depth from the tonnage deck (floors) to the ceiling amidships of 5.2 feet. Like the others, the Tymac No. 22 took full advantage of the high-quality old-growth wood still available in British Columbia at that time. Because it was old growth, it had grown slowly with a resulting tightly spaced grain. For boat lumber, sawmills cut the log in such a way that the edge of that tight grain was exposed to the water that kept the wood from waterlogging and rotting. For ruggedness the stems and deadwood were tropical gumwood. Osborne explained that the fir keel would have been sheathed in a gumwood shoe as was the practice for workboats. In addition, he recalled that Cates liked a 12-by-2-inch steel plate to cover the length of the 12-inch-wide keel. With sheet steel welded up the sides, the steel plate was rivetted through the wood keel. The steel plate extended out past the keel to serve as a pintal base for the big rudders that gave the boats their exceptional maneuverability.

Frames were bent oak with 1.75-inch edge-grain red cedar hull planking. From the sheer to a couple of feet below the waterline, the soft but rot-resistant red cedar planking was sheathed in protective gumwood. The deck beams and sawn timber frames that formed the finely shaped stern were yellow cedar. While even more rot resistant than red cedar, the yellow cedar is like candy to teredoes, so it is not used below water. Decking was edge-grain fir to withstand the wear.


The original gasoline engines in these boats were built by the Hall-Scott Motor Car Co. of Berkeley, Calif., in 1945. Waghorn explained that the war-surplus engines delivered 630 hp at 2,100 rpm from their 12 cylinders. While coastal towing tugs were being built with diesel at this time, the gas engines with their high horsepower to weight were well suited to the intermittent use in a docking tug. Osborne said that the hulls were built with no bulkheads so that there would be no compartments to trap potentially explosive gas fumes. The engine exhaust was vented out the side so as to protect operators working on the command bridge from dangerous fumes. The trunk cabin that extends forward of the wheelhouse and over the engine room could be unbolted to facilitate an engine change within 24 hours. In time, parts became difficult to obtain, and in 1969 the original engine on Tymac No. 22 was replaced with a GM Detroit 16V71 rated for intermittent use at 700 hp at 2,100 rpm with a 3.5:1 reduction.

That is a lot of power for a small wooden tug, and it was plenty enough to handle the relatively small 8,000- and 10,000-ton ships like the Libertys that flooded the harbors in those post-war years. “Then we got a ship named the Sig Silver in port,” said Waghorn. “She was the first of the big aft-wheelhouse bulk carriers of 40 and 50,000 tons and deeper drafts. The agents wanted us to move ships when the tide was running. This meant that we were using five or six of our little tugs to handle a big ship where we could work a Liberty ship with only two boats.”

The bigger ships of the 1960s obviously required more horsepower, and conventional tugs with their winches set farther aft weren’t suitable. Waghorn began researching alternatives, and in 1969 the firm took delivery of a 700-hp, twin-screw Robert Allan-designed 41-foot steel boat. In 1972 they commissioned a 1,000-hp twin-screw 53-footer.

As the docking tugs grew in size, and as they were in turn eclipsed in the 1980s by z-drive boats, the wooden fleet at Cates became line-handling boats and over the years, spent more time at the dock. In the days prior to the company’s sale to a larger firm, the Cates family’s respect for heritage kept the little wooden tugs in the fleet, but by the 1990s even this couldn’t justify their place on the company roster, and they were sold off one by one.

When Tymac purchased and renamed the Tymac No. 22 in 1996, they also changed the injectors to bring the horsepower down to 525 hp. “This saves on fuel, and for the barge work we just didn’t need 700 hp,” explained Merritt.

As a representative of British Columbia’s rich wooden boat heritage, Tymac No. 22, is of interest as it is one of the last wooden tugs built. Tymac’s other former Cates tug, Tymac No. 20, has an even more prestigious pedigree. Built in 1921 by C.H. Cates & Sons as the Gorilla, she is one of the older wooden boats still working in the province. After nearly 80 years of service, the list of engines that propelled her 31-by-9.9-foot hull is the stuff of dreams for vintage engine collectors. They range from the original 50-hp, 1910-built Union Gas engine to a 1930 Fairbanks Morse diesel and a Vancouver-built 1956 Vivian to her present 1966 GM Detroit 8V71 at 220 hp. With her canvas-wrapped flying bridge and sweeping sheer, this little boat carries her fine hull through the crowded Vancouver port with the familiar but regal assurance of a queen mother.

All but one of Tymac’s barges are made of steel. But the 90-by-33-foot TLS#5 represents the time when hundreds of wooden barges built from massive timbers served logging camps and fish canneries from one end of the coast to the other. Built by MacKenzie Barge and Marine Ways in 1958, the venerable workhorse still does regular service to haul tanks of fresh water to deep-sea ships at anchor in Vancouver harbor.

In an era when business plans call for the amortization of new construction over 5 to 10 year periods and vessels are routinely given a 20-year life span, the longevity of these boats and barges speaks well of a day when builders’ contracts routinely promised that vessels would be constructed of the best timber available and to the highest standards of craftsmanship.

By Professional Mariner Staff