Throwback tugboat fleet stands test of time on Great Lakes

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Few tugboats working today have the history and pedigree of the Great Lakes Towing Co.’s fleet, which long ago earned the nickname “The Workhorses of the Great Lakes.” Some of the operator’s remaining 29 tugs predate World War I, and with few exceptions their days are numbered.

Great Lakes Towing, based in Cleveland, Ohio, is building 10 new tugboats over the next few years, the first of which entered service in July. Two tugs will be retired for each new delivery, according to company President Joe Starck.

Capt. Scott Baker hopes the 103-year-old Illinois makes the cut. “This is my favorite tug to operate,” he said during downtime before a recent harbor tow. “She’s agile … and she just responds.”

Just after sunrise on a late April morning, Baker guided Illinois into the Cuyahoga River from a downtown dock opposite the sprawling Sherwin-Williams research center. Flanked by occasional kayakers and crew teams, he steered downriver toward Lake Erie, where an articulated tug-barge (ATB) was due in from Detroit. Deck hand-engineers Julius Stafford and Brandon Fadenholz assisted Baker on the voyage.

Deck hand-engineers Brandon Fadenholz, left, and Julius Stafford haul in the line after tying off to the barge Delaware in Cleveland Harbor.

Conditions couldn’t have been better: The sky was clear and the temperature approached 70 degrees as the sun rose over the Cleveland skyline. Baker guided the tug around a series of sharp turns and narrow bridges on the way to Lake Erie.

The 3,400-hp tug Calusa Coast and its 298-foot barge Delaware were waiting in Cleveland Harbor when Illinois arrived, its passage delayed by a freight train crossing over the Norfolk Southern railroad bridge. Baker continued into Cleveland Harbor and hailed the ATB. After making arrangements with Calusa Coast’s captain, Gary Kafcsak, he positioned Illinois’ stern in front of the barge’s rake. Stafford and Fadenholz received the messenger line from a crewman aboard Delaware, tied off the towline and secured it to Illinois’ aft-mounted H-bitt.

With the vessels in tow, Baker continued back into the river and through the raised railroad bridge. With his left hand on the tiller and his right on the throttle, he faced aft to monitor the tow’s progress within the narrow river. Fadenholz and Stafford served as the forward lookouts.

“When we get up to this turn, I’ll be way off to his starboard side,” Baker said as the vessels approached a dogleg alongside the Greater Cleveland Aquarium. “Really, you want to picture a dance or a ballet: Get to a point when the ship advances and you bring him around so he fits, but you have to watch the stern too.”

Julius Stafford awaits the messenger line from a crewman aboard the barge Delaware. The rope landed in Lake Erie and Stafford used a hook to retrieve it.

The process continues, Baker said, until the vessels reach the next straightaway. Then it begins again at the next curve.

The tug and barge pair were about 400 feet long. The Port of Cleveland can handle ships up to 700 feet long, although most vessels that call are between 600 and 650 feet. Great Lakes freighters known as “lakers” and foreign-flagged bulk carriers known as “salties” that reach the city through the St. Lawrence Seaway call on Cleveland regularly, carrying steel, ore, stone and other products.

As the tug and ATB continued along the dogleg, Baker hailed the tender of an upcoming swing bridge, who had opened the span to let the vessels pass. There are about a half-dozen lift or swing bridges between Lake Erie and the tow’s destination at the Marathon Oil terminal. Each time Baker approached one, he hailed the operator.

“They all talk to each other and they know we’re coming,” he said of the bridge tenders. “It’s more or less just checking in.” Two Norfolk Southern railroad bridges are the exception. Those spans require a 30-minute notice to open.

Illinois pulls the barge Delaware around a bend in the Cuyahoga River not far from Lake Erie. The trendy Cleveland neighborhood known as The Flats is in the background.

After clearing the first major turn, the tow approached a U-shaped bend with two bridges — a fixed railroad bridge and a lift bridge — at the river’s narrowest point. After clearing the spans, Kafcsak hailed Baker over the radio asking for more power from Illinois.

Baker confirmed the order and throttled down on Illinois’ 1,200-hp engine. Soon the barge’s bow swung to port as intended.

Great Lakes Towing has a long history on the Fourth Coast, as the Great Lakes are known. The company was founded in 1899, and early shareholders included John D. Rockefeller, James R. Sinclair, Henry and Sophia Steinbrenner and other American industrialists. These days, its parent company operates a shipyard in Cleveland as well as subsidiaries offering line handling, vessel design, management and chartering.

Great Lakes built Illinois in Cleveland in 1914. It was the 29th hull in a fleet of 81-foot tugboats built between 1909 and 1931. Propulsion originally consisted of a coal-fired steam plant, although in 1949 the company swapped it out for a Cleveland 278A diesel main.

Great Lakes Towing built the 81-foot Illinois at its Cleveland shipyard in 1914 as part of a large fleet constructed between 1909 and 1931. Many sister vessels are still working in ports across the Great Lakes.

Illinois and its steel-hulled sisters are throwbacks in just about every sense. These tugs have standard navigation equipment — radar, chartplotter, VHF radio and depth finder — but little in the way of crew amenities. There is no wireless Internet or cushy helm chairs, no galley or HVAC system. The single cramped head is accessible only from the deck.

Tugs in the company fleet are dispersed around 11 main ports, from which they serve nearly 40 ports on all five lakes. Its two Cleveland-based tugs, for instance, also handle ships in Lorain and Sandusky, Ohio. Baker and his fellow captains travel to other Great Lakes hubs as needed, giving them a chance to work on other tugs.

“They do have differences but they are similar in style,” Baker said of Illinois’ sister tugs. “Some have Kort nozzles, some don’t; some have power steering, others don’t. But for the most part they are all pretty much same.”

Most of that existing fleet will be retired by 2020. Great Lakes Shipyard delivered the 2,000-hp Damen-designed tug Cleveland on June 30, and the 64-foot vessel performed its first ship-assist job July 17. Cleveland and Illinois assisted with the docking of the 656-foot bulker Federal Saguenay at the Port of Cleveland.

Capt. Scott Baker became a tugboat captain in 2011 after a career as an electrical engineer. “My scenery changes all the time and I don’t have that regular daily grind,” he says.

Back on the Cuyahoga, Baker guided the tug and barge through a sharp hairpin turn into a short straightaway. He kept his eyes on the barge as the vessels approached a 60-degree curve known as Collision Bend — one of the sharpest curves located in one of the widest sections of the lower Cuyahoga. Illinois was almost perpendicular to Delaware as it pulled the bow to starboard through the turn and under another lift bridge.

Past Collision Bend, the river narrows and straightens briefly before approaching a gradual U-shaped curve. The vessels passed giant piles of stone and aggregate at the Lafarge Na-River Dock and the adjacent Morton Salt facility. After negotiating one final dogleg turn, the vessels reached Marathon Oil, just downriver from Cuyahoga Concrete.

Baker, 50, has been a Great Lakes tugboat captain since 2011. He came to the profession after a career as an electrical engineer but has been around boats his entire life. Baker’s first job in the maritime industry was aboard the Cleveland excursion boat Nautica Queen. He later became port captain and started working part time as a dispatcher for Great Lakes Towing before training as a tug captain.

“This is such a great job. For me, what works out is my scenery changes all the time and I don’t have that regular daily grind,” he said.

Illinois guides the tug Calusa Coast and barge Delaware through one of a half-dozen lift and swing bridges between Lake Erie and the vessels’ destination at Marathon Oil.

Stafford and Fadenholz have 16 and seven years, respectively, with the company. Both began with Great Lakes in the shipyard and then were promoted to work on the tugs — a common path in the company that employs about 40 union mariners.

Great Lakes’ crews work on-call 24 hours a day throughout the Great Lakes shipping season, which runs from about April 1 to about Jan. 1. Aside from occasional icebreaking jobs, work is rare in the winter, when shipping virtually stops in the Great Lakes.

As the vessels approached the Marathon terminal, Stafford and Fadenholz hauled in the towline. Baker spun the tug to port while Kafcsak got Delaware lined up along the dock. Meanwhile, the captain of the 1,200-hp tug Thomas R. Morrish announced over radio he was coming upriver with an empty barge.

Kafcsak hailed the Morrish captain over radio, who asked about the ATB’s overnight voyage from Detroit. “Eh, a little bumpy, but nothing two weeks in Tahiti wouldn’t fix,” Kafcsak said. He then added, “I want to give you a head’s up. We are coming to the dock now. We will get some lines up and get the assist tug out of the way to make some room for you.”

Brandon Fadenholz, left, and Julius Stafford stand alongside Illinois’ 1,200-hp diesel main engine. Great Lakes Towing replaced the tug’s original coal-fired steam plant in 1949.

“No problem,” Morrish’s captain responded, “we’re not rushing here.”

Baker positioned Illinois’ bow amidships on Delaware and pushed toward the terminal. Following Kafcsak’s instructions, he alternated between easy ahead, idling ahead and all stop. Soon the barge was in position and Illinois’ work was finished.

Baker thanked Kafcsak and turned downriver toward the company’s docks. About 10 minutes later Illinois arrived back home behind sister tug Iowa. Stafford and Fadenholz tied off against the pier and got to work in the engine room.

Later that night, they’d lead Calusa Coast and Delaware back into Lake Erie. The 2017 shipping season was just getting started, and Baker and the rest of Great Lakes Towing’s crew had plenty of work to do.

By Professional Mariner Staff