Tiny Fraser River log tugs have paint jobs that set them apart

Above, Iron Horse is only 23 feet long. Below, North Arm Logger and Pullaway, at 30 feet, are a bit larger. (Photos by Alan Haig-Brown)

Jerry Petrunia drives a street-legal 1970 Chevelle with a 1,000-hp, 572-cu.-in. big block under the flames that are painted on the car’s hood. He also drives a flame-painted Harley. When he is not driving either of these vehicles, he may be on one of his powerful little black tugboats that have matching flamed paint jobs.

Except for a couple of recently purchased tugs, Petrunia’s fleet stands out among the tugs that tow logs on the lower reaches of the Fraser River. Each of his three existing boats features the same black hull and superstructure with bright red and yellow flames down the cabin sides. The two new vessels will soon share the distinctive paint job.

Both Pullaway and North Arm Logger are only about 30 feet by 11 feet, but it is their 8-foot depth that gives them their power. As with the still smaller 23-by-12-foot Iron Horse, the deep hulls carry the engines beneath the flush decks. This gets the nozzled wheels deep in the water, where they can get a real bite on the river currents to give the boats their log-towing power.

The two older boats are single-screw, with North Arm Logger powered by a 360-hp Detroit Diesel 871 and Pullaway by a 460-hp Detroit Diesel 1271. Twin 200-hp Detroit Diesel 671s power the twin-screw Iron Horse, built in 1998 by Jerry’s brother Dave Petrunia.

North Arm Logger towing on the Fraser River.

The Petrunia family comes from a Fraser River tradition that mixes commercial fishing and towboating. While corporate concentration and increasing regulations have made it more difficult to maintain this way of life, several of Petrunia’s crews continue the tradition. Twenty-five-year old Jeremy Birch and his deck hand Rocky Bailey both come from commercial fishing families and continue to mix the two occupations.

On a sunny late May afternoon, Birch, whose extensive tattoos reflect the flame theme of the tug, enjoyed the river work in the wheelhouse of North Arm Logger. The calm river contrasted with the excitement five months earlier, when the black cod boat on which he was crewing was storm tossed onto rocks off the west coast of the Queen Charlotte Islands. The big steel boat landed between two rocks and, even though the hull seams were split open, the crew was able to walk ashore at low tide.

On this day they were following the general practice of towing upriver from the log-storage grounds at the mouth of the river. The beginnings of a flood tide that would rise from a 3.5-foot low to a 13.6-foot high would help the tow to go the 18 miles upriver to deliver the logs to a sawmill. Although the tide had changed in the sea at noon, there was still a little downriver current with the spring freshet pushing it along at 1400.

By the time the tide had changed to push upriver a bit later, the tow was making about 2 knots. Three of Petrunia’s boats were delivering 13 sections of logs. Each 60-foot-square section contained bundled logs. The three flame-painted boats had teamed up with a bigger 520-hp boat, Gowland Chief, which was towing 10 sections. By joining their tow onto the back end of the larger boat’s, they made one with 23 sections.

Gowland Chief towed on the head, with Logger and Pullaway towing about a third of the way back on either side of the tow. Iron Horse brought up the rear to help guide the logs through the several bridges along the route. At one of the first bridges, a plank stuck out of the bridge’s abutment to catch the tow and break it open. Birch sprang into action, backing down on his throttle to let Bailey, the deck hand, jump onto the boom and retrieve the tug’s iron tow hook that had been tucked into one of the boom chains. The two flaming tugs spun around and charged back to the rear of the tow, where the break had occurred, to help put the tow back together. Each of the boats carries pike poles, peeves, axes and a box full of extra staples and dogs that can be driven into the logs to secure them as well as wire straps that can be tightened around errant bundles.

Pullaway in the foreground and North Arm Logger to the rear. The single-screw boats are powered by 460- and 360-hp diesels.

Apart from such intense moments, life on the summer river is very Huck Finn-like. With the logs moving at a stately 2 knots, it is easy to step onto the boom and walk about. From the boom, the flames on the sides of the tugs are revealed in their full glory. But it is in the dark that they show their true energy.

Petrunia explained that he has the same artist, Troy Donahue of Hogs and Rods, do his wheeled machines and his boats. It was Donahue who came up with the idea of cutting reflective tape, the same as used on work gear, to fit the flames’ outlines. He then airbrushed the colored lacquer over that.

“It is amazing,” said Petrunia. “If you shine a light on it, you can see the flames right across the river.”

The power and responsiveness of these little boats are remarkable, although the general design is a long-established one in British Columbia, where log towing has defined generations of boats and mariners. With deep hulls, there is no need to give over any deck space to engine covers. But more importantly, the deep hulls keep the props in solid water.

With the nozzles, the boats’ props are nearly square. Iron Horse has two 34-by-32-inch wheels, Pullaway swings a 51-by-53-inch wheel and Logger has a 45-by-45-inch wheel. With the propellers set so deep, even when pulling hard, there is relatively little wash. However, when running light with 90 percent of the hull underwater, it can appear that the boat will submarine as the deep hull pushes up a hefty bow wave. When a boom comes apart or the tail end needs a little extra shepherding through a bridge, these little boats swing into action like border collies on a herd of errant sheep.

Jeremy Birch at North Arm Logger’s helm.


Cooperation among log towers is essential, since with each flood tide, there are often several tows in succession working their way up the narrow channel.

With the 23 sections that North Arm Logger and the others were bringing upriver, the time to split the tow in two came at the top end of Lulu Island. Gowland Chief took its 10 sections on upriver. The three flame-painted tugs towed their 13 sections back down another arm of the river.

As the tows were separated, the deck hands danced their way over the log bundles, their spiked or caulked rubber boots assuring a secure foothold and life vests on in case they slipped. Working with pike poles and knowledge of the boom’s structure, they quickly separated the boom’s sections. The powerful little tugs with their two-stroke engines blew black smoke as they jockeyed the booms into the right channel.

While a flame painted “hog” or ’70s muscle car has long been emblematic of terrestrial freedom, these powerful little flamed tugs are the maritime equivalent.    •

By Professional Mariner Staff