Vintage tug damages its sternwheel on first voyage after restoration

A 60-year-old steam-powered tug severely damaged its sternwheel when the vessel drifted into a rocky bank in the Columbia River after its steering locked up.

Portland, on its first voyage with paying passengers after an eight-year restoration, was carrying 97 people when the accident occurred on the afternoon of June 27 in the Columbia Gorge between Washington and Oregon. The 186-foot tug was on its way to a much-anticipated race against a modern sternwheeler.

Portland was carried stern-first into the rocks by the 6-knot current, then was swept a mile downstream until its port anchor held. There were no injuries. A technician for the original maker of the steam-powered steering system inspected the disabled vessel and attributed the problem to a poor mechanical adjustment.

The vessel’s scheduled voyage was from Portland, Ore., through the Bonneville Dam and on to Cascade Locks on the river’s south shore. The incident began three miles east of the Bonneville Dam in a rock-strewn area that was once known as the Cascades. Portland was nosing into the defunct flooded lock at Cascade Locks when it lost its steering.

The Cascades area was a barrier to navigation where cargoes had to be portaged until a single lock was built between 1878 and 1896, bypassing the steepest part of the rapids. The Cascade Locks were partially submerged in 1938 by the rise in water level when the Bonneville Dam was completed. The upstream route to the quay in the lock diverts from the main barge channel and hugs the Oregon shore.

Capt. Paul Simonis, who holds a U.S. Coast Guard 1,600-ton inland license and operates the 80-foot sternwheel excursion boat Rose on the Willamette River, was the skipper of Portland at the time of the accident. He had two other licensed captains on board, a mate and a steam engineer. Simonis said that he put the helm hard to starboard during the approach to the moorage when the steering to the seven rudders locked. The sternwheel protected the steel hull from any damage.

Bob Layfield, president of the Oregon Maritime Museum in Portland where the tug is based, said the boat was hung up on the shore for about five minutes, then continued to drift downstream. The volunteer crew performed well, he said, quickly engaging the two steam-powered foredeck winches and deploying both anchors. But the vessel was passing over a pool 100 feet deep, the deepest on the river, and the anchors did not begin to hold until the depth decreased closer to the dam.

The 94-foot, 1,700-hp tug Invader responded to a call for assistance from Portland. Invader was able to drop its barges at the Bonneville Dam locks a mile downstream, engage Portland’s transom and push the vessel upstream and into the dock in Cascade Locks. Two Coast Guard Auxiliary boats and county water patrols from Oregon and Washington escorted the sternwheeler. After the passengers disembarked, the vessel was towed downriver through the Bonneville Dam locks to the Sundial Marine shipyard near Troutdale, Ore., for repairs.

Portland was the last craft of its type built in the United States. It assisted ships at the Port of Portland until 1981, when it was retired. It was restored by the maritime museum and is permanently based on the Willamette River waterfront in downtown Portland as a functional floating exhibit. The museum spent eight years refitting Portland in order to meet Coast Guard requirements for certification as a limited passenger vessel.

While awaiting final approval, the boat was given a single-issue trip permit to take part in The Great Steamboat Race against the modern diesel-powered sternwheeler Cascade Locks. It would have been the first event of its kind in 56 years.

The original steam-powered steering system on Portland, based on a 1930s design, was supplied by the Markey Machinery Co. of Seattle, now a well-known manufacturer of tug winches.

Markey co-owner Robert LeCoque was contacted after the accident and drove to Cascade Locks, where he inspected Portland’s steering system. His survey indicated that the problem was caused by poor mechanical adjustment and could be easily corrected.

By Professional Mariner Staff