Wind in the winches: Towing up the mighty Columbia


It was a busy March day aboard Tidewater Transportation’s Captain Bob, catch-up time due to annual lock closures by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the Columbia and Snake rivers.

The locks, closed one month for maintenance, had reopened two days earlier on the Columbia, and crews were scurrying to make up tows as barge traffic resumed upriver to the Tri-Cities of Richland, Kennewick and Pasco. The Snake River, navigable for commercial cargo to Lewiston, Idaho, opened the following week.

The Tidewater yard sits at mile marker 102 on the north bank of the Columbia at Vancouver, Wash. For Captain Bob’s deck crew, it was tough work making up the tow there, schlepping, coiling and cinching up heavy wire cable with hand-operated winches.

Kevin Maki, the deck hand on the after watch, appreciated the help from other deck crews in the fleet to prepare the tow for a midafternoon departure. He remarked that the tow — made up of two empty grain barges at the bow followed by two chip barges, one empty, the other loaded — was an oddball one.

With the tow assembled, the pilot, Phil Morgan, eased Captain Bob into the channel and began the push to Pasco, Wash., at mile marker 329. After making the Burlington Northern Railroad Bridge, the steel I-5 span joining Vancouver and Portland, Ore., and the modern concrete I-205 bypass bridge, the tow was clear of the two cities.

Mount Hood glows in the setting sun as Captain Bob pushes its four-barge tow up the Columbia to Pasco, Wash.

The 110-by-34-foot, 5,000-hp Captain Bob, the most powerful tug in the Tidewater fleet, is powered by two Caterpillar 3516 mains coupled to Reintjes reduction gears turning 108-by-84-inch, outward-turning open propellers. That power would be needed to buck the river’s strong spring current, which was being fed by freshets of snowmelt. Mount Hood, sparkling white and dead ahead, portended more of the same. Then there was the unrelenting wind, cutting through the mountains and buffeting the tow.

“When the water is running, there is more stress, especially making the locks,” Morgan said. “There is so much current coming at you, with a lot of sideways action. If you turn too early at The Dalles, you’re on the beach. There’s an art to it, and some days are worse than others.”

Morgan explained that with one foot of clearance port and starboard in the locks, “you just head for the middle of the lock and get in there, especially at high water. And daylight is your friend.”

Captain Bob’s primary navigation tool is radar, but Morgan said AIS is a useful instrument for predicting the estimated time of arrival at bridges and dams. Notifying a bridge operator and lock master well ahead of arrival time is crucial for avoiding delays.

AIS also indicates safe locations in the channel for meeting and passing other tows. Downriver tows, riding with the current, have the right of way. Upriver tows have an easier time adjusting speed accordingly.

Capt. Mark Cline eases the tug into the lock at the John Day Dam on the Columbia River.

At 1800 hours, with Mount Hood aglow in evening light, Capt. Mark Cline arrived on the bridge and took the forward watch. After giving his watch report, Morgan headed for the galley to enjoy sumptuous fillet of beef cooked a perfect medium rare by Maki.
At Prindle Dike, Cline recorded the wind at 55 mph, a new high for the trip. Although not a competition, Morgan and Cline like to see which watch logs the highest wind speed on each transit. Cline said that at the Bonne-ville Dam, the east wind blows strong and often. “The worst wind spot is Cape Horn,” he said.

The cape, a massive basalt outcrop on the Washington side of the river at mile marker 132, acts as a bounce board for the unrelenting wind. As Captain Bob approached, the wind blew up to 50 mph on the starboard bow, then bounced off the shear cliff face and pushed on the port bow.

“This is a short tow,” Cline said. “Normally our tows are 650 feet long. We like the short tows when the wind is blowing. The extra length makes a big difference when you’re making a turn in the wind. I can put this tow anywhere I want.”

Cline added that the 9-foot open wheels on Captain Bob, the largest on any Tidewater boat, are an immense help when turning in the wind.

A Carlisle & Finch searchlight reaches out from the bow of the tow as Captain Bob moves upriver under cover of darkness.

“This is the best wind boat in the fleet,” he said. “When the water starts running and you come out of the locks, you don’t lose any power with the open wheels. With nozzles, you’re going to lose some horsepower. There is no advantage for us to have nozzles. And with nozzles you get caught up with debris, especially up the Snake. We get debris piles.”

The past winter was a tough one for much of the United States. The Pacific Northwest, which experienced unusually heavy snowfall and rain, was no exception. The severe conditions, with temperatures locking in at between 17 and 32 degrees, combined with the wind to make a difficult job much harder.

“February is a short month for us because of the lock closures,” Cline said. “But we were so burned out with shoveling snow off the tow and spreading rock salt that we all said it was the longest short month we’d ever done. The lines were like two-by-fours when you moved them. Everything took twice as long to do.”

Cline said that on many days, they were running in whiteouts and couldn’t turn on any lights because illuminating the blinding snow caused vertigo.

The Bonneville Dam at mile marker 146.1 was lit up like a small town. As Cline approached the lock, he slowed Captain Bob and responded to deck hand Kyle Burkhalter, who was on the bow of the tow with a hand-held radio. Burkhalter called out distances from the bow to the lock opening, and from the beam of the tow to the guide wall jutting out from the lock entrance.

Deck hand Kevin Maki uses a hand-operated winch to make up the tow at the Tidewater yard in Vancouver, Wash.

Once in the chamber, the routine was repeated on the approach to the upriver gate. “We know where the stern is, so we know where our bow is in the lock,” Cline said. “Five more feet will put us in the lock.” Maki then tied off the tow.

When the water in the lock equalized with the upriver pool and the gates were opened, Cline eased the tow out, leaned on the throttles and pushed for Hood River, Mosier and The Dalles beyond. Morgan joined the bridge at midnight and he and Maki took the pilot’s watch.

At the 0600 watch change, Morgan reported that, as usual, the east wind dropped off just below Hood River, and the tow speed rose from 7.4 mph to 8.4 mph. During the night, Morgan recorded 60-mph winds off 13 Mile Point, a record for the trip. On previous transits, Morgan has logged 101-mph winds on the Columbia, and Cline has recorded 102 mph.

At first light, Cline eased the tow along the guide wall at The Dalles Dam and entered the lock. Maki, once again on the bow with a radio, called out the distances.

“A good deck hand can make an operator look good all the time,” Cline said. “This crew has worked together for a long time and it goes really smooth. We really mesh together well. Phil and I spent years on deck, so we make it as easy on the crew as we can because they’re the ones doing the heavy work.”

Capt. Mark Cline guides the tow across Lake Celilo as the sun rises. He uses flags on the bow of the tow to help judge distances.

“Everybody takes care of everyone else,” Morgan said as he headed for the galley. “We run the boat and the deck crew keep it running. And they are really good at it.”

For the most part, Morgan and Cline run the tug at 44 percent capacity, or 3,000 horsepower. “There’s not much advantage running at 5,000 and burning 10 more gallons per hour when you don’t have to, just to gain a few minutes,” Cline said. “The fuel burn is less, the boat is quieter and it’s better all around at 3,000.”

Captain Bob was built in 1974 at Floating Marine Ways in Portland, Ore., with EMD 645 12-cylinder main engines generating 3,000 horsepower. The EMDs were replaced with Caterpillar 3516s during a refit in 2012. At the same time, two Caterpillar C6.6 ACERT gensets were installed with an automatic switch that prompts the second generator to kick in when the other one shuts down.

“I really like the automatic swap-out on the generators,” said Cline, who has experienced a generator failure. “It happened on (the tugboat) Chief. We were just entering the lock chamber with a dead boat.”

The deck hand was on the bow calling out distances. “He said he knew I wouldn’t be turning off the lights, so he recognized that something was wrong and came running back to turn on the other generator and get us back online,” Cline said. “It seemed like an eternity but it was probably only about three minutes. It was a bad feeling all around.”

The crew in the pilothouse, from left: deck hand Kevin Maki, pilot Phil Morgan, deck hand Kyle Burkhalter, and Cline. “We really mesh together well,” he says.

Above The Dalles, Cline slowed the tow to a crawl, then stopped it and waited for a freight train to cross the Oregon Trunk Rail Bridge. Lake Celilo was a sheet of glass reflecting a glorious sunrise when the bridge was raised, and Cline got the tow back underway.

At 0838, Cline made the Biggs Rapids Bridge spanning the river between Biggs Junction, Ore., and Maryhill, Wash. The Maryhill Museum of Art, the creation of the Quaker Sam Hill, stands grand on a shelf below a ridge lined with wind turbines.

Sam Hill was a substantial contributor to the Northwest’s economic and cultural development in the early 20th century. Among his many projects and enterprises are the Peace Arch on the border with British Columbia at Blaine, Wash., and the original Columbia River Highway, the oldest scenic highway in the U.S.

On the approach to the John Day Dam at mile marker 215.5, Cline explained that he uses the flags at the bow of the tow to help judge distances. “When a flag touches whatever (object), it’s about a half-mile away,” he said. “It helps a lot. All the little tricks help you do your job easier and better.”

The gain in elevation at John Day Dam is 103 feet, raising the tow onto Lake Umatilla. Bonneville rises 64.1 feet and The Dalles 82.4. Up ahead, at mile marker 292.5, the McNary Dam lifts the tow another 75 feet onto Lake Wallula and, from there, a smooth sail to Pasco.

By Professional Mariner Staff