The full-bodied rumble from the engine room is testament to her strength. You can feel the twin E.M.D. 645 V12’s, in your chest when she throttles up. She is a twin screw package of muscle that has all the ass she needs to do any job. Probably one of the liveliest boats at sea you’ll likely find, but she always got us home. The ride was so uncomfortable we’d sometimes muse, “she won’t kill you, she’ll just make you wish you were dead”.
The ride aside, what makes the Zachery special is that she is a hawser boat, not a modern tow-winch equipped workhorse. Yes, she’s a bit old fashioned, but I have a warm spot in my heart for this boat.
The hawser is complemented by a towing strap which is basically a loop of the 9” rope which will be draped over the main bitts as the first in a series of links in a standard towing setup. The strap is a length of hawser roughly 30 feet long. It is the primary connection to the tug and is looped over the “aft” or stern main bitts. This loop of rope is in place as a safety. The ability to cut away from the tow would be as simple as taking an axe to the strap.
Before the strap is spliced to itself, a thimble is inserted at the outer end of the loop that will accept a large safety shackle.
The Zachery’s hawser chain is 25 links of 12” studded chain, the same as one would find on a ship’s anchor rode. The hawser chain is shackled to the thimble end of the tow strap. Now the hawser chain is shackled to the bottom of the pile.
The barge is set up with its own gear. The main towing bridle is usually one leg of chain from each corner of the bow to a “fishplate”. (The fishplate is a triangle of heavy plate steel with attachment available on each “point”.) The legs of the bridle are permanantly attached by shackles to this plate. Then a single leg of chain or wire is shackled into the fishplate as the tow pennant. The tug will pass a small line over to the barge and the bargeman will attach his tow pennant so it can be pulled aboard the tug. The deckhands make quick work of getting the tow pennant aboard and then shackling in the hawser.
Now the tricky part. It’s just as important how one gets away from the barge and streams the hawser. Like holding a tiger’s tail, you don’t just open your fingers and let go, you need a plan. Frequently the tug needs to maneuver for sea room before streaming the entire hawser. The hawser is “made fast” to the main bitts at this point and held short. Getting away from the barge while the hawser is attached takes a steady hand and the awareness of where the rope is at all times. The deck gang stands by until they get the word to, “let her go”. At that point, a rope stopper has been set to hold the hawser so the turns on the main bitts can be removed.
As the last turns are thrown off, the stopper is released and the tug advances leaving the barge behind. The hawser begins to peel off its layers and slips over the rail. The care exercised faking down the hawser after its last deployment will now show its value.
If the operator just speeds away, the hawser can develop a deadly whipping and lashing motion across the fantail. Talk about a “tiger by the tail”, it gets real ugly when the rope is flying off the boat in a hurry.
In the early 70’s I was employed as a deckhand for a short time on the Tug Bronx 5. Our work included bringing tows of crushed stone from Roundout Creek in Kingston, New York to the stakeboats off Jersey City, New Jersey.
A raft of scows was assembled in East Kingston and then towed down to the city. On one memorable trip the tow was set on a hawser in Haverstraw Bay due to some rather nasty thunderstorm activity. I was introduced to the “old style of hawser pulling” at the Battery later that trip. An introduction I’m not likely to forget, I did not think it was fun.
The way it worked sans capstan is thus:
The deck gang consisting of 4 deckhands, (2 per watch) is called out. After slowing the tow, the helmsman would “back and fill” maneuvering the tug to stay properly oriented with the tow and to keep the line slack for the men pulling it in. A formidable task with a single screw boat, a great deal of caution was necessary to avoid falling out of shape and sweeping the deck with the line. There was also a risk of fouling the tug’s propellor with the hawser if there was too much slack in the water near the wheel.
Two men then climb up onto the fantail and face the tow with the hawser between their legs. With backs bent, hand over hand, the men would pull for all they’re worth. The two men on deck “fake” the line down in a tightly packed pile, layer by layer. The teams take turns every ten minutes so they can ease their backs and “crosstrain” a bit.
The deck gang relies on the helmsman to keep the boat in shape and his eyes open. Should the tow fall out of shape badly enough, the helmsman will stop the show and have the deckhands secure the hawser to the main bitts so everything can be pulled back into shape all over again. Hawser recovery can’t resume until everything settles down. Searoom is a prime consideration, but it’s never above the safety of the crew. If things get unmanageable (running out of sea-room, traffic, equipment issues), we head back out and start over so we can safely recover the hawser and have a reasonable amount of room for the operation. One must be aware that a fully set sea-hawser has the tug and tow connected but separated by almost 2,000 feet. We know we need some serious acreage to do the job.
The term “shortening up” refers to the need to pull in most of the towline but remaining in towing mode until the tug and tow find calmer water. Calm enough that the tug can “make up” in a different configuration without shock-loading the gear from heavy swells. When a swell is running, it’s safer to stay on the hawser. So, we’ll tow to a calm place inside the harbor and complete the operation in sheltered waters.
The timeframe is generally one to two hours if the weather and tow cooperate.
Once the hawser is shortened up enough to pull the pennant aboard, the stopper is set, the shackle is released, and the tug maneuvers alongside or into the push notch to re-capture the tow.
It’s a regular evolution for hawser boats. With a deck capstan there is a two man deck gang needed to recover the towing gear, they “fake down” while the capstan pulls.
Wire boats start an engine, engage a clutch, and pull in their wire in until the tow shackle is over the deck. No one needs to be on deck until it’s time to break tow and pick up the barge.
I tend to lean toward the traditional side of the trade since I have a bit of a bias when it comes to hawser boats. If you work on a “hawser boat”, you still have a foot in the past even if the boat is fairly new. It’s the old fashioned, bare-bones-basic way of offshore towing.
I’ll take the extra work for the peace of mind I get from the stretch of the hawser, set it and forget it. It’s very forgiving where a wire might tend to pull up taut and surge or “banjo string”. I don’t have a great concern about how deep my towline is sinking. Canternary is the dip in the wire when it is at its towing length. The more wire that’s out, the deeper it sinks. Snagging the bottom or polishing the wire as it drags bottom are major concerns with wire. Both would weaken the integrity of the gear, very expensive gear.
The traditional hawser-boat is fading from use for oil transportation. Though they are still in use, new hawser boats are not being built for the petroleum transportation trade. The tow-wire and A.T.B. (articulated tug and barge) configurations are slowly but surely relegating the hawser-boat to the history books. Emergency hawsers remain as the only vestige of the old way. They are an inexpensive but reliable standby for an unforeseen circumstance. Once the main wire parts, it isn’t really a simple task to repair it and put it back in service. If a rope hawser parts it can be recovered, re-spliced, and redeployed in fairly short order.
These videos are as good an illustration as you’ll get of the routine we use for setting for sea and recovery. It really doesn’t matter how cold, icy, or uncomfortable it may be. The job gets done.
In the case of a wire boat, the constant monitoring of the wire is necessary and if she’s equipped with a true towing machine the amount of give and take the winch allows has to be monitored. The “canternary” of the wire (illustrated above) is always a concern. Once the tow is set, the hawser boat’s towline will ride at or very near the surface as the tug throttles up and will stay shallow while the tug maintains a good solid strain.
A towing machine renders wire as the strain exceeds the set limit and should recover it when the strain eases, in theory anyway. The hawser boat is done until it’s time to recover. The hawser will stretch 25-30% of its length. That’s nearly 500′ or so when fully deployed. And even when it’s near its breaking point, it can stretch another 13% before failing. So it’s quite forgiving but it’s not to be taken for granted, it’s only a matter of when it will fail, not if.
In the videos depicting the recovery, you’ll note that the first thing done is the recovery of the chain, the breaking down of the shackles, and the fairleading of the hawser onto the capstan. Once the hawser has enough turns on the capstan, the “pin” is set in the rail to keep the rope from sweeping the pile and maybe injuring one of the deck gang. The hawser is pulled in and faked down until the desired length is achieved. The proper practice would include tying down the pile until it’s time to recover the rest of the hawser. The chafing gear is set to prevent wear on the hawser from the friction of riding the rail. This gear has been modified from the heavy old style oaken hawser boards to PVC pipe, split and laced. Easier to handle and safer to deploy. Setting the “hawser-board” or any chafing gear on a shortened hawser is a touchy and delicate dance the deckhands must perform on the fantail in order to protect the line when it lays on the rail. It’s easy to get killed or swept overboard if you’re standing in the wrong place at the right time.
So, is a hawser boat better? There is the stretch (up to 30%) of the line (a plus). It will give just enough when there’s a following sea and not jar you out of your seat like a towing machine can when it renders cable to ease any surge (a plus). There’s a lot more labor involved when it comes to recovering the tow and the deck crew is more exposed and in harm’s way (a minus). The hawser’s entire recovery process can take about 45 minutes to an hour, rain or shine, good weather or bad, rough or calm. (eh, a wash) The wire would take 15-20 minutes depending on the weather.
The West Coast boys tow with a lot more wire than the East Coast does, the deeper water makes life a little easier for a wire boat. Here on the East Coast the shallow water requires a determined effort to keep the wire off the bottom and avoid snags that dot the graveyard of the Western Atlantic basin. A hawser boat generally won’t have more than 2000′ of rope for the main tow hawser, after that its a waste.
So, we can ponder, discuss, or argue the benefit of one over the other but as things get more modern we’ll see fewer hawser boats. Nobody is building dedicated hawser boats anymore. The customer is all about hanging on to the tow no matter what, and a wire is more suited to the task.
How long does a towing hawser usually last? Well, since you ask…
In my experience the service life of the main towing hawser is directly related to the initial quality of the rope and the care it has been given over the term of its use. Most tow hawsers I’ve used have been in the 9″ circumference range and were generally 1,800′ long when new. This type of hawser was generally a 3 strand, right hand soft lay nylon and would be delivered with closed thimbles spliced into either end. The first time this hawser was “set to the chains” is when we would get to see if its stretching ability was appropriate and correct, roughly 25-30% elongation under a steady strain is to be expected. The canternary one would expect from a similar length of wire is not present with a hawser, it rides very close to the surface when under strain.
The hawser’s retrieval is the time one must pay close attention to the handling of this line since dragging the bottom is generally unavoidable even if it’s a bad idea. Most hawser boats can’t pull and fake down a hawser without a good deal of sea-room or while making a good deal of headway. It’s a labor intensive operation that requires up to an hour under normal circumstances for an experienced deck crew. Mud and grit insinuates into the rope quite easily and can have a detrimental effect on the core’s ability to stretch as it should without damaging the inner yarns. Dragging bottom also increases the exposure to snags and pulls of the outer sheath.
Towing “shortened up” will stress the outer yarns and increase wear from friction if the line is shock loaded too much. Wire boats have the ability to maintain a fair amount of headway and still rewind their tow wire without dropping it to the bottom in most cases, and it’s accomplished fewer men.
To extend its safe working life, the hawser’s amount of wear needs to be monitored closely. I have had hawsers of this type last roughly 1,500 towing hours (more or less) and still have some useful life left. I’ve also seen them fail right off the reel. Usually though , a hawser can be expected to fail at the outer splice after a few hundred hours and should have its thimble splices renewed every so often to stay ahead of this predictable failure. This interval is a judgment call made on a case by case basis, I don’t have a magic number.
It’s also a good practice to shorten the hawser when renewing thimble splices just enough so the working end of the hawser is retired before it’s too worn to take a sudden load. Once the working length has been reduced by 15-20% one should start looking at replacement. The functionality of a hawser is in its length, more is better.
When figuring your working hours it’s necessary to count all the time on the hawser, not just when its fully deployed since running “shortened up” causes the most wear and tear on the line. “End for ending” a tow hawser may be useful to extend the life of the rope but not unless the splices have been renewed and any heavily worn length has been removed just prior to swapping ends. Adding a length of new rope to the hawser is not advisable.
Short splices are used as necessary but they can reduce the working strength of the hawser and create a “weak link”. It’s not common practice to end for end a sea hawser.
When a sea hawser fails, the thimble splice nearest the tow is the most likely point of failure. In this case it’s necessary to retrieve the entire hawser and cut away the frayed and un-layed end and splice another thimble into the end. The tow needs to be corralled and recovered, it’s a familiar but different evolution from setting the tow in the first place. The biggest difference will be the proximity of land, traffic, shoals, or any other hazard that would be of concern since you haven’t been able to choose where this would occur. The recovery needs to be completed in short order to get things under control and safely away from the danger of collision, allision, or grounding.
The hawser needs to be recovered so it doesn’t endanger the tug if there is enough room and time to do it without risking the tug’s safety. Having more than 1000′ of rope trailing the boat as you try to recover your tow is a delicate situation, take the hawser in the wheel and you’re hobbled. The priorities are apparent. To call it stressful would be understating it to the n’th degree.
The 1,500 hours may be exceeded or never met depending on any number of variables. The average I experienced on the Zachery Reinauer was very nearly spot on within a 100 hours or so. My crew and I did a lot of shortened up towing and a good amount of coastwise towing with her. The workload for the hawser was fairly intense with barges in the 60-75k barrel range loaded or empty.
Since I tend to lean toward a more traditional side of the trade I have a bit of a bias when it comes to hawser boats. If you work a “hawser boat”, you still have a foot in the past even if the boat is fairly new. It’s the old fashioned, bare bones basic way of offshore towing.
After one very busy two week hitch, I tallied the amount of hawser my crew had pulled during the tour, it added up to 4 miles of rope. Whether that’s good or bad depends on how “in shape” you are. It certainly gives you bragging rights when a “wire boat guy” starts crying about how hard he’s working!