Tuesday, April 22, 2008

My Youth as a Tugboat Captain in Georgetown, South Carolina

When I was a boy I worked as a deckhand on my father s tugboats in Georgetown, South Carolina.  My dad owned the only tugboat company in town for 20 years before he moved it to Wilmington, North Carolina and then sold it later to McAllister Towing of New York City.

I was fortunate as a boy, because lots of little boys dream of tugboats--bright red wooden boats with painted smiles and horns that go "toot, toot".  But when I was a boy I got to play on the real thing and pilot them as well.  Let me tell you something of my adventures and introduce you to the port of Georgetown.

The Port of Georgetown

The small town of Georgetown is one of three port cities in South Carolina--the other two are Beaufort and Charleston.  The town was officially founded in 1729 while historians speculate that there might have been a failed attempt to settle there as early as 1526.  Georgetown is 40 miles south of Myrtle Beach and 60 miles north of Charleston on Winyah Bay.  When I was a boy there you only had to dial 5 digits to make a phone call and the town only had one zip code.  Today you have to dial the full 7-digit phone number but any letter addressed to anyone in Georgetown will carry the same single postal code: 29440.

Georgetown was a sleepy town in the 1960s and is still a sleepy town today.  It is largely unaffected by the rampant development of the nearby beach towns of Pawley s Island and Litchfield Beach.  While the names of the businesses along the wide avenue of Front Street have changed over the years, the storefronts still look the same.  Gone is Nancy s dress shop where my mother once worked.  She said that hookers from the whore house south of town would come there with wads of cash in their hands to buy clothes.  Gone is the Strand movie theater where I saw my first film, Mary Poppins.  Gone is the Pepsi machine at the Gulf marina where you could buy a  glass bottle of Pepsi for 25 cents.  The soda was so cold that it was partially filled with ice.

People who have briefly passed through Georgetown on the way to the beach might have noticed the smell that comes from the paper mill.  But for people grew up there or live there still the odor that sometimes wafts from the International Paper Company is not unpleasant at all.  For this is the smell of money since so many people work there.

You cannot really say that Georgetown has a skyline since there are no tall buildings.  But if you did, you would say that it is dominated by the towering clock of the Rice Museum.  This was a former market where rice and slaves were bought and sold.  Rice and indigo (used to make dye) farmed by slaves and their overseers made the area prosperous as did its proximity to navigable waters.

Georgetown like much of South Carolina was the site of Civil and Revolutionary War battles.  During the Revolutionary war the British occupied the town.  The town leaders who did not profess loyalty to the crown were exiled for a time to Edisto Island.  Just South of Georgetown at Belle Isle Plantation is where Francis Marion was born.  He harried the British troops in a guerilla-style campaign whose efficacy earned him the moniker "The Swamp Fox".  Mel Gibson recognized this local hero when he made a movie called the "The Patriot" based loosely on the same character.

In Georgetown, the Black, Sampit, Pee Dee, and Waccamaw rivers join together to form the Winyah Bay.  From the town of Georgetown to the ocean the bay runs about twenty miles.

As far as ports go, Georgetown is not large.  Only a few ships come there each month and the harbor is not very deep.  There are two factories in Georgetown, one state-owned pier, and an oil and gasoline depot where cargo is shipped and received.  The paper mill in Georgetown receives much of its raw material (pine trees) by barge while the steel mill receives much of its raw material (coke and iron ore) by ship.  My grandfather oversaw the fleet of barges and tugs at the paper company while my father handled the ships in the harbor with his tugs.

The harbor is not very deep, but it is deep enough for ships up to 600 feet in length.  Like all East Coast harbors, Winyah Bay tends to get clogged with sand that is shifted about by the perpetual motion of the tides and the silt in the rivers.  So the harbor must be dredged to keep it deep enough for shipping.  The official depth of the channel is 29 feet.  This means that a ship drawing 29 feet of water can sail into the port without running aground.  Of course the harbor is deeper in some spots.

The Kathy Ann and the Wal-Row

My father had two tugboats: the Kathy-Ann and the Wal-Row that he kept at his company at the foot of Hazard Street.  My grandfather father built both boats.  The Kathy-Ann is 65 feet long and has 600 horsepower.  The Wal-Row is 86 feet long and has 900 horsepower.  My grandfather named the Wal-Row after himself.  The Kathy my father named for John Burnette s daughter Kathy and my mother whose name is Ann.  John owned White Stack towing in Charleston.  For a time he owned half of the Kathy Ann until my dad bought him out.  (White Stack is no longer in business having been bought out by Moran which is another mega-company like McAllister which bought my Dad s business.)

Both the Wal-Row and Kathy-Ann are built of steel.  Both have twin screws meaning they have two propellers.  A tugboat with twin screws is easier to control than a single-screw vessel.  With a twin screw boat you can go ahead on one engine and go astern on another and spin the boat around in a tight circle.  Single boat screws cannot do that, so they require a lot of back and forth action with the propeller and rudder to make the boat turn around.  Next time you see a shrimp boat come up to the dock watch closely as the boat sallies up to the pier with a great profusion of noise and prop wash.

Tugboats generally have a round bottom and sit low in the water.  The are designed to be low and heavy so that they have lots of momentum.  Momentum, say the physicists, is mass times velocity.  So a heavy boat will have more pulling power than a light one.

The propeller on the Wal-Row is 8 feet long and made of brass.  It is fastened to the engine by a  propeller shaft made of stainless steel.  When you combine these two metals in saltwater it produces a small electric current which corrodes metal.  This is called "electrolysis".  To counter that you put zinc strips on the hull.  Since zinc is softer than either brass or stainless steel the zinc corrodes first thus protecting the expensive propeller and propeller shaft.

The propeller shaft sticks through the hull of the boat and floats on a film of water that is housed in a device called the "stuffing box".  This is a bearing of sorts.  Every time that we docked the boats we had to check to make sure that the stuff box was not leaking too much water into the bilge.

The engines are head-high diesel powered engines that are cranked using an air-powered starter.  When you press the starter button it makes a high-pitched squeal.  I always enjoyed starting the engines on the boats.  Each tugboat had two generators to power the lights.   You need two in case one breaks down.  That s another reason why two engines are preferred to one in you are going to work far offshore.

The bow of the Wal-Row is fitted with an enormous tractor-trailer tire, split lengthwise, and then held in place by turnbuckles.  The idea of this fender is to let the tug push against the side of the ship without doing damage to either vessel.  Some tugs have fenders made out of hemp, nylon, or other types of rope.  But most people use tires since they are cheaper while they perhaps do not last as long.  Fenders made of used tires held in place by chains are hung along the entire length of the hull on each tugboat.

The Wal-Row and Kathy Ann were similar is design.  The only difference was the engine room on the Wal-Row was two floors high whereas the engine room on the Kathy Ann was much smaller.  On the front deck of each boat was three towing bits and a bull nose or staple where the towing line was held in position directly over the stem of the boat.  Behind that is the superstructure of the vessel.  The wheelhouse is on the second floor.  To get from the front deck to the wheelhouse you could either climb a ladder or go inside the galley and then climb the stairs or you could climb a ladder from the back deck.   The top of the wheelhouse is covered with running lights, antennae, towing lights, and a searchlight which is a powerful light that you use to peer into the darkness.

The decks of the tugs slant backward giving the tug an upturned profile.  The stern sits low in the water and is open area with lots of room to walk around and lay coils of heavy lines.  At the stern are scuppers.  These let water that runs onto the deck wash overboard.  On the stern are also three towing bits--one mounted amidships and one mounted on each gunwale--and a capstan.  The capstan is an electric wench that is used to haul in heavy towing lines.

We rarely used the stern of the tugboats when handling ships.  When you work with ships we always connected the towing hawser to the ship from the bow except on the rare occasion when the pilot wanted us to put up a stern hawser.  When we worked with barges--which was less frequently than ships--we used the stern towing bit.  Barges are generally towed aft of the tugboat although certain tugs with square bows--called "pusher tugs"--push them in front.

The wheelhouse of the tug is where the captain stood to steer the vessel.  The Wal-Row did not have a traditional steering wheel but had twin electric-switches with large handles.  You flipped the handle right or left to turn the vessel s rudder one way or the other.  There were two such steering devices so that you could steer the vessel from either side of the boat.  The Kathy Ann, on the other hand, had a traditional wooden steering wheel.  I prefer the steer wheel since the handle was somewhat confusing.

The clutch and the throttle were connected to the same handle.  (I say this because the throttle and clutch on some boats are separate levers.  This like the electric steering handles I always found somewhat cumbersome.)  With the single levers, you push the handle forward to make the boat go ahead and pull it backwards to make it go astern.  Going from one direction to the other you are supposed to pause the clutch at neural and let the gear box come to a halt.  Otherwise it will put too much strain on the transmission and it will wear out more quickly.

Behind the wheelhouse was the captain s quarters and where we kept the logs and the first aid kit.  Behind that was a smokestack that vented exhaust from the engines.  The smokestack is the item that defines the familiar profile of the tugboat.  Think of, say, the Titanic and what you notice first is the towering smokestacks.  So it goes with tugboats.  Yet the stack always seemed to be constructed larger than is necessary, for the actual exhaust pipe inside is not very large.

On the main deck of the vessel was the galley and three staterooms with bunk beds.  To go inside you had to open heavy watertight doors.  The windows of the galley and staterooms were round port holes designed to take a heavy pounding from the sea.  On a boat, the kitchen is called a "galley" and the bathroom is call the "head".  The galley included a refrigerator, a stove, and a sink.  The staterooms had bunk beds.

Ship Handling

To "dock" a ship means to push it up to the dock and to "undock" a ship means to tow it away.  Both activities are collectively called "ship handling".  Let me explain to you how this is done.

When a ship approaches Georgetown from the ocean it is met offshore by the river pilot.  The river pilot s job is a tough one.  When the ocean is rough and the winds are blowing, sport fishermen can stay home in their warm beds.  But with some 11,000 tons of cargo bearing down on the coastline, the pilot must get out to the ship.  It s dangerous work too.  One of the pilots in Georgetown, Wright Skinner, fell overboard and drowned in the frigid Atlantic.

The pilot s boat is a fast-running vessel that is designed to take waves over the bow without capsizing or being swamped.   The pilot uses a ladder to climb onto the bridge of the ship and then takes control from the captain.  The reason for this is the pilot knows the local waters whereas the ship captain does not.  Also pilots are given licenses based on a particular river or bay.  So a pilot who is licensed in, say, Charleston might not be able to work in Georgetown.  My brother is licensed as a harbor pilot in Wilmington, North Carolina.  To earn his license he had to draw from memory every submerged cable, buoy, and bar for the entire length of the Cape Fear River.

As the ship enters the inlet it sails 15 miles or so up the Winyah Bay where it is met by the tugboat.  At this point a harbor pilot climbs onboard the ship.  When the ship nears the harbor, the harbor pilot takes over from the river pilot.  The harbor pilot s skill is maneuvering the ship up to the dock.  He takes command of the ship and directs the tugboats that assist him.

When I sailed with my father, I always enjoyed the point where we first met the ship out in Winyah Bay.  If we were on the Wal-Row, the larger vessel, we would head out to meet the ship first while the Kathy Ann, the smaller vessel, remained behind.  We would turn right out of the Sampit River and head south down the Intracoastal Waterway and wait there for the ship to arrive.  The ship would loom up over the horizon--you could see the stack and superstructure above the distant islands long before you could see the hull.  At first it was a small distant speck, but as it got closer it grew larger and larger.  When the ship was just behind us, my father would put the engines in gear and bring the tugboat along side.  Taking care to match the speed of the ship, her steered the tugboat  to starboard until it bounced gently off the port side of the ship and then came to rest there.  The fenders of the tugboat kept the steel of the tug and ship from rubbing together.

My job at this point was to put up a ladder so the docking pilot could climb up to the ship.  The harbor pilot we used was Morgan Futch.  Once the pilot was one board my father would turn the rudder to port and rush toward the bow of the ship.  There I would use a heaving line to put a hawser up on the ship.

The heaving line is a rope made of hemp or nylon.  It is a small line that is used to lift the larger towing line, the hawser, up to the ship.  The heaving line has a monkey s fist at the end.  This is cleverly-spliced ball with a piece of steel inside.  It looks sort of like a baseball.  You coil the heaving line loosely and then put half of the coil in one hand and the other half in the other.  Then you thrown the line hard and high so it will sail high enough to reach over the gunwale of the ship.  Ships are quite tall so it takes a strong throw to toss the line up to the deckhands working on the deck there.

On the deck of the ship, the deckhands stick the heaving line through a chock which is a hole on the side of the ship.  Then they use a capstan or winch to lift the heavy hawser up to the deck then fit the eye of the hawser over the bit.

The hawser is a huge line of usually three strands.  It is maybe 6 or more inches in diameter.  You attach the hawser to the tugboat by slipping it through the bull ring at the bow and then making the hawser fast on the towing bit.  When you tie off a hawser this is called "making it fast".

The towing bit is steel and is shaped like an  H  or the letter "T".  The bit is welded to the ship s deck or gunwales.  The larger bit is fastened to the tug s bulkhead and keel so it won t break off under heavy load.  A hawser is too large to tie it into a knot so you coil it around the bit in a figure-eight pattern to hold it tight.  As the hawser begins to carry the weight of the slip these coils slip a little but then friction holds it all together.  You have to take care to wind it properly so that it does not slip nor get pinched on itself which would cause it to break.  I have seen a hawser break and the noise and shock is quite frightening not to mention dangerous.

After I put the line on the bow, my Dad would put the tugboat into idle and we would let the ship tow us toward the left-hand turn where the Sampit River empties into Winyah Bay.  If we were on the Wal-Row, then the Kathy-Ann at this point would be standing by usually along the starboard quarter i.e. along the other side and toward the stern.

A ship is too big and cumbersome to make an abrupt left-hand turn by itself.  So when we got close to the Sampit River, the docking pilot would come on the radio and order the Wal-Row to  back down full  or  back down half .  (In the days before radio the pilot and ship communicated these instructions by steam-powered whistle or horn.)  At the pilot s command, my father would put the tug s engines into reverse and carefully add tension to the towing line.  When the tug was backing at full power, the hawser drew incredibly tight.  If it had fallen into the water, the tension put on it now would literally wring it dry.  I always stepped back out of the way and usually joined my dad in the safety of the wheelhouse.  For if the hawser were to break it would certain kill you.

There were four docks in Georgetown where a ship could tie up.  If we were heading to the state dock then we would turn left and follow the Sampit River to just below the highway 17 bridge.  We would go past the dock so that the ship could be turned around.  One tug would be on the bow and another on the stern.  At the command of the harbor pilot my father would turn the rudder to starboard swinging the stern of the tug away from the ship until the tug and ship were perpendicular.  Then he would go ahead full on the engines.  At the other end of the ship the captain of the Kathy Ann would do the same except he was pushing from the other side.  This would cause the great ship to swing around in place.

Working on the tug you cannot see much of the ship since the ship is so tall.  Only occasionally would a small ship--such as those that carried mahogany lumber--come in port whose deck was almost reachable from the bridge.  Even standing on the roof of the wheelhouse the deck of the average ship was far above your head.  The stern of the ship to me was always more interesting than the bow, because there you got to see the huge propeller in action.  When the river pilot wanted the ship to back down the propeller would move slowly chop, chop, chop churning up great eddies and swirls in the water.  And then the propeller would fall silent again as the ship put the propeller into neutral.  Sea gulls always were in the ship s wake to snatch up the fish that were caught up in this commotion.

When we had turned the ship around we would head slowly back down the Sampit River and the Wal-Row would drop her line and race around to the other side.  I would retrieve the hawser from the deckhands and then put it up again on the starboard bow.  The deckhands were too far away to talk to so we just waved at each other or blew the horn to get their attention.  Most did not speak English anyway so we could not have communicated had we been side-by-side.

With both boats now on the starboard side we would push against the ship and press it up against the pier.  Then longshoreman on the dock would take lines from the deckhands on the ship and the ship would be tied up to the dock.  At this point we would retrieve the pilot--unless he had parked his car at the dock--and head back to our own dock.

Undocking a ship is obviously just the reverse of docking it.  This time the pilot climbs the gangplank from the dock to get to the bridge of the ship rather than climbing a ladder.  Then two tugboats, or sometimes one, come along side the ship and press their bows against the ship s side.  Some times one of the tugs would come in stern first and put out a stern hawser.  All of this varied with the size of the ship, the wind, the hide, and the pilot s discretion.

The pilot would signal the tugs to go half ahead or slow ahead to push the ship up against the pier.  Then the longshoremen would pick up the hawsers that held the ship in place and lift them over the heavy bit.  Deckhands on the ship used winches or capstans to haul the lines aboard and then they coiled them neatly on the deck.

When the vessel was free the pilot would order the tugboats to back down hard to pull the vessel away from the dock.  Plus he would order the ship s captain to come ahead or astern with the ship s propeller to assist in moving the ship.

If the ship was pointed toward Winyah Bay then undocking her would be fairly quick as all we did was pull her away from the dock and then the ship moved out on her own power.  But if the ship was pointing in the wrong direction then she needed to be turned around.  So one of the tugs would let go her lines and zip around to the opposite side of the vessel.  Then one tug would push from one side of the ship at the bow and the other tug would push on the stern and the ship would spin around slowly.  The pilot backed the ship s engines or put them in forward gear to prevent the ship from drifting with the current the wrong way up the river while we turned her around.

As the ship left the Sampit River we would pass the small town of Maryville on the right and the baseball park on the left--beyond that is the open waters of the bay.  One tug would let go and head back to the dock while the other tug hung on to assist the ship with its right-hand turn into Winyah Bay and then picked up the pilot.

The Girl was a Jinx

Handling ships is normally uneventful even if as a boy I always found it quite fun.  Perhaps the only variation on the same theme was the variety of ships that came into harbor.  Some ships hauled lumber, some carried oil, and some even carried bananas.  Some were German, some American, some from South America.  But on otherwise uneventful day--as we turned a ship loose into Winyah Bay--there was a calamity.  I was sure a girl I had brought on board caused this disaster since we all knew she was a jinx.

My dad lived for many years on a farm on the Black River but then moved out to Pawley s Island with his third wife.  (He sold his farm to pay off his second wife.)  Then they moved moved from Pawleys Island to Belle Isle Marina.  There I made friends with Duffy Connelly and his family.  Duffy, like myself, spent much time fishing with his father on the ocean.  We hung out together at the marina and managed to get in trouble with Ed Braynard, the marina owner, on more that one occasion.  For example, I hot-wired the marina s electric cart and we got caught driving it around the neighborhood.

I was enamored with the entire Connelly family.  The patriarch of the family was a Doctor from Kingstree who I understand now practices medicine in Charleston.  In our youth Duffy was always certain of his future.  He said he wanted to get a good job, go to college, et cetera while I speculated that I might become a charter boat captain.  But I was the one who took the white-collar route: university, graduate school, and the corporate culture while Duffy farmed hogs on an industrial scale.

The Connelly s had three daughters.  The eldest was perhaps two years older than me and certainly out of my league as far as my romantic aspirations were concerned.  Still she agreed to go with me to a seafood restaurant in Georgetown.  I wouldn t exactly call it a date, because the restaurant where I took her was a brightly-lit family restaurant.  The next time I took her somewhere was to ride on my father s tugboats.

I am not sure why we got the notion the Connolly girl was a jinx.  But she certainly brought back luck to that tugboat trip where we had never had bad luck before.  Never in my many years of riding tugboats had I seen anything go wrong.  (Of course, my brother and father have much more experience.  They have had collisions with bridges, run aground, and, in short, experienced the usual sort of things that can happen when you are pushing something you cannot see around ahead of you in the dark or journeying in a hurricane.)   But on this particular day as we let go the ship that we were undocking, it proceeded to make the right-hand turn out of the Sampit River unescorted by a tugboat.  But the ship made the turn too wide and ran hard aground on a sand bar.  So we scurried around to the port side of the ship with both tugboats and tried to push her off.  But the heavy ship stuck in the mud would not budge.

There could have been no worse time for this ship to run aground for the tide was high.  This meant that instead of lifting her to freedom, the falling tide would worsen her fate.  When the tide started to fall the ship started to list fairly steeply to starboard.  So the crew of the ship used the cranes on board to lift heavy cargo-filled nets over the port side to put weight on the opposite side and perhaps stop the ship from leaning over any further.  (Today most cargo is carried in containers that are ferried to the port by tractor-trailer trucks.  It those days cargo was packed neatly in the hull by longshoremen.  Such mechanization is one reason that longshoremen have lost so many jobs)

This transpired over a couple of days.  By this time "The Georgetown Times" newspaper had sent out their photographer who snapped pictures of the stuck ship and the tug s feeble attempt to set her free.  When a ship is not moving it is costing its owners a fortune in lost revenue.  So the owners sent for two larger tugboats to steam all the way from Charleston.  That took about two days.  By this time a flotilla of small boats had gathered to watch the unfolding spectacle.  Finally, two heavy tugboats came into view on Winyah Bay and joined the Kathy Ann and Wal-Row on the port side of the ship.  We waited until high tide then the four tugboats pushed the ship back out into the ship channel with relative ease to a cheer from the crowd.

A Boy at the Helm

A captain needs a license to pilot a boat.  When we went to dock or undock a ship there were always 4 people: two captains and two deck hands on each boat.  The deckhand worked as the engineer as well meaning his job was to stop and start the engines and monitor their temperature.  But one day we came to work and there were only three: my brother, my dad, and myself.

I had had lots of experience running the tugboats under the watchful eye of my dad, Ben Walker, or Wayne Thigpen.  This is how a new captain gets trained.  Ben and Wayne let me take the helm frequently while my father usually took over in the tight spots.  But never had I taken a boat out alone, since I was not licensed to do so.  But we had an oil tanker waiting to sail and one crew member failed to show up.  So my father turned to me.

No doubt nervous about this endeavor my Dad asked Lester Larimore to ride the tug with me.  Lester was an 80-plus year old fellow who lived on his boat docked off Front Street in Georgetown right near our tugs.  His back was bent crooked from many years of bad posture and hauling heavy fishing nets.  Lester had many years of piloting boats, but I am not sure if he had tugboat experience.

So we set out for the oil terminal with myself at the helm and Lester standing by my side.  Following the usual routine I drove the Kathy Ann to the stern of the oil tanker and pushed her up to the dock.  We did not need to put a line on the ship since the Wal-Row could simply pull her bow away from the pier.  But the harbor was a little crowded that day since a dredge was working to deepen the harbor.  So I was wary to keep clear of the dredge and not get crushed between it and the tanker.

When the tanker pulled free from the terminal I opened the throttle and raced between the tanker and the state dock so that I could push on the port bow if necessary.  The boat pushed up a big wake while we made perhaps 10 knots.

Looking back on this trip I think it remarkable that a boy with no license would handle an oil tanker.  There was no real risk since I had experience but the Coast Guard would have certainly frowned on my unlicensed trip.  Today after the Exxon Valdez oil spill there are lots of rules concerning oil tankers and ship crews so what I did then would not have been possible now.  And since the 9/11 terrorist attack I can no longer get onto the Navy base in Charleston so that I can get out to McAllister Towing to ride the tugs with my brother who works there. 

The Crew

I did not know this when I was a boy, but having watched my brother work in the tugboat industry for the past 15 years I have come to understand the a tugboat crew is a motley one.  On more than one occasion my brother has had to disarm drunken, surly deckhands who have come at him with knives.  But such rough men are usually found on the ocean-going tugboats where my brother used to work and where my dad worked in the early years of his business.  People who work in the harbor get to go home and sleep in their own bed are usually less distraught or dangerous.  One guy I recall that worked with my brother started drinking Vodka at 3:00 o clock in the morning and then drank beer all day long.  While he was a bad alcoholic he made me laugh.  I cooked lunch for him and my brother.  I was running the boat as we sailed into Jacksonville harbor while they were down below eating fried fish.  Since that boat likewise had electric handles for steering I could not keep the boat in a straight line.  (Beginners have a tendency to overcorrect when steering.) So the boat heeled over slightly with each steering correction.  That surly captain joked that I was going to "spill his beer".

I don t recall any knife-wielding drunks working for my dad.  Rather they were men that I most the most part admired perhaps as any young boy would.  My father has had various people work for him over the years as full-time or part-time crew, business partners, or contractors.

Ben Walker worked as a tug captain for my father for many years.  (My father ran into him a few years ago and told him "I thought you were dead".  I thought he was dead too.)  I remember Ben helping to build a dock at our house at Litchfield Beach around 1966 when I was  5 years old.  Ben was a gentle giant of a man with a prominent nose.  He had three boys, two of which were twins, and one daughter.  The twins were Ernie and Ronnie.  I forget  the elder boy s name.  He was the only one I had even seen who could ride the somewhat-wild horses that we kept at our Rose Hill farm on the Black River.  The only time that my brother and I tried to ride those horses they tossed us off promptly leaving my father to chase them down.

Ben spent much time looking after my brother Andy and I when he was not busy running the boats.  I helped him put splices in the hawsers using a marlinspike (that s like a needle albeit much larger).  He taught me much about steering the boat and handling lines.  And he made sure my brother and I stayed out of trouble as we hammered away at toy wooden boats we built in the shop or played with welding rods and discarded pieces of metal.

Wayne Thigpen was another tugboat captain who worked for my father.  Wayne was also a business partner for he and my dad operated the ship chandler business. A ship chandler buys duty-free goods for the ship.  Wayne kept the tankers and cargo ships well-stocked with booze, dry goods, did their laundry for them, and even took them to dinner.  On more than one occasion I used Wayne s van to haul a van-load of foreign nationals to some restaurant for dinner.  Or I took them to Charleston where they could buy equipment they could not find in Quayaquil or whatever foreign port they hailed from.

Wayne had some kind of license to be a cop for he carried a badge and a gun.  He smoked disgusting menthol cigarettes whereas as a teenager or college student I smoked Marlboro Lights.  Wayne liked my brother more than me I am sure.  He was always poking about my business including making a fuss when he found marijuana cigarettes on my Dad s houseboat where I was living one summer.  Since he wasn t a real cop I had nothing to fear.  He just tried to make me feel uncomfortable.  Still Wayne s office is where I met Renee Crib who I dated for one glorious summer.  She even stuck with me when I went off for a weekend with Vera Glidewell. from Sumter, who I met at my college fraternity.  So I probably deserved my fate when Renee tossed me over the side (not in the marine sense of course.)  Renee was prone to lots of outward display of affection.  She grabbed me about the neck in tears one dark night as I got off the Kathy-Ann and Wayne lit up the whole scene for everyone to see using the searchlight of the Wal-Row.

When I was in college drug-smuggling was big business along the South Carolina coast.  Everyone knew someone whose brother or cousin had been caught smuggling pot aboard a shrimp boat or fishing boat.  My own father had bought a sportfishing boat that had been impounded by the coat guard for smuggling marijuana.  The Coast Guard let it sit for several years and it practically fell apart before my father bought it at a bargain price.  The Ben Walker and other men working for my dad went to work refitting the engines and replacing the propellers to make her seaworthy again.

Anyway my friend Jeff Andersen lived next door to us at Belle Isle.  Jeff was a popular boy who all the girls loved.  So I was surprised when he opted out of college, joined the navy, and got married early.  Jeff s father owned the local lumber company and had a passion for boats without knowing how to operate them.  He would buy these fast speed boats but never venture out onto the ocean preferring to blast along at 50 miles an hour in the relative safety of the waterway.

Jeff was a surfer which in the realm of highschool defines a social circle rather than a sport.  So Jeff and his female hangers-on spent much time at the beach where the sun worked to make their beach blond hair even blonder.  One day Jeff was surfing at what was then a vacant stretch of Litchfield Beach (it s developed now) when he found a water-logged bail of marijuana sitting on the sand.  No doubt some smuggler had dropped his load and the bail had floated up on the beach.

Because the bail was water-logged it was too heavy to carry so Jeff and the friends that were with him grabbed what they could and they carried it in their arms.  Since Jeff had no where to keep his windfall find I stashed on my dad s houseboat where I was living at the time.  My father was away for the summer fishing at his house at Cape Hatteras so that boat was a place we could hide out away from the prying eyes of parents.

The irony of this story is we never did smoke that pot.  It would never dry out to a point where it would stay lit when burned.  We tried for hours to dry it out with a blow drier but it just stay black and moldy.

For a few years my father had a tugboat captain who had been a schoolteacher and had served in the coast guard.  I don t remember his name but this poor fellow with sad eyes and frizzy hair was ill served for any job involving stress.  For when he drove the tug up under the side of the ship to put up or take down a line his nerves took over and his hands shook violently.  Certainly the stern of a ship with its menacing propeller and dangerous overhang was unnerving.  So it required an even-tempered chap to steer the boat in position and take orders from the pilot.  But this guy was had such delicate nerves that he made me nervous as he shook as violently as a bent propeller shaft.  He finally had a heart attack--I am not sure if it was work-related--so my father paid him his salary anyway while someone else did the work.

Another man who we worked with was Morgan Futch.  He was the only docking pilot who worked in Georgetown when I was a boy. He was old when I first met him and even older when I saw him last.  Since Georgetown was not very busy Morgan worked both the ports of Charleston and Georgetown.  I know his age know now because he filed a lawsuit against McAllister Towing for back wages and I found that on the Internet.  That suit was appealed to the South Carolina Supreme Court.  It lists his age at 88 years in 1993.  Further it gives the date that my dad pulled out his company and moved it to Wilmington as 1981.  So Morgan was 75 years old in the last year that my father was in Georgetown.  (My father pulled his company out because both the paper mill and steel mills shutdown for some time.  The paper mill shut down to remodel, and the steel mill went broke.  During that time few ships came into harbor so instead of making money my father started to lose it.  He told me he could not sustain this loss indefinitely so he moved to another port.)

Morgan s girlfriend owned a liquor store in town that was just in front of the new location where we started docking our tugs.  Since it was on the same parking lot he did not have far to go to see his paramour when he was done with work.

Morgan fits the definitely of a hard-drinking, cursing, rough, old salt.  He was full of tales of the sea from his many years working on boats.  Most remarkable of all was he could climb the ladder to a ship in the rain, at 3:00 o clock in the morning, or whenever at 70 years of age.

I understand that Morgan and his prot駩 Norman Assie borrowed some money and attempted to operate a tugboat company in the vacuum of Georgetown after my father left town.  They too sold out to the big guys as did most of the other small tugboat companies on the East Coast.

Dredging Bell Isle Marina

My dad used his tugs to dredge Bell Isle Marina.  I spent much of my youth hanging out at the docks there.

Ed Braynard was the owner of Bell Isle Marina.  He was a hard-drinking fellow from New York who I much respected and admired.  He had had colon cancer and quipped that he went to the bathroom "by his watch" since much of his colon was gone. When Ed had a few drinks he would get on the VHF radio and start with his humorous jokes albeit on the public airwaves.  Sitting offshore on our fishing boat we just thought this was funny. One surly boat captain who was the target of this riposte did not think this was funny and punched Ed in the nose.

My father kept two of his boats at Bell Isle and I spent many happy hours polishing the teak decks or scrubbing fish blood out of the cockpit after a rough day at sea.  I had many friends there and think back on this time with whimsical affection. One of most surreal images is that of me leaning against a gas pump smoking a cigarette.  I was there with my friend Johny Kornegy who had played football at Wofford.  Johny was living at the marina on his dad s 28-foot Bertram.  Now s he a mortician.  (That s rather macabre.)

Another chap who spent much time at the Marina was Dave Odum.  He was the local mechanic.  Being a diesel mechanic at a marina is like having a "license to steal" as the old clich鍊goes.  For millionaires with no mechanical aptitude would turn to Dave to fix their broken down luxury yachts.  Dave had lots of girlfriends.  Once I drove a small boat all the way from McClellanville to Belle Isle via Cape Romain in the middle of the night with a fraternity brother.  This is perhaps 50 miles.  I needed a dime to make a phone call so I tapped on the cabin of Dave s sailboat and out popped his head.  I knew he would be in there with his latest girlfriend and sure enough he was.  Dave helped me on more than one occasion.  My senior year of college my money to finish school ran out and my mother, father, and step-father cut off my funds so I could not fix my car nor pay my tuition.  My car was broken for my brother had driven it back from Myrtle Beach with a broken rod.  Having no money I unbolted the engine and hung it from the limb of a live oak tree.  Months later I gathered enough cash to take it to a repair shop where they rebuilt the engine.  But when I put it back into the car it would not start.  Do Dave drove 35 miles down to our farm to take a look at what was wrong.

Anyway, regarding the tugboats Belle Isle Marina was nothing more than a hole cut into the marsh.  So it filled up with sand and Ed had to spend lots of money to dredge it back to the 5 to 7 feet depth needed to float the yachts that docked there.  So taking a short cut he simply got my father to come into the marina with his tugboats.  Tugboats are so powerful and heavy that they can literally plow through the mud even when there is not enough water.  So like some fat lady making her way to the buffet for dinner, we waddled around in the mud until the marina was deep again.  Certainly this was legal because the Coast Guard station was right there--they would have spoke up if we needed some permit.

The Journey with the 8th Grade

When I was in the 8th grade I told my mother that I wanted to go live with my father.  My father still had his tugboat business in Georgetown but had branched out into aquaculture.  He raised catfish on his farm on the Black River and eels with a partner in Monks Corner.  So for that year we found ourselves living in Monks Corner near the eel farm.

The rural south had de factor segregation in public schools in those days and to a certain extent still does.  My father sent me to the Lord Berkeley private school, because that is where all the white children went.  The public school in town was all black or whites who were too poor to go to the private school.

Monks Corner is located where the Cooper and Santee Rivers join Lake Moultrie.  Lake Moultrie along with Lake Marion are two enormous man-made lakes that were built to generate electricity for the Santee Cooper Electric Cooperative.  Engineers years ago actually diverted a large part of the flow of the Santee River over several miles to the Cooper River in a project they call the "diversion canal".  And when they dammed the Santee River it created the two aforementioned lakes.  These lakes provide sport to the fisherman and duck hunters.  It is also well-known as the first lakes in the world where the saltwater striped bass first learned to live in fresh water.  Blocked from returning to the ocean by the new dam, these big fish simply learned to breathe fresh water year-round instead of only during their annual spawning migration.

My father had a friend who lived in Monks Corner called Willie Iselin.  His family owned Mulberry plantation on the Cooper River where they practiced a somewhat antiquated sport in an annual rite.  Horse riders came dashing across the lawn and then put lances through steel rings hung from tree limbs.  It was a test of dexterity as to who could best control their lance in this jousting contest.  There Live Oak trees were so old that their limbs actually grew down to the ground.

Willie also was in the catfish farming business along with father.  They were not partners, rather they just both had catfish farms.  Catfish were rather clever.  We fed them Purina Catfish food which they dropped into the water by tapping on a wire rod which hung from a feeder.  My father was a bit premature in this business for he lost money and eventually drained all his ponds.  But catfish farming now is a major business.  Practically all the catfish you buy in the store are farm-raised.

Less clear is why my father got into the eel business.  His business partner claimed to be the only person in the world who knew how to catch fingerling eels.  These he transported to tanks by the billions where they would be raised to adulthood.  But that business did not prosper.  Either the eels all died or there were no profits.  My dad s grand plans including flying the eels alive to Japan where hungry Japanese would eat them as sushi.  I recall a Japanese buyer and importer meeting with us in Monks Corner.  I though the guy was rich because he bought me an ice cream and gave me 5 dollars.

Beyond the genteel mansion at Moultrie Plantation, Monks Corner was basically a red neck town.  I easily breezed through school there earning straight A s because it was so simple.  Perhaps the only useful thing I learned at school there was how to play spin the bottle.  The only person I remember from that school was George Washington from Jamestown which is between McClellanville and Moncks Corner.  I later ran into his grandfather when I leased a duck hunting pond in the area.  I got in trouble for laughing at George in class when he didn t know the answer to some problem.  I guess I was sort of a big city snob having gone to the 7th grade in Greenville.

The other reason we were in Monks Corner was my dad married a woman who was from there, Fay Anne Droze.  She was nice to me but I think one reason their marriage fell apart was she was a simple country girl.  (I believe one should only marry in their own cultural and economic strata.  I learned that the hard way having married and divorced a South American whose mother moved into my house hastening the demise of my marriage.)  Fay Anne s father had chickens running around the yard--that would not have been strange in the country--except he lived in the city.  Like the rural blacks in Chopee, Mr. Droze swept his grass-free yard with a broom.  The marriage between his daughter Fay Anne and my dad did not last long.

But while I was there in Monks Corner I had the idea to take the entire 8th grade for a history tour tugboat ride as part of our history class.  Georgetown, after all, was the site of civil and revolutionary war battles as well as being a very old town.  So somehow I convinced my dad to take me and 30 or so of my classmates around Winyah Bay.

I am sure it cost a good bit of money as tugboats guzzle down fuel, but we sailed around Winyah Bay for a few hours turning around at the wreck of the Harvest Moon.  This was a boat that had been sunk in a Civil War battle.  I forget whether it was Union or Confederate but standing there above the waves it was a rusting tribute to nautical history.  This trip did much to endear me to my father as well as heighten my standing among the pretty girls at school.


I thought my father generous because in the days when the minimum wage was $3 dollars my father paid my brother and I $5 to work as deckhands.  When we were not docking ships nor hanging out at North Inlet we were chipping rust.

Rust is the perpetual bane of ship owners the world over.  Left to its devices in the presence of saltwater steel will rust and crumble into powder.  So you must hammer or chip out the rust and then paint over the wound with rust-preventing primer and then apply regular paint over that.

A few years ago I went on board one of the tugboats that my father had bought when he moved his company to Wilmington, North Carolina and then later sold it to McAllister Towing.  This tug was called the "Titan".  It had been an ocean-going boat and had sailed to Vietnam a few times during the war.  We used it to handle ships in the Cape Fear River.  But McAllister perhaps thought they no longer wanted the boat so they quit painting it.  It quickly began to rust.  The deck was so full of holes that I was afraid to let my kids walk across the deck for fear they would fall in.

I am sure that men in the navy or those who have worked on ships will tell you that when a sailor s hands are idle someone will usually toss them a paint brush and chipping hammer to combat this perpetual problem.  So it was with my brother and I.  It was a lot of work to hammer at the iron oxide then use an industrial strength grinder to burnish off the cancerous rust from the boats.  We got smarter later and bought a pneumatic chipper that jabbed at the rust with air-powered fingers.  But it made such a racket that it rattled your bones and if we had not worn ear plugs would have ruined out ears.

My father, Walker E. Rowe, Jr.

My father is a big man.  He is more than six feet tall and deeply suntanned.  He spent much of his life on the ocean.  All of that sun has taken its toll for he suffers from skin cancer.  Surgeons have sliced away portions of his nose and ears.  The pain is such that he is reminded of it each day.

I ve always told my father than he has been lucky because he has never had to punch a clock meaning his unconventional life had given him much leisure.  He used to spend the entire winter in the Florida Keys fishing while other boy s fathers worked at their desks or hammer houses together in the cold.  When he was not docking ships he was hunting duck, deer, or turkey.  My father insists that he has worked hard and, having owned my own business, I understand now that the burden of entrepreneurship was always with him.

I am sure my Dad s early years in the tugboat business were tough as he and my mother had little money.  My Dad was gone frequently on long ocean trips and once moved all of us to San Juan, Puerto Rico where he had a year-long towing contract. 

Like many kids from broken homes, I am often angry that he was not there to raise me all the time.  I only spent the summers and holidays with him.  But I am grateful for the many experiences he gave me fishing on the ocean, hunting ducks, or riding the tugs.

My Dad is retired and spends his days fishing and hunting on Edisto Island.  He recently built by hand a small wooden fishing boat of the type that I often watched him and his father build.  Since boats today are fiberglass a wooden boat is a novelty.

My grandfather the boat builder

As I said before my grandfather, Walker E. Rowe, Sr., built the two tugboats that my father used in his business.  He was a self-taught boat builder who was also in charge of the marine railways at International Paper Company.  He had a pencil thin mustache and usually smelled of cologne.  He once smoked cigars but other than that he was a teetotalling Baptist.

My grandfather worked for 40 years at International Paper Company taking care of their fleet of tugs and barges.  He would work on the top deck of a 100-foot barge then flip it over in the water to work on the bottom.  When the work day at International Paper Company ended he would head off to work some more building tugs, shrimp boats, and pleasure craft out of steel, fiberglass, or wood.  He built these for various customers including many who never paid him.  Sometimes he worked alone.  Sometimes he seemed to have all the craftsmen in town working for him at once.

When I got out of college I did not know what to do so I moved in with my grandfather and helped him build a 65-foot fiberglass fishing boat.  He built it for the man, Bill McClain, whose brother founded the giant shipping firm Sea Land.  Bill was so enamored of my father and this boat that he named it the "Rowe Boat."  There s a bit of irony here because Sea Land is only one of three U.S. flagged steamship companies left in America.  The others have fled offshore where labor wages and taxes are lower.

My grandfather said that he had patented a couple of inventions.  One was called a "flexible-coupling".  This device kept the engine and the propeller shaft properly aligned in a wooden-hulled boat.  When you filled a wooden tugboat with fuel the hull changes shape slightly, so the propeller shaft gets out of alignment.  Then the propeller and shaft vibrate.  The flexible couple took care of that problem.

Another of his inventions was the Dixie Scooter sailboat which was a pre-cursor to the popular Sunfish.  The man who owned Williams Furniture company paid my grandfather to manufacture these small sailboats that could be handled by one sailor.

My grandfather also said that he built a jet engine out in the front yard of his house when he was a boy.  It was a turbine design--the more kerosene you poured into it the faster it went.  It howled and made a terrible racket.  But his father was jealous that his son was such a mechanical genius so smashed the machine to bits.

When my grandfather grew to be a man it was the Great Depression and there was no work where he lived on the coast of North Carolina.  So he built a wooden fishing boat which he named "Jean" after his daughter.  To make money he took people on fishing charters.

There wasn t much else to do there except work on the water or perhaps work in the lumber business as my great-grandfather did.  My grandfather lived with his wife in my Aunt Daisy s house in Swansboro, North Carolina.  Her husband, Guy Stanley, worked on a dredge and a cargo vessel that ferries groceries and supplies from Morehead City to Swansboro.  My grandmother s brother, Willie Canady, worked in the merchant marines as a mate on cargo ships.  He died this year at 97 years of age.  Across the street were cousins that owned a fleet of shrimp boats in Texas.  And then other cousins sold seafood or bait.

Building boats was my grandfather s profession. He only went to the sixth grade, but I marveled how he could sit in his study, draw out his design, then hammer and weld it into a working idea.  He worked mainly with steel once dropping a piece on his finger than that crushed off the end.  But it was more impressive how he could bend stiff wood planks into the curve of a hull and not buckle the same.  He built racing boats that my father raced in competitions when he was a boy.  These boats were so small that their heavy motor would sink them.  So you had to crank them up then drop them in the water.


I am not sure what happened to the Kathy Ann, but as of 2001 the Wal-Row was working the harbor of New York from McAllister Towing s Staten Island office.


Unknown said...

I am administrative officer for the Long Bay Power Squadron, a division of the United States Power Squadron in Myrtle Beach, SC, and would love to have a tug boat captain come speak with our group. Can you please direct me as to where I could go to speak with someone in reference to this? Your stories are awesome!!! Thanks for sharing!!!
Renee Elvis

surthrival said...

I spent a lot of time on this little boat. -Knew every inch of her. Always thought it was the cutest tug in the NYC harbor. Great, classic proportions. Always loved the little Wal-Nut as we sometimes affectionately called her.