Tug of War – Icebreaker Style

By Jack Morrison


Lying in 70 feet of water just off of Milwaukee lies the E.F. Gillen IV, a tug some 60 feet in length. How it came to rest on the bottom is unique, she was the loser in a nautical version of tug of war.

In the summer of 1981 prior to making an Arctic East deployment the Westwind was undergoing a dockside availability period. One item on the work list was the testing and adjustment of the aft towing winch. This was a rather large mechanical monster that was mounted on the main deck just forward of the towing bitt. A large wire cable (2” diameter) about 1000 feet in length was stowed on the drum.  This cable was to be paid out in its entirety, the cable checked for wear, adjustments made to the winch clutch and then stowed back on the winch drum. The instruction manual for the winch specified the cable had to be under tension while it was being placed back on the drum. Two methods were recommended: the first involved attaching the cable to a strong bollard, letting it out and then use the winch to pull the ship back to the bollard. Method two replaced the bollard with a vessel of sufficient size to handle the cable.

Milwaukee harbor did not have suitable facilities to accomplish the mission using method 1 so method 2 was selected by default. On the designated day, we got underway around 0800 and proceeded to a point off the Milwaukee break wall and prepared to do the test. Shortly after we arrived at the test site the contractor’s tug arrived, the E.F.Gillen IV. Now the Westwind was nearing her 40th birthday, the tug was older than that, its length was shorter than our 65-foot beam, and its beam was about 10-12 at best.

  The test were delayed for an hour or so while Captain Nelson (CO), Commander Greene (XO), Mr. Laws (EO), the contractors representative and the tug skipper discussed the test and if the tug really could do it safely.  An announcement was made over the 1MC to stay clear of the fantail for the duration of the test.  Ships work went on and soon it was time for chow. Daily, in port or at sea the ships alarms are tested at 1200, starting with the General Alarm. This is an accepted fact of shipboard routine and is generally ignored by the crew.

That day was no exception, the alarm sounded, no one jumped up, and it was ignored, as was custom. Then, the alarm stopped and a voice is heard on the 1MC “This is not a drill the tug is sinking, launch the ready boat”. Within what has to be a world record time of four minutes the boat was launched and enroute the spot in the water that 5 minutes earlier the tug had occupied. The tugs crew was recovered and brought back to the ship and found to be none the worse for wear physically, mentally they were a wee bit excited.

The test had proceeded quite well and the cable was being rewound on the drum. All but about 500 feet had been rewound with the tug heading away from us with just enough speed to keep the cable taut. Then for some unknown reason the cable started to slide a little bit to the port side of the tug, before any corrections could be made it slid more until it was over the side and against the deckhouse. This caused the tug to go down by the stern (she had very little freeboard aft) until the stern was underwater. By the time the winch was stopped the tug was on its way to the bottom, elapsed time less than 30 seconds.

  We sat there anchored by the tow cable for almost 6 hours waiting for divers to arrive and disconnect us. Although we had around six divers as part of our crew they were not allowed to accomplish the task or even enter the water. Only after the divers arrived and took photos of the tug was the cable disconnected and brought aboard. Needless to say lawsuits transpired and time was spent that winter in court trying to resolve who was the blame, I really cannot remember the outcome of the court case.


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