The 10,000-mile tow of the Snohomish
By Lea Edgar, Librarian & Archivist, Vancouver Maritime Museum
In 1947, a record-breaking tow was accomplished by a local Canadian tug. The Snohomish had a long history of service in America and later with local tows in Canadian waters but it was the achievement of an incredible 10,000-mile tow to Buenos Aires that truly made her historically unique.
Snohomish was built in 1908 by Pusey & Jones Company in Delaware and launched as cutter No. 16. The first part of her life was with the US Revenue Cutter Service where she was sent out to the Pacific Coast to Neah Bay and later Port Angeles. In 1915, when the Lifesaving Service and Revenue Cutter Service came under the control of the US Coast Guard, the Snohomish became a Coast Guard cutter. During this time, she assisted the patrol boat Bear. The US Coast Guard later sold her to Puget Sound Tug & Barge, who in turn sold her to Island Tug & Barge in 1937. At this time, the Snohomish mainly towed oil barges such as Standard Oil Barge No. 95. In fact, in 1941, she survived a sinking when the barge rammed her. During the Second World War, she worked in Alaska as an auxiliary for the US Army Transport Service. After the war, she was returned once more to Island Tug & Barge.
The end of the war meant many excess military vehicles needed new homes. This included six US Army Tugs that were no longer in service. A scheme was developed to sell the tugs to the Argentine Navy. This required a tow from Seattle, Washington to Buenos Aires, Argentina via the Panama Canal. It was decided that the powerful tug Snohomish was to tow a converted barge called Island Yarder.
Harold Elworthy, President of Island Tug & Barge, came up with a unique idea for loading the tugs onto the barge. While in the Todd Drydock in Seattle, Island Yarder was submerged, the six tugs floated in and secured onto the deck, and then the barge was refloated. One of the biggest tow ropes ever used was manufactured by Wright’s Canadian Ropes Ltd. It was a 2,000-foot line, two inches in diameter, made of high-strain galvanized steel and lubricated to prevent corrosion.
A crew of 19 was assembled and they expected to spend Christmas of 1947 in Buenos Aires. The Snohomish was supposedly “tropicalized” for the trip, although the wireless operator, Conrad Burns, stated in his book recounting the trip, “…no doubt the men who stayed behind had in mind the tropics of the British Columbia Coast when they equipped the Snohomish to cross the line.” Needless to say, the unbearable heat became a constant annoyance for the crew.
In fact, foul weather was experienced many times throughout the entire trip. The Snohomish encountered a storm almost before she had even left. A gale struck while she was just outside of Cape Flattery. The crew could not even see the barge in the waves, they only knew she was still afloat because the Snohomish still had steerageway. But she prevailed and made her next stop at Long Beach to top up water and oil preserves. Procuring oil and water became a constant need for the Snohomish on her trip.
When the Snohomish reached the Panama Canal, the crew were not allowed to take the barge through themselves and the aged radio required repairs. Since they had some time, the crew went ashore and took photographs. Sadly, the police confiscated their cameras and destroyed the film so they were forced to purchase postcards instead. They made it through the Canal and arrived next in Curacao. Oil and water was once again sorely needed. However, they were informed that Curacao was a refinery and the small island had no water to spare, so they had to move on to Trinidad. This constant stopping for fuel was the reason behind a misunderstanding in the next chapter of the trip.
Victoria received word that the Snohomish had run aground on San Marcos Island off the coast of Brazil. The media immediately picked up on the story and Harold Elworthy was quoted as saying, “It is our opinion the Snohomish was putting in to San Marcos Island to refuel. She had had difficulty in getting fuel oil during the journey, and we are convinced she was attempting to get some when she grounded.” In actuality, the air pumps were continually breaking down, the condenser was leaking and salt water was in the boilers. They needed a place to shelter and the Captain determined San Marcos Bay was the only place with the required depth.
The pilot book did warn of dangers, “no vessel is ever salvaged on this coast.” No pilot could be contacted to bring them in so the Captain decided to bring her in himself. They used the lead line as they went along and they continued sounding until they found a channel. The crew dropped anchor behind Medo Island so they could shelter and later pick up more oil and water as they did before. However, in the night, the ship and barge caught a current and were suddenly getting swept away. The ship then went hard aground on a reef. The two-inch towline managed to hold the barge in place. In the tumult, the barge was drifting towards them but, miraculously, kept missing the ship. They radioed a distress call. Meanwhile, the barge finally made contact and struck the ship. Once she was free of the barge’s continual bashing, it pulled her to a 45° list. The distress calls were heard, however no help came. Amazingly, they managed to get the Snohomish up and over the reef. In a strange turn of events, the next morning a pilot appeared before the haggard crew who claimed he mistook their distress whistle blows and flares for some sort of celebration. She was finally guided into the harbour of Sao Luiz.
The Snohomish surprisingly sustained minor damage and continued on her journey. Just before she made it to Buenos Aires, a gale struck and the barge detached. They had made it this far — instead of saving themselves, the crew of the Snohomish went after the barge against the warnings of the local assisting tug Madrugador. With the luck that seemed to follow them for the entire journey, the crew managed to catch the errant barge. The exhausted and battered crew made it to Buenos Aires and gladly turned their attention to home.
The Snohomish remained in Argentina where she was sold to the Argentine Navy. She was renamed Mataras, and later Ona Sol, and kept working in salvage and tow until she was scrapped in 1983. Her harrowing 10,000-mile adventure is preserved in a fantastic book written by the Wireless Operator, Conrad Burns, called QRD? Snohomish.
Lea Edgar started her position as Librarian and Archivist for the Vancouver Maritime Museum in 2013. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.