Castle Roland

Tugboat Captain

by Charles Bird


Chapter 2

Posted: 22 Oct 15


A Story of the Life and Times of Jason Crowley
Copyright © 2014 by Charles W Bird

This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental. The story is protected by copyright and may not be reproduced by any means.


They tied up the Roamer at Cutter's Wharf, thankful the long trip was completed. Captain Orin Cutter invited Jason and Willie to supper that night, saying he wanted to discuss something. Since he had not had time recently to stock food in the cottage, Jason readily agreed. He washed up and made sure Willie was clean before heading to the Cutter home.

As the two brothers entered the Captain's home, pleasurable smells of cooking food assailed their senses.

Willie went to play with Annabelle, the Captain's young daughter and Jason was led into the sitting room, where Georgie was already seated.

The Captain handed Jason a tall glass that suspiciously smelled like rum. He handled it from one hand to another, not even tasting the liquid.

Captain Cutter laughed, "Jason, you ain't a rum drinker, are ya'?" Jason grinned and replied, "No sir, I never took up strong drink!"

The Captain retrieved the glass from Jason's hands with a smile and said, "That was what I was hopin' you would say!" Continuing, he said, "Sit you down, boy, we got work to talk about! I just bought a new tug, ain't even got a name yet. It be up at Rule's Boatyard in Vallejo and you two are gonna go get it!"

They discussed how the yard had built the tug for a customer and then that customer had been unable to raise the money to pay for it.

Captain Blackthorn was to take Georgie, Jason and their crew up to Vallejo on the Deal and then escort them back to Cutter's Wharf when they got the new tug ready to sail.

Jason asked, "Does it have a name yet?" The Captain replied, "Nope, that's up to you boys!" They continued their discussion of the new tug until they were called to supper.

Mrs. Cutter and her servant girl brought out a huge ham and all the fixin's, and there was nothing but eating sounds for the next while.

After supper, the men spoke further about the new tugboat and Willie began to yawn and fade, so Jason suggested they call it a night and he get his little brother home and to bed.

The next day, arrangements were made for the entire Roamer crew to go as passengers up to Vallejo the following day and get the new tug ready to sail to Richmond.

It was a lazy start, the morning fog didn't lift until nearly 10 am. Captain Blackthorne asked Georgie and Jason if they would like to observe from the wheelhouse. After the Roamer, the Deal seemed to them to be small and primitive, but they did enjoy the easy trip and good conversation.

They were at Rule Boatyards by 2 in the afternoon and the Deal was to remain with them for the return trip to Richmond the next day.

Georgie and Jason checked the new tug over completely, even the engine room. Jason was surprised at the size of the tug's fuel bunkers. He spotted a new model of engine, and looked at it closely, it was made by their good customer, Joshua Hendy Iron Foundry! The boiler was a typical Scotch Marine Boiler made by Babcock & Wilcox in Ohio, It surely beat the old "porcupine" boiler that was in the Deal.

Something that fascinated Jason was an apparatus on the top of the wheelhouse, it was a carbide lamp with curved mirror behind it and a Fresnel lens, just like a lighthouse! The boatyard foreman told him that it would light up an entire work area at night.

Jason was anxious to try the searchlight out, so the foreman let him stay until after dark and together, they fired up the light, it was amazing, they could see all the way across the channel to Mare Island!

After they had completely inspected the new tug, Georgie gave the yard superintendent, Henry Rule, a letter of credit for the asking price. The man was stunned as he had expected to have to fight to get his money out of this tugboat after the original buyer had collapsed on the deal!

The crew moved all their belongings to the new tug and prepared to spend the night before sailing for home. They had a light supper, cooked by Paul, he almost preferred cooking to working in the engine room!

The tug was completely stocked with full water tanks and the bunker was full of coal, so the next morning they began the ordeal of bringing the engine room to life. Soon, black coal smoke was pouring out the virgin smokestack and they could hear Carl starting to warm up the new engine.

As soon as the fog lifted, Georgie slowly maneuvered the tug out of the boatyard and headed for mid-channel. Jason was in the wheelhouse to provide any assistance Georgie might need on their short voyage downbay. They reached the mouth of San Pablo Bay and Georgie turned to Jason and said, "Its all yours First Mate, I need a nap!" Jason screeched, "Wha,, who, ugghhh"

As Georgie waved and climbed down the ladder to the main deck. Jason grabbed the wheel and brought the tug to mid-channel, watching for the buoy marking San Francisco Bay. Keeping to the east shore, the tug made rapid time.

Jason was just docking the tug when Georgie came strolling back, "See, you don't need me!" he said with a laugh.

They named the new tug "Annabelle" after Captain Cutter's youngest child. A new crew was hired to sail the Roamer and together with the Annabelle, they were soon making regular runs to Portland and even sometimes as far as Seattle.

They had just returned from a three barge mixed load from Portland, two barges were lumber and the third was loaded with crates of canned fish.

It had been a difficult tow, one barge was unevenly loaded and it wanted to squirm all over the ocean! Jason was ready to tear his hair out in frustration! He had drug himself home to hide from their recent travails, when there was a knock on his door. Willie answered it and there stood Captain Cutter and Georgie.

They stepped in and Jason wondered, "What NOW?"

He invited the men to sit and Captain Cutter began, "Northwest Fisheries wants us to tow a complete fish cannery on three barges to Yakutat."

Jason asked, "Where in God's name is THAT?"

Georgie laughed, "Alaska!"

Jason sat, holding his head in his hands, "Oh, God, you didn't?"

Captain Cutter continued, "The only tug that can handle this is yours! I figure, if you sail on Friday, you can have the barges in place at Yakutat in four weeks.

Jason, almost afraid to ask, said, "Where are the barges now?" Georgie smiled, "In Seattle! We have a load of machinery to go to Seattle, so, see, it will all work out." Captain Cutter added, "And we already have two barges of lumber to return from Seattle to home!"

'The only thing good about the trip was that it was summer and the weather should be good,' Jason thought, as he began to mentally plan what had to be done to make such a voyage.

Before the two visitors left, Captain Cutter dropped yet another bombshell on the already numb Jason. He said, "Oh, by the way, you will have two trainees onboard, a mate trainee and an engineer trainee!" Laughing, he stepped out the door and closed it behind them!

Jason groaned and thought to himself, "I almost wish I were a drinkin' man!"

It was already Tuesday so Georgie and Jason took the Annebelle to top off her fuel bunkers and then returned to Cutter's Wharf to fill the water tanks and food lockers. Carl loaded his engine room with supplies and extra tools and the two deck hands constructed another bunk in their already crowded bunk room for the trainee.

The engine crew did the same in their bunk room for the Engine Room trainee. By Thursday afternoon, they were ready for their dash to Seattle, all they lacked was the two trainees.

It was nearing dark when two bedraggled youngsters, each carrying a duffle, showed up at the gangway. Both boys were 17 years old, Jeremy Dales and David York.

Jason was still on board, counting supplies, so he showed them where to store their belongings and then asked them, "You fellows got a place to sleep tonight?"

Jeremy replied, "Sir, we are broke, we are gonna bunk here tonight."

Jason laughed, "Oh no, that ain't gonna work, you two come with me, I'll put you up at my cottage for tonight!" He took the two young men to his home, they were as hungry as starved rats. Jason was pretty sure neither had eaten that day and maybe not the day before, either. After they ate, he showed them the back bedroom, saying, "I'm sorry, but this double bed is all I have for you."

The boys grinned and told him that was alright, they were so tired they were going to fall asleep.

He left them and went about his business. He knew he was going to be gone a long time, so he showed lots of attention to his brother, Willie and gave him some money in case he needed it. He went around the house, locking up for the night, he peered into the back bedroom and saw the two boys sleeping, their arms around each other tightly. He smiled and thought, "Hmmm. I think maybe they are more than just friends. That's ok, as long as they work hard it ain't none of my business."


As soon as the morning fog began to break up, Jason could hear the boiler men begin to light a fire in the engine room.

He went about checking all the lines and making sure nothing had gotten kicked over the side during the night. He felt the Annabelle give a lurch as Carl rocked the engine to warm the cylinders.

Suddenly, the fog horn boomed, Georgie was in the wheelhouse checking everything out. As the sun broke through the fog, Georgie blew in the whistle tube and told Carl to start the engine astern.

Georgie backed the Annabelle out of her berth and then called for ahead one third. Slowly, the tug gathered speed as she headed for The Joshua Hendy freight wharf, where two fully loaded barges awaited them.

They quickly arranged the tow cables and by 3 pm, were headed for the Golden Gate. The barges were correctly loaded and caused no problems on the trip northward to Seattle. The seas were calm, out beyond the Humboldt Current, and they made good time, arriving in Seattle a day early!

The new harbor semaphore the Seattle Harbor Commission installed had informed Joshua Hendy Freight Agents that the Annabelle was arriving in port and they were docking at Pier 4 waiting for them.

Georgie inquired as to what pier North West Fisheries used and they told him that they, also, used Pier 4, so they settled in to await their arrival. It wasn't long before their freight agent showed up with a ream of paperwork! Georgie and Jason worked until dark on that paperwork and it was still waiting for them to finish it the next morning.

A harbor tug picked up the barges from the Annabelle and delivered them to a pier several rows upriver.

They watched as three small harbor tugs maneuvered barges in their direction. They were accomplished tugboat drivers, the Annabelle was sitting at the end of the pier, headed downriver and they moved those barges into place, almost like magic!

They held the barges fast until the Annabelle could take up a strain on the tow cable, when Georgie blew the horn, they knew to drop off and the Annabelle was on her way to Alaska!

They hit the Straits of San Juan de Fuca just as it was getting dark, so Jason jumped up on the Wheel House and tried out the new light! Pouring the carbide rock was a little tricky, but he got the charge in and started the water drip. As soon as he heard gas sizzling, struck the lighter and they had a clear beam of light that let them see all three barges.

Jason had had a little disagreement with Georgie, he wanted to top off the fuel bunkers and Georgie thought they had sufficient coal. Jason got a little cross with him and but he finally agreed with Georgie. Jason hoped he didn't think bad of him, but he surely didn't want to try to row the Annabelle home!

They turned north, right into the face of that Humboldt Current, they were making hard work of it as the current was headed south and they were going north, so they changed course a bit and got to the seaward of the current, they rode better and the Annabelle wasn't working so hard.

Off to the star'bd, they could see land, Jason supposed that was Canada. It all looked the same, day after day.

The two new trainees were working hard, they seemed happy to have a steady bunk and three meals a day. Jason thought his surmise was accurate, they hadn't been eating regular!

They were good boys and always had a cheerful smile on their faces. Two weeks into the trip, the engine started to make a thumping sound, slowing down or speeding up didn't make it go away, so Carl insisted they stop for a while and he changed a bearing. It took him about four hours, but that stopped the thumping! It was scary out there, just drifting and the engine in pieces! Jason's gut calmed down as soon as that engine began clanking again!

It was an easy tow to this Yakutat place, it was even on Georgie's charts!

It was a relief when they started turning into shore, they crossed that current again and it tossed the barges around a bit, but it wasn't very wide that far north and the Annabelle was soon through it.

There wasn't much of a dock, they could only tie up one barge at a time. The cannery crew wanted to run the cannery on the barges, but the barges were moving too much with the tide. They pulled the barges up tight onto the rock shore and that was their cannery.

They had one barge already loaded with crates of canned fish, they tried to haggle with Georgie, but when he walked back to the Annabelle and hollered for Carl to get up steam. They agreed right quick to the freight terms!

They made up the tow, it was just one barge and that not heavily loaded. It was to go to Seattle, where they had three barges waiting for the Annabelle.

They headed south the next day, it was a little tricky, that current was pushing the barge in the same direction the tow was going, Jason suggested to Georgie that they go outside the current again and quit fighting it.

Georgie agreed and the tow rode much better. The food stores were getting down a bit, if they got caught in a storm they were going to need to go on short rations until they made Seattle.

Day after day the Annabelle worked her way south, the Mariner's Almanac said to expect storms this time of year, but they didn't get any. They had high waves one day and it tossed one of the trainees right out of his bunk, he was one surprised boy to find himself sitting on the deck, naked as a jaybird!

Georgie tutored Jason on navigation and taking star sights, he got so he could find their position on the chart. Georgie and Jason traded off working the wheel house, during the day, if the seas were calm, they would let the trainee get some wheel practice.

Two weeks after departing Yakutat, the Annabelle was nosing her way into Puget Sound, Seattle was in sight! Georgie didn't argue this time, after they had dropped their tow, he pulled the Annabelle up to the coaling wharf and had the bunkers filled.

Jason went ashore and arranged for food to be delivered to the tug, he had the deck hands refill the water tanks. Carl purged the boiler of accumulated salt1 and checked his engine over thoroughly.

They were on their homeward stretch, they took possession of the three barges to return to San Francisco and they departed the next day. Just south of Portland, the weather turned bad and soon, waves were crashing over the Annabelle with alarming force. Jason stationed an extra deckhand in the wheelhouse to assist him and Georgie controlling the tow. They had to keep the pumps running to prevent the engine room from flooding and drowning the fires in the boiler firebox.

Georgie had just relieved Jason, who was headed to the galley to find something hot, he was frozen to the bone! He was just reaching for a hot cup of coffee when a terrible wave came crashing over the Annabelle. Jason heard a scream and went running out to the deck, where he found Georgie writhing in pain, holding his leg. From the angle of Georgie's leg, Jason knew it was terribly broken!

Jason screamed down the engine room hatch for help, the trainee, David York came running. Jason told him to help Georgie, he had to get to the Wheel House before they got crossways to the heavy seas!

David came up to the wheel house as Jason and Jeremy Dales were fighting the wheel, trying to keep the Annabelle from capsizing!

David said, "Sir, the Captain has a broken leg, bad, the bone be sticking out his leg. I gived him some laudanum and he is asleep right now, but he gonna be in terrible pain when he wakes!"

Jason shrieked, "We can't turn in this weather, keep him dosed with the laudanum and we will head for San Francisco fast we can."

They fought the storm for five days, near as Jason could tell, they were about a day out of San Francisco. He took his star sights that night, for the first time since the storm began, and figured their position. He prayed God he was right, he turned the tow towards shore and was delighted when the Farallon Islands came up the horizon, right where he had expected them to be!

He entered port with the red emergency flag flying, the Harbor Master sent out a boat to investigate and they took Georgie and ran him to a hospital.

Jason maneuvered the Annabelle to the lumber docks in San Rafael, where they dropped off the three barges. He got his Bills of Lading papers signed and then high-tailed it for Richmond and Cutter's Wharf.

As he was docking the Annabelle, he began to blow the steam horn. Captain Cutter came running, that was an emergency signal! As soon as Jason told him about Georgie, Captain Cutter yelled, "Take me to San Francisco!"

Jason ran the Annabelle across the bay as fast as he dared and tied up at Pier 4.

Captain Cutter ran for a cab and told the man to take him to St. Francis Hospital as fast as "Those Damned Horses can run!"

Jason had Carl shut down the engine and boiler and to wait for him. He caught a cab and also went to St. Francis. After getting a run around from the hospital staff, he started opening doors until he found Captain Cutter.

The Captain said, "They have him in surgery now. Jason, you saved his life!" Jason replied, "Sir, I just ran the boat fast is all." The two men sat there for many hours until finally the doctor came out to speak with them. He said, "We couldn't save his leg, but whoever took care of your son did save his life!"

Captain Cutter hung on Jason, tears flowing down his old face, "Jason, you saved my boy's life by bringing him here rather than try to turn around and go into Portland. You would have never made it in that storm!"

They spent the night in the hospital and were able to see Georgie the next morning. Georgie hugged Jason and said, "Thank you, Jason, I am alive because of your quick decisions!"

Captain Cutter decided to stay in San Francisco, but told Jason to take the Annabelle and crew back to Richmond. They were to have two days off with pay before they were to try and clean up the tug."

It was a somber Jason who returned to the Annabelle, he was sure that he could have done better.


The crew had their two days off and then Jason started them cleaning up the Annabelle and repairing all the storm damage. He was sure that he would be reprimanded by Captain Cutter, after all, his boy nearly died and now was missing his leg.

The days went by and Captain Cutter remained across the bay in San Francisco. Several requests came for tug service, but Jason did not feel he should take the Annabelle out without a Captain. In any case, the other tugs, Roamer and Deal were able to handle the requests. Ten days later, Captain Cutter returned in a carriage and went straight to his house.

That evening, the Captain's young daughter, Annabelle, knocked on their door and asked that Jason and Willie come for supper. Jason was first thinking he should beg off the invitation, but then thought it would be disrespectful of his employer and benefactor, so he told Annabelle they would be there.

At the appointed time, he and Willie walked up the hill to Captain Cutter's home and knocked on the door. Jason felt as if he were walking to his doom.

The Captain opened the door and grasped Jason's hand, welcoming them and drawing Jason in the door. Matilda Cutter, the Captain's wife, welcomed them cordially and began to assist the servant girl putting steaming dishes on the table.

The dinner talk was jovial and pleasant and Jason began to relax a bit. After a pleasant supper and dessert, the Captain stood and said, "I have an announcement to make." He picked up a large envelope and said, "Jason, you saved our son, Georgie's life and brought him back to us. There is no question, had you done anything other than what you did, Georgie would have died!"

He opened the envelope and held out the papers within, "Jason, I am pleased to give you this and after you have read it, I have one more announcement to make."

He handed the papers to Jason, who nearly fainted when he read it, "CAPTAIN JASON CROWLEY, Tugboats, 400 tons and under, any ocean, inland waters".

Jason had to read it twice, not believing the first time, "Buuuuut, Meeeeeeeeeeeeeee", he squawked. The Captain smiled and said, "My second announcement is appointing you Captain of the Annabelle."

Jason sat down in his chair with a thump! He shook his head in dismay, saying, "But, but, I I, I, I, didn't do anything special." Matilda Cutter went to Jason, hugging him saying, "Thank you Jason, for saving my son's life. God Bless you!"

Jason spent the remainder of the evening in a daze, for the rest of his life, he was unable to recall what had occurred after Captain Cutter gave him command of the Annabelle.

When he and Willie returned home, Willie hugged his big brother and whispered into his ear, "Aye, aye, Captain, sir!" He then ran off for bed, giggling and a huge smile on his face.

Jason assumed command of the Annabelle and they were promptly engaged to haul four barges of bagged rice from Sacramento to San Diego. Jason piloted the Annabelle upbay and into the American River at Carquinez Straits and then turning into the Sacramento River to Sacramento.

They had to wait, the barges were not yet completely loaded, so Jason tied up at the municipal pier until the next morning. It took them until nearly 4 in the afternoon before the barges were connected to suit Jason. He had no intention of pulling poorly loaded barges that had minds of their own.

They began the slow trip downriver. He was concerned about negotiating the straits in the dark, so he had the trainee, Jeremy Dales, light the search light on the top of the wheel house.

When Jeremy came back down, Jason said, "Oh, by the way, you are acting First Mate this voyage!" Young Jeremy looked like he had just been pole-axed and replied, "M, M, me sir?" Jason smiled, "Yep, so get used to it. Here, take the wheel!" Jason twisted the handle on the searchlight, as he searched for obstacles in their course.

They reached Alcatraz Island just at daybreak, so Jason headed the Annabelle for the Golden Gate and the open sea. They went out beyond the Farallon Islands before turning south so he did not have to fight the Humbolt current in making his turn.

He blew on the whistle tube and told Paul to set the engine throttle at the best economic speed, they were on their way to San Diego.

He smiled at Jeremy and said, "Take the wheel, Mr. Mate, I am going to take a nap." He looked over his shoulder as he climbed down from the wheelhouse, Jeremy had the look of a seasick duck!

Jason hung around within earshot of the wheel house but Jeremy never called for help. Four hours later, Jason returned and found Jeremy handling the wheel with confidence. After relieving him, Jason told Jeremy to get some rest and something to eat.

They traded off with the two deckhands all the way to San Diego. Jason studied the Mariner's Almanac about the harbor and felt confident he could guide the tug and its tow into the small harbor.

They dropped the rice off at California Mills and they were handed a telegram from Captain Cutter to receive two barges from the US Navy to be hauled to Long Beach.

The barges were loaded with machinery, covered in canvass. They were poorly loaded and went swinging all over as they towed them up the coast. Jason swore he would never again accept a load unless he had personally inspected it!

In Long Beach, they received two barges with stacked blocks of white limestone for delivery to Montgomery Brothers Construction Company in Palo Alto. Jason climbed all over those barges, he wasn't going to have another bad tow! The barges all appeared to be level and the weight well distributed, so he accepted them.

They headed up the coast, just outside the current and made landfall at the Farallons two afternoons later. They delivered the limestone and went straight to the coaling wharf, Paul said that the bunkers were getting low!

It was a tired but happy crew to see the Cutter's Wharf, they tied up and damped the fires in the boiler for the night. Captain Cutter came down to the wharf and got all the bills of lading from Jason. Captain Cutter said, "Jason, come up to the house, there is someone to see you."

Jason followed the old Captain and when he stepped in the door, a voice screamed, "Jason, Jason, come see me dear friend!" Jason went into the parlor and there was Georgie, sitting in a chair. Georgie threw up his hands to Jason, hugging him.

He said, "Jason, thank you…" Georgie choked up and finally said, "You saved my life, I am forever grateful!"


1 Author's note: In those days, small ships did not have evaporators to make fresh water, so, by necessity, the makeup feed water for the boiler was sea water. Unless the accumulated sea salts were not flushed regularly, the boiler would salt up and begin priming, carrying liquid water into the engine and would result in a broken cylinder head.

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