The Tugboat Sudbury

A Risky Investment

In the spring of 1954 Harold Elworthy, president of Victoria’s Island Tug and Barge (ITB) swapped the hulls of four barges for the 200’ foot x 33’ x 17’ war-surplus RCN corvette, Sudbury. Elworthy then invested two hundred thousand dollars ($1,907,494.42 in 2018 dollars) to equip her as a deep-sea salvage vessel. She was equipped with pumps, compressors, and welding apparatus, lathes, punches and hammers, gyrocompasses, radar, loran radio position-fixers, radiotelephones, direction-finding and depth-sounding instruments. Her bunkers were expanded to give her an unharnessed range of six thousand miles.

She was then advertised in Lloyd’s Catalogue, the annual list of global seafaring enterprises, as “the largest and most powerful tug and salvage vessel on the Pacific Coast of the Americas”.

Elworthy sent Sudbury and her crew of 19 out on log or barge tows as a training exercises. Moving 200 crewmembers from ship to ship gave everyone experience in handling the Sudbury at sea.

The Challenge

On 1 November, 1955 Elworthy received a cable from New York asking if the Sudbury was available to steam 3,500 miles into the Pacific to rescue the 8,000 ton Greek stricken freighter Makedonia.

Elworthy negotiated a “no-cure no-pay” contract… if the Sudbury failed to save the Makedonia, ITB would lose the fifty thousand dollars ($461,593.44 in 2018 dollars) it cost to keep her at sea for a month. If the tug got Makedonia back to port however, ITB would collect half her value, around three hundred thousand dollars (2,829,683.82).

Elworthy ordered the John McQuarrie, then commanding the Sudbury, to put into Prince Rupert, drop the barge he was towing, take on fuel and supplies for a long voyage, and hand the tug over to Harley Blagborne, an ITB skipper with a deep-sea ticket.

The Makedonia

The freighter Makedonia

The freighter Makedonia

Back on October 24, Christos Papaliolios, Makedonia’s master was impatient to sail from Niigata, Japan to Victoria where the ship’s owners, the sixteen-ship A. G. Pappadakis Company, had contracted to pick up a cargo of lumber bound for the United Kingdom. Papaliolios had tried in vain to find a Japan to Canada cargo, so decided to steam in light ballast.

It was a calculated risk, for winter was closing on North Pacific. Furthermore the best days of his ship were over. The Makedonia, a British World War II assembly-line product, similar the American Liberty ships, had not been built to last. Further, she had experienced propeller shaft troubles, a condition that would be aggravated by sailing light. Nonetheless, Papaliolios cast off, following the great arc along the Kuril Islands to the tip of Siberia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, across the mouth of the Bering Sea to the Aleutians, then onward to Alaska and down the Canadian coast to Victoria.

Halfway across the entrance to the Bering Sea the Makedonia encountered heavy weather. She was so buoyant that when she nose-dived into trough after trough her propeller raced as it was kicked out of the water. On October 31 the shaft had enough, and Papaliolios ordered the engine stopped in sixty-foot waves. Shipping a succession of crashing seas, the thirty-three Greek crew found themselves in grave danger as Papaliolios engaged in an urgent exchange with his owners’ New York agents.

There wasn’t a tug in neither Russia nor in Japan with the range and power to the rescue the Makedonia so the agents transferred their search for a tug to the other side of the Pacific… Elworthy’s long-awaited opportunity had arrived.

The Tow

At the time Blagborne was summoned to command the Sudbury he had been commanding ITB’s tug the Island Sovereign on a log tow. He handed her to the mate, hitched a ride into Victoria on a passing fish boat, got his orders from Elworthy, then flew to Prince Rupert to take command of the Sudbury.

Sudbury’s crew was experienced. His first and second mates, Roy Blake and Jimmie Talbot both held tug skipper’s tickets, and the chief engineer, Walter Hitchins-Smith, was an RCN(R) Lieutenant Commander who had been berthing master at Halifax during the war.

For most of the crew this was the first deep-sea voyage. Each was offered a chance to step ashore, none did.

On 2 November, two hours after reaching the Sudbury at Prince Rupert Blagborne set course for Adak, the U.S. Navy base to refuel for maximum range. From Adak he set course for the disabled Makedonia. Sleet-laden winds and sixty to seventy-foot waves rolling out of the Bering Sea hit Sudbury as she left the lee of the Aleutians. Gangways were smashed, and the steel housing on the forward winch was ripped free. There were moments when only the Sudbury’s bridge, funnel and masts were visible above the freezing foam.

At the outset the Makedonia’s radio signal was weak, and U.S. Navy vessels relayed communications. By 11 November the Sudbury could hear the Makedonia clearly and to Blagborne’s surprise he realized she was three hundred miles nearer to Canada than she had been when she had broken down. Captain Papaliolios had torn the tarpaulin covers from the Makedonia’s hatches, and rigged them as sails, not only heading her into the seas but allowing a precious advance of twenty five miles a day toward the Sudbury.

Three hours later the two ships were dancing side by side at a range of a hundred feet. If they had been carried together the Sudbury would have collapsed like a matchbox.

Talbot, the second mate shoved a rocket cartridge into the two-inch barrel of a kind of sawed-off bazooka. Out of a hole in the underside of the barrel a fine white line, about as thick as a clothesline, ran from the tail of the rocket to a coil in a cardboard box. Talbot aimed his bazooka and pressed a trigger. The white line, sizzled from of its box and as the rocket dropped in the sea beyond the Makedonia the rope lay across her decks. The crew hauled it in. Four lines of increasing circumference followed the last, four inches thick, had to be heaved in by winch. To the end of this was attached the Sudbury’s towline, a three-inch cable of the finest steel.

The towline was shackled to the Makedonia’s anchor chain and the Sudbury steamed ahead, paying out two thousand feet of cable weighing eleven tons. When the slack was taken up there was a sharp jerk aboard the Sudbury as her engines assumed the strain. The Sudbury was full ahead but the load reduced her speed to six knots.

Once the Makedonia had momentum the towline, though still maintaining pull, sagged to a depth of twelve feet underwater. This slack served as a spring to cushion the shock as the huge waves crashed against the Makedonia’s bows. After three days of towing, the head winds were so strong that their speed was down to three knots. Clinging to lifelines as waist-high seas surged along the decks, Sudbury’s crewmen made perilous journeys aft to inspect the towline. There was danger of losing the Sudbury herself should her engines fail for the Makedonia would bear down upon the Sudbury and push her under.

On Thursday, 17 November, the Sudbury entered barren Adak Harbor once again. The idea behind the stop was tighten up Makedonia’s propeller shaft so that it might be permitted to turn slowly, helping both ships along. Three days were spent tightening the shaft.

On Sunday, 20 November, the Sudbury took Makedonia in tow once more with Makedonia’s propeller capable of turning at half speed. Though seas were choppy, the two ships achieved nine knots.

By 22 November winds had increased and the Sudbury was leaping over the mountainous crests while two thousand feet behind, the Makedonia lunged along as the towline twanged as it tautened then slackened under the endless variable stresses.

On 24 November at 1400 hours the Makedonia’s propeller shaft worked loose and Papaliolios had to stop her engine. At five minutes to eight that night the Sudbury took a sudden leap forward. Papaliolios radioed Blagborne that his anchor chain, to which the towline was shackled, had parted. Thirty fathoms of the thick linkage, weighing a ton to a fathom, had rattled out over the Makedonia’s bows to dangle at the end of the Sudbury’s towline. The Makedonia once again was reeling helplessly as Papaliolios rehoisted the temporary sails.

Sudbury was in even greater danger. Thirty tons of anchor chain and eleven tons of tow line were weighing down the Sudbury’s stern and the angle at which they trailed was increasing every moment, threatening to foul the tug’s propeller. In the engine room Hitchins-Smith gave the Sudbury the gun. Plunging ahead at maximum speed, she kept the towline taut against the drag of the anchor chain as Blagborne gingerly winched it in. Mates Talbot and Blake were waiting. As the first links of the anchor chain were pulled over the stern Blake drove the connecting pin out of its housing, and the chain plunged to the bottom of the sea. A flying sliver from the chain hit Talbot on the head. Blake helped the half-stunned man back to the deckhouse.

The Sudbury’s untethered rush had carried her fifty miles away from the Makedonia, But the Sudbury’s radar pierced the night and the Sudbury tracked Makedonia down.

By noon, 26 November the freighter had drifted one hundred and fifty miles off course. The heaving of the two vessels, and high winds interfered with Blagborne’s aim as he fired the rocket line. On the fifth attempt, the line fell across the freighter’s decks, the towline was made fast, and the long pull was resumed.

The Sudbury had burned four thousand barrels of bunker oil, twice her normal ration for the distance covered, so on 1 December she put into Kodiak Island, in the Gulf of Alaska, to refill her tanks.

Resuming the pull the two vessels were held at a standstill for the next twenty-four hours in a teeth of Alaskan gale while the tortured towline hummed like a plucked violin string. Then the storm collapsed. The Sudbury churned through Dixon Entrance, between the north end of the Haida Gwaii and the southern tip of the Alaska Panhandle, and raced for the protected Inside Passage.

Now both captains had to deal with the treacherous currents racing below the deceptively calm surface, narrow openings between jagged rocks, and the swirling mists formed from clouds that failed to surmount the Coast Range. But for Blagborne, who had threaded through them steadily for the greater part of his working life, these phenomena were old friends.

Meanwhile, like every deep-sea skipper, Papaliolios felt claustrophobic in such enclosed waters and was nervous about the myriad zigzag course changes he received from the Sudbury. He was bug-eyed as the Makedonia skidded along behind the tug in the Seymour Narrows millrace, where infamous Ripple Rock has taken more than a hundred ships.

On December 12, after forty tempest tossed days, the Sudbury towed the Makedonia under the arch of the Lions Gate Bridge as scores of ships’ sirens in Vancouver Harbor bellowed thier congratulatory welcome.