Tugs on Station (67)

by Hans van der Ster

In October 1922 the oceangoing steam tug ‘Roode Zee’, under the command of the legendary captain Nils Persson, steamed into the Atlantic Ocean with a sealed envelope containing instruction for a type of maritime emergency service that would revolutionize the assistance to ships in distress.
Well into the 1980’s the salvage actions of the so called station tugs appealed to the imagination of the maritime industry as well as the public. The ‘Roode Zee’ was the very first of dedicated salvage tugs that during winter time would be stationed in strategically located ports around the Atlantic Ocean, the steam boilers continuously under full pressure, with the sole purpose to pick up distress signals by radiotelegraphy and to offer their salvage assistance on the basis of Lloyd’s Open Form. Many ships and crews thank their lives to these station tugs.

‘Tugs on Station’
is the title of the new temporary exhibition of the Dutch National Towage Museum in Maassluis in the Netherlands. With numerous and often unknown photographs and objects the imagination is captivated of this special form of assistance wherein the Dutch played an important role for decades. Salvages like that of the ‘Burgerdyk’, ‘Sports’, ‘Otto Petersen’ and ‘Ivar’ are presented. There was much competition. Not only from the German Company ‘Bugsier’. Dutch firms Wijsmuller, Smit, Doeksen and Willem Muller competed to arrive first at the location of a ship in distress and to offer their assistance on the basis of Lloyd’s Open Form – no cure no pay. Today, Smit, Svitzer and Multraship still have occasionally tugs on station but the nature of the work and services have changed substantially. Environmental protection is the overriding priority and national authorities bear the burden of the costs of the salvage tugs which now are called Emergency Towage Vessels (ETV) and operate under the direction of the National Coast Guard.  On the Dutch inland waterways and IJsselmeer tugs have always been and some still are on standby to render assistance when a normal sensible person would stay inside.
The risks that endangered the station tugs and crews are highlighted. The damaged telegraph of the steam tug ‘Ebro’, foundered in 1958 and salvaged 30 years later, is a vivid reminder thereof.
The early salvages were often a battle against the elements and tugs themselves sometimes sustained damage to their wooden bridges or even lose their own life boats. In war time, like the Second World War and the first Gulf War, also the dangers of war were never far away and many losses of life and tugs were suffered.
Often less exposed but interesting are the contractual side a successful salvage job and the role of communication. Attention is given to the legal background of salvage and its standard contract ‘Lloyd’s Open Form – no cure no pay and also to the important role of wireless operator or ‘sparks’.
Salvage station work was not only special because it was spectacular and adventurous. A successful salvage could result in a good salvage reward for the salvage company but it formed also a welcome golden opportunity for the crew. The general public was fascinated by the headlines, cinema news and nowadays internet and youtube. On the other hand, at times when nothing happened for weeks on end, the boredom was enormous.
This temporary exhibition can be visited from March 18th until October 8 in the Dutch National Towage Museum in Maassluis, the Netherlands. The opening was done by Captain Bert Kleijwegt, former master of ocean going salvage tugs and salvage master on March 18th..
If you are interested in the full exhibition guide, please open the link below: