The Nitinat Chief: Legendary Towboat

by John MacFarlane 2016

Nitinat Chief

A brand new Nitinat Chief with owner Charles S. Sorenson in the bow. (Photo from the MacFarlane collection. )

(ON 173474) In 1941 she was built by West Coast Ship Builders Ltd. at Vancouver BC. 64.4’ x 16.2’ x 7.7’ / 19.63m x 4.94m x 2.35m Wood 50.17gt 27.96rt. She was powered by a 160bhp 4–cylinder diesel engine (1941).

She was carefully planned to meet the exacting services required of her by Charles S. Sorenson, head of the Nitinat Lake Logging Company. All the fir used in her 12 by 12 inch keel, heavy keelsons, 2.5 inch planking and sawn frames came from logs selected by Sorenson.
Nitinat Chief

Nitinat Chief at Port San Juan BC heading toward the Gordon River. (Photo from the MacFarlane collection. )

In 1941 she was owned by Nitinat Lake Logging Co. (Ken Baird & Charles Sorenson) and registered at Port Renfrew BC. In 1941 she was utilized for towing peeler logs over the Nitinat River bar at Clo–oose BC. In 1942–1962 she was owned by Nitinat Towing Co. Ltd., Victoria BC. In 1962–1972 she was owned by Island Tug & Barge Ltd., Victoria BC. In 1972–1985 she was owned by Menzies Bay Marine Services, Victoria BC (Vern & Fred Vosper). In 1980 she was registered at Cortes Island BC. In 1985–1987 she was owned by Nitinat Towing Ltd., Salt Spring Island BC. In 1988 she was owned by Shearwater Marine Bella Bella BC. In 1987–2005 she was owned by Seafair Towing Ltd., Courtenay BC. In 2011–2016 she was owned by Nitinat Towing Ltd., Campbell River BC.

Nitinat Chief

The Nitinat Chief crossing the Nitinat Bar with a following surf.(Photo from the collection. )

Towing over the Nitinat Bar into Nitinat Lake required a shallow draft, heavy frames and a strong keel. The large surf waves, strong winds and currents the possibility of hitting bottom required heavy strength. Nitinat Bar had only about 6 feet on high tides requiring local knowledge and superior ship handling skills to cross. Captain MacFarlane gained experience in the tug Solander, also owned by Nitinat Lake Logging. It has been stated that he towed 450 log Davis rafts and flat booms over the Bar before the Nitinat Chief was built. The logs were towed to mills in Victoria.

She was originally powered by a 160bhp 4–cylinder Washington diesel salvaged from the sunken American cannery tender Varsity at Port San Juan BC. The engine was salvaged from shallow water and winched aboard a raft. It was taken to Vancouver where it was re–built in the Hempill diesel school under the direction of Dick Smith of Vancouver Machinery Depot Ltd. It was rated at 160hp at 360rpm turning a 54 x 35 inch wheel. Her first Master was Captain George Alexander MacFarlane.

Nitinat Chief

Nitinat Chief (Photo from the MacFarlane collection. )

Nitinat Chief

Once the bar was crossed the Nitinat Chief cruising at slow speed presented many opportunities to troll for a salmon for dinner. Captain MacFarlane was a keen fisherman. (Photo from the collection. )

An advertisement in the August 1941 issue of Pacific Motor Boat magazine placed by Washington Iron Works states "Timber around Nitinat Lake, Vancouver Island, was considered totally inaccessible until Charles S. Sorenson, head of the Nitinat Lake Logging Company and Captain George A. MacFarlane, skipper of the Nitinat Chief demonstrated that they could take log tows out across the dangerous Nitinat Bar."
The power plant is a clutch reversing 4–cylinder Washington diesel, rated 160hp at 360rpm turning a 54 by 35 inch wheel. The engine had seen previous service having been salvaged from the wreck of the cannery tender Varsitywhich went ashore between Nitinat and Pachena on Vancouver Island. Overhauling was done under the direction of Dick Smith of the Vancouver Machinery Depot Ltd. The Nitinat Chief is credited with 9.5 knots speed at three–quarter throttle.
The Nitinat Chief was especially built to do this difficult job under the skillful helmsmanship of Captain MacFarlane. For dependable power under all conditions a 160hp 4 cylinder Washington diesel was salvaged from the ill–fated Varsity.
Towing winch and anchor windlass, air controlled, are driven through line shafting from a power take–off on the main engine. Reversing clutch of the big Washington diesel is also air controlled. Fuel tanks, located in the engine room, have a capacity of 1,400 gallons.

Subsequent owners changed the livery colours frequently, and over the years modifications were introduced to serve her changing functions. Her engine was updated several times: 260hp Washington Estep diesel engine (1951); 400bhp Deutz engine (1964); 600hp Deutz diesel engine (1972);

Captain Walter Larsen took over from Captain MacFarlane about 1941. Larsen claimed the tug was a fine scow tug but that her stern was too deep to do the log raft work inside at Nitinat. A water ballast tank was installed to lighten the stern for working inside. Filling the tank put her down on her marks for towing outside. Even this did not prove entirely satisfactory. Larsen stated that the company ceased using the Nitinat Chief to tow out of Nitinat and instead relied on the Solander until she was sold to the Lea brothers (Dan and Robert) in 1944.

Nitinat Chief

Nitinat Chief (Photo P1180 from the MMBC collection. )

Nitinat Chief

Nitinat Chief 1982 (Photo from John Arnold collection. )

In 1995 she was rebuilt from the deck up and a new Aluminum deck house at Bella Bella BC.

You can imagine my surprise when, during a dock walk in 2016 at Campbell River, I saw her berthed in the marina. I must confess that if she had been renamed I would not have recognized her. She she’s been modernized, and her deck housing has been considerably enlarged.

Nitinat Chief

Nitinat Chief in 2016 at Campbell River BC (Photo from the MacFarlane collection. )

Nitinat Chief

Nitinat Chief 2016 (Photo from the MacFarlane collection. )

Nitinat Chief

Nitinat Chief 2016 (Photo from the MacFarlane collection. )

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2016) Nitinat Chief: Legendary Towboat. 2016.

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