The Very Long Tow of the Salvage Tug Snohomish

by John M. MacFarlane 2017


The tug Snohomish at Port Angeles WA USA. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

The tug Snohomish (ON 158954) was built in 1908 as the U.S. Revenue Cutter No. 16 at Wilmington Delaware by Pusey & Jones Co. 152’ x 29’ x 17.5’, steel–hulled 880 tons displacement. She originally cost $189,057 to build. She had a triple expansion steam engine with two boilers 1,200 bhp and could produce 12 knots cruising. Her wartime registration was VE006A.She was commissioned as a USCG Rescue Tug on November 15th, 1908 and taken out of commission in 1934. She was sold in 1937 by Puget Sound Tug & Barge Co. of Seattle to Island Tug & Barge Co. of Victoria BC. She was intended to go into service from Vancouver Island, towing to Powell River BC and Port Angeles WA replacing the Island Queen (ex–Tees) which had been reduced to an oil barge. She was towed from Seattle to Port Angeles (her old station) by the tug Goliah.


The tug Snohomish making smoke (Photo courtesy of MMBC.)

In 1908 she was stationed at Neah Bay WA USA. She was owned by Puget Sound Tug & Barge Co., Seattle WA. In 1934 she was decommissioned. In 1934 she was owned by the Puget Sound Tug & Barge Co., Seattle WA USA. In 1937 she was owned by Island Tug and Barge Co. Ltd., Victoria BC.


Lieutenant Russel R. Waesche Master of the Snohomish in 1923 (and later Vice–Admiral and Commandant of the US Coast Guard) (Photo from an internet source from an unknown newspaper. )

Some of the Snohomish’s Masters included:

  • – Russell Randolph Waesche (1923)
  • – W.H. Pope
  • – F.L. Austin
  • – C.G. Roemer
  • – Robert Donohue
  • – Frederick R. MacFarlane (1937–1947)

In August 1941 she was sunk in Seymour Narrows when she grounded and was rammed by her tow, the tank barge S.O. No. 5 (then the largest of it’s kind in the world). Although she was submerged to the top of her funnel she was eventually re–floated in October and put back into service. In Port Angeles she was picked up by the Burrard Chief and taken to Victoria for refit. Two months later she made her first long tow (from San Francisco) – the Star of Holland which had been sold to Japanese breakers but re–purchased to replace the Island Gatherer.

In 1941 the Snohomish undertook tows of the barge S.O. Barge #95 to an refinery or oil loading facility at San Luis Obispo CA. There they loaded oil and petroleum products for shipping back to British Columbia.


The tug Snohomish at Port Angeles WA USA. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

The Snohomish was involved in an incident while towing on the coast. In November 1941 she hit Skipjack Reef south of East Point on Saturna Island BC. She was subsequently rammed by her tow, the S.O.B.C. 95. She suffered a hole in her port side (30’ aft of the bow close to the waterline) and subsequently sank. She was salvaged and put back into operation.


The tug Snohomish (Photo courtesy of MMBC.)

Captain Fred MacFarlane was the Master of the Snohomish which served as the flagship of the Island Tug and Barge Ltd. fleet working out of Victoria BC. There was an opportunity to tow a barge and six surplus 76’ U.S. Army tugboats. The decision was made in 1946 or 1947 to sell the Snohomish and the best market for an old salvage tug appeared to be in South America. There was no buyer identified at the time of her departure but hopes were high for a sale rather than having to bring her back home by sea.


The barge Island Yarder before the voyage. (Photo courtesy of MMBC.)

Snohomish picked up the barge Island Yarder (270’ x 53’ x 4.5’ a cut–down LST) with a chain bridle attached to 1,800’ of two inch towline. This arrangement drooped 120' deep into the water which mean&rsquo't that they had to be very careful while travelling inshore that they did not snag the bottom. The barge Island Yarder contained six 74' surplus US Army tugs which sat on welded angle iron supports and sat on timber bases on the deck of the barge. Additionally in the barge they carried tanks of oil and water to replenish stocks while under way. On October 14th, 1947 they commenced the voyage rounding Cape Flattery in a storm.


The small tugs had to be rafted up and manoeuvred into place on the barge so that they could be towed by the Snohomish (Photo courtesy of MMBC. )


The barge carried six small US Army tugs ST 85, ST 146, ST 147, ST 164 and ST 167 (and another as yet unidentified). Their identities were only recently discovered by George Duddy through his research. These tugs were also sold in Argentina at the end of the voyage. (Photo courtesy of MMBC. )


The small tugs being positioned on the docking plan on the deck of the barge. The barge was sunk to enable the tugs to be positioned, much like a floating drydock. (Photo courtesy of MMBC.)


Once the tugs were positioned the barge was pumped out and the vessel floated free with her cargo of tugs. (Photo courtesy of MMBC.)

tug Snohomish

The barge now loaded with her cargo of six ex–US Army tugboats (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

tug Snohomish

The barge in tow of the Snohomish (Photo courtesy of MMBC.)


The tug Snohomish with the fully loaded barge in tow. (Photo courtesy of MMBC.)

The crew that took her on the long voyage to Argentina consisted of:

  • – Captain Fred R. MacFarlane (Master)
  • – George Forbes (Mate)
  • – William Owen (Second Mate)
  • – Conrad Burns (Wireless Telegraphist Operator)
  • – A. Warren Smith (Chief Engineer)
  • – Oscar Young (Second Engineer)
  • – John Dugdale (Third Engineer)
  • – Roy Blake (Bosun)
  • – Stanley Blake (Able–Seaman)
  • – John Parkyn (Able–Seaman)
  • – Donald Elworthy (Able–Seaman)
  • – Gordon Elworthy (Able–Seaman)
  • – John Lecky (Oiler)
  • – Frank inglis (Fireman)
  • – Howard Nelson (Fireman)
  • – Malcolm McDougall (Fireman)
  • – David Hood (Wiper)
  • – Alfred Matthews (Cook) (lost at sea)
  • – Gerald Adams (Mess Boy)

Captain MacFarlane communicated with the head office in Victoria by radio telephone (call sign VCPJ) and also carried a Radio Telegraphist (Conrad Burns).

San Pedro California was the first stop on the voyage where they took on oil and water, departing on October 27th. The Snohomish was burning about three barrels of oil per hour and she carried about 1200 barrels in her bunkers – providing a maximum of 400 hours steaming time. They stopped at Acapulco Mexico nine days out of San Pedro.

The voyage through the Panama Canal was anticipated with great excitement by the crew. The Panama Canal Authority would not allow the Snohomish to tow her barge through the canal. Two tugs of the Authority took charge and dropped the tow at the Caribbean terminus, ensuring the the barge did not disrupt traffic in the Canal. While they took the opportunity to refurbish the radio equipment they did not refuel. Growing short of fuel they headed for Curacao where they were told that they could top up the bunkers. However unexpectedly there was a military coup in Venezuela and refineries closed. Obtaining fuel became impossible. They were advised to move on to Trinidad. At Port of Spain they arrived on November 30th and obtained the needed fuel at the Standard Oil dock.

At Devil’s Island in French Guiana the Snohomish anchored in the lee of the island to transfer fuel and water from the Island Yarder. They had no charts of the area so they simply picked a spot and dropped the anchor. The penal colony which was once the most famous aspect of the island had been closed, but there was still some resident population. The convict crew of a supply boat cam to warn that the anchorage was unsafe. The water was shallow and the towing bridle dragged bottom but fortunately did not become fouled but the towline snapped. Crew members did a jump from the tug to the heaving barge. Hoses were rigged and pumps began the slow transfer process.

They entered San Marcos Bay Brazil on December 16th. The Pilot Book warned of shoals and other dangers but the chart was vague about approximate locations of these dangers. MacFarlane ordered the towline shortened. In the absence of a depth sounder they entered using the traditional technique of ‘swinging the lead’ to find their way in to the harbour. They nneded to pump fuel from the barge to the tug.

To take the soundings the Boatswain stood at the bow and heaved the lead. The line was passed astern as the ship moved through the water and passed to the Radio Officer who cleared the rigging to pass the line astern for recovery. Inside the shoals they dropped a single anchor. The sea passing over the shoals was rough. A sudden exposure to the current lifted the anchor and they found themselves drifting at 10 knots. They stopped pumping and used axes to cut cables. Hoses snapped as they drifted broadside up on an unmarked reef. As the wind rose the barge collided with the tug repeatedly.

The crew fired rockets and blew the whistle to signal distress and they tried to launch the lifeboat. The Radio Officer sent a distress message. An automatic alarm signal had been sent (twelve dashes sent during one minute, each of four seconds and a space between each of one second.) They eventually worked off the reef themselves - no other ship or boat was to be seen. The ship was a mess, and all teh spilled oil on the deck had to be cleaned up.

They arrived in Pernambuco Brazil on December 27th. Two barbers came on board to neaten up the crew who had been a long time away from civilization. They bunkered oil and took on chlorinated water. They departed on December 29th. On January 5th they anchored in Rio de Janeiro. Harold Elworth arrived by air from Victoria and came on board. On the 6th they stood out to sea.

At the mouth of the Rio del Plata they sighted the Ponton de Recalada Lightship marks the entrance. This was the pilot station for the busy shallow waters of the mouth of the River Plate. They picked up a pilot at Buenos Aires to facilitate coming along side on January 14th. The Island Yarder was taken under control by large Argentine Navy tugs. They were 91 days from port and and had carried out 71 steaming days.

On April 3rd the crew flew home to Victoria arriving April 5th. The crew were paid off and flew back to Victoria BC arriving on April 5th.


The tug Snohomish (Photo courtesy of MMBC. )

At Buenos Aires she was commissioned into the Argentine Navy on January 14th, 1947 by the Government of Argentina as a naval tug in the River Plate. She was renamed as the Matarasin and used for salvage and towing. Around this time she was erroneously reported as lost at sea in local press reports. In 1960 she was sold to a towboat company in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In 1962 she was rebuilt and renamed as the Ona Sol. In 1980 she was sold for scrap.

Conrad Burns, the Wireless Telegraph Operator, wrote the only detailed account of the voyage "QRD Snohomish". We rely on this account for an understanding of what occurred. Contemporary press accounts appear to be contradictory and contain factual errors so the details of the voyage from public sources are confused. The rest of the crew did not record their experiences – apparently content to let Burn’s account stand.

Book QRD Snohomish

Conrad Burns’ Book "QRD" Snohomish (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection. )

MacFarlane Returns Home

Newspaper caption reads "The end of a successful and historic voyage is marked for Captain F.R. MacFarlane, centre, as he is welcomed home by two officials of the Island Tug and Barge Ltd. Right, O.M. Prentice, Secretary-Treasurer of the company and left, Norman Turner Superintendent. Captain MacFarlane commanded the tug Snohomish when she towed six tugs aboard the barge Island Yarder from Seattle to Buenos Aires Argentina. He and his crew returned to Victoria by plane."(Photo from the John MacFarlane collection. )


  • – Newell, Gordon H.W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest.
  • – Burns, Conrad QRD? Snohomish. (1954) Pagent Press NY

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2017) The Very Long Tow of the Tug Snohomish. 2017.

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