We are not about to open out on the different systems of towage in ordinary, but intend offering up a few remarks on sea towage in cases of breakdown of steamers, as it may be of service to the young officer in a case of emergency.

It is not generally known how useful a common rocket may be in establishing communication between two vessels in a heavy sea.

A common 1-lb. rocket will carry athwart the wind a small fishing line over 200 feet.

In cases where a steamer has run close to a disabled ship to take her in tow, rockets have been found very serviceable. When firing the rocket, have the fishing line flaked down on the deck, with one end fast on deck, the other hitched to the end of the rocket staff, a few inches from its lower end; now give the rocket a good elevation and fire it, and if it is a good ordinary ship's rocket it will carry the line over 200 feet.

On to this line bend a ball of amberline, then a small rope, and lastly the hawser, as occasion may require.

Of course if it is fine weather when you pick up a disabled vessel, out boat at once and effect communication, but in bad weather nothing is so valuable to effect communication without risk to life as a common ship's rocket.

The writer was once broken down in the North Sea, during the prevalence of a heavy N.E. gale, and although the towing hawsers carried away six times, communication was easily effected each time the hawsers parted by the use of the ship's rockets.

Before the wind a rocket will carry a line considerably over 200 feet, and might often be the means of saving life in case of shipwreck where no rocket apparatus on shore was obtainable.

Say you observe a steamer with signals flying, "Will you take me in tow?" First of all, if the weather is bad and a heavy sea running, get ready the rocket and line. When all is ready steam your vessel close to the bow of the disabled ship, with very little way on your vessel, and fire the rocket over her amidships. Communication is now established. A large line bent on the fishing line will pull the end of a coil of ratline on board, and then a lanyard rope. If you or the other vessel have large and powerful coir hawsers, then get these fast and tow away; but if you have only an ordinary europe hawser each besides the steel ropes that every steamer is well supplied with nowadays, it is useless playing with them; for if there is any sea running, and the tow is a heavy laden ship, the ropes will break as soon as ever you commence to tow, so our advice is, do not bother with them, but act thus:— After you have got a good lanyard rope between the two vessels, get your ship into a position, head to sea — ahead of the tow — and send on board of the tow, by the lanyard rope, a strong steel hawser, then tell the tow to bend on to your steel hawser his bower cable, then heave away upon the hawser, and get his cable on board, take it round your after bits, then back it round the midship bits and shackle its end on to the mainmast, or run your own cable aft from the windlass along the decks, and shackle the two cable ends together, either mode is a strong one; then tell the tow on NO ACCOUNT to hang you with a short cable, but to give you at least 90 or 100 fathom of cable. Once you have this well fast you will tow the heaviest ship with impunity in a very strong sea-way — in fact the cable will never become taut out of the water, for long before 80 fathoms of cable chain can become taut out of the water the tow will run ahead and slack it down.

The writer has known heavy steamers that were broken down towed by the cable chains when the largest ropes a large English ironclad had on board had all parted. Many seamen think a cable is a horrid thing to tow with, reasoning themselves, "chain has no give in it," but a long cable always form a catenery, and this would never be less in a tow than from 10 to 15 feet, consequently you may say the cable has as much give in it as is formed by the catenery; but this is actually not the case, as the tow will always range ahead (provided 90 fathoms is out) before a pure catenery is formed. Thus a cable is the very strongest thing you can tow with, and if ordinary care is used, there is little or no fear of it getting foul of your propeller.*

Even if you do tow with coir hawsers they should be shackled on the tow's cables, and 17 fathoms of cable paid out on board the tow.

When towing with the cables, mind and do not hang the vessel short with 40 or 50 fathoms; if you do the chain will become taut before the ship forges ahead to it, with the concomitant result — break it must. Many a tow that has been abandoned would not have been so had the cables been used as above directed. If necessary, you will also have to stand by with the engines to ease the jerks as much as possible.

In towing a disabled vessel remember it is easier to tow her athwart or before the sea a hundred miles than it is to tow her 20 miles head to wind and sea.

Whilst towing a disabled ship over a bar, or where the sea is very wicked, put over your stern a couple of oil bags; it will ease the sea on the tow immensely.

If you fall in with a disabled ship with no rudder, but whose engines are all right, let the disabled ship tow you, and you steer her by steering the course yourself; but this is a difficult feat to accomplish successfully, and fine weather must prevail for you to do so. If you think the weather is too bad to do this successfully, then take the disabled ship in tow, and let the latter pay over his stern a long hawser with a stop water on it on one quarter, with a powerful tackle fast to the hawser led on the opposite quarter, and veer and haul upon this tackle as necessary. This will keep her steady whilst towing.

If ever you are compelled to tow with steel hawsers, 30 fathoms of rope hawser had better be shackled on to the ends, or they will be sure to carry away if there is any sea running. If you have no rope stout enough for the purpose, then let the tow shackle on to the ends of your steel hawsers 15 fathoms of cable chain; this will cause the wire hawser to sagg, and prevent them carrying away if the sea is not too heavy. But it must be remembered that wire ropes are of no use in a sea-way to themselves to tow with, for they will not bear a jerking strain.

All steamers should have a large and powerful coir hawser for a towline, and it should never be used but for that especial service.

* In any case, with a heavy tow, be sure to use strong enough gear; and it is a good thing to attach a weight to the centre of the tow line to prevent sudden tautening and possible snapping. [Back]
Todd, John & Whall, W.B.: Practical Seamanship for Use in the Merchant Service
George Philip & Son, London, 1904 (5th). pp 277-279.

Transcribed by Lars Bruzelius.

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Copyright © 1994 Lars Bruzelius.