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January 2008

Fleet ocean tugs: Enough horsepower for any mission
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By Sarah E. Burford, SEALOGPAC Public Affairs

3rd Mate Michelle Thompson
Fleet ocean tug USNS Sioux 3rd Mate Michelle Thompson plots a course for the tug during a November mission near San Diego. Photo by Sarah E. Burford

If tugboats are considered the workhorses of the Navy, then fleet ocean tugs can be regarded as the Clydesdales.

When it comes to MSC's fleet ocean tugs, put away the images of Tubby the Tugboat from children's books, merrily guiding big ships out of the harbor. Think bigger, because unlike standard tugs like Tubby - familiar sights in any port - MSC fleet ocean tugs are larger and more powerful. They can tow ships as large as retired aircraft carriers through open ocean.

MSC has four 226-foot-long fleet ocean tugs: USNS Navajo, USNS Sioux, USNS Catawba and USNS Apache. All serve as dive platforms for exercises and salvage operations, in addition to their day-to-day work.

USNS Navajo tows ex-USS Belleau Wood
Fleet ocean tug USNS Navajo (left) tows amphibious assault ship ex-USS Belleau Wood out to open waters in July 2006. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Rebecca J. Moat

"I've towed everything from an aircraft carrier to floating barges and everything in between," said Capt. Brad Smith, San Diego-based USNS Sioux's civil service master. "I've worked on salvage operations and even deployed and picked up mines during exercises like RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific)."

Smith has spent 25 years working on MSC ships. From oilers to supply ships, he happily admits that the tugs are his favorites.

"The crews on tugs are small. Guys like me who like tugs come back around, and we become a real family," Smith explained.

Crews on the fleet ocean tugs are substantially smaller than on the Navy's larger ships. On Sioux, the crew comprises 16 civil service mariners and four Sailors, who work hand-in-hand with civil service mariners to meet mission requirements.

USNS Catawba recovers a downed Navy helicopter
Military Sealift Command fleet ocean tug USNS Catawba recovers a downed Navy helicopter in the northern Persian Gulf. The helicopter was on a mission for Operation Enduring Freedom. All seven people aboard escaped serious injury in the crash. U.S. Navy photo by Catawba Chief Engineer Joe Semon

"I was really surprised when I checked on board and found out pretty much everyone on the crew was a civilian," said Navy Interior Communications Specialist 1st Class Mike Lueduke, Sioux crew member. "It took a while to get used to, but everyone here is very professional and easy to work with. Capt. Smith has been around for a long time and really knows his stuff, so I feel like I'm learning something while I'm here."

"On this boat everyone knows everyone, and everyone is dependent on everyone else to get the job done," said Shaun Shiraishi, Sioux's chief mate. "There are a lot of ships' crews out there who will say that, but on a tug, it is really the way we do business."

The tug's small crew creates closeness and familiarity. That allows Smith to get to know the strengths and weaknesses of those who serve under him, and allows him to work closely with mariners and Sailors to develop them.

Capt. Brad Smith
USNS Sioux Master Capt. Brad Smith U.S. Navy photo by Sarah E. Burford

"In a situation this small, I'm in a position where I can work with the younger crew members and really teach them something," explained Smith during a loss-of-steering drill.

That hands-on training is always focused on getting the mission done. MSC's fleet ocean tugs are set apart from the more traditional tugs by horsepower, longevity and seaworthiness. Unlike their smaller counterparts that are about 90 feet long and have up to 4,200 horsepower, fleet ocean tugs are 226 feet long and have a 7,200-horsepower power plant. They can tow at speeds of more than 14 knots and have the capacity to tow at least 60,000 tons, the equivalent of 14 Perry-class frigates.

The fleet ocean tugs' range is equally impressive.

"We're long legged," he said. "We can carry enough supplies to be out for 30 days and are prepared to tow anything we can as far as needed."

These missions can take place as close to home as the ship's own pier or far out at sea. Fleet ocean tugs have been at the forefront of significant missions, including back-to-back tows in 1992 of the decommissioned battleship ex-USS Missouri from Long Beach, Calif., to Bremerton, Wash., and decommissioned aircraft carrier ex-USS Midway from San Diego to Bremerton. Both ships are now museums - Missouri in Pearl Harbor and Midway in San Diego.

In addition to the towing missions in which they often participate, the fleet ocean tugs also serve as platforms for Navy divers participating in salvage missions.

Tug size comparison
Harbor tugs that assist Navy ships in and out of port are less than half the size of Military Sealift Command fleet ocean tugs. Fleet ocean tugs, with their powerful engines, have been used in historic tows such as that of decommissioned aircraft carrier ex-USS Midway in 1992.
"Most of the missions we do are off our fantail, either towing something or giving divers a platform to work from," said Smith. "People, like the divers, like to work off of us because of our flat fantail."

In January, Sioux is scheduled to assist in recovering the wreckage of a Navy H-60 helicopter that crashed into the Pacific Ocean near San Diego in November. In May 2003, Catawba's crew performed a similar operation - recovering a Navy helicopter downed in the Persian Gulf during a mission for Operation Enduring Freedom.

As a seasoned tug captain, Smith has participated in numerous missions.

"Sioux always seems to be in the right place at the right time when it comes to recovery operations," said Smith.

Hampered only by weather conditions, fleet ocean tugs may be the unsung heroes of the Navy and MSC, but they continue to be mission oriented and ready for any challenge that comes their way. What does the future hold for these ships? Whatever the Navy mission needs.

"I love these tugs and think they are more fun to command than anything out there," said Smith. "They are so versatile. More versatile than anything, and we are ready to prove it. Just give us a mission, and we'll make it happen."