I referred to this one in another thread, so here goes. Because the BELCHER PORT EVERGLADES was (is) such a unique vessel, it is hard to not to mention the company, I will. I mean, I do believe that they no longer exist, even as a part of Coastal. Back during my short time sailing with them as an assistant engineer, we had one particular trip that just didn’t go well at all. For anyone that doesn’t know about the BELCHER PORT EVERGLADES and her sister, the BELCHER TAMPA, they were both of a very odd deep notch tug design. They fit into the deep notch of the barge and were kept there with poly facing ropes tensioned by hydraulic rams. The boats were then kept tight in the notch using glycol filled bladders. The BELCHER TAMPA sunk in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico back in 1983. From what I understand, some of the bladders leaked/were punctured and the boat started slamming in the notch. The hull was breached, and one of the huge voids filled with water. The crew eventually abandoned to the barge and the TAMPA slipped out of the notch, capsizes and sank. But this story isn’t about the TAMPA. It IS kind of related, though. A feature unique to both of these tugs, was that they were powered by a B&W slow speed engine. Truly one of the most uniquely designed vessels that I have ever seen, let alone sailed on. Needless to say, that these boats were a bit difficult to maneuver out of the notch with a fixed pitch propeller. . . .
Flash forward to when I was onboard, in early 1988. There were some problems with the bladders on the PORT EVERGLADES. Enough of a problem that some could not be repaired. As per a warranty clause from Underwriters (so I was told), due to the number of failed bladders, we were prohibited from pushing the barge in the notch at sea. The boat WAS fitted with a towing winch. Intercon, I believe, and had airflex clutches. Now, this winch was never used. We left our loading port (Mobile, I think), got out on the string and made our way across the gulf. Easily the worst ride that I have ever had at sea. The boat was never really designed to sail outside of the notch. If it weren’t for the lifejacket under my bunk, I never would have slept.
Well, we made it close to Tampa. As we approached (sometime after 0400, since I was just off watch), the Second Engineer went back to the winch room to start the winch engine to warm it up before shortening up the tow wire. It was still VERY rough. After he started the engine, he was making his way back to the engine room when the boat rolled hard and he fell toward the winch and hit the air brake release. That was when the wire started to run, and thinking clearly, so did the Second. He got into the engine room and closed the hatch just about when the clutch exploded, putting some pretty good divots in the bulkhead between the engine room and winch room. Of course the entire wire spooled off of the winch. No one had engaged the hand brake on the winch. Of course when they tried to exercise it (after the fact) it was frozen and completely inoperable. None of the deck crew had ever spent any time on a towing vessel.
Since we were close to Tampa, we moved the tug back into the notch in conditions that were a bit less than optimal. Of course a slow speed, direct reversing engine isn’t the best option to carry out the maneuver, either. We finally did get into the notch, but not before punching a couple of holes in the bow (and into the tool room). To recover the wire, the deckhands (and the rest of us, for that matter) went to the bow of the barge and disconnected the towing hawser and bucked it back to the back deck of the tug. There we cut the eye off, chained the airflex clutch haves (the bladder being long gone) together and recovered the wire to the winch. It was crew change for me once we finally got to port.
That was my last trip at sea. I didn’t go back to the PORT EVERGLADES until she was in the yard in Port Arthur for my last official duty period. I started working at ABS a few weeks later. . . .
We were VERY lucky to not have any really serious damage or injuries after that one. After the fact, the deck hands spent days trying to free up the hand brake, but were never able. . . .