Life on Board the Tugs

We were fascinated by the sheer power of the tugs on the Humber when we were lucky enough to be shown round SMS Towage Limited – both inside the vessels and in the dry dock – in the preparations for Open Bridges in 2017. SMS Superman was one of the tugs which attended the event, impressive and looming in the mist. Since then we have learned about life on board from Mike Hussey, Chairman of United Towing & Salvage Society – keeping the importance of the fleet alive today. 


Paul Escreet, Chairman of SMS Towage, was really supportive of the project from the start and led us into a world of Victorian dry-docks, down the Rolls Royce engine rooms of 21st Century super tugs and provided one of the tugs, the then recently acquired Superman, to welcome the Schooner HMS Pickle with search-lights and water cannon as it left the River Hull after the city was split in two at 20:17 on the evening of the Autumn Equinox 2017.

The subsequent River Full Of Stories project is focusing on the river, highlighting a number of often over-looked aspects to Hull and it’s maritime heritage, including the role of tugs on the river, on the estuary and representing Hull abroad and at sea.

We met Mike Hussey, Chairman of the United Towing Society at a Hull: Yorkshire’s Maritime City Community Dialogue event and then spent a fascinating afternoon in the Kingston Hotel chatting about life on the tugs. Mike spent a formative period of time aboard Euroman, seen here in port and at sea.


After you’ve read Mike’s story below there are three galleries of photographs showing tugs operating on the river and estuary kindly donated to the project by Angus Young at the Hull Daily Mail, Ted Moore and SMS Towage images from Open Bridges.

“With regards to my own experience it started following a chat with Barry Rhodes in the early ‘70s.

Barry and I knew each other having been in in the same industry for a number of years where we were employed for different Pile Driving companies putting in foundations for large buildings etc. and we frequented the same pubs back then.

On a couple of occasions Barry had told me of his new employer, The United Towing Company of Hull and he told me it was a great opportunity and the possibility to get a big bonus for salvage work. Whilst I was intrigued I had only got married the year before and wasn’t sure how my going away would go down!

I went home and talked to my wife Jackie and said I really fancied travelling the World after some thought she said you had better go and get it out of your system then.

I went and had a word at United Towing and then went and joined the Merchant Navy and got my ID and Seaman’s Record Book.

In August 1972 I signed on for a 3 Month trip and shortly afterwards was on a flight to South Africa to join the deep sea Salvage Tug Euroman who was on salvage station in Durban.

The Trip

As a newly married man I left the majority of my pay for my wife to collect from United Towing’s Office in Nelson Street opposite the corporation pier.

My Job was in the engine room as what was referred to as a greaser, which basically entailed assisting the engineers as they needed assistance, cleaning tools workstations and maintaining the engine. This was the beginning of an adventure for me with little idea of what to expect, although that didn’t last long.

Being on salvage station was basically a waiting game, some ship would get into difficulty and then we would spring into action, between that it was very monotonous during which time the ship would be cleaned and painted, engines run and generators tested and run and any maintenance which could be carried out on board was done so. Plus lubricating the 2 large Deutz main engines and ensuring the fuel filters were clear.

In between shifts I started a laundry service for the crew and would wash and iron their gear to get extra income. I also did extra shifts if they wanted to go ashore for which I was paid. I also started a painting operation offering the crew the chance to have their cabins re-painted with some magnolia paint I had found. The latter however was short lived as after I had done a couple of cabins I was summoned to the skippers quarters were I had a tongue lashing and was informed that the finish on all the walls/bulkheads was made to be able to be scrubbed clean, the ones I had now painted could not now be so, that was the end to what was looking like a great little earner!

I did however get ashore for a pint or game of football against the bare foot locals who thrashed us and then there was the Phone Call – get back to the ship there’s a job on, so off we go and when we get there the engines are fired up and we are off.

The Whaler, the Edwin Cook

A whaling ship the Edwin Cook had been holed and was in danger of sinking, apparently one of the harpoons in one of the whales she had shot had gone through her plates and she was filling with water. We went after her in very heavy seas and when we got to her the weather was too bad to get additional pumps on board her. Fortunately the whaler had got hers working and our job was now to shadow her back to port and if she went down pick up survivors, which would have been a nightmare as one minute we were forty feet above her and the next we were forty feet below her, in very heavy seas. Fortunately she made it back to port and we put additional pumps on board.

A Race for Salvage

Things then settled down before we got our next call out, a Greek Oil tanker with a damaged rudder heading towards the rocks off Madagascar and we were in competition with the large Dutch the Zwarte Zee a 9000 horsepower ship and capable of 17 knots. We were 7500 horsepower and our top speed was less than hers, she was coming from the Seychelles. We were days away from the stricken vessel, it would be a competitive race for the salvage and sea conditions were heavy. In the end we were the first to get there and get the vessel under contract for the salvage but only by a matter of hours. It then became a slug home with a very difficult tow, the damaged rudder sending the tow all over and exerting massive strain on the towing gear. Over the following weeks towing, the tow rope was broken 3 or 4 times, we had a very experienced skipper in Arthur King and his skills were needed on this trip. Following several weeks towing we arrived in Durban, the incident was reported in the South African Newspaper the Argos.

Dubai and Back

The final job was a Major tow which entailed us steaming to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to pick up a large Oil tanker which had collided with her sister ship and suffered a massive rip in her bow around 100 feet long. The bow was supported with a massive steel rope wrapped around it, the tow was a very long tow from Dubai to Germany for repair. This would take many weeks to achieve and indeed became an even longer prospect when one of our main engines broke and we were steaming on 1 engine only, this meant the engineers carrying out a piston repair whilst we were towing during which time we were all working 12 hours on 12 hours off shifts. This also meant that at times because of the strong currents even though steaming at full speed we were going backwards! This was a very long tow which entailed us receiving additional provisions which were sent out by boat. After some weeks we got to the South African coast and the tow was passed over and we went into Durban to get relieved ready to fly home, great as the 3 month trip was now almost 7 months long and when I returned home it was made clear my sailing days were over!

Having said that, an experience I am grateful that my wife Jackie allowed me to go and experience, it still resonates within my special memories.”

Mike Hussey, Chairman, United Towing Society December 2018

Visit the United Towing Society Website here to find out more about a remarkable history.

Open Bridges SMS Towage gallery, click on any image to see the full picture:


Gallery of tug postcards courtesy of Edward Moore, click on any image to see the full picture:


Hull Daily Mail Archive thanks to Angus Young, click on any image to see the full picture:


Visit the River Full Of Stories memory page here for more stories, films and photographs.

Rich & Lou Duffy-Howard

Open Bridges made history when for the first time all 13 of the bridges over the River Hull in the UK’s City of Culture 2017 raised, swung or closed simultaneously splitting the city of Hull in two at 20:17 hours on 22nd September 2017.  Historic vessels sailed down the River to be met by 21st century tugs.

Open Bridges is an independent Hull/East Yorkshire based project.


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