ASK Les Thomas what the highlight is of his 45 years as a tug boat captain, and you get the answer as quick as the rope goes over to attach on to an incoming ship – though it might not be quite what you expected.
“It’s all team work really,” he said.
“It’s hard to focus on one individual.”
And while we initially intended this article to celebrate Mr Thomas’ career, he’s right.
Let’s look at a job the Observer witnessed close-up recently, when a fertiliser boat, the Alam Seri, left the Port of Portland, and another, the IVS Orchard, was brought in.
Involved in the jobs were pilot Milinda Gammune, pilot boat crew Bill Fellows and Geoff Hotson, Mr Thomas, Tekko Roos and John Elleway on the tug Cape Nelson, skipper Garry John, Ross Morris and Kayne Tomkins on the other tug Cape Grant and the mooring gang both on shore and on the Gannet boat that shifts the ropes through the water.
Several have more than 40 years’ experience at sea.
Without every one of them doing their specific jobs, and working in tandem with each other, two ships wouldn’t have got to where they needed to go.
It’s all in a day’s work for the teams, with 1100 tug jobs in the last financial year.
They work two weeks on and two off, though that gets changed around occasionally if someone needs time off.
Les Thomas comes from a background in fishing.
“I had six years in the family fishing business before I was employed on the tugs and started on February 17, 1975,” he said.
“I’ve been fortunate to have all my time in one place, but I’m nothing outstanding in this type of industry.
“Even after the time I’ve been on board, I’m still trying to improve myself and I’m still learning.
“There’s a lot to look after to keep the boat running.”
And that’s where Tekko Roos comes in.
“Without him, I’m nothing, he keeps the boat going,” Mr Thomas said.
Mr Roos started off as an apprentice fitter and turner and went to sea on cargo ships about 45 years ago.
“I did that for about 20 years but I had a young family and decided I didn’t want to go to sea any more,” he said.
So he joined the tugs, where his responsibility as chief engineer is maintaining the 28-year-old Cape Nelson.
That role has changed over the years, as tugs change, but some things stay the same – more on that later.
“We’ve got a maintenance program on here and we’ve got our jobs we have to go through,” he said.
John Elleway comes, like Mr Thomas, from a family background in fishing.
He started with his father Lyall, of Arrow Fisheries, in 2002, but when they got out of boats, a hankering to return to the water saw John take up the opportunity as a general-purpose hand on the Cape Nelson about two years ago.
“At the start I was a casual, I was called in to do shipping jobs, but as you start to understand the boats a bit more, you do a few more things on them,” he said.
That includes helping Mr Roos as well as deck maintenance, while Mr Elleway is also responsible for tossing and retrieving the lines to and from ship or shore.
“I spend most of my life at sea trying to avoid ships,” he said.
As a sideline, he also runs the Portland Harbour Tours boat, and is used to those on board confusing the roles of the tugs with the pilot boat.
The former are by far the largest working boats in the harbour, but at a distance it isn’t always clear what they are actually doing.
“They look smug, these little boats alongside a big ship,” Mr Elleway said.
“But they've got all this power, a little bit like a bantamweight (boxer).”
Today's job is to escort the Alam Seri out of the port to get it on its way to Adelaide, then bring in another fertiliser ship, the IVS Orchard.
It is, in Mr Roos’ words, “a relatively lightweight job” compared to some of the bigger ships they deal with.
On today’s roster, the Cape Nelson is at the bow, turning the ships around, while the Cape Grant, about a year younger, holds them steady at the stern.
“We really do work as a team,” Mr Thomas said.
“It’s important everyone gets on well. Milinda is a great guy and that makes it easy.”
Bringing the IVS Orchard in, there’s time for an explanation or two – including why the ship is taken in and out in the bay at a certain angle.
“When the ship turns toward the port, it’s turning into a dead end,” Mr Thomas said.
“If its engine fails, we’ve got to pull it up before it hits anything.
“We’re at the safest angle to make sure that doesn’t happen. As we go towards the port the ship will roll a bit more.
“If there is any mechanical problem on board the ship we’ll come in early and pull it up to stop it hitting anything.”
Mr Thomas steers the Cape Nelson with “combi levers” which allow him to control both the direction and speed in one hand – the tug has no rudder, just propellers, and when he wants to go into a neutral position he can turn them so there is no thrust, and he can use speed to steer, that can make the tug go completely sideways.
Each job takes about one hour all up, and on a perfect Portland day, there’s little trouble today.
There have been a few hairier ones in the past.
Most notable of recent visitors was the cattle ship MV Jawan, which the Cape Nelson crew was all too familiar with.
That ship tried to leave Portland three times (succeeding on the final attempt) in late-2018 but began listing from side to side.
“That was meant to be a one-tug departure,” Mr Roos said.
“We were called in to pull it back around and in when it was clear it wasn’t going to go.
“We had to make sure we weren’t getting dragged.”
He also remembered the Devprayag, a fertiliser and grain carrier which ran aground on Minerva Reef after being caught in an exposed anchorage during strong south easterly winds in April 2001.
“We were called up at midnight and it was the roughest (sea) I’d ever seen it,” Mr Roos said.
“I was sitting on the step (leading from the bridge to below deck) and hanging on for dear life.”
Mr Thomas said when the Cape Nelson got out to the ship, it couldn’t get a line to it.
“It was already aground and it was a salvage operation,” he said.
“It turned out alright (the ship was refloated a few days later) but the bottom line for us is it was certainly the roughest job Tekko and I have done.”
Over the years they have seen many changes, but Mr Thomas said the big one was technology.
“We have a lot less crew now, with only two on board and the team factor is much stronger now than it was years ago,” he said.
“You have to have that because you rely on each other to really do your job well.”
When he first started the tugs would have two crew permanently stationed in the engine room, three on deck and the skipper – two crew members were needed to pull ropes as there was no forward winch.
When Mr Roos first got on the tugs, there were still four on board the Cape Nelson, two general purpose hands along with himself and Mr Thomas.
Mr Roos spent his time below deck, but that’s not the case any more.
He can keep an eye on what’s going on down below from the bridge.
“We have alarms up here and remote control on the winch,” he said.
“It was decided manning could be further reduced to three and engineers had to get specific training as deck assistants, so the general-purpose hands were reduced to one.”
After 45 years there’s still plenty to learn.
“We really focus on continually improving the job,” Mr Thomas said.
“We want to see how we can do things a little bit better next time. “But we’re getting more out of the tug than we were 20 years ago.”