Recognition of the Critical Role of Tugboats in the BC Economy

July 6, 2018

In late May 2018 a handsome bronze plaque, provided by Parks Canada and the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) was unveiled on Granville Island in the heart of Vancouver. The plaque recognizes the national historic significance of the tugboats of Canada’s West Coast. Although focussed on the historic role which tugboats have played, the event also highlighted the importance which tugs continue to provide in the commerce of British Columbia.

The wording on the plaque reads (in both English and French) as follows:

Since the mid-19th century, tugboats have been crucial to the development of the main coastal industries of British Columbia and its main industries, such as forestry, mining, and fishing. They have towed loads to and from remote businesses and isolated communities, assisted large vessels in port and through difficult coastal waters, and supplied many companies with critical materials and goods for transport. West Coast tugboats like S.S. Master have evolved into a distinct vessel type, well-suited to the B.C. topography, water, and weather conditions. Called “the railway of the sea,” they have linked local, regional, national, and trans-national shipping and transportation networks.

The genesis of this important acknowledgement began in about 2010 when the SS Master Society applied to the HSMBC for this recognition which was finally granted in 2015. It is gratifying that the SS Master, the last remaining operational wooden steam-powered tug in North America, received special mention in this citation as it nears its centenary in 2022.

The plaque is now mounted prominently on an aluminium plate representation of a classic west coast tug, designed by Robert Allan Ltd. and beautifully executed by our friends at Adrenalin Marine.

Speaking at the unveiling, Rob Allan emphasized the critical importance of tugs in all aspects of global commerce as follows:

“Quite simply, and without exaggeration, without tugboats the business of the world would completely grind to a halt…

As proof of that claim, consider these facts:

  • In British Columbia:
    • No logs would move to sawmills
    • No wood chips would move to pulp mills
    • No fuel would move to the many small north and mid-coast communities
    • No heavy equipment would be moved to remote coastal logging or construction sites
    • No gravel, clinker or limestone would move to cement plants
  • In the Port of Vancouver (or any other Port you care to name!):
    • Virtually no ships would move in or out of port (large ships at very low speeds are effectively un-manoeuvrable and require tug assistance to steer)
    • No containers full of goods from Asia would arrive here; store shelves would soon empty. The Dollar Stores would close!
    • No bulk products would leave the port; mines would close, prairie farmers would be swamped by their grain
    • Road and rail links would be choked
    • English Bay and all the anchorages in the Gulf Islands would be choked beyond capacity with idle ships
  • And globally this situation would simply be magnified:
    • Every major world port would cease to operate, depending as they do entirely on tugs for ship movements in and out
    • Without the services of high-performance escort and support tugs, oil and gas terminals would be unable to deliver their products by sea
    • The Panama and Suez Canals (and many other critical waterways) would cease to operate, requiring as they do tugs and their skilled crews to control every ship movement
    • Ocean shipping of all forms (with the possible exception of cruise ships) would effectively come to a halt…however without maritime commerce those cruise ships would soon have no passengers, and they too would have to drop anchor.

And finally, for any ship or boat in distress out on the water, who do they call when they’re in trouble? … not a cruise ship or some glittery pleasure yacht or a fishboat … they call for a TUG!

And so it is; this oft overlooked and neglected waterfront workhorse is in fact the keystone of the world’s economy, for without it there would be no shipping, hence no exports or imports of consequence.

Life as we know it would effectively end! The Tugboat is King!

I am therefore delighted to welcome you all here today to celebrate the historic tugboats that have helped to build Canada’s West Coast and to acknowledge their more modern successors that carry on that proud tradition; unique vessels mostly designed and built here in BC for the challenges of this sometimes difficult coastline, which is virtually entirely dependent on the tugboat (and its faithful and ubiquitous companion the barge!) for the sustenance of all who live and work on the Pacific Coast of Canada.”