Portwey – A Demanding Old Lady

Written By Russell W H Bulley CEng MIEE - Vice-Chairman of the Steam Tug Portwey Trust Ltd in 2001

In 1927, I wonder if the designers at Harland and Wolff’s at Govan near Glasgow had any idea that their creation would be still around in 2001.

Portwey was designed as a coastal and harbour tug for the Portland and Weymouth Coaling Co. to form part of the essential coaling fleet needed to keep Britain’s vast commercial fleet moving.

Figure 1 - Portwey comes into berth at Greenwich pier

80 feet (24.3m) long by 18 feet (5.5m) wide with a displacement of 330 tons (9’ draft), Portwey is a typical British tug of the period used for towing barges, pulling and pushing (a period equivalent of the now common bow thrusters) ships about and taking fresh water to ships. She also carried Pilots out to ships.

Figure 2 - Portwey's engine room

She can do 9 knots, if the boiler crew can keep the pressure up to 140 p.s.i., and went out in all weathers.

Now one of only a handful of operational coal fired twin engined steam tugs in the world, Portwey is lovingly preserved by a small band of volunteers belonging to the Steam Tug Portwey Trust Ltd,  a registered charity. Although belonging also means every member is involved in fund raising in order to keep this 74-year-old lady working. Recently we have carried out major boiler works, hull repairs, are about to commence replacing some of the wooden decking, and  to rebuild the unusual double-ended sailing lifeboat.

Figure 3 - Portwey's lifeboat awaiting renovation

Last year I made contact with Andrew Burge of South Midland Water Transport who arranged a shipment of 20 tons of Polish coal on Greyhound and Kangaroo (1927 also), via Braunston and the boat show at Waltham Abbey.

Figure 4 - Greyhound and Kangaroo waiting unloading at West India quay.

Figure 5 - Greyhound on the way to Braunston

Figure 6 - Kangaroo on the Thames rounding the Isle of Dogs

Then via Limehouse and out onto the Thames, thankfully given the freeboard available on a calm and quite Sunday morning. The narrow boats set off about 06:15 when the tide was just on the ebb, then round the Isle of Dogs and into the massive sea lock.

Figure 7 - Kangaroo waiting for the lock to open

One of the problems we had considered was how to get 20 tons of coal from below the waterline in a narrow boat hold, over the side of the tug and down through a 2’ diameter hole into the bunkers. The solution was disposable 1-ton builders bags and a very helpful little crane from Simmons Industrial Services Ltd.

Figure 8 - Kangaroo and Greyhound arrived!

The bags were lifted up above the hole and cut with a knife on a stick causing the coal to rush down into the bunkers. This was a sobering experience when one thought of years gone by narrow boat crews shovelling a hold empty. The whole operation went smoothly and was completed in about 4 hours, not bad for 20 tons.

Figure 9 - Midway through unloading the coal

Kangaroo and Greyhound departed immediately to catch the tide and raced back to Stoke Bruerne travelling back in about 20 hours ‘on the fly’ (through the night).

Figure 10 - Crewmember Chris burning coal on one of two furnaces

Figure 11 - Portwey in steam and ready to go

Portwey steamed in the dock and then this year steamed down to Strood and back and on the Thames twice.

Figure 12 - A quite Sunday morning in Stroud

Figure 13 - Skipper Barrie Sanderson and first officer (Surgeon) Alan (cut and thrust) Murray

Other than the occasional maintenance item, the season went well. We are now thinking of next year. Portwey is 75 on the 10th August 2002 and the occasion must be celebrated. However, we have run out of coal and need some more. Unfortunately, we have also spent some £6000 in dockyard bills recently and do not have funds for a full 25 tons and a smaller quantity needs to be supplied.

Figure 14 - Tony Nursey on his stoking turn

We also found that the Polish coal, burnt well and only clinkered badly once (the Thames can be very intimidating when the boiler pressure is down to 50 p.s.i. and everyone is looking worried as the tide is trying to push you back where you have come from) and we would like to purchase some British coal. The trouble is there is now no central source of information and maybe the narrow boat fraternity knows where we can get some nice big lumps (cobbles or larger) to around the following specification:

Minimum size 100 x 60 mm (no slack)
Moisture 5-7%
Ash 4-6%
Sulphur 0.3%
NCV 31550 KJ/KG
13560 Btu/lb
Ash Fusion Temperatures ℃
Initial 1350
Hemisphere >1400
Flow >1400

Figure 12 - Some of the crew of Portwey (come and join us)

©2001 The Steam Tug Portwey Trust Ltd.