Working Afloat

By Ben Grundy

Last year Julia asked me to write something for the RDA Journal and I had agreed without much thought what to write about. Then in January the opportunity to become the new Chair of the Kyson Fairway committee came, and then came again an email from Julia asking if I was still interested in doing an article. Yes, I was still interested but the theme didn’t come until late April when I was voted in as the KFC chairman.

Making fast our towing gear in the “Deben” to the “MSC Tessa” on her maiden call to Felixstowe last week – Photo credit Jeff Welch photography

I had thought a lot about it but waited until a week before the deadline to actually start typing something, finally coming up with a start and a theme whilst assisting the brand new Ultra Large Container Ship MSC Tessa, currently the world’s 3rd largest container ship into Felixstowe on her maiden call. That week I was Master on the Svitzer Deben and we were bow tug on the inward ship and my Uncle Rick was Master on the stern in the sister tug, Svitzer Kent. As usual with all the brand new Ultra Large Container Ships first call to the UK, there is a large crowd on the Landguard viewing area, but to me & my crew onboard the tug it is just another ship on the last day of our week onboard and we are all looking forward to the following morning at 0800 when relieving crew will walk down the gangway and we can all go home, John the Mate back to Norwich, Brian the Engineer back to Somerset, Ollie the apprentice from Ipswich, and for me that is the River Deben, specifically the upper reaches at Melton.

Uncle Rick on the Kent indirect towing steering the “MSC Tessa” around the Beach end turn into Felixstowe last week – Photo credit Jeff Welch photography

It’s strange how you strike an affiliation with the names on some of the tugs: a good friend of mine from Gravesend, Joe is a 4th generation Tugman working from Gravesend and his Grandad Joe was Master on the Sun London when she was new in the 70’s. His son, Joe’s dad, Dick, was Master on the Svitzer London from new 9 years ago and when he retired Joe took the London over as Master. It goes same for me with the Deben, the current one being the 3rd tug to work in Felixstowe to bear that name. The original one was from the Thames then transferred up here and re-named in the late 70’s. My dad, Tam Grundy, was cook on her for a while. When the second one was built at Gt Yarmouth and started operating in Felixstowe in 1991, my dad was Mate and then as Master on her when he finished on the tugs in 2003. Now, 20 years on, work I have worked as Mate and Master on the 3rd since she was new in 2016.

As many of the sailors of the river may well have seen on their ventures round to the Orwell, would be these what is considered small tugs (compared to the large ships they are assisting) laying over at a hideous angle coming around the Beach End into Felixstowe, driving the tug into the tow rope as opposed to pulling against it. This is a technique of steering the ships called Powered Indirect Towing and it is specifically what the new Deben was built for. The Deben when new, was one of the most advanced tugs in the world with its design and systems onboard; for example the winch that holds the towing rope can heave the rope in whilst the tug is still towing at full power, generating over 80 tonnes of pull.

The indirect towing method had been around for decades but was really pushed and developed in Felixstowe between the tug masters, pilots and the very clever guys who run the simulators at HR Wallingford. It is something that we at Felixstowe take a lot of pride in, and using this method we regularly generate nearly double the forces you would normally apply on the ships using the direct method of towing. 

But where it all started for me, back in early 1990, was in a push chair and regularly taken out on Dad’s fishing boat, Grey Gull. It most likely coincided with my first trips to the pub as well!

Ironically, the time on the fishing boat did not do too much for me as a child. I enjoyed being out on the river but after I was taken to work with Dad on the tugs that was it, I was hooked and I knew exactly what I wanted to do from my earliest memories.

When Dad bought the Ben Michael in 2000 I would take every opportunity to go with him,  be it servicing moorings, plough dredging, towing, I wasn’t worried. Often I would go off in my dinghy rowing around the river but more often than not I would be on the boat with him. One fond memory was the summer of 2003 Dad was plough dredging Bass’s Dock for Frank Knights — when I say Dad was, he was sat on the aft deck with his partner in sun chairs whilst I was ploughing the dock with Frank stood on the quay smiling — I was 13! It was actually Frank who taught me to scull when I was12.

Me on the deck of the “Gray Mammoth” in front of an 8 tonne anchor in 2010

I started  my career afloat properly when I was 18, working for the tug company I work for now but ironically not on tugs. My first vessel was a Multicat called the Gray Mammoth, a 26 metre self-propelled barge essentially with a large crane on the foredeck and large anchor handling winch. Being a multipurpose vessel I had 5 years of the best apprenticeship a deckhand and mate could ask for with the varied work we used to do all round the country, assisting dredgers on beach replenishment projects, working as a dive platform, anchor handling and even had a few weeks one winter working on the Blackfriars bridge project pushing barges up and down the Thames loaded with large sections of the bridge.

Josh Masters whilst building the “Patricia G” in 2017 at Melton Boatyard

The Mammoth was my inspiration for designing and building Dad’s purpose built mooring barge Patricia G. It took a good few years to convince him he needed it and eventually in 2017 myself, Ryan the welder from Melton Boatyard, and Josh Masters (before he started Lightning Craft) set to building her, all in house at Melton Boatyard.  18 months later she was launched and off to do her  first winter of mooring servicing. A lot of the time during the build we had to work around the other work at the yard, so the often short periods we got in the workshop meant very long days to get as much done as we could. It is often joked about that without Josh’s input during the project we would probably only now be finishing it! Nearly everything was made from scratch, the bow roller, the capstan pedestal to house the motor, the framing under the deck for the crane, it was a very interesting project.

Now coming up for its 5th year Patricia G  has done exactly what it meant to with the existing moorings Dad services and he has even picked up more work with it; one of which was lifting and putting ashore one of Suffolk Yacht Harbour’s trot moorings which consisted of 450 metres of ground chain, 12 risers and weighing in at 12 tonnes. The guys there serviced it and we laid it back a couple of weeks later for them.

Working afloat has always been my passion but having hung around Simon at Melton Boatyard for the last 20 years I’ve taken a keen interest in the engineering and mechanical side of things, hence the building of the Patricia G, but also various other alterations to the orange boats over the years including the addition of the flying bridge on the Fury and her new engine 2 years ago.

The new engine had already been purchased over the winter with a planned refit in the Autumn when there was a gap in the work for her but, as these things go, she broke down whilst pushing the Patricia G through Waldringfield. The drive plate between the engine and gearbox decided, right outside the boatyard, it would shatter which left us at 70ft long and the tide under us powerless in the tight fairway. We managed to drudge and anchor off the bow of the barge and swing them both head to tide without touching anything amazingly. But there we were anchored in the middle of the fairway on a busy summer’s day. Dad jumped in the Dory we had with us to go off back up the river to get the Ben Michael and I was left there to drink coffee and wait his return. Whilst I was putting the anchor ball up one the Waldringfield Sailing Club ribs came over and asked if we could anchor somewhere else as they were about to start racing. My reply was less than short and I would of personally picked a few other places to break down other than right outside the Maybush. In fairness I think looking from the outside it probably looked like we meant to do it, rather than what seemed like a very hurried experience not to end up amongst any of the moored boats!

So that was that, a hurried re-fit of the Fury’s engine room to accommodate the brand new John Deere engine Being a brand new commercial engine it complies with the new IMO Tier 3 emissions, which comparing it to your average 40hp Volvo engine, that is so common in many yachts, it is four times the power with a third of the emissions, which short of having an electric motor makes it one of the cleanest burning engines on the river.

There is something special about getting to work with your own family on boats, like Joe on the Thames getting to tow ships with him on one end in his tug and his dad in his on the other end before he retired. There is always a special feeling when we have the two orange boats underway on the same project working together and then getting to go work in Felixstowe and regularly work with my uncle in the same way, there is a lot of pride in what we do.

Arriving at Melton Boatyard in 2018 with “HMS Vale” – Myself in the Fury and Dad in the Ben Michael the other end – Photo credit Charmaine Berr

There are many other jobs and stories from the orange boats including getting the HMS Vale from Norwich city centre all the way through the Broads, along the coast and onto this river where she now lays a Melton Boatyard; various dredging jobs around Woodbridge depositing dredged material onto the saltmarsh at Loader’s Cut island to build up the eroding marsh, and just the general commercial work on the Deben that often goes on behind the scenes. Many of these deserve their own article.

As far as the Kyson Fairway Committee going forward, I am very much looking forward to the next 4 years in the chair position with the various projects that are currently building up behind the scenes in Woodbridge, most of which will hopefully be coming out into the public domain in the very near future.  

Ben Grundy

If Ben Grundy’s not out afloat he can usually be found around Melton Boatyard. His email for contact on Kyson Fairway Committee matters is [email protected].