Working the Bay: My Chat with Tugboat Captain Robert Cox about his 30+ Years on the Bay and most Challenging Tows

Spring time on Georgian Bay and the “Boys are Back in Town”!

For over 30 years this family owned and operated tow and salvage company has plied the waters of Georgian Bay and Lake Huron, providing assistance to mariners in distress and performing various essential marine operations.

Based in Penetanguishene on the southeast shore of Georgian Bay, “Sixth Great Lake Marine Services” Owner and Captain Robert Cox knows all too well the types of problems that can occur when these four unpredictable factors come together: water, weather, boats and humans! Add inexperienced operators and crew to that list and things can go from bad to worse in the blink of an eye!

While Canada’s “Theodore Tugboat” makes tugging look fun and easy, the reality is that Rob has been called out on many a cold, dark and stormy night and often in treacherous seas. However, refusing a call is not in his vocabulary – he is well aware of just how important his fleet, equipment and expertise become when marine emergencies occur.

Rob recalls that on this day, the Bay was so rough that local tour boats remained dockside, including the Chi Cheemaun Ferry and Coast Guard’s IRB. The passengers on this disabled sailboat were terrified but all were returned safely to port

Tugboats are a critical part of life on the Great Lakes, assisting both commercial and recreational boaters, even EMS occasionally. Some of their main responsibilities include:

Ice Breaking Activities

Mink Isle, Penetang Harbour

• Salvage Operations – A little finesse needed in the situation below: sailboat aground at Methodist Point, there are 2 lines to the sailboat – one from each of Rob’s tow boats. The one to the sailboat mast is tilting the boat off the bottom, the line in the water at the hull is gently tugging it towards deeper water.

Environmental Cleanup

Support for Extreme Emergencies – such as providing firefighting equipment and assisting with search & rescue of vessels/people/aircraft

West side of Giant’s Tomb – was never proven but potentially caused by incorrect fittings used on a propane tank (air coupler in place of propane coupler)

Moving Marine Related items – Large items unable to propel themselves, such as docks, barges, rigs, and other floating equipment

Mink Isle inbound to Britt, bringing dock sections from Penetanguishene

Tow Services – aiding other vessels in a variety of ways when their propulsion system is unable to do the job required at the time.

Mink Isle towing a 45′ Cruiser

“Sixth Great Lake Marine” is equipped to handle all of the above, the work horse of the fleet being the tug “Mink Isle” built in 1947 by Russel Brothers of Owen Sound.

At 50’ LOA with a 13’6” beam, this steel hulled beauty looks amazing for her age, especially as she once sunk in her early years! But that’s no problem for steel – she was soon raised, had the cabin and wheelhouse rebuilt, accommodations added and the original Kahlenberg engine was eventually replaced with a Cat diesel prior to Rob purchasing her in 2013. The “Mink” currently carries over 1,000′ of towline onboard and is equipped with fire-fighting capabilities.

Mink Isle at Cedar Point

Originally named “Brompton Duchess,” she spent many of her earlier years working in the Nipigon area on Superior before being purchased in the 1980’s and refinished by Bob Parr, a Parry Sound Captain. Bob spent countless hours refurbishing and building her interior, turning her into a recreational tug. Below is a link to her amazing history which includes photos from as far back as 1947, even a few from the day she sunk!

But when visiting the “Mink” current day, there are definitely no signs of a sinking – she is meticulously maintained by Rob and his wife Jeannette, and the pride of ownership clearly shows!

Rounding out the fleet: the “Canadian Effort” and a 50’L floating Gantry crane. The “Effort” – a 32’ steel workboat with a turbo charged 240 hp Perkins with a Bravo II out drive – is equipped with 1200’ of towline, 3 salvage pumps and salvage gear.

The gantry crane has the ability to carry any length of boat and up to a 20’ beam. The crane can easily transport damaged vessels to and from anywhere on the Great Lakes.

This vessel sank near Britt, was raised and transported to Penetanguishene by Rob and his crew

The photos and stories from some of Rob’s more stressful calls show just how fast things can go wrong on the water. Tugging is definitely a career that requires both physical and mental endurance! Read on as Rob tells me how he built his business, recalls his most difficult operation, and talks about his plans for the future:

Me: How did you get into a tug/salvage career?

RC: I’m a crane operator, a slow down in the construction industry during the early ‘90’s persuaded us to move north for work; right away I started with a local tug/salvage/construction company here in Penetang, the owner had 2 boats – one was the Dawn Light tug along with a rescue boat called Salvage One. When he passed away, that service died with him, so I made the decision to build my own marine services company. I started with a Grew 245 SS cuddy, stripped it down and added new fuel tank, stringers, engines and mounts – we basically built “Sixth Great Lake Marine Services” the winter of 1992. And haven’t looked back since!

Me: What is the difference between tow and salvage?

RC: A tow is just that – I tow you from one safe harbour to another, the boat is in no danger of peril or further damage, there is no “emergency” equipment required, we can schedule a convenient time. Salvage however is the saving of property at sea and preventing environmental damage – these calls are the ones I have to go the minute the call comes in – could be a sunken vessel, or boat on the rocks. The weather could be nasty, often these calls come in at night.

Salvage Operation

Me: What is the most dangerous part of your job?

RC: Definitely the hook up – trying to hook up the towline or get alongside another vessel in heavy seas and/or in shallow water without doing any further damage – you really gotta know how your boat will react and be well prepared. We also get onlookers trying to get up close and we have to be careful they don’t interfere.

Me: What was your longest single towing trip? And shortest?

RC: We’ve done tows less than 25′ in distance but the longest one – Jeannette and I departed Penetang for Gore Bay on Manitoulin Island to pick up a lightning struck 58′ Sea Ray Sedan Bridge and towed it to Sarnia then returned on our own to Penetang…round trip was over 600 nautical miles for us and the “Mink.” The Manitoulin Expositor covered our story, link is below:

View of Sarnia’s Blue Water Bridge from stern of Mink Isle

Me: What’s the most difficult call you have responded to?

RC: When there’s a loss of life – especially dealing with the family members that remain onboard or are in the area….that’s very hard! We attended a bad one last summer out at Beckwith. But the worst I will always remember is one December – it was Christmas Eve and a young Penetang woman had gone through the ice on her snowmobile while returning from Snake Island. I had to go out with OPP and help in the recovery as there was not enough ice for a chopper to land or scoot to make the trip. It was all very terrible, we searched for 2 days and on Christmas Day we were at least able to locate and bring her home. The pic below is me returning after that, I still remember her name…such a tragic situation!

December 25, 2016 – Penetang Harbour

Me: Very sad, unfortunately these situations happen far too often on the Bay! At least the families had closure. Now enough of the sad stuff, here’s a few fun questions:

Me: Ok, be honest here – Have you ever needed a tow?

RC: Yep, I sure have and I did as any respectable tow captain would do – I waited for nightfall then called my buddy to come tow me in while it was still dark!

Me: LOL! Do you sing sea shantys during long hauls? How do you pass the time?

RC: No music while working! Gotta listen to the hum of that diesel, ensure all her parts are in sequence! But we do maintenance along the way, monitor forecasts….usually the time passes fairly quick and you can’t beat the scenery!

Me: What’s in store for the future?

RC: There’s change coming, sure….for one, Jeannette and I have plans to take the tug to Lake Superior – travel the north shore to Nipigon -where the tug used to work in fact, way back in the days. And funny enough, your comment about her sinking – that is where it happened….not planning to repeat that one though! And what comes after that, well…it will be interesting to see what this year brings!

Me: And lastly, if you could offer advice to Georgian Bay recreational boaters to make their experience on the water run smoother, what would that be?

RC: Always keep an eye on that weather – monitor the MAFOR so you are prepared for what’s coming; follow Transport Canada’s pre-departure checklist (link below); if at any time you are not sure where you are, STOP and take the time to check your compass and charts. And finally, if an emergency should happen, your first call should be to Canada Coast Guard on channel 16, followed by OPP and 911 etc.

Thank you Rob, some good advice for boaters!

Prior to my conversation with Rob, I thought a boat with it’s own income sounded very appealing, particularly when it came with an excuse to keep me out on the Bay! However after hearing about, and seeing some of the situations Rob and Jeannette have encountered over the decades, I have definitely had a change of heart!

Remember this summer when you see Rob and Jeannette out on the water, be sure to give them a wave but not a wake, especially if they’re towing!

Robert & Jeannette

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