As told in last week’s column, Captain Bill Skipper stepped aboard his first tugboat at the age of eighteen as a cook, and ended up twenty-five years later as the Port Captain of the International Paper marine fleet.
Under his command were six tugboats, thirty-two barges, a dredge, and a pile driver.
Before becoming Port Captain, Captain Bill had some pretty harrowing experiences aboard the various tugboats he worked on. For many landlubbers, tugboats are cute, snub-nosed vessels, slowly plying the waters, pulling their tremendous load of barges, or helping larger vessels maneuver in tight spaces.
The barges the crew pulled were 35’ wide and 185’ long.
They were 10’ in depth and weighed 300 tons without their cargo.
On average, the IP barges carried 450 cords of wood, and the tugboats pulled 2-4 barges at a time.
Captain Bill remembers picking up a tow in Jacksonville, N.C. and heading south when a hurricane began approaching, heading north.
He and the crew went into Wilmington to secure the barges at the IP barge landing.
When the storm passed, they once again set out for Georgetown.
Guess what? The hurricane changed course and headed south, so the crew had to once again go into Wilmington and secure the barges.
Just when they thought the coast was clear (no pun intended), the hurricane changed course again and headed north.
Finally, the storm passed by and the crew headed home.
On the way they learned that the hurricane was again headed south, but they made it to the North Carolina/South Carolina line and finally home to Georgetown.
Another harrowing experience happened when a tug Bill was on had to navigate through the Intracoastal Waterway on the New River in North Carolina.
The New River ran through the Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune and the Marines used part of it as a firing range.
The tug had to get clearance because the Marines used tanks on one side of the river to fire into the dunes on the other side.
Anyway, on one trip, tug Captain Vance Davis received clearance from the observation tower, but the tanks kept firing.
Captain Davis exchanged some ‘strong words’ with the Marine in the observation tower.
Firing stopped immediately and the tug was able to proceed.
On the trip home, the tug crew realized that one of the barges was taking on water.
When they got back to Georgetown they hauled the barge out and found a three-quarter inch hole. One of the crew went through the manhole to investigate below and found an armor-piercing bullet.
The amenities on the tugs improved over the years. Crude and uncomfortable conditions gave way to air conditioning, electric stoves and water heaters.
Cold showers were a thing of the past. There were two heads, or bathrooms, rather than the one the men had to share in the beginning.
Other things changed, as well.
The first IP tugs had wooden hulls, white superstructures with battleship gray trim, and a five-man crew.
The first steel hull tug was bought in 1949 and had a black hull with a white superstructure.
Five-man crews increased to seven-man.
When Captain Bill first started his career, diesel fuel was seventeen cents a gallon.
The tugboat engines were 300 horsepower.
The cost of diesel increased dramatically over the years and the last of the tugs purchased by IP were 1200 horsepower.
There’s so much more to Captain’s Bill story, but I’ve run out of space.
One thing I noticed while talking to Bill is the fact that he never complained about anything that life handed him in his career.
He truly loved his profession and he is a lucky man for having found it.
To Captain William E. (Bill) Skipper ... thanks for the memories.
*Don’t forget the Starshine piano and vocal event at the Winyah Auditorium on May 24 at 7 p.m. Free. You’ll get to hear old favorites like “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Summertime,” Lullaby of the Broadway,” and “They Say It’s Wonderful.”
I may be reached at 843-446-4777 or email at email@example.com.
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