Tugging the Last Thread: The Tug Pilots of FLEACT Yokosuka
YOKOSUKA, Japan – Since the evolution from wind to coal to diesel, small vessels have been there to assist their larger compatriots along on their journeys. Seen everywhere but often overlooked are tugboats; an integral part of today’s Navy.
For most of the U.S. Navy the onus of driving these tough little workhorses has been primarily turned over to the Military Sealift Command (MSC) with a few exceptions, one of which is the forward-deployed naval forces at Fleet Activities (FLEACT) Yokosuka.
FLEACT Yokosuka’s tug pilots and crews are some of the last of a breed. In Yokosuka they are responsible for the operation of three state-of-the-art Valiant class boats giving them opportunities found nowhere else in the Navy.
“It’s a remarkable experience, it’s very rare,” says Senior Chief Quartermaster Ephesus Hopkins, from Crystal River, Fla. “We used to have tug masters when I joined back in 1994, and it was a common billet for Quartermaster and Boatswain’s Mate rating.”
Since then, the Navy has slowly been transitioning tugboat operations to MSC and civilian contractors, now there are only a few tug masters left. Another unique thing about being a tugboat pilot, it gives senior enlisted personnel the chance to command their own ship.
“You are essentially a captain, so you have to learn things like rules of the road and navigation,” says Hopkins. “Learning to drive the tug alone would be challenging, but along with the challenge, there is great reward.”
At 90 feet long, the Valiant class tugboats are pint-sized powerhouses, boasting an impressive 1,800 horse-power engine. It takes only two of these tugs to help get 100,000 ton Nimitz class aircraft carriers underway. The tugs come with a surprising amount of amenities for the crew; a common area, staterooms and even a small kitchen. They are normally operated by a crew of six Sailors.
Another special feature of these workhorses is their unique propulsion system. The Valiant-class tugs use what is known as a Z-drive propulsion system, which eliminates the need for a conventional rudder. This feature allows the tug pilot to rotate the propulsion units 360 degrees.
Hopkins said the Z-drive allows them to be able to drive their tugs in any direction to move the ships in and out.
Hopkins added this ability keeps the tugs and their Sailors very busy, because the water ways near Yokosuka are not only used by the ships stationed at FLEACT, but just about anything on the water Japanese or American.
“We also use the tugs to help commercial ships as well,” said Hopkins. “We support MSC and other contract ships that come into Yokosuka. There is no type of ship we cannot help bring in and out of port.”
Helping those ships is what the Sailors of FLEACT Yokosuka’s Port Ops department and their tugs continue to do every day. As some of the last in the Navy to do this important job, they continue to carry on the legacy of Navy tug masters.
FLEACT Yokosuka provides, maintains, and operates base facilities and services in support of 7th Fleet’s Forward-Deployed Naval Forces, 83 tenant commands, and 24,000 Military and civilian personnel.