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Review in the Victoria Times-Colonist

'Hurry up and wait' is the maxim often associated with the lives of West Coast tugboaters. A trip that would take a mere 24 hours running 'light' could end up taking several weeks if the tow were a log boom or if rough weather confined a tug to harbour. As a consequence, crewmembers engaged in coastal towboating - skippers, cooks, deckhands and engineers - shared a range of emotions from sheer boredom to abject terror and a wealth of experiences that included sinkings, practical jokes, stormy seas and daring rescues. Doreen Armitage recounts these stories from interviews with 16 veterans of the trade in her aptly named From the Wheelhouse.

We are introduced to the skipper who, for a lark, put eggs into the gumboots of some of his crewmembers. In retaliation, they shoved a flock of seagulls through the head's porthole so that when the captain opened the door to pay a visit, the alarmed birds saw their chance of escape and dive-bombed the old man. Or the crew of the Magellan Straits who lost a barge and their radar in Hecate Strait seas so mountainous that they couldn't see the barge in the swells. Even manoeuvres as seemingly straightforward as assisting a freighter to dock can be fraught with menace as we learn from Capt. Alan Wood, whose tug was rolled over by a wall of water kicked up by the ship's propeller, drowning his crewman and very nearly the skipper himself.

As a historian, Armitage provides us with some excellent archival photos and just the right amount of detail and variety in these records of tugboating to capture our interest. From the Wheelhouse commences with a look at some of the steam tugs built during the first half of the last century. (One old-timer describes the 'voices' of these graceful, quiet, engines: the 'swagglety slish' of the crossheads and pistons rods, the 'grumpity ha, grumpity ho' of the vacuum pump with an occasional 'pooh cha' inserted here and there.) It also describes some of the early navigation practices along this often fog-bound coast before the advent of radar: 'We'd count the number of seconds for the [ship's] whistle to echo off the shore. We could go anywhere just using the echo.' We are brought up to more recent times with vessels like the 6,140-horsepower Rivtow Captain Bob and modern docking tugs such as the Tiger Tugz. In between we are introduced to a fleet as characterful as the crew that ran them: the Sea Lion, the Sudburys, the Master and the Moresby.

It is a charming review of a world that is very much part of the West Coast but one that seeks to go about its business with quiet professionalism and little fanfare. And one that will give you added insight the next time you spot a load of logs at the end of a tow line or a diminutive harbour tug docking one of those ocean going leviathans in one of our port cities.

Martyn Clark is an ardent blue-water sailor and former executive director of S.A.L.T.S. who lives in Victoria.