Rope Boat Fundamentals

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Tugboats that use a rope hawser to make tow are known as rope boats.  They are still used today on bays and rivers for towing barges of general cargo.  It's a labor intensive towing technique but it is simple to set up a rope boat because no towing winch and the related machinery is necessary.

All that is needed is a towing hawser, a sturdy capstan, H-bits, and a few tools to outfit the stern of one of these type boats.


The hawser is usually a full coil (600 feet) of nylon line, sometimes more.  Traditional looking three strand line can be used but most boats use plaited line, like the image on the right.  The line is thick.  If you reach down and grab the calf of your leg, that's almost what it fells like to grip one of these lines.


Before the tow is made, the hawser is carefully coiled on the stern.  In this example the hawser has been loosely coiled on the "hawse rack" in the shape of the stern.  Sometimes a square rack is built of wood on the deck of the stern where the hawser is coiled tightly into a square shape from the the outside edge to the middle, with each new layer starting one row inside the last to form a pyramid.





This is the "H" bit on the stern.  This is the connection point for the tug and the hawser.  The crew make the the rope fast in the manner illustrated and then by taking some turns off, may pay out more hawser to set the tow at a proper distance behind the tug.


This would be a crew "stringing out" the tow using the bitts.

After the rope hawser is paid out to the proper distance, usually a few hundred feet from the tug, chafing gear is applied to keep the hawser from being chafed by the movement of the tug's stern rail against the line.  Chafing gear can be made up as simply as wrapping the rope in layers of canvas and line but this must be changed frequently on a long trip so most chafing gear is made from wood, or pieces of thick rubber fender material, split to accept the rope.  Either device is tied to the hawser at a point that will hold it in position over the rail.



This is a typical chafing board made up to the hawser.  It rides along the stern rail and prevents the rope from wearing against the rusty steel.

When it's time to retrieve the tow, a capstan is used to haul in the hawser.  The crew coils the line down as the capstan slowly brings the tow closer to the stern.  In this old picture the capstan can be seen just below the "H" bit.  This old picture also illustrates how difficult the job can be when the weather is bad.