Pensacola Sea Stories - Tow Boat "Zeus"

A Story of Pensacola's Maritime History

The following is a story given in 1996 by Shirley J. Brown. Mr. Brown is Chairman and CEO of Brown Marine Service, Inc. in Pensacola, Florida........

"A BACKWARD LOOK AT A BOAT CALLED ZEUS" by: Shirley J. Brown CEO/Chairman Brown Marine Service, Inc.

To the ancient Greeks, the name "Zeus" summoned-up visions of a mythical God with frightful powers. That same name, to tow-boat crews along the Gulf Coast, recalled visions of a beautiful tow-boat with power of a different type.

This "Zeus" was built by the Nashville Bridge Company in 1943. It was a troubled year in which World War Two was raging. Perhaps this indicated the Zeus would also have a troubled future. 105 ft. in length and 22 ft. at the beam the Zeus boasted eight hundred ten horsepower which was delivered from her Cooper-Bessemer diesel engine; one of the most respected engines of that time. These power - plants had a reputation for reliability, and only on rare occasions did one cause trouble; but that was before the "Zeus". The tug Zeus at dock at Columbus, GA.

At the time of her construction, diesel engines and boat's propellers, like most everything, were scarce due to the war. The Cooper Bessemer company had only two engines available, one was a right hand rotation engine, the other a left hand engine. Both engines were purchased, with one going into the Zeus, and the other a sister boat of the same type.

Once in operation you didn't need a calendar on board the "Zeus" some of the old hands would say;"Because that blamed engine would break down just about every thirty days without fail!" Usually the Zeus would Break-down in those areas where you least wanted a breakdown, like the Intercoastal Waterway or in the middle of the Mississippi River. Meanwhile, the Zeus's sister boat was setting records of a different sort--for efficiency. It was boasted that her engine could go for at least ten to twenty years before needing a major overhaul. All that was required for that smooth running engine was preventive maintenance, a good Captain and a good engineer.

While the Zeus's sister was bringing in profits, the Zeus was bringing nothing but headaches to it's owner, who, after a year, finally threw in the towel and sold the boat to others. They also suffered the same breakdown nightmares and tagged the boat "A Bad-Luck Boat". Zeus changed hands several times between 1943 and 1963, each new owner believing they could fix theengine and turn a profit. One of the most promising of the owners was a Gulf Coast company with a reputation of employing some of the very best mechanics and engineers anywhere.

During this period Zeus was operating along the Gulf Coast from Texas to Panama City, Florida, pushing barges loaded for the Standard Oil Company of Kentucky. Despite the excellent care paid to the engine, it became a regular sight to see the Zeus tied up to some port awaiting engine part.

Bill Wainwright, a good friend of mine at the E.J. Thibodaux Company, called me one day asking if I was in the market for a good boat at a real-low price. Back in those days of tight money, I naturally became interested. I needed all the breaks I could find in order to succeed as a little fish in a rich man's pond-- the oil-transportation business.

I fell in love! The Zeus's outward appearance belied any trouble that might be inside. She was one of the most beautiful boats on the Gulf Coast. A tunneled stern with a half-court nozzle, she featured a shallow draft somewhere between six and six and a half feet. With an extra large propeller it was a tremendous machine -- when running. The only thing I didn't care for on the Zeus was the asking price: $125,000.00! That was way out of my league!

I made an offer of $50,000.00. After the laughter subsided, the only sound was the broker's voice telling me that the owners could never begin that low. After a pause he did come-up with a counter proposal: $100,000.00. That figure was like-wise out of my neighborhood and even when the price dropped to $75,000.00, I just said "I can't afford it."

These negotiations continued over a twelve month period, during which time the Zeus was still having engine problems. She burned out a piston, which put her out of commission for a spell and finally the broker called me asking if I would accept the $75,000.00 offer.

I told the broker that I could only stand by m;y $50,000.00 offer, especially since the latest problems, the burned piston and all. The broker informed me that if I didn't accept the latest offer, the owners were going to remove the entire engine from the boat, and then they would completely rebuild the engine, and if they did, then the boat would no longer be for sale.

The owners did as they stated. They removed the engine and rebuilt it at a reported cost of between $35,000.00 and $50,000.00; a lot of money in 1963.

After installing the engine back in the Zeus, she ran beautifully for about four days, when to the dismay of the Captain, the engineer and especially the "cash low" owners, the same old problems developed. The boat quit not too far from my Pensacola office. I received a call shortly thereafter from the owner, who in a voice filled with doomsday resignation, instructed me to get my $50,000.00 together. I did and the boat was signed over to me while I said a silent prayer that the title would be the only thing that was handed down to me.

I wasn't completely naive, nor stupid. I knew what I was buying, but I was also confident in my own abilities as a mechanic and the skill of Gene Rinks my chief engineer, to the point where I felt we would have the engine running in first class condition in short time.

I hired Captain Johnny Braswell as the boat's skipper and, with chief engineer Rinks in the engine room we took the Zeus out for a date. It wound up more like a blind date. After going along smoothly for about ten days, the timing chain broke. We fixed it and only a short time later she suffered a burned piston. I told my crew that if this trend continued, one thing was sure, the only destination we would reach with any certainty would be the poor house!

The previous owner of the Zeus, either acting out of kindness toward me, or just wanting to be rid of any reminders of that dreadful boat, offered to me free of charge spare parts for the engine. Captain Braswell loaded the boat with the parts and when he arrived in port I couldn't believe my eyes. There were hundreds of parts; everything from pistons, bearings, timing chains, idlers, and cylinder heads to small nuts and bolt.

When the boat burned a second piston, (not to long after we had replaced the other one), there was a sense of urgency in my voice as I called Mr. Garries, an official with the Cooper-Bessemer Company. He was a former mechanic for the company before moving up the ranks, and still maintained the required mechanical skills that I was in desperate need of. He listened to my plight, then offered to send me copies of the boat's records. He was honest enough to confess, "I truly don't know what's causing the breakdowns" adding, "It's the only engine that has caused us this much grief."

I didn't have the time or patience to read and study in detail the entire history, but I could see that almost anything on the engine that could break or malfunction, had done just that at one time or another. I conferred with my half brother, Charlie Johnson, hoping he might have the key or at least offer a clue. In the past Charlie had worked with this official with Copper Bessemer out of New Orleans and, like him, knew the engines inside and out. Charlie had worked his way up to the position of President of the Aiken Towing Company of Pensacola and owned a few of the engines in question.

Charlie loved a challenge and decided to take a few days off from being an executive in shirt and tie to keeping watch in an oily engine room wearing coveralls. He stayed aboard the boat for about ten days carefully observing every gauge and dial, or just listening to the sounds that engineers know so well. Charlie called me at the end of his ride, which was Columbus, Georgia, and said, "I know what's wrong with your engine, but you are not going to believe me!" I told my brother that I was so desperate at this point that I would believe anything, including magic spells!

"The engine's running backwards" said Charlie. I replied, "The engine is supposed to run backward, it's designed that way". But brother persisted, "That's not true, it's supposed to run for 5 to 10 minutes backwards to stop the forward motion of the boat."

Soon a telephone conference was in place, involving Charlie, Mr Garris, his chief engineer, and myself. The engineer tried to tell Charlie, as I had, that the engine was designed to run backwards. With the patience of a parent explaining something to a child, Charlie outlined in brief what he thought occurred, "The idler on the timing chain is so large and heavy, that when it is turning the wrong way, the idler continuously jumps up and down, and this takes it's toll on the cam bearings and the timing chain. Oil shoots up on the wrong stroke and the pistons are not getting the correct lubrication. There's excessive oil in the piston combustion chamber causing it to burn the pistons."

The engineer questioned charlie's outline, but Charlie was up to the challenge asking, "How did you get to become an engineer?" The thirty something man gulped, then stated, "I graduated from college with a degree in this field." "I see," retorted Charlie, "And just how long have you worked on this particular type of engine?" "A few years," came the reply. Charlie finally grew tired of this banter and stated bluntly, "I've forgotten more about this engine, than you'll ever know!" As the phone lines began to heat up, Mr. Garris acted as referee and diplomat urging everyone to cool off, study the situation, and get back together later.

Mr. Garris did call me later that evening, confessing, "I believe Charlie might have something with that backward running engine stuff." He went on to suggest that I buy or borrow a propeller with an opposite rotation from the one presently being used. I found one in Mobile, Alabama at the Jackson Hope Towing Company.

Installing the propeller removed our troubles. What a turn about! It was almost like a new engine installed. No one had to lay a wrench on her after that except for an occasional adjustment.

In the past, the common sight was the old Zeus tied up somewhere awaiting repairs and now that became a most uncommon sight. She gained a reputation for being a most reliable, sturdy craft. From that time on the few times the Zeus was tied up, it was because there was a storm brewing out in the Gulf of Mexico.

Zeus even became a celebrity, recognized by the governors of three states; Florida, Alabama and Georgia. The officials welcomed her on that historic date when she became the first tug to barge a chemical load to Columbus, Georgia, following the opening of the Chatahoochie River to navigation (see picture above).

In an effort to keep the old boat competitive, we had to replace the Cooper Bessemer with a Caterpillar D-399 engine and although it increased the Zeus's power to 1200 horsepower, it proved much more expensive to operate, and used more fuel.

The old Cooper Bessemer engine, after being removed from the Zeus, was sold to a dredging firm and installed on one of their dredges.

Sadly for those of us who had grown to love the once ornery ole boat, she like us mortals started to show signs of age. She once paved the way for others to follow and provided guidelines for other tug boats to operate by, and she was too soon pronounced obsolete. Oil companies were now requesting tugs with twin propellers, the Zeus had but one.

Rather than watch the boat slowly rust away or be sold for scrap, a more fitting end was proposed. Old boats and railroad box cars were being cleaned up and sunk off shore in selected areas of the Gulf of Mexico to form fishing reefs. The Zeus was stripped clean, towed out to the designated spot in the Gulf and explosives were placed in her to insure a speedy trip to her final resting place.

The explosive charge was detonated remotely from our tug boat. Seconds went by but it seemed like hours, BOOM, smoke, but the old boat was still afloat, just when the demolition people were thinking of placing a second charge aboard Zeus, she shuddered slightly, then began a slow drift beneath the waves. It seemed to us that she was signaling, "All right, I'M going, but only on my terms." No quick exit for this boat that once had created so many problems, but later came to be respected for her work. She slid with grace befitting a royal craft.

Those of us who had lived and worked aboard Zeus took comfort months later when underwater television footage showed the abundant life forms being attracted to the submerged boat. Even now in her resting place, Zeus was hard at work providing life for the sea.

Recently my wife and I were fishing from our houseboat near the Pensacola Pass when something disturbed the solitude. It was a familiar sound, loud but not really a raucous sound. It was more like the familiar voice of some old friend, returning after a long absence. I told my wife, "I know that sound, it's the old Cooper Bessemer engine from the Zeus." I don't think my wife believed me but, off to the port side of the houseboat there was a U.S. Army Corp of Engineer's dredge; the same dredge that we had sold the engine to!

An erie sight, at least to me. Someone else might have just observed a dredge, churning up the water pulling sand and other material from the bottom, clearing a channel, but to me it appeared as if that old Cooper Bessemer engine was searching for the old Zeus, it's home for those many years. The ole backward turning machine that had pumped hot air from over inflated pompous engineers, teasing the rest of us, creating a puzzle that when solved gave us many rewards.

The late afternoon mist was drifting in to the Pass, so we decided to head for home, but with a backward glance; (a befitting salute to my old backward friend). I could hardly make out the dredge, but that old familiar sound stayed with me, and remains so. Farewell old friend, keep turning.

Very truly yours,

S.J. Brown CEO

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