This is the Mary before the fire
Watching the eclipse yesterday with my welding helmet reminded me of the summer of 1982 of working in the shipyards. I came home from my Junior year in college and showed up to work at Stapp Towing where I had worked since 1976. Stapps always let me go away for school and when I would get back home I would show up for work as if I never left. That is what is great about a family owned business, they treated me as one of their own.
The first day I show up for work that summer, I sat in Bruce Stapp’s office to get my “marching orders”. He told me about the tugboat ‘Mary E. Stapp’ that had caught fire about a month earlier and that he wanted us to rebuild her while I was home. Also, he bought two petroleum barges that he wants to convert to deck barges. Looks like this was going to be a busy summer.
I drove out to where the boats are docked to see what condition the Mary is in. I was very familiar with the Mary and when I pulled up next to her, she was almost not recognizable as the boat I knew. The fire was all above the waterline so all the steel decks and bulkheads were rusting and warped. The clean white and blue paint was only a memory now. It broke my heart to see her this way. As I walked around the boat to survey the damage, it was like walking through a ghost ship. I knew the rooms but I did not recognize them.
The first thing we started with was to cut wheelhouse off, used a crane to lift it onto a trailer. We sent the wheelhouse to the shop about ten miles away where could be rebuilt there. We pretty much scrapped the rest of the boat above the main deck. We went through a lot of acetylene and oxygen bottles those days. We had daily deliveries of a lot of bottles to keep up with our work. Once we got the boat tore down to the main deck, Bruce moved our small crew over to work on the barges while another crew kept working to rebuild the Mary.
One of the barges was brought up to the dock where we could work on it. Since this was a petroleum barge and we were converting it to a deck barge that meant that we had to cut out all of the pipelines. The above deck pipelines were no problem, I think we had those removed the first day. It was the pipelines that were below deck that was the most work. There were ten tanks in the barge, five tanks on each side. On a barge like this there is a main line that goes from bow to stern that fed each tank and it is about two feet in diameter. There were large valves in each tank that was used when loading and discharging the barge. We had to cut the main pipeline in to about 10 foot sections that we could lift out with a crane. We had cut the hatches larger to fit the pipeline and valves through as they were pulled out. We also cut holes at the opposite end of each tank so we could have high speed pneumatic fans blowing fresh air in. To add to the frustration, the last load this barge carried was crude oil so the black thick muddy oil was everywhere. Every once in a while a cutting torch would start a slow burning fire either inside the pipeline or the floor of the tank. We had fire hoses set up in the tanks to put the fires out.
The summer heat was bearing down on us and working inside the barge which acted like an oven made it about 115 – 120 degrees F. We could only work about 15 – 20 minutes before we had to climb out for fresh air and to cool off. At the end of one day I talked with Bruce about us working at night instead so it would be a little cooler. He agreed. We took the next day off and came back to work the next evening. There was four or five of us on this crew. Around midnight we broke for lunch and since lunch during the day was always provided by the Stapps, we had to find a place that was open 24 hours to get some lunch. There was a Denny’s a few miles away so we went there. When we left the table to go pay, I noticed that our oily clothes made a mess out of the chairs we were sitting in. The next night we went back and they had prepared a place for us in the back dining room and all the chairs at our table were covered with plastic. I thought that was great in that they accommodated us instead of not allowing us to eat. Good business sense. I wonder if that would happen today.
Once we got all the pipeline removed and the deck welded up, that barge was taken away from the dock and taken out to the parking fleet. The second barge was brought to the dock for us to work on. I think we spent about four weeks in converting both barges.
Once the barges were finished, we were put back on to working on the Mary. The crew that had been working on her made good progress, the bottom two deck houses were welded into place. I was put to work welding while others from my crew were put to work with plumbing and wiring. The welding above deck was not so bad since we had a good breeze coming off of Galveston Bay.
The day came when we were ready for the wheelhouse and it was brought out to us by trailer. It had been rebuilt and most of the electronics and boat controls were already installed. It was lifted up and placed on the top deck and we welded it into place. We cut holes in the deck where the control and electrical would connect the wheelhouse to the rest of the boat.
Standing back away from the boat on land looking back at it, she was looking more like a work boat. It was good to see that she was getting her life back.
I learned a new kind of welding that summer, stainless steel. I helped weld the stainless handrails that went around all the decks. That type of welding left a much prettier weld but we also knew that we had to make it look really good since that is the welds everyone would see.
One day I was given the task of starting up the engines since I was one of the mechanics. The Mary had two Cummins KTA-1150 Marine engines for the mains and two Perkins straight six for the generators. I got one of the generators running first which helped the guys who were working on electrical to test their work. The second generator was no problem either. The mains was another thing. We used air pressure to spin the starters so getting enough pressure built up to spin the engines that had sat idle for several months took some finessing. The afternoon when we pulled the starter handle to fire up the port engine and it fired was a really fun time! Hearing the engine running really made our day. The next day we got the starboard engine running.
The Mary was coming back to life, she looked different since we redesigned her. She looked like a new boat. Every day there were problems we had to work through, electrical, plumbing and hydraulics.
On my last day there that summer a crew that operates the boat showed up to get the boat ready to go out to the Houston Ship Channel to pick up a barge to bring it into the yard. I really wanted to go but I was leaving the next day to go back to school and we were not sure when the Mary would be back in the yard. We got the engines running, tested the controls from the wheelhouse. The hydraulic lines that operated the main rudders still had air in the lines so when the captain would try to move the rudders, someone had to be back at the rams with a sledge hammer to hit the rudder to get them moving the direction needed. I stood on the bank and watched as the Mary pulled away. The Captain pulled the air horn and that valve stuck so the horn would not stop. I could hear the compressors trying to keep up but the horn was draining the air tanks faster than the compressor to make air. The horn sound changed as the air pressure dropped and sounded sad. I was laughing so hard watching this I had tears in my eyes. Between the guys with sledgehammers on the stern of the boat hitting the rudders and the air horn draining the air, it was a funny scene.
I recalled all of this because yesterday I used a welding helmet to look at the eclipse. Holding that helmet brought back a flood of memories of the time I made my living wearing one. I miss those days but am glad for what I do today.