Full Steam Ahead – No retirement in site for oldest crane barge

Barge Master Shawn Taylor says he and his crew are proud of the work they do aboard North America’s only remaining operational steam powered crane barge, YD 250.

Barge Master Shawn Taylor says he and his crew are proud of the work they do aboard North America’s only remaining operational steam powered crane barge, YD 250.

Peter Mallett, Staff Writer ~

One of the oldest steam-powered crane barges in Canada resides at CFB Esquimalt, and this year it celebrates 60 years of service.

YD 250 is part of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) Auxiliary Fleet on the west coast, and while many barges of its kind have been converted to diesel power or tossed in the salvage yard, this 1957 barge continues to move entirely on steam power, the same technology used in the Titanic.

On the main deck of the vessel’s stern is the massive 400 horse power, Scotch Marine, single return-flue, fire-tubed boiler that creates the steam.

The boiler, along with the machinery room, boom and winches, is original, which, according to Bargemaster Shawn Taylor, makes YD 250 an intricate living, floating, working museum, and an engineering marvel that pays tribute to a bygone era when steam modernized the world.

“It shocks people when they realize this crane barge is still up and running,” says Taylor, the barge’s commander, a marine engineer with over 31 years of experience. “But we have kept this vessel in excellent shape and the crew is very proud of what they do.”

A vessel this old does require a fair amount of maintenance, and the six civilian crewmembers spend about 40 per cent of their time inspecting, tweaking, and repairing the barge.

In September 2016 Dyan Day and two other crewmembers donned full HAZMAT onesies and respirators to clean out the sooty boiler.

The boiler is ignited by a fine spray of diesel fuel into the boiler’s injector tubes that in turn helps light the furnace, heat the water, and provide steam to turn the engines to get the barge and its equipment moving. The annual four-week shutdown allowed for a thorough cleaning. Armed with giant steel brushes they undertook the dirty, labour-intensive task of removing all the oxides built up on the walls and tubes of the boiler.

“It’s really gruelling physical work. The first week when we clean, punching tubes is the hardest part, but ensures the systems perform properly and safely,” says Day. “It’s a full body workout – it works our shoulders, arms, triceps and biceps, and we get soaked in sweat while doing it. We are proud of this work and it’s shown in the way the barge looks, and it’s a testament to how well she runs too.”

The boiler has a water capacity of 10,350 litres and provides 185 PSI (pound force per square inch) of pressure to operate the intricate system of engines onboard. The boiler also enables YD 250 to flex its mechanical muscle power through its giant crane, which stands over 65 feet in the air and rests on a giant rotating turntable located at the front of the main deck. It can stretch out over the water to hoist and move heavy items from the jetty.

Marine Engineer Mark Trottier operates the crane from a small windowed control room located on the vessel’s upper deck.  In order to operate the crane, Trottier manipulates nine stainless-steel leavers that control a giant steam-powered engine located below him on the main deck.

As he pulls on a lever to lift a test weight attached to the crane’s front, the giant engine below roars and belches steam as it pulls in the slack on the main hoist. As he pulls back on another lever, the giant engine emits a similar noise as the attached weight moves laterally to the right or left. Trottier is the first to admit the control room is a little “out of the ordinary” with the control panel looking like something from an old-fashioned locomotive.

“It’s a great job and I love operating the crane, but it also comes with a lot of responsibility and requires a great deal of physical and mental alertness,” he says.

Part of that responsibility is staying in constant communication with the riggers – who work at the front of the barge – through a radio and a series of hand signals. Together, with the power of steam, they work to lift items weighing over 50 tonnes, including weapons, supplies and even aircraft.

One of the crew’s primary jobs is testing the load-carrying devices on all of the ships in the Pacific Fleet, such as winches, pulleys and anchors. YD 250 is also used to install and maintain all seven of the RCN’s maintenance buoys and moorings on the Pacific Coast, and is used to oversee replacement of sensors and electronic equipment at the Canadian Forces Maritime Experimental and Test Ranges (CFMETR) at Nanoose Bay.

As the barge transits the harbour and up as far as Nanoose Bay, the crew fuel and monitor the boiler and other working parts on the vessel to ensure they are functioning properly. As a failsafe backup, YD 250 has a duplicate for each one of its main engines and pumps, including generators to supply electrical power to the barge, air compressors and GS, lift and fire-fighting, and bilge pumps.

Any work required is performed in the vessel’s lower deck machinery room. Hard at work there is ex-navy Engineer Rob Warren who has worked in YD 250 for the past 15 years. He admits he has developed a strong personal attachment to the vessel.

“There have been many good times and also a few nightmarish ones because when you’re dealing with an older machine it’s a constant battle to keep it operational,” says Warren.

YD 250 was one of four crane barges purchased by the RCN in the mid-1950s. A similar crane barge was operating in Halifax but is currently out of service.  YD 250 remains operational and one of the main reasons for that, according to Taylor, is because it makes good financial sense.

“It’s simply very cost-efficient to keep this crane running, whereas replacing it would cost many millions,” said Taylor.

He estimates the barge is physically and structurally capable of providing at least another 15 years of service. He notes that a newer vessel just wouldn’t have the same functionality or capabilities because stiff-legged derrick cranes and barges like it simply aren’t built anymore.

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  1. Joey says:

    It would cost twice that to replace that mans knolage
    I.U.O.E. 49

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