By William Hryb

There is a good reason why tugboat captains on the Great Lakes are called warriors. North America’s busiest waterways are the battlefields for hardened seafarers who have chosen a way of life not many people know about. There is no question that tugboat captains and operators are the unsung heroes of the marine transportation industry.  The important role that tugboats, their captains and crew play is crucial to a robust shipping industry where billions of dollars of cargo move through the Great Lakes system.

“Great Lakes Warriors”, produced by Towers Productions of Chicago for the History Channel and airing this fall, features the exploits of several tugboat operators in Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. The new production dramatically shows how these gladiators of the Great Lakes navigate the most dangerous bodies of water on the planet. From transporting raw materials on barges and guiding giant lake vessels into port to breaking sheets of ice up to one-metre thick, these gladiators know their business.

For more than three centuries, the Great Lakes have been among North America’s busiest commercial waterways, connecting the ports of the East Coast to the heartland of America. The television series follows these real heroes of the Lakes from October to January – the most dangerous and treacherous months of the year. Thunder Bay’s veteran tugboat captain Stan Dawson of Thunder Bay Tug Services Ltd is one of those featured in the series.

Thunder Bay Tugs Ltd. is a family-owned business at the head of Lake Superior. The company’s President is Captain Gerry Dawson, a second-generation seaman who has seen the rigours of maritime life first-hand. He is the respected leader of the company, who once risked his life in a daring rescue mission of the “Grampa Woo”, a small passenger vessel that was stranded at sea in a 70 mph gale and 20-foot-high waves. Captain Dawson and his crew were recipients of medals from the Governor General of Canada for their bravery.

Gerry’s older brother Captain Stan Dawson is at the helm of one his tugs, called the “Point Valour”. Captain Stan gets the star billing in the episodes shot in Thunder Bay for the History Channel’s series.

Canadian Sailings sat down with Captain Gerry Dawson of Thunder Bay Tugs Ltd. to talk about the television series and the tugboat business.


C.S. When were you first approached to participate in the series, and what was your reaction”?

G.D. We were approached in August 2011 by George Houde and James Campbell of Towers Productions in Chicago, to do a documentary series on the tugboats of the Great Lakes and I thought it would be a great idea to highlight the port of Thunder Bay and what we do for a living. After the film crew arrived on December 8th of last year, and started setting up all the camera equipment, it was mentioned to me that it would become a reality show, although that wasn’t what we were expecting or had agreed to do.

C.S.  What was your first recollection as a young boy growing up on the waterfront ?

G.D. My first recollection was when I was about five years old when I was going with my dad to the Slate Islands to take building materials to build the lighthouse keeper’s house at the Slate Islands.

C.S. How did you get involved in the tugboat business?

G.D. I grew up in the tugboat business and purchased it from my dad in 1983. My parents were anxious to retire and asked their four sons if any of us would be interested in purchasing the company. I was the only one interested. It consisted of only 2 tugs and a barge and we’ve since expanded to 6 tugs, 2 barges and lots of headaches (Laughs)

C.S.  What do you think the future holds for the tub-boat business in Thunder Bay?

G.D.  As long as there are rubber duckies there will always be tub boats. On a more serious note, we are finding that there is less of a need with the newer vessels being built with bow thrusters, but there will always be a need in the spring and fall –  in ice and inclement weather. With the lower water levels of the past few years, captains are becoming more cautious and using tugs in certain areas of the harbour.

C.S. Can you comment on your brother Stan’s remark, “you don’t have to be a little crazy for doing this, but it helps”?

G.D. It does help to be a little crazy to put up with the hours and the stress of being on call and not being able to make plans. But, you look forward to the two months off in the winter. You learn to take the good with the bad.

C.S. Have you ever been afraid for your life and that of your crew? can you describe the time and situation?

G.D. The rescue of two people on the cruise ship “Grampa Woo” on October 30, 1996, where at one point I thought my deckhand had been washed overboard and my engineer had been overcome by fumes in the engine room. We were facing 20-foot waves and 70-knot winds. This was the worst situation I have ever been in, on the Lake.

C.S. What do you like and what do you dislike about being a tugboat operator and captain?

G.D. I enjoy working on the water and the variety of jobs and challenges that present themselves every day. No two days are the same and I’m not sitting in an office at a desk. I enjoy meeting and working with different people all the time. I like the opportunity of helping people in distress, working with my lovely wife. Dislikes?  The hours of work, being on call 24/7, the phone ringing at any hour of the night and having to wake up the tug crews at odd hours.

C.S. Your brother Stan has been working with tugs since he was a teenager, can you comment on your brother’s work ethic?

G.D. Stan has vast experience from working on the West Coast for ten years, and he’s one of the best Lake Superior tug captains. His knowledge of the port and capability to judge the weather, as well as working with captains in all kinds of situations and weather, has gained him an excellent reputation on the Lake.