Steam Tug Challenge

CHALLENGE is the last surviving example of a large purpose-built, Thames ship-handling steam tug, where she was based for her entire working life, although she carried out work as far afield as Scotland , Holland , Belgium , France and the south coast of England . She was built in 1931 by Alexander Hall & Co. Ltd of Aberdeen , for the Elliott Steam Tug Co. Ltd (who operated her until 1950). Her 1100hp triple expansion steam engine was also built by Hall, whilst her boiler* was by Palmer's Shipbuilding & Iron Co. Ltd, of Hebburn. She passed through two further ownerships: Ship Towage (London) Ltd (1950-1969) and London Tugs (1969-74).

CHALLENGE was one of the Dunkirk Little Ships engaged in the evacuation of Allied troops from France in May and June 1940. On 31 May, she worked at Dunkirk berthing vessels in the harbour during the evacuation and, the following day, towed small craft to Dunkirk to evacuate troops. At one point, she towed a disabled destroyer loaded with troops back to port. She was also involved in duties at Dover around this time, assisting ships which were engaged in the Dunkirk operation.

After returning to the Thames , she was fitted with a flying bridge to mount an Oerlikon cannon, and a forebridge for two Lewis guns. Her work in 1941 included towing Maunsell anti-aircraft towers out into the Thames estuary; towing Army Sea Forts for assembly in the estuary. In 1944, she towed parts of the Mulberry harbours used in the D-Day landings.

On 3 July 1944, she was damaged by a V1 flying bomb in the Royal Albert Dock and was repaired at Rotherhithe. She still bears the marks of this attack. After the war, she continued in Thames service and was converted from coal to oil firing at Sheerness in 1964.

In about 1971, she was laid up at Gravesend, having been the last steam tug to serve on the Thames . In 1973, CHALLENGE was sold to Taylor Woodrow Ltd for preservation at St Katharine's Yacht Haven, near Tower Bridge, and was berthed there as a static exhibit. More recently she was acquired by the Dunkirk Little Ships Restoration Trust (July 1993) for restoration to steam. With the aid of Sun Tugs and the Port of Tilbury she was moved downstream to Tilbury where groups of volunteers slowly brought her back to working condition. The hull was in need of repair, particularly along the waterline.

After obtaining a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2001 she was towed to Marchwood (Southampton), slipped and repaired and repainted. After relaunch she was shown at many locations including Liverpool, Bristol , Brest , Holland etc. In 2005 Challenge returned to Dunkirk for the first time since the 1950’s. In 2007 increasing concerns about her boiler – still the original – led to investigations which made it clear that it needed replacement to meet pollution and safety requirements.

Source: Paul Brown, Historic Ships The Survivors (Amberley, 2010), updated Feb 2011.

Update, July 2020: Under new private ownership. The new owner has set a Gofund me to raise funds for her restoration, and plans to then relocate her from her current base in Southampton to a new home port on the East coast.

In 2020 she was bought by her current owner after having stayed at berth for nearly a decade. She was quickly slipped and the process of fully restoring her began. Since coming under new ownership, worked has begun to tirelessly bring her back to her former glory and hard work and determination has meant that she has regularly been in steam and has carried out numerous excursions in the Solent. Whilst in Southampton she was open regularly for the general public to visit.

She took part with Shieldhall in the Southampton Steam Anniversary, she steamed up and down the river during the Southampton boat show and escorted the T.T. Calshott around to her new home on the Itchen river. She was also present for the round the island race.
She has started on both Celebrity Antiques Roadshow and The Great Steam Journey on channel 5.

In 2021 CHALLENGE relocated to the Medway where she has celebrated 80 years since she towed the Maunsell forts out to their grounding sites in the Thames Estuary during WW2. She has proved to be a popular attraction at the annual Queenborough Boat Festival where hundreds of visitors are able to come onboard for guided tours. She will be back at Queenborough again in 2024.

Since 2022, CHALLENGE has featured as a key feature of the Festival of Steam in collaboration with the paddle steamer Waverley. This has helped to raised her profile further and has proved to be some of the most popular Waverley UK sailing dates which regularly sell out.

Under the current owner, and with a dedicated team of enthusiastic and skilled volunteers she celebrated her 93rd birthday.


Museum info: The Steam Tug Challenge
Address: Sufferance Wharf, High St. Rochester, United Kingdom
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