masthead picture of sunset in Alaska

Hauling Freight These Days

I work for Western Towboat Co. out of Seattle. For the past few years, I have been the Captain of the tug WESTERN TITAN hauling freight to Southeast Alaska (the panhandle). We run the "Inside Passage" up and back; through the Islands and chanels of Pugrt Sound, British Columbia, and Alaska. Basicly, it's an "Alaskan Cruise" each week, with a little work thrown in along the way. We sail every 2 weeks out of Seattle up to Southeast, making 9 or 10 stops to load/unload freight, then back to Seattle. The trips vary from 10 to 12 days depending upon the time of the year and weather. The boat runs around the clock from the time we crew-up until we put her away at the end of the trip. We only stop to work cargo, which happens when we reach a port, what ever the time of day or night.

Tug Western Titan
Western Towboat's tug WESTERN TITAN.

The WESTERN TITAN was the first in Western Towboat's TITAN Class of tugs, and was built at their shipyard in 1997. The WESTERN TITAN is 108 ft.(32.77m) long, 35 ft.(10.67m) in beam (wide), and draws about 18 ft. (5.49m) of water. She is an Azmithing Stern Drive Tractor Tug. With drive units that can vector their thrust through 360°s, she is more maneuverable than a conventional drive boat with fixed propellers. Western Towboat designed and built her to be a good towline boat as well as a capable docking boat. She is a wonderful boat to have for this job. With an excellent balance of size, speed, power, and agility; I rairly need to get the assists I would need with a conventional boat and still keep to the schedule.

The WESTERN TITAN carries a crew of 5. Besides myself (as Captain); I have a First Mate, a Second Mate, a Deckhand/Cook, and a Deckhand/Engineer. With a relatively small crew, everyone must pull together to keep the boat running smoothly, and to get the job done. The accommodations are excellent, with everyone having their own cabin. The common spaces and galley are modern, well thought out, and nicely finished. It's a good place to be when you can't be home.

AML S Class barge
Getting away form an AML S Class barge after a barge check.

The run I do, and barges towed; belong to Alaska Marine Lines (AML), a Lynden Inc. company. AML provides freight services to Southeast Alaska, sailing two barges a week out of Seattle. We are the long haul trucks of Southeast. I pull one of their S Class barges, which is 360 ft. (109.73m) long by 100 ft. (30.48m) wide, and are designed to carry 800 20 ft. shipping containers or 12,500 tons of cargo. That is about the same size as a football field, and has a deck area of about 8/10ths of an acre (about 3200² m). We carry just about any kind of cargo you can think of. Most of the communities of Southeast are only accessible by water and air. That means that if you want something, it will probably be shipped by barge. AML has the largest freight service to Southeast.

When we are on the trip, I'm responsible for the loading and unloading of the barge, and making sure that everything gets where it is suppose to go. We use large forklifts to move the freight, that can lift 45 and 52 tons. We get a lot of odd loads, and that helps keep the job fresh and interesting. Driving a forklift while directing 3 others, and trying to figure how to get all of the load on at the same time keeps you busy. It is like trying to figure out how to get 5 pounds of stuff into a 2 pound sack on the fly, and not knowing what you are getting until you get it. I love it.

Lifting a D9 Cat
Lifting a Cat D9N bulldozer in Skagway. The cat weighs 99,000 lb.

All Year Long

From long cold nights of winter, to the long warm days of summer, we are out moving freight, because; everyone wants stuff. That means that I get to see some of natures finest work, in all of it's moods. And, moody it can be.

Winter is tough with all the wind and cold. The wind gets horrible at times. It's either a storm rolling in off the Pacific, or worse, a freezing arctic blast out of the interior of Canada. It dosen't take long to glaze the boat and barge with a half a foot of ice when it gets cold and windy. Winds can exceed 100 MPH and the tempratures can drop well below 0°F plus wind chill. November through February is the hardest time of the year. It always seems to be dark and cold. Working in those conditions is very hard and everything is a lot more difficult. This is the slow time of the year freight wise. The lack of freight work is made up for by the weather, making the trips drag out to 11 days or more. But, on those razer clear days and nights; the sights can take your breath away. The winter amplifies the ruggedness of the coast and shows it off, I beleive, at its's best. It can be spectacularly beautiful.

Making a little Ice.
Winter time and making a little ice in Southeast Alaska.

Spring arrives giving releif from the deep freeze of winter. Snow gives way to rain while the howling winds begin to ease. The days get longer but there is little to see with the low overcast skys and seemingly unlimited supply of rain. The hours of breaking ice off the boat with hammers (so we can make up to the barge) are past, and the trips go a quicker. Other than the wet, it is a good time of the year. The loads are light to start, but increase as summer approaches and the region gets ready to "make hay". Fishing and construction start to pick up, as well as getting ready for the tourist season about to arrive. When the cruise ships begin showing up, we know spring is coming to an end and summers work is about to begin.

Summer is the life of the region. The biggest change since I've been going north is in the economy. Southeast use to be about timber, fishing, and mining. The commerical fishing is still intact with a stronger sport-charter and lodge business nipping at it's heel. Minerals and mining are still around. But timber and logging are barely alive. The new "Gold Rush" is tourism, and the cruise ships are a big part of that. It brings in a much needed infusion of money into the area. We do alright with the tourism. We haul the souviners and supplies north while the cruise ships haul it south. So, we get half of the freight and thats not too bad.

The biggest peice of the freight business in Southeast is still FISH. Salmon to be more exact. There is fishing going on most of the year, but the summer salmon season is king. About the middle of June they start arriving, heading back to the streams in which they hatched; to spawn and die. Everything and everyone in Southeast are lined up, directly or indirectly; to get a bite of those fish as they make their journey. My part in all this is to haul the supplies north to the fish processers and thousands of tons of canned and frozen salmon south to those waiting for this great food. July and August are the heaviest loads and the longest trips for us. During the peak; 12 day trips with 9 or 10 stops can run to 70+ hours of cargo work over a 6 day period, plus traveling between stops. Hot, dusty, long hours; shoe horning as much on the barge as you can, have you looking forward to the more relaxed pace of fall. As the main runs slow and come to an end in September, it's always nice to look back at all that we accomplished in those few short weeks. It's good to have the peacefulness of fall ahead.

Southeast sunset
The sun setting over Admrialty Island from Fredrick Sound, in Southeast Alaska.

Fall is my favorite time of the year to be on the freight run. The crazy days of summer are over. The hordes of summer have returned to whence they came. The coast is left to the regulars to put things away and get ready for the winter. The weather is near perfect with warm sunny days and cooling nights as the days rapidly shorten. After a few clean up trips in September, the loads drop off with just the supplies for every day life and the stores gearing up for Christmas sales. The locals are busy hunting and putting away the fishing gear from summer. The whales get together to talk about the summer, and where they are going for winter before heading out. The calm before the storms of winter. The perfect time. Then it's back to winter.

Thats the outline of my year. Some will think it dreadful and others idealic. For me, it is just what I do.

All Things Concidered

For the most part, tugboaters are by nature a bunch of snivelers, whiners, and bitchers. We just like to tow because it gives us so much to snivel, whine, and bitch about. But I know that I've got it pretty good. It is a good life if it works for you, and your family. I know I'm a pretty lucky guy. I have a wife and dogs that put up with and love me, inspite of the fact that I'm gone most of the time. I love the work that I do, and work for a very good company. Over the years I've tried and done a lot of things. After doing this for a while, I think I can say I've found my nitch and I'm a happy camper.