A Day in the Life - on a Harbor Tug in Seattle
Published by Crowley Maritime trade magazine, Connections, Issue 2, 2010
It is a cloudy day in the Port of Seattle. Elliot Bay is calm, except for the slight chop on the water, and I am photographing the Crowley Maritime tug Chief as she assists a 572-foot freighter, the Santiago, toward a pier in the harbor. The vessels are far enough away from me for this to appear like a silent ballet, but the tension on the tow line coming off the Chief and up to the starboard stern quarter of the Santiago is evidence of powerful forces at work. Black smoke erupts from Santiago's exhaust stack, and the Chief swings wide on her tow. I lean forward and frame the scene in the viewfinder as the tug completely reverses her orientation to the freighter - the bow of the tug swings to face the stern of the Santiago. The tow is shortened, and together the two make their way toward the P-5 berth.
Hours earlier, after several days making arrangements, I drive into the lot on a hot, humid day in late September. At the office I meet Lead Dispatcher, Tim Knebel, who welcomes me. He works in the command center of the west coast Crowley fleet. Two dispatchers work here, on a four-day-on, four-day-off schedule. For each of their twelve-hour shifts, they answer incoming calls from customers, arranging schedules for tug assistance in escorting big ships into the harbors of the west coast. One dispatcher schedules L.A.-Long Beach, San Diego and El Segundo, California; the other schedules traffic in Puget Sound.
Customers who own the larger vessels call 24-48 hours in advance and schedule the arrival of a given ship. That vessel may need one or more tugs to assist it, depending on the time of day, the tidal condition or the weather. Wind, for instance, may require more tugs to safely position a small freighter, where a single tug might only be needed in calm weather. The dispatchers then arrange the schedules of the tug chronologically and formulate a plan on how to best use the tug fleet. In Puget Sound there are three tugs based in Anacortes, one in Seattle and two in Tacoma. The dispatcher may need to move them from one location to the other, depending upon the jobs that are scheduled. "We try not to run them around if we can," says Tim, who started his career as a deckhand on tugs, but has been dispatching now for 20 years. "To move them might mean an eight-hour run, so we do our best to avoid that, to make it efficient. If you change one boat's schedule, that can change the schedule of the whole fleet like dominoes." The tugs and dispatchers are in close communication at all times, and they both monitor the pilots talking on the radios 24/7 so they can anticipate the unexpected breakdown or delay. "You learn what to look for," Tim adds, referring to all the pieces of the puzzle of scheduling that have so many variables. "The goal is to never delay a customer."
Tim gets on the radio to the captain of the tug I will be aboard, the Valor. "Keith, the Santiago has firmed up for 1400 today. Going into Pier 5 south, port side to, with one tug." The Valor now knows there will only be one tug on the job, and how and where to orient the freighter Santiago at the pier. I am to be aboard the Valor, photographing. Afterwards, both boats will pull the 1,100 foot freighter Chicago Express out of her berth and into the harbor.
On a harbor tug the four-man crews rotate every two weeks. Each crew has a captain, a mate, a chief engineer and an able-bodied seaman or deckhand. The Valor currently has a cadet on board as well. For the two-week period the crew is on the vessel, they are on-call at all times, but work in two-person teams for six-hour watches. They eat, sleep and live for the entire two weeks on this six-hour schedule. The captain and the engineer are on duty from 0600 (6:00 am) until 1200 (noon) then switch off with the mate and the A/B for the next six hours until 1800. This cycle repeats at midnight and again at 0600. I arrive in the middle of the mate/seaman/cadet afternoon watch, about 1330.
I am escorted to the Valor by the mate, Matt Petke, a fit and friendly 40-year old. He is athletic looking with a quiet demeanor, and he hands me a lifejacket and a hard hat as we walk. I wear them as I board.
We cast off and head into Elliot Bay almost immediately after I arrive. The cadet, Nick Parker and the A/B, Royal (Craig) Dickgieser, also wear lifejackets and hard hats as they work on deck. They stow the lines while I talk with Matt as he maneuvers the boat away from the dock. The Chief is ahead of us, and she slips into one of the waterways between piers to check on the commercial fishing nets in the water. The Muckleshoot Indians have legal fishing grounds in Elliot Bay, and when the season is open often have nets fishing in the way of the ship traffic. For tugboats, a net in the prop could mean blown seals and costly repairs. Before a job, the fishermen are called on the cell phone and asked to move the nets that will be in the way. They are compensated for their cooperation, so it's usually not a problem to move the ships on schedule. Still, it's routine for the tugs to check to be certain there are no surprises. The radio talk confirms that the nets are indeed gone, and Nick and Craig, without lifejackets while they are in the cabin, join us on the bridge as both boats idle in the harbor while we wait on the Santiago to arrive.
Lifejackets and hard hats all crew and visitors are required to wear on deck are a small testimony to the safety record Crowley has built within the industry. During my day aboard, each of the crew speaks proudly of how safe the boats of this company are. Matt explains that the company uses it as a selling point to potential clients. The Valor hasn't had an incident since January of 2008. The big ship owners need confidence in the company that maneuvers their vessels in the tight conditions of a busy port like Seattle. "We give them that," Matt says. "In return, the company gets more business. It's win-win, and everyone goes home safe."
Over dinner later, Craig, who is quick with a smile and a story, agrees. Now 63, he joined the Navy at 17, and has sailed around the world during a life spent at sea, including a stretch in Viet Nam as the captain of a patrol boat. His smile drops away as he turns sincere with a jab of his finger. "I've never, ever felt unsafe on any of Crowley's boats," he says with conviction. "And those nines?" (sea-going tugs moored across the dock from us) "I'd go anyplace in the world on one of them." He describes breaking through ice in Cook Inlet, Alaska or towing a barge in thirty-foot seas in the middle of the Pacific. "Even under those conditions you never worry about anything happening to the boat." Everyone at the table nods their heads. After a short pause in the conversation while the crew recalls riding through rough seas, Captain Keith Kridler says, "You might not be very comfortable, though," and they all laugh.
As we wait, I learn that Matt has a wife and a daughter at home. I ask him about the two-week-on, two-week-off schedule, and get an unexpected reply. "I like it!" he says with enthusiasm. "I get to spend half the year with my daughter." Other husbands go to work before their kids wake up, he explains, and get home in time for a few hours with the family before bed. "Sure I'm gone for two weeks at a time, but when I'm home, I'm fully engaged with our family."
Keith, who has three daughters, echoes that comment when we discuss it during dinner, too. "It's a plus!" he says with enthusiasm. "The time spent is better quality." I wonder about the adjustment of coming back into their family's lives after two weeks away. Keith raises his eyebrows. "You have to go home and fit in," he says. Having a good partner who is independent and strong also makes a difference.
"Being away for half the year, I always appreciate going home," says Matt. "It's a really special place for me."
The Santiago slides into view from around West Point. "There she is," points Matt. On the radio he lets the pilot of the Santiago know we'll be photographing as they work the tow, and eases the Valor forward as the Chief catches a line at the stern of the bigger vessel. The Chief's A/B ties it off to the larger towing line on the stern reel. Three of the crew on the Santiago hoist the heavy line aboard and slide it over a bit - a large, upright cleat - and leave the area. The tow begins in earnest as the Chief motors ahead and the line tightens. With the Seattle skyline in the background, the Chief slowly spins the Santiago into position to slip into the berth. From this distance, even with belching smoke, the job seems smooth and effortless.
Sensing I have the wrong impression, I ask Craig and Matt about the danger of the work involved. They point out that many tugboat crews prefer the outside ocean work instead of working in the harbor. "Here in the harbor we'll be making and breaking tow a lot more often, and dealing with all the gear all the time," explains Craig. "Where on the outside, you make tow, you do your trip, break tow and come back."
"Those guys have the weather to deal with," Matt adds, "and it's no fun out in the ocean. But where we work, out by Cherry Point, it gets pretty snotty in the winter too."
"Or in the Straits," Craig adds, meaning the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The Valor is usually berthed in Anacortes and escorts tankers coming through the Strait, meeting and running with them as they enter Puget Sound. The Strait is exposed to the westerly winds coming off the Pacific Ocean, and often has small craft advisories or storm warnings that accompany bad weather, especially in winter. The Valor will often run for nearly 20 miles before waiting for the tanker to arrive, then escort it back to a refinery on the coast.
"When you encounter bad weather you slow down," Matt explains. "But you can't do that when you're escorting a tanker. You just pound into it. Lots of times when there's a big westerly and you're escorting an outbound, you'll tuck up under their stern and hide back there. There'll be eight-footers going by on each side, and if you move ten feet to port or ten feet to starboard you'll get your ass kicked. It can be intense."
A tug operator has a lot to pay attention to when working these smaller boats around the big ships. Many larger vessels have flared hulls, and when a tug is catching a line and hooking up to them, it's easy to forget how close you are and hit the hull with the mast. Larger ships maneuver while the tugs are trying to get in position to catch a line, and the prop wash from the bigger ship can push the lighter tug away, or in a hazardous direction. This usually happens while under way at ten or twelve knots, and not in a calm sea. I begin to realize that the job I am witnessing is a small window into a more perilous world. Matt nods toward Craig, who will be working on deck during heavy weather, and says, "He's the one with the dangerous job. I just try to watch out for him."
As the Chief and Santiago disappear into the slip, we move to where the Chicago Express is tied up. A commercial fishing net is stretched out from the pier not fifty feet off the stern of the freighter. Another net is that close to the bow. Soon a fisherman in an open skiff motors to both the nets in turn, coiling the web and corks in the center of the little boat. He waves at us when he's done and races off. Matt waves back, then cautiously moves us under the bow of the Chicago Express. The steel hull looms above, tall as a six-story building. Nick is on the bow of the Valor and catches a line tossed down from tiny figures at the rail. Craig stays with us in the wheelhouse, watching intently as Nick does his job. Nick hooks the smaller line to the towing line wrapped on the winch on the bow. The winch is regulated by computers, and it senses how much pull is being generated by the tow and either eases off if it is too near the limits placed on it by the tug operator, or if it senses too much slack, pulls the line in automatically. "That way I don't have to pay attention to that too," says Matt. "I can concentrate on steering." The tow line itself is a recent development in the industry. Made of woven monofilament fibers, it barely stretches, even with tons of pressure pulling on it. As a result, tugs have to be more careful not to pull the bit right off a bigger ship. Often a tug operator will ask a ship's pilot what the limit of the tonnage is for the tow, and will enter that (or a figure slightly less than that) into the computer.
Hooked up, together with the Chief we pull sideways, moving the Chicago Express away from the pier. I know the engines on the Valor are working, because we are definitely making way, but there is little vibration, and minimal noise. The line to the freighter is taut. If it parts, the force of it can be lethal, so no one is on deck while we are working. Once we are away from the pier, the Chief moves to the stern to tow the big ship out into the harbor, and we swing into position directly in front of the bow to assist in steering. Once we are clear of the piers, the Valor drops its tow line and the Chief pulls the larger ship around so it is aimed out the harbor. The Chief lets go her tow, and the work is done. Nick stows the lines on the bow while both boats head to the dock.
Craig is already in the galley making dinner. The shift is about to change, and the other two members of the crew, Steve Randall, the chief engineer, and Keith, who have been sleeping, join us in the wheelhouse. Once we are at the dock again, we all head to the galley. Usually the crew doesn't eat all at once, because they are doing ship jobs, but today the work is done so we can all sit down together. This is their “bonding time” and is one of the best opportunities to discuss upcoming jobs, company business and safety issues. Salad, prime rib, mashed potatoes and turnips are the evening fare.
I learn from the conversation that Steve, the "Chief," is soon to retire. He has twenty-three years with the company and is looking at pulling the plug sometime next July. He took a job as an engineer on a fishing tender in Alaska in the summer of 1980 and repeatedly saw a Crowley tug towing a barge out of the Kenai River. "I'd look over at it as we came in, tired at the end of the day, and the engine room door would be open, which opens on the side. There would be this guy standing there, with his foot on the rail, his earphones on, and a cup of coffee in his hand. And I said, 'I gotta get me one of those jobs!'" When he returned home that's exactly what he did. He has worked all over the world on tugs, much like Craig, and like Craig, picked harbor tug duty when he finally had enough time with the company. Unless an employee has a specific talent like Matt or Keith, who are specially trained to run a Z-Drive boat like the Valor, harbor duty is usually granted to the worker with the most seniority.
The Z-Drive, or Azimuth-Drive Valor is the most powerful and versatile tug in Crowley's Seattle fleet, according to the crew. Its unique propulsion system makes it especially suited for harbor work, and recognizing that, Crowley has been leasing the Valor for the past three years. Built in 2007, she is 100 feet in length and 45 feet wide. From stem to stern she feels roomy and expansive, and she is treated with the greatest respect and care. Every surface is clean and polished; even the personal quarters of the crew are tidy. The engine room is not only oversized, but immaculate and orderly. Steve obviously knows his work and takes great pride in it. It shows when he poses for my photograph of him in front of the engines. No diesel fumes or oil leaks here. You could eat off the floor.
The skipper of this operation is Keith, the boat's Captain. He is witty and self-deprecating, but obviously in control. Sitting across from me at the galley table in his T-shirt, he is unassuming, looks young for a tug Captain, and like everyone else aboard, he is friendly and casual. As a college student he needed extra money in the summer and got a job working on tugs. After two years, he took time off from school to build up some money. "And I'm still here!" he says with a comical shake of his head. By the time he was 21, he had logged so much sea time he had his Captain's license. He and Craig have worked together for ten years. "Every time they ask me to switch boats," he remarks, "I ask if I can take Craig with me." There is an overt sense of teamwork from everyone on board. " When you have a good bunch of guys like this," says Keith, "you love coming to work."
Dinner finished, the crew buses the table and cleans the galley. Washing dishes is the 22-year-old cadet, Nick, who spends most of his time listening to the conversation but not saying much unless he is asked a direct question. His biggest challenge in choosing this career, he says, is learning to get along with people. I mention this after he leaves, and how he must value his time with this group. Valor's four crew have a total of nearly 100 years of experience at sea. What cadet wouldn't love to train under that kind of tutelage? All four of them came to this life through "the hawse-pipe," as Matt put it, meaning they worked their way to where they are now, rather than through attendance at a maritime academy. The hawse pipe is the hole in a ship that the anchor chain runs through, and to get aboard through it would mean climbing, as in climbing up through the ranks. Often the academy-trained seaman comes on board a tug without any sea time. Not so for Nick. "I want to start as a deckhand," he says. "Start low and work my way up, so when I'm a Captain I understand and appreciate the jobs everyone has to do." With that attitude, the rest of the crew on the Valor think he'll do just fine.
Lifejackets and hard hats on again, Keith escorts me off the boat. We shake hands, and he invites me back. It is dark, and they are about to leave on a run to Tacoma to escort a freighter back to Seattle. I find myself envying Nick. I'd love to be going along.