Tug Boating to Alaska

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Hello sports fans!  I’m sorry to be away for so long from my blog (seems to be a recurring problem).

I went to Compass Courses in Edmonds in August for the 5 day Leadership and Managerial Skills course.  The course could have easily been packed into 2.5 days instead of 5, thank you USCG for your foresight on this issue!  On the last day of class, Aug 12th, I finished the final exam at 1100, got in my truck and drove to Everett, where my wife met me at the Dunlap Towing yard and drove my truck home for me while I crewed up on my first tug job.  Pretty much as I stepped on board, the gangway came up and we threw off the lines to get underway to Seattle.

In Seattle we stopped to fuel up and wait for our freight barge to be brought out to us from the Duwamish River by Western Towboat.  Western has a dedicated tug that operates around the Dirty D (Duwamish River) and it common for companies to handoff their barge or receive a barge from the Westrac (Western Towboat’s tug in the area) as they bring it in or out of the river to a waiting tug or place it on the West Seattle Buoys, where barges can be left for short periods of time as sometimes a berth needs to open or a tug is running late and the buoys are where these barges can be placed to keep them out of the way for short periods.

As soon as we fueled and made up to our barge we were underway for Alaska.  Our barge was 330′ and loaded with freight for Alaskan towns with mostly containers and some rolling stock like trucks and a new school bus.  Since I was on the mid watch from 12-0400 with the second mate, I went down for a nap before watch.  We passed very familiar places on the way out of Puget Sound and instead of heading west out of the Straights of Juan De Fuca, hung a right and Rosario Straights towards Vancouver Canada.  We passed through the Seymour Narrows sometime on my off watch when I was asleep and I didn’t get to see the famous narrow spot.  The last time I was through here was when I was a kid and we took our family boat North around 1978 (which I don’t remember much of).

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Other than going to Dutch Harbor and some of the Aleutian Chain last June on the research vessel, I’ve never been to Alaska.  Let me tell you this:  YOU NEED TO GO THROUGH THE INSIDE PASSAGE!  It absolutely stunning!  Of course the route that we took, was the most direct to Juneau possible, there is still an incredible amount of bays, coves, inlets, passes, mountains, etc to keep one busy for a lifetime of cruising.  We passed several cruise ships (it was cruise ship season) coming and going from Seattle to Alaska.  These huge ships haul ass and I could only think about the people who pay to “see” Alaska and then miss over half of it while their ship steams along at 20+ knots while the passengers are sleeping at night.  Of course they get to go many ports and take quick little excursions that we are unable to do on a freight run.

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2.5 days after leaving Seattle, we arrived in Juneau to offload some freight.  We needed to arrive on a tide, offload our freight, backload and lash the oncoming freight and a huge Taylor Forklift and depart before we lost the tide.  I think we were in town for around a total of 3 or 4 hours.  So much for seeing Juneau!  I could only see as much of it as was visible from our tug or our barge.

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A couple of days later we were at the top of the Inside Passage and headed out into the Gulf of Alaska headed toward the Alaskan Town of Yakutat.  Again we pulled in, offloaded cargo, back loaded cargo and departed for sea.  The only major difference from Juneau was the fact that the container yard we tied up to in Yakutat did not have a ramp for the forklifts to drive onto the barge and pick a loaded container and drive it off ashore.  Instead they used the Pass/ Pass technique where the barge forklift sets the container right at the rail and the forklift from shore picks it right off of our deck and drives it into the storage yard ashore.  

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At this point in the trip it was cloudy and rainy and we didn’t get to see shit as far the incredible Chugach Mountain range that we steamed right past.  A couple days more and we entered Cook Inlet heading towards Anchorage.  We arrived around 2200 and worked cargo until around 0200 in the morning and retired for the night.  This port is a major port and has all of the equipment to efficiently offload / backload cargos.  The downfall of this port is the massive 20+’ tide swings.  The tug actually has to break tow and go lay at another dock several hundred yards away from the barge.  When the tide goes out, the barge just sits on the mud bottom while cargo ops continue.  At this point, word came down that our mission would take us to Dutch Harbor with a small amount of container freight but after that we would travel West to Unmak Island and the town of Nikolski to load dirty dirt (more on that later).  In order to load dirty dirt, our barge needed a “fence” built on our barge of 40′ containers stacked two high and lashed all the way around the deck of the barge to help contain the load of dirty dirt.  The dock crew from the yard had this pretty much complete when we turned to in the morning around 0700.  We finished up, returned to the tug and waited for a delivery of stores to arrive (the cook had gone shopping at the grocery store).  As soon as the stores were loaded we made up to the barge and departed for sea.  I think we were in Anchorage for about 10 hours…never left the tug, barge or yard.  Great way to see the sights!

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Once we got underway, we were headed west to the Aleutians.  The scenery along the Alaskan Peninsula and Kodiak Island was stunning!  While we didn’t have perfect weather we got to see quite a bit of the mountains and had some really good, flat water.  A few days later we arrived in Captains Bay (on the back side of Dutch Harbor Proper).  The scenery here was also amazing and it is nearly impossible to think of a more scenic port!  We discharged all of our remaining cargo and got immediately underway for Unmak Island and Nikolski.  the steam from Dutch was about 24 hours and upon arrival at Nikolski, we entered the bay, slowly steamed into the wind and started dumping wire from the tow winch while zig zagging our way upwind.  at the top of the bay, the tug made a big sweeping left hand turn and continued dumping wire until we were pretty much abeam of the barge about 100 yards away.  This is called “Laying on the wire” and is how we would remain for the next several days as loaded “dirty dirt”.  No anchor needed!

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The town of Nikolski is a group of around 18 houses and an Orthodox Church.  Mostly natives live from what I’m told.  The church, like many places in remote Western parts of Alaska, were built by the Russians way back when.  I’m sure all of the materials had to be brought in as there isn’t a tree in sight in any of the Aleutians that I saw except right in town were someone plated one.

As soon as we were secure, a landing craft came out from shore carrying a load of dirty dirt and picked myself and the ab cook up and took us over to our barge.  The landing craft could load 25 racks at a time.  Each rack carried 3 large bags of dirty dirt.  The dirty dirt is soil that is contaminated by diesel, spilled when the military departed the Aleutians after WWII.  Contractors dig up the dirt, fill the bags and place them on flat racks.  The landing craft crew loads 25 racks in a load and delivers them to the barge where they pass / pass the dirt aboard and we stack it and lash it for the ride to Seattle.  In Seattle, it is offloaded, transferred to rail and taken to Portland, Oregon to be incinerated and decontaminated.  We spent several days loading dirt.  Upon our arrival back at the tug, we found out the remaining crew had been busy catching five fresh halibut.  We gave one to the landing craft and I cleaned the rest as no one else knew how.  Fresh Halibut….Yum!

Once the dirty dirt was loaded, we returned to Dutch to load more dirty dirt that had been recovered from Adak a week or two earlier.  Once we got all of the dirt loaded, we filled in all the remaining space with heavy equipment that was pulling out due to the end of the working season.  We then received word that we would be standing by several days waiting for a second barge to come it from Naknek (Bristol Bay) before we could head toward to home.  We spent our days working cargo ashore or being tasked with moving barges around the harbor.  While we were tied up in Captains Bay, two different captain friends came in on factory trawlers and tied up at the next dock over from us.  Both times, we were so busy that I didn’t get a chance to walk over and say hello.  The next morning when we had time, they were gone.

We did manage to borrow the yard truck and go to the Dutch Harbor Library and get connected to the internet and chat with home.  It was about two weeks since I had been able to check in.  FYI: Verizon does not work in Dutch (AT&T and GCI are the only two at this time that do) but the local library has free wifi.  

We also went over and visited the new Gretchen Dunlap.  The Gretchen is Dunlap’s new harbor tractor tug and is quite impressive.  Read more about her here: Gretchen Dunlap.

Finally, after some weather delays, our barge arrived and we got underway from Captains Bay.  We steamed slowly out of the bay with our barge streamed astern way back on the wire.  The second tug pulled right up alongside of us and we passed them our Swede wire, which they attached to the tow gear.  We pulled tight on their tow gear as they broke off from it and pulled away from us.  We then pulled their tow gear onto our deck and made it up to our second tow wire / winch.  Then we streamed the second barge out, but not as far as our first barge, which was way back.  This is how we travelled back to Seattle.

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It took a total of 14 days to get back to Seattle and other than a couple of days crossing the Gulf of Alaska was very pleasant weather.  As we approached Vancouver Island on the Inside Passage, word was passed that we wouldn’t be allowed to travel further South than Cape Scott (N/ end of Vancouver Island) with two barges and that we would have to take the outside of Vancouver Island to return to Seattle.  Luckily for us, the weather was perfect!

We returned to Seattle and dropped our first barge off to the waiting Western Towboat tugs and while they took that barge upriver, we put the second barge on the buoy for them to retrieve when they are finished with the first barge.  We steamed two hours back to our yard in Everett and 45 minutes after tying up, I was at home, kicking my feet up and chillaxin.

Great trip overall.  There are things I really like about tugs and things I don’t like.  For the sake of any new people getting their feet wet and trying to decide what sector of shipping they would like to get into, here are a few of my thoughts:

Likes:

Small crews and no passengers to deal with.

Better pay than research vessel

Great crews with lots of experience and willing to teach a FNG like me

Towing shit is cool and the making and breaking a tow is cool.

I was left pretty much to my own to find shit to do / what to paint/ projects etc.

Yard is very close to my home

Dislikes:

The tug gets very small after a couple of weeks.  Bring books, movies etc to stay occupied in your time off.

The tug gets its ass kicked in weather more than a big ship.  You will feel it and the tires on the side of the hull take a bit of time to get used to.  The engine noise is much louder than it was on the ship I was on.  I slept with ear plugs at all times.

Comms with home are very limited compared with what I came from.

There isn’t really any schedule going to these remote areas.  Weather and customer delays are common.  Alaska freight is boom or bust depending on the season.  Prepare to be super busy in the spring / summer / early fall and slow in winter for the most part.  This works really well from some people as they like to travel during the winter.

The bunks on the tugs were built for short people.  If you’re tall like me, prepare to sleep sideways or with your legs bent. (Yes, I know I’m being bitchy)

Overall very good trip and I learned a ton!  Total was 37 Days.

 

 

 

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One thought on “Tug Boating to Alaska

  1. Capt Jill

    Sounds like a great trip, except for the part about no shore leave in port.
    Looks like you got lucky with the weather!
    I’m glad to see you’re still working.
    I worked out of Dutch Harbor fishing one summer. I liked it. I’ve been applying again to those fishing companies, but nobody’s biting.

    Reply

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