All in the family: Western Towboat spans the generations in Seattle

Westrac 1

The two Western Towboat harbor tugs were lined up alongside the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Midgett when the crews learned about a small change of plans.

“We are going to do something a little different today,” a Midgett crewman said over radio. “We are going to hook up the forward tug, but we are going to have the aft tug just stand by. We are going to try to drive the ship out.”

Capt. Russ Shrewsbury, helming Western Towboat’s 2,500-hp Westrac already positioned on the cutter’s bow, smiled and shrugged.

“This is going to go one of two ways: Really slow, or really fast,” Shrewsbury said of the decision to use a single tug. “I am going with really slow.”​

Undocking the Coast Guard cutter was one of several jobs that kept Western Towboat crews busy on the dreary wet March morning. Westrac had just returned from delivering a barge and crewmembers barely had time to make breakfast when Shrewsbury learned the cutter was ready.

The 2,400-hp Westrac II, Western’s second-generation harbor tug, stands by as the Coast Guard cutter Midgett backs away from a Seattle pier.

Western works closely with the Coast Guard in Seattle, and the company’s tugs have handled Midgett numerous times. Typically, two assist tugs guide the cutter into the narrow confines of the Duwamish East Waterway, then spin it 90 degrees toward Elliott Bay and Puget Sound.

Blair Davis, mate on the 2,400-hp Westrac II, served as a pilot aboard the cutter, issuing orders to Westrac during the evolution. With his guidance, the ship twisted off the dock and backed smoothly toward the Duwamish. Westrac remained tethered to the starboard bow while Westrac II hung back near the starboard quarter.

Contrary to Shrewsbury’s initial predictions, the cutter wasted no time coming off the dock.

“We’re flying out of here today,” he said.

Western Towboat is one of nearly two dozen towing companies with major operations in Seattle. Other big firms with a presence there include Foss Maritime, Harley Marine Services, Crowley Maritime and Samson Tug & Barge. Western is among a shrinking number that remain entirely family-owned and operated.

Westrac Capt. Russ Shrewsbury checks in with Westrac II as the two tugs head toward another job along Seattle’s waterfront.

It’s a point of pride for Shrewsbury, whose grandfather started the firm in 1948 after running tugs for Foss. Western initially hauled logs, sand and gravel around Puget Sound. These days, its 150 or so mariners perform ship-assist work around Seattle and also operate line-haul tugs serving ports up and down Alaska.

As Shrewsbury steered Westrac toward Midgett earlier that morning, it passed within sight of another Western boat, Bering Titan, preparing to tow a loaded barge to Whittier, Alaska.

Western currently operates 22 conventional and z-drive tugboats and a half-dozen or so barges. Company President Bob Shrewsbury has had a hand in each of the company’s newbuilds. He sketched plans for the original Titan tug on the family dinner table, although Jensen Maritime Consultants later created formal drawings.

That tug has proven to be a great success, and it has inspired numerous replicas operated by West Coast competitors. Westrac, which Bob Shrewsbury also developed, was one of the first z-drive tugs on the coast when it arrived in 1987.

Western operates a shipyard at its headquarters along the Lake Washington Ship Canal. In March, crews were busy assembling the aluminum house and steel hull for the third-generation Westrac tug, Mariner. Russ Shrewsbury largely designed the 4,000-hp tug expected for delivery in early 2019.

Deck hand Andrew Donaldson monitors one of Westrac’s Caterpillar 3512 diesel engines.

Like its two predecessors, Mariner will have Caterpillar engines. Those mains will be paired with Schottel z-drives rather than the Ulstein units installed on Westrac and Westrac II. Over the past 30 years, those two tugs have developed a reputation as nimble workhorses suitable for working in tight spaces around the Seattle waterfront.

“We haven’t built a conventional tug since 1994, and we don’t plan on building another conventional ever again,” Russ Shrewsbury said. “Only z-drives from now on.”

The 378-foot Midgett steadily churned away from the dock while Westrac II hung back off the stern. Every so often, Davis checked on its position, particularly as the cutter moved parallel to the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy docked at an adjacent pier.

“Are you just floating there right off the starboard quarter?” he asked.

“Yeah, just right off starboard quarter,” Westrac II Capt. Mark Williamson responded. “I am running out of room there with the icebreaker on the other side from me, but we will stay here as long as I can.”​

The cutter Midgett backs off the pier under its own power with Westrac assisting on the bow and Westrac II remaining in position off the starboard quarter.

Westrac II crept back toward the cutter as the tug passed the icebreaker before retreating to its position a safe distance away from the moving ship.

Once it reached open water, Westrac pushed gently against Midgett’s starboard bow to swing the vessel toward Elliott Bay while Westrac II worked on the stern. With the cutter in position, Westrac deck hand Andrew Donaldson retrieved the hawser line from the ship.

Minutes later, Davis left the cutter’s wheelhouse, climbed over its bow and down onto Westrac. Donaldson and Westrac mate Mike Went-worth helped him down onto the tug’s bow as the cutter got underway for a day of sea trials.

Shrewsbury and Williamson turned their tugs around toward the company dock, located on the south side of Harbor Island, where the next job beckoned.

“Good morning there, where are we on this list?” asked the captain of the tug HaiSea Guardian, who was waiting for Western’s tugs to move an empty gravel barge for a return trip to Canada.

Westrac mate Mike Wentworth, right, and deck hand Andrew Donaldson let Capt. Russ Shrewsbury know the line is secured to the cutter’s bow.

“You’re next,” Shrewsbury answered. “We’ll be up there in 10 minutes to grab that barge.”

“OK, sounds good,” the captain of the Seaspan tug replied.

Bob and Russ Shrewsbury serve as the dispatch force 24 hours a day for Western’s harbor towing unit. As president and vice president, respectively, they are equally accessible to their workers. Throughout the morning, Russ took calls from crew looking to finalize shifts and customers trying to arrange for tows.

“They know they can call my dad and me and talk to us any time they want. In the middle of the night, if they have a problem, we can deal with it,” Russ Shrewsbury said. “Most of our competitors’ owners are not going to be answering calls and dispatch in the middle of the night.”

Western Towboat’s four principals are Bob Shrewsbury and his three children: Russ and Ross, who drive tugs, and Kristin Sonon, who manages the office. They make important decisions together and try to share the workload. This arrangement has its challenges, though, one being they can never travel as a family.

Westrac and Westrac II back off the Western Towboat dock on the south side of Harbor Island after a quick crew change. Ash Grove Cement is in the background.

It’s also just a lot of work. Bob Shrewsbury still shows up seven days a week and occasionally operates tugs in Lake Union. On most Sundays, he splices lines.

“The goal now is to train more people so I don’t have to be down here answering the phone and driving the boat all day,” Russ Shrewsbury said. “We have so much work and so many things going on (that) it’s hard to do everything at once.”

Western’s harbor tugs perform a little of everything in Seattle. They move barges in the Duwamish Waterway, dock and undock ships, and handle contract towing for various cargoes. As a non-union shop, Western rarely handles big containerships. Union longshoremen in Seattle typically won’t touch cargo on a ship assisted by non-union tugs.

The next job involved undocking an empty gravel barge tied up at Ash Grove Cement’s plant near the marina where the Westrac boats tie up. Russ Shrewsbury took position with Westrac’s port side to the barge’s starboard stern, while Westrac II lined up with its starboard side near the rake.

Donaldson and Wentworth climbed onto the 270-foot barge and attached the lines. The plan was to spin the barge 180 degrees and tow it to open water where HaiSea Guardian was waiting to haul it home. After getting off the dock, the Westrac tugs steered alongside the marina to let another tug, Island Venture, pass with a barge in tow.

Mike Wentworth, Westrac’s mate, secures a line against an empty 270-foot gravel barge. Both Westrac and Westrac II moved the vessel off the dock, then handed it off to another tugboat.

Once the waterway was clear, the two Western tugs towed the barge at about 7 knots toward HaiSea Guardian. Along the way, they transited past docked recreational boats, under the West Seattle Bridge and alongside Terminal 5, a vacant container port.

“Whenever you guys want to grab her, we’ll stop her up and put her on your stern for you,” Russ Shrewsbury said over radio to his counterpart on the 1,000-hp Seaspan tug.

As they approached the waiting tug, Donaldson and Wentworth climbed back aboard the barge to remove the towlines and prepare the towing bridle. Once that was completed, Western’s work was done, at least for the moment.

“OK guys,” Shrewsbury said, “have a great trip, and we’ll see you on the next one.”

The Western vessels returned to the marina dock. There was barely enough time for a crew change before the tugs got underway for their next job. In the competitive Seattle towing market, that’s a good problem to have.

By Professional Mariner Staff