Argosy Cruises: Doing it right in Seattle

Passengers enjoy the view from the vessel’s forward deck. [photos courtesy Alan Haig-Brown]

There are many ways to make a buck with a boat. You can fish. You can tow. You can carry drilling mud. Or you can carry tourists. This later “cargo” is perhaps the most challenging of all in that personality and service skills are as important as boat handling skills.

In the wheelhouse of Argosy Cruises’ Goodtime III, Capt. Vince Tougas keeps a defibrillator for treating heart attack victims. Although they are carried on all of the Seattle company’s 10 vessels, and the crew has annual training using them, there has not yet been an occasion to use one. But this is an example of the preparedness that is maintained by the professionals in the cruise industry.

“We get job applications from other segments in the industry,” Tougas explained as he began one of the company’s popular tours that takes the boat from the company base at Pier 56 on the harbor front through the locks to the ship canal and into Lake Union. “But in most cases they don’t have the personality for the hospitality industry.”

He went on to point out that the company has good success training people from within, although there is often loss to higher paying jobs in offshore work. As he spoke, the 85-by-26-foot Goodtime III circled past the container port on Terminal

Capt. Tougas in the wheelhouse of Goodtime III, which was built by Nichols Brothers Boat Builders on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound.

Island while one of the two deck hands spoke over the public address about the containers being lifted from a COSCO ship. Goodtime III, built at Nichols Brothers, has a fully enclosed main deck with a second partially open deck and a third bridge deck.

The vessel is Coast Guard licensed for just over 300 passengers, but the company limits the numbers to about 200 passengers on harbor tours, 150 for receptions and 80 guests for table seating. Other vessels in the fleet can seat up to 480 for dinner. Seattle is an important conference city, and the boats, including a refurbished 1924 ferry and the 180-foot Royal Argosy, are popular with corporate clients.

As with many others in the industry, Tougas came to his current career by chance. When his brother Tom, who had worked with cruise companies in Alaska, was given an opportunity to buy Argosy Cruises with partner John Blackman from the founder, he invited Vince in as a shareholder.

“I was working as a remodeling contractor at the time, but Tom also convinced me to come to work with the company to refurbish some boats in 1991,” Vince Tougas said. “By 1993 I had my 100-ton inland masters license.”

As the cruise progressed along the waterfront a deck hand told the history of the skyscrapers and pointed out vessel types from a visiting military cargo ship to Alaskan factory trawlers.

As a working partner, Tougas does his share of trips along with another 20 full-time

Argosy Cruises is based at pier 56 on the Seattle waterfront. Goodtime III can carry about 200 passengers on harbor tours, 150 for receptions or 80 guests seated at tables.

and several part-time skippers. As he rounded the bluffs and mansions of the Magnolia district and entered the channel leading to the locks, he called ahead to the lock master on the VHF. A train crossing the rail bridge just below was no problem as the boat’s retractable mast allows it to pass under even the lowest bridge on its route. A smooth-scheduled operation is a key aspect of maintaining a profitable tour boat company.

The locks, which can have waits of several hours in the summer months, could have been an insurmountable impediment, but the purchase of an old ferry certificate gives the boat priority for a scheduled passage. In general, Tougas explained, the lock has a priority system that grants emergency vessels such as fire or police boats the first priority followed by the same vessels on non-emergency missions. Following that are passenger vessels on regular-schedule runs. Fourth are commercial vessels in several categories and finally pleasure boats. Smaller pleasure boats can usually share a lock with a larger commercial vessel.

Argosy Cruises has a boat making the transit through the locks twice a day for 364 days of the year. One of the company’s retired skippers is reputed to have gained,

Capt. Vince Tougas explains the lock system to his passengers. The two-chamber lock system lifts and lowers vessels as much as 25 feet, depending on the tides.

over his career, the record for most lock passages ever. Tougas speculates that, allowing for one other Argosy skipper, he is third in line for the greatest number of passages.

Like most captains, he makes good use of the VHF, but he has a second mike for the boat’s public address system. After going out onto the port bridge wing to take the controls for entering the smaller of the two locks, he moved to the starboard bridge wing as he has been directed to moor on that side. As he conducted these maneuvers he carried the PA microphone with him and began telling the history and importance of the locks and the adjacent fish ladder for the salmon that go up into the rivers of Lake Washington.

Tougas’ success in his second career was evident as he delighted in telling once again the story of the locks as the big water doors closed on his stern and the boat rose in the lock chamber. This can be as much as 25 feet, depending on tides, from sea to lake level. “If we didn’t have priority, we couldn’t do this tour,” he said as he pushed up the throttle and left the locks.

The tour does a fine job of showing just how important the working waterfront is to

Goodtime III enters the smaller of the two locks, which connect Puget Sound with Lake Union.

the public, who take advantage of this tour to see places that are increasingly inaccessible from the shore. After passing out of the locks, the tour passes the Fisherman’s Terminal on the port side and various smaller boatyards along both sides of the ship canal. Then the bright yellow and black hulls of Western Towboat show up to port with the big Foss shipyard and that company’s green-hulled boats to starboard.

Passing under the Fremont Bridge they pass Mark Freeman’s Fremont Tugboat to port and his floating home, decorated with tugboat memorabilia, to starboard. For mariners visiting Seattle from other parts of the country, this may be the best way to see the base for much of the Puget Sound-to-Alaska marine business.

A brief swing past more of the unique Lake Union house boats, yachts and The Center for Wooden Boats, where the heritage tug Arthur Foss is now moored, brought Goodtime III to the Argosy dock on the south shore of Lake Union. A waiting bus returned the passengers to their starting point at Pier 56 on Alaskan Way along the Seattle waterfront. Tougas and his two deck hands would tidy up and get ready for the arrival of a busload of tourist who would take the boat’s 4 p.m. lock tour back to the Pier 56 base. For Capt. Tougas this is clearly more than just another way to make a buck with a boat. It is a thoroughly enjoyable profession.

By Professional Mariner Staff