Ex-office worker becomes Wash. tug captain, single-prop specialist


When Cindy Stahl left her Wisconsin home to complete a master’s degree at the University of Washington, she had no idea that the move would eventually lead her to the wheelhouse of a classic single-screw tug. “My degree was in urban planning,” she explained, “and my first job was in a Seattle office.”

However, after moving to work for a small construction company, she was asked to fill in as a field supervisor to a construction job installing 2,000 feet of shoreline bulkhead. With two years of field management under her belt, she had an opportunity to finish a job on her own. “So I mortgaged the house to buy a tug and barge,” said the mother of three. “And in about 2003 I went to South Puget Sound to finish the job and, in time, took on other contracts.”

The first tug was the classic 1947 Prothero-built Susan H (ex Yeomalt). It was a single-screw wood boat with lines well suited to the yacht that it has since become. Partnering with shore-based construction companies, she learned to jump into a piece of equipment and drive it onto the barge, then move to the tug and tow the barge to the site and offload the equipment. “The first time that I was taking the barge into the beach on the high water, I got it all lined up to where the equipment owner wanted it, then, at the last minute he changed his mind and asked me to go in at another point,” she recalled. “It made the job much more difficult but I just thought, ‘OK we can do that,’ and we did.”

Stahl did well in marine-based construction and added a second tug to her fleet. But then the economic collapse of 2008 slowed that sector. To supplement her work, she picked up a job towing a barge moving newsprint from paper mills to Seattle for Pacific Terminals. Her second tug, the 65-foot 1,100-hp twin-screw tug Otter, was able to handle the barge until they asked her to start towing it longer distances out of Canadian ports at Crofton on Vancouver Island and Port Mellon in Howe Sound. “It was just too much for that boat,” she recalled. “But I had heard that the owner of the Shannon might want to sell so I checked with him and we made a deal.”

Stahl's 96-foot boat Shannon, above, transits the Fraser River in British Columbia.

At 96 feet by 28 feet with a 13.5-foot molded depth, the tug Shannon (ex Judi M) was a significant step up. Powered by a big 12-cylinder EMD645 turning into a massive Lufkin gear, the single-screw tug represented an increased challenge for Stahl. While many younger skippers of her age hesitated to make the move to single-screw, Stahl had started out on the single-screw Susan H. “If people tell me that I just made a good landing with a single-screw tug, my response is, ‘Why not, it is my job.’ With a twin-screw you can correct an error in your approach, but with a single-screw you have to think ahead and get it right the first time. My professional goal is to make a perfect landing in a difficult spot like our home dock in Seattle’s Duwamish River where we are boxed in between a fuel scow and another company’s equipment and there are shifting river and tidal currents.”

Stahl clocked some sea time with Western Towboat on the company’s southeast Alaska run some years ago and noted that one of that company’s early vessels, Marauder (ex Carol Foss), is a sister to Shannon. Marauder is currently based in Juneau, as is Stahl’s second tug Otter. But Stahl has no ambition to build a Western Towboat-sized fleet. For some time she worked all three of her boats doing some construction along with the barge jobs. “Then one of the boats was up in Port Townsend and I was busy docking a barge with another boat,” she said, “when I got a call from the skipper to say that the steering had quit. So I asked if he had checked the fuse and he then asked me which fuse. That was when I realized that I did not want to own three boats.”

Ethan Stahl, the engineer aboard Shannon, with the 12-cylinder EMD main engine.  

A 96-foot tug with 12 tons of engine turning out 1,500 hp at 900 rpm with its distinctive deep-throated roots-blown sound is a joy to generations of tugboat people. Set in a boat with the classic lines of Shannon, it awakens the romance in most towboaters. Stahl, who clearly loves her boat and her work, maintains however that her choice of Shannon was purely pragmatic. “Foss built her in 1957 as the Shannon Foss,” she explained. “Then in 1977 they hauled her and cut the stern off and pulled the old engine out. They replaced it with the new EMD and made all the systems for hydraulics and electrical redundant. Then they built a new stern with a steerable Kort nozzle.”

With a 45-degree turn to port or starboard, the Kort nozzle gives dramatic turning power that, combined with the bow thruster, gives the boat more maneuvering power than might be expected. A walk through the immaculate engine room shows the ample space left to either side for auxiliary equipment including two big GM-powered 75-kW gensets. The gensets are each large enough to meet the tug’s requirements and are designed so that the second generator starts automatically should the first go offline for any reason. 

“I like to work on projects when we are underway,” said Stahl, who often sails with a second skipper to alternate watches, and her son Ethan as engineer. A colorful hammock chair hangs over the big Lufkin gear aft of the main engine. Beside it, to port, a set of wooden drawers under a workbench with a blackboard add another touch of heritage and class to the engine room. A set of wooden triple blocks hangs from a bar nearby, bearing testament to the owner’s pleasure in well-designed maritime heritage. Aft of that, a watertight door in the bulkhead leads to a good-sized lazarette area. “This is becoming my metalwork shop,” explained Stahl, who doesn’t hesitate to cut and modify her vessel to suit her needs. “I added the door to what was a solid bulkhead.”

 The single-screw tugboat’s Lufkin gear.

A shoulder-height trunk cabin over the engine room features rows of port lights down both sides, giving good light in the engine room and contributing to the pleasing overall lines of the boat’s profile. Forward of the engine-room trunk, bright-finished wooden doors on both sides of the cabin open onto the galley. “When I got the boat, this area was both galley and mess for a crew of seven. So I took out two staterooms in the main cabin forward to make a large mess and lounge area and then I enlarged the galley,” she said.

Much of the work for the forward lounge was done over a one-year period, often while underway. “There were no port lights in the front of the cabin when it was two staterooms,” said son Ethan, adding with pride, “but we had extra ports in the lower area where there are still four staterooms. So mom cut them out from below and then reinstalled them here.”

The lounge is now a comfortable area with half of the previously sloped deck made level. An original set of profile drawings for the tug is mounted on the wall. If you own the boat and you are spending a good part of your life there, a comfortable space is important. Stahl has two daughters, one of whom enjoys spending time on the boat and the other who would rather not. Stahl’s husband works in a different field but makes an occasional trip on board. 

Cindy Stahl extensively reworked Shannon’s galley after adding a mess area forward.

The hull and main deckhouse are all made of steel. Stahl notes that it is hard to cut and may have high nickel content as it shows very little rust. “But these were some of the first steel boats that Foss built,” she said, “so they had a bunch of carpenters who were given the task of building the wheelhouse of wood.”

It is a classic piece of Northwest marine work with leather lifting straps on the wood-framed windows. Long and narrow, it has a chart table and companionway to the main deck but still manages to fit in modern electronics without seeming crowded. The deckhead shows the new planking that the team installed to replace the rotting roof. After removing the old roof and installing the planks, they added plywood and sealed and reinstalled the radar mast, all in an 18-hour layover. “I like nothing better than sitting up here when traveling at night,” said Stahl. She and Ethan play a range of stringed instruments including violin, viola and cello. “So we have some good music sessions in the wheelhouse from time to time, but the cello is too big so it gets played in the lazarette.”

Despite the music and the creature comforts, Shannon is a no-nonsense working tug. On the aft deck, a big single-drum towing winch is loaded with 1,600 feet of 1 5/8-inch wire. In place of a three-blade “fish boat” propeller that the boat came with, Stahl put on the nozzle and an optimized four-blade wheel. The 1,500-hp EMD delivers a respectable 28-ton bollard pull. 

Shannon passes the Singapore-registered log carrier ISS Cantata at the Fraser-Surrey docks. Cindy Stahl’s tugboat company operates primarily in Puget Sound and British Columbia.

Stressing her fierce pragmatism, Stahl explained, “When I buy a boat, I run it for a year and watch how the crew moves and how the boat works. Then I pick up the cutting torch and start making adjustments.”

These can be as significant as adding a watertight door to the lazarette or as practical as adding a heater under the lounge table for wet boots and cold feet. “I rebuilt all but the hull on my tug Otter and now I am doing the same with the Shannon,” she said.

The one thing that this pragmatic owner-operator finds most difficult is finding relief skippers who don’t mind docking a heavy barge in tight spaces. “With the baby boomers retiring and the next generation largely inexperienced with single-screw tugs, I have to turn to young graduates who are keen and well-trained but they have no experience with boat handling,” she said.

The future crewing needs are a concern for fleet operators in the industry as well and especially so for a single-boat, single-screw owner-operator. But there is not much doubt that this captain will be running her own show on Puget Sound for a good many years to come.

By Professional Mariner Staff