For Seattle’s Fremont Tugboat, small has been beautiful for 100 years


At a time of the year when the sun usually abandons Seattle, the day shone bright, albeit with a November chill. Capt. Tom Bulson and deck hand Richie Borneman boarded the 51-foot tugboat Dixie, and Capt. Erik Freeman took the wheel of the 25-foot tug General Lee. They are two of Fremont Tugboat Co.’s eclectic fleet of towing vessels.

Riding one of Fremont’s resurrected tugboats is to experience tugboating as it was, but also as it still is, at a company that utilizes line work, leverage and experience in place of massive horsepower.

“We do a bit of everything,” said Freeman. His parents, Mark and Margie Freeman, are still active in the company, primarily shepherding thousands of historic tug photos, models and vintage marine engines at their private tugboat museum in the Fremont Boat Co. marina.

This year marks the centennial of Fremont Tugboat, founded by Cap Webster in 1915, primarily as a log-towing outfit. Next year will be the centennial of Fremont Boat, a marina nestled on the north shore of Seattle’s Lake Union. The marina acts as the company’s office and moorage for its fleet.

Mark’s father, Doc Freeman, bought both companies from Cap Webster in 1928, a move that spliced Mark to a life of tugboating. He took over the company in 1959 and sold it in 1995 to his son Erik and Bulson. Borneman rounds out the threesome of mariners currently operating a fleet of nine boats ranging from skiffs to a restored Coast Guard buoy tender named Blueberry. In the mix are a handful of traditional single-screw tugboats.

“They’re all tugs,” said Erik. “We run a small crew to keep it profitable. We might be towing a yacht or a house barge in the morning with two of the small 15-foot boats, and later we might be moving a 200-foot fish boat with two of our bigger tugs. We do all kinds of different stuff, but our bread and butter is towing fish boats.”

Capt. Tom Bulson at the helm.

Dixie and General Lee left the marina and headed under the Aurora and Fremont bridges spanning the Lake Washington Ship Canal, and then headed down Fremont Cut to a Foss dry dock cradling the catcher/processor Enterprise. The dragger was in Seattle from O’Hara Corp.’s Bering Sea groundfish fleet. Hornet, a Western Towboat tug, had moved the dry dock mid-canal to the deeper water, ready for the Fremont tugs to take the tow down the canal, under the Ballard Bridge, to Fishermen’s Terminal in Salmon Bay.

It was a typical move for Fremont, except that the proverbial Murphy’s Law infected the tow, causing a delay of an hour or so. But tugboat crews are practiced in the art of waiting.

“I’ve made more money waiting than I ever have working,” said Erik.

The waiting over, Erik eased General Lee up to the bow of Enterprise and nosed the fishing vessel back and out of the dry dock to Bulson and Borneman on Dixie, who made up to the fishing vessel’s port stern. With General Lee pushing the port bow of Enterprise, and Dixie pulling the port stern, the tugs spun the fishing vessel around, heading it toward Salmon Bay.

Then, with Dixie made up on the hip of Enterprise, Erik moved General Lee around to the vessel’s starboard bow. Borneman climbed aboard the fishing vessel to provide a set of eyes for Bulson, rendered blind ahead and to port by the monolith riding high above the little tug. On the starboard side, Erik, on General Lee, ran with the tow, acting as Bulson’s north-side eyes.

After passing under the Ballard Bridge, the flotilla entered the expanse of Salmon Bay and approached the riot of masts and rigging hugging Fishermen’s Terminal, still a viable working harbor in an age of urban waterfront gentrification.

The two tugs lined up Enterprise parallel to the wharf and pushed the vessel into a tight spot between two Alaska draggers. Then it was back to the marina and a takeout lunch on Dixie, during which Erik and Bulson explained Fremont Tugboat’s modus operandi.

Dixie’s 600-hp Cummins VTA 1710 diesel is over 40 years old.

The log-towing days in Lake Union that were Fremont’s paycheck for half a century are over. “Dad’s last raft of logs at the last mill on Lake Union was back in the early ’80s,” said Erik. Nowadays the company makes its living conducting salvage, towing and marine construction operations, primarily in Lake Union and along the canal.

“We try to be the leaders in the lake,” Erik said. “Most of it is small and our cutoff is about 225 feet. But we’ll do a lot of different things. And Tom dives so we do that from time to time. Dad wanted us to stay small when we bought the company in ’95. We wanted to stay small, too, but be on the bigger side of small. Not medium and definitely not big.”

“We’re inspected vessels now, but we know we are going to have to upgrade over the years,” said Erik. “We’re so small we have an informal safety management system. We’re always together discussing issues, and we have common-sense meetings. When there is a problem we take the boat out of service and use one of the other boats until the issue is resolved. Tom is the mad builder genius — steel, wood, anything aluminum. I don’t know of a product that he can’t manipulate. If Tom can’t fix it, it ain’t broken.”

Dixie’s story is typical of the tugs in the Fremont fleet, brought back from the brink with a cutting torch, welding torch and mechanical, electrical and carpentry tools.

Dixie was built in 1951 as Grant Dixon to work on Washington’s Lake Roosevelt. The tug was later barged up to Ketchikan, Alaska, where Bulson bought the relic in 2003 with the intent to run it down the Inside Passage to Seattle. That plan was scuttled following a sobering assessment of the vessel’s fitness for travel.

“There wasn’t a stick of paint on her and there had been a galley fire,” said Erik. “Dixie had 1,500 pounds of worms on the bottom when we bought her. She was a wreck and needed a lot of paint and powder.”

“It took more than a year to put the boat back together,” said Bulson. “We redid the whole boat and we didn’t do it with Formica. We did it the old way.”

The crew employs a three-part makeup, using a head line and stern line with a spring line, to connect to Enterprise.

The Fremont crew rebuilt the hull and tore off the wheelhouse down to the steel frames. They extended the house by 18 inches in order to install an interior ladder to the engine room and add a galley table. With a new skin of plywood and T&G paneling inside, and new doors built by Bulson, the house has the feel of an older tug. They rewired the entire boat and installed the electronics from Sovereign, the tug that Dixie replaced.

The pair cut the deck off aft of the winch, cleaned up and repainted the exposed areas and added new stern fendering from Schuyler Rubber. After adding a new hydraulic steering system, they replaced the steel deck aft of the winch and deck crane, a transplant cut from a backhoe in Ketchikan.

“From what I’ve been able to figure out from my research, the winch is a double drum Navy or Markey,” said Bulson. “Someone took a cutting torch and cut the shaft to the second drum. But for us, it’s a winch and it works, and it holds.”

Dixie is powered by a 575-hp Cummins VTA 1710 diesel. “It’s at least 40 years old,” said Bulson. A new shaft and four-blade, stainless-steel 58-inch wheel were installed aft of a monkey rudder, a power train that has proved a success. The tug’s quick response to the helm and pulling power are points of pride for Erik and Bulson.

 “Last year we did a top end on the engine,” said Bulson. “With our service on her it will probably outlast us.”

 “We don’t usually go with snake oil but we installed an Enviro Star platinum injection system a few years ago and after the second year with the system we determined that we were getting a 5 percent fuel saving,” said Erik. “After 250 hours we could still see through the oil. It’s super clean. It reduces the smoke and saves fuel.”

Capt. Erik Freeman on the radio while steering Fremont Tugboat’s General Lee, helping to move the trawler.

The result is a tug with classic looks and exceptional performance for its size and power, and it boasts the throaty rumble of a “made in America” engine.

There is always a tug in recovery at Fremont. Bulson, a welding torch always close to hand, was at work on Yankee, so named, according to Erik, to balance the pair’s enthusiasm for all things Southern. The 34-foot steel-hulled tug was built in 1957. The engine is an 892 GM producing 325 hp.

The Fremont fleet includes two skiffs that are used primarily in tight spots and as bow thrusters while the larger boats do the heavy pulling and pushing. Beside Dixie and Yankee, there is the 45-foot, 365-hp, Cat-powered Grace; the 32-foot, 310-hp Gator, powered by a 892 GM diesel; the 25-foot, 250-hp General Lee, fitted with a 6-71 Detroit Diesel, and the 62-foot tug Blueberry, built in 1941 as a Coast Guard buoy tender on the Columbia River. Blueberry has two 165-hp 6-71 Detroit Diesels for power and a small crane.

With lunch a pleasant memory, the crew shifted Dixie and General Lee next door to Northlake Shipyard to shift the dragger Alaska Provider into dry dock. Erik maneuvered General Lee to the starboard quarter of the dragger, and Bulson and Borneman on Dixie made up a spring line, stern line and head line near the bow of the fishing vessel. Bulson snugged the tug up tight in under the flare of Provider’s bow. Borneman climbed over Dixie’s wheelhouse and stepped across onto the fishing vessel to provide a set of eyes for Bulson.

Applying throttle, Bulson pulled Provider out of its slip. Erik, acting as a bow thruster, nudged the vessel laterally as needed. Once out, the tugs crabbed the dragger over to line up between the dry dock wing walls. Together the tugs wriggled Provider into the dry dock to a point where Dixie had to let go in order for Provider to clear the wing wall. General Lee, looking like the little tug that could, went nose-to-nose with Provider’s bow.

“We might move the same fish boat two or three times to different dry docks or a moorage,” said Erik. “I’ve moved the Enterprise a least 20 times and it’s been different every time. Every yard is different and every slip we go into is different. The other day I had to use one of the big tugs and one of the skiffs to get a boat into a tight slip. It’s really interesting because every day is different.”

Margie and Mark Freeman are surrounded by artifacts, photos and boat models in their museum at the Fremont Tugboat offices.

Back at the Mark Freeman Maritime Museum, Mark and Margie were ensconced amid artifacts and paraphernalia that chronicles tugboating as it was. That, and defending the working waterfront from the relentless onslaught of condominium and residential developers, has become something of a cause for the couple. “I have been advocating our positions with the politicians since 1959 and Margie has taken the lead since 1986,” said Mark. “And it is still one new issue after another.”

The museum acts as both headquarters and sanctuary in the struggle, but it is primarily a display of historical achievement and a record of tugboating. The walls are lined with photos of tugs chosen from more than 250,000 images on the museum’s archiving systems. Mark founded the private museum in 1959, but he had been collecting marine artifacts and building models since he was 8, when he was apprenticed into the tugboat world by Doc Freeman.

In addition, Mark has assembled scrapbooks that extend back to the Civil War and writes Rudderless, a tugboating blog that is followed worldwide. He has a collection of historic marine engines ranging from a steam engine out of the 9-foot-high, 200-hp, Canadian tug Moonlight (Charles H Cates IX) to a two-cylinder Easthope of 12 to 15 hp. Also in the collection are a 1907 single-cylinder Gray and a 4-hp Pierce single cylinder.

 “I have a dozen tug models that I built as a kid out of cedar with a band saw,” said Mark. The collection numbers more than 100 models of tugs and sailing vessels and 10 cabinets full of small ships. “I’d guess that I’ve had a hand in building half of them. Since I never throw anything away, (the collection) just grew. My goal for the museum is to enjoy it every day I’m here and pass it to my family when I’m not.”

By Professional Mariner Staff