Pacific Titan’s skilled crew keeps Alaskans supplied

Capt. Doug Myers instructs trainee Aaron Magman in the tying of basic knots. [Photos by Alan Haig-Brown]

For most Southeast Alaskan towns, scheduled container barge services are the only means other than airfreight of getting goods from the lower 48 states. On a recent run in late September, Western Towboat’s Pacific Titan towed a deck barge loaded with 560 TEUs of containers.

The trip of about 500 miles up through Canada — across the Gulf of Georgia, through Seymour Narrows, up Johnstone Strait and out into Queen Charlotte Sound — had been marked by fair weather. At Cape Caution, half way up the Canadian segment, the wind was still holding off and Capt. Doug Myers made the call to “go up the outside.”

“This saves me 20 miles or two hours and keeps me out of the heavier traffic in the narrow places like Lama Pass by Bella Bella,” he explained, as he set a course out past the lighthouse on rocky little Egg Island and beyond to Pearl Rocks.

Keeping the weather shore of a chain of islands well off to starboard, Myers maintained the 1,800-foot length of towline that mate Scott VanDusen had set earlier in the morning to accommodate the 6-foot ground swells that he encountered when the tow came out of the lee provided by Vancouver Island.

“We have a 100-mile stretch of open water up past McInnes (Island Light),” he said, “It is better to dump wire than to work the throttles on every swell.”

The single-drum winch on Pacific Titan carries 2,800 feet of 2.25-inch wire. From where they stand at the z-drive controls, the vessel’s operators can see down three decks to the layers of wire on the drum and then back to the hydraulic tow pins and the wire entering the water. Myers watched the wire off the stern to see how hard the tug was pulling and how much the barge was surging on the end of it. Visibility is remarkable on this boat — from the same position, he can see the forward deck winch as well.

At 110-by-35-feet with over 21 feet of draft, Pacific Titan is a big, heavy boat. With the stern locked down by the towline, the boat rolls confidently in the ground swell. After rolling their way up past McInnes Island, the boat and tow returned to

The 108-foot, 5,000-hp Pacific Titan on Lynn Canal in southeastern Alaska.

sheltered waters at Camano Sound and began working up Principe Channel to the narrow Petrel Channel.


Capt. Myers had studied the current tables and decided this route would give the tow more fair tidal current than the Grenville Channel option. Once inside the sheltered waters the tug slowed, allowing the barge to catch up so that the mate and a deck hand could do the daily check of the refrigerated containers. The reefers are run off electrical power from two diesel-powered generators mounted in containers stowed in with the others.

On the passage up through Canadian waters, the three licensed members of the crew rotated watches on a six-and-four rotation. This gave third mate Jason Miller the 2300-to-0300 watch that saw the tow through most of Petrel Channel. By 0700, when Myers came back on watch, the tow was already crossing Dixon Entrance and preparing to enter U.S. waters at Lord Rocks. He checked out of the Prince Rupert-based Canadian vessel traffic system and attempted to make his usual report to the U.S. Coast Guard in Juneau. To his surprise, he learned that procedures had changed, and he would now be required to fax or e-mail complete vessel information, including crew list, to the new National Vessel Movement Center.

In the gray morning light Dixon Entrance was on good behavior, with 15 knots of wind out of the southwest pushing whitecaps off the top of big, lazy ground swells. The wind was holding the barge well over to starboard but not presenting any problem. The tow had been shortened up to about 800 feet for the haul through narrow Petrel Channel. Now Myers let out an extra 300 feet of wire. To do this he simply released the winch’s airbrake with a chromed lever on the wheelhouse console and spooled line off the drum with a second lever beside the first one. No one has to put on a life jacket or rain gear to go out on deck or spin a heavy brake wheel. In every segment of the workday, the Titan-class of Western Towboat bears testament to owners Ric and Bob Shrewsbury’s considerable time actually driving tugs. Not a day goes by on Pacific Titan without some reference to the brothers’ commitment to quality in their 18-boat fleet, almost all of which their company built itself in the parking lot at the Seattle base.

Powered by twin Cat 3516B diesels, the boat heads noth from Juneau to Haines.

Even the deck hands have their Bob Shrewsbury stories. “Western Towboat’s philosophy is,” said deck hand Andy Beeler, “if you’re using a lot of paint, it is probably going to the right place.”

Beeler, who learned about paint in an auto body shop, put his considerable skills and pride to work on Pacific Titan not only with painting but also with polishing. The engine room — anywhere it is not Caterpillar yellow or pristine white — tends toward highly polished metal.

Beeler also told of earning one the owner’s infamous “head nods.” The deck hand had been throwing a heaving line to Bob Shrewsbury at a dock in San Francisco. “After I missed twice, he just looked at me and shook his head,” Andy recalled. Even such a simple gesture from Shrewsbury was enough for Beeler to make damn sure he knew how to handle a heaving line the next time.

An hour or so after entering Alaskan waters, the tow had moved into the lee of Prince of Wales Island. By 1135 it was off Ketchikan. Myers hauled in the towline until the pigtail was over the stern.

 “This saves wear on my towline, and the pigtail can rub back and forth across the stern because the cap is all stainless steel there, because that is just the kind of guy Bob is,” explained Myers.

Before entering the confines of Tongass Narrows between the Ketchikan airport and the harbor front, Myers put the boat onto the barge’s forward starboard quarter. A spring and stern line were already made up there, and the crew was quick and practiced in making these two fast. A synthetic line attached to a wire was set out from the bow winch, and Myers, again from the wheelhouse, cinched it in tight.
Finally a second synthetic headline was secured to a forward bollard as a safety line.

With the tug made up to the barge, Titan’s z-drives earned their keep, as Myers turned the whole barge and moved it to position just outside the row of dolphins to which it would be secured to line up with a loading ramp midships on the barge. Then, at 1225, Myers went down on the barge to direct by VHF as Second Mate Jason Miller operated the two z-drive controls.

 “In board ahead … Both engines in gear … Go to straight ahead … Swing until you see the airport … Easy on both straight ahead … Steady up …” So went the commands to the mate in the wheelhouse from the captain in a position where he could see the dolphins.

Ethan B., a 68-foot tug operated by Amak Towing, assists Pacific Titan’s barge in Skagway.

In other landings, the roles might be reversed, but Myers always does the Ketchikan landing, as it involves tucking a 330-by-100-foot barge with containers stacked five high into a slot not much longer than the barge. A small craft marina on one side and a ferry dock on the other side make it a tight fit. With a pair of Cat 3516B engines putting out nearly 2,500 hp each, it is easy to do a lot of damage very quickly.
At 1235, the wheelhouse radio crackled with Myers’ directions to Miller. “Straight back … A little towards on the back up … A little more backup … Straight back … All stop … Use a little bit of the current and Mother Nature.”

At 1255 all the lines were in place and the barge was secure. The final command came over the VHF: “Log it.”

This is the signal for whichever of the two mates is on watch to join the captain and the two deck hands on the barge. The crew gets paid additional hourly wages for all the longshore work they do. This involves a whole set of skills not routinely practiced in most maritime work. The barge carries two big forklifts that can take containers off a five-high stack and deliver them to the shoreside ramp, where they are picked up by the yard’s loaders and taken to storage. With all the Ketchikan freight offloaded, the crew then loaded way-freight that will be dropped off at other ports farther north.

At 1600 all the containers had been exchanged, and Myers was back on the tug to peel the barge off the dock using his port z-drive to pull the barge sideways. Once clear of Tongass Narrows, the tug moved into a towing position and began the next leg north toward Wrangle Narrows.

Wrangle Narrows
On Pacific Titan‘s 10-day schedule from Seattle to Southeast Alaska and back there are two passages for which Myers always takes the helm. The first is Seymour Narrows, and the second is the much longer Wrangle Narrows leading north from Sumner Strait to Petersburg and out to the south end of Frederick Sound.

On Sept. 24, 2006, the tug and barge arrived at the southern approaches to Wrangle Narrows just before 0100. The Alaska State ferry Taku had sent out a securite announcement that it was southbound in the narrows. The AIS showed it to be 354 feet long with a beam of 141 feet and doing 12.8 knots with six miles to go.

Myers, deciding to wait in Stikine Strait for the ferry to clear the narrows before he entered, slowed from his 1,530-rpm cruising speed to 600 rpm and got the tow down to less than 4 knots. At the same time, he brought the wire up until a wrap of pigtail chain was wound onto the winch drum so that the crew could inspect the bridle and gear.

Given the weight of the big container barges, Western Towboat chooses to form their bridles from three shackles joining the heavy chains. As is common on many modern towing winches, the level wind on the Rapp Hydema winch is offset to allow the shackle that joins the wire to the pigtail to pass through, so that a couple of wraps of chain can be taken onto the drum. It is possible to do all of this from the pilothouse controls without anyone on deck, although Myers might have one of the deck crew adjust the level wind to assure a good lay on the drum.

With the tow short-coupled, Myers maneuvered it off to one side of the entrance to the narrows. By the time he had circled once, the ferry had cleared the narrows. As the tow entered the 14-mile channel, the white light on Point Alexander passed to starboard. Other lights and reflectors, red on the starboard side and green to port, began showing in the tug’s big spotlight. The flood tide current enters Wrangle Narrows from both ends. Now the flood was pushing the tow along at nearly 3 knots. Myers had the big Cats purring at 1,345 rpm, but with the current created by the tide, the tow was still making about 10 knots. “I could control the tow at 1,200 rpm,” Myers said, “but I want to get this run done and get home.”

This was not a cavalier statement on the captain’s part. The container barge run to Southeast Alaska is very much about schedules. For towns with no road access, everything from new cars to ice cream comes by boat. As Pacific Titan and the container barge Sitka Provider moved through the darkness, the deeper dark that marked the trees along the shore provided a reminder of just how challenging this supply line can be.

The first 13 miles of Wrangle Narrows is the narrowest and boasts 50 navigational aids, including three sets of range lights. The first range, Burnt Island, came into sight just as a light layer of fog was forming on the water. Before entering the narrows, Myers had let the chain out so that just the first couple of links of the pigtail rested on the bulwarks. Now, with the tow pins retracted, the shackle worked back and forth across the tug’s stern, as Myers turned the tug through the slalom of lights that mark the 300-foot-wide channel. With the tide set to rise to a 16-foot high, draft in the channel was not a concern that night. But Meyers does need at least 4 feet of tide to transit the channel, as it has only a 20-foot depth on a zero tide.

In Juneau a fishing vessel is loaded aboard the barge at the end of the gillnetting season for transport back to Seattle.

As Myers calmly retraced the route that he has done innumerable times spanning a decade, he swung the spotlight about to check rocky points going by to port and starboard. Then out of the haze of fog and rain, a tree appeared dead center in the channel. Myers began a turn to starboard that would bring his 110-foot tug and 330-foot barge clear of the rocky islet and in line for the next set of red and green channel markers.

This was Green Rock and showed that the tow was nearing the wide section known as Scow Bay. On the starboard side at the north end of Scow Bay, the Alaska Marine Lines dock is similar to several in the big-tide land of Southeast Alaska. A set of sturdy steel dolphins is arranged to moor the full length of the barge so that it lines up with a shore section midships. On this section, a forklift on shore sets a pad on which the two forklifts carried on the barge can place the containers coming off the barge. The tug crew drives the half-million-dollar forklifts in an elaborate dance around the crowded barge deck as they hand off containers to their partners on shore.

The driving of a forklift is part of the training for most new deck hands. At one landing, Myers told VanDusen to take a keen young deck hand to ride with him in his forklift at this stop, explaining, “I want him able to work that forklift on cargo within a month.”

VanDusen had the younger man soloing with in an hour, “He is a good thinker,” said VanDusen, as he watched his protégé handle a container, “so I let him drive until he makes a mistake and then tell him. He’ll learn quick.”

A willingness to jump in and learn quickly marks the successful crewmember, and each new one is watched for that essential trait. At the same time, senior crewmembers and licensed personnel are always quick with a compliment for a good job. The owners provide a role model of jumping in to do virtually anything themselves that they would ask the most junior crew. Along with several varieties of really good coffee, this Seattle towboating style works. 

By Professional Mariner Staff