Starting a tugboat company is hard enough at any location. Now imagine trying to launch a tug and barge business with one tug and two barges in a territory covering 1,000 miles of remote river route that is frozen over and impassable more than half the year, and where your principal competitor is one of the largest tug and barge operators in North America.
The sheer physical challenges would be enough to deter most of us, but Matt Sweetsir, president of newly founded Ruby Marine Tug & Barge Line of Nenana, Alaska, figures he knows what he’s doing.
Alaska’s Yukon River is his territory, and Sweetsir has been in the Yukon barge business for almost three decades, most recently as president of Yutana Barge Lines until it was acquired by Crowley Marine Service in 2005.
He subsequently worked for Crowley during a transition period and now has joined with his wife and brother in founding a new company built around the newly-built 1,000-hp tug Yukon and two 150-foot new multi-cargo barges.
The 72-foot, triple-screw push boat departed from Fred Wahl’s Oregon shipyard, where it was built, in mid-April, heading north to the mouth of the Yukon, where it was slated to meet up with its two new barges that were being ferried north from the Louisiana shipyard where they were built. Come June, Yukon and its two barges are expected to be heading upriver for a summer of fuel and cargo deliveries to several dozen small villages along the 1,000-mile stretch of this river as far inland as Fort Yukon on the Arctic Circle.
Alaska’s famous Yukon River, which stretches some 2,000 miles from the Bering Sea to its source in British Columbia, is fully navigable at least for its first half. Because of the shallow nature of tributaries to the Yukon, however, the tug Yukon was designed with a maximum draft of about 3.5 feet. Its three 38-inch propellers are tucked up into tunnels built into its swept-up stern with its three rudders projecting no further down than the lower blade tips. The tug was designed by Frank Basile of Entech & Associates, Houma, La. (By comparison, the 75-foot inland towboat Capt. Lance Dragon, featured elsewhere in this issue, was designed with a maximum draft of more than 10 feet.)
“You might be operating in a mile-wide river with an easily discernible 20-foot-deep channel at one point, and then when you get into a tributary, you might be operating at dead slow in a channel less than four feet deep that changes on a daily basis with a small boat out ahead of you taking soundings with a fathometer and a marked stick,” said Sweetsir, who holds a 1,600-ton license and has years of experience operating on the river.
“We have pilots who are part of the crew, plus our crewmembers themselves are very experienced,” he added. Sweetsir said the tug Yukon will operate with a five-person crew, and that all crewmembers are also licensed tankermen.
There are about 30 villages serviced by tug and barge on the Yukon, according to Sweetsir, and all of them have populations of fewer than 1,000. While his barges can each carry about 170,000 gallons of liquid cargo, the total market for oil and fuel on the river is about 7 to 8 million gallons in a single season, he said.
Ruby Marine’s new barges, named Melozi and Novi, are tank barges with multiple compartments. They also have strengthened decks to facilitate carrying mixed dry cargo on deck. The company, working with an affiliated freight company, anticipates that it will be able to carry smaller allotments of freight and fuel — maybe just a few boxes of household items for a single customer — and make more frequent stops than its competitor.
“Crowley is huge, there’s no denying that,” said Sweetsir. “But in our case it’s probably better to be tiny than to be a larger, more serious competitive threat. We are so small that it’s possible that Crowley won’t even consider us as a competitor. Plus, most of the fuel delivery is done by bidding, so we are on an equal playing field in that sense.”
Sweetsir said that since he has been working on the river for close to 30 years, he knows just about everyone involved with the business.
“The way I see it, there is not really a business barrier to entry,” he explained. “The real barrier to entry is local knowledge. There is definitely a local knowledge requirement that is very onerous.”
Crowley became the major, dominant provider of fuel and freight services on the Yukon in 2005 when it acquired the Alaska-based fuel distribution business of Northland Fuel, including the assets of Yukon Fuel Co. and the assets of Yutana Barge Lines.
Yukon Fuel, based in Anchorage, and Yutana Barge Lines, based in Nenana, have been in business in this region since the early 1900s. Crowley itself has been in business in Alaska since 1953 and maintains a storage terminal in Nome near the mouth of the Yukon, along with other staging facilities. In 2004 Crowley introduced a new 76-foot, 1,350-hp, shallow-draft tugboat, Navik, for service in remote Alaskan river communities. The company also introduced a new 180-foot combination bulk liquid/dry cargo barge to go with its new tug.
Ruby Marine has established a base and shipyard in Nenana, about 200 river miles east of Fort Yukon on the Tanana River. The company is named for the village of Ruby, also located on the river, with a population of several hundred people.