Wiggins Tug & Barge: A niche on the Oregon coast


“Big boats have big problems; small boats have small problems.”

Gary Snyder, owner of Wiggins Tug & Barge, aboard Thea Knutson, which he bought in 2008.

Grant Snyder can’t remember who told him this, but it is a fundamental truth of his business. It’s not that Snyder doesn’t like big boats. He has worked as a deck hand and mate on a wide range of big boats, from king crabbers to offshore tugs. “But I did my first towing job with a rowboat in Depoe Bay (Ore.) when I was 9 years old. The guy gave me $20 for pulling his boat across the harbor, and I knew that this was the life for me.”

Snyder is the fourth generation of his family working in the maritime industries based on the coast of Oregon and ranging north to Alaska and south along the U.S. Pacific Coast. On long watches at sea, Snyder would puzzle out how he could build his own fleet. Fortunately the maritime community of coastal Oregon is a tight knit and supportive group. “I had the help of a lot of people,” Snyder recalled.

“I bought my first boat from John Knutson who owns Knutson Towboat Company in Coos Bay in 2002,” he explained, of the beginnings of his firm Wiggins Tug & Barge. “The log towing had stopped in Coos Bay, so he sold me the Koos No. 6. It was 28 feet long and 250 hp.”

Snyder found work for the little tug shifting the larger fishing vessels that home port in Newport, Ore. On a recent job he assisted the 128-foot Sea Storm off the processor’s dock on the Newport bay front as they prepared to leave the port. A number of shipyards are located up the Yaquina River and he will move the boats up and downriver from there. Furthest upriver is Yaquina Boat Works, located in the Port of Toledo, 13 miles upriver from the highway bridge at the mouth of Yaquina Bay.

Thea Knutson, towing a commercial fishing boat down the Yaquina River.

The addition of 30-foot barges, some with a beam of 10 feet and others with a beam of 13 feet, proved useful for light moves around the harbor and for construction. Later Snyder added two “dozer boats,” handy shallow draft boats. One is 19 feet and the other is 18 feet long, with 8-foot beams. They have a plumb bow with hard chine hulls and flanking rudders for maneuverability. At 11,000 pounds they can be trailered, with a flag vehicle, from one coastal river to another to take on construction contracts as required.

“In 2008 I needed another boat and John Knutson sold me the Thea Knutson, which is named for John’s grandmother,” said Snyder of the expansion of his little fleet. He subsequently sold Koos No. 6, a decision that he now regrets. But the 38-foot-by-12-foot Thea Knutson has proven to be an excellent addition. Built by Knutson in 1980, the boat is powered by a 465-hp Cummins engine with a Twin Disc 514 gearbox with 3:1 reduction. The engine turns a 42-inch prop in a steerable Kort nozzle to give the boat great maneuverability and a 6-ton bollard pull. “It is great for digging fishing boats out from amongst all the others on the back side of the floats,” enthused Snyder.

Lowell, one of the ‘dozer boats,’ working on the Siletz River breaking up a log jam.

In 2011 the Port of Newport got a major addition when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration moved its Pacific research fleet’s base to Yaquina Bay from Seattle’s Lake Union. It has also added significantly to the Wiggins client list. Newport is now the homeport of the research vessels Miller Freeman, McArthur II, Rainier, Oscar Dyson and Bell M. Shimada.

Snyder also serves another research project, the experimental electrical generating buoys being deployed in the Pacific swells off Newport. Snyder tows these 80-foot-long wave energy buoys out over the Yaquina Bar to be anchored farther offshore. Snyder finds Thea Knutson just a bit too short to handle the length of the seas encountered while getting over the bar. In 2009 he had purchased the 45-foot-by-14-foot Peggy Foss from Foss Maritime and ran it down from Seattle. With a 7-foot draft aft and a steerable nozzle with a 58-by-56-inch prop turned by a 475-hp Cat 343, “It is a little bit more boat for towing out the wave buoys,” he said. “For this winter, I have stationed her upriver at Toledo to be available for service to the local boat yards for vessel and work barge shifting.”

As with all the vessels in his Wiggins fleet, Peggy is painted in a distinctive green and orange color scheme with a W displayed proudly as a stack logo. Snyder has clearly come home from sea without leaving the sea. He has found a niche that gives him the best of both worlds.

By Professional Mariner Staff