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From barges to bovines, Foss tug crews keep pace in paradise

Jun 4, 2019 02:04 PM
The Foss Maritime tugboats Mikioi, left, and Pi’ilani pull the Matson containership Daniel K. Inouye off the terminal pier in Honolulu Harbor. The tugs routinely handle eight to 10 jobs in a 12-hour span.

The Foss Maritime tugboats Mikioi, left, and Pi’ilani pull the Matson containership Daniel K. Inouye off the terminal pier in Honolulu Harbor. The tugs routinely handle eight to 10 jobs in a 12-hour span.

Matson’s Daniel K. Inouye was approaching a dogleg turn in Honolulu Harbor when Capt. Cameron Andrews swung the Foss tugboat Pi’ilani from the containership’s transom to the starboard quarter. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, came the overpowering smell of farm animals.

Sure enough, about 30 feet up on the ship’s aft deck stood a multilevel livestock shipping pen. Calves weighing more than 400 pounds were about to embark on a long voyage to the mainland United States.

“One thing we do export is cows,” Andrews said. “They breed them on the Big Island and send them to Texas to fatten them up.”

Pi’ilani is the second Dolphin-class tugboat built by Foss at its former Rainier, Ore., shipyard. The vessel joined the company’s Hawaii fleet in 2009. Capt.

Living cargo is just one quirk about working on the water in Honolulu, Hawaii’s capital city and biggest port. Another is the sheer volume of work that awaits Foss tug crews each day. The harbor is always busy with U.S.-flagged cargo ships from Pasha and Matson, cruise ships, tankers and interisland barges coming and going.

Given the city’s location roughly 2,500 miles west of Los Angeles and 3,800 miles east of Tokyo, steady maritime commerce isn’t surprising. Just about everything that arrives in Hawaii gets here by boat. When the cargo reaches Honolulu, much of it gets separated and delivered to neighboring islands.

“It’s pretty normal within a 12-hour span to do eight, nine, 10 jobs,” said Andrews, who joined Foss’ Honolulu operation in 2017 as a captain. “As you can tell, these boats are moving all the time.”

Cameron Andrews joined Foss’ Honolulu operation two years ago. He enjoys the fast pace and steady work in the harbor.

Foss has four tugs in Honolulu’s compact harbor. Located between the famed Waikiki district and the international airport, the crescent-shaped waterway is no more than 2.5 miles from end to end. The sea buoy, where tugs meet inbound vessels, is just a half mile offshore from Sand Island, home to Matson’s terminal. Foss tugs also serve the bulk cargo facility 12 miles away at Barbers Point Harbor.

Tidal changes are minimal, and the harbor is well protected from the ocean swells that gave Hawaii its reputation as a surfing mecca. Recreational vessels are not allowed in the harbor, but there is a sizable foreign fishing fleet. Wind is perhaps the biggest variable for harbor tug crews.

“We are on the lee side of the island, so normally the wind comes from the northeast, and generally we are blocked from it (by mountains),” Andrews said. “But if we get anything other than from the northeast, we get hammered by it.”

Such was the case on this sunny, warm Saturday in February as winds gusted to 25 knots from the northwest. “This is probably the hardest time to come in because the currents are all crazy and the wind is blowing,” he said.

Engineers William Reyes and Aaron Lanet joined Andrews for his first job of the day aboard the 78-foot Pi’ilani. It was one they all knew well, assisting a tug and barge from sister company Young Brothers into a container yard at Pier 39 on the western side of the harbor.

Andrews backed the 5,080-hp tugboat away from the Foss dock at Pier 21 and spun the Rolls-Royce z-drives 180 degrees. The vessel chugged past the iconic Aloha Tower lighthouse and downtown high-rises, as well as the cruise terminal and foreign-flagged container port, on its way to the sea buoy.

Kapena Raymond Alapai is positioned at the port hip after guiding the cargo barge Ha’aheo into a berth at the Young Brothers yard in Honolulu.

The 6,000-hp Kapena Raymond Alapai approached the harbor with the 340-by-90-foot barge Ha’aheo in tow. Capt. Jeb Baker had already shortened the line and eased off the throttles for a controlled entry. Pi’ilani stood by as the vessels passed at 7.5 knots, then pressed against Ha’aheo’s starboard stern. Lanet climbed aboard and got a line onto the barge.

Getting a line out at that speed, in frequently rough conditions, is one of the toughest parts of the job. “When we put our lines up at the sea buoy when the ships are coming in, they are doing between 8 and 10 knots,” Andrews said. “We don’t put our lines up in protected waters. … Sometimes (ships are) 10 or 15 feet out there when we are trying to put our lines up going 10 knots.”

Kapena Raymond Alapai slowed to about 3 knots once it reached a turning basin on the harbor’s western flank. Baker swung the tug around to Ha’aheo’s port-side hip, and Pi’ilani got a line on the barge’s port stern. Baker issued a handful of commands to Pi’ilani as it spun the barge about 90 degrees for its final approach into the terminal.

The 6,000-hp Kapena Raymond Alapai approaches Honolulu Harbor after a 24-hour voyage from Hilo with Ha’aheo.

Young Brothers’ core business involves moving cargo from one Hawaiian island to another, although it also carries some freight that arrives from the mainland. Young Brothers serves all of the major islands in the chain at least once a week. Ha’aheo was about half full on this return trip from Hilo, roughly 24 hours away by boat on the island of Hawaii. It carried vehicles, cement and dump trucks, building supplies and dozens of containers.

Kapena Raymond Alapai’s mate called out distances to the pier from Ha’aheo’s starboard quarter. He also issued commands to Pi’ilani, which pushed on the barge’s port quarter. After about 10 minutes, Ha’aheo was safely in position.

By then, Daniel K. Inouye, Matson’s newest containership, was ready to sail. Pi’ilani and its Dolphin-class sibling Mikioi took positions on the ship’s port quarter and bow flare, respectively. After releasing the mooring lines, Tom Heberle of the Hawaii Pilots Association ordered both tugs to begin backing with one-third power.

Engineers William Reyes, left, and Aaron Lanet stand by on Pi’ilani’s bow as Kapena Raymond Alapai and Ha’aheo pass by near the harbor entrance.

The northwesterly wind blew directly at the stern stacked with six rows of containers, most of which were empty. Matson and Pasha ships typically arrive in Hawaii loaded with cargo bound for grocers, building suppliers and wholesale stores like Costco. But they return to the mainland with substantially lighter loads. Livestock, coffee and exotic fruits and nuts are some of the local products shipped back for mainland consumers.

Daniel K. Inouye’s speed increased to 5 knots in the main channel with the stiff wind blowing on its stern. Pi’ilani had a line on the transom to check the ship’s speed as it approached the dogleg near the channel entrance. The tug vibrated and bucked as it worked against the massive vessel.

“He needs us to help slow down, so he will have Mikioi push the bow around, which is another crazy move to be a part of,” Andrews explained. “We are doing 5 knots and he is trying to come in and push on the 90.”

Foss, Young Brothers and Kirby tugboats tie up at Pier 21 in Honolulu Harbor. The mountain ridge running across much of Oahu helps block winds from the northeast.

“Those are the things you can’t do with bigger tugs,” he continued, “and it is hard to do in these tugs — to be driving backward at 5 knots under the flare of a ship, and trying to come in and push.”

Mikioi was the first Dolphin-class tug built by Foss at its former shipyard in Rainier, Ore. The compact tug was designed by Robert Allan Ltd. for Foss subsidiary Hawaiian Tug & Barge, which has since been rebranded as Foss. Morgan Foss, the second Dolphin-class tug, joined Foss’ Honolulu fleet in 2009 as Pi’ilani.

Mikioi is a little different than its sister tugs. Built as a true day boat, it lacks overnight accommodations. At 4,730 hp, it is also slightly less powerful than Pi’ilani, which has two staterooms and taller stacks, among other tweaks. Both vessels are powered by Caterpillar 3512 engines paired with Rolls-Royce z-drives. Markey electric winches are installed fore and aft.

Matson’s new containership Daniel K. Inouye helps keep grocers, retail shops and the islands’ popular Costco stores stocked.

Foss does nearly all of the commercial ship-assist work in Honolulu Harbor, but it is by no means the only tug operator. Kirby has a robust bunkering operation there, and Sause Brothers tows Matson container barges between islands.

Mikioi retrieved its line and remained alongside Daniel K. Inouye’s bow as the ship approached the final dogleg in the harbor. Over the radio, Heberle asked Pi’ilani to collect its line. “Let me know when you are in position and ready for them to lower it down,” the pilot said.

Andrews acknowledged the order and pushed ahead toward the transom, while Reyes stood ready to haul in the high-performance Cortland Plasma synthetic rope. Once that was complete, in one graceful motion Andrews swung the tug around to the port quarter just below the livestock pens. With the wind now broadside to the ship, he remained in position just in case the pilot needed a push. The request never came, however, and the ship was now pointed toward open water.

Pi’ilani returns home shortly before sunset after assisting Young Brothers’ chartered tug Montana and barge Maka’ala off the company dock.

From start to finish, the job took about 40 minutes. That’s part of the appeal for Andrews, who grew up in Southern California and worked for Foss in Red Dog, Alaska, before joining its Hawaii service. Another perk is the chance to go home every night when his 12-hour shift ends at 2300.

“I like the quicker pace,” he said as the tug returned to Pier 21. “This is a slow day. We are only doing six jobs today.”

At least that was the plan. A major winter storm was bearing down on Hawaii with 60-mph winds and 25-foot seas, and dispatchers at Young Brothers and Foss were considering a series of schedule changes and barge shifting to get ahead of it.

Such is the price of working in paradise.

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