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“We cannot have a virus running through these boats”

Jun 2, 2020 04:18 PM
Tugboats from Western Towboat tend to an Alaska Marine Lines barge in February in Seattle.

Casey Conley photo

Tugboats from Western Towboat tend to an Alaska Marine Lines barge in February in Seattle.

In good times and bad, the maritime industry helps keep the U.S. economy moving. For that to happen, boats must be running and crews must be healthy enough to work. 

That’s particularly challenging during a pandemic, but Western Towboat has taken multiple steps to keep coronavirus at bay. These include fewer crew changes to avoid interactions with potentially sick people, and new protocols for crew before they return. 

“We cannot have a virus running through these boats,” Capt. Russell Shrewsbury, the company’s vice president, said in a recent interview.

Western Towboat, based in Seattle not far from the first U.S. hot spot for the virus, runs more than 20 tugboats, primarily hauling cargo barges between Seattle and Alaska for Lynden. These twice-weekly runs fill a critical need for supplies, particularly in southeast Alaska. Western employs about 150 mariners. 

Early in the pandemic, Shrewsbury said the company began limiting crew changes whenever possible. Instead of the normal rotation of one 10-day round trip followed by three days off, Western crews are typically working two round trips. The schedule keeps the same crew together for the entire stretch.

Western also has developed an internal document all crew must fill out before they even get in their cars and start driving to work after any time off. The form asks about their potential interactions with anyone with COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus. It also asks about each mariner’s own health within the previous 72 hours. 

Finally, before anyone steps onto their vessel, someone from the company takes the mariner’s temperature. Western’s crews also now clean the wheelhouse and other workstations with disinfectant wipes before each shift. 

“We want other crew to know everyone is doing their best to protect each other. That way they know the other crew are showing up healthy,” Shrewsbury said. “People want to work, and we need them to work, but we can’t have people coming in sick.” 

Stocking the boats with cleaning supplies, in a city and state badly hit by the pandemic, has become another challenge. Paper products such as toilet paper and paper towels were hard to come by in March across the United States, and those shortages were especially pronounced around Seattle. Grocery items also have been limited in some cases. 

“Luckily we keep a pretty good stock in our warehouse, but we are trying to procure all of these cleaning supplies to keep the boats stocked up,” Shrewsbury said. 

Western joined a long list of Greater Seattle companies doing their part to help the state’s hospitals meet a surge in demand for medical supplies. Shrewsbury donated several dozen N95 respirator masks that were in short supply across much of the country this spring.

“We had about 40 here in the office and we took another 20 off the harbor tugs,” he said. “We use them for chipping and painting, but we don’t need them now. It’s one of the little things we are just trying to do to help.”

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