After 65 years, growing Western Towboat fleet still moves gravel around Puget Sound

Feb 26, 2014 04:22 PM
The Western Towboat vessel Wasp tows an empty barge into locks in Seattle.

The Western Towboat vessel Wasp tows an empty barge into locks in Seattle.

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Ric and Bob Shrewsbury’s dad started a tug company in 1948. “It was all general towing around Puget Sound,” Ric Shrewsbury explained recently. Four years later the Salmon Bay Sand & Gravel Co. became a client. That firm had a facility on the Lake Washington Ship Canal just up from the locks that bring boats into Lake Union. The company, owned by the Nerdrum family, takes its name from the bay where salmon congregate after coming out of the locks on their journey from the sea through Lake Union and Lake Washington to their natal rivers.

“My dad did the Salmon Bay contract on a handshake with Nerdrum. Now both our companies are moving to the third generation,” Shrewsbury said.

Capt. Ryan Johnson operates the controls in the towboat’s wheelhouse.

Under the ownership of the Shrewsbury brothers, Western Towboat has followed the lead set by their father to expand operations into Alaska. They have done much more than expand their towing range. They have built, in their own yard, a fleet of vessels that are among the most modern and powerful ocean towing vessels on the Pacific Coast. This magazine covered the quality of these boats and their role in towing container barges to Alaska in 2007 (PM #102, February/March 2007).

Tows to all parts of Alaska have become the backbone of Western Towboat’s business. “But towing gravel and other products in Puget Sound still makes up between 10 and 15 percent of our business,” Shrewsbury said. The shorter tows in the relatively sheltered waters of Puget Sound serve as a good training ground for new skippers, he pointed out.

Some of the tows are with Western’s own barges but they continue to tow Salmon Bay’s gravel barges as well. At 1130 on a beautiful September day, the 62-by-18-foot tug Wasp made up to Western’s side-wall-fitted flat-deck barge Western Provider. The bridles have evolved for Puget Sound work to use 18 feet of 2-inch Poly-Dac line shackled to 36 feet of 1-inch wire that is, in turn, shackled to an eye on the end of the 1,500-foot-long main towline. This makes it easier and safer for the deck crews to handle while adding a little give to the line when towing.
The 250-by-70-foot barge would have to pass through the 80-foot-wide lock that connects the Lake Washington Ship Canal to Shilshole Bay and Puget Sound. This makes for a tight fit with only five feet on either side. As is the usual practice, Shrewsbury comes out in the little 38-foot, 400-hp single-screw tug Flyer. With a steerable nozzle, this highly maneuverable boat makes a good assist tug. He will tail the barge down the canal and into the locks.

Deck hand Sajo Sunde throws a line to Joe Bailey, Wasp’s mate, as the men begin making up the tow.

On board Wasp, Capt. Ryan Johnson is directing mate Joe Bailey, who has climbed onto the barge, and deck hand Sajo Sunde in making up to the barge. With tugs made up fore and aft they move down the narrow canal and under the Ballard Bridge. A 45-foot elevation means the bridge doesn’t have to open for the tow which continues on down past the Fishermen’s Terminal and Salmon Bay to the locks. Shrewsbury and Johnson, who is still on the front of the barge, keep in touch on the radio as the tow enters the lock. Then with the barge secured to the lock wall, Shrewsbury turns back out of the lock and Wasp and its tow are on their own. The lock crews know the Western Towboat people well, especially on the local boats, and so there is time to exchange predictions on various football teams and their players while the water drains and the tow lowers from lake to sea level.

By 1300 the tow is clear of the lock and headed out among the sport fishing boats of Shilshole Bay. Turning south to pass West Point and then, with Elliott Bay and the Seattle Waterfront on the port quarter, a low fog bank masks Seattle with the Space Needle and a few of the tallest buildings showing above. Sport fishing boats and sailboats appear out of the fog bank on their quest for salmon and breezes. Johnson lets out about 500 feet of towline from the single-drum towing winch. The Wasp wheelhouse is designed so that the skipper can step back from the portside jog stick to work a set of winch controls beside the cabin’s back door. This gives good visibility to the towing winch while allowing the master to keep an eye ahead as well. There is virtually no wind in the Sound and with the tow shortened up like this there is still enough wire to allow a good speed. Western Provider is well behaved and follows well with no shearing. At 1,665 rpm on Wasp’s twin 3408 Cats, the tow moves along at a comfortable 7.7 knots with a 150-degree heading on the Sperry autopilot.

At 1330 fog envelops the tow off Alki Point but the afternoon sun soon burns it off. Johnson has gone to get some rest and Bailey has the watch. Vessel Traffic reports that there are no scheduled commercial salmon fisheries on today’s route that will take the vessels about 12 nm down West Pass between Vashon Island and the Olympic Peninsula. This route is a little shorter and avoids the deep-draft vessels coming in and out of Tacoma that use East Pass on the other side of Vashon. At 1540 the tow is abeam the bottom-end of Vashon Island, with Tacoma and Mount Rainier showing up to port.

Ten minutes later Point Defiance is abeam and Wasp enters the 2.5-mile-long Tacoma Narrows. The destination is the Cal-Portland gravel loading dock at Dupont about 10 miles below the bottom end of the Tacoma Narrows. The Narrows are spanned by the twin Tacoma bridges. Tides under the bridges and in the Narrows run at up to 4 knots. With this run scheduled to take advantage of the day’s 3.8-knot flood tide, the tow is soon whipping along at nearly 10 knots. A northbound tug pushing a gravel barge passes red-to-red, then Wasp overtakes Dunlap Towing’s tug Swinomish towing a log boom. At 1600 Wasp passes the log tow and is quickly under the Narrow’s twin bridges.

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