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A new bird heads north to Southeast Alaska for Olympic Tug & Barge

Apr 29, 2013 02:56 PM
Kestrel in Seattle undergoing final preparations for its first trip north.

Photos by Brian Gauvin

Kestrel in Seattle undergoing final preparations for its first trip north.

In late November 2012 the crew of Kestrel was preparing their brand new tug for its maiden voyage to Alaska.

Olympic Tug & Barge, a division of Harley Marine Services, had taken delivery of the 94-foot, 3,000-hp ocean-towing tug on Oct. 5. Olympic had sent a four-man delivery crew to Halimar Shipyard in Morgan City, La., where they had gone aboard and shepherded the boat across the Gulf of Mexico, through the Panama Canal and up the West Coast to Seattle.

Now the boat sat at the dock at Olympic’s Seattle base of operations on Elliott Bay. On board the crew was putting on the finishing touches — cleaning, maintenance and checking out systems. The following day, they would cast off and head north for a rendezvous in Ketchikan with the tug’s partner, PM 230, a 220-foot-long, 28,000-barrel barge owned by Petro Marine Services, based in Seward, Alaska.

Capt. Jim Chierichetti.

The tug and barge were about to begin operating in the intricate waterways of Southeast Alaska, providing fuel to logging and mining camps, indigenous villages, and fishing resorts as well as larger communities such at Juneau and Sitka. These camps and communities stretched along the 500-mile length of Alaska’s Inside Passage have no roads linking them to the outside world. So they are dependent on vessels like Kestrel and PM 230 to supply them with the diesel, gasoline and jet fuel needed to maintain their way of life.

Taking a vessel on its first working voyage is of course a special moment for any crew, but that was especially true for Jim Chierichetti, who had the honor of serving as captain on the first trip north.

“It’s going to be pretty nice. I’m ready to go,” he said, adding of the shipyard, “They did a nice job on the boat.

Chierichetti was hired about a year ago by Olympic specifically to serve as captain on the Southeast Alaska run. While Olympic was waiting for construction of Kestrel to be completed, Chierichetti served as captain of Kestrel’s predecessor, Ernest Campbell, a 107-foot, twin-screw boat that remains in the Olympic fleet.

Jimmy Willis, who would serve as engineer on this first trip, observed that enthusiasm about the boat was widespread in the company. Many wanted to be part of the crew that brought Kestrel from the shipyard to Seattle. Picking the ones to go for that trip was not easy, he recalled. “We almost had to hold a lottery” to decide, he said.

As Olympic Tug & Barge’s general manager, Sven Christensen has responsibility for Kestrel and its crew. “I think these guys are tickled pink to have a new boat,” he said. “The feedback we’ve had from the guys is good.”

Olympic Tug & Barge’s General Manager Sven Christensen, who grew up in Anchorage and spent a substantial part of his career as a mariner working in Southeast Alaska.

A kestrel is a small bird of prey whose range includes Alaska. Christensen described the tug as “a compact boat” named after a “small but very aggressive falcon.”

The boat has an operating crew of six: captain, mate, two tankermen, engineer and deck hand.

Christensen may be based in Seattle, but his personal and professional experience have given him a deep knowledge of the waters of the Northwest, especially Alaska.

He grew up in Anchorage in a family that loved sailing. That meant spending a lot of time with his father on sailboats on Prince William Sound. As a young man, he spent a year with his father on their 40-foot sailboat, a time that took him to Seattle, through the Panama Canal to Florida and later across the Atlantic.

Christensen earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash. But he is a hawsepiper who learned his job skills on the water. His first job aboard tugs was as a cook. He also worked as a deck hand on a small cruise ship Exxon chartered to house workers during the Exxon Valdez oil spill cleanup in Prince William Sound in 1989. In Southeast Alaska, he spent several years working in the logging industry, serving as mate and captain aboard a single-screw YTM (ex- Navy tug) used by Silver Bay Logging for marshalling logs.

“I did a lot of that in Southeast Alaska,” he said.

He also spent two years as a commercial diver operating out of Ketchikan, so in addition to learning his skills from the bottom to top, he learned the waters from top to bottom.

He has worked as a deck hand for Western Towboat on the Columbia River and as a deck hand on pilot boats out of Ketchikan. As an AB aboard Campbell Towing’s L.T. Campbell, he traveled as far as the Russian Far East.

Engineer Jimmy Willis with one of the two 1,500-hp Caterpillar 3512C Tier II engines.

“I went to a lot of interesting places and saw a lot of interesting things,” he said.

Clearly he is familiar with the waters where Kestrel will operate. He believes Kestrel should be well suited to the work. The 94-foot tug has a beam of 32 feet and gets 3,000 hp from its two Caterpillar 3512C engines and Twin Disc gears that turn twin screws in open wheels. The open wheels, he said, will increase the boat’s maneuverability. His  own experience of running tugs tells him the open wheels have other advantages. “If anything ever got caught (in the prop), it was easier to get out,” he said.

Ernest Campbell, Kestrel’s predecessor, was built in 1969 in Slidell, La., and rebuilt in 1989 in Morgan City, La. So the tug is now in its mid-40s. Christensen hopes Kestrel will have a similar record of longevity. “This will take over (from Ernest Campbell) hopefully for a long time,” he said.

Kestrel was designed by Frank Basile’s naval architecture firm, Entech & Associates in Houma, La. The tug closely resembles ones Basile designed for Vane Brothers, a company based in Baltimore with operations along the East Coast. The Vane Brothers tugs have the same dimensions and power plants as Kestrel, while working with somewhat larger barges.

However, there are some notable differences. Kestrel has a raised forecastle, a Markey double-drum towing winch and bow winch. The high forecastle would allow Olympic to convert Kestrel to an ATB. Space has been reserved inside the hulls for the tug/barge connection system. Kestrel has an anchor system which would be removed if it were converted to an ATB.

The thinking, Christensen said, was “while in the shipyard, let’s look at all the possibilities and do them now.”

The double-drum winch gives the tug the ability to perform tandem towing. It also provides a backup towline in the event of a mishap. That is especially important, given the remote areas in which the tug will operate.

“You can continue to work while waiting for a replacement (towline) to be shipped out,” Christensen said. “It’s kind of a redundancy thing.”

He said Halimar Shipyard, which is owned by Billy Hidalgo, cooperated in making the changes. “All the changes we made, Billy was able to do,” Christensen said.

Mate Mitch Hetterle listing Canadian light stations for the trip.

Some simply reflected regional differences in towing practices. “The East Coast and the West Coast operate differently,” Christensen said. Olympic simply “tweaked” the Vane boat designs to adapt them to West Coast practices.

For example, the Vane boats use a Texas tow bar to control the movement of the towline over the stern. Kestrel, by contrast, uses towing pins.

“Pins are just a different way of doing it. It’s a safety factor that keeps you from being tripped,” he said. “It can get ugly really quick.” The pin keeps the towline aligned off the stern. “When turning in a tight spot you can drop the pin to allow you to maneuver.”

The tug has a draft of about 12 feet and its barge draws about 13 feet when loaded. Given the ample depths of the waters in which Kestrel will operate, draft was not an important factor in the tug’s design. “Draft is not so much an issue in Southeast Alaska,” Christensen said.

Harley Marine, Olympic’s parent company, has operations on the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts, with subsidiaries out of Dutch Harbor, Alaska; Seattle; Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; Los Angeles/Long Beach; Houston and New York.

Olympic has a fleet of 18 tugs and 15 barges: eight tugs and seven barges in Seattle, four tugs and two barges in Portland, three tugs and four barges in its West Coast coastal fleet, two tugs and one barge in Alaska, and one tug and barge in Port Angeles, Wash.

Its barge fleet includes two 80,000-barrel vessels providing bulk transfer of petroleum products “from Vancouver to Los Angeles, wherever they’re needed,” Christensen said. “We’re a primary source of transportation for oil companies. We pick up at terminals and deliver to ships as they direct.”

Olympic’s vessels also provide bunkering services in Seattle and Portland.

Harley Marine was founded by Harley Franco in 1987, beginning as Olympic Tug & Barge in Seattle with a single leased tug and barge.

“Olympic was Harley’s first company,” he said. “It’s Harley Marine that glues us all together.”

On the Harley Marine website, the company has posted a message from Franco, who serves as chairman and chief executive. The message reads in part, “My vision for the Company upon its inception in 1987, was to become the safest and most environmentally responsible marine transportation company in the country. We strive to exceed our customer’s expectations, maintain a good standard of living for our employees, and improve the communities in which we live and operate.”

In setting out for Southeast Alaska in November, Kestrel was taking its first steps to uphold that vision.

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