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Vol. 13, No. 48 Week of November 30, 2008
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

AK-WA Connection 2008: Tug service holds steady in rough waters

Family owned Western Towboat celebrates 60th year “doing the job whatever it takes” for clients in growing Alaska-Washington trade

Susan Braund

For the Alaska-Washington Connection

The victories and vagaries of towboat culture can get into your blood, if the close-knit Western Towboat Co. clan is any indicator. With the purchase of one tug, the ND TOBEY, for $2,200 in 1948, Bob Shrewsbury launched the family-run company that now operates tugs and barges from Puget Sound to the Aleutian Islands, and throughout Southeast and Arctic Alaska along with the Hawaiian Islands and Panama Canal.

According to the company’s founder, his fascination with tugs started at age 6 in Seattle. His family lived on Magnolia Bluff near piers 40 and 41, where a towboat company based its operations.

“As a young boy I just kept looking and gazing at the tugs; then as I got older, I started hanging around and got to know the guys, and it all just grew from there.”

At 16, he made a trip to Alaska on the Richard Holyoke, hauling a load of butter to Skagway, then backhauling spruce from Ketchikan, destined for the Hughes aircraft factory. At the time, wood frames were used for military training planes. After that trip, Shrewsbury was hooked.

His enthusiasm for the business rubbed off on his two sons, Bob and Ric, on yearly tug trips to Alaska. Sixty years later, the sons run the business, having taken charge in 1981. They were eventually joined by Bob’s sons, Russ and Ross, and two of Ric’s three daughters, Lauren and Rachel. Ric’s other daughter, Kristen, followed her own siren call into publishing. Rounding out the office ambiance are family dogs, Roxie, Roo, Butch and Bailey.

Bob Shrewsbury Sr. - still known to his buddies as Captain Bob — bikes to the office every day, just to check in when he’s not enjoying the sun in Arizona.

“Well, we’re moving into the third generation and it looks like they seem to be taking to it . . . guess they had no real choice!”

Western’s overall effort is to get things done by providing improved performance, minimizing breakdowns and keeping maintenance costs low.

“Now, at our 60-year anniversary, we provide customers with one of the most modern, custom-built and -designed tug and barge fleets on the West Coast, providing competitive professional, ocean and harbor towing services,” said the younger Bob, “We are selective about our customers; it’s a complementary relationship. We value them, and they know we bring them quality and efficiencies.”

A culture of pride and polish

In the early days Bob Sr. was business agent, captain and engineer; his sons have inherited this ability to change hats as needed, reinforcing the company motto, “doing the job . . . whatever it takes.” Known as a hands-on man, Bob Sr. passed his work ethic and sense of pride on to his sons, and it pervades the organization today, whether at the company helm or on board the tugs.

Western’s tugs are maintained more like yachts than workboats. The easily recognizable blue, yellow and white vessels are a clear reflection of company pride.

“There’s a friendly competition between crews for best boat,” said the senior Shrewsbury. “They are so well maintained that the aluminum floors and all the stainless steel are shiny with pride, right down to eat-off-the-deck clean galley floors!”

Equal care is taken on the construction side of the business. Each vessel built at Western Towboat specifically meets each client’s requirements. “We build it all ourselves. In 1982 we decided we had to do better than buy old boats. That’s part of what makes us unique;” said Bob, “we build for the job with input from the customer.”

“We are persnickety about our equipment,” echoed Ric Shrewsbury, “and our craftsmen produce some of the finest boats available.”

The Mighty Titans

The phrase, ‘in it for the long haul,’ describes not only the family business, both also its latest construction projects, Titan Class vessels. The most recent, fifth version, the 120- foot, 5,000 horsepower Titan Alaska, is powered by a CAT 3516 engine. Titans are heavy-duty workboats known for their stability, durability, seaworthiness and performance. Specially designed for long-haul ocean towing, this boat will transport Alaska Railroad railcar freight from Alaska Railbelt Marine terminals in Seattle to Whittier. The latest Caterpillar marine diesel engines will provide a powerful towboat, while achieving the highest fuel efficiencies. Interior amenities include 13 berths, a fully equipped galley, and custom varnished woodwork. “The fifth edition boat is the result of over 25 years of construction expertise at Western Towboat,” the owners said. “We design and build our boats to work in Alaska and have the right efficiencies. Titans are the finest tugboats anywhere for the crews that operate them and the crews that maintain them.”

“Conventional tugs can’t put barges into dock in the strong Alaska winds; these new tractor tugs can handle the weather and other Alaska challenges,” said the elder Shrewsbury. “At times you can face 100-foot swells in the Gulf of Alaska, loaded with railroad cars 500-feet long. It takes a tough boat; you have to stay tied.”

Core services tied to Alaska

Western Towboat offers ocean towing, harbor towing, ship assist, container and transportation services, and custom boat building, according to company descriptions. “Our modern fleet of 1000-5000 HP Z-Drive and conventional tugs from 365 — 4000 HP are ready to tackle virtually any type of tow job, big or small. We have five 6,000- to 10,000-ton deck barges ready to move bulk aggregate or general deck cargo.”

Along the way, the company acquired Southeast Barge Lines. “We supplied everything from toilet paper to new cars to Southeast and the Alaska rail,” said Ric Shrewsbury. “Then in 1979 we sold the freight side of the business to Lynden Transportation. Now, in a partnership arrangement with Lynden’s marine transport company, Alaska Marine Lines, Western Towboat provides reliable, regularly scheduled, weekly service between Seattle and Whittier.

Bob Sr. likes the progress. “Now, teamed with Lynden Transport, we have a lot of work in Alaska. Between bi-weekly runs to Southeast Alaska and servicing Red Dog Mine in the Arctic several times a year . . . we can hardly build fast enough to keep up!” he said.

“The partner-shipping arrangement with Lynden’s marine side has been great; their growth has made us grow,” said the younger Shrewsbury. “It has changed our lives. The Alaska connection means everything to us. We have some work in Washington and even some exotic locations, but our future is tied to Alaska.”

Focus on specialized skills and safety

The company’s biggest challenge is finding and/or training employees. Running tugs requires a specialized skill set. “It’s hard to get people, even with the good pay. A high level of skill is involved and these guys have to love what they are doing,” said Bob Sr. “There’s 650 miles of shoreline to know from Seattle to Ketchikan, then 1,400 miles more from Juneau to Skagway, and the operators have to know every inch! In some instances, they need to know 5,000-10,000 miles of shoreline.”

The owners agree: “You can’t just hire for what we do,” observed Bob Jr., “we have to find and train. Often we take good deck hands and bring them up through the business so they understand that customer service is something that we live.”

Said Ric Shrewsbury: “We absolutely need the best people and equipment to do what it takes to get job done. And we’re big on safety. We all want to get to go home at night, so we make sure everyone else does, too.”

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