Tough tugs, big cargo and very long trips all the way to Alaska

For those who work in the local maritime industry, boating season doesn’t start today. It’s a year-round occupation.

Once every three weeks, for example, Capt. Brent Bierbaum and the crew of the Arctic Titan load up their tugboat with food provisions and embark on a 1,400-mile journey to Alaska. The job: to transport a barge the size of a football field all the way to Whittier, a rail-yard outpost on Prince William Sound. From oil-train cars and refrigerated containers with frozen bread to machinery and even boats, the barge’s deck is packed five-stories high. Imagine maneuvering that load through tides and narrow inlets along the coast of Canada. “It’s a huge responsibility,” Bierbaum said.

A great opportunity to experience Seattle’s working waterfront — and see the annual tugboat race — is coming up during the Seattle Maritime Festival, next Thursday through May 11. If you miss it, you can always do some “tug-spotting” at the Ballard Locks. The blue and yellow vessels of the homegrown Western Towboat Co. are impossible to miss.


The Ballard-based Western Towboat Co. has a fleet of 21 tugs and employs about 140 people, said Rachel Shrewsbury, whose grandfather started the business in 1948.


The amount of things you can put on these floating platforms is mind-boggling. Capt. Brent Bierbaum said this one included 51 rail cars and the equivalent of 132 semi-trailer trucks. Topping the massive stack were several boats and a Caterpillar excavator.


I joined the crew aboard the tug for a very short but important part of the journey: the sail from Ballard to Harbor Island, where the tug hooked up a fully loaded barge.


Capt. Brent Bierbaum at the helm and three of his four-person crew down below worked together to chain up the barge.


Not many ports have the infrastructure to load rail cars onto barges. I missed watching that process because the barge was already loaded, but there’s an excuse to come back.

And there went the Arctic Titan and its barge as the evening colors began to paint the scene over Elliott Bay. Smooth sailing!

Bitnami