Bob Shrewsbury is co-owner with his brother Ric of Western Towboat Company based in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood. Photo by Liam Moriarty
The Salish Sea is known for its vast natural beauty. It’s also a busy marine highway, used to deliver millions of tons of goods each year from around the world. A lot of those goods – from gravel to construction equipment – are moved by tug boats. This week Liam Moriarty spends a morning on Seattle’s Elliott Bay with Bob Shrewsbury of Western Towboat Company.
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Liam Moriarty: I’m on the tugboat “Triumph.” We’ve just come down through Salmon Bay, through the Hiram Chittenden locks here in Seattle and we’re out on Puget Sound. Bob, what are we up to today?
Bob Shrewsbury: Just boat delivery. So the other crew will show up at 1400 and take her to Alaska.
Liam: Your dad started Western Towboat not long after World War II, right? Tell me about how that happened …
Bob: 1948, started with one little wooden boat, 50-foot tug.
Liam: You must have grown up on those boats.
Bob: Yeah, I was born in ’53 and been around them all my life. Only job I’ve ever had. I made my first trip to Alaska with my dad when I was 7, and by the time I was 18 I was running boats as a captain to Alaska. Started out, we used to do it seasonally, and by the time we were 21 years old we were doing it year-round and I did that till about 10 years ago. Then I started taking more time in the office and now I’m hard to get out of the office.
The tug Trumph is one of 20 tug boats run by Western Towboat Campany, many of which the company has built itself. Photo by Liam Moriarty
Liam: You haul gravel barges, and some other stuff up to Alaska? Those are those barges I see being towed that have like a big pile of containers on one end and it kind of slopes down and a big pile of containers on the other end … are those the one’s we’re talking about?
Liam: So what are you hauling up to Alaska?
Bob: Heavy equipment, rail cars, machinery, lots of refrigerated vans, food and pretty much everything you need to live your life.
Liam: You talk about those runs up to Alaska. You guys run year-round. I would imagine the weather gets pretty snotty there, in the winter especially.
Bob: Oh, yeah. We’ve seen our share of bad weather. I mean, we’re had boats out there for a few hours in a freak storm and heavy winds and they’re going backwards at four knots and hoping that the wind quits before they get blown on the beach. So you’ve got to be on your toes all the time.
Liam: I’d think that down here on the inside waters, Puget Sound, Salish Sea, that it doesn’t get that bad.
Bob: No, no. I mean we get nasty weather once in a while where different kinds of problems develop; a barge breaks loose from a buoy, or … you know, you have smaller equipment, it’s all proportionate to size. You can get in trouble in the Strait of Juan de Fuca as easy as the Gulf of Alaska on a small boat if you’re out there and it blows 50 westerly and you’re not set up for it. It doesn’t matter where you are, you’ve got to pay attention to the weather and the current and tides and all that stuff.
Liam: I would think that, working on these waters for as long as you have, you’ve got a pretty good handle on the things like the currents and the tides and how that works in here.
The tug Triumph approaches the industrial zone of Harbor Island near the mouth of the Duwamish River in Seattle. Photo by Liam Moriarty
Bob: Oh, yeah. But we’ve been going through the Tacoma Narrows for 57 years with gravel barges so you know the places you go, And you can’t buck big times out of the Narrows but you learn where you can go to get out of the current.
Liam: Now, I’ve always thought of tug boats as essentially being all about muscle. You know, it’s just one big muscular boat. It that pretty much what’s going on with these?
Bob: Yeah, it’s an engine room with fuel tanks surrounding it, so it’s a lot of horsepower for the size of the boat.
Liam: They carry an incredible amount of fuel.
Bob: Our Titan Class tugs that we tow the freight barges with, they carry from 160,000 to 190,000 gallons of fuel. Typical 10-day southeast Alaska trip will use 40,000 gallons of fuel.
Liam: You grew up in this family and you’ve been out on the water here for a long time … What kind of changes do you see over the decades?
Bob: It’s more regulation but …
Liam: That’s a change. (laughter)
Bob Shrewsbury at the helm of the tug Triumph in Eliott Bay. Photo by Liam Moriarty
Bob: When I first started going there wasn’t near so many lights on the beach, that’s for sure. Now it’s like street lights when you’re going around Puget Sound. But there’s a lot more traffic. Different traffic. Bigger traffic, bigger ships. Everything’s gotten bigger.
Liam: And more complicated. I imagine the business you run is a lot more complicated that the business your dad ran.
Bob: Oh, yeah. Electronics and the tools we have to work with now, and the complications the new regulations of emissions and all that have brought in. The engines, you’ve got to be an electrician to work on the engine and not just a mechanic anymore. It’s a different world than it was back when I started, that’s for sure.
Liam: You still enjoy it?
Bob: Some days … Some days.
Liam: Did you ever consider doing anything else?
Bob: No, I really didn’t have any other desire to do anything else. You know, it’s something that gets in your blood, I guess …
Liam: You have another generation of your family coming up to work in the business?
Bob: Oh yeah, my two sons are both working on tugs. One of them’s a captain right now, one’s a mate. My brother’s daughters are in the office and hopefully we hang around a little while longer.
Liam: Bob, thanks for taking me along with you this morning.
Bob: You bet. It’s been our pleasure.