From the wheelhouse of the Harbor Commander, I spotted two fat sea lions lounging on a buoy about halfway between the Silver Strand and the Navy shipyard. It was a bright warm February morning, and as they lolled in their languorous stupor, they seemed the embodiment of indolence. I raised an arm in a casual salute. The bigger of the sea lions raised a flipper in apparent response.
“Those guys have been out there almost every day,” said the captain, Steve Frailey. The Commander is a 50-foot riverboat-style tugboat, a rectangular shape with two vertical rubber-covered metal posts, called push knees, at the corners of the bow. A flat-bottom boat with a draft of about six feet and a top speed of eight knots, the tug was built from the hull of a former Navy landing craft. It’s one of about ten medium-sized tugs owned by Westcoast Tug & Barge, where Frailey is general manager, overseeing the crews and boats and regularly working as captain himself. Frailey is 38, dark-haired, and boyish looking; he had been telling me about several of their past jobs.
A low-draft tug
“We got a call from a friend with the Navy on a Saturday morning before Easter, and he said, ‘How fast can you get to Camp Pendleton?’ We said we could leave right away, what’s wrong? He said, ‘Well, we’ve one of these big Navy landing crafts in trouble.’ He said it’d gone in and hit the beach and broached, got sideways on the shore. So the on-scene commander decided the best thing was to send in another LCU to tow it off. So he sent in the other LCU, which also broached and landed pretty much on top of the first one. So they’ve got two of these big guys on the beach and they were beating each other up pretty bad. One of them was starting to take on water and sand through the engine room, starting to rupture. They wanted us to get up there because of our shallow draft, to get in there and tow them off. So we dash out to the tug and get up there and run about 3000 foot of line in through the surf, tied them off, and got them off the beach and into the belly of the mothership, and they transported them back to San Diego, and then we towed them in and got them into their slip. It’s funny that the Navy would call us to save them, but that’s what they needed, so that’s what we gave them.”
About a week before I went out on the Harbor Commander, I’d been having dinner with some people, and one man, a local lawyer, told me he didn’t think they had any tugs in the bay. Although I knew he was wrong, I didn’t have the exact information at my fingertips. Now I had learned there were lots of tugs in the bay.
There’s Foss Maritime with five tugs — four with 2000 hp and one with 750 — that do most of the work with the big commercial ships. Then Crowley showed up two years ago with two 3500 hp tugs. Foss and Crowley have tugs in all the ports on the West Coast and are in constant competition. The Navy uses six Chouest tugs. Chouest is based in New Orleans and makes its own boats. Then NASSCO has two small tugs for its shipbuilding and repair operations. And there are smaller companies like Curtin Maritime that has one 3000 hp oceangoing tug and three others in need of modification. In addition to these, there are several companies that use smaller tugs, such as Harbor Tug & Barge, and riverboat-style tugs, like Westcoast. So actually, there are about 30 tugs of various sizes in the bay, and around in the middle of May they have an annual tugboat parade. Of these companies, the fastest-growing company is Westcoast, which got into the tug business in 1990, builds its own tugs — modifying them from former Navy landing craft — and has been adding another one or two boats to its fleet each year.
Most of Westcoast’s tugs are in the 1000 hp range, with two in the 400 hp range. As a result, there is a wide area of application where Westcoast has been able to find work in which a large tug isn’t necessary. And the small tugs are cheaper to rent — $195 an hour as opposed to $725 an hour for a large tug. Frailey described the different sorts of work they had done for Scripps that had required modifying the tug and installing special equipment to suit the particular job.
“The last job we did for Scripps, we took the Harbor Captain and added berthing for scientists. We added an A-frame contraption at the bow, some winches, generators, hydraulic power, and compressors — a lot of different things went onto this little tug. We threw on a bunch of water jugs and canned food, and off they went for a few days at a time, dropping buoys and getting readings.
“A lot of people won’t touch stuff like that because it’s a one-time thing and they think, ‘We’re not going to make much money and it’s a big hassle.’ But it’s fun, we like it. It was different, we made a little money on it, we made some friends on it, and we got some ideas for the next time. And that’s why people like Scripps will come back again, because we’re enthusiastic about it — ‘Yeah, let’s figure this out, what do you want, oh that’s neat, let’s do it.’ And the guys who go out on the job feel a lot of pride. ‘Hey, guess what we did? We went out there and we figured out how fast the water moves at a thousand feet under in this one canyon or something.’ Or, we did some acoustical work with them, and the positioning of the boat was really critical and we had to get right on this mark and hold it there and the wind came up and the waves and they thought the whole thing would have to be aborted and cost a fortune and after they came back in at two in the morning, you know, I get the call that ‘Oh, we were successful,’ and they’re praising the captain and how he held it on station and they couldn’t believe they’d have been able to deploy and retract the buoy under those conditions and the only way they were able to be successful was the guy driving the boat, that he was able to do it.”
Westcoast’s tugs are gray with white stripes, and the wheelhouse of the Commander rises 20 feet above the water like a fat thumb. Underneath are the crew’s quarters and engine room. From this height, there was a panoramic sweep of the whole bay. It was a weekday morning, so I saw few pleasure craft, just two or three sailboats. Behind us toward South Bay was the A-8 — the bay’s last free anchorage, with its assortments of party boats, workboats, houseboats, and decrepit sailboats. Westcoast anchors about ten of its barges in the A-8. Off the port side, a rusty dredger was making slow progress toward the Coronado bridge.
Westcoast’s offices are on one of its barges, moored at South Bay Boat Yard at the foot of G Street in Chula Vista. Its workshops are there and its tugs are tied up to the office. From there to the harbor entrance, or “outside,” takes a tug an hour and 20 minutes, which Frailey admits is a drawback, mostly because of the high price of fuel.
Ahead of us off the bow was the sweep of the Coronado bridge. As Frailey and I talked, the radio kept up a jabber of Coast Guard messages, conversations from other Westcoast tugs, and fragments of sentences from boatyards. Frailey’s first job this morning was to move a barge with a crane belonging to Marathon Construction Corporation, which was going to begin to pull piling that had belonged to Campbell Shipyard so that construction could begin on a new hotel and marina.
The genius behind Westcoast is Doug Lotoski, who came to San Diego in 1980 from the Pacific Northwest, where he had been buying ex-Navy landing craft at auction, modifying them into different kinds of boats, and selling them. Once in San Diego, he teamed up with Grant Westmorland to build and sell boats here, then, after ten years, they began their tug-and-barge operation.
“Doug goes to bed at night thinking about boats,” Frailey told me. “He wakes up in the morning thinking about boats. He’s a workaholic, works seven days a week, that’s what he likes. It’s what makes him happy. The construction end of it used to be the primary mission of the company — to build these unique, different kinds of boats out of landing craft and then find a market for them. Doug has the engineering behind him and the experience and all these systems, the hydraulics, the engines, the steelwork, the fabrication and designing. So it’s all right here in his head for him. He doesn’t have any books or anything. He just whips it out and here’s his next invention, and it works. Well, everybody else bought them and had success with them, so they decided to keep some of these in the house and the tugboat business took off.”
Now Doug does all the designing and building and takes care of the boats. Grant Westmorland is president and takes care of sales and lines up business. Frailey is general manager, and Larry Miller is business manager. In addition, there are five or six captains, who are on call, and the same number of deckhands.
“It takes a special kind of person to do this job,” said Frailey. “There’s no such thing as nine to five, Monday through Friday. It’s minute-to-minute, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You don’t know what’s going to happen. Typically the guys will work 40 to 50 hours a week, and a lot of those hours will be in the wee hours of the morning. The shipyards like to launch and dry-dock vessels at night, because it doesn’t impact the workforce. So that’s when they need the tugs, and they’ll call us at 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. to do these things. Then there’s last-minute things that pop up — that might keep a crew working 12 hours or more. And they enjoy it. The guys who come in and don’t enjoy it don’t last long. But the guys who like this work are probably the best boat handlers you’ll find. If you can handle one of the little boats, doing the jobs we do, you can probably step on anything and operate it with some skill, because it’s tough. These little boats are a handful, and these guys get good or they get out. Say you’ve got a 1000 hp or 700 hp tug and you’ve got it made up to a barge that’s maybe 300 feet long and has 8000 tons of material on it. Well, you’ve got currents and wind and shallow water and maybe obstacles, like bridges, and you can’t have an accident. We’ve never had a marine incident, and it’s mostly due to the fact that we’ve got new little boats that can handle the job and people who are pretty good at driving them.”
The majority of Westcoast’s jobs involve barges or are jobs that take advantage of the tug’s rectangular shape, its riverboat style.
“Most of our tugs are push tugs with push knees, so you can get behind the barge and move it around,” said Frailey. “That’s different from the other tugs on the bay, but it’s typical of what you see on the Mississippi and back East, and Doug has kind of brought that to San Diego. So that idea worked well. We get in and out of the shipyards; we get into shallow water where nobody else can get. We did a lot of this Coronado bridge earthquake retrofit recently in the shallow ends, where no one else could get to, and in places like the Naval Amphibious Base, where the big tugs can’t go — we move their landing crafts for them, things like that. We just had a job for a diving company, putting together a long pipeline. It’s dredging the area around the Navy carrier pier, and the mud from that is going to the south side of the Navy Amphibious Base where they’re going to make an island. So they dredge the mud out, send it through the pipeline, which is several miles long, then dump it by the Amphib Base for their island. The diving company has welded these pipes and repaired welds and is now about to video their work, so they’ve rented our tug as well as renting our barge. That’s the other part of the business — we supply the tugs, but we also supply a lot of the barges being used. For instance, the Navy uses them to off-load anchors and chains from carriers. They use them for pier demolition or construction. At Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal, they’ve got this big loader that unloads soda ash from the ships, and when they do that, it gets all gunked up, so they drop the loader onto one of our barges and use our barge as a work platform. The barges are cheap, big items that people use for everything imaginable. Our barges are used for almost all the fireworks. On the Fourth of July we had shows at Oceanside, two in Mission Bay, and I think three in San Diego Bay. We have at least a dozen barges — the biggest is 260 feet long and the smallest are just small work floats.
“But with the tugs, our main job is moving barges in the harbor. We’re not going to be able to assist a big ship. We’re not doing that business. But on a big ship, if we do happen to be involved, what you’ll see is two Foss tugs or maybe two Foss tugs and a Crowley tug, whatever, and they’ll want to go into a shipyard like Westcoast Marine or Continental, and they’ve got a 600-foot-long Navy ship, which they’ve got to back into the slip but which is too wide to have one of their big tugs alongside at a 90-degree angle, so they’ll use one of ours because it’s shorter. Ours is about 40 feet long; theirs is 80 or 100 feet long. So they use us because of our dimensions. They’ll stick us in little holes where we can maneuver in positions nobody else can get. Our equipment is only good for certain jobs, but there’re a lot of them. Then there’s the case where maybe two of our tugs can take the place of a bigger tug. But really, the bread and butter is the fact we have a better rate than they do and can move a lot of big equipment around more efficiently. So they go after the big, sexy tugboat moves, and we’re just out there like little bees, you know, buzzing around the bay. And if you’re out on the water and look around on most days, you’ll see these little gray boats with white stripes everywhere you look.”
Steve Frailey is originally from Michigan but grew up in Orange County. After high school, he enlisted in the Navy, came to San Diego to the Navy Dive School, then was stationed as a Navy diver in Italy. It was in the Navy that he learned to operate boats. After the Navy, he settled in San Diego, married his high school sweetheart, and worked for 15 years as a shipmaster for Campbell Shipyard, running all their dry docks. Campbell, among other things, made tuna boats, and at one point there were 250 tuna boats homeported in San Diego. Afterward, Frailey operated tugs in Florida for a year, but then came back to work for Westcoast.
The deckhand that morning was Benny Rodriguez, who has worked for Westcoast for a year and has lived in San Diego for four years. Originally from Saint Louis, he came here because his wife is from Tijuana and wanted to return. Now he can’t imagine living anywhere else. He is about 40, thin with brown hair, a mustache, goatee, constant sunglasses, and a thick Southern accent. He has 12 years of experience working on riverboats on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.
“I’ve done this a long time,” Benny told me. “I started in 1980. I’ve done a lot of different jobs — riverboat jobs, I’ve worked offshore on tugs, I worked on a supertanker a year, I know a lot of the shore aspects of it in refineries, I worked on the Houston docks for four years, so I’m a pretty safe worker. I’ve really never been hurt out here. As for the bigger companies like Foss, they have their pluses and minuses. Here you know all your bosses, they know your name, they help you out, you’re not just paid to be a deckhand, it’s, you know, Hey, can Benny do this, can Benny do that? The smaller companies will work a lot more with you in situations where if you’ve got something that your family needs done, you don’t gotta worry about losing your job. So it’s basically a fun job if you don’t mind coming in real early in the morning, you know, it’s more like being with your friends instead of coming in to have somebody on top of you all day, whipping you, you know? At times it can be dangerous, but with a good wheelman and good deckhand who don’t put themselves into a bad situation, you can avoid the danger, but it can be dangerous for people who aren’t knowledgeable.”
Apart from his pleasure in the work itself, Benny’s sense of the job is mostly aesthetic. He spoke of the beauty of the Mississippi River, adding, “Most of the locks have deer and geese hanging out around them.” He searched for the words to try to describe what made his present job important to him, why he couldn’t imagine ever working on land again, but the words wouldn’t come to him and he quit trying. “Well, I like being out on the water, mainly — all the good scenery, nice sunsets, sunrises.”
What’s now left of Campbell Shipyard is an open dock area, about 100 pilings, and an old watchman whom Frailey knew during his years as a shipmaster. Beyond it is the southern end of the mammoth convention center. Frailey explained that the work has been delayed while a number of environmental issues have been sorted out. For instance, what might happen when a piling is pulled out of the mud? Possibly toxic chemicals would be released. Now, however, tests had shown that it was safe to pull. Further environmental restrictions, however, require that the pilings and old docks be removed within a month. Because of the nesting of the least terns, an endangered species, there is a noise restriction in the bay after April 1, which means, among other things, that no pilings can be driven or removed.
I asked Frailey if other environmental restrictions affected their work, and he spoke of the rules protecting the eelgrass that had been planted around the western end of the Coronado bridge, in South Bay, in sections around Shelter Island and Harbor Island, and other places to reduce levels of carbon dioxide in the water. In these areas it is illegal to disturb the bottom in any way, such as with an anchor or prop wash.
“Actually, it’s a very minor nuisance,” said Frailey. “I first came here in ’81, and I’ve seen a lot of the bottom of the bay, originally as a diver. What they’ve done has worked. It’s a lot cleaner now and there’s a lot more fish.”
Marathon was going to pull the piling with a tall crane located on the middle of a barge. On each corner of the barge was a 14-inch-square, 60-foot spud sunk into the muck to keep the barge stable. The spuds made the barge look like a table lying on its back. Also on the barge were two big winches, four anchors, and a bunch of guys with hard hats waiting for Frailey to show up. The Commander was supposed to move the barge into position, then move a second barge and several floats.
Frailey nosed the Commander forward toward the barge. Benny stood on the bow and Frailey called to him on the P.A., “Hey, Benny, you’ll probably have to take the shackle off the head line to get the head line up.” Then he turned to me. “We’re going to make up Mississippi style on the barge. First thing we’ll do is get our center line or head line up, pull the boat in square on the barge, and tighten it up, then we’ll pass side lines from the back quarter of the boat toward starboard up to the barge, wrap it around a cleat or bollard, and bring it back down to the tug, and then we’ll pull those cylinders in — down there on the back deck of the boat towards the starboard. That’ll take all the slack out of the makeup lines, till it’s rigid. That way, when we’re handling the barge, there’s no slop between us. It’s almost like we’re one vessel.”
Frailey has all the controls for tightening and loosening the lines on either side of the wheel. He continually adjusted the lines as Benny and men on the barge tied the tug and barge together. The crane began lifting several of the spuds.
The man in charge of the barge, Ron, climbed the ladder of the wheelhouse, and he and Frailey greeted one another like old friends. Ron said they needed to put the barge right up by the seawall. Ron: “They want us to set anchors out and get this thing set up to go to work.” Frailey: “Over there? You want, say, that side? Right to the fence line?” Ron: “Well, preferably this starboard side.” Frailey: “The starboard side to the fence line?” Ron: “Yeah, for right now.” Frailey: “So it’ll go over the property line?” Ron: “Yeah, we’re going to set two anchors there, crisscrossing. Then back us up as close as you can to the pier and the old piling and with the starboard side to the pier.” Frailey: “Gotcha.” Ron: “And back us up to where you’re going to get close to the piling as you’re backing in, and we’ll drop the spuds and cut you loose and we should be able to set our rear anchors from there. Then come back and get the other barge, bring it in — it’s going to go between zero and one, which is this first set of piling right here. And, actually, do the same thing in there, we nose in, set up a couple of anchors, back out, and we’ll set anchors on the back side.” Frailey: “You’re going to be pulling piles now?” Ron: “Yeah, we’re going to start any day now.” Frailey: “Right out? They’re not cutting them off?” Ron: “No, we’re pulling them out.” Frailey: “All right, good, they’re really going for this thing.” Ron: “They want to clean up the whole bottom and get ready to dredge it and put a marina in here. So we’re going to get all the piling out that are above, and then they’re going to back through and negotiate how much dive time it’s going to take to pull out the remaining piling that’s underwater.” Frailey: “All this is home to me. I worked here for 15 years. There’s a pipeline running across that I put in underwater. I put in cement. All kinds of stuff. Okay, whenever you’re ready.”
Ron returned to the barge and slowly we started to move. This was the first step that would someday result in another glitzy downtown hotel and an expensive marina, perhaps called Campbell Landing. A gray-and-white tug maneuvered an ungainly and none-too-clean barge forward, and somewhere developers rubbed their soft pink hands.
Frailey pointed toward the barge. “So right now that spud is up and this one’s down. We’re just doing a slow pivot, getting myself off this pier. They’ve got four anchors on the barge, so when we get over there we’re going to get into position for them to drop their anchors with the crane. And they’ll crisscross their anchors and we’ll back the tug down and they’ll put slack in and we’ll back it till I can’t maneuver anymore and they’ll drop their spuds and I’ll get out of the way, then they’ll reach out and crisscross these two in front, then they can move back and forth all along their work area by winching on their anchors, and they won’t need to hire a tug to come in and move them. And the reason they’re crisscrossed is so that he can do whatever tweaking he wants — if he wants to be pulled that way, he just comes up on that anchor and it will pull the barge that way. You’ll be able to tell when that spud hits bottom, he’s dropping it easy. And once it hits bottom we’re all stopped. It’s a real soft mud bottom here, no grass down there or anything. The spud’ll sink in the mud eight feet. They won’t want to spin on that one, they just want to keep it straight. Sometimes these guys will bring their barges into real tight quarters, alongside fragile docks or something, and they’ll want to be two or three feet off of them without touching them, and you’ll have wind and waves and things, so then it gets to be trickier. Or maybe they’ll want to bring it alongside a Navy ship, and then again you’ve got to be real careful, you don’t want to touch the boat.”
The work was slow and exact. The barge was put in position; the spuds were lowered; the crane set out the anchors; two hard hats in a rowboat rowed out to release the crane’s cable from the anchor. Another big barge was moved, then several floats.
“When they pull the pilings,” said Frailey, “they latch onto them with the crane and just start putting on pressure, and usually if you put on pressure long enough it’ll start inching up and it’ll pop out just like a tooth. And this is a big crane, so he’s not going to have any trouble. But sometimes you get a smaller crane on this kind of work where the crane can’t do it, so they’ll run a water jet down next to the piling on a long pipe with a hose and it’ll suck seawater out and run it down through that pipe and it’ll squirt mud loose around the piling and then usually the crane can jerk it out.”
It took about two hours to move the barges around, not including the hour it took to reach the former shipyard. Through it all Frailey wore the calm smile of a man who loves his work. Maybe it’s just the pleasure of tugs. I had my last tug when I was two years old, and I used it for pushing blocks around in the bathtub until the water got cold or my mother dragged me out. By early afternoon, the barges and floats were all in their new positions. Frailey gave two hoots of the horn and set off toward South Bay. Several other jobs came up that afternoon, the most interesting being nailing down the details for a job scheduled for three days later: the moving of a 265-foot mega-yacht during which I heard the expression “money is no object” said about 50 times. But I’ll get to that later.
On another day I talked with Doug Lotoski — 63, gray-haired, and solidly constructed, he looks like the sort of person who is only content with a tool in his hand. Doug and his son, Jack, live on a single-diesel former Navy tug, the Bennington, which they are reconditioning and making into a semi-yacht and which is tied up next to the smaller Westcoast tugs. Grant Westmorland had told me that Doug intended to retire onto the Bennington, though no one really expects Doug to retire.
Doug had been an engineer in the Navy, then a diver, then he worked in the oilfields as a roughneck, then he worked construction, where he learned to weld, then he worked for shipyards in the Pacific Northwest. After a while he began buying surplus Navy boats and landing craft in Los Angeles and taking them back up to Alaska.
“We had over 100 landing craft in Alaska,” Doug told me. “We’d recondition and rebuild them so a person could live on them, doing it all on spec and selling them. Then I told my wife I was going down to San Diego for 60 days to get some landing craft, and I’ve been here ever since. Grant and I kept buying and rebuilding the landing craft, then we found out that owning tugs and barges was more profitable than building boats for somebody else. The guys who do construction here go on to work as deckhands on the boats, and some go on to apply for their captain’s license, so we’re more flexible than other companies, which makes us more competitive. Right now we’re making two oil-spill response boats, 50-footers. They’ll carry maybe 4500 feet of oil boom on them and spill kits, response kits, things like that. The boom is a floating vinyl-type plastic thing you can put on a reel. One boat will be stationed here and one in L.A. And we’ll be getting a bit more sophisticated as we go along — repowering with more efficient and ecologically friendly engines, which are cheaper to run and provide more horsepower.”
What impresses others is Doug’s ability to keep digging at something, trying to make a good thing better. When I had been out with Steve Frailey on the Commander, he had tried to give me an example of this. “Another thing that Doug’s added to these tugs is that this boat actually has six rudders. It has a rudder behind each prop, which are the main rudders; and it has port and starboard rudders, what they call flanking rudders, and then in front of each propeller, left and right of the shaft, are two smaller rudders. So when you’re using stern propulsion, you can use these independently, like when I have the starboard engine astern and if I really need to go that way, I can use this flanking rudder and it will send the prop wash to starboard and give you just tons of movement.”
After I saw Doug, Grant Westmorland showed me their two newest boats, which would be ready for sea trials in early spring. Both had been made from cutting up two ex-Navy landing craft hulls to create a large 96-foot tug with a crane in the bow and a shorter tug with a crane and its wheelhouse 30 feet above the deck.
Grant is 44, tall and thin with short brown hair, mustache, goatee, and a fondness for turtleneck jerseys. He clambered over several tugs that were tied up together, then along the side of the machine shop situated on another barge, toward Westcoast’s newest tug, the Harbor Hauler. His enthusiasm was like a soccer dad’s whose son has scored five goals in the big game.
The Hauler’s key features were a crane and the cargo area in the bow, then the two-story wheelhouse and two brand-new environmentally friendly, high-efficiency 500 hp Detroit Diesel engines. Grant said that they considered it an oceangoing tug, which could be gone for months at a time. Although flat-bottomed and rectangular-shaped, it wouldn’t be unwieldy except in high seas.
“It’s a pretty unique vessel,” said Grant. “There’s probably not another like it on the West Coast. It has the ability to land on a beach, drive in and out. It can carry vehicles, cement trucks, containers, anything you need to get freight to any island.”
“Tugs like that with a crane,” Frailey had told me, “people die for that, because to rent a crane, a floating crane, is outrageous. But if you just have a little lift and it’s out in the middle of the bay and you can just send a tugboat on a tugboat rate to make your little pick or carry your little buoy or whatever it is, and take it somewhere again that’s where a boat like that, well, who’d have thought to put a crane on it? And that’s Doug.”
Grant led me back across the barges to the shorter of the two tugs on the other side of South Bay Boat Yard: the Harbor Admiral. “This facility is great for us. We have land space available if we want to do conversion work on any of the tugs. Or in one hour we can have a boat hauled, change a prop that’s got a problem, change a shaft, do any kind of out-of-water maintenance, have it back in the water within another hour or two.”
Work was still continuing on the Admiral and we climbed over piles of material and tools. The climb up the 30-foot wheelhouse ladder took, I thought, serious concentration, but from the top was 360 degrees of amazing. A gull flew by beneath me. Grant proudly launched into the technical details — the two Kort nozzles that would add another 40 percent bollard pull, the flanking rudder as well as the main rudder to give the boat steerage in reverse, the added crane with two hydraulic suspensions. “This would be a great boat for Scripps experiments. There won’t be anything that we’ll ever have to push that we won’t be able to see over. Nobody has as many boats as we do. And when these two are launched, nobody will have such a wide variety of boats for so many types of jobs.” Rising up from the corners of the Admiral’s bow were push knees coated with gray rubber instead of the usual black. The Navy had asked for expensive gray rubber because black left a black smudge on their hulls, and with gray they wouldn’t have to repaint their ships so much. So Grant had bought gray.
It seems impossible for me to spend much time with another person engaged in his life’s pursuits, the labor that fills his waking hours, without wondering what that life would have been like for me. There was a writer who once explained his obsession with his work by saying, “My work is more fun than my play.” And I expect Doug Lotoski had said something similar when he laughed off working seven days a week by saying, “If you can’t have fun at what you’re doing, you might as well do something else.” There was a cheerful placidity at Westcoast that seemed enviable, an eagerness to meet the day, or as Benny Rodriguez had said, “…all the good scenery, nice sunsets, sunrises.”
But I also wanted to know what it was like on a big tug, so one day I visited Foss Maritime, 1839 Water Street at the Tenth Avenue Pier, and talked to Wendell Koi, Foss’s San Diego manager. Koi is a 29-year-old Asian-American who grew up in Hawaii, graduated as an engineer from the California Maritime Academy, and went into tugboats right away, working for Crowley, Foss’s main competitor. He mentioned this with some chagrin. Now he has been working for Foss for five years, having been here for two.
Foss has had tugs in San Diego for 25 years without any competition until Crowley appeared in 2000 with two 3500 hp tugs, much lower rates than Foss, and the promise to bring a third tug down from L.A. whenever needed. Koi is not very happy that Crowley has shown up on his watch, but a few people suggested to me that Foss was getting a little complacent after so long by themselves. A Foss operator — the captains of the big tugs are called operators — told me, “Probably Crowley just had two extra boats they decided to put to use and they’re waiting to see if the port’s going to expand. They’re oversized tugs, so we’re the only company they’re hurting.”
Actually, for the fiscal year July 1999 to June 2000, the Port of San Diego had a record-breaking cargo volume of 2.4 million metric tons, the major gains being in automobile, cement, and sand shipments. The previous record had been 2.3 million metric tons in 1981. The Port’s revenues for the first ten months of the 1999–2000 fiscal year, $11.3 million, had also reached an all-time high. Still, this must be kept in perspective. Cargo volume for the Port of Long Beach for 1999–2000 was 64.5 million tons. San Diego has 4 harbor pilots, who rotate duty by the week, and the Navy has 5 pilots. Long Beach has 18 pilots. But Dole Fresh Fruit Company’s decision to build a refrigerator container operation at the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal — the 20-year lease was signed May 8, 2001 — will increase the number of containers brought into San Diego each year to about 40,000, giving all the big tugs more work. The Port of Long Beach yearly brings in about 4.4 million containers.
Koi said that Foss was the largest tug-and-barge company on the West Coast, with 80 tugs, an equal number of barges, and operations in every major port from Alaska to San Diego, though their biggest ports are Seattle, San Francisco, Long Beach, and Portland. The company’s main offices and shipyard are in Seattle. Of Foss’s five tugs in San Diego, the smaller 750 hp tug is contracted to the Navy; then the company has a large barge, a number of small barges, paint floats, and ship separators.
Foss’s main operations in San Diego are ship-assist work within the harbor — several tugs under the direction of a pilot bringing a ship into its pier — car carriers, bulk vessels loading soda ash, vessels discharging cement, vessels off-loading newsprint, vessels bringing in fruit. Then a Foss tug-and-barge combination hauls all the Navy’s supplies and drinking water to San Clemente Island. Thirdly, the Navy’s Military Sealift Command has a contract with Foss to do vessel-boarding exercises offshore. “They’ll pretend one of our tugs is a foreign vessel,” said Koi, “and they’ll query and board us in order to train their sailors.” Another Navy operation requires a Foss tug to tow a target sled 60 to 70 miles offshore on a mile-and-a-half-long cable for target practice by Navy cruisers and destroyers. And Foss donates its services to the tall ship Star of India, flagship of the San Diego Maritime Museum, assisting it in and out of port.
It is clear to me, as I talk to Wendell Koi, that he is the representative of a huge corporation. Not because he is self-important or overbearing, no, he’s a pleasant young man who obviously knows his business. But the charts, graphs, computers, the whole layout, lacks the easygoing quality of Westcoast. Foss deals primarily with gigantic ships. The size of the investment increases the degree of seriousness. I asked to go out on a tug, and Koi readily arranged to have me take a ride the next evening.
Foss in San Diego has 20 employees: 7 captains, then engineers and deckhands. Half are on schedule; the rest are casuals, meaning they are not full-time and hold other jobs. The ones on schedule work Monday through Friday, and the time not spent out on a tug is spent doing maintenance, though all serious repairs and modifications are done in the shipyard in Seattle. The captains all have Coast Guard licenses and 1600-ton masters licenses. Tugs are not required to be licensed, consequently the engineers don’t need to be licensed. The deckhands have able-bodied seaman endorsements.
When a ship approaches San Diego, the shipping agent in charge of the cargo calls the harbor pilot and tug company about a ship coming in on about 12 to 24 hours’ notice and Koi issues a call-out. A ship assist requires at least two tugs and involves a couple of hours of work. Foss is a union company, and so for the call-out, the most senior men are called first. A call-out can occur any time of the day or night, but the car carriers tend to arrive at night so they can be off-loaded first thing in the morning. The tug has a crew of three: an operator, engineer, and deckhand. When it “goes outside” — that is, beyond the sea buoy — a mate is also required. A cruise ship doesn’t require the help of a tug because its bow thrusters let it maneuver into its pier on its own.
I went out on the Pacific Queen, operated by Keith Ericson. The engineer was Tom Summers. The deckhand introduced himself as Joe. The call had come at noon Sunday for a 5:30 job: a car carrier, the Sirius Highway, that had been parked off Coronado all day. It was bringing in 2500 Volkswagen Beetles. Now the Pacific Queen and a second tug, the Pacific King, were to guide the Sirius Highway into the 24th Street Marine Terminal so that it would be ready to unload first thing in the morning — 50 men each driving 50 cars out of the ship over an eight-hour period.
Ericson is in his late 40s, about 5'8", stocky-ish, wears glasses, and has short gray hair and a neatly trimmed beard. He has an oddly melodious way of talking, sliding a few notes up and down a musical scale. He spent ten years in the Navy, coming here in the Navy in 1971. “I grew up on Long Island and my grandfather used to take me fishing. I’ve been on the water for as long as I can remember. I came back here in 1988, after driving trucks for eight years. I first worked for Harbor Tug & Barge, then for Westcoast, then I came to Foss in 1990, worked my way up and have been an operator since ’99. Now I’m the first to be called for after-hours work. I also worked on sailboats and ran a sailing school for six years. If Foss expanded or if someone retired or moved away, then I’d be offered a job, but personally I’m pretty content where I am.”
It was low tide and the Pacific Queen lay about 15 feet below the pier, tied up on the other side of another tug. I climbed down a ladder, holding my notebook in my teeth, then scrambled across the great rubber tires strung along the side of both boats. I thought how it would add zest to my story to break a leg. Inside the tug it was warm from the engines. To one side were the sleeping quarters, to the other was a small galley; a table was bolted to the floor. Everything was metal. I followed Ericson up the stairs to the wheelhouse. He began checking dials, flicking switches. Tom and Joe cast off and we moved out into the harbor to join the second tug, the Pacific King. By now it was dark.
Right away I saw the Sirius Highway coming down the main channel. It was a monster. More of a fortress than a ship, its orange hull rising up like a great wall. It moved past us by the Coronado bridge, fast and silent.
The harbor pilot’s voice came through the radio, asking the operators their locations. The pilots go by numbers — 01, 02, 03, 04. By the pilot’s voice Ericson said we had 01. “He tends to be more aggressive than the other pilots — does things quicker. He wants to see something happen as soon as he gives the order. When we work with him, the job takes less time.”
The two tugs followed the Sirius Highway toward the 24th Street Marine Terminal like two water bugs following a mother duck. Then the pilot brought the Sirius to a stop and moved the tugs into position.
“The other tug puts a line on the port bow,” Ericson said, “then we push on the starboard quarter. We have to be at 90 degrees when we push and the other tug is the same, then we’re able to push the Sirius around. Because of their configuration and because they’re so high, we don’t put a line at the top, but on a cleat on the side.”
There was no telling where we were in relation to the pier; the other tug had vanished and, in a way, the Sirius had also disappeared, because I couldn’t see the top, only the orange wall, which shone in a dreamlike glare in the lights from the tug. Joe attached his lines. There was the rumbling of the tug’s engines, the groan of the lines, but no sense of movement. The pilot’s voice came over the radio, quick and businesslike: “Queen, come ahead easy. Queen, stop. King, back easy. King, back half.”
Ericson repeated each command, as did the operator of the Pacific King. Then Ericson jotted down each of his adjustments in the tug’s log. It seemed to take dozens of adjustments before the Sirius Highway had been turned and positioned against the pier. I didn’t even feel a bump. “Queen, stop. King, stop.” Then Joe cast off his lines. There was a brisk thanks from the pilot. Once Ericson moved away from the great orange wall, everything came into perspective. There was the other tug and the bridge of the Sirius high above and the vast parking lot of the terminal that tomorrow evening would be filled with 2500 Volkswagen Beetles. Ericson turned the Queen back toward the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal. It was foggy and the lights downtown were a multicolored glow.
Between the rusty barge pulling up old piling and the Sirius Highway came the moving of a 265-foot mega-yacht costing over $50 million and its little companion, a 230-foot mega-yacht that follows it all over the world. I was asked not to give their names, so I’ll call them Silver and Scout. Steve Frailey had described the boats to me.
“They’ve got an all-British crew and they’ve set up the Silver a lot like a cruise ship. So you’ve got these uniformed British officers and you’ve got all these uniformed crewmembers. And they’ve all fallen in love with San Diego and they’ve bought property and are building homes here and the owner is so, I guess, understanding, or he wants to keep a loyal crew, that he decides to service the vessels in San Diego. The owner himself is never here. He’s been here once, to my knowledge, and I have a long association with those two yachts. I was part of building the Scout and, in the whole two years it took to build, he showed up for about half an hour, walked through it, said very nice, and left. Besides these two yachts, he has another one that’s a hundred-footer that was also built in San Diego and it’s pound for pound the most expensive sport fisher in the world that also follows him around occasionally or they’ll ship it to the location.
“The way they’re parked right now, you’ve got the Scout next to the pier and the Silver outboard. And the Scout is going to Mexico to do some cruising down there. The owner donates it a lot to research, oceanography, so they’re going to go do something like that. But the Silver’s in the way. So we’re going to move it out into the stream and the Scout’s going to depart. It’ll involve two of our tugs, which will be cushioned with canvas and things so we don’t scratch it, and a port pilot to direct the tugs. The Scout was built to hold a seaplane that was custom-made — it’s got a launching elevator in the back for the seaplane to come in and out of the water. It also carries a high-speed little landing craft on one side — ski boats, sailboats, jet skis, big giant trampolines that inflate, a decompression chamber valued at, like, a million dollars. It’s got 27 officers just to support the yacht because the yacht can’t carry all these items they want to play with. So one follows the other. Well, that’s a simple move, but when you think of the money involved. The paint job alone, which was done here in San Diego, took about a year and cost a million and a half dollars. So it’s critical our guys do a good job, don’t scratch it, don’t dent it, be real gentle and put it back just the way we found it.”
I had gone with Frailey when he had briefly discussed the operation with the captain of the Silver, first crossing over the Scout, then onto the larger yacht. The maids and women who worked in the galleys were Asian; the crew was British. Set into the rear deck of the Silver was a small swimming pool, perhaps 12 by 15 feet, lined with small turquoise tiles, while every ten inches or so would be a gold tile. One wall of the pool was glass, which looked onto the yacht’s long dining room.
Frailey and I made our way to the bridge where we met the captain and two deck officers in dark blue uniforms — Brits in their late 30s, early 40s, very handsome, short brown hair and very fit, proud, ultra-serious, a commando aspect. The bridge was about 25 feet across and filled with dark shiny wood and mysterious monitors. Frailey discussed the positioning of the tugs. One of the deck officers, mistaking my awe for professionalism, asked my advice about where to tie up the second tug.
Leaving the Silver, Frailey had to stop by the shipyard office to coordinate the time of the move. The man in charge said, “Once you get these big yachts in here they bleed money.” There was no avarice in his voice; he might have been saying the sun is shining. The phrase “money is no object” was repeated several times.
Someone else said that the Silver burned $16 worth of fuel per nautical mile, $256 an hour. Another said that two props for the Scout a few years ago had cost $500,000. Like the refrain of a song, it came again: Money is no object.
As Frailey took the Harbor Commander back to South Bay Boat Yard, a Navy SEAL’s Mark Five special operations craft shot by, more of a bullet than a boat, ignoring the No Wake signs. Frailey looked at it fondly. “If you can’t own a mega-yacht, you should just be a SEAL. They’ve got all the best toys.”
On the day of the move, we left South Bay Boat Yard around 6:00 a.m. on the Harbor Commander. The captain was Martin Curtin, president of Curtin Maritime, who works for Westcoast once or twice a week. At 25, Curtin is seen as sort of a boy wonder among tug captains, having started in L.A. in his late teens before he was even old enough to have an operator’s license, so when he worked he had to hire a licensed operator to accompany him. He is smart and knowledgeable, easily reeling off figures and the dimensions of various intricate bits and pieces, distances and fuel demands. Grant Westmorland and Steve Frailey couldn’t praise him enough, saying he was one of the best captains around and feeling certain that he was destined to make millions.
Born and raised on Catalina Island, Curtin has been around boats all his life. He is tall and thin, brown hair, brown eyes, with a smooth, almost rosy complexion that would make him look even younger than he is if it weren’t for his air of confidence. He has a brash manner, offhand, relaxed, jokey, a Tom Cruise manner. If he has doubts, they don’t show. He has had Curtin Maritime for three years, and at the moment it had one operable tug: the 107-foot, 3000 hp, oceangoing Scana C, which was built in 1954 and repowered in 2000. He has three similar and inoperable tugs anchored out in the A-8 awaiting renovation.
Curtin’s plan now was to get the other three tugs running and use one or more as harbor tugs in Ensenada, where he would be in competition with Foss and Crowley. Still, he believed he could break in. And he would also charter and do long-distance towing. Curtin’s chief engineer, deckhand, and sole employee was Jason Burcombe, with whom he had gone to high school on Catalina Island. They lived on the Scana C, which normally was docked at the 24th Street Pier.
Curtin took us out of South Bay Boat Yard and we raised our voices over the grumble of the engines. It was still dark and cold, but slowly a glow crept over the hills to the east, first a grayish color, then turning golden.
“We’re kind of like a one-horse stable,” said Curtin. “The harbor is a very coveted market to Foss and Crowley, because it’s more money and less work. Outside, it’s a finer line because you can hit bad weather, burn through the fuel real fast, and there goes your profit margin. Then I’ve got to pay the crew and pay for maintenance. You can lose money on a trip. But in outside towing there’s a lot of new customers, a lot of on-the-spot customers, because it’s such an odd market.”
Within the harbor, Curtin tries not to compete with Westcoast, bidding mostly on outside towing. A Panama towing job takes about 40 days and grosses about $350,000. Of that Curtin hopes to net about $50,000. Such a trip would require a five-man crew — captain, mate, chief engineer, assistant engineer, and cook. Their best speed would be 7H knots; their worst about 4, though they might do 8 or 9 “downhill through Baja.” And he explained that he might spend months trying to string a number of jobs together so there wouldn’t be a time on a trip when he was without a barge, taking several barges down through the canal and up to Georgia, another up to New England, another down to North Carolina, another down to New Orleans, and so on. And then the same thing with barges over to Japan. And he is cheaper than the big companies. Crowley charges $7000 a day plus fuel and oil; Curtin charges $4000. But Crowley keeps a tug fueled, supplied, and ready to leave on ten minutes’ notice, whereas it takes Curtin three days’ preparation.
It was nearly seven by the time Curtin maneuvered the Commander into the slip at the shipyard and moved it up behind the stern of the Silver. Uniformed sailors hurried back and forth, ready to give their all. The other smaller tug, the Harbor Mate, took up its position on the yacht’s port bow.
Curtin said they had to move the Silver because the Scout was going outside to do sea trials and swing its compass; that is, make sure the yacht’s compass was exact. With his usual self-possession, he told me, “We’re going to put the canvas on the push knees and across the front so when we push on their transom we won’t mess anything up.”
Curtin called down to Burcombe to drag out the canvas. But now a wrinkle occurred.
Burcombe shouted up to the wheelhouse. “I can’t find the canvas.” The canvas was supposed to be in a locker in the crew’s quarters and it wasn’t there. He kept looking; the canvas wasn’t onboard.
Curtin’s composure changed to irritation. “Oh, this will be nice. Someone’s going to be seriously P.O.’d. We’ll look pretty stupid with no canvas.” He got on the radio with Westcoast. “Douglas, I have a small problem. There’s no canvas on this boat. Can you have Jack run some down to me?” Irritation turned to barely contained anger. Turning to me, he said. “It’s always interesting. At least we’re early.” He began to whistle, calming himself down. “I’m going to look pretty stupid in about half an hour without any canvas. These are the joys of towing. They never know quite what they want and they never know quite what they need, so each time it’s different.”
Sailors were attaching cables from a crane on the dock in order to remove the orange metal gangplank. Curtin went back and forth on the radio about the missing canvas. The harbor pilot checked the position of the tugs. There was an antlike quality to the yacht’s sailors — the way they hurried hither and thither on mysterious errands.
Then it turned out that Curtin wouldn’t need his canvas. The officers on the yacht preferred to use their own, which was far superior, like thick tumbling mats. Dark blue mats were hung over the port side for the Mate and sailors attached white mats to the flat front of the Commander. The sun rose in the sky.
As we waited, Curtin explained that the method of measuring a tug’s ability by its horsepower was the old way of measuring a tug’s power and not particularly accurate. Europe and Asia had always used the bollard scale — that is, how many pounds of pull a tug can exert on a bollard — but the U.S. has been slow to conform. One of Foss’s 2000 hp tugs has 50,000 pounds of bollard pull. Curtin’s Scana C has 87,000 pounds. Curtin rattled off more numbers. “The Foss and Crowley tugs have a lot of horsepower but small propellers, and that decreases their bollard pull.”
Now the Commander nosed forward and was attached to the yacht as the Mate was attached to the port bow. From where I stood in the wheelhouse, I could see only the stern of the other tug. A dozen sailors worked to secure the lines. More time passed.
“The captain of the Mate has to work two jerk lines off the bow,” said Curtin, “which will be interesting, to keep this yacht from hitting the Scout. I’ll be walking the stern off and he’ll be pulling the bow off so it’ll be clean. If it was a barge, we could walk it off in five minutes, but since it’s a yacht we can’t afford to mess up. They’ve got so many crew on this that it’s amazing. I mean, they’ve got crew everywhere. And the radar on the Scout is as big as on a tanker. It’s total overkill. The pilot directs the tugs, because we can’t see everything. Basically he runs the show. We just push the levers.”
The Silver was cast off from the pier.
The pilot began to give directions to the tugs. “Commander, hard right, easy to easy. Commander, hard right, half and half. Commander, back easy. Stop on Commander.” Curtin repeated each order and noted it in the log. The pilot alternated his orders to the Commander with others to the Mate.
To me Curtin said, “As the Mate pulls the Silver’s bow out, it pulls the stern in, so now we have to expedite it a bit.”
Pilot: “Commander, hard right, half power.”
Moving the yacht was like two World Wrestling Federation wrestlers rolling a Fabergé egg across a downtown street at rush hour with their noses.
Suddenly everything came to a stop. The Silver was about 30 feet from the Scout and 30 yards from the dock on the other side of the slip. It turned out that the pilot wasn’t happy with the captain of the Harbor Mate and had decided that he didn’t have sufficient experience for the job. Consequently, he dismissed the Mate and put out a call for a tug from Harbor Tug & Barge. We waited. Curtin held the yacht in position.
Grant Westmorland came over the radio. He was furious, saying there was absolutely no reason for the change.
Curtin had returned to his mood of philosophical nonchalance. “Nobody likes not being able to do the job. It’s not an equipment problem. But sometimes the pilot says he wants a little more horsepower in the wheelhouse. Steve Frailey is the best captain that Westcoast has and if Steve was in the wheelhouse, they’d probably keep the Mate on the job, because Steve has had more experience with this sort of work. Harbor Tug & Barge used to have a stranglehold on the bay. They had 100 percent of the business. Now they probably have 15 percent and Westcoast has 85 percent, because Westcoast’s boats are set up better and willing to do more.”
A half hour went by. Curtin talked about his tugs in the A-8 and growing up on Catalina Island, where his father had a hotel. I decided I’d have to be extremely patient to work on a tug. Harbor Tug’s Metola-A arrived — a conventional tug shape with a white wheelhouse and yellow trim. Another half hour passed as it was attached to the yacht.
But taking the Silver out into the harbor was relatively speedy. No more than 20 minutes to go 300 yards, since it had already been separated from the smaller yacht, the one that carried the toys. It was still tied up to the pier. Next to it a tall yellow crane was doing weight tests so it could be certified. The Harbor Mate helped out by moving the barge, which held the weights. Clocks ticked.
A slightly odd-looking Chouest tug went by down the main channel. Chouest has the prettiest and most distinctive of the big tugs in the bay — a shiny orange and yellow. Curtin looked at it enviously.
He explained that tugs had long life spans, 50 to 60 years wasn’t uncommon. But environmental laws had led the big companies to build large new tractor tugs with new technology for harbor work with more powerful but smaller engines that produced fewer pollutants. And he spoke of Z-drive tugs with dual-nozzled azimuthal stern drive systems that can turn 360 degrees on a horizontal plane that is driven on a vertical axis. He ran through a long explanation with a series of numbers as easily as he might subtract two from four. The captain has two small levers with which he can direct the tug’s thrust in any direction, so the tug could move a ship sideways into a dock and forward at the same time. “So with these kind of tugs you can spin it within its own width or length. You can do anything with it.” The Chouest tug was such a tug and Curtin wanted one.
By now the Scout had moved out into the bay and the Silver was ready to return to the pier. The Commander was tied up on the yacht’s stern, while the Metola-A would push on the side as the Commander backed in.
The yacht was coaxed back into the slip as the pilot’s voice came over the radio. The yacht was coaxed back into the slip as the pilot’s voice came over the radio. “Commander, hard right on your flank rudders.” Curtin repeated the order and wrote it in his log. Pilot: “Commander, midships…Commander, hard left on the flanking rudder…Commander, stop…Metola, back easy… Metola, back half…Metola, back easy…Metola, stop… Commander, easy on one… Commander, stop…Commander, pick a mark and keep her here.” The orders continued. The sailors on the yacht hurried around as nervous as hens. Pilot: “Commander, hard left, easy, easy…Metola, ahead easy…Metola, stop…Commander, stop…Attach the lines to the bollards.” A man on the pier also called out directions: “I could use two meters back here.”
Fifteen more minutes were spent fiddling over a matter of inches, the very opposite of the car carrier. The tumbling mats were removed; lines were untied. Curtin pulled away and picked up a paint barge about 60 feet behind the Silver, then brought it back so the crane could hoist the gangplank onto it. It took about 20 people 20 more minutes to get the gangplank exactly right. The two yachts were like something out of a James Bond movie — the security forces, the elaborate toys, the British crew, the elegant deck officers. I realized that even if I had dumped all my savings into Starbucks and Dell Computer at exactly the right time it still wouldn’t be enough. Money was no object.
At 11:30 Curtin took the Harbor Commander out of the shipyard. The move had taken over four hours, not including travel. No scratches, no dents — the job had been a success. We passed the Navy yard. Tied up at a pier was a decrepit destroyer where Navy SEALs chased one another from the bridge, along passageways, and down to the dark bowels of the ship playing paintball games.
Curtin took the tug out into the channel as he headed back toward South Bay Boat Yard. Jason Burcombe had climbed up to the outside of the wheelhouse — thin, red-haired, red face, vaguely like Tom Sawyer. Looking out toward the Silver Strand I saw the two fat sea lions lolling on their buoy.
“One of them waved at me the other day,” I said.
I got no response.