I watched from shore as the Lindsey Foss gently backed into the Curtis Wharf in Anacortes. Chuck Westbang, one of two deckhand/engineers, held his hands high and closed the distance between them, mirroring the closing distance between the tug and the wharf. High in the pilot house, Captain Ron Hedahl eased the 155-foot tug to the pier and held it in place. Donning the PFD and hard hat I’d been offered, I stepped first atop huge tires adorning the stern then onto the deck.
Operating with a crew of five, the Lindsey Foss’ primary mission is tanker escort. Armed with firefighting capabilities and two enormous 4,000 horsepower engines, the tug is driven by a Voith Schneider cycloidal propulsion system. While origin of the system was in Russia with further advancement in Germany, the marine application was first developed in Seattle at the University of Washington in 1922. But the industry didn’t actually adopt the system until much later, first in Europe, then they were brought to the U.S. and used with smaller tugs and then with the Lindsey Foss and sistership Garth Foss — which are two of the most powerful tractor tugs on the West Coast.
On this day (Monday, December 5), the tug’s mission was to escort the nearly 900-foot long Polar Endeavor from the pier at the Anacortes Refinery, westbound through Guemes Channel, then out Rosario Strait to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Moving oil, by any method, carries risk: pipelines, ships, rail cars, trucks. Each has a story and it’s beyond the purview of this article to explore the tradeoffs. If you accept that the global economy currently depends on oil, an argument against any one conveyance is an argument for the others. What I was interested in, though, were the specific protocols used by the local shipping industry and how they were applied in region’s waters.
The Lindsey Foss was purpose built in response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound. Delivered in 1993, the Garth and Lindsey Foss have been escorting tankers ever since. Like the tugs, the tankers themselves have evolved as well. The Polar Endeavor is double hulled, as are all oil tankers that enter Puget Sound. In addition, the Polar Endeavor has a huge bow thruster, twin engines in two separate engine rooms and twin rudders. While not immune to problems, the Polar Endeavor is very maneuverable by tanker standards.
When we arrived, the tanker was secured to the wharf with a starboard tie. As we pulled closer, a small skiff was gathering in the oil boom surrounding the tanker. After the boom was cleared, we moved in on the stern and the deckhands secured the Lindsey Foss’ tether to the tanker’s line and the tanker’s crew took up the hefty tow line and secured it to the tanker’s aft tow bit. Similar activity was taking place on the tanker’s bow with the Garth Foss.
Coordinating all this activity was the ship’s pilot. The tanker’s captain is ultimately responsible for the safety of the ship and crew, but it’s the pilot who gives commands. The pilot called for both tugs to gently push the tanker, holding it to the wharf. There was a light breeze pushing the tanker off the dock along with a one or so knot ebb current running parallel to the dock. With the tanker pinned to the wharf, dock lines were taken in. When all lines were clear the pilot asked for the tugs to pull the tanker out from the dock. As the vessel moved away from the dock, Ron guided the Lindsey Foss around the stern so that he was ready to pull the stern to starboard while the Garth Foss continued to pull the bow to port. The tanker slowly pivoted to head west.
Once under power, the pilot called for the Garth Foss to take in their tether and the tanker, tethered to the Lindsey Foss stern to stern, made her way down Guemes Channel. At this point the tanker would appear to be towing the Lindsey Foss backward, but in fact the Lindsey is being actively steered and under her own power. Should something happen to the tanker in the confines of Guemes Channel, the tug would have a fair degree of control to steer the tanker away from a grounding. Tethered to the Lindsey Foss and with the Garth Foss at the bow, the two tugs were ready and in place if something unpredictable happened.
Upon clearing Guemes Channel into the larger Rosario Strait, the Garth Foss was free to head to her next job and a few minutes later the pilot asked the Lindsey Foss to take in her tether. The tether is controlled from the pilot house and there’s an instrument measuring (in tons) the pressure on the tow line. By this time, Ron’s shift had concluded and Matt Cassee, the junior captain, had seamlessly taken over command of the tug.
As soon as the tow line was back aboard, two activities took place. The deck hands tied in a pennant to the tow line with a huge titanium ‘clip’ fastened at the ready at the stern of the tug. Simultaneously, the tanker crew readied their tow line to their tow bit, attached a small retrieving line with a loop and lowered the retrieving line to within grasp of the tug. Joe Connors, the other deckhand/engineer, showed me the pennant arrangement. It would take two or three crewmembers to manhandle the pennant and clip, but it was ready for use with a moments notice.
In this way, should something happen to the tanker, the tug’s crew could come up to the stern of the tanker, grab the retrieving line with a long boat hook and yank down the tankers tow line with no assistance from the tanker crew. Should there be an emergency on the tanker that required focus from the tanker’s crew, the tug could independently re-tether itself to the tanker. To expedite that maneuver, the Lindsey Foss, now untethered, continued to run “backwards” alongside the tanker as we transited through Rosario Strait. Once clear of the south end of Lopez Island, and now with more sea room, Matt pivoted the Lindsey Foss and continued the escort in forward.
One maneuver we did not do, but is practiced in drills, is the “indirect pull”. A tractor tug can magnify its force considerably to stop a runaway tanker by positioning itself sideways tethered aft to a tanker. By thrusting away from the tanker and pivoting nearly 90-degrees, the tug presents maximum drag to the tanker. In partnership with the Polar tankers, this maneuver is practiced in drills. Ron described it as quite a maneuver with the tug listing considerably, but it is an effective one that halts the forward progress of the tanker faster than it can stop itself. Here’s a video of the Lindsey Foss doing an indirect pull in 2015.
In addition to double hulls, twin engines and twin rudders, oil tankers now have strengthened towing bits fore and aft. After each oil spill in the 60s, 70s and 80s, industry and government worked developed better practices. While there are no guarantees of course, the track record of these improvements is evident as spills are on the decline. There may be no “solution”, but this collection of enhancements has had positive results.
Down below the off watch crew was having lunch. And what a lunch it was. There are no longer dedicated cooks aboard Foss tugs, which would likely come as disappointing news to Arthur Foss. My grandmother knew Art and Ellen Foss very well, having started work for Foss around 1918 in Tacoma. She often quoted Arthur Foss as saying the key to happiness aboard a tug was good food made by great cooks.
But I also suspect that Arthur Foss would have been very pleased by the spread Chuck Westbang put on that afternoon. This was to be Chuck’s last trip before a well deserved retirement and because of that, he may have spent more time with menu than usual. He offered an amazing selection of specialty burgers, of which I had the Italian pepper steak burger with tater tots. It was quite good and Foss will miss Chuck’s considerable talents.
After lunch I took an engine room tour conducted by Chief Engineer Karl Lejune, which was as loud as it was impressive. Each of the massive engines develops 4,000 horsepower and they drive two cycloidal drives. The tug carries nearly 84 thousand gallons of diesel and burns around 300 gallons an hour at top speed.
On deck level, a room on one side of the tug is dedicated to fire fighting with gear at the ready for use. The gear supports the two pumps on deck, each of which is capable of putting 6,600 gallons per minute onto a fire. The tug also carries concentrated firefighting foam with one pump able to produce nearly 5,300 gallons of foam per minute. Opposite the firefighting gear on the other side of the tug is a shop that is capable of completing a vast array of projects and the ability to fix gear.
Once back up in the pilothouse and moving forward, the tanker matched the tugs slower speed and we continued the escort side-by-side towards buoy “R” off New Dungeness light. As we went, Matt and I discussed AIS and commercial versus recreational craft and as we did so a 50ish foot trawler was crossing in front of us. The vessel was broadcasting an AIS signal and she was far in front of us with zero chance of collision.
She was, however, headed north in the southbound shipping lane. Matt offered that the behavior raised a concern in his mind, not of collision or close call, but sufficient enough to watch the progress of the trawler with scrutiny. Had the trawler been in the northbound lanes, she would have likely taken the tanker and tug on our stern, making for a more elegant crossing.
We also chatted about recreational boat behavior and both Matt and Ron pointed out that most boaters are great and incidents are few and far between. There are, however, a few (aren’t there always?) that either aggressively push the limits or demonstrate behavior that belies a total lack of understanding of the rules of the road. Crossing the shipping lanes with care, taking the stern of commercial craft if there’s any question, demonstrating clear intent, and, if needed, occasionally hailing a commercial craft on channel 13 will earn points from the commercial guys. While Lindsey Foss had one VHF on channel 16, it was clearly the lowest priority channel. Between the tanker/tug communication on 77, the VTS channel 5, and commercial bridge to bridge communication on 13, channel 16 on a commercial tug just doesn’t get used very often.
The trip was over all too quickly. And fittingly enough, as Matt and I were chatting in the pilothouse, I saw the impressive telltale blows of two large humpback whales. Odd for this time of year, but it’s been that type of year for humpbacks. They’re back.
While oil transit in the company of whales may make one wince, the whales (and the rest of us) are fortunate to have the Lindsey Foss and Garth Foss, along with the mariners who operate them, as insurance policies and protectors of our coastal waters. Perhaps not a perfect solution, but the track record of oil movement in Washington State is a good one and continued refinement of best practices both in tug and tanker construction and usage helps minimize the overall risk.
When it comes to moving oil tankers in and out of our local waters, no news is good news. This escort service may not be glamorous, but the lack of incidences is due to hard work and continued vigilance on the part of tankers and tugs, their designers, builders and the professional mariners that staff them.