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Alaska Tug and Freight Mariners

Shipping goods by sea to the 49th state

Bowhead Transport Co. tug and barge depart Seattle’s Elliott Bay en route to the Arctic.

Bowhead Transport Co. tug and barge depart Seattle’s Elliott Bay en route to the Arctic.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Bowhead Transport Co.

For many in Alaska, summer means warmer temperatures and longer days. To others in remote areas of the state, it also means the beginning of freighting season.

Freight comes into Alaska one of two ways—by air or by sea. According to the Port of Anchorage, 90 percent of all consumer goods sold in Alaska’s Railbelt arrive by containerships. The freight is usually either trucked to its final destination by a common carrier, or it will travel by rail on the Alaskan Railroad.

As active as the Port of Anchorage is, being located at the mouth of Cook Inlet presents its own challenges—40 foot tides, six months of winter, and ice up to four feet thick. Containerships and barges serving the area rely on a single local company to help them guide their way through the treacherous waters of Cook Inlet.


Transporting Freight in Cook Inlet

Katrina Anderson, Operations Manager at Cook Inlet Tug and Barge, is a fourth generation mariner navigating the waters of Cook Inlet. As the sole provider of ship assist services at the Port of Anchorage, CITB is a key player in ensuring freight arrives in Anchorage year-round.

Like many Alaskan stories, details of the early days of the company have been lost, but an edition of the Seward newspaper dates the company back to 1938 when it promoted contract mail as well as cargo and passenger service to Anchorage for the company known as Anderson and Sons Transportation Co. This company, run by Capt. Jack and his son, Jack Jr., later became known as Cook Inlet Tug and Barge shortly after the end of World War II.

CITB began ship assist services in Cook Inlet when SeaLand began containership service to Anchorage in 1964. TOTE began its containership service to the area in 1975, five years after Jack Jr. retired and split the business between his two sons. Carl Anderson, Katrina’s father, took over the Cook Inlet side of the business in 1974 while her uncle, Jack (Andy) Anderson III moved to Seward to form Anderson Tug and Barge.

While Carl Anderson is still involved with the company, he has passed the torch to his daughter, Katrina, who holds a two-ton captain’s license and has been groomed for the business since she could walk the decks of the boats alongside her parents. “You couldn’t keep me away from this business,” Katrina Anderson says. “It’s in my blood.”

In early 2011, CITB was acquired by Foss Marine Holdings, expanding its operating capabilities. “It’s difficult remaining a small company and keeping up with the demanding compliance regulations of the USCG,” Anderson says. “By joining forces with Foss, we’re able to continue providing the same level of expertise in Cook Inlet with the added advantages a larger company offers.”

Perhaps the reason CITB is still the sole provider of ship assist services in Cook Inlet is because it takes 75 years of experience to understand the nuances of what Anderson considers “a specialized piece of water.” With tidal differences of up to 40 feet and extreme winter weather, Cook Inlet offers plenty of opportunities for danger and misfortune. “Extreme weather combined with current tends to make things nasty,” Anderson says. “When Prince William Sound’s weather gets pushed through the wind tunnel of Cook Inlet, conditions change quickly and unpredictably.”

Without a doubt, it is the unusual weather patterns of Cook Inlet that makes the transport of freight to the area challenging. During the winter months, CITB uses two ice-class tractor tugs to clear a path in the frozen water so container ships may gain access to the port. Additionally, the 3,500 and 2,200 horsepower tugs known as the Stellar Wind and the Glacier Wind assist Horizon Lines and TOTE containerships into their berths at the Port of Anchorage.

Because weather conditions are so poor in Cook Inlet during the winter months, the only barges that will brave the journey are those carrying fuel to the Port of Anchorage. These barges are escorted by CITB’s ice-assist vessels. “When it comes to fuel delivery, nobody wants to mess around,” Anderson says. “We push through ice up to four feet thick sometimes and we want to make sure not a drop gets spilled in the waters we’ve come to call home.”


New Player in Cook Inlet

Also calling the area home is PacArctic Logistics, a wholly owned Koniag Inc. subsidiary, poising themselves to be the leader in development at Port MacKenzie. Across the inlet from the Port of Anchorage, Port MacKenzie consists of a 14.7-acre barge dock with a 500-foot bulkhead, a 1,200-foot-long deep-draft dock, and alternate road access to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough via Port MacKenzie and Knik Goose Bay Roads. Eventual plans for the area include connecting to the rail system via a 32.1 mile rail line from the Parks Highway to the port.

King Hufford, president of PacArctic Logistics, is optimistic about the potential growth for barging operations in Southcentral Alaska. “With the expanded barge dock and the close proximity to Cook Inlet operations, our company offers something that few can in the area—and that is land,” he says.

PacArctic signed a 20-year lease with the Mat-Su Borough for an eight-acre parcel of land suitable for staging of project equipment. “We have staged some of the overflow equipment for several projects in the area and we see these services expanding as development in the area increases,” he added.

This year, PacArctic installed an 888 Manitowoc crane with a 230-ton lift capacity to assist with barging operations. “We are posturing ourselves for the next big influx of activity in the area,” Hufford says. “New and increased industry activities will drive traffic to the expanding port.”

And those silt issues that the Port of Anchorage has to deal with? “We are a self-dredging port,” Hufford says. “The tides carry the silt away from us making it a non-issue.”


Brice Marine’s ATB

As infrastructure in the area increases, Anderson says they are seeing an increase in project support work across Cook Inlet. “In addition to our ice tugs, CITB has two flat-deck cargo barges and two crew boats supporting projects in the area,” Anderson says. “We’ve provided support to the Port (of Anchorage) expansion, the construction of Port McKenzie, the GCI fiber optic cable installation, and the natural gas platforms in the inlet as well as the Fire Island Wind Farm.”

CITB worked alongside Brice Marine LLC this summer to support the construction of CIRI’s wind farm on Fire Island. CITB transported the project equipment throughout the construction phase using its tugs and barges and provided crew transport to Fire Island with its two newly acquired crew boats.

Brice Marine was tasked with transporting the 240-foot tower sections of the wind turbines. To accomplish this, the company used their exclusively designed articulated tug and barge (ATB), according to Alba Brice, vice president of Brice Inc., parent company for Brice Marine LLC. “The Fire Island project was a good fit for the ATB design and our particular set had a barge configuration that was well suited for the larger components of the wind turbines,” he says.

Brice Marine describes their ATB design as a “tug that is coupled to the barge by large hydraulic rams extruding from the hull of the tug that fit into receivers on the barge. The tug and barge are one laterally but the tug articulates on the vertical axis.” This unified design “takes on many of the characteristics and efficiency advantages of a traditional ship or landing craft, but retains its status as a tug and barge set.”

“The ATB design is most generally used in fuel delivery, but as the nature of Brice’s core business is remote heavy civil construction, we thought the concept would have merit for project support, especially for jobs where a lack of infrastructure and road access require a landing craft type of vessel for delivery of equipment and materials.,” Brice says.

Equipped with a drop ramp, the ATB is able to land at a location, drop its ramp, discharge its cargo, back away and head to its next destination.

“We really like the efficiency and safety factors that the ATB brings,” Brice says. “There are no tow wires that can be a primary safety hazard for the crew on a typical tug and barge set, and this also means we do not have to spend time making or breaking tow before we are under way.

“The ATB typically has some larger upfront costs for vessel construction, but with its sturdy configuration, efficiencies and operating capacity, we think the concept enhances our capabilities in Alaska,” he adds.


Barge Service for the North

Consumers not on the rail or road system must rely on air or marine transportation to receive their freight. While expensive, air cargo transportation can deliver goods during the cold, winter months when sea travel isn’t an option due to heavy ice and severe weather. But for most Alaska villages and remote communities, receiving freight by barge during the summer months is the most practical option.

Bowhead Transport Co. LLC is a common carrier providing line-haul barge service with ocean-going tugs to rural communities and villages in the most northern regions of Alaska. Owned by Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corp., Bowhead, headquartered in Seattle, is committed to providing cost-effective freight solutions to the communities north of Kotzebue and all along the North Slope of Alaska each summer.

Bowhead has scheduled service to the Arctic region annually, requiring barging activities to be coordinated well in advance of the sailings that leave Seattle. “Depending on the volume of freight we are hauling, we may sail one to three barges each season,” says Jim Dwight, general manager for Bowhead.

“We leave Seattle in late June or early July and head straight to Dutch Harbor where we refuel. Then it is on to Nome where the tug and barges will pick up the seasonal employees who flew up from Seattle to join the flotilla and assist in cargo operations,” Dwight says. “We pick up one or two of Bowhead’s lighterage vessels in Nome and then head straight to Point Hope.”

Upon leaving Point Hope, Bowhead makes stops in Point Lay, Wainwright, Barrow, Prudhoe Bay and Kaktovik before heading back to Seattle with southbound freight. Occasionally shipments that did not make the barge in Seattle are shipped to Alaska and transported by road to Prudhoe Bay, then picked up by Bowhead and delivered to North Slope destinations. “Delivering freight to these remote areas has its logistical challenges,” Dwight says. “Our team is excellent at safely and efficiently managing lots of activities in a compressed amount of time.”

Due to the shallow drafts in most of the northern communities, Bowhead uses lightering vessels to transport freight from their barges to the shore. “It becomes a three-vessel operation at Point Lay and Wainwright,” explains Dwight. “The tug holds the barge in place while we lighter freight to the beach; then our lagoon equipment delivers cargo to the villages. It’s the only solution for some of these communities to receive marine freight—none have docking facilities.”

Ice, severe weather and high winds are just some of the environmental challenges Bowhead faces. “During severe storms, our vessels sometimes have nowhere to hide. Planning ahead during these times is critical to ensuring safe delivery of the freight,” Dwight says.

In addition to the weather, Bowhead is vigilant to not disturb the environment. “We are careful to coordinate our operations with community leaders, particularly where whaling and other subsistence activities are taking place,” Dwight says.

Celebrating its 30th anniversary of business operations, Bowhead sees continued growth in the northern region, especially around Barrow and Wainwright as support of oil exploration and production in the Arctic increases. “We’ve had very steady volume over the last 10 years, with 2010 being our biggest year ever as we provided project support for the new hospital construction in Barrow,” Dwight says.

2012 will be another busy year for Bowhead as it assists the North Slope Borough with moving a natural gas drilling rig from Barrow to Prudhoe Bay, as well as performing all of the equipment mobilization for the Kaktovik Runway Project. “UIC is in an excellent position to remain successful,” Dwight says, “and Bowhead is delighted to be a part of the contributing team.”      


Paula Cottrell is an Alaskan author.

This article first appeared in the September 2012 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.


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