Alaska Tugs & Barges

Sep 9, 2015 | Transportation

Tom Anderson

The tugboat Samson Mariner with the barge Fairweather, pulling into Dutch Harbor arriving from Adak; both vessels are owned and operated by Samson Tug & Barge.

Delivering to Alaskans rain or shine

Go to any elementary school library and there’s bound to be a book or two on tug boats. Tugs, barges, and pulling and pushing cargo in stormy seas are as much a part of the American maritime tradition and marine ethos as “deadliest catch” commercial fishing and the prominence of the country’s US Coast Guard protecting domestic waters.

The tug and barge industry touches every single person’s life in Alaska because of the spectrum of deliveries brought to and taken from Alaska, foundational to commerce at all levels.

The American Waterways Operators

The American Waterways Operators is the national advocate for the US tugboat, towboat, and barge industry. Waterways and ports support more than forty-one thousand Alaska jobs and directly contribute $6 billion to the state’s economy. Vessels on the waters of Alaska move 36 million tons of domestic freight every year, including $2.2 billion in agricultural and food products. Barge transportation is the primary means of delivering food to market shelves in many isolated Alaska communities.

American Waterways Operators’ latest statistical data highlights more than 900 large container ships, tankers, and bulk cargo vessels call at Alaska ports each year. More than forty tugboat and barge companies are headquartered in Alaska, operating more than 140 vessels. More than twenty thousand pieces of military cargo have passed through the Port of Anchorage over the past eight years. American Waterways Operators notes the Port of Anchorage was designated a Department of Defense Nationally Strategic seaport in 2006.

The organization emphasizes how crucial the industry remains in Alaska, injecting over $3.1 billion in personal income and $1.9 billion in direct business revenue to the state economy. Alaska is home to 5,500 miles of inland waterways, the most of any state in the nation. Alaska ports handle over 46 million short tons of cargo every year.

Alaska’s Northwest Coast is home to the world’s largest zinc mine, accounting for 10 percent of the world’s production. Tugboats are critical to safely transporting zinc ore from the mine’s shallow port to bulk ships that cannot safely transit in shallow waters notes Charles Constanzo, vice president of American Waterways Operators’ Pacific Region.

Constanzo referenced $1.6 billion in manufactured products such as clothing, food, consumer products, computers, and machinery being shipped to and from Alaska through waterways and ports, while the state serves as a major energy hub for the United States and globally through petroleum products worth $1.6 billion moving on its waterways.

Vitus Marine

For some tug and barge operators, the marine industry is part of their ancestry.

Mark Smith earned his sea legs at an early age growing up near Dillingham, tucked away at the confluence of the Nushagak River in the Bristol Bay region of southwestern Alaska. In 1934 his family entered the tug and barge business as Smith Lighterage Company. Starting in 1973 Smith worked over Alaska summers as a commercial fisherman and third-generation tug operator.

The mosaic of ownership in the industry, with employee and customer crossovers, has been the result of numerous acquisitions over the last twenty years, explains Smith. The family business was merged into Northland Services in 1999. Smith transferred to Yukon Fuel that same year and would later join Crowley upon its purchase of Yukon. By 2009 Smith wanted to continue his family’s legacy and started his own marine services company.

Vitus Bering took the seas in the early 1700s. A Danish mariner and officer in Peter the Great’s Russian Navy, he is known for sailing through what is now named the Bering Strait. Smith liked Bering’s tenacity and courage, forming Vitus Energy in 2009. Within this parent company, subsidiaries include aviation, terminal operation, and marine services.

Vitus Marine is the tug and barge arm of the business. Customers are scattered across the state from the Aleutian Islands to the Arctic Circle and inland on rivers such as the Kobuk, Nushagak, Kuskokwim, Kvichak, and Yukon. Upon re-entering the market, serendipity and strategy led Smith and his partners to Meera Kohler, president and CEO of the Alaska Village Electric Cooperative, a nonprofit electric utility serving fifty-six communities in Western and Interior Alaska. Alaska Village Electric Cooperative funded the construction and leased to Vitus its initial flagships, two articulating tug and barge vessels. Cost-effective, faster, and safer deliveries of fuel were the results.

Vitus has grown on the foundation of safe, reliable operations. With six barges, four tugs, and three landing crafts, 85 percent of the company’s business and revenue comes from marine fuel delivery. However the complexity of physical location is what makes services tenuous at times.

“We’re dealing with the delivery of fuel, and the communities are dependent on this for their utilities, schools, city and village operations, and for personal and commercial use, so every shipment is critical,” says Smith. “That said, very few Alaskan docks afford easy access, so we’re landing on beaches and we’re hiring the best captains who have the local knowledge of the region’s waterways. There is no other choice without any, or rarely updated, hydrographic mapping information from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.”

Smith explains Alaska has limited inland docks in rural Alaska. He names West Dock on the North Slope, a Crowley dock at Kotzebue, the Port of Nome’s dock, Bethel, Dillingham, Naknek, and St. Mary’s as it—so the other 160 ports of call requiring prompt and consistent fuel deliveries require beach landings. The company’s seasonal peak of employment for tug and barge operations is more than forty-five personnel, from captains to crew hands to logistical staff.

“Tug and barge operations are slow, weather susceptible, and risky from a safety standpoint when going on and off the tow wire,” adds Smith. The challenges Smith sees in the industry include climate change, with weather unusual and disruptive, bringing late fall super storms along with early and late freeze ups. Of recent, he recalls sequential extremely warm winters, low snow pack, dwindling glacier melt, and river height increasingly rain driven, all in concert affecting mobility and access. The remedy, as a result, may be safer navigation by using small, shallow draft tank ships known in the rest of the world as coastal or river tankers.

Cook Inlet Tug & Barge

When it comes to tug and barge service in the Cook Inlet region, a signature company with deep Alaska roots and specialization in ice escorts is Cook Inlet Tug & Barge.

Formed in 1924 and originally named Anderson & Son’s Transportation Co., cargo, passenger, and general marine services were originally its main operations between Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound, and as far as Kodiak, Dutch Harbor, and Puget Sound. Following World War II the company rebranded into its current name. After the 1964 earthquake Cook Inlet Tug & Barge directed its focus on Cook Inlet and Port of Anchorage marine services.

In 2011 Foss Maritime Corporation purchased Cook Inlet Tug & Barge. Foss is a Saltchuk Resources company headquartered in Seattle and oversees all tug and barge subsidiary companies within Saltchuk, which totals one of the largest tug fleets in the nation.

“Our company has three lines of business in the tug and barge industry, so we stay busy,” says General Manager Ben Stevens, who has been at the helm of the company since January. “We have the longevity and track record, along with a foundation of safety-first, that has made operations successful over the decades in Cook Inlet,” says Stevens.

“The unique challenge of operating year-round in Cook Inlet requires experienced mariners with a knowledge and understanding of ever-changing tidal and sea ice conditions. Our ice classed tugs and Alaska-based crews enable us to meet customer requirements with efficiency and dependability.”

The business specialties Stevens references include assisting ships through ice escorts in the often turbulent and chronically shallow ice covered waters of Cook Inlet with two tractor tugs. These tugs were specifically designed and built for Cook Inlet mobility in heavy sea ice conditions. The two vessels run the entire twelve months of the year through all seasons and directly aid ships and ocean barges in harbor operations, particularly Totem Ocean Trailer Express, Matson, and Alaska Marine Lines. Up and down Cook Inlet, including Nikiski and Homer ports, the ice escort specialty is of special importance to the company because of tenured expertise.

The company’s fleet includes several tractor and conventional tugs as well flat deck barges with and without ramps. Ramp barges’ help in Cook Inlet Tug and Barge’s support of special marine projects is another example of industry coverage. The company’s barges mobilize and demobilize equipment and vehicles, most often tractor trailers, drilling equipment, and supplies to and from the Beluga River Gas Field, Trading Bay, and other developments in West Cook Inlet. The company’s subsidiary Anderson Tug & Barge, representing the third prong of the company’s essential services, operates out of Seward. Anderson handles harbor services and assists cruise ships by transporting marine pilots to the cruise line vessels via a small launch-assist tug.

“Our company handles myriad tug and barge services, from harbor and ship assists to construction support recently including dredging support and Port of Anchorage expansion,” says Stevens. “From container shipping to resource development including oil, gas, and mining, we believe Cook Inlet Tug & Barge is on the forefront and integral in operations for Cook Inlet commerce. Ninety-one years of service to Alaskans is indicative of our legacy.”

Brice ATB delivering rock to Kivalina.

Brice Marine

Many Alaska tug and barge companies have longevity in the industry because of pioneering entrepreneurs who recognized the control of delivery and schedule that a marine asset can provide. Brice Marine, formed in 1973 as a subsidiary of Brice Incorporated, is no exception. Now owned (along with all the Brice Companies) by Calista Corporation, the marine company owns and operates a range of tug and barge sets from all-ocean to shallow draft, allowing operation in the majority of navigable Alaska waters.

“Our primary business model is to provide marine support to Brice Incorporated, a fifty-year heavy civil construction company,” says General Manager Alba Brice. “As most of Brice, Inc.’s projects are in remote areas of Alaska, we feel that in a short construction season control of delivery schedules for equipment and materials for our projects is important.”

Brice’s inventory includes a shallow draft conventional tug and barge, truck-able set for specialized inland water uses, and two ATBs, or articulated tug and barges. Of the ATB, one set is shallow draft capable and the other is oceans capable. Brice introduced the first cargo deck ATBs to Alaska as the safety, efficiency, and ship-like capabilities of the design were attractive features to have in the short Arctic barge season.

The ATB concept utilizes a system that connects the tug to the barge mechanically and eliminates the need for a tow wire. A notch built into the back of the barge receives the tug. A hydraulic ram built into the hull of the tug connects the tug to the barge and the set takes on many of the features of a landing craft or ship. The ATB eliminates the use of the tow wire, the handling of which can be a place where many of the injuries in the industry can be associated. Additionally, the ATB can be more efficient as the operator does not need to make or break tow. The vessel can land, drop the ramp, load cargo, leave the landing, and head directly to the delivery destination.

While the primary model is to support the construction company, Brice Marine also provides barge services for its own purposes as well as for other clients. These services can be in the form of freight, aggregate delivery, or vessel charters. This season, the company is supporting a variety of Brice contracts as well as delivering aggregate to Chevak.

“We have a diverse set of vessels uniquely designed to provide marine support whether it be equipment, supplies, or aggregate delivery in all areas of Alaska and elsewhere—especially in places with shallow water and little or no existing infrastructure,” says Brice.

Brice Marine’s shallow draft conventional set is in its fifth year supporting drilling operations at Oooguruk Island, a man-made drilling location offshore of the North Slope. Originally contracted by Pioneer Natural Resources Alaska to provide barge services between Oliktok Point and Oooguruk, Brice has continued to provide barge services in support of the island for the company that has assumed Pioneer’s interest in the operation, Caelus Energy Alaska LLC.

The Samson Mariner breaking through ice.

Samson Tug and Barge

Port Captain Wally Stilson has been with Samson Tug and Barge for more than thirty-five years and has served as port captain for the past twelve. He oversees Samson’s tug and barge operations, including several three-thousand-horsepower tugs at over one hundred feet long and as many as six barges averaging over three hundred feet in length. The company specializes in ocean transportation and works closely with industry colleagues like Boyer Towing, Island Tug and Barge, Brusco Tug and Barge, Western Towboat, and other complementary companies with delivery resources on contract.

Depending on the cargo, it’s often a necessity in rural Alaska to partner with tug and barge companies for delivery. Stilson and Vice President Cory Baggen explain that there’s no sense in two sets of tugs and barges running side by side, half full of cargo—so in some markets, Samson strategically splits the delivery effort with other businesses. This is a common methodology in the regional shipping industry.

Stilson notes tugboats are the workhorses of the sea. They typically sail with a small crew of five to six crewmembers. Samson hauls general cargo including household goods, vehicles, heavy equipment, building supplies, and lumber. Occasionally the company is pegged for unique transportation, such as Kodiak’s wind turbines.

The company’s fleet sails from Seattle bi-weekly to the communities of Cordova, Valdez, Seward, Kodiak, King Cove, and Dutch Harbor, serving the interior communities of Anchorage, Fairbanks, the Kenai Peninsula, and Prudhoe Bay through Seward or Valdez. Samson also sails from Seattle weekly to the communities of Metlakatla, Ketchikan, Prince of Wales (including Craig) Klawock and Thorne Bay, Wrangell, Petersburg, Juneau, and its home town of Sitka. Samson serves Larsen Bay every summer and provides service to the remote communities of Adak and Atka, as needed.

Samson has three sets of tugs and barges moving every day in Western Alaska year round and adds as many as three additional sets in the summer. All seafood either goes to Dutch Harbor for export to foreign ports or to Seattle for transportation overseas or to the Lower 48. There is also a volume of cargo that is carried into Anchorage. The company has 140 employees to make sure deliveries get to their destinations, with offices across the state and in Seattle.

Stilson alludes to the fact some deliveries can be pretty challenging in the winter. Occasionally a storm can bring thirty foot waves on the Gulf Coast, with waves documented as high as one hundred feet. Safety for the crew and the cargo is most important to the company, so tugs may hole up for weather for weeks at a time until the weather is safe enough to get underway. Baggen references a good safety record and takes pride in the experience of her captains and crew.


A household name for tug and barge service in many communities throughout Alaska is Crowley.

The company started its marine transportation fuel and freight services to Alaska in 1953 and since has acquired several Alaska companies to increase its coverage and size, including Black Navigation, whose fuel and freight-hauling history dates back to the late 1800s.

Crowley is continuing to modernize its fleet, launching two double-hull fuel barges in 2011 and four high powered Ocean Class tug boats in 2012. Two of these, the Ocean Wind and Ocean Wave, are towing the Polar Pioneer for Shell. In 2014 Crowley built two large 400-foot by 120-foot heavy deck barges in China for the foreign module market. These barges are currently transporting modules from China to the new Chevron Wheatstone LNG project in Australia. A significant part of the company’s large barge operations is based in the Gulf of Mexico where they have ten large deck barges and a variety of high horsepower tug assets.

Crowley has also had a significant marine construction project ongoing in Cook Inlet this summer with the delivery and installation of the Furie Monopod with the heavy lift ship Svenja. In addition, Crowley outfitted a pipelay barge, the Ninilchik, which was specifically designed to install the sixteen mile pipeline from the shore gas processing facility to the new monopod. The barge Ninilchik, measuring 240 feet long, is fitted with welding stations, along with a crane, living quarters for seventy-two people, a sophisticated anchoring system, and massive stinger to guide the pipe over the barge stern as it is fabricated.

Many of the company’s barges are dedicated to petroleum product delivery, with a small fleet of coastal deck barges working out of Prudhoe Bay in a JV with UIC-Bowhead Transportation Company on the Point Thomson development project.

Walt Tague, Director of Commercial Operations for CPD Alaska LLC (Crowley), stresses the fact Crowley is a major player in fuel distribution along with Vitus Marine and Delta Western. Crowley has four coastal tugs and smaller, specially designed barges for Western Alaska, as well as three river tugs for the Kuskokwim and Yukon Rivers, Kotzebue Sound, and Kobuk regions.

“Typically a village corporation or power supply company in a remote Alaskan village depends on fuel delivered by barge. Most rural communities have undeveloped port facilities so there’s just a beach, no dock or port.” Crowley arranges logistics to bring fuel to villages. Its fleet of vessels includes chartered tugs and barges and small to medium-size tankers.

Tankers carry from 330,000 to 350,000 barrels of fuel into well-protected locations at least three miles offshore like Togiak Bay, off of Nome, in Kotzebue Sound where barges can offload to smaller barges. The smaller vessels distribute the fuel to the villages, carrying 260,000 to 400,000 gallons into the beach and then run a hose to the tank farm. Crowley also carries freight on the decks of its river barges, including propane, small packages of home supplies, and domestic provisions from washers and dryers to school busses and earth moving equipment. Fuel products range from heating fuel, ultra-low sulfur diesel for vehicles and power generation, regular gasoline, jet fuel, and 100 Low Lead.

The company also serves the Southeast in Juneau and Ketchikan. Throughout the year it has to make arrangements with suppliers, shipping companies, other tug and barge companies to logistically parcel out and deliver fuel. To that end, a challenge remains that it’s a seasonal business and nearly impossible to deliver in western parts of Alaska when the inland rivers are frozen, so summer is a densely calendared delivery time.

On the North Slope the company has shallow draft tugs and barges for oil companies in summer. Crowley also has a Valdez fleet of escorts and docks ships in Prince William Sound. Escort tankers and dock vessels as well as barge assets deployed in Prince William Sound with spill recovery equipment for Alyeska Pipeline Company remain part of the contingent of escort response vessels available 24/7 to respond to spills and prevent coastal damage.

Alaska Marine Lines

A heavy-hitter in Alaska maritime transportation, with one of the largest fleets, is a company owned by Lynden.

Alaska Marine Lines has thirty-six barges of varying sizes and delivers freight across the state, from Southeast to Southcentral to the turbulent waters of Western Alaska. Alaska Marine Lines doubled its size two years ago upon purchase of Foss Maritime Company’s Southeast Alaska delivery assets. The company’s business paradigm exemplifies an affinity for networking with other transport companies, like contracting with Western Towboat Company for Southeast and Southcentral deliveries and Dunlap Towing Company for Western Alaska transports.

Alaska Marine Lines’ president, Kevin Anderson, has been with Lynden companies since 1982. He explains the company has a niche market in handling the shipment of rail cars by barge to Whittier from Seattle. Everything from construction supplies and drilling pipes to chemicals and other transportable products are off-loaded onto Alaska Railroad Corporation railcars. The company also patented, built, and introduced the world’s first 53-foot-long by 102-inch-wide by 10-foot-high ISO-rated dry and refrigerated containers and rack system that fit over the railcars carrying products for grocery stores, construction projects, and an abundance of frozen foods, particularly canned or refrigerated seafood south bound from hubs like Cordova and Valdez.

Alaska Marine Lines uses three landing craft for interior river deliveries products like refrigerated goods, modular homes, and constructions materials to villages and inland communities dependent on each barge’s arrival. Anderson notes that a big part of the company’s overall business plan is hauling salmon across the state, recognizing a core commercial sector remains commercial fisheries.

When it comes to safety, Anderson and Steve Carlson, the general manager overseeing the Marine Engineering, agree that it’s imperative to have the best crews and equipment, recognizing the critical nature of delivery to rural and urban Alaska communities.

“Weather in Alaska can be very challenging, so we always consider the safety of crew, cargo, and barges operating in waters,” says Carlson. As a retired US Coast Guard captain overseeing Naval Engineering nationwide, he remembers graduating from the US Coast Guard Academy and his first assignment patrolling Alaska’s stormy waters enforcing US jurisdiction. Anderson, Carlson, and management respect the waters Alaska Marine Lines vessels traverse, and as a result, the company’s culture of safety and caution ensure prompt, complete deliveries.

Into the Horizon

As technology modernizes, tugs and barges will become even more efficient. Government support, particularly with up-to-date and comprehensive mapping for tug captains, is an integral component to future safety and success in the industry. The tug boats of our youth are history, and state-of-the-art vessels rule the waves.

As Vitus Marine’s Mark Smith portends, “It will be incumbent upon NOAA to enhance its coastal mapping and inland waterways from Dutch Harbor to Dillingham to the southern mouth of the Yukon River, considering some of our navigational charts are populated with data that are centuries old.” Smith alludes to the reality that his tug and barge company, and essentially all others in Alaska, are by default reliant on local pilots and tug captains who know the waters so as to avoid damaging vessels and cargo, absent modern mapping that any captain might follow.

The grounding of Shell’s chartered support ice-breaking vessel Fennica on an uncharted shoal in the busy port area of Dutch Harbor is indicative of the need for current and comprehensive mapping by the federal government.

Without question, from inclement weather to monstrous swells and winter conditions, the world of tug and barge operations in Alaska is intense. Beyond pending policy and technological improvements, for the most part the industry is safe, stable, and thriving. There is clearly a symbiotic relationship between each cargo delivery and basic function of home, business, and local government. Heating, electricity, mobility, and so many other basic needs of hundreds of Alaska’s community are contingent on a barge’s arrival.

“We know how important our job is, and we take it seriously, and that makes the profession genuinely rewarding for those of us who love the maritime business,” adds Smith. The state’s tug and barge industry delivers because of the fraternity of mariners who place their passion in front of profit, safety before timelines, and the daily needs of Alaskans at the destination point of their compasses, rain or shine.


This article first appeared in the September 2015 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.

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