Tugboat to Whiiter

while back I recall asking when a particular barge was due into the port of Whittier. "It's arrival has been delayed due to bad weather. It is currently holed up in Icy Straits," was the reply. Being a neophyte Alaska Railroad railfan, this all sounded mysterious and very intriguing. I began to wonder what a barge voyage from Seattle to Whittier would be like. How long would the entire trip take? Would they see whales breaching the surface of the ocean? Would there be violent storms with monstrous waves towering overhead? What kind of food would the crew eat?

Over the years, an incredible curiosity took hold of me. Somehow I must find a way to ride that barge from Seattle to Whittier and experience it for myself. I began putting out feelers and finally in the summer of 2007 made a connection. As I discussed the possibility of taking this journey, I shared that I had severe problems with motion sickness while on the ocean. My connection strongly advised against the journey. What if the weather unexpectedly turned bad and I got so sick that I couldn't keep food or water down? There would be no way a rescue helicopter was going to come through the stormy seas and pluck me off the boat. So I decided to just put this fantasy away on a shelf. And then something wonderful happened.

While watching a barge unload in Whittier in July 2008, I met tugboat Captain Brett Spencer. I shared with him my desire and asked him what it was like to make the trip. He was only too happy to share the story of his journey aboard his tugboat the Ocean Titan.

There are five men on the crew, a captain, two mates and three workers. Before entering the ocean three guys board the barge and spend 1-2 hours checking on the tie downs. Once underway, they run the tug 24 hours a day and make approximate 11 mph on calm water. The captain tows the barge .4 miles behind the tugboat and doesn't let the line get too tight. Typically they stop every day to check on the barge including tie downs and Keep From Freezing units.

Brett pays close attention to the National Weather Service weather broadcasts and maps and takes a route that follows the Inside Passage through Canadian coastal waters. The tug and barge pass behind the Queen Charlotte Islands, which shield them from rougher weather. Eventually they reach Icy Straits, a body of water between Gustavus and Hoonah, due west of Juneau which are the last protected waters before the Gulf of Alaska. If the weather looks reasonably good, the captain will begin the voyage across the Gulf of Alaska, one of the more treacherous stretches of the North Pacific Ocean. If a severe storm is forecast, with swells exceeding 20 feet, the tug and barge will remain in Icy Straits to wait out the storm. While tugs and barges can safely navigate in storm conditions, the tows do not proceed across the Gulf of Alaska until conditions moderate to avoid any possibility of damage to the non railcar freight on the barge.

One way voyage times between Seattle and Whittier vary due to weather and can range from six (summer) to eight (winter) days. In very rare cases of extremely bad weather a voyage can even take fifteen days. Total trip time is typically on a three week cycle taking one week to get from Seattle to Whittier and one week to get back.

Much to my delight, Captain Brett offered to give a tour of his vessel. When we reached the bridge, I noticed a laptop with an beautiful ocean backdrop screen. When I asked, Captain Brett admitted taking the photo himself. Turning to the laptop, Captain Brett brought up numerous photos and video of the many journeys he had taken. What did I do? I begged him to let me use some of these on my website. Although I may never make the voyage myself (just watching his videos made me nauseous), I can definitely know what it would be like. And now you can too. Enjoy!

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A nice day on the water Alaska ferry on its way to Whittier Southeast Alaska La Perouse glacier taken from the gulf of Alaska
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Tug towing logs into Canada Our tugs on their way to pick up Whittier and southeast Alaska freight barges in Seattle Loading rail in Whittier Loading rail in Whittier; a Captain Brett favorite photo
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Whittier Whittier Nice morning on the water A cold winter day
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Another nice COLD day Green Island lighthouse on Alaskan-Canadian border Canadian fishing boat on crappy water Canadian fishing boat on crappy water
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Sunrise in the Gulf of Alaska Crappy day in Gulf of Alaska Crappy day in Gulf of Alaska Crappy day in Gulf of Alaska
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Crappy day in Gulf of Alaska Crappy day in Gulf of Alaska Crappy day in Gulf of Alaska Crappy day in Gulf of Alaska
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Assist boat coming to help us to the dock Cold winter day in Whittier Cold winter day in Whittier Cape St. Elias in the Gulf of Alaska, 140 miles south of Whittier
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More crappy weather in the Gulf More crappy weather in the Gulf Nice day on the water  
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Iced up tug..... .....and chipping it off    


And videos too! Be careful. They have large file sizes.

Also see Jim Vanderveen's The Barge Connection (Washington to Alaska) or this additional photo from ?

Got a question for Captain Brett? Send me an email with your question and I will forward it on to him. If I get an answer, I will post it here.

1. How many tugboats does your company run to Whittier? "There are three of our boats on the Whittier run, so one boat leaves Seattle every Wednesday."

2. When you lay over in Icy Straits, have you ever seen other tugboats there? "We have had up to 6-7 tugs from several different companies circling at one time. It becomes quite a traffic jam."

3. How do you kill time while circling in Icy straits? "To kill time I spend time reading, movies, exercising, and there is always work to be done on the tug. We keep busy but it does get boring at times. However, it is better that the alternative of going out into the gulf on rough seas."

4. Will you have to spend Christmas on the ocean? "It is my year to work the holidays. I leave on the 24th and will be home around the 4th. I'm doing a south east freight run. However, I will be off most of January which will be nice. I will celebrate Christmas the Tuesday before."

5. What are the length of the rails on the barges? Are they the same between the two types of barges or different? How many cars can you get side-by-side on the barges? "The length of the barges are the same 420 feet plus 100 feet. The only difference is the rack for loading containers above the rails cars. There are eight tracks and stantions between tracks 3-4 and between 5-6."


Thanks a million to Captain Brett Spencer for providing these photos and videos!


Page created 11/21/08 and last updated 12/27/11
© 2008-2011 Brett Spencer and John Combs unless otherwise noted