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Sketched April 23, 2014

For those who work in the local maritime industry, boating season doesn’t start today. It’s a year-round occupation.

Once every three weeks, for example, Capt. Brent Bierbaum and the crew of the Arctic Titan load up their tugboat with food provisions and embark on a 1,400-mile journey to Alaska. The job: to transport a barge the size of a football field all the way to Whittier, a rail-yard outpost on Prince William Sound. From oil-train cars and refrigerated containers with frozen bread to machinery and even boats, the barge’s deck is packed five-stories high. Imagine maneuvering that load through tides and narrow inlets along the coast of Canada. “It’s a huge responsibility,” Bierbaum said.

A great opportunity to experience Seattle’s working waterfront — and see the annual tugboat race — is coming up during the Seattle Maritime Festival, next Thursday through May 11. If you miss it, you can always do some “tug-spotting” at the Ballard Locks. The blue and yellow vessels of the homegrown Western Towboat Co. are impossible to miss.

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The Ballard-based Western Towboat Co. has a fleet of 21 tugs and employs about 140 people, said Rachel Shrewsbury, whose grandfather started the business in 1948. 

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I joined the crew aboard the tug for a very short but important part of the journey: the sail from Ballard to Harbor Island, where the tug hooked up a fully loaded barge.

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The amount of things you can put on these floating platforms is mind-boggling. Capt. Brent Bierbaum said this one included 51 rail cars and the equivalent of 132 semi-trailer trucks. Topping the massive stack were several boats and a Caterpillar excavator.Gabi_0502_Towboat_05

Capt. Brent Bierbaum at the helm and three of his four-person crew down below
worked together to chain up the barge.
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Not many ports have the infrastructure to load rail cars onto barges. I missed watching that process because the barge was already loaded, but there’s an excuse to come back.

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And there went the Arctic Titan and its barge as the evening colors began
to paint the scene over Elliott Bay. Smooth sailing!