We are in Whittier – I haven’t been here since 2011, when I was on the Barbara Foss towing a railcar barge between Prince William Sound and Prince Rupert, BC. I don’t quite think I had the blogging resources then that I have now, so I neglected to report that in the town of Whittier, which can be reached from Anchorage via a 3-mile-long one-way train tunnel, everyone pretty much lives in one building, a concrete low-rise reminiscent of Soviet bloc apartments. A post office and bowling alley are housed in the basement. There is a spate of condominiums just south of the port, and to the west of that is a tall barracks still standing from World War 2 which no one will dismantle because it’s riddled with asbestos. A few scattered warehouses, one general store which shares the building with a bar and a handful of hotel rooms, a fishing lodge up the road near the ferry dock, and you’ve about seen most of the town. As they say, it’s always sh*ttier in Whittier, but the surrounding snow-covered mountains soften the view somewhat.
My coworkers and I flew into Valdez as usual on Tuesday evening and on Wednesday morning I arrived at the dock to crew up on the Hunter to find that two of my crew members had had to leave the boat in the last ten days due to medical issues, and while loading stores that morning someone had accidentally discharged a drychem fire extinguisher in the forepeak; at this point I was over-caffeinated and underfed so it was a lot to take in in the first ten minutes, but it was great to be back nonetheless. We had made tow already to the barge 500-2 and were set to leave that night for Whittier for a week of fishing vessel training (oil spill cleanup simulation) to be followed by a week of the same again in Cordova. Spending time in these outports is such a welcome change of scenery.
When we arrived in Whittier and flopped on our barge, our assist to the dock was the Endurance, which is basically an anchor handling offshore supply vessel with a huge stern deck and a tow wire to boot. It would have been awkward to say the least to have the Endurance push us to the dock at a 90 (ninety degree angle, the way most conventional tugs would assist a barge or a ship) so instead we “made up Chinese”, which is when two boats tie up bow to bow on the same side of the barge, and I marveled at the level of control and finesse involved in this maneuver. I operated the Hunter while my captain piloted the barge to the DeLong dock where we are tied up now. Once we were all fast we broke tow and were ready to head three miles to the east to check out Shotgun Cove, where we will anchor this barge on Sunday for the spill drill, but when we discovered that we couldn’t get the power transferred from auxiliary generator #1 to #2, we tied back up and waited for a marine electrician to come on board and help our chief figure out the problem. Something about an adjustable time delay. Beyond me. I just hope that’s the last of the breakage and mishaps for a while.
Last night we had dinner together as a crew and were joined by a man who runs the Alaska Railroad operation in Whittier – I knew him also when I towed the Aquatrain and he is the nicest guy ever, I’m so glad to see him again – as well as the Crowley Valdez general manager. At one point after everyone was finished eating and we were just shooting the breeze in the galley, the GM asked my captain (who will retire next year) if his career has been worthwhile, or if he’ll look back and have any regrets. My captain could say that after 43 years of working on tugs, it had been the most amazing experience of his life and he could think of nothing he would have rather done. Ted, the railroad manager, who also used to work on these boats for Crowley in Alaska, chimed in and said that his 26-year career spent on the tugs had been wonderful, without any doubt. I’m not ashamed to admit I wanted to cry, and writing about it now makes me emotional. Watching these men, family men, salty and goodhearted, reminisce happily about their lives and their work, brought me right back down to why I love this job so much, why I wanted to do this work in the first place.