Western Towboat Celebrates Its 75th Anniversary

Photo: Western Towboat Co.

Bob Shrewsbury Jr. was just five years old when he took his first trip aboard a tug in Puget Sound. The experience began a lifelong love of working on the water, as he followed in his father’s footsteps.

Bob Shrewsbury Sr. was a man of his word, committed to holding himself to the highest standards while juggling the roles of business agent, captain and engineer. His hands-on, honest work ethic has been passed down to the growing generations of his family, evidenced by the company’s solid reputation for providing quality service.

In 1947, Bob Sr. acquired a 38-foot wooden-hulled tug, N.D. Tobey, built in 1901 and powered by a single co-diesel engine. With the vessel in hand, he officially launched Western Towboat the following year.

Today, the company boasts a fleet of 22 custom, in-house-designed conventional and Z-drive tugs as well as seven 6,000 to 10,000-ton deck barges that leave year-round from its Ballard, Wash.-based headquarters. The company offers ocean towing, harbor towing, ship assist, container and transportation services on diverse routes, including Puget Sound, the Aleutian Islands, the Arctic, Alaska, the Hawaiian Islands and the Panama Canal.

Freight runs to Alaska have been the backbone of the company’s business and an interesting way for the family to spend time together. Bob Jr. made his first trip to Alaska at the age of seven; it would become an annual journey he would take with his father, and later, with his children, Russ, Ross and Kristin, who are all co-owners of the business now.

“We towed barges mainly in the summer for the canneries for Alaska Outport,” Bob Jr. told Pacific Maritime. “And we would load canned salmon and some frozen salmon and haul that back to Seattle and Anacortes, and Bellingham to the fish-receiving spots. I helped load the barge and lift cases of canned salmon back in the day.”

As the company grew, Bob Jr. and his father began designing their own purpose-built vessels, starting with the 65-foot, twin screw, steel-hulled Wasp harbor tug. The hull and house were built by Berg Shipbuilding in 1968, and the vessel was finished by the father-son duo in Seattle. The vessel is still in service.

“My dad was a machinist and carpenter, and did whatever he had to do,” Bob Jr. remarked. “I helped with the woodworking. Our basement was our shop in those days and I grew up around tools.”

The tugboat Bering Titan, with Western Towboat workers in the foreground. Photo: Western Towboat Co.

Berg Shipbuilding also built the 1985 steel-hulled Alaska Mariner, the first of the company’s Mariner-class tugs, also finished by Bob Jr. and his father.

“When I was in high school, my dad designed the first of what we call our Titan-class tugs,” Russ said. “That was the Western Titan. That boat was built specifically for the work we do in Alaska. We’re building the eighth one of those right now. It’s an adaptable design that’s great for ocean work, but can also do harbor work and ship work if needed.”

Constant Innovation

When it comes to tug design, Bob Jr., who took over as company president when Bob Sr. retired in 1987, said that the company’s long-term relationship with Jensen Maritime helped elevate their designs. The Shrewsburys constantly would be innovating based on their experiences on the water.

“If someone had told me 25 years ago, that we’d be having 11 Z-drive tugs now, I’d say ‘oh, no way’,” Bob Jr. said. “You just never know how things are going to work out.”

It was also Jensen Maritime that introduced Western Towboat to many of its long-time workers. During the 1970s, a company that had a number of Carson and Knutsen family members had been building fishing boats, but were going to shut down their yard. Many of those workers joined Western Towboat, and four of them are still with the company. 

Bob Jr., Russ, and his brother Ross are all captains and run boats every day.

“We leave the heavy lifting for the architects, but the main thing we’ve always tried to do with our designs, due to regulations, is keep our tugs under 100 tons,” Russ told Pacific Maritime. “The reason for that is we’re not required to have GMDSS (Global Maritime Distress and Safety System) … so it makes it easy for manning. Historically, 50% of our workforce has come from the fishing industry, and they had smaller licenses, so this could appeal to a larger swath of people to come work for us.”

Western Towboat has developed many long-standing customer relationships over the years. The company secured its first major contract with Salmon Bay Sand and Gravel the same year Bob Jr. was born, and the link continues today. Additionally, in its fourth year in business, Western Towboat’s founders created a freight service with a partner company for the Seattle-to-Alaska run that was eventually sold to Alaska Marine Lines, now a subsidiary of transport and logistics company Lynden Inc. In fact, about 75% of Southeast Alaska freight is carried by Western Towboat, according to the company.

The company has grown alongside Lynden, first completing bi-weekly trips to Alaska and now, three tug and barge pairings leave every week for Alaska year-round. “We also keep a boat in Alaska that does a shuttle run,” Russ explained. “On any given day, we have seven boats working for AML in rotation. When Alaska opens up in the summertime, we do other freight runs for AML that go all over Alaska and the Arctic Circle.”

“We’ve had good crews,” Bob Jr. said. “A lot of them have grown up in the business with us. They started as young deckhands who are captains today. What we do is so critical to Alaska with how they get all their freight to Southeast Alaska. We have to be on our toes and do it right and keep our customers happy.”

The Shrewsburys continue to be passionate about building their own vessels. They enjoy adding extra design perks such as putting stainless steel caps on all the bulwarks and designing each boat for ease of maintenance.

“Over the years, we’ve learned that schedule is the most important thing with us working for Lynden, so if we have to change a component on the boat out a day or two, we’re able to do that with the way we’ve designed our boats. Time is everything for us,” Russ said. “We like to work on the principle of having a core group of people who are great workers and smart people. It works better for us rather than hiring some people and trying to slap something together.”

The company also works with maritime training schools, taking cadets on the boats in the summer and working with local high schools to educate students about opportunities to work in the industry.

Long Haul

In 2015 Bob Jr.’s brother Ric, who ran the business with him, decided to retire, which changed the course of the company, but Bob Jr. and the next generation are in it for the long haul. Western Towboat has a staff of 35 in the office and shipyard and up to 160 workers on the tugs that ply the waters.

Russ said he can’t imagine doing anything else. He fondly remembers taking a trip to Point Wells with his father and grandfather on a single-crew tug called Pachena that had a tow-winch in the engine room. In preschool, he was already designing tugs.

“I’ve got my son drawing tugboats. He’s in kindergarten now. My brother and I take our kids on the boats all the time when we’re doing jobs on the weekends to get the bug into them, too. And my dad is 69 years old, and he splices the majority of all our lines for all our tugs,” Russ said. “That’s what he does on the weekends.”

Bob Jr. and his family have continued their steadfast philosophy that was carved out by Bob Sr. decades ago, with an unwavering commitment to see the job done right. (Bob Sr. died in 2018 at the age of 94.)

“It’s really nice for me to have all three of my kids working in the business,” beamed Bob Jr. “They all get along. They enjoy the business, and hopefully their kids are going to want to do the same thing. Who knows what the business will be like in 20 more years with green energy and everything that’s going on. But it’s been a nice life.” 

Kathy A. Smith writes for global maritime trade journals and provides marketing copy to maritime businesses worldwide. She can be reached at maritimewriter@gmail.com.