Working on the Water
The risk and reward of working in BC's marine industry
HOURS OF BOREDOM FOLLOWED BY moments of sheer terror.” That’s
how Captain Tyler Neilly summed it up when I asked him what it’s like to
be a tugboat captain. Tyler, who is a Local 66 member and steward, gave
me new insight into what it takes to be a mariner.
It's not a job for the faint of heart,” he says. “But I love being on the water.
I love what I do for a living.”
Tyler was one of the first employees of Ledcor Resources & Transportation,
one of a number of CLAC-signatory companies docking ships or towing
massive barges up and down the Fraser River, Georgia Straight, or Burrard
Inlet. Today, over 70 Local 66 members are busy earning their living as
mariners on the west coast.
The tugboat industry is a relatively new one for CLAC, dating back
only to the 1990s. The learning curve has been steep, but representing
members in this industry has been an exhilarating—and sometimes
A LIFE ON THE TUGS is not an easy one, but it is rewarding. The members
who work on continuous shift boats stay on board for anywhere from
seven to fourteen straight days. They work six hours on and six hours off
continuously, never quite getting a full sleep.
By the time their rotation is done, they are exhausted. The entire sevenor
fourteen-day rotation is spent on a cramped boat with limited space
to move around.
“You better make sure you get along with the guys you
work with,” says Deckhand Doug Drinkwater.
The members employed by Samson Tug Boats Inc., and
Trident Navigation Ltd. are constantly on call waiting
to be dispatched to the ships they service. This can be
at any time of the day or night.
“It makes it very difficult to schedule anything,” says
Captain Steve Swanson, who is employed by Samson.
“Family life can suffer if you’re not careful with your
The path to becoming a deckhand, a mate, or captain
on a boat is long and arduous. The marine industry
is the second most heavily regulated industry in all
of Canada, behind only airlines. Those who work on
the tugs are highly skilled professionals with years of
schooling and training under their belts.
“I started my career working on the east coast on a
supply ship going out to the oil rigs off the coast of
Newfoundland,” says Steve. “One time, we were stuck
out in a hurricane for five days tied up to the rig. The
winds topped out at 200 kilometres per hour. But we
survived and I kept on in the industry.”
Steve got his masters ticket, which enables him to captain
a tugboat, back in 2008. He has his 150-ton ticket
and is currently working on his 500-ton.
To get to where he is today, he had to spend months in
school and build up a minimum of 24 months sea time.
Captain Dan Meier, serving as a deckhand on the
Shuswap on the day that I rode along, comes from a
tugboating family. He’s been on the water since he was
12 years old, working in and around the log booming
ground his father operated.
To become a deckhand involves a three-month bridge
watchman ticket and a minimum number of sea-time
hours. On the day of my ride along, I watched as the
Shuswap pulled up alongside a car carrier ship that
had just finished unloading Hyundai cars in Richmond.
Steve and Dan, working in tandem with the pilot aboard
the ship, gently guided the big carrier as it pushed off
from its berth and steamed off to its next stop.
WORKERS ON THE TUGS KNOW there are risks being
on the water. Anywhere in Canada, the maritime coast
can be harsh and unforgiving.
Last year was a particularly difficult year for maritime
accidents on the west coast. Three tugboats sank
during the year—fortunately with no loss of life.
But two separate incidents late in the year off the west
coast of Vancouver Island near Tofino illustrate how
deadly the ocean can be. In September, a commercial
fishing boat sank with the loss of three lives, and a month later, a whale-watching boat capsized with the
loss of six lives and eighteen hospitalized.
It’s not just the ocean that can be hazardous. Working
in the Fraser River, with its changing tides, currents,
sandbars, and numerous narrow passageways underneath
bridges, poses significant challenges.
Every year in the spring, the Fraser River swells its
banks during what’s known as freshet, the term used
to describe when the snow and ice melt. The speed
of the current running downstream from up country
So too does the amount of debris in the water. Partially
or fully submerged logs, known as deadheads, careening
down river can be especially dangerous for tugboats.
DURING A RIDE ALONG WITH a crew from Ledcor, I
saw first-hand what it’s like to take a barge through
the narrow passageway under the Mission train bridge,
located about an hour upriver by car from Vancouver.
When I asked the captain how big the barge was that
we were towing, he jokingly replied, “220 feet long and
much too wide.”
After getting clearance from the bridgeman, I watched
in amazement as we steamed through the open passageway
with an enormous barge behind us with just
a few feet to spare on each side. And this was one of
the easier passings!
The weather was perfect and the current was agreeable.
In rough weather, wind, fog, or at night, this
passage can get very complicated. And it’s just one
of the numerous narrow passings along the length
of the Fraser River that crews have to navigate.
Landing these enormous barges is a feat in itself. I joined
the crew of the tugboat Kaymar, who are employed by
Trident, as they hauled a fuel barge from Burrard Inlet
near Port Moody out toward Vancouver harbour.
At the helm was Brad Thompson, who was being
trained on this particular day by Captain Shane
Rommann. As we passed under the Iron Workers
Memorial Bridge, we had to make a sharp left turn and
land the barge alongside a tanker docked at one of the
grain terminals in the harbour. This is no easy task
with changing winds, currents, and tides.
It took the assistance of the tugboat Finlay along with
the Kaymar to gently push the barge up alongside the
tanker. Once in position, deckhands Chis Sorrentino
and Marlon Sanchez jumped aboard the fuel barge
and tied it off to the tanker. It was an impressive display
of teamwork and coordination between two tugboats
and their crews to safely land the barge and
dispatch the fuel.
BC’S MARINE INDUSTRY IS RAPIDLY growing, and
the opportunities to move up to higher-rated classifications
are presenting themselves to these Local 66
members. In other companies, it might take a deckhand
eight to ten years to get the opportunity to move
up to mate or master.
With the flexibility that CLAC affords its members and
the companies, members are moving up much more
quickly. Some have become masters within two to
three years. The future looks bright on the west coast
for CLAC members working on the water.