Working on the Water
/ Author: Donald Mundy 6650 Rate this article:

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 terrifying!—experience.

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 personal scheduling.”

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 increases dramatically.

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.

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