Up A Country Lane: Tugboats on Puget Sound

I heard from my son Bob that he and some friends had bicycled to the University of Washington to watch rowing races. There were teams from all over. The University of Washington rowed against teams from Germany, Boston, and California.

Despite all the water near their homes, Bob and his brother Craig usually seem happier going to the mountains. One exception was in 1998 when Robert and I were visiting and our three sons took their father onto Puget Sound. I wrote a column about it.

Craig’s skin cancer clinic was part of an auction to raise funds for Seattle hospitals. One of the donated items was a day on a working tugboat. Craig was the highest bidder and urged his father and brothers to join him for the experience.

The weather the day of the trip was perfect. The sun was shining, a gentle breeze was blowing, and the water was smooth as glass.

Late in the morning the Birkbys were welcomed aboard the tugboat Wedell Foss by Captain Sam, a veteran of 39 years on tugs. The six members of his crew were just finishing lunch and invited the visitors to join them. The menu was chowder, tacos, pasta salad rhubarb pie, chocolate chip cookies, and soda, tea, or coffee.

The men who work on the tug stay aboard for 15 days and nights, ready at any time to assist ships coming into the harbor. Called a tractor tug, it is one of the largest in the fleet and can maneuver as easily sideways as forward and back.

The bridge where the captain directed activities was loaded with instruments detecting tide and speed of the current. Most importantly, it showed where the channel was deep and where there were underwater obstacles.

As the tug headed into Puget Sound, Captain Sam turned the wheel over to Robert. "Head for that ship," he said.

"The ship is moving," Robert said as he gripped the wheel. "When I’m driving a tractor across a field, I don’t use a moving cow as a landmark."

He did the best he could, but the wake behind the tug was crooked. "If I plowed a furrow that crooked, I would have to give up," Robert said, turning the controls back over to Sam.

The freighter they were approaching had just arrived from Asia and was loaded with hundreds of big containers holding manufactured goods for sale in America. They would be unloaded directly onto railroad cars or trucks to continue their journeys inland. First the ship had to be eased into the docks where unloading could occur.

A pilot on board communicated with Captain Sam and also the captain of a second tugboat approaching the other end of the freighter. The Birkbys watched as the tug came near the huge freighter towering over their heads.

A crew member on deck caught a thin rope tossed down from the freighter. He fastened it to the tug’s heavy rope so it could be pulled up onto the freighter and made secure. Now the two tugs could do the work of pushing and pulling the ship.

With great skill, the captains maneuvered the ship against the dock. Huge cranes immediately began unloading the containers. Captain Sam said that as soon as the boat was empty, it would be loaded again and tugboats would pull it into the harbor so it could begin its trip back across the Pacific.

"A sitting ship doesn’t bring in any money," the captain explained.

Bob asked Captain Sam if the Wedell Foss would enter the tugboat race that is part of the annual Seattle Waterfront Festival. "I don’t think so," the captain replied. "This is not the fastest tug on the water. But it is one of the biggest and most powerful, so if it’s a demolition derby, we would win flat out."

The tugboat came alongside a pier where Robert and his sons could jumped off and become landlubbers again. Thus ended the adventure aboard the tugboat Wedell Foss.

When this happened, I wondered what adventures would await these family members next. That was twenty years ago, and my sons are still finding ways to explore and experience their parts of the world.




I have no nautical books in my library, but I do have a seafood cookbook from a trip we took to Port Townsend, Washington. It is called "Potpourri" and most of the recipes relate to seafood. This one was both easy and delicious.

Puget Sound Fish Patties


1 cup finely crushed potato chips

1 cup pancake mix

½ cup shredded fresh crab meat or fresh shrimp

1 cup milk

Sour cream for garnish


Combine potato chips with pancake mix and seafood. Stir in enough milk to make a medium batter. Fry quickly in hot butter and serve topped with sour cream. Makes about 10 to 12 three-inch pancakes. Serve for lunch or supper with a crisp green salad.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.