2015: Western Towboat Builds Seventh Titan-Class Tug

When Western Towboat of Seattle started building its first Titan ASD long-haul tug at their base on the Seattle Ship Canal in 1995, owners Ric and Bob Shrewsbury were simply responding to the growth of barge service to SE Alaska. They could hardly have imagined that this demand for more powerful tugs would continue unabated for the next 20 years, the Western Titan would be followed by five sister ships, and the Titan class would become synonymous with excellence in design and construction.

The newest is the Arctic Titan, launched in 2012. It is the 18th boat Western have built and the first to have a rating for light ice conditions. The hull now under construction will be called the Bering Titan. These boats and the Alaska Titan (2008) take advantage of Caterpillar’s latest C175 engine rated at 2,682 hp each, at 1,600 rpm. They provide over 500 hp more power, turning Centa carbon fiber shafts connected to Schottel azimuthing z-drives with four-blade, 104-inch-diameter stainless steel propellers. The bollard pull is estimated to be around 80 tons.

The bulk of Western Towboat’s fleet has been committed to towing barges for Alaska Marine Lines, now a division of Lynden Transport, since 1976. “We have two routes: Southeast Alaska—the inside route– and Whittier—the outside route– across the Gulf of Alaska with a cargo of railroad cars on the deck and containers stacked on top.” Ric noted. Both routes have three trips a week in the summer and two in the winter. Whittier is once a week year-round, S E is twice a week in winter–three times in the summer.

It’s 2000 miles to Whittier in Prince William Sound, non-stop,” he pointed out. “It can be tough out in the gulf of Alaska in winter storms, we can handle seas up to 15 feet, but too much of that can start to loosen wagon’s tie-downs. The round trip is 15 days in the summer but it can stretch out to three weeks in stormy weather. We burn about 55,000 gallons of fuel, round trip.”

The Inland Passage also has its drawbacks although it’s only 650 miles from Seattle to Ketchikan. If the weather is good the average speed is 10 knots, burning 5,000 gallons per day. But then they have to drop cargo at Petersburg, Juneau, Haines, Sitka and Kake, stopping two or three times a day, then load up with frozen fish in containers during the salmon season. “There’s a crew of five and everyone works on deck during the stops to keep things moving,” Bob said. “The tug has to come alongside everyday so the crew can check all those reefers to make sure they are powered up and kept cold.”

In the early 1980’s, Bob and his older brother Ric started the Alaska run with two old navy tugs boats that they ran full-time. We always got the job done, but it takes a lot more time and effort with a straight shaft boat.”

The Z-drives cost more initially, but frankly, it doesn’t make sense to me to build a tug without them ” Ric stated confidently. “They do a better job on the tow line and into the dock, and remember, you don’t have to purchase and maintain rudders, shafts, and steering gear.” (However, most operators are still content to run straight shaft boats that are well past their prime and call for a local tug if they need help.)

They built their first ASD tug, the 74’ Westrac (1987) mainly for barge moves in Puget Sound, but when they needed it on the SE Alaska freight run, they saw how effective the thrusters could be in bringing the tug alongside a barge and docking it quickly and safely. The idea of dedicating an ASD tug to barge hauling was pretty revolutionary then—and is still considered unusual today!

The new barges all have Nautican Hydralift skegs and some deadrise forward to keep them running straight on an 800’-1,000’ towline.

was a way to wind the shot of 3” surge chain on top of the 3,200 feet of 2.25-inch wire on a single drum. To do that, they needed the level-wind rollers offset to accommodate the large chain links.

The Seattle branch was able to do that and incorporate a computerized constant tension render/recover system. The winch tension is controlled by Rapp’s PTS Pentagon system with a touch-screen monitor near the helm station.

Western assembles its own design of basic headline winch in the shop and fits it with 150 feet of 2.5-inch Spectra line. Both winches are hydraulic, operated by the pilot from the console in the house. “Nobody needs to be manning the winch on deck. We’ve always done it that way since 1987 when we built our first Z-Drive boats,” Ric stated.

The Westrac and the first three Titans were powered by Cat 3500 series engines, V-12 or V-16, which were the standard powerplant at Western for over 20 years. Caterpillar had managed to double their rated horsepower during that time , which was welcomed by the Titan crews, because the size of the standard deck barge at Alaska Marine Lines had more than doubled from 150 X 42’ to 400’ X 100’ and the load had increased to 400-500 20’ containers stacked 5-6 high, topped off by buses, trucks and fishboats.

The first Titan began when Bob made some basic drawings of the new ASD boat they envisaged In 1993 and took them in to Jensen Maritime Consultants. They drew the double-chine hull that is still used today, and all the engineering, but consulted with the Ric and Bob on every aspect of the layout. The brothers consider the first boat, the Western Titan (1997) the prototype. Many details weren’t completely worked out until the third of the class, when the stern deck was extended by 12’ to form the 120’ Gulf Titan (2001).

The later boats were given German Schottel Z-drives

The way that Western had built all its fleet from scratch since 1982–on a bare pad open to the notoriously wet Seattle weather–also added to their reputation.. The gradual evolution of the design has relied on many small refinements from the box keel that functions as the gen-set cooling circuit to the hinging mast on the pilot house roof..

Today, before they start a new boat, the brothers, their tug crews, and the building team, most with more than 30 years experience, continue to devise easier, faster ways to build the next boat, which Jensen incorporates into the plans. “The details on our boats are all worked out by the people who work on them and have to maintain them,” explained Ed McEvoy, the port engineer at Western since 1984.

That’s why the main engine filters are grouped on the engine base at the rear end, and the Baldor hydraulic pumps for the Rapp winch are mounted on the aft bulkhead at eye level,” he pointed out. There is a lot of stainless steel on the deck, including the cap rail, hand rails, bullnose and staple, he reminded me. This prevents rust and all the work it takes to stay ahead of it.


The reliability of all these systems depend on a highly-skilled maintenance team of diesel mechanics with a well-equipped machine shop and the vast supply of parts. The tugs typically run over 5,000 hours a year and engines are replaced after about 25,000 hours. I counted at least ten spare Caterpillar engines stacked in the warehouse and ready to swap out, plus a half dozen gen-sets.

All the tugs are built with removable stacks that reveal an opening big enough to lower an engine vertically through the deck. This helps keep the time to change one engine to 2-3 days. The Titans have taken this standardization to the next level, with most machinery identical on all boats, simplifying maintenance and allowing them to share spare parts if a breakdown occurs far from home.

McEvoy also introduced a computerized maintenance log that keeps track of every issue on all 21 tugs, who is fixing it, and how to prevent it recurring in future. During my visits to the company base, the 108’ Pacific Titan (2000), 120’ Gulf Titan (2001), and the 120’ Ocean Titan (2004) were all alongside and it was almost impossible to see any signs of aging, they are all maintained to such a high standard. The Gulf Titan had some mechanics working on engine cooling hoses, but when it departed in the afternoon to start the next Alaska run, the engine room was again spotless.

The pilot house is aluminum with full visibility, a feature not seen on older tugs. The helm is the same twin console set-up seen on most ship-handling tugs with the winch control panel immediately aft on the port side. The Titans all have a conspicuous amount of mahogany framing the windows, as well as attractive wood grain paneling providing a traditional touch to an otherwise high-tech environment.

The Titans are all fitted with a large soft-loop bow fender and a laminated stern fender from Schuyler, with airplane tires rigidly attached amidships. On the run down to the barge-loading dock, I was able to experience the surprising lack of noise or vibration in the accommodation areas. They too are well trimmed in wood and easy on the eyes. All rooms have air conditioning, there is sat phone available, and the now-standard flat screens DVD players. The galley is well equipped with a Lang stove and Cospolich refrigerator and freezer.

Interestingly, there is no pressure to finish the Bering Titan. There will definitely be work for it with Alaska Marine Lines when it is launched, but right now AML has a more pressing need for a new loading ramp for use in an Alaska port. It will have a 100-ton capacity to support the giant fork lift trucks that stack and unload the containers. So that will be the priority for Western Towboat’s building crew until the summer. Eventually, this ramp will take its place as another part of the highly-efficient transport system that this family-owned company has developed to ensure the delivery of vital goods north to Alaska////the Last Frontier.


Since 2013, four copies of the Titan have been built in Columbia River yards: one for Harley Marine Services by Diversified Marine Industries,. and three for Hyak Marine by JT Marine of Vancouver, Wash that are all on long-term charter.

CLOSE ————————————————————————

The quotes by Jensen-PARROT don’t seem to add much to this, but you have my previous story, so you be the judge. I have spent enough time on this that I appear to have lost my critical faculty for the moment!

“Their boats last forever,” said Jonathan Parrott, vice president of new design development at Jensen Maritime Consultants, now a part of Crowley.——–

Robert Shrewsbury Sr. founded the company in 1948.

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