Guest Opinion: Good news from Washington state’s boatyards

We can all use a dose of good news these days and there is some flowing from our state’s boatyards.

When we think of maritime industries, we often focus on the mammoth ocean-going ships loaded with containers docking in Seattle, Tacoma and Portland; or, the U.S. Navy shipyard in Bremerton.

While Vigor’s Seattle and Portland dockyards repair Navy and Coast Guard vessels, our warships primarily are built on the East Coast. Giant oceangoing freighters are constructed, and mostly repaired, in foreign facilities located mainly in Asia.

However, the tugs and barges which sail on the Puget Sound, Grays Harbor and Columbia-Willamette-Snake rivers continue to be built in smaller local boatyards stretching from Bellingham to Portland, Ore.

That is good for our nation, region and state. They provide skilled workers with higher paying jobs including good benefits. Shipbuilding crafts, such as welders, are in high demand. Experienced workers are retiring so there are opportunities for younger people to be trained and find jobs.

Shipbuilders have a worldwide supplier network which provides sophisticated electronic components; however, heavy-metal fabricating is better done locally in nearby ironworks.

The other good news is the maritime industry pays taxes to support our schools, police and fire departments and social services. Western Washington, particularly Seattle, is the hub of advanced tug and barge designs.

The newer watercraft is high tech, efficient and greener — uniquely American. These vessels are designed to operate safely along rocky coast lines and in rivers as well as on the open seas.

Tidewater Transportation and Terminals, based in Vancouver for the past 85 years, has three new high-tech tugs constructed in Portland. They feature enhanced steering which allows skippers to better navigate the Columbia River Gorge high winds and vexing currents.

Newer tugs and barges are more streamlined with wrap-around wheelhouse windows and are loaded with the world’s best navigation, safety and environmentally friendly systems.

Foss Maritime, Seattle, just christened the final of three state-of-the-art Arctic Class tugs. They were built at its Rainier, Ore., shipyard and designed to operate in the extreme conditions of the far north and service Alaska’s oil and gas industries.

Part of Foss’ environmental initiative is eliminating ballast tanks and replacing hydraulics with biodegradable oils.

Tidewater, the primary supplier of gasoline and diesel to eastern Washington, converted its fuel barges to double-hulls vessels six years ahead of the deadline required by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

Tugs and barges are increasingly interconnected by computers. Some new larger barges actually appear to have tugs built into their sterns. They are called “articulated tug and barges configurations” (ATB) and designed in Seattle.

Harley Marine Services, also based in Seattle, has a double-hulled tanker ATB which stretches the length of one and two-thirds football fields. It was built here, but will operate on the Gulf Coast.

Vigor just finished work on a complex liquefied ammonia ATB with sophisticated electrical and refrigeration systems for Savage Services, Midvale, Utah. Once the tug, which is being built by Nichols Brothers Boatbuilders on Whidbey Island, is completed and passes sea trials, it will sail from Texas to a fertilizer plant in Florida.

The ATB systems have crews on tugs who monitor the entire barge. If a system malfunctions, workers have easy access to correct problems while at sea.

Barges transportation is fuel efficient. In 2014, the Port of Clarkston reported it would have taken more than 43,000 rail cars, or more than 160,000 semi-trucks, to move the goods that went by barge down the lower Snake River that year alone.

Our shipyards are busy and there are jobs available. That is very good news.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at

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