The gentle motion of the boat encouraged me to stay asleep when my alarm went off at 2330 hours, the seventh bell of the first watch. Despite the comforting roll, I groggily rose and donned my working clothes and my boots.
Fishing through my bunk for my flashlight, I checked my pockets for the other necessities: knife, small notebook, and pens or pencils. Then I went out to the galley to grab a quick snack before assuming the middle watch, which runs from 0000 (midnight) until 0400 hours (4 a.m.).
I’m in my third year now at Maine Maritime Academy, studying Vessel Operations and Technology. When I graduate, I will hold a license as a Mate of Towing on vessels up to 1,600 tons, as well as other maritime endorsements. During the summers, I sail with a company in the maritime industry in order to learn on the job.
During the summer of 2014, I sailed with Western Towboat, a towing company in Seattle that delivers barges of cargo to various ports in Alaska. This night is one in Prince William Sound near the end of my internship, on board the Arctic Titan.
I don’t drink coffee yet, even at sea. Coffee is the mariner’s morning medicine, the sailor’s go-to drink. I never took time to acquire the taste for it, and my energy for being up late still lies in my youth. I bypassed the coffee as I stumped out of the galley and up the ladderway (which is our term for stairs at sea). When I reached the second deck, called the Texas deck, I kept as quiet as I could. The captain sleeps up there, you see, and he does not take kindly to being wakened at midnight for no reason.
In the wheelhouse of the tug Arctic Titan, one thing struck me immediately: the sun was still up. At midnight, the sun was still up. The sea was flat as glass in Prince William Sound, and the barge trailing behind us on a quarter-mile of steel wire kept itself straight and true in our wake. I rubbed my eyes and checked the wheelhouse clock just to be sure I hadn’t switched a.m. and p.m. in my brain.
The mountains of Alaska rose above the horizon in every direction. They were over 50 miles away, but they still dominated the skyline like a city for giants. The low crimson light on the whitewashed slopes slowly faded to gray over the next hour. Jake Newton, a 2013 Maine Maritime graduate and the 2nd mate on board, sat near the tug’s controls, watching the navigation equipment and scanning the ocean around us for any hazards or oncoming vessels. The chief engineer sat opposite him, drinking from his coffee mug and grumpily avoiding conversation as he slowly finished waking up.
Working tugboats is different from any other part of this industry. The main reason is that no other industry requires you to think about two vessels at once—your vessel as well as the barge five-football fields behind you. In two years at a maritime school, and 15 years of boating besides, I thought I learned a lot: line handling, navigation, ship handling, maintenance.
Everything changed in the tugboat world. And it was all different in the Pacific Northwest.
As we continue these next few weeks, I’ll tell you more about the tugboat world and what goes on out there. But regardless of the hard work, the troubles, the dangers, and the often grouchy people one must work with in any maritime experience, the view from the wheelhouse at midnight in Alaska makes it all worth it.
Benjamin Stevens of Islesford (Little Cranberry Island) is a third-year student at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.