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Meet Tugboat Master Chuck Scott

July 13, 2017

Meet Chuck Scott, our tugboat captain friend and lover of all things water. Chuck is an Oregon boy who grew up boating alongside Frank at Portland Yacht Club. The two shared a passion for cruising the Columbia River, and though they attended different high schools, would meet for boating excursions whenever they had a free weekend. They went their separate ways after high school, and unbeknownst to each other, both headed for water in pursuit of a career.  

Years later, as never-married bachelors, they found each other settled in Southern Puget Sound, where they reconnected. They’ve remained friends ever since, and Chuck has been an inspiration to the Fishgirl family. He’s always willing to share boating knowledge, from something as simple as a “must know” knot, to the challenges of navigating the Canadian San Juans. His childlike enthusiasm is contagious. Chuck loves seafood and isn’t afraid to admit that he’s also a pretty big fan of butter. He built a small yellow craft for his daughter and named it Garlic Butter. “What seafood doesn’t taste good with garlic butter?” he tells us. Here’s his seaworthy story!

How did you get started in the tugboat business, and what was your first job? Was there a part of your youth that shaped your love of the water?

My dad loved the water and was interested in boating. As a young boy he would ride 20 miles on his bike to the river to build his own small craft in Northeast Portland. He knew boating and water were things he wanted for himself and his family, so I was lucky to be the recipient of that. It seemed we were on the boat every weekend. Realizing my passion, my father landed me my first job as a "deck hand” in the summer between high school and the start of college, on an offshore tug to Hawaii. The pay was pretty good and it was a huge adventure for a 19 year old. I was hooked!

How long have you been in the tugboat business, and what exactly do you do now?

I spent two years in college, but my heart was on the water. I left to pursue what I had started, working on tugs, and began working as a mate. I went to a merchant mariner college and began working as an assistant tug captain. I was accepted to the California Maritime Academy, a nationally recognized program my parents would have loved to see me complete, but I turned it down. I couldn’t imagine another two years of my life in school!

I continued to sail as a mate until I was 29, when I advanced to sailing as a master. I sailed up and down Puget Sound, carrying sand and gravel from the Steilicoom quarry, the land that became the nationally-know PGA Chamber’s Bay golf course. We’d load barges with glacier-fed building material at Steilicoom and carry it to Tacoma, Seattle, and Everett, supplying the building needs of the Northwest. It was thanks to these runs that I met my wife. When you work these crazy hours, it seems it would be difficult to ever meet someone. But after a co-worker introduced us at a party, I started seeing her on Lake Washington rowing with her crew team near Seattle. Because this was my regular run, and she trained every day at the same time, this is how we began dating. I wouldn’t suggest getting too close to a tug and barge while on the water, but it worked for us!

I moved up through the ranks over the years and am currently the Master on the ATB (articulated tug and barge) Nancy Peterkin for Kirby Offshore Marine. This is one of their newest, state-of-the-art, offshore petroleum tug and barges. I’ve worked on this 670-foot-long articulated tug and barge for the last two years, carrying crude oil and other petroleum products for Shell from the Pacific Northwest to California. The tug is five stories high and stands 98 feet above the waterline, and the barge is the length of over two football fields. There’s no doubt that transporting petroleum products across the water comes with major responsibility. We are constantly training to protect the environment, and ultimately the crew and cargo.

How much time do you spend working on the water? Is any of your time off spent on the water?

I’m working on the water about 200 days a year, and spend about half of the time I have off on the water. I’m fortunate to have a family who enjoys it just as much as I do. My wife and daughter love everything water, for sure. We’ve made some amazing memories together in and around water. I’ve met a lot of boaters over the years, and have made an interesting observation: Just because you boat, doesn’t mean you love the water, or love to fish. But my family loves the water. We crab, pick up oysters and clams, but I wouldn't say my wife and I are big fishermen. Our daughter definitely caught the fishing bug and loves to fish though. We can’t go out on a boating adventure without the fishing poles and nets.

Though I do remember a trip with the Fishgirl family. We were in Von Donup Bay off Cortes Island in Desolation Sound (in British Columbia). As I was running the particularly narrow channel, Frank so quietly hung on the back deck of the boat fishing, feet in the water, arm around our Chessie, Beacon. When he hooked a 15-pound fish, his enthusiasm was contagious. Soon he was baiting our hooks and we were all fishing! That’s a trip we’ll never forget.

We know you like to cook and eat seafood. What’s your favorite fish, and how do you like to prepare it?

I’d have to say black cod. Frank taught me how to simply prepare it and shared his sauce recipe. I’ve used it so much that my recipe card is worn. It’s buttery, rich fish, and when you grill it with his sauce you get some wonderful crisp texture around the edges. I have to admit, I often refer to it as “cod butta.” I also love oysters on the barbie. Frank has another special sauce, miso in nature, that he shared with me. People who would normally never eat an oyster always want more than one! I also enjoy cooking salmon in my smoker, after brining it in a soy-based brine.

What do you eat when you’re working? Is there time for fishing and/or cooking while you’re out at sea?

On long passages to Hawaii, Central and South America (to and from the Panama Canal) and Asia, if we run into a school of fish, we’ll tow hand lines for mahi-mahi, yellowfin, and striped tuna. We’ll process it and freeze it so we’ll have it for meals while at sea. The deck hands usually take turns cooking on these long runs, at least those who have interest. The new, larger crew has 11 aboard, but not all love to cook. We have a chief engineer who makes an amazing chili, but his true love is baiting and launching crab pots in the Pacific Northwest, so we can have fresh crab on board. I’m known for a great pie when I can pull away from the wheel house.

What’s one of the scariest moments you’ve experienced on a run?

It was in the ’90s, while off Cape Hatterus in North Carolina, on the last day of a run through the Caribbean down to the Panama Canal. We were on a smaller craft then, with just six crew members, pulling a loaded petroleum barge. A storm intensified into a hurricane, and we watched as the ship next to us lost a number of 40-foot loaded containers overboard due to 50-foot combined sea swells. We had to adjust the tow wire hourly to prevent extreme tow wire chafing, and I was on 24-hour watch for three days straight. We had been caught in the middle of a hurricane and just had to wait it out. It was pretty exhausting and scary, to say the least.

And what about one of the most amazing moments? Something you wish you could package up and share with everyone.

Seeing hundreds of Pacific dolphin near the boat. Swimming below the boat, playing at the bow of the tug, and swimming alongside the boat for miles. The way they surface and dive due to the pressure wave off the bow of the tug is pretty cool. Also, we once had to cancel a crew change in Barrow, Alaska because of polar bear activity in the town we were coming into. Polar bears were typically out on the ice, but had moved into town, and the whole town was on lock down. My crew was ready to swim to shore and face the polar bears if that’s what it took to get off the tug after 90 days on board! I’d never seen anything like that before.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

Being away from my family, without a doubt. Not being on land and missing something really important happening at home. Coming into port and wishing I could meet them for a few days, but being unable to leave the tug and barge due to my responsibilities. With 35 years of experience, I’m now the master of the ship. I not only manage the tug but the barge too, and with that comes a pretty significant amount of responsibility. I have less time to think about making pies, that’s for sure!

Thanks Chuck, for your willingness to tell your story!