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Longtime captain learned to walk on family boats

Posted: August 11, 2013 - 11:05pm

ANCHORAGE — Not many people see Anchorage from the water. Upper Cook Inlet, with its mammoth tides and treacherous currents, attracts barely any boaters.

But tugboat captain Katrina Anderson has been staring at the downtown skyline from the silty waters of the Inlet for her entire life, summer and winter, morning and midnight. She does not get seasick, she says. She gets landsick.

Anderson, 29, is a captain for Cook Inlet Tug & Barge, which her great-grandfather and grandfather founded. For four generations, the Andersons have been Anchorage’s only resident tugboat captains, part of an invisible maritime life that happens 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in a city on the water that rarely notices it.

Anchorage lacks a harbor or any facilities, save a small-boat launch, for recreational boaters. So most people, Anderson said, don’t realize that nearly everything they wear, eat, buy or drive comes packed on a barge: toilet paper, crates of pineapples and snowmachines.

The family has been guiding ships into Anchorage’s harbor for more than 60 years, and have been Alaska mariners for longer than that.

Anderson’s great-grandfather, Jack Anderson — known as Cap’n Jack — arrived in Seldovia in 1924, according to a family history published in Pacific Maritime Magazine last year. As far back as 1938 he and Anderson’s grandfather, Jack Anderson Jr., were running mail and cargo to Anchorage. The two founded Cook Inlet Tug & Barge in 1952, eventually building a booming tugboat business and a dock at the Port of Anchorage. Carl Anderson, Katrina’s father, grew up in a warehouse apartment on Anderson Dock; he remembers an idyllic childhood of climbing on port equipment, bicycling the docks, talking to longshoremen and playing on the mud flats.

The family moved to Government Hill, where Katrina Anderson and her parents still live. In 1979, her father took over the business, while his brother opened Anderson Tug & Barge in Seward.

Katrina and her siblings all learned to walk on the family tugboats. Her mother was pregnant on them. (Still a sore subject, according to Anderson, because of how miserable being pregnant on a rolling and pitching boat can be.) Childhood sleep-overs were marred by the droning male voice on the VHF marine radio in the closet, which her friends found terrifying. She swabbed decks, chipped paint and cleaned boat toilets for work every summer as a teenager. For a long time, Anderson didn’t realize becoming a tugboat captain was an option, because she was a girl.

“My dad said, oh, no, you can do it,” she said. “That totally changed my perspective.”

Anderson went off to get an undergraduate business degree at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., with the plan of taking over the family business. After college she applied for her Coast Guard captain’s license and got it. But when the time came to sign the loans, Anderson balked. The responsibility was too much for someone still in her 20s, she decided. Her father says the bureaucratic complexities of operating a tug company were becoming too much for a small, family-owned business to deal with.

In 2011, Cook Inlet Tug & Barge was sold to Foss Maritime Co., a Seattle-based company with the country’s largest coastal tug and barge fleet. Cook Inlet Tug & Barge is still run on a day-to-day basis by a longtime manager in Anchorage. Anderson and her brother Garrett Anderson, who is working on his specialized tugboat captain’s license, work on the boats. Their older sister helps in the office.

The life of an Anchorage tugboat captain is harsh and sometimes dangerous but offers freedom and moments of great beauty, Anderson said.

Cook Inlet Tug & Barge’s shipping container trailer is at the small boat dock. A long gangplank over the mud flats leads to the rusty dock where the boats, the Glacier Wind, Nordic Wind, Stellar Wind and Cosmic Wind, are moored. On a winter day, the wind feels like it’ll rip a car door from its hinges on the walk to the dock, Anderson said.

“Upper Cook Inlet is one of the harshest environments you’ll ever work in,” she said.

First, there are the tides — the second most extreme in North America. On a particularly big tide the water can rise an inch in a minute. Also problematic is the glacial silt in the water, which turns it the color of milky Earl Grey tea, reroutes navigation channels by sculpting ever-moving mudbars on the Inlet floor and scours the paint off boats like sandpaper. The Cook Inlet Tug & Barge fleet gets repainted annually.

Then there’s the strong current. And the ice, which comes in pack sheets and floes. All winter the tugs are called for “ice escorts,” which involve one of the company’s two ice-class tugs bashing a hole in the frozen water so a cargo ship or fuel barge can dock. Occasionally the ice gets so thick that barges can’t get through even with an escort.

And let’s face it, Anderson said: There are prettier pieces of water in Alaska. Harbors with blue water, mountains rising from the ocean and charismatic marine mammals can be found as close as Seward and Whittier. But spending a good portion of one’s life on the upper Cook Inlet offers up sublime moments: Anderson has seen beavers on the mud flats, a bear swimming to Fire Island and beluga whales that come within feet of the boat. Sometimes a harbor seal will get lost and wander up the Inlet.

But what’s most satisfying, Anderson says, is knowing that she’s continuing a legacy four generations deep. There’s a lot of other ocean out there but nowhere else that the Anderson family has been for so long.

“I guess I’m not totally dedicated to just the upper Cook Inlet,” she said. “But I’m here. We’ve always been here.”

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