It’s that time of year when hordes of holiday shoppers head online to buy gifts. Alaskans accept as common knowledge that offers for free shipping typically don’t apply in the 49th state. The disclaimer can usually be found in fine print, placed conveniently below the checkout cart. Alaska itself and many of the communities throughout are simply too remote to make free-to-consumer shipping feasible for most businesses trying to make a buck.
Still, the vast majority of Alaskans depend on goods shipped by water for both comfort and survival. While companies doing business here must constantly consider shipping costs, the U.S. Coast Guard keeps a watchful eye to make sure vessels and crews are shipping goods safely.
“Shipping anything up here is costly enough without someone having to pay with an injury during the process, or worse yet, their life,” said Lt. Cmdr. Mason Wilcox, chief of the inspections division for Coast Guard Sector Anchorage. “As an added bonus, when these mariners arrive safely in port, the goods they’re transporting usually do too.”
Wilcox is the head of a team responsible for inspecting vessels and facilities from Prince William Sound, west through the Aleutian chain and north to the Arctic Ocean. This includes the North Slope and all of Alaska’s inland rivers.
Tug and barge crews, like many other vessel crews in Alaska, often operate in remote locations where the Coast Guard does not always see them on a regular basis.
“There’s a legal requirement for the Coast Guard to inspect barges annually, which holds us and their crews accountable to ensure safe conditions,” said Lt. Sarah VanEenenaam, assistant chief of inspections at Coast Guard Sector Anchorage.
Communities like Cordova, not accessible by vehicle, depend on tug and barge deliveries for the vast majority of their commodities. Most goods arrive in town on the aptly named barge Cordova Provider, powered by the tug Krystal Sea. The integrated tug and barge make trips from Whittier to Cordova at least once a week, with intermittent runs to Valdez.
“Every week we deliver groceries to Cordova,” said Andy Dallman, chief mate aboard the Krystal Sea. “Other common items we deliver include propane, household amenities and construction material. We ship lots of seafood from Valdez and Cordova across Prince William Sound to Whittier. During the colder months it’s usually halibut or cod. In the summer we’re jammin’ with salmon.”
Cordova Coast Guard members and their families depend on the tug and barge along with the rest of the community.
“Members stationed in Cordova and their dependents rely on the Krystal Seas crew for the shipment of their vehicles and household goods,” said Wilcox. “They’re a lifeline for us. One of our jobs is to be a lifeline for them. If they need assistance on the water, our rescue crews are always ready. But one of the most effective ways we help vessel crews like the one aboard Krystal Seas is prevention through inspection.”
Wilcox’s team inspected the integrated tug and barge Cordova Provider and Krystal Sea in Whittier, Nov. 20th. Wilcox, VanEenenaam and their crew checked both vessels and interviewed the captain and crew with a host of crucial factors in mind.
“Structural integrity, seaworthiness, fire hazards, the ability to fight fire, ability to save a life in a man overboard situation, navigational functionality, crew competency, credentials and endorsements, are all key things we’re always looking for,” said Wilcox.
“The Coast Guard is important to the fleet because their inspections keep us from letting things go,” said Dallman. “They have the ability to shut us down if we’re not in compliance. The accountability keeps us safer. Seeing the Coast Guard is never a bad thing. And if you’re in a stressful situation out on the water, everybody is excited to see the Coast Guard.”
In addition to tugs and barges hauling holiday freight, Sector Anchorage’s inspections division is responsible for inspecting all barges and tugs in their area of responsibility. They must also inspect passenger vessels like whale watching and glacier tour boats, ferries, cruise ships, freight ships, oil tankers, fishing boats, and more than 400 fuel storage facilities throughout the state.
Wilcox noted that while his 23-person crew works year round, they are especially busy in the spring preparing for tourist season, making sure the tour boat crews are competent and capable of handling emergency situations.
“This year I might give gift cards for one of those boat tours,” said Wilcox. “Would save on shipping.”