Faithful readers of Slog know I've been on a phenomenological quest involving the shipping industry all summer long. First I sent the mariner community into fits by referring to container ships as barges* in a post about the Sexiest Barges In Puget Sound. Then I doubled down, insisting that container ships could be called barges*. A few weeks ago, David Thompson, an engine room wizard working on the S.S. Kauai, gave me license to call container ships "barges*" on a tour of his impressive steam ship. On Wednesday afternoon, I toured an "actual" barge, and now I have finally reached the conclusion of my long journey to discover the depths of different bargenesses.
My tour guide on this final venture was Tom Hammack, an account manager for Alaska Marine Lines. Now that I have walked around the Sitka Provider, a 380-foot towed vessel capable of carrying approximately 300 containers of various sizes at a speed of 11 mph, I can say with confidence that a barge is not a barge. A barge is a floating football field. And it is awesome.
While barges* generally run international routes carrying goods from other countries, AML primarily ships "beans and booze" to people who live in tiny towns and cities along the southeastern Alaskan coastline.
As Hammack points to different places on the map, I realize how big and wild a lot of Alaska still is. Some towns are accessible by road, but many aren't. They just have an old dock to receive shipments.
Twice a week a tugboat from Western Towboat in Ballard hauls a barge out to Anchorage. Other barges snake between the islands chains in the extreme southeast, hitting up places like Sitka, Hoonah, and Kake. And eight times a year, a barge goes all the way out to Dillingham, located on the shores of salmon-rich Bristol Bay.
AML essentially serves as a big trading post between here and Alaska. Alaskans send us fishes to eat and whatever else they want via barge, and we ship them all the things they need to round out a 21st century life. The containers are filled with pallets of beer, bananas, corn, other groceries, televisions, and random things you buy at Home Depot.
On the dock near the barge, Hammack and I walk through the maze of multi-colored containers stacked up like Legos. The white containers are refrigerated and the green containers are not. Yellow, red, and blue containers come in different sizes, and different clients use them to suit their own needs.
Small groups of Alaskan families living in remote areas typically use the smaller, 24-foot containers. Some even fly down to Seattle for a Seahawks game, make a trip to Costco, and ship back pallets of nonperishables for the season. Larger corporations use the 40 and 53-foot containers to send cases of Coca-Cola or Jack Daniels.
But the dock is also dotted with dump trucks, regular trucks, dumpsters, cement tanks, mining equipment, and stacks of rebar. This random, irregularly shaped stuff can't quite fit in any of the containers. Hammack points to an extremely long pipe strapped down to a flatbed trailer and just shrugs. He doesn't know how that thing is going to fit on the barge.
That's where the loadmaster comes in.
Every day, the loadmaster plays one of the most complicated games of Tetris on the planet. They have to figure out how to stack 16 dumpsters on top of each other so they don't fall over. Or they have to know where to place a brand new F-350 in the load sequence so it does't get all scuffed up as it travels across the sea. The position is highly skilled and requires tons of spacial intelligence. And it's extremely important to the company. If anything falls off the barge, or if anything gets damaged en route, the company has to pay for it.
At one point in our tour, Hammack stopped and surveyed the mountains of containers piled around him and adopted an earnest, contemplative pose. He worried his work for AML might not seem as impressive as the work going on at Blue Origin, Microsoft, Amazon, and other companies driving the "innovation" economy. But he likes his work all the same: "There's something unique about each port we go to, and there's a never-ending series of surprises at this job. In fact, I just learned the other day that stacks of wood on the back of flatbeds are called 'bunks!'" Hammack said.
Some might see the work of fork-lifters, loadmasters, specialized mechanics, tugboat captains, account managers, and the office/administrative staff that keeps everything running as somehow simple, quaint, or lesser-than. But their jobs are clearly vital to the wellbeing of both Alaskans and Washingtonians. And I don't want to live in city that values the contributions of rocket scientists and software engineers over the contributions of workers who ensure safe travel and easy passage for the building blocks of life.