“For many years, I’ve heard captains say tug-boating is 90 percent boredom and 10 percent sheer terror. It’s very true.”
Lindsey Foss Captain Andy Beeler was 11 when he learned how to detail and winterize the boats moored in his stepfather’s marina on Lake Pend Oreille near Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
“I grew up in Coeur d’Alene, far away from saltwater but in an area rich with lakes,” he said. “My stepdad taught me how to rebuild boat engines – I thought I’d grow up to be a boat mechanic.”
When he was 15, Beeler moved 400 miles west to his father’s hometown of Quilcene, Washington. He went from a high school class of some 400 in Coeur d’Alene to being one of 28. An untimely broken ankle prevented him from joining the Air Force after graduation.
“A high school buddy of mine was working on something called a ‘tugboat’ in Alaska,” he laughed. “After I got a good look at his brand new truck and motorcycle, my chosen career changed quickly.”
Western Towboat hired Beeler as a cook in October of 2004.
“At that point in my life, I was only seeing dollar bills,” he said. “I never imagined that a career on the water was in store for me.”
Four years later, Beeler was extended the opportunity to begin earning his Mate’s License. He jumped at the chance. He joined Foss Maritime in 2015, began sailing captain on the Marshall Foss and Lynn Marie in 2017, and has captained the Lindsey Foss since July.
“I’ve loved my job since the day I started,” he said. “It’s been more than 16 years since I first set foot on a tug, and I still can’t imagine loving any other career as much as I love this one. Every day on the water presents new challenges to overcome using some level of experience I’ve gained from a place I’ve been, a crewmember I’ve worked with, or a manager I’ve worked for. Most days underway feel like we’re on cruise control until something little becomes big, like the kayak rescue. For many years, I’ve heard captains say tug-boating is 90 percent boredom and 10 percent sheer terror. It’s very true.”
‘I just kept seeing this little glimmer’
On Labor Day, two kayakers experienced that sheer terror when their tandem kayak capsized in four-foot seas in Washington State’s North Puget Sound near Sucia Island. Beeler and his crew – David Ahrenius, David Castner, Richard Kemp, and Larry Hickman – scooped the two from the 54-degree water and onto the tug.
The tug was anchored approximately 30 miles south in Anacortes that morning, but Beeler was restless. He told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer he decided to take the tug up the Sound to the crew’s next assignment.
“I drove up there and it was too windy for us to anchor but I decided to just stay moving around, until I saw some glimmer way off in the distance,” Beeler said in an interview with the P-I. “Everything was white capping – you (couldn’t) really see anything because it (was) all just kind of a funny film of white, but I just kept seeing this little glimmer. I watched it for a little bit with my binoculars.”
Beeler watched the kayakers for the better part of an hour before they capsized.
“I realized they were in trouble before they knew it,” he said. “Our second captain, David Ahrenius, was on the bridge with me watching, so we both had a hunch something like this might happen. When it did, the whole crew was immediately on the same page and everyone went right to work. Before I could position the boat to rescue the kayakers, the entire crew and (Man Overboard) system was in place and ready. My crew did better than anyone could have asked for and made me look good in the process.”
‘We remember every story and we learn from them’
Beeler said that although all tug crews conduct regular drills onboard and while underway, as well as attend annual training on the prevention of hypothermia, there was so much more to what happened that day than what they were trained to do.
“All of us have been exposed to people along our career paths who knows someone who has been involved, or who has personally been involved, in a similar situation to this rescue. Not all of them are as successful, but we remember every story and we learn from them. No instructor can teach someone the correct way to execute a rescue because every boat, ocean, and weather situation is different. The simple solution to keeping my crew and others around us safe is to communicate and trust each other. Everyone knows what to do, but working together efficiently will make a rescue happen faster. Every second in 54-degree water weakens your body. And no matter what body of water you’re in, there’s no good place to fall in the water if you’re not prepared.”
But neither he nor the crew berated the kayakers for their decision to paddle out into treacherous waters.
“Everyone on our tugs is trained in maritime school to a certain level,” he explained. “The most valuable lesson we can share are the ones we learn underway. The kayakers were both experts in their career fields and I’m sure we could stand to learn a lot from them. It was very obvious they were extremely intelligent people who just got caught making a series of small mistakes that turned into a large one. I’m positive they’ll be the perfect example of ‘safe’ kayakers in the future and can hopefully share their message with others.”
The moment he’ll never forget, he said, happened after they were safely aboard and Beeler went into the galley to make sure they had everything they needed.
“When I turned the corner, they knew my name and who I was before I ever said a word,” he continued. “The look on their face spoke a million words of gratitude for all of us. Nothing I could say now will ever fully describe how grateful they were. It was pretty surreal to see them walk down the gangway and turn around to look at the boat before they left. Even as dramatic as the situation was, it was still just another day at work for us. But the kayakers didn’t feel that way. They knew deep down that their lives were saved because of the professionalism, training, and concern we had for their lives before we even met them.”
Beeler said he’s most proud of being a father and husband.
“My only wish is to make (my kids’) lives easier and safer than parts of mine have been,” he said. “We’re a very busy family with a lot of hobbies – camping, fishing, and riding dirt bikes are usually our ‘go-to’ weekend hobbies. If I ever get time to myself, I enjoy doing bodywork and painting. Occasionally, I still volunteer teach at an auto body school in South Sound.”
He said working for Foss is the best job he could ask for.
“My career has been amazing since I started at 18 years old in 2004. I continue to find myself working with and for great people. Tugboats have provided greatly for my family.”
The AB’s perspective
David Castner currently serves as an Able Bodied Seaman Unlimited/Engineer on the Lindsey Foss under Captain Beeler. According to Beeler, Castner and the other crewmembers were a critical part of the rescue operation.
“Every trip, we train with our Man Overboard (MOB) system – we have a block-and-tackle rigging system to help pull someone out and a ladder that we deploy over the side of the bulwark because they’re so high out of the water and we have side tires that stick out,” Castner explained. “We drill on deploying the system and rigging the ladder. I’m the designated rescue swimmer if someone’s unconscious in the water. We also have a skiff we can deploy if needed, and we can also use our crane to lift someone – or like during this rescue, we used it to retrieve their kayak and gear.”
Castner said just seven minutes elapsed between the time the kayak flipped and when the couple was removed from the water.“When we noticed they were in trouble, we woke up two guys for the extra hands and prepped the MOB system and ladder,” he said. “Captain flipped the boat around so we could get them on the leeward side of the vessel to try to keep the wind and waves off of them. As we got close, the kayak was flipped and half-submerged. They were barely holding onto the slick underside. They were already suffering from the early signs of hypothermia,” he said. “Her legs were locking up and she had severe shivers and could barely talk. He was headed in the same direction. I’m just glad we were able to help them.”
Read David’s story here!
In 2021 Captain Andy Beeler was awarded the Water Rescue Award by the Northwest WA Red Cross at their annual Heroes Breakfast.