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Foss Maritime Tug Captain Katrina Anderson on her family’s legacy and keeping afloat through pandemic best practices.

Katrina Anderson is a born and raised Alaskan and – with her younger brother – the fourth generation to work the family business, Cook Inlet Tug & Barge.

“The Anderson family has been working Cook Inlet since the 1920s, delivering mail, cargo, and passengers around South Central Alaska,” Anderson said. “Because it was a family business and the phone and radio were the main modes of communication growing up, us kids started answering the business phone by age 6 or 7 and taking messages if my folks weren’t around. It was really interesting to see all the different people that call a tugboat company.”

Young Katrina wears a life vest between her parents on a tug boat.
Anderson as a toddler with her dad, Carl Anderson, and mom, Debbie Anderson, on the tug “Summer Wind”

Serving customers has never been more important than it is right now, Anderson continued.

“My family and friends in Alaska count on us to make sure products go north, and they rely on us to bring the salmon south – we have to protect that system,” she said. “We’ll continue to do our job and hope everyone takes care of each other.”

Hawsepiper and ‘Cabin Life’ connoisseur

Young Katrina looks at the camera in her oversized life vest holding on to the chair she sits in.

Anderson’s older sister chose “land activities” over being on the water, but Anderson and her brother were hooked. She attended West Anchorage High School and began working for the family business as a deckhand once she turned 18, midway through her senior year.

“Alaska in the summer is a crazy place: daylight all the time, huge tides, and way too much chipping and painting to accomplish during the brief weather windows, but it’s what made me fall in love with the job,” she said. “While my friends were stuck inside at a computer or cubicle, I got to be out enjoying the day with tons of different variety in tasks.”

After high school, Anderson became the first person in her family to attend college, choosing Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, near the Canadian border.

“Once I determined I wanted to become a captain, I was a ‘Hawsepiper,’ meaning I worked my way up the ‘hawse’ pipe to get my Captain’s license,” she explained. “Every trip home, I worked on the tugboats to help pay for school. Once I graduated with a B.A. in Business Management, I returned to working for my dad and had enough sea time to test for my entry-level Captain’s license. I started running the company after college to give him some free time and continued to work my way up, testing and getting a bigger license every time I qualified for the next level.”

Anderson was a university rower and said she’s most proud of her two gold National NCAA Division II Rowing Championship medals (2005, 2006), as well as her silver (2003) and bronze (2004).

“Rowing was one of the biggest and most rewarding challenges I’ve ever had in my life,” she said. “It takes dedication to wake up every morning at 4 a.m. to battle the cold and wind on the water in Bellingham while going to school full time. I miss the teamwork and beautiful mornings on the water – luckily, I still get the early-morning life on the boat, just from a different perspective.”

Katrina rows with her crew in a Western Washington boat.
Anderson, a Western Washington University rower, won two gold National NCAA Division II Rowing Championship medals (2005, 2006), as well as silver (2003) and bronze (2004).

Her toughest decision to date, she said, was selling Cook Inlet Tug & Barge.

“It was a tough decision, but regulation changes and growth in the industry were making it difficult for our small family company to keep up,” she said. “I’m just glad that Saltchuk could absorb us into their family. I’ve known about Saltchuk for most of my life: my dad started pushing the TOTE ships into the Port of Anchorage in the ’70s. TOTE was my family’s main customer. We’ve always thought highly of their business practices and were thrilled when they approached us about acquiring Cook Inlet Tug & Barge.”

In 2013, an opportunity to support the SR99 Big Bertha dig project as well as being nearer to friends from college prompted Anderson to move south with Foss Maritime, sister-company to Cook Inlet Tug & Barge.

Anderson describes herself as a “maker” – “whether it be arts, crafts, or tinkering.” She and her dog, Galley, hike, bike, ski, row, and swim.

“‘Cabin time’ is very important to me, so whether I fly out to bush Alaska and hang out at my own cabin, or get invited to other people’s cabins, I’m a cabin lover,” she laughed. “There’s huge satisfaction in hauling water, chopping wood, and swimming in freezing lakes, I just can’t get enough of it.”

Anderson stands on her cabin deck overlooking a lake.
Anderson enjoying ‘cabin time’ at Lake Clark, Alaska

Growing up somewhat isolated in Alaska, where women do “every kind of job,” Anderson said she didn’t realize how little female representation there is in the maritime industry, especially outside the field of hospitality.

“It didn’t occur to me that I’d be an anomaly,” she said. “It’s been fun seeing more ladies join the tugboat side of the industry during the past 10 years. I’ve been doing a lot of outreach latest with youth and adults to get them excited about working on the water. It’s been great getting their perspective and opening their eyes to a new career path besides the typical doctor and lawyer narrative.”

Tugging in the age of COVID-19

Anderson was aboard a Foss boat when society suddenly shut down last March – she wasn’t phased.

“Sailors have one of the oldest professions in the world,” she said. “Quarantine was an invented practice for sailors to protect foreign ports from imported diseases. Honestly, it’s not a new issue for us. We live as a family unit while on the boat so we have to trust each other to keep ourselves healthy and safe.”

The use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) was already a way of life onboard. Handwashing, good hygiene and general cleanliness aboard are helped by the fact that harbor tugs have ample access to freshwater. Keeping crews together is also best practice.

“PPE is a normal part of our day on the boat,” Anderson explained. “To wear it when we go to the store doesn’t really change our normal work habits. We live as a family on the boat, so it’s more of an issue if we have a vendor or auditor aboard that is foreign to us.”

One of the headaches so far, she said, is planning any sort of supply trips or grocery shopping. While they’ve had some success with delivery services to the boat, there’s no substitute for being able to pick their own produce (that they know will keep) and make sure they have the exact parts and tools they need.

“We really make sure we have the PPE on and wash our hands once we return to the boat if we do venture to the store,” she said. “The biggest risk is having unplanned crew changes or movement of personnel. Scheduling is a huge nightmare, but crews need to stick together and be a whole unit so that we all can be safe.”

Anderson said she’s thankful crews are still able to change so she can have time off – downtime that’s come as an unexpected blessing during the pandemic.

“It was honestly a huge relief that I could just go home and relax and not have to engage in any social encounters,” she explained. “Because we live at least half of our life or more on the boat, our time at home is short and very socially demanding. Family and friends want to see you and you also have to negotiate household responsibilities. The pandemic gave me a chance to be home and not have the social responsibilities that I usually do, a true staycation.”

But she said it’s important to draw attention to the fact that many international sailors have yet to go home.

“Thousands of sailors have been stuck aboard their ships for over a year now because they are not able to have a crew change or fly out of foreign ports. Airports and transport have been shut down all over the world causing a lot of sailors to be stuck on board their ships. It’s a huge mental burden for those sailors not knowing when they can go home again.”

As far as the future, Anderson’s message is one of hope. And practicality. “We’ll continue doing our job as we’ve always done for centuries. It just might be a bit slower or with extra precautions.

Hilary Reeves

Hilary Reeves spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining the Saltchuk family of companies as a consultant. Since People of Saltchuk launched in 2014, Reeves has interviewed more than 200 Saltchuk employees from operating companies all over the world. Born in Tacoma, Washington, Reeves is a former president of both the collegiate and local professional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists, a graduate of the Society’s Ted Scripps Leadership Institute, and a Toastmaster. When she’s not writing, she loves to read, ski, and practice the piano. She lives in West Seattle with her husband and two young daughters.