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Gary May’s three-months-on, one-month-off schedule has led to many “wonderful” professional friendships.

By Hilary Reeves

Foss Maritime Tug Captain Gary May didn’t come into his profession by accident – he knew all along who and what he wanted to become.

“My dad was a tugboat captain, first for Olson (Marine), then he came to work for Foss in the late 60s. I like to say that my first real trip for Foss was in 1972. My dad pulled me out of the fifth grade a week early so I could go with him to Hawaii on the Craig Foss. He tried to tell the school it was because of appointments and such, but I’d already told everyone I was going onto the tug,” explained May, laughing. “I got a chance to haul logs with the Craig Foss 30 years after I took that trip – it was pretty cool to be in there again.”

The May family settled in Crescent City, California, 20 miles from the Oregon border, on five-plus acres.

“I have one older brother and three older sisters – I’m the youngest. My childhood was mostly us raising hell on bicycles and chopping down trees,” he continued.

By the time he entered high school, May’s extracurricular tree-chopping had turned into paid work. He began cutting Redwood fence posts and selling them to local farmers during his summer vacations but transitioned into maritime work during his junior year and spent his final two summers working with his brother at Coos Bay, Oregon-based Sause Brothers. He spent 10 years with the company, beginning in 1980. The first five years he passed in the engine room until he had enough sea time to apply for a Mate’s License. In 1988, he quit drinking. His habits, he explained, that had gotten out of hand.

“I decided to start fresh somewhere else, he said. “I decided I wanted to run a boat, and I thought I’d have more opportunities with a new company in a new environment.”

May looks out over a tug's controls.

The Wild West

May joined Foss in July of 1990 and began tugging up to Red Dog Mine in 1991. Red Dog is an open-pit zinc and lead mine located in Alaska’s remote Arctic, the world’s largest producer of zinc. 

“When I first started going up there, it was like the rough-and-tumble Wild West,” he said.

May points to the close of this year’s season as the second without a Lost-Time Injury (LTI), and a recent agreement that indicates Foss’s contract for tug support at the Mine will again be renewed.

“That will send me into retirement.”

May’s spent 28 seasons tugging between home and Red Dog. Now Captain of the Iver Foss, he departs from Seattle every spring on a 12- to 14-day journey to the Mine.

“The Iver gets up there and sets up the port so that when the barges show up, they can be immediately offloaded,” he said.

He stays for more than two months before returning to his home outside La Grande, Oregon, for a month of rest. Then the cycle repeats until winter ices them out.

Three Foss tugboats float with their backs to a large Foss barge. A pink Mt. Rainier in the background.
Foss’s Red Dog crew arriving “home” in Tacoma, Washington at the end of the season.

‘Good morning, Captain Gary’

May recently celebrated 31 years of sobriety. The things that are important to him, he said, have changed dramatically since the start of his career. He said he’s especially proud of the relationships he’s developed in Kivalina, an Inupiat village located 10 miles north of the port. 

“I’ve made wonderful friends in the village,” he said. “Most of the villagers have worked at the Mine or down at the port, and they know us by name. Sometimes we take them for tug rides. Every morning I call out, Good morning on the radio. After a few seconds, there’s always a half-dozen, Good morning, Captain Gary, calls back from the villagers. It makes me smile.”

May said he even flew his wife up so she could experience life in the Arctic.

“She stayed in the village,” he said. “It was more of an education for her than a vacation, considering that there’s no running water.”

May said he hopes to continue working for another seven seasons before finally settling down at home with his wife, four children, and six grandchildren ages six to 16. He enjoys bird and elk hunting, skiing, and traveling to warm places. But after 28 years, he said a piece of his heart will always belong in the great frozen north.

“It was just a raw operation when we got there,” he concluded. “We pretty much have it down to a science now, but we continue to improve on the operation every year.”

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.