CTI owns five freighters, ranging from 242’ to 260’ long. We deliver cargo from our terminal in Seattle to towns in Western Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, such as Sandpoint, Chignik, King Cove, Cold Bay, False Pass, and Dutch Harbor. Our cargo is palletized rather than in containers. Most of our cargo is associated with commercial fishing, and the work is often just as hard.
A typical voyage is 24 days long.
We deliver cargo from our terminal in Seattle to towns in Western Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.
|Before Sail Day|
|Crossing the Gulf|
|Aleutian Ports/Working Cargo|
Early in the week before the ship is scheduled to depart, the Crew Call Line is updated. Crew members sailing that week should call often, as the Crew Call Line will announce the sign-in time for the sailing crew. In the event of a schedule change or sign-in time change, the Crew Call Line is updated. Crew members should call often, especially the night before sailing, to make sure they arrive on-time for sign-in. The hotline also gives information on when the arriving vessel is due back at Coastal, which is useful for the family and friends of sailors.
Crew members need to bring aboard enough gear to do their job aboard the boat for a full voyage of about 24 days. While there are laundry facilities aboard ship, crew members are constantly working in damp and cold conditions, so they go through clothes quickly. There is also no ship’s store aboard, so crew need to make sure that they bring everything they’ll need for the trip. We recommend that our crew members bring the following:
By the time you arrive for sign-in on Friday morning, the longshore crew has been at work for days. They’ve offloaded all the cargo from the previous voyage, and they’ve already begun the process of loading new northbound cargo for your voyage. By Friday, the lower holds are usually already filled, and the upper holds are nearly done as well – all carefully stowed so that the cargo won’t shift during the voyage and so that it can be unloaded in the correct order as you arrive in ports in Alaska.
Other people have been working before sign-in, too. The ship’s cook has loaded all the provisions required for the voyage: 24 days worth of food for eight or nine people eating three or four meals a day, plus cleaning supplies and paper products. The chief engineer oversaw filling the tanks with enough fuel for the trip: it took a few hours, but by sail day, the boat is filled up and ready to go.
By listening to the Crew Call Line in the week leading to sail day, you’ll know what time to show up on sail day. You’ll sign in with the Port Captain – and once your contract is signed, it’s time to get to work.
Sometimes, there’s training on sail day. We’re very safety-conscious, and we train throughout the year to prepare for emergencies. The training might be a quick review of CPR, or it might be a complete medical scenario involving our disaster training simulator, where medics run simulations of various emergency situations and the whole crew must work together to successfully pass the simulation.
You’ll want to stash all your gear aboard the ship before you get to work. There isn’t always time for you to get settled into your cabin before crew call and work starts, but you can at least stow your bags for now. Your cabin is tiny, but it’s yours: a bunk, a desk, and a locker. There’s not much room, so don’t bring rolling or hard-shelled luggage aboard: pack your gear in soft-sided bags like the traditional seabag to maximize your space. Some crew members bring tvs, laptops, dvd players, or video games with them for their off hours; others prefer to read books or magazines. Just remember – make sure you get enough sleep whenever you can, because the work won’t go away just because you stayed up all night watching a screen…
By sail day, the holds are usually already pretty full. The longshoremen will see to the final loading of any cargo for the holds. You’ll be more concerned with deck cargo.
Deck cargo is anything that can survive the trip to Alaska on the weather deck of the ship – hardy enough to take being chained down and exposed to the elements all the way north. Lumber, cars, trucks, pipes, container vans, and construction equipment are the most common types of deck cargo, but anything that can survive the weather deck can be fair game. The longshoremen load the cargo into place – it’s your job to see that it’s secure.
Most of sail day – and the day after – will be spent chaining down deck cargo to ensure it won’t shift while the vessel is underway. You’ll use lengths of heavy steel chain and strong chain binders to make sure everything is cinched down tight. Chaining down cargo doesn’t stop after sail day, either – every day, you’ll be checking to make sure the cargo is still secure.
Before every trip, the officers go through an extensive safety checklist to help ensure a safe voyage. Emergency systems are tested, emergency supplies are inventoried, and expiration dates are checked.
Before leaving dock, the captain calls the whole crew together in the wheelhouse. Safety policies are read aloud, watches are assigned, and the captain makes sure the whole crew is aware of expectations for the coming voyage.
Once the final checks are made and all cargo has been loaded, it’s time to cast off. Sometimes this is delayed for an hour or two, to give the crew a little extra time to chain down deck cargo or to eat dinner in the galley before the voyage starts. Most Coastal vessels leave the dock sometime between 3pm and 7pm on Friday afternoon. When it’s time to go, the longshoremen cast off lines from the dock and the deckhands, ABs, and wiper work the deck to haul in lines. Then it’s time to make ready for going through the locks…
The Ballard Bridge opens to let our vessels through, and then the next step is out of the Ship Canal and out through the Hiram Chittenden Government Locks. Crew members put bumper bags over the ship’s railings and stand by the lines to ensure a safe passage through the locks. Once the locks have done their job, the ship again casts off and makes its way into Puget Sound – next stop, Alaska.
The first part of the voyage is usually spent traveling north through the Inside Passage. While occasionally the weather and conditions are perfect and allow a vessel to head straight out into the Pacific at Cape Flattery, it’s more likely that a captain will choose to take the vessel through the protected waters of the Inside Passage. It usually takes our vessels about two days to make their way north on the Inside, and weather tends to be good and the seas calm. This gives the crews extra time to make sure the ship is secure and ready for the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska.
While at sea, our crews usually work six hour watches: six hours on, six hours off. This means your shortest day will be twelve hours long, at a minimum. Typically, you’ll spend six hours standing watch and six hours on general ship’s work every day when you’re at sea. General work could mean checking deck cargo, but more commonly it means maintenance: painting, splicing lines, slushing gear, cleaning toilets, and all the projects that need doing to keep the ship in good shape. Deckhands and ABs stand their watch in the wheelhouse with the captain or mate, learning navigation and piloting skills; wipers stand watch in the engine room, trading off shifts with the chief engineer and keeping the engine room log. But all of this is just for when the ship is at sea – in ports and working cargo, everything changes.
Chaining down cargo doesn’t stop after sail day! One of the reasons our vessels tend to go north through the Inside Passage is because the Inside tends to be calmer than heading straight out into the Gulf of Alaska. This gives the crew extra time to make sure that everything is chained down completely in preparation for the open ocean. You’ll continue to chain down deck cargo until it’s all secured for the Gulf – and then you’ll continue to check on it to make sure it stays that way.
While underway, the captain runs many different safety drills for the crew members, to ensure that if an emergency happens they’re well equipped to deal with it. There will be drills dealing with fighting fires, man overboard, medical scenarios, and respiratory protection – drills are taken seriously, and the whole crew participates, so that in an emergency, everyone is familiar with what needs to happen.
A side benefit, of course, of traversing the Inside Passage is that it allows the crew glimpses of the beautiful Canadian and Alaskan coastline as they travel north. But it’s also a busy waterway, and extra care is taken when navigating these waters, especially in places like the Seymour Narrows, where the tides make the difference between successful and failed navigation.
While the rest of the crew sees to maintenance, cargo, wheelhouse watch and duties in the engine room, the cook’s job is to provide meals all voyage long. Cooks start work the day before sail day, loading groceries and supplies into the galley’s walk-in fridge. For the most part, it’s like any cook’s job ashore: three square meals a day, unless the crew is working cargo around the clock and needs a midnight meal as well. But the galley isn’t a typical kitchen. Space is cramped, and all the surfaces you cook on move with the ship; stoves and counters have rails to keep pots from sliding onto the floor. All of our cooks are adept at producing tasty meals, even in the worst weather, to keep our crew members in working shape through long hours and poor conditions. You definitely won’t starve on a Coastal boat!
Usually, Coastal vessels enter the Gulf of Alaska two or three days after leaving our Seattle dock. Land gets left behind: it’ll take three or four days of nothing but ocean before you reach your first port. Here’s where the size of the ocean will really hit you, and where the weather will make all the difference. If you don’t know if you’ll get seasick or not, you’ll find out in the Gulf.
Crossing the Gulf is the calm before the storm: once you reach your first port, you’ll be working cargo all the way until you’re coming back across the Gulf bound for home. You’ll spend your days working on the ship under the direction of the captain, mate, and chief engineer, making sure everything in is order. You might be tasked with splicing line or cleaning bathrooms – either way, you’ll spend your days working.
Weather plays an important part on any voyage: clear skies and calm seas can see a boat making good time while her crew gets plenty of maintenance done on deck, while stormy weather and rough seas can put a boat behind schedule with a miserable crew.
Even in the summer, rain is fairly typical; as the weather turns cooler, the rain can turn to sleet and snow. In winter, storms roll south and batter the Gulf. Generally speaking, we say there are three types of weather in the Gulf: bad, worse, and awful.
If you’re unused to living on a boat, you’ll discover you’ll need to work to keep your balance as the ship sways around you: going up stairs, getting out of bed, taking showers, and even eating need to occasionally be timed with how the ship rolls with the waves.
If you’re going to be miserably seasick, the Gulf is likely where it will hit you: you’re in unprotected waters for the first time, and this is where the ship will really start to move. The bad news is being seasick is just as unpleasant as you suppose; the good news is it’s usually over in a few days. And you’ll have plenty of work to keep your mind off of how awful you feel.
Even though there’s plenty of maintenance work and always the threat of bad weather, crossing the Gulf isn’t that bad: it’s a bit of a respite before working cargo, and for the most part, you’ll have time after you finish your shift to read, play video games, or watch movies. While you’re standing watch, too, you’ll get to look out and see spectacular views: sunrises and sunsets with nothing around you but the ocean, and sometimes you’ll see whales alongside or dolphins playing in the ship’s wake.
Coastal Transportation serves many small ports in the Aleutians with weekly or biweekly sailings. While not all voyages visit every port, we have what we call “the milk run”: our usual string of ports. While each port is different, we do the same thing no matter which we’re in: we work cargo. Until we reach Dutch Harbor, where we have our own CTI North terminal, work tends to run along the same basic lines: work until the cargo is done. Deckhands, ABs, and wipers all work cargo once in port. Smaller ports might have only a few hours of work; larger ports might have a full day of work. Generally speaking, once cargo is done, the crew sleep until their next stop: the captain and the chief engineer see the ship safely to the next port, and while they sleep, the crew works cargo until it’s finished. The process repeats, all the way to Dutch Harbor, the biggest port we service – and the one with the most cargo.
Our usual stops include Chignik, Sand Point, King Cove, Cold Bay, False Pass, Akutan, and (in the summer) Port Moller.
Dutch Harbor, with a population of 3000 people, is the biggest town in the Aleutian islands and the center of the Bering Sea fishing industry. The names Dutch Harbor and Unalaska are used interchangeably for the port. We have our own facility in Dutch Harbor and offload cargo there as well as at another six or so docks in Dutch Harbor.
There is little time to go ashore in Dutch Harbor. Cargo operations are fast-paced and we work around the clock. Generally a ship will spend five to six days in Dutch Harbor. When the ship gets to Dutch Harbor, she will have half to three-quarters of her cargo holds still filled with cargo and will attempt to offload that cargo in the space of 48 hours. Once off-loaded, the ship will begin back-load operations, loading frozen southbound cargo. Sometimes the cargo comes from the storage facility at our dock; at other times, the cargo comes directly from fishing vessels, either tied at our dock or tied up elsewhere in Dutch Harbor.
Adjacent to Dutch Harbor is the port of Captain’s Bay. We also do cargo operations in that port, and between the two the vessel might shuffle back and forth several times in a week. It’s about a two hour run between the two ports.
Dutch Harbor is a remote place renowned for its bad weather. The only way in or out is by air or by ship.
Most of southbound cargo is frozen seafood: Pollock, cod, crab, and salmon. When it’s loaded aboard, it’s already frozen in cardboard boxes or bags, which are loaded on pallets. It’s the job of the crew to load that cargo aboard quickly and without damage. Speed and accuracy are very important. In addition to frozen seafood, we carry general cargo such as machinery, automobiles, empty drums, gas cylinders, etc.
The work the crew does includes driving cargo gear, driving forklifts, moving dunnage, stacking bags or boxes of fish, lashing down cargo, and sweeping and cleaning the hold. The work schedule, when it’s easy, is six hours on, six hours off. However crew members cannot rely on something like that, and it’s not unusual to work twenty-four hours straight, get four hours of sleep, and work another twenty-four.
A new crewmember is assigned the least technical of tasks, such as stacking boxes of fish, stacking dunnage, handling mooring lines, and sweeping the hold.
As with all operations at Coastal Transportation, you need to expect the unexpected. Changes in plan because of weather and fishing operations are common. To excel in this job, you must be prepared to accept the unexpected and deal with frequent changes in plan.
From Dutch Harbor, you might head farther west to Adak and Atka, or up north to St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs. You may fill up completely with southbound cargo in the Bering Sea ports, or you might, on the way back to Seattle, stop at the Alaskan peninsula ports such as King Cove to top up your cargo. A fully loaded ship could be carrying up to four million pounds of cargo.
We have been in operation for thirty years, and are proud of the fact that has been no loss of life on our vessels in Alaska, and that we’ve never put anyone in a wheelchair. While we characterize the work as dangerous, we are proud of this amazing safety record, which is a product of the quality of our officers and the amount of training that we bestow upon our new hires.
St. Paul is in the Pribilof islands, right smack in the middle of the Bering Sea. Formerly famous for sealing operations, St. Paul now has a vibrant local fishing industry. The port is tiny and man-made, and sometimes unusable in the worst weather, forcing our vessels to work cargo the old way: out at anchor on the lee side of the island.
While we prefer working cargo at the dock, cargo operations at anchor happen fairly often. These are the hardest of cargo operations at Coastal Transportation. In the winter freezing conditions are common. Pack ice can drift down from the north and completely encircle the island, forcing us to stop cargo operations. St. Paul cargo operations are something of a rite of passage for CTI crew members.
We do not stop at the sister port of St. George.
Once the vessel is loaded with cargo, whether it be in Dutch Harbor or at a peninsular port such as Sand Point, the ship begins to head back to Puget Sound. This return trip generally takes six to seven days. After a short rest from cargo operations, the deck crew spends their time cleaning the vessel, inside and out, and doing maintenance chores such as slushing the cargo gear (applying lubricating oil to the outside of the wire rope of the cargo gear), lubing deck machinery, splicing mooring lines, painting, etc.
As usual, weather dictates what kind of work will occur on the southbound leg of the voyage. During the short summertime, the day is filled with maintenance chores. In the depth of winter, the entire crew may spend their time holding on for dear life as the vessel crashes through thirty foot seas.
Most of the time, the vessel’s destination is Seattle. There are some voyages where the vessel will stop in Bellingham before heading to Seattle.
If the vessel stops at Bellingham, or Pier 90 in Seattle, the crew may help offload a portion of the cargo, driving cargo gear or forklifts. Usually, they do this in conjunction with a group of CTI dockworkers. After this portion of the cargo has been offloaded, usually the work of 24 hours or less, the vessel arrives in Seattle. Once the vessel has arrived, the crew will spend a couple of hours prepping the cargo gear for offload, getting garbage off the ship, etc., at which point the voyage is completed and they are free to go home.
Generally a crew will have about three and a half days off if they are sailing again on the next voyage. During this time, the entire crew usually goes home.
CTI’s vessels are legally classified as fishing vessels. There are no work hour restrictions for fishing vessels in the US Code of Laws. This is unusual for the rest of the United States Merchant Marine, which has a twelve-hour-day work restriction. The difference arises because we are closely connected to the fishing industry, and the unpredictable nature of the Bering Sea fishing industry precludes any artificial limit on the number of hours a person works in one day. That being said, all reputable Alaskan fishing companies are well aware of the need to protect their employees from overwork. At CTI, we strive to keep work hours reasonable. However, we are always up-front about the grueling nature of the work here.
While it’s impossible to say what the average number of hours worked would be on any given trip, a good estimate would be an average of 13-14 hours a day averaged over a 24 day voyage. Most of those days would be working twelve hours a day. Some might be 18-24 hours a day.
If this is the type of work schedule that frightens you, CTI is not the place for you. Some people might believe that this work schedule is dangerous. Here are the facts: we have never had loss of life in Alaska, nor have we ever put anyone permanently in a wheelchair. Those are the facts.
Keep in mind that pay at CTI is daily pay. We do not pay overtime. Our rates for Able-Bodied Seaman vary from $280/day to upwards of $345/day. The highest-paid seamen receive their pay based off of merit and seniority, with merit taking precedence.
This is not a common job for common mariners. Very few people can do this kind of work. Coastal Transportation’s mariners are extremely tough, driven individuals who need a challenge in their work life. While CTI recognizes that opportunities to make as much or as more money in another seagoing trade exist, we are not interested in hiring just anyone. Our trade demands that we hire those we see as the best, and thus our hiring standards are very high.
Scroll to minute 6:00 to watch cargo operation at the dock in Seattle.