Westcoast’s tugs are gray with white stripes, and the wheelhouse of the Commander rises 20 feet above the water like a fat thumb. Underneath are the crew’s quarters and engine room. From this height, there was a panoramic sweep of the whole bay. It was a weekday morning, so I saw few pleasure craft, just two or three sailboats. Behind us toward South Bay was the A-8 — the bay’s last free anchorage, with its assortments of party boats, workboats, houseboats, and decrepit sailboats. Westcoast anchors about ten of its barges in the A-8. Off the port side, a rusty dredger was making slow progress toward the Coronado bridge.
Westcoast’s offices are on one of its barges, moored at South Bay Boat Yard at the foot of G Street in Chula Vista. Its workshops are there and its tugs are tied up to the office. From there to the harbor entrance, or “outside,” takes a tug an hour and 20 minutes, which Frailey admits is a drawback, mostly because of the high price of fuel.
Ahead of us off the bow was the sweep of the Coronado bridge. As Frailey and I talked, the radio kept up a jabber of Coast Guard messages, conversations from other Westcoast tugs, and fragments of sentences from boatyards. Frailey’s first job this morning was to move a barge with a crane belonging to Marathon Construction Corporation, which was going to begin to pull piling that had belonged to Campbell Shipyard so that construction could begin on a new hotel and marina.
The genius behind Westcoast is Doug Lotoski, who came to San Diego in 1980 from the Pacific Northwest, where he had been buying ex-Navy landing craft at auction, modifying them into different kinds of boats, and selling them. Once in San Diego, he teamed up with Grant Westmorland to build and sell boats here, then, after ten years, they began their tug-and-barge operation.
“Doug goes to bed at night thinking about boats,” Frailey told me. “He wakes up in the morning thinking about boats. He’s a workaholic, works seven days a week, that’s what he likes. It’s what makes him happy. The construction end of it used to be the primary mission of the company — to build these unique, different kinds of boats out of landing craft and then find a market for them. Doug has the engineering behind him and the experience and all these systems, the hydraulics, the engines, the steelwork, the fabrication and designing. So it’s all right here in his head for him. He doesn’t have any books or anything. He just whips it out and here’s his next invention, and it works. Well, everybody else bought them and had success with them, so they decided to keep some of these in the house and the tugboat business took off.”
Now Doug does all the designing and building and takes care of the boats. Grant Westmorland is president and takes care of sales and lines up business. Frailey is general manager, and Larry Miller is business manager. In addition, there are five or six captains, who are on call, and the same number of deckhands.
“It takes a special kind of person to do this job,” said Frailey. “There’s no such thing as nine to five, Monday through Friday. It’s minute-to-minute, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You don’t know what’s going to happen. Typically the guys will work 40 to 50 hours a week, and a lot of those hours will be in the wee hours of the morning. The shipyards like to launch and dry-dock vessels at night, because it doesn’t impact the workforce. So that’s when they need the tugs, and they’ll call us at 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. to do these things. Then there’s last-minute things that pop up — that might keep a crew working 12 hours or more. And they enjoy it. The guys who come in and don’t enjoy it don’t last long. But the guys who like this work are probably the best boat handlers you’ll find. If you can handle one of the little boats, doing the jobs we do, you can probably step on anything and operate it with some skill, because it’s tough. These little boats are a handful, and these guys get good or they get out. Say you’ve got a 1000 hp or 700 hp tug and you’ve got it made up to a barge that’s maybe 300 feet long and has 8000 tons of material on it. Well, you’ve got currents and wind and shallow water and maybe obstacles, like bridges, and you can’t have an accident. We’ve never had a marine incident, and it’s mostly due to the fact that we’ve got new little boats that can handle the job and people who are pretty good at driving them.”
The majority of Westcoast’s jobs involve barges or are jobs that take advantage of the tug’s rectangular shape, its riverboat style.
“Most of our tugs are push tugs with push knees, so you can get behind the barge and move it around,” said Frailey. “That’s different from the other tugs on the bay, but it’s typical of what you see on the Mississippi and back East, and Doug has kind of brought that to San Diego. So that idea worked well. We get in and out of the shipyards; we get into shallow water where nobody else can get. We did a lot of this Coronado bridge earthquake retrofit recently in the shallow ends, where no one else could get to, and in places like the Naval Amphibious Base, where the big tugs can’t go — we move their landing crafts for them, things like that. We just had a job for a diving company, putting together a long pipeline. It’s dredging the area around the Navy carrier pier, and the mud from that is going to the south side of the Navy Amphibious Base where they’re going to make an island. So they dredge the mud out, send it through the pipeline, which is several miles long, then dump it by the Amphib Base for their island. The diving company has welded these pipes and repaired welds and is now about to video their work, so they’ve rented our tug as well as renting our barge. That’s the other part of the business — we supply the tugs, but we also supply a lot of the barges being used. For instance, the Navy uses them to off-load anchors and chains from carriers. They use them for pier demolition or construction. At Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal, they’ve got this big loader that unloads soda ash from the ships, and when they do that, it gets all gunked up, so they drop the loader onto one of our barges and use our barge as a work platform. The barges are cheap, big items that people use for everything imaginable. Our barges are used for almost all the fireworks. On the Fourth of July we had shows at Oceanside, two in Mission Bay, and I think three in San Diego Bay. We have at least a dozen barges — the biggest is 260 feet long and the smallest are just small work floats.