Shaver Transportation: Rich past and innovative present on the Columbia

The vessel Vancouver
Vancouver, designed by Robert Allan.

The history of Shaver Transportation has been bound to the growth of Portland, Ore., and navigation on the Columbia River system since 1880 when George W. Shaver founded the company. It is still a family company, with Harry Shaver as chairman of the board and his son Steve Shaver as president. The company offices are about seven miles up the Willamette River from the junction with the Columbia.

However, it would be a huge mistake to think of Shaver Transportation as a company mired in its history. The company has been noted over the years for its innovations in grain barging and ship docking. The vessels in the Shaver fleet of tugs are each fine examples of the work of their designers and builders to meet the needs expressed by the owners.

Willamette and Deschutes are 91-by-36-foot 3,540-hp towboats with push knees. Built at J.M. Martinac Shipbuilding in Tacoma, Wash., in 1999, the boats are among the most modern of their type on the river. The 76-by-28-foot Vancouver was also built at J. M. Martinac to a very popular design by Robert Allan Ltd.

The company added its 11th and 12th boats in the spring of 2012. The newly acquired Washington (ex Falcon, ex Delta Billie, ex Kinsman Falcon) was built in 1990 and has undergone an extensive refurbishing at the Shaver docks. With a pair of z-drives set forward under the wheelhouse, the boat will work ships with the big stern winches.

Capt. Chris Boyce at the controls of Vancouver.

Capt. Chris Boyce at the controls of Vancouver

Main engines are a pair of medium speed B&W Holeby diesels each rated for 1,600 hp at 750 rpm. Renovations will improve visibility from the wheelhouse to the crew working on deck where the deck winches are being reconfigured to make them equivalent to other ship-handling tugs in the Shaver fleet. Similarly, joystick controls will be replaced with combined rotating throttle and steering controls. Shaver Port Engineer Dennis Malloy explained that the company wants skippers and crews to be able to move easily from one boat to the other, so it becomes important to make the controls and operation of the vessels as similar as possible.

The knowledge of designing a good docking tug, or any vessel for that matter, can be purchased from naval architects and consultants. At Shaver there is an internal bank of practical knowledge with a president who was born into a family towing company. More importantly, he didn’t just inherit the position; he worked his way from deck to wheelhouse and now is one of those increasingly rare company presidents qualified as a master mariner. When it comes to modifying or designing a vessel for shiphandling, Steve Shaver has seen the job from the tug wheelhouse and the bridge wings of ships. This not only gives him the knowledge to advise on company needs but also to confidently take advice on how to meet those needs. This powerful combination of practical knowledge of the operation from both the wheelhouse and the boardroom makes Shaver one of a select group of towing companies in America.

Designed by Capilano Maritime Design Ltd. of North Vancouver, B.C., and built by Diversified Marine in Portland, Ore., Sommer S is a product of generations of Shaver experience in handling barges and ships in the Columbia River currents. The tug was named for Steve’s late sister.

“It took a little longer to complete the tug than we anticipated,” Steve explained, “but that was us wanting to make modifications to the design as we went along.”

Willamette and Cascades handling grain barges on the Columbia River.

Willamette and Cascades handling grain barges on the Columbia River.

Malloy was responsible for the day-to-day work with the shipyard through the build period. Portland naval architect Don Stevens was retained to assist with final details and modifications. A pair of MTU 16V4000 engines each delivering 2,680 hp at 1,800 rpm turn Schottel SRP 1215 FP z-drives. This combination gives the boat a bollard pull of 67 tons. A pair of Cummins-powered 145-kW gensets provide ample power for the tug and its electric winches. Sea trials were on May 16.

At 80 by 36 feet, Sommer S is only slightly longer than the 76-foot Vancouver but carries eight feet more beam. Deck equipment follows well-proven practice for working ships and barges in the strong river currents. On the bow is a Markey DEPCF-48 electric hawser winch. Alongside the winch is a knuckle boom that can be used to lift the tug’s line up to a ship’s deck, but more often is used to run a ship’s lines to shore moorings in the absence of a line boat.

Four electric winches are arranged on the aft deck near the bulwarks. Two of the winches hold face wires to allow the tug to make up bow-first to barges. Barge moves are not a primary function of the tug, but versatility is important for a company like Shaver.

The other two winches on the stern face a uniquely formed T-bitt with small leads welded to their base that can serve the same function as the bow-mounted staple. One of the stern winches can run a line through the T-bitt eye and up to a ship or barge. In combination with the bow-mounted hawser winch, this arrangement allows the tug to be made fast to the hip of a barge or ship. This is a handy arrangement for moving a dead ship into a floating dry dock.

Capt. Chris Boyce explained the various functions of these refinements as he and deck hand Phil Jackson ran Vancouver down the Willamette River to “peel a car ship off the dock.”

Steve Shaver, the company’s president, in his Front Street office in Portland, Ore. With the addition of two boats in 2012, Shaver Transportation now operates a 12-vessel fleet.

Steve Shaver, the company’s president, in his Front Street office in Portland, Ore. With the addition of two boats in 2012, Shaver Transportation now operates a 12-vessel fleet.

Even with the river approaching freshet at 15 feet above normal on the gauge, this was a routine job. There wasn’t any wind to catch the big sides of the ship, and currents were a manageable 2 knots. The ship had a hefty bow thruster so it only required the one boat on the stern quarter to pull it clear of the dock. This left ample time for Boyce to explain some of the complexities of his regular job pushing grain barges up and down the Columbia.

Boyce has worked for Shaver since graduating from Cal Maritime in 1995. Most workdays find him on a 3,400-hp towboat pushing four 273-by-42-foot barges each capable of carrying 3,600 tons of bulk cargo. With the barges arranged two by two fore and aft the tow has a total length of over 640 feet. This is the maximum that the 650-by-86-foot locks can accommodate. The locks also limit the barges’ loaded draft to 14 feet.

Light, the barges have a lot of windage, an air draft of 35 feet and a water draft of only 3 feet. This can make some challenging boat handling in the Columbia River Gorge, an 85-mile canyon that provides a water link through the Cascade mountain range to the interior plateau. Wind surfers come from all over the world to enjoy the 35-mph winds commonthere, but the winds are much more of a challenge for towboats going up the river with light barges.

During freshets the tows may have to be reduced to only two barges.

“In Garrison Rapid, which is really only a narrows since the dam was built, the current can make four barges difficult in freshet,” said Boyce.

Back in his office, beneath pictures of five generations of towboating ancestors, Steve was manning the phones to help staff with bookings for grain barges. From the warehouse to the coffee room, the Shaver offices are a maritime museum adorned with wheels and name boards from long-gone members of the fleet. At the same time, the offices are a contemporary global logistics hub. It might be the light playing tricks, but it looked as though that wall of ancestors was smiling with satisfaction.