What I learned in 22-ft. Alaskan seas

For many years, I provided marketing-communications services to a privately held maritime company, which had business all around the world, including tugboat operations in a remote area of Alaska. During my tenure, I had the unique (cold) opportunity to visit this (cold) location twice, once during October and another in February. It was cold.

I went the first time to support a Weather Channel documentary showcasing the incredible capabilities of the company’s tugboats as they assisted laden super tankers through a protected sound. This documentary was lead by a British gentleman who really, really wanted to film our tugboats at work in bad weather. I, as the public relations rep of the company, smiled patiently while the director enthusiastically described the dramatic shots he wanted of the tugboats keeping the tanker safe through terrible conditions.

What did I have to lose? He couldn’t control the weather. Plus, it sounded like a good story in the making.

The morning of departure, we met at 5:00 a.m. for a safety orientation and boarded a six-story tugboat, our home for the 48-hour ride-a-long that escorted the tanker from the sound to the Gulf of Alaska. There were quiet murmurs of bad weather.

I remember the first few hours en route to the Gulf were amazing. I used the time to share the tugboat’s spec sheet with the director, assist in a filmed engine room tour, arrange for on-camera interviews with the crew, help capture B-roll footage, answer questions about the company and explain the safety culture so as to encourage him to promote it in his documentary.

A cameraman films footage in Alaska for a Weather Channel documentary.
A cameraman films B-roll footage in Alaska for a Weather Channel documentary.

Then, the wind started. And the whitecaps. And the radio calls about deteriorating conditions and gale-force winds. The chef locked her cabinets and doors.

It was then I knew we were in for trouble.

About 10 hours in, I watched the weather fall apart from the sixth floor of the tug, where the helm was located. Allow me to paint the picture for you from my white-knuckled position: The winds built up to a howling 40 to 50 miles per hour and the waves rocked steady at 22-ft. high. The tanker, which looked like a charcoal smudge on the horizon, sat 40 ft. high. The waves were going over the top of it, carried by wind. Our tugboat, which was designed for these conditions, took a nose dive to the bottom of the wave trough before rising through a solid wall of water straight up towards the sky, generating a 60-degree list each time.

Repeat for eight hours.

I heard that the captain was the only one who didn’t get sick on the boat. (I also heard that what this really meant was that he was just as sick as the rest of us.) I love a good story, but at the time I didn’t think this was a very good story.

When back on dry land, I had the chance to reflect on the event. In retrospect, the entire filming was a success: the Weather Channel got the footage they wanted, I was able to help them get the shots and interviews they needed to produce the show, the company was well represented and the safety culture shone through in the final piece. The role of public relations worked.

And, I got my story.

Oh, and the second trip, done in support of a Science Channel documentary? Let’s just say the weather played nice and it felt like a pleasure cruise. Man, those orcas are beautiful in the wake of a tugboat.

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