HAWAII AT WORK
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
William "Willie" Auld has been working on tugboats for 20 years, four as a captain for Sause Bros. in Honolulu. Above, he stood last week next to the tug he works on, the Mary Catherine.
‘Hook it up and drag it across’
William "Willie" Auld skippers the Mary Catherine, a tugboat that tows interisland barges
William "Willie" Auld
Title: Tugboat captain
Job: Operates a tug boat for Sause Bros. that tows barges interisland
William "Willie" Auld was born in Hawaii but grew up as a "military brat," attending nine different schools before graduating from Austin E. Lathrop High School in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Now a tugboat captain for Sause Bros. in Hawaii, Auld also attended the University of Alaska for a couple of years, thinking he wanted to go into law enforcement.
"But once I got on a boat" while on a visit back to Hawaii, he said last week with a laugh, "I thought, 'This is great. I like this better.'"
Auld has been working on tugboats for about 20 years, the last four as a captain for Sause Bros., which in Hawaii is based at Pier 24 at Honolulu Harbor. The company started in the 1930s in Oregon with just one tug and now has more than 60 tugs and barges, including at least a half dozen in the islands. In Hawaii, the company tows barges interisland for customers such as Matson, Hawaiian Cement, Chevron, and The Gas Co., with Auld frequently at the helm.
Auld's work schedule is typically one to two months on call, followed by a month or so off. It's a schedule that has been hard on him as a family man, but it has had its rewards, including constant travel between the islands and enjoying all the natural beauty that goes with it.
Auld, 51, is married to the former Arden Medeiros, with whom he has four adult children (three daughters and one son), and lives in Waimanalo.
How long have you been a tugboat captain?
Willie Auld: As far as captain, I've only been a captain for about four years, but as far as the industry, all my sea time has been on tugboats, for about 20 years.
Q: What were you doing before you became a captain?
A: I started at the bottom of the level. Honestly, I worked my way up from an ordinary able-bodied seaman, and then I went for my license, where you learn how to navigate and do what you need to do.
And then, you know, there's a lot of people out there with what they call a master's license, but it all depends on the company, who they feel is going to take care of their interests. The ultimate responsibility is up to the company to decide who they want to be the captain.
Q: How did you get this job?
A: My family has been in the industry for awhile. You would think that because of our Hawaii location that more people would know about the maritime industry. But I was fortunate that my uncles worked in the industry, and that's how I found about it.
And once I got into it, I really liked the lifestyle. It's not a regular job -- it's a lifestyle. Because of the nature of our work, we're never home. Like my wife, I'm grateful for her, because she takes care of a lot of the burden when I'm gone.
Q: Who was your first employer in the industry?
A: It was Young Brothers at the time.
Q: When did you join Sause Bros.?
A: I joined Sause in about '98.
Q: Why did you switch?
A: Well, Young Brothers was years before, and I got out of the industry for awhile. The shipping industry is not all that stable at times, so sometimes you gotta go look for other things to do. So when I came back, I worked for Smith Maritime, and then I worked for Sause.
Q: What kinds of licenses do you need to have this job?
A: Everything is through the Coast Guard, and because of the new regulations, especially after 9/11, there's more background checks and things you gotta learn and know before you can even get into the industry.
So you just study and test to upgrade to whatever you need to operate these boats, which are based on tonnage.
Q: What kind of tugboat are you piloting?
A: My tugboat is under 200 tons. So basically you would need a 200-ton master's (license) to get on aboard.
Tugs basically aren't that big. There's a 500-ton, and a 600-ton, and then there's the big ships, like Matson.
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Willie Auld is a tugboat captain with Sause Bros. Above, he climbed the stairs last week to get to the wheelhouse of his tug, the Mary Catherine. In the background is the tug the Kamaehu.
Is your job different from being a harbor pilot?
A: Yes. They're very good at what they do. They bring the large ships into the harbors safely. We take the barges to the outer islands. We're kind of dwarfed by the size of those ships.
Q: How did you learn to read maritime charts and maps?
A: That all comes as you're going up the ranks. I had some really good people to work with and they took the time to teach me. I'm grateful for them, and that's how we learn, you know? You take what everybody shows you and you adapt it to a style of your own.
Q: Does your tug have a name?
A: Right now I'm on the Mary Catherine. But like I was telling Craig (Honolulu Star-Bulletin photographer Craig Kojima) when he came over, it's not all about the captain. I rely heavily on my crew, the chief engineer, my deck officers.
When I first started in the industry, there were nine of us on the tugs, and now there are six. So there's the same amount of work, but less people.
Q: Has the technology of your trade changed much since you first got involved?
A: Well, the technology has changed, but it's basically the same work. There've been some good changes, but I think the bottom line is cost.
Q: Which is the reason for the fewer people?
A: Right. Basically it's the same thing: Hook it up and drag it across.
Q: What is it you're hooking up and dragging across?
A: All the interisland trade is done by barges mostly, and what we do is go up alongside them after they've loaded, and then we have that cable, we hook that cable to the barge, and then we just pull it across the ocean. The barge is actually about a third of a mile behind us. It's more for safety reasons, because when it gets rough out there, the weight of the cable between us and the barge acts as a shock absorber.
Q: What's your typical day like, or maybe typical week?
A: Well, it all depends on what boats and what schedule we're on. Sometimes I might get home one day a week, if I'm lucky. It depends. In the maritime industry it's hard to really have a set schedule. Also, if the weather conditions aren't optimal, you can be set back, so you gotta be flexible.
Q: Kind of like those recent delays with the Superferry, yeah?
A: Yeah. You have a schedule, but if it's too rough, you don't go. Like last week, we were supposed to go into Kawaiahae, but the waves were too rough and we couldn't get in. So we had to wait outside for a few hours until the wind died down and we could get in.
Q: How rough does it have to be out there before they'll cancel a barge run?
A: That's one thing about Sause Bros.: They have certain parameters, which we try and meet to make sure that our operation is safe. If the winds are too high, we sit, we wait. They're really good about that. All our boats are really well equipped with the safety equipment we need. So Sause is a really good company to work for.
Q: Do you have many accidents at sea?
A: We have a few. We have maybe a sprained back, or someone trips. But Sause is very safety-conscious, and if anyone sees anything that is unsafe, it gets reported to the captain and we try to rectify it.
Q: You must have a stomach made of iron.
A: Yeah. It doesn't bother us too much when it gets inclement.
Q: How did you get to be so seaworthy?
Q: I was lucky. When I first started, the weather didn't bother me, and I went from there.
Q: Have you tugboated to all the major islands?
A: Yes, we have a harbor in just about all of them.
Q: Does that include Niihau?
A: No, Niihau doesn't have one, but Molokai and Lanai have harbors.
Q: Do you see many whales or dolphins or things like that?
A: Oh yes. Right now it's whale season, so they're all over. And sometimes the
company allows us to run handlines from the tug, so occasionally we'll pick up a mahimahi or maybe an ono. So that's an extra bonus for us.
A: Do you ever get bored on your trips back and forth?
A: No, not really. There's always something to keep you occupied. The boats, they have a TV on board, a VCR, so we watch those, but the trips are short, and we make sure everybody gets enough rest so we can stand a proper watch.
Q: What's the hardest part of your job?
A: I'd say the hardest part of my job is to make sure that when we arrive or depart, that every contingency is covered so we can make it safely in and out and travel safely across. But a captain is only as good as his crew. If your guys work well together, then it's great. We can get the job done safely and without an accident.
Q: What's your favorite part of the job?
A: Well, the time off is great -- because we work a month, two months on, and then a month off. So the time off is nice to be with the family.
And, oh, I like being out in the middle of the ocean at 3 in the morning, and looking at the sights, and the whales. It's beautiful out there.
Q: You go out in the dark?
A: Twenty-four hours a day. We enter harbors at night, during the daytime -- any time they need us.
Q: Where's the last place you traveled to?
A: We just got back from a weekend trip to Hilo and Kahului. We came back on New Year's Eve and got to watch the games. Had New Year's Day off. And right now they're loading our barge and they're expecting us out of here this evening.