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Highlights from our first 125 years

You’ll find these, and many other stories, in our book. You can also find out more on our history page, or in recent Tow Bitts News articles.


1889: one rowboat becomes a fleet

Thea Foss, a Norwegian immigrant living in Tacoma, Washington buys a used rowboat for five dollars to supplement the earnings of her carpenter husband, Andrew. She spruces it up by painting it in green and white (still the Foss colors today) and sells it for a profit. Thea continues to purchase, fix up and sell rowboats until soon she has a fleet of rowboats that she and Andrew maintain and rent out to locals and fisherman. The family business is off and running! Thea paints a sign on the roof of their home, a one-room floating house built by Andrew, advertising the enterprise as “Always Ready.” This promise carries on today as Foss Maritime’s motto, “Always Safe. Always Ready.”

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1890: foss launches forward

Business flourishes, but the Foss family believes they could be doing more than renting rowboats, so Thea purchases a two-horsepower launch to service windjammers anchored in the harbor. More launches soon follow and a Foss water-taxi service begins to grow. As demand for launch service increases, Andrew and his brothers start building both launches and rowboats, and in 1904 the name of the company is changed from Foss Boat House Company to Foss Launch Company.

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1912: Diversify the Fleet

Foss becomes a tugboat company with the purchase of its first tug – a five-year-old 37 footer they rename Foss 9. Shortly after that, they hire Robert Crawford to build the company’s first new-build tug, the 43-foot Foss 12, which becomes Puget Sound’s first motorized fireboat. Foss’ third tug, the 45 foot, 40 horsepower Foss 6, is unlike any other. It introduces the innovative teardrop shaped hull designed by Andrew Foss and paves the way for Foss’ rapid expansion to meet market opportunities. In 1920, the company changes its name to Foss Launch and Tug Company, a name that lasts until 1986 when it is changed to Foss Maritime Company.

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1939-1945: the war years

Before and after the beginning of World War II, the Navy and Army are in such desperate need of tugs and other equipment that tugs being built for Foss are instead immediately acquired by the government and go directly into service for the military. Five Foss tugs go to work supporting naval construction projects in the South Pacific: the Mathilda Foss, Justine Foss, Foss 11, Arthur Foss, and Agnes Foss. With the exception of the Justine, which was tragically scuttled during a Japanese invasion, all of the tugs remain in service after the war. The Arthur can be seen today, 125 years after its first construction, proudly berthed beside the Museum of History and Industry on Seattle’s Lake Union.

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1940: construction of puget sound landmark

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge opens thanks in part to Foss’ herculean efforts to tackle the major engineering challenge of placing 48 immense concrete anchor blocks (each at 600 tons) to hold the bridge’s two high steel pier foundations in place. Foss would later help to build a second Narrows bridge in 2003 parallel to the first, towing giant foundations, called caissons, from the Tacoma harbor to the construction site, each one weighing approximately 14,000 tons.

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1982: groundbreaking design

Foss pioneers the use of the Voith Schneider Cycloidal (VSP) system, the first of its kind in North America. Tugs with traditional propulsion systems could direct thrust in only two ways, forward or backward, and captains had to align their tugs properly to push or pull in the desired direction. The innovative VSP tugs employ egg-beater-like propulsion units that can direct thrust in any direction and give the tugs exceptional maneuverability for ship assists and tanker escorts. A committee headed by then-Senior Vice President of Operations, Steve Scalzo (who later became the President of Foss), did the conceptual design work and collaborated with Seattle naval architecture firm, Glosten Associates. The six original VSP tugs built in Tacoma in the 1980s are still in service today.

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1990: a world’s first at red dog mine

Foss enters its second century of service and transports millions of tons of concentrated ore from the Red Dog Port to ships at anchor offshore from Red Dog Mine—a zinc mine 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Foss develops the world’s first and only roadstead loading and open lighterage of dry bulk cargo and customizes self-loading barges to transfer the ore to bulk carriers from the shallow-draft port.

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2000’s: massive sealifts at sakhalin islands

Foss completes one of the world’s largest sealift deliveries over three years (2003, 2005 and 2006). The lifts are to an Exxon development on a remote part of Sakhalin Island, off the coast of Eastern Russia in the North Pacific Ocean. At its height, one lift required seven Foss tugs, a Foss barge, plus six other tugs and 10 barges chartered in Asia. Foss transported prefabricated modules to remote construction sites and provided complex logistic strategies to adapt to environmental challenges resulting in a safe completion of the project ahead of schedule.

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2009: the hybrid tug

The Carolyn Dorothy, the world’s first hybrid powered tug, is christened in Southern California, representing another technological breakthrough for Foss. The vessel combines diesel and electric drive motors and exceeded emissions and fuel expectations, saving about 100,000 gallons of fuel a year while achieving significant reductions in particulate matter, nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide. Three years later the Campbell Foss will be retrofitted from a conventional Dolphin-class tug to a hybrid propulsion system. Also in 2009, Foss pioneers a new route through a never-before commercially traversed 45-mile stretch of the Columbia river to deliver a fully constructed 190-ton turbine to Revelstoke, Canada.

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2013: alaskan expansion

Foss’ activity in the North Slope of Alaska continues to grow in the summer of 2013 when two ocean-going tugs and two shallow-draft tugs deliver four oil tank modules to a remote development site near Point Thomson. It was the first assignment for one of the shallow-draft tugs, the Emmett Foss, fresh from completion at Foss Rainier Shipyard. Foss will participate in a second, larger sealift of modular components for the Point Thomson project that will set sail from South Korea in the summer of 2015.

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