Skagit River's hazards considerable for tugboat captains

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MOUNT VERNON — A tug boat captain who helped bring a barge to the site of the Skagit River Bridge collapse Saturday night said the Skagit River's current is a "huge risk" to crews on the water.

"It's not a maintained channel. It's pretty much a natural river channel," Maia Halvorsen of Bellingham said Sunday.

She and other captains with Boyer Towing started surveying the channel for hazards at 7 a.m. Saturday. Tugboat captains entered the mouth of the Skagit River about 4 p.m. Saturday and arrived at the collapse site around midnight, Halvorsen said.

The crews can only bring barges up the river when the tide is high, and therein lies another dilemma: a risk of striking one of two more bridges on the way to the collapse site.

Crews navigated a barge underneath a bridge at Best Road and another under the West Mount Vernon bridge. Halvorsen, a tug boat captain for seven years, said the fit under the West Mount Vernon bridge was a tight one.

"We don't want to do any other damage to a bridge," Halvorsen said. "There were a lot of measurements."

Sunday, the crews did it all over again, but with smaller barges.

Boyer Towing is keeping tug boats on the barges full-time to keep the barges free of debris, she said.

"Logs and stuff wash down that river and a debris pile up on that barge can be a huge hazard," Halvorsen said.

The crew had hoped to reach the site earlier in the day yesterday, but the river's considerable current in that area slowed them down, she said. The area, which flood managers in Skagit County call the "three bridge corridor" is a narrow part of the Skagit River's channel, which causes an increase in water speed.

Saturday, Halvorsen piloted a skiff searching for underwater hazards to help the barge move upriver.

"We have a couple of captains," she said. "No one captain is running the show. We have one main tug, a smaller assist tug and then a work skiff with a fathometer checking depths."

Boyer Towing has offices in Alaska and Seattle.