Pacific Maritime Magazine - Marine Business for the Operations Sector

Westar Marine Services


Started with just one tug offering marine towing services in San Francisco Bay, today Westar Marine boasts a fleet of more than 40 vessels providing towing and ship assist, construction support and crew transportation among many other waterborne services. Photos courtesy of Westar Marine.

Strong family values, long-term employees and an old-fashioned work ethic have been the backbone of Westar Marine Services for the past 40 years. Buzz Heffron who founded the company in 1976 and passed away in 1985, left a lasting legacy that continues today with his daughter Wendy Heffron-Morrow at the helm as Vice-President and Secretary alongside President and CFO Mary McMillan.

The company started with just one tug offering marine towing services in San Francisco Bay, and today Westar boasts 17 ocean-going, escort, pushboats and Harbor tugs, six twin-screw steel and aluminum water taxis and 18 flat deck barges. This equipment is used for a variety of services that set Westar apart as a diverse, multi-service company offering marine construction support, ship assist, barge and tanker escort, stores delivery, water taxi service, offshore towing, specialty barge services, hazmat transportation and warehouse services.

Initially located at a downtown San Francisco office location in 1976, Westar moved to Pier 46B on China Basin as the business began delivering ship stores to anchored vessels. In 1983, the company took on passenger transportation after purchasing its first water taxi, and construction towing was added into the mix in 1987 when the company bought the major assets of Safeharbor Marine Services. Subsequently, Westar moved to Pier 50, Bldg. C in 1997 where it is still operates today (the facility is the only San Francisco Bay US Coast Guard security-approved loading facility for explosive fireworks shows, for which Westar provides tug and barge services).

Westar has worked on several large bridge construction and retrofit projects since the late 1990s that have included seismic retrofits of the San Mateo, Benicia Bridge, Richmond-San Rafael, Bay Bridge West Span and Carquinez bridges as well as the new construction of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge Skyway E2/T1 foundations, and Bay Bridge Self Anchored Span, the George Miller Bridge, and most recently, the SR520 floating bridge project in Seattle.

Named the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge, the new construction that started three years ago for the Washington State Department of Transportation should be wrapping up at the end of this year. During construction, Westar was responsible for barging huge 360-foot long bridge pontoons to the work site as well as performing gravel moves and concrete pours. There are plans to demolish the old bridge by the end of next year, and Westar will be involved in that phase as well.

The 520 bridge project was one of the driving forces for Westar to open two additional locations in Seattle in 2012, on Lake Union and near the port of seattle's Harbor Island cargo facilities. The company has also been moving fuel barges in the region for the US Navy to its regional facilities as well as for a local oil company.

"As customers look to us for any kind of work, we'll modify and change boats accordingly," says Mary McMillan. "We're modifying the fleet, especially in Seattle where we need higher wheelhouses." The 69-foot tug Bearcat used for offshore towing was significantly retrofitted last year, and bin walls were added to one of the barges in order to move aggregate.

Shallow Draft Expertise

Westar also lighters sand and aggregates off ships that come into San Francisco Bay and transports the cargo to a concrete plant in Redwood City, where built-in conveyor belts on the barges unload it. The 71-foot Mudcat, a converted landing craft, provides some very shallow cargo transportation work, and has worked primarily on bridge projects in the San Francisco Bay area – part of the shallow/tight maneuvering special expertise Westar offers. "It's a niche market we're in," explains McMillan. "Because not every captain can work in the kind of constricted environments that some of these barges have to go into."

There is also a lot of activity in Anchorage Nine, the region below and south of the Bay Bridge. "That's where the tankers anchor as well as containerships at times," says McMillan. "They'll sit there to get all their supplies delivered to them because they can't have them delivered to the refinery. We're in an ideal location for that, and we've been here at two different locations for the last 40 years."

All of Westar's vessels are equipped with the latest radar, computers and AIS technologies, and captains can be connected to weather forecasts and navigation information as well as supply the office with their time cards and boat logs. On the safety front, Westar has employed a full-time safety officer since the late 90s who carries out daily safety orientations with vessel and barge crews.

Safety culture is taken very seriously, and the in-house training and safety mindset of each employee is critical. In fact, you could say the company's safety motto is: "We expect to maintain efficiency in our daily operations by doing every job safely and correctly the first time and every time." Additionally, company vessels have received 36 Jones F. Devlin Awards for safety, and employees and vessels have been awarded US Coast Guard commendations and awards for lifesaving. Westar is also actively involved in numerous maritime community initiatives such as being a long time member of the San Francisco Harbor Safety Committee, taking the first barge seat in 1994.

The company also performs all its own maintenance and engine rebuilds on its fleet with its onsite welding shop and diesel mechanic group at its San Francisco location. "It's a big fleet and a lot of hours for our shop guys. They are an amazing crew and so are our boat crews," says McMillan. "They're all very professional and skilled at their craft."

In 2012 Westar opened two additional locations in Seattle to support the company's contracts with the Washington Department of Transportation and the US Navy. Photo courtesy of Westar Marine.

Being a women-owned tug and barge enterprise hasn't really ruffled any industry feathers, according to McMillan, but it is still a rarity. "When we [Westar] first started, women in the industry were few and far between, but it has changed and now there are a lot of women who attend the California Maritime Academy. We hire many students for the stores crew here. I think the combination of being family and women-owned is interesting. Both our husbands work in the company as well but the day-to-day operations are handled by Wendy and me."

The Westar family even gets together once a month for a barbecue, a tradition McMillan says began last year and has helped everyone get to know each other better as the company grows. Many of Westar's staff have been with the company since the 90s. "We are lucky," says McMillan. "We've been able to find people who are very good at their craft."

What's the future look like for Westar? McMillan says the Seattle operations will continue to expand and Alaska may be the next place to add more service offerings. "That seems to be the next logical progression."


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