Coming around Land's End on the Homer Spit last week, the M/V Tustumena sailed in on a flooding tide, 5-foot seas at her stern. She swung hard to port, heeling slightly, as Capt. Bob Crowley turned the Alaska Marine Highway System ferry toward the Pioneer Dock before the swift waters swept her up Kachemak Bay.
Standing on the fly bridge and looking distinguished in his dress uniform, Crowley deftly guided the Trusty Tusty in. With a blast from the ship's horn, Crowley made his last docking. On a blustery May Day, he closed out a 36-year career with the state ferry -- all of it on the same ship.
After the ferry tied up, Crowley stood by the well-worn wheel on the bridge, reflecting on his career. A native of the Seattle area, he started out working on oil industry service ships in Cook Inlet and the North Slope. At age 23, just out of college from Western Washington University, Bellingham, Crowley was camped on the Homer Spit at the end of April when he saw the Tustumena. He asked about how to get a job, went to Seward to sign up and on May 27, 1976, started work as an ordinary seaman.
"It was just right at the time. I sort of took to it," Crowley said. "The water and Alaska -- that combination got in my blood."
Over the years he worked his way up the ranks, eventually getting his able bodied seaman and then masters license. In 1997 he became captain, heading the B officers crew and sharing command with Capt. John Merrill. Although he works for the Alaska Marine Highway System, Crowley said his focus has always been on the Tustumena.
"It's the best thing going," he said of the ferry that serves Alaska ports from Homer to Dutch Harbor. "She's done everything we've asked her to do. She gets us through."
Crowley got one last taste of that this week when the Tustumena ran into 40 knot winds coming from Kodiak to Seldovia -- "a little kiss goodbye from the Barrens," he said, referring to the Barren Islands at the Kennedy Entrance into Cook Inlet.
Crowley spoke as highly of the Tustumena's crew.
"I'll miss the people. There's a good ethic on the ship," he said.
As an example, he mentioned one woman standing watch on the passage from Kodiak who had a rough time, but who stuck it out and punched every clock on her watch.
"Everybody's working together," Crowley said. "We've all got the same mission: safety and reliability, getting people from A to B."
Officially, Crowley won't retire until Aug. 1, a few days before his 60th birthday. He'll use up some leave until then. After that?
Well, there's this lovely Scottish lass, Judith Williamson, a passenger on the Tustumena he met years ago. Now married, he and Judith live in Anchorage with their two children, a boy and girl ages 10 and 12. They plan to return to Scotland and live in North Berwick, a sea port on the North Sea east of Edinburgh.
"It will be quite a while until the dust settles, and I realize I'm retired," Crowley said. "As much as I love it, I'm looking forward to something else."
Michael Armstrong can be reached at email@example.com.