Summer for tractor launch operators means day after day at the beach

Posted: Sunday, August 08, 2004

For the young men and women who work at one of the state's most unique jobs, life is literally a day at the beach.

Rain or shine, wind or calm, they perform a vital service for the hundreds of anglers who take to the waters of Cook Inlet. It's a dirty, sweaty job, one that comes complete with long hours, foul-mouthed boat captains and even a tumble into the water every once in a while. But the workers who spend their summers at the Kenai Peninsula's tractor boat launch facilities wouldn't have it any other way. They like it rough.

There are two independent tractor launches on the peninsula Tractor Factor in Anchor Point and Marine Services in Ninilchik. The service they provide is a relatively simple one, yet extraordinarily important to the large halibut and salmon charter boats that operate throughout the summer.

That's because without tractors to back boats down into the surf, then pick the boats up again later, launching off the beach is no picnic.


One tractor pulls a boat to the water as another pulls a boat out on a busy afternoon on the beach in Ninilchik. Tractors have made it much easier for anglers to hit the surf from beaches in Ninilchik and Anchor Point.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Charter captain Stan Broyles has been fishing for fun and professionally out of Ninilchik for more than 30 years. While waiting to have his boat launched out to sea, Broyles talked about the importance of the tractor launch.

"You couldn't do it with these size boats," Broyles said.

When the tractor launches showed up a little more than a decade ago, Broyles said it enabled larger boats to get out, making it much easier for charter boat captains to operate out of places like Ninilchik, which has some of the best halibut fishing in the world but no marina.

"Everyone could change their idea of how to fish down here," he said.


Rust coats a tractor rim and undercarriage. Cook Inlet's silty, salty water is hard on the equipment.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The Ninilchik tractor launch is operated by John Hylen, owner of Marine Services. Hylen maintains a crew of half a dozen 20-something workers whose job it is to get skippers like Broyles out and back again. A lifelong Ninilchik resident, Hylen said that before the tractors came, fishing in saltwater out of Ninilchik wasn't really happening.

"There wasn't much of a marine fishery here," he said.

Having the large tractors back boat trailers into the water and pick them up again was a revolutionary idea pioneered more than a decade ago by the previous owner of the launch. Hylen said that before the tractor launches came along, people could get in a lot of trouble trying to back boats down the sandy beach.

"There used to be a lot of cars swamped," he said. "It made it a lot safer."


Cody Hatfield waits to secure an approaching boat before one of Marine Services' tractors pulls it to shore in Ninilchik. Hatfield is a "water boy," one of the workers who goes into the water between the boat and the tractor.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

On the surface, a tractor launch looks like a simple operation. When a boat arrives at the Marine Services parking lot, it's unhooked from the truck that towed it to the beach. A ladder is brought over to allow boat passengers to hop aboard and a launch employee hands the skipper of the boat a small wooden sign with a number carved on it.

A tractor then backs up to the boat, attaches to the hitch and drives down to the beach. The tractor driver then turns around and backs the boat into the water. Once the boat is floating in the surf, the tractor drives back up the beach, where the boat trailer is unhooked and left with a wooden sign identical to the one on board the boat. The process then repeats itself for as long as boats continue showing up at the launch.

That's only half the job, though. When the boats return, the whole process must repeat itself in reverse. A busy day at Marine Services could mean as many as 200 boats leaving and coming in. Because one tractor has to make a total of four runs up and down the beach for each launch and pick-up, Hylen said his workers are almost always busy. However, because he never knows how many boats will go fishing from day to day, the same small crew is responsible for taking care of the extra workload.

"You just work harder," he said.


Brie Leman looks for an approaching boat from Marine Services' office on the beach.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

That work is done mainly by two-person crews one tractor driver and one "water boy," whose job it is to make sure the boats get on and off the trailer correctly. The two must work together in order to make sure everything runs smoothly.

Usually, it does. Most of the launch workers are experienced hands who've been on the beach for at least a couple summers. In fact, the biggest problems that crop up usually involve boat skippers and rough water.

Water boy Cody Hatfield, 19, of Kasilof said there really isn't much to getting boats loaded on and off trailers. The most important thing for him, he said, is to make sure he's always paying attention to where he's at in relation to the tractor and the oncoming boats.

"You've got to watch your hands," he said.

Hatfield said when things get busy, it can get a little hectic around the beach, with nonstop running between tractors, trailers and boats. But he never really gets stressed out, he said. Instead, it's usually the impatient boat captains who can get riled up.

"It gets wild in the morning when it's really busy and they start backing up the hill," he said. "People can get pissed off."

When things start getting crazy, that's when the job is the most interesting. The employees of Marine Services all agree that the best time to be working the launch is when there's a bit of chop on the water. That's because when the water is rough, there's always something to see.

Tractor driver Kyle Hietpas has been working the beach for six summers. He said his favorite days are when the wind and tide are whipping the water up good enough to toss the boats around a bit.

"Those are the only fun days," he said.

Because the work is more interesting when it's more difficult, Hietpas said the crew generally prefers to work in bad weather.

"We like it rough," he said.

Fellow driver Neal Doane agreed. He said the launch workers sometimes find a bit of humor in the struggles of unseasoned skippers.

"Sometimes people completely miss their trailers," he said, grinning.

Rough seas can make it difficult on the water boy, but John Paul said that comes with the territory. He said his biggest mishap is the occasional stumble onto the beach.

"Sometimes I'm not paying attention and I just fall over," he said.

The driver and water boy are responsible for the loading and unloading, but their work wouldn't be possible without the help of the radio operator who works in the main launch facility building.

Ninilchik's Brie Leman has been working in the small office for five years now, sitting by the radio and listening as boat captains relay their positions to her. Because boats can stack up offshore pretty quickly when things are busy, most charter captains relay their position to Leman when they're still a couple miles offshore. This allows her to coordinate the pick-ups much like an air traffic controller lands planes.

For her, the bottom line is efficiency.


Gloves hang to dry above a stove in the office. Wrangling boats into and out of the surf can be hard on workers' hands.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"We try to get them out as quickly as possible," she said.

Not all boats call in first, however. Most private boats simply hold up their numbered wooden sign boards for Leman to spot with binoculars. Most of the time, this system works great. However, every once in a while a boat will pull up and be hauled out on the wrong trailer.

"It gets pretty wild down here," she said. "It can be stressful."

Leman's job also includes interacting with the customers, handing out the wooden numbered boards and collecting the $40 launch fee. She also picks up the small boards when the boats come back in. Almost always, she said, the boards end up covered in fish slime and scales.

"Everyone uses it as a (bait) cutting board," she said.

Despite getting back slimy numbered boards and having to deal with the occasional impatient captain, Leman said working in the office has been a great summertime opportunity.

"I love it," she said.

Like most of the Marine Services workers, Leman is going to college during the rest of the year. Hylen said that's not by accident. He prefers to hire workers who aren't looking to make work at the tractor launch a lifelong occupation.

"(Working at the tractor launch) really fits well with college. They can earn a pretty good dollar, and they're working seven days a week so they can really put them away," he said.

Paul said working at the launch is the best summer job he's ever had. A recent high school graduate, he's also planning to go to college in the fall and said getting the job at Marine Services was far better than any alternatives he had in Ninilchik.

"I was tired of working at the cannery," he said. "That's all the work there is around here."

Since the launch runs pretty much from sunrise to sunset, Hylen and his crew spend almost all their time on the beach. In fact, most of the drivers and water boys who aren't from Ninilchik sleep in bunk houses at the site. They almost never leave, except maybe at night to grab an occasional beer up the hill in town.

Living in such close proximity to one another means the workers don't have much choice but to get along with one another.

"When you're down here all summer, you have to," Hatfield said.


'It takes a different kind of person to work here. You can't really take off and go home.' - John Hylen, Marine Services Owner

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The long hours and demanding job isn't for everyone. Hylen said he tries to look for certain characteristics like patience and good humor when hiring new employees.

"It takes a different kind of person to work here," he said. "You can't really take off and go home."

Hylen said he likes the fact that the boat launch workers have a close-knit relationship. He said having a group of good kids around all summer is part of the reason he bought into the business.

"My wife and I don't have any kids, so they're kind of my extended family," he said.

The family atmosphere at the launch is easy to see. The workers constantly joke with and about one another, much like siblings in a large family.

Like any family, there's also a bit of yelling mixed in, but for the most part the workers are content to simply give each other a good-natured hard time. Hietpas said he believes the radio operators Leman and first-year employee Hannah George have the easiest job because they don't do much running around the beach.

"They only have to walk up and collect our money. That's not work," he said. "Flirting does not count as work."

"Hey, it works," Leman replied.

The workers do get tips from time to time, but all the money is split equally among the crew. Hylen said that kind of camaraderie is really what makes life at the tractor launch so much fun.

"They're a good bunch of kids," he said. "It's really like a big family."

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