Messing About in Boats: Captain Dave’s Legacy

I typically stick to writing about topics that pertain to military life, motherhood, food and nutrition, and local living. Today, however, it feels right to acknowledge a milestone in my family. Two days ago, my dad, otherwise known as Captain Dave, hopped in his pick-up truck and drove home from work for the very last time. The Marshall Tucker Band likely playing him home. It’s a rare thing these days, to work 48 years for the same company. And you know what? I don’t know a single person who truly enjoyed his job more than my dad. It was more than a job, it was a big part of his identity.


You see, my dad worked as a tugboat captain, bringing ships to and from the dock, towing barges, and doubling as a fire boat if needed. For many years, he worked alongside his dad, who was also a tugboat captain. Two of my dad’s brothers have been Puget Sound Pilots for nearly as long, navigating foreign ships through U.S. waters. When the timing was right, my dad would be on a tug assisting a ship with his brother at the helm. You can call it work, but maneuvering boats in a harbor is my dad’s idea of fun. My parents even named my sister after a boat in the Foss fleet!

A highlight of his career came in 1994 when he flew to Louisiana, the birthplace of the Garth Foss, the largest tractor tug in the world. He served as captain on the crew that brought the tug through the Gulf of Mexico, the Panama Canal, and up the West Coast to its eventual homeport of Bellingham, WA. The Garth has been his second home for 25 years, and although my dad isn’t that sentimental, I imagine it was a little hard to say goodbye.

Signs of changing times…my sisters and I used to scamper around the tires, running wild around the tug as kids. Nowadays, it’s hard hats and floatation devices for granddaughter visitors.

In the wheelhouse with the next generation.

Years ago, when the company eliminated the cooks on the boat, meal prep fell to the remaining five-man crew. I’m not sure how many captains in the fleet get their hands dirty in the kitchen, but my dad’s crew will surely miss his Dutch apple pies, chocolate cream pies, and scratch cheesecakes.


When I was a kid, I used to ask my dad when he was going to get a “regular” job like my friends’ dads, who went to work during the day and were home in time for dinner. My dad went to work for two weeks at a time, and then was home for two weeks. Every year, for 48 years. Whether at work or at home, my dad was fully present wherever he happened to be. So, on his time off, he coached my softball team, and always helped us with school projects. While we weren’t a military family, my childhood foreshadowed my life now as a Navy spouse in many ways:

  • Dad missed a lot of holidays and birthdays, and we learned to celebrate on random days, appreciating the years he was home on the actual day.
  • He could not get off the boat for school performances, graduations, and many people questioned this and could not understand, asking, “why can’t he just take vacation?”
  • Nautical lingo was my native tongue. I can’t remember NOT knowing the meaning of port, starboard, aft, bow, galley, head, or how to read a 24-hour clock.
  • He took us cruising any chance he could- fishing, pleasure boating, and out for tugboat rides- trust me, there is no better view on the 4th of July than being attached to the fireworks barge in the middle of the bay!
  • Reintegration happened once a month at our house, and included happy dinners out for Mexican food and my sisters and I reminding Dad that he wasn’t “captain” at home.

The Garth Foss

And while my mom was not a military spouse, she taught me everything I know about solo parenting before anyone could learn about it from the Internet:

  • When we were little and my dad was at work, unfussy dinners were a staple. She knew how to conserve energy in the kitchen!
  • The day he came home was cleaning day…she mowed the lawn, vacuumed the house, cleaned the bathrooms, and we were expected to have our rooms picked up by the time he drove up. Classic milspouse move right there.
  • Not one to wallow about missing her husband while he worked, Mom enjoyed her time and used it wisely- visiting with friends, doing her own thing, and tons of girl time with my sisters and I.
  • Reacting graciously to comments from acquaintances over the years who asked whether she was married because they never saw my dad. Seriously!


When my grandpa retired, the cake at his party read, “Take her on a Slow Bell, Cap” as a nod to an easy-going retirement. My grandpa continued to tinker on his pleasure boat, working on projects and cruising the Puget Sound for years after his retirement. I am positive my dad will follow suit. I’ve already heard his cruising plans that won’t be confined to a two-week increment, and you might even say he is giddy.

Maneuvering a pleasure boat in tight quarters is like a toy compared to the mammoth tug!

A more fitting phrase for my dad as I reflect on his legacy is this quote from Wind in the Willows as Mole and Rat are discussing life:

Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

Happy Retirement, Dad!