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A Q&A with a Port Captain

Imagine giant cargo ships navigating busy ports— that's where Alex Irwin comes in. As a port captain for SAAM Towage Canada, Alex is not your typical sailor. Sure, he is a former Naval Officer with experience in navigation and diving but think of his main job today more like directing a high-stakes ballet at sea.


With the help of powerful tugboats, one of Alex’s prime responsibilities is to ensure massive ships maneuver safely in and out of the port, keeping our shelves stocked and our economy humming. But Alex is not just interested in getting the job done; he is also enthusiastic about protecting the oceans for future generations. Let us dive into Alex's world and learn more about this maritime leader!

Q: Can you please tell us a bit about yourself?
My name is Alex Irwin, and I am a port captain for SAAM Towage. SAAM Towage is one of the largest tugboat companies in the world. We assist ships with docking and escorting in narrow waterways. In British Columbia, where shipping is a major industry, we run a fleet of 28 vessels located from the southern areas of Vancouver to as far north as Prince Rupert and out west to Vancouver Island. SAAM Towage operates in 15 different countries worldwide and has been in business for about one hundred years.
Q: What is a Port Captain?
Well, I am an operations manager. In my role, I am responsible for leading our marine crew to ensure that the decisions that we are making day to day are in the best interest of our customers, our stakeholders, and the well-being of all our employees, and to consider what resources we have available to us. I work to develop and implement safety policies and procedures. I will act as an incident commander during emergency response and conduct investigations when things go wrong. A port captain guides and facilitates training for marine crew, supports their career development, competency evaluations, and their ability to be cleared up to operate our vessels.
Q: How did you begin your marine journey?
Every person's marine career starts in a unique way, and mine began far away from the ocean. I grew up in Toronto. At the time, my uncle had a little sailboat that he liked to take out on Lake Ontario, and as I got old enough to start being useful carrying things around, he started bringing me out to help with the boat. Over the years, I was a competitive swimmer, became a scuba diver, and just generally stayed in love with all things related to the water.

After high school, I decided to stay in Toronto and do a bachelor's degree in business administration. I always assumed I would end up working for a bank or an insurance company, but towards the end of the degree, I was still very much in love with the water, and I had done some traveling around to a few different parts of the world, and I was convinced that I had to live closer to the ocean. 

To do this, I began looking into the different programs that the Royal Canadian Navy had to offer, and I settled on a position as a naval warfare officer. This job involved being responsible for the safe navigation of a ship and felt just like the challenge I was looking for. However, applying to the Navy was an arduous process. It took about a year, and during that time there were several interviews, medicals, aptitude tests, and a lot of waiting. Still, once I received a job offer, the pace picked up quickly. I was off to basic training and eventually ended up posted to Victoria with the Pacific Fleet. There, I spent a few years going through training courses served aboard the HMCS Winnipeg, which is a Frigate, and went on to become a Navy diver. 
After I had completed my professional training and become a lieutenant, I decided to leave the military and move to Vancouver, and once there, I was able to parlay those experiences into a civilian operations role at SAAM. Here, I started learning about how the commercial side of port operations works, understood just how vital a role the shipping industry plays to the Canadian economy, and started growing professionally in the business. SAAM has offered a wide range of opportunities for me, and to date I have worked in logistics, safety, program development, regulation, and certification.
Q: How could one start their career path at SAAM Towage?
As an aspiring mariner, your path to SAAM Towage has a few different alternatives. I spoke about the office alternative, but if you would like to work on boats, the easiest first step is to enroll in one of the college programs at institutes like BCIT (British Columbia Institute of Technology) or the Western Maritime Institute. They offer a certificate program called the Bridge Watch Rating. This is the best program to take to start your marine career, and it will teach you the fundamental skills required to be safe on the water. These courses will give you the foundational experience and knowledge base that employers such as myself are looking for in potential applicants, and through that, you will eventually be able to apply to Transport Canada for a Small Vessel Machinery Operator (SVMO) certificate, which is the entry-level certification that you're required to have to work at SAAM Towage on the boats.

Your next step to joining SAAM Towage, after receiving this appropriate background education and this certificate, would be to apply for a position on board one of our vessels as a deckhand. Once you have begun working in that capacity, you will gain sea time towards future qualifications. SAAM Towage is going to support and fund your development for future courses in marine engineering and navigation certificates. Once you have been successful with these programs and passed them, you are able to advance and become an officer within the fleet, and maybe one day a captain of our ships.

Q: What education and/or qualifications do you need to do your job?
Alexander and his team conducting monthly safety drills
So, my role as an operations manager is going to require a business background, so my degree is in business administration, and that was the same requirement to take on a role as an officer in the military. There are many roles within the office where someone has come from the boats; they have risen through the ranks to an officer level within our fleet: a captain or an engineer, and then they have transitioned into project management roles in the office. So, there are a few different paths along which you can get there: school is the quickest way, and without school, it is through experience.
Q: What are the work hours like?
So, we are a 24-hour operation—shipping never stops! As an office person, I work bankers’ hours, which are your typical 9 to 5. However, when I fulfill duties such as incident commander or emergency response, sometimes I am working all through the night. Safety does not really have an off time!
Q: How much money does your career start with in the first year or when you are delving into entry-level?
So, everyone always wants to know how much money they are obviously going to make. I will tell you that the marine crew are in unionized positions, so they are quite competitive. When you start on board as a deckhand, you start at $45 an hour, and captains and engineers make $68 an hour. 
Q: What advice can you offer about a future in this career path?

Docking service being performed
So, it will seem like a lengthy process because you must deal with the government process of getting certified and registered, and there is a lot of hoops, but do not be intimidated by an extensive list of requirements. You know, the best way to take on a challenge like that is to just do one thing at a time. When you see ten different things that are needed to reach this goal, do not worry so much about the destination; focus more on the journey. What is the first task? How do I accomplish that? How do I learn something from that first task? You are not just checking a box; you need to walk the road.
Q: Can you share a challenging aspect of your role and how you overcame it?
People! So, the primary part of my job is interacting with people, and everybody is different, and everyone sees the world in a unique way. You need to learn to understand a lot of different situations and motivations. The more that you understand how you communicate with people and how you receive communication from people, the more malleable you will be. Your only chance to advance into complex scenarios is to learn how to communicate with others.
Q: How do you see your job changing in the next three to five years?
Automation! So, we have relied heavily on people power for the longest time, but as we start to get more information and as we start to automate our business we learn sometimes that the ways in which we do things aren't exactly the best ways to do them or that the fundamentals behind them are a bit flawed. So, when you come into safety and navigation, and when you learn more about hydrodynamics and some of the physics behind how water interacts with equipment, you start to realize that it really is a bit of a science. 
Q: Are there any important classes to think about or start taking in high school to meet the requirements to become a port captain?
Great question! Probably, your best opportunity is to be sound in math, physics, and business classes. You do want to have a solid understanding of those.
Q: Does SAAM Towage have internship opportunities available?
We do! So, it is very tough sometimes to get the sea time needed to get certain qualifications. We have an entire technical department that supports our fleet. If you are interested in the trades: being a millwright, a pipe fitter, a heavy-duty mechanic, and an electrician, all these trades exist within our corporation, and so we have an internship that is six months long. You spend three months working on the technical side, and you spend three months working on the boats, and that gives you a view of everything that SAAM Towage has to offer and allows you to head back into the world to get your qualifications and certifications or continue with employment out of the internship. Those programs are paid for as well.
Q: When does your internship program start?
We run it twice a year, so generally we will activate in the fall and then again in the winter, and they do overlap, so we will run between the different ports that we operate out of four to five internship opportunities per year.
Q: How important has mentorship been in your career journey?
Vital! You need to understand that you are going to make a lot of mistakes, and mistakes are okay. It is really helpful when you have a people-first leader supporting you, and they are okay with your mistakes and want to talk through them. If you cannot admit that you have done something wrong or that you might not be right about everything, you are not going to have people wanting to support you, help you, and teach you along the way. Rest assured, you know that if you are going to rise the ranks to any position of power, you will make a lot of mistakes along the way.
Q: What would you say is your greatest success?
Personal development, probably! There was a time when I thought that I needed to accumulate qualifications, get experiences, and learn to develop myself. There was a big gap between when I first finished a bachelor's degree and when I started realizing that education is a lifelong pursuit. As you start to work on yourself and develop how you interact with the world, you become so much more powerful.
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