Skip to Content

Bay Pioneer Sails Back–112-Year-Old Crowley Maritime Returns To Its Roots (2004)

As printed in the San Francisco Chronicle June 19, 2004

By Pia Sarkar, Staff Writer

Crowley’s tugboat has come in.

After a 104-year presence followed by an eight-year absence, the Crowley Maritime Corp. is back in the Bay Area, offering a modest version of what it used to be.

Tom Crowley Jr., the company’s third-generation chairman and chief executive officer, has placed two tugboats in the Port of Oakland to guide container ships into the harbor. The move signals Crowley’s desire to reunite with the place that was his company’s home when it was founded in 1892.

“It’s great to be back in the bay,” Crowley said, taking a ride Friday afternoon with a small crew aboard the Tioga, a red-and-white tugboat.

In its heyday, Crowley Maritime was the oldest and biggest tugboat operator in San Francisco Bay, outperforming rivals in a fiercely competitive market. It also owned the Red & White fleet, a tour and commuter boat operation now run by the Blue & Gold fleet in San Francisco.

Over time, Crowley Maritime’s stronghold started to slip as more competitors entered the market. In 1995, the company sold its Red & White fleet. The following year, it pulled all seven of its tugboats from Bay Area waters and shifted its attention to more lucrative ports like Long Beach in Southern California and Puget Sound in Washington.

All this happened as Crowley Maritime found itself in the hands of a new leader. Tom Crowley Sr. died in 1994 at 79, leaving the company to his son, who was only 27.

The younger Crowley admits the job was daunting. “It happened much sooner than anyone expected,” he said.

It was under the younger Crowley’s direction that the company left the Bay Area. “It was a business decision that had to be made,” he said. “I had to force myself not to be emotional of the fact that this is where we started and we had to shut down.”

It was also Crowley’s decision to come back to the Bay Area, in part at the urging of his customers, including Maersk Sealand, one of the world’s largest container ship operators.

“We felt that it’s very important that we have a presence up and down the West Coast,” Crowley said.

Although the Port of Oakland is not as bustling as some other ports where Crowley Maritime remains focused, it is gaining ground. Improvements to the port are expected to attract more container ships, many of which sail from Asia carrying a growing volume of goods.

Five years ago, Crowley said, a typical ship used to transport between 4, 000 and 5,000 containers to the West Coast. These days, one might haul between 7,000 and 9,000 containers. As a consequence, container ships have become larger, and the Port of Oakland is learning how to accommodate them.

Crowley Maritime, in the meantime, plans a gradual return to the area. Rather than the 30 crewmen it used to employ in Oakland, it will have 10. Instead of the 10 or 15 people who used to provide shoreside support, there will only be three. And in contrast to the 200 people who worked at the corporate headquarters, there are 40.

“We’ve come back in a leaner way,” Crowley said.

Now 37, Crowley has learned many lessons over the years. “We’re a very different company than when we pulled out,” he said. “We’ve come a long way over that time to be more competitive.”

The company remains a venerable force in the tugboat industry worldwide. With more than $1 billion in annual revenue and more than 3,800 employees and 300 vessels around the globe, Crowley Maritime continues its work in linear cargo services; ship assist and escort; petroleum and chemical transportation; and salvage and emergency response.

For all the strides his company has made over the years, Crowley said it still feels good to return to the roots that his grandfather planted in the Bay Area.

“It’s also a relief because my aunt … was the most disappointed when we pulled the boats out,” he said. “I was very, very happy to tell her we were back.”