Capt. Shane Fitch
Captain Profiles

Capt. Shane Fitch, Harbor Towing & Fleeting

“My grandmother had 19 kids, and 12 of them were boys. They all ran tugboats, including my father. All my uncles ran boats, and some of them still do.”

To say Shane Fitch, captain aboard New Orleans-based Harbor Towing & Fleeting’s mv. Wendy C,  has a family legacy in the maritime industry is an understatement. He grew up around it. So much so that, when his first-grade teacher asked him and his classmates what they wanted to be when they grew up, Fitch said he wanted to be a captain.

“I think I was just saying it because my dad, my uncles and my grandfather did it,” Fitch said. “Over the years, I think it just set in that this was what I really wanted to do.”

And so, when Fitch reached the age of 18, he went to work as a deckhand for Delta Towing Company, a subsidiary of Edison Chouest Offshore. A quarter century ago, Fitch said, the path to the wheelhouse was a little different that it is today. After two years on the deck, during which he accumulated a year of sea time, he went to Fletcher Technical Community College in his hometown of Houma, La.

“The instructor was an old captain named Speedy, who was well known out here,” Fitch said.

After that 21-day course of study, which included the rules of the road, meeting arrangements, building tow, lighting, plotting course, decking, radar and firefighting, Fitch was able to apply for and receive an unlimited master of towing license.

“Back then, you’d just get your license and go,” he said. “The process is a little different now. It’s better for the guys now who get two years of training.”

With Delta Towing, Fitch initially worked in the oil field offshore.

“But I wasn’t into the rocking and rolling all the time offshore, so I moved to the inland towing side,” he said.

By the time the oil and gas industry slowed down in the mid-2000s, one of his uncles had bought a couple towboats, which were doing contract work for Higman Barge Lines, pushing tank barges between refineries on the Gulf Coast.

“I was a natural fit for it,” he said.

After that stint working for his uncle, Fitch then moved to LeBeouf Bros. Towing, which allowed him to expand his area of expertise in a big way.

“We would go up with empties to a dock in St. Louis, where we’d load sweet crude,” Fitch said. “I was able to learn all the way up to Lemont-Chicago.”

Another run went from Lemont, Ill., down to the Ohio River, then up to a Marathon Petroleum dock just off the Ohio in Catlettsburg, Ky. With LeBeouf, Fitch got to see the Upper Mississippi, Lower Mississippi, Ohio, Illinois and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW).

“We covered a lot of ground,” he said. “At that time, I was anxious to learn everything I could, so sometimes I’d spend two months on the boat at a time.”

Also during part of his time at LeBeouf, Fitch’s boat would transport barges between IMTT St. Rose, just above New Orleans, and Mobile, Ala., going through the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal Lock (IHNC) to get to the GIWW.

“When we would do that run, we’d use Harbor Towing and Star Fleet a lot because they would help us trip through the lock,” Fitch said.

Harbor Towing & Fleeting has been providing barge fleeting and tripping services in the Crescent City for close to 54 years. The company’s Star Fleet is located on the west bank of the Mississippi River in Algiers, a short distance from both Algiers and IHNC locks.

Fitch said, while he loves what he does, the hardest part for him is being away from family. Early in his career, just calling home during a hitch was a challenge.

“I remember when I used to have to walk, sometimes miles, to a pay phone just to tell my wife hello,” he said.

Fitch said the support of his wife, Bernadette—and the fact that many of his family members work in the industry—has been a blessing.

“I think my biggest supporter is my wife,” Fitch said. “Having her to be there and take care of things at home has been a big comfort for me.”

Fitch said he faced a big decision point when his wife was pregnant with their daughter because he knew that working on the boat would mean missing a lot of time at home. With his wife’s full support, though, he stuck with it. Being away from home wasn’t easy, but with phone calls, photos sent by text and FaceTime, and as his wife described to their daughter his work on the boat, Fitch was able to stay connected and watch his daughter grow.

“Me and my daughter talked a lot throughout the years when she got old enough to talk on the phone,” Fitch said. “It was fun watching her grow. She was always doing something different when I’d get off the boat. I’d say, ‘Man, when did you learn that?’”

Over time, making crew change in unpredictable and, oftentimes, remote parts of the country wore on Fitch, and he and his wife began hoping for a job closer to home. As it turns out, Harbor Towing & Fleeting in New Orleans had an opening for a captain. Fitch applied and was hired. October of last year marked his fifth anniversary with Harbor Towing. For the last three years, Fitch has been lead captain aboard the mv. Wendy C.

Fitch said one of the things he enjoys most about his job is training the next generation of wheelmen. On the Wendy C, one of his deckhands is about three months into Harbor Towing’s apprentice mate program. Over the years, he’s also had the chance to train a good number of cousins over the years.

“I enjoy seeing them go through the process like I did,” he said.

He also enjoys the essential work of guiding vessels through the New Orleans harbor, with its high traffic, sharp bends and close quarters.

“When they call for an assist boat, my thing is for them to have that comfort,” Fitch said. “You guide them in the right direction, and it’s like a breath of fresh air for them. That’s the thing I like the most, always helping. I’ve gained a lot of friendships from it, and people remember when the Wendy C helped out when they needed it.”