CAMPBELL RIVER – Every year 2.5 million cubic metres in logs start on their international journey to market with a push from Gowlland Towing Ltd. This Campbell River based business employs a fleet of 29 boats and approximately 50 people to herd logs along and across the inland sea
Although it floats under the radar, this highly successful operation does an estimated $15 million in annual contracts, ably filling its niche market. More than 90 per cent of their work is for the logging industry and involves transporting and storing the harvested logs, usually by water.
The company is currently owned by brothers Adam and Devin Sweeney, who grew up on the water. Their family lived on Stuart Island, a west coast logging community. Adam started working part-time on boom boats at 13 and never looked back. After graduating from high school in Campbell River, he continued his career on the water.
“That experience of growing up in a logging community on the west coast is the reason I love being out in the boat so much,” Adam said. He and his brother both love being on the water so much that their most recent joint vacation was a west coast fishing trip.
Both joined Gowlland Towing early in the company’s history. Founder Glenn Wheeler established the company in the early 1990s with a tug and a couple of boom boats. The new company was based in Gowlland Harbour on Quadra Island and was named for that harbour.
Adam started working for Gowlland Towing in 1992. His brother Devin, who is five years younger, joined the company a year later.
The two brothers took over the operation as of September 1, 2016. Handing off the operation to the brothers was a long-term plan but Glenn ‘sprung’ the date on them.
“Glenn sent us an e-mail on August 31, 2016 saying ‘Today’s my retirement day and I’m out of here,’ “Adam recalled. He noted that both he and his brother were well-prepared, having worked with Glenn and for the company for more than 20 years.
Wheeler had overseen substantial development of the company during those 20 years. “He did an incredible job building up the company,” Adam said. One of Wheeler’s unusual decisions was to make substantial investments back into the company. Instead of refurbishing and using older boats, as many companies did, he built several new, custom boats for his operation.
At first, the company was small. It started moving local log booms and did local towing with a limited fleet of three boats: a tug called the Gowlland Yarder and two boom boats.
“It just kept getting busier and Glenn kept adding boats and more people,” Adam recalled. The first addition to the initial three-boat fleet was a tug called the Victory 5. Then came the Gowlland Scout. By now, both Adam and Devin were working as captains. The company was also expanding into more remote work: towing log booms and handling bigger barge deliveries to remote logging camps.
As the company grew, Wheeler decided that it made more sense to build new customized boats instead of pouring money into maintaining older boats. The first new boat, the aptly named Inlet Wrangler, was a 1000 horsepower twin screw tug built in Campbell River.
“At the time, no one was building new boats,” Adam said. “But Glenn wanted to invest back into the company. We would get a new boat roughly every two years.”
Building new boats also meant increased reliability and speed for Gowlland’s clients plus improved safety for the crews. The new boats didn’t break down as often as older boats that were still on the water but past their ‘best by’ dates. “The marine environment is hard on the boats so in the long run, building new was good for the company,” Adam said.
The boats were built in BC, thus supporting local jobs and the local economy. Among the boats added to Gowlland’s steadily growing fleet was the largest tug, the 1700 horsepower, 65-foot long Inlet Crusader. At the other end of the scale were boats like the Rocky Defender, a tiny yarding tug used for small towing jobs. The fleet currently includes 29 boats, with an estimated value of $15 to $20 million.
Devin said his favourite boat is the one he happens to be operating. “We love our jobs. We love our boats. We have a lot of pride in our fleet.” Both brothers agree that their favourite part of the business is being out on the water, running one of their boats.
The administration side of the business is handled by Controller Raymond Dagenais and General Manager Danny Peel. Adam describes them as “top-notch – a huge asset to have around. The two look after us really well.” One initiative Peel instituted was a new database to track inventory.
Gowlland Towing covers a lot of water. Their boats travel from Port Hardy on northern Vancouver Island down to Nanaimo and across Georgia Strait to the Fraser River.
Pick up is provided to logging operations of all sizes. Sometimes the logs are sorted into booms-by-destination when picked up and sometimes collected as camp run bundles and sorted at the booming grounds. Depending on the composition, quality, and size of the logs, the wood is either exported, used locally, or diverted to pulp mills.
The work continues year-round although logging is sometimes slowed by snow or wildfires. There have been changes over the years, especially in safety and to address environmental concerns.
He points out that logging is a renewable resource. With more than 20 years’ experience along the coast, he can see the renewal first hand. “In some places where I know there were logging camps, you can’t see any sign of them. Nature heals it over – in 20 years you’re not even going to know someone was there.”
The province’s logging industry is strong and thriving, he says.
Devin said Gowlland Towing’s goal is to keep their successful business afloat just the way it is. “We like the way we are just now. It is going well and we’re still small enough to be personal.”