It comes as little surprise that Tacoma’s most famous aquaphobic lived and worked on the water. Most that fear the water wouldn’t choose to dwell in a house boat; they wouldn’t marry a boatwright; they wouldn’t start a boat renovation business; and they most certainly wouldn’t create the largest tugboat company west of the Mississippi. Thea Foss was not your standard aquaphobic.
Shortly after husband Andrew’s love of the sea brought them to live in a Tacoma houseboat, Thea was bedridden for two months with typhoid pneumonia. Her guts told her not to trust the ocean. She thought it best to keep her children away from open waters. The roots of her story start with an unwillingness to succumb to inner fear. They are emblematic of Tacoma’s great spirit.
Thea Foss took a $5 purchase of a rowboat and turned it into a nautical empire. Through hard work and cunning vision, she turned that rickety boat into a company that operated 200 rowboats in Tacoma. Keeping with the times, Foss Maritime’s fleet grew to be mostly tugboats, growing beyond the shores of Commencement Bay to operate throughout Puget Sound and the San Francisco Bay Area. Foss Maritime is not just large, but award winning. In 2008 they took home a US Coast Guard award for their environmental efforts. Now owned by Saltchuk, the company’s origin story is the story of Tacoma shipping and particularly of Thea Foss.
Thea and Andrew Foss saw opportunity and seized it. Her defiant spirit shows up often in her history. Fear of water? Live in a house boat. First generation immigrant from Norway? Become a powerbroker in the late-19th century. Notice a declining trend in “recreational row boating?” Start a tugboat company.
There are certainly hardships in Thea Foss’s story, but the overall arc is someone who took every adversity and turned it into opportunity. Her legacy is recognized in the naming of the Thea Foss Waterway, Foss Maritime, and Foss Peak. In many ways her legacy is modern Tacoma, the 5th largest shipping port on the West Coast of the United States.
She inspired the story of Tugboat Annie, but Finding Thea and Det andre landet (The Other Country) are more accurate portrayals of her legacy. The Foss family extended beyond the waters and throughout the region. From the stands of Cheney Stadium, you can see Henry Foss High School, named after Thea’s son. Henry took over the namesake company and continued to grow the clout of Foss Maritime.
A few years after her passing, the Foss family commissioned a yacht built in Thea’s honor. That yacht was the only one built by Foss Maritime, an appropriate honor for the singular Thea Foss. The yacht still operates to this day.
A superyacht also bore Thea Foss’ name. This 120-footer took many names over the years, starting out as the Polaris and redesignated as the PYc-6/Amber while used by the US Navy during World War II. After the war, the superyacht was sold to its original owners who named it the Thea Foss.
It is wholly appropriate that someone so afraid of the water could be called the Mother of Tacoma shipping. The Salish Sea, the Puget Sound, Commencement Bay, and the Narrows require someone who will not only persevere fear, but also preserve and respect its power. Sailors and boaters honor their sea-home. An aquaphobe knows to honor the waters. In Thea’s case, that fear and deference became her defiant purpose. Tacoma’s defiant spirit demands something of the people who become leaders here. Both on land and at sea.