CAPT. JOSEPH BISSO | Bisso Towboat Co., Luling, La.

Capt. Joseph Bisso powers down the Lower Mississippi River during spring high water.
Capt. Joseph Bisso powers down the Lower Mississippi River during spring high water.

Bisso Towboat brings another ASD ship-docking tug to the Mississippi
Working ships along the Mississippi River is not the same as the friendly, confined harbors found in many coastal cities. Bisso Towboat Co. of Luling, La., has put its faith in a series of azimuthing stern drive (ASD) tractor tugs that have worked the river faithfully since 1999. 

The latest vessel in that nine-tug series originally designed by Castleman Marine and built by Main Iron Works is Capt. Joseph Bisso. The 100-foot tugboat is named for the company founder, who launched the business in 1890 in New Orleans. 

Capt. Joseph represents an evolution in the design and outfitting of the series. Scott Slatten, the company president, said each successive tug builds on the successes of the last. 

“Nowadays people are asking more and more for ASD tractor tugs, but they are also asking about environmental stewardship. So the more Tier 4 boats we can get, the better off we will be,” Slatten said in a recent interview. “That is a question that comes up when I am in customers’ offices in the U.S. and abroad: What are we doing for emissions?”

“Until the industry can come up with an ASD tractor tug that is battery- or hybrid-powered that can successfully operate on the Mississippi River, the best we can do now is Tier 4,” he continued. 

Engineer Blaine McNabb stands alongside a Cat 3516 main engine.
Engineer Blaine McNabb stands alongside a Cat 3516 main engine.

Capt. Joseph Bisso is the company’s second Tier 4 tugboat, after Andrew S., which entered service in 2019. The two vessels share the same 6,008-hp Caterpillar 3516E engines. While Andrew S. turned Rolls-Royce z-drives, Capt. Joseph is equipped with Schottel units. Bollard pull for the new tug is estimated at 75 tons.

Capt. Sean Fortier, who joined Bisso Towboat more than 20 years ago, was at the controls on a warm, sunny spring morning. He and three crewmembers got underway from a dock at mile 165, just upriver from the Zen-Noh Grain Corp. terminal near Convent, La. 

One of two Schottel z-drives.
One of two Schottel z-drives.

The job at hand was straightforward: Facilitate the seamless movement of ships in and out of the facility to load grains for export. The facility runs 24 hours a day. Downtime at the grain elevator equates to lost efficiencies and productivity.

Fortier said the ASD tugs have improved safety on the challenging Mississippi River, particularly during spring high water. “The maneuverability of these boats is unbelievable,” he said, while waiting for the New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association pilot to get underway on the loaded bulker Oshima Island. 

“You have more control of the ship with ASD tractor tugs,” he continued. “You are still at the mercy of mother nature, but you get to fight her a little bit with these boats. We can give the pilot what they need almost instantly, in any direction, with these boats.”

Ruben Dupre III, Bisso’s vice president of safety and quality, said the company has purposely stuck with a single, proven design. It allows for crews to move between vessels without retraining, and it reduces uncertainty for pilots. 

“It’s consistency and excellence with a Bisso tug,” he said. “When the pilots order a boat they know what they are going to get. These particular boats are able to assist ships in and out both safely and on time.”

With Cecilia B. Slatten, Bisso Towboat put the first ASD tractor tug into service on the Lower Mississippi River in 1999. What seems like a no-brainer in 2022 was a bold move at the time. There were questions about how the z-drives would perform in challenging conditions and what debris might do to the drives. 

Bisso Towboat has had no doubts about its z-drive fleet, which is the largest on the Mississippi. The general 100-by-38-foot design has remained the same since Alma S. left the shipyard in 2006. Engines have changed and become more powerful. Bollard pull has risen in tandem. More recently, the design was updated to accommodate EPA Tier 4-rated engines and aftertreatment. 

Greg Castleman of Castleman Marine said the original hull form for the nine tugs was adapted from plans for Millenium Maverick (formerly Kinsman Venture), built in 1996, and now operated by a Saltchuk subsidiary. The hull shape for the Bisso boats remains the same all these years later. 

“The boats were designed from the outset with greater freeboard than other ASD tugs of that era,” Castleman said, noting that it allowed Kinsman Venture to perform more indirect towing. It also increased the safety envelope for tugs working on the Lower Mississippi River. 

“The 38-foot beam of the original design was set to provide sufficient clearance between the z-drives to minimize interaction between the units during indirect maneuvers,” he continued. “These two features — increased freeboard and beam — have allowed the boats to be fitted with 50 percent more horsepower than the original (Bisso Towboat) vessels and still meet current stability standards.”

Although the outfitting is fairly standard for a hard-working ship-assist tug, there is plenty of innovation built into these tugs. Keel-cooled air conditioning, for instance, has been standard since the 2012 delivery of Michael S. The diesel exhaust fluid tanks are located within the ballast tanks to keep the product cool and save space in the engine room. 

Placing a second head in the mudroom between the crew space and the aft deck has been a hit with crews. Main Iron Works, a longtime Bisso Towboat partner, added a touch of its own with a custom-built grill on the aft deck between the exhaust stacks. 

Main Iron Works installed a grill on the aft deck.
Main Iron Works installed a grill on the aft deck.

Capt. Joseph Bisso’s interior has a galley and crew lounge on the main level, with four cabins forward accessible from a short staircase. The engine room below deck contains the Cat 3516 main engines and their related selective catalytic reduction (SCR) units. Two Cat C4.4 engines generate 118 kW of electrical power. Capt. Joseph Bisso is the first tug in the series with Cat gensets. 

Engineer Blaine McNabb said those Cat units are quieter than the gensets on the other tugs. He praised the engine room layout for making key systems accessible. Easy-to-read gauges on the Schottel SRP 460 z-drives are another plus. 

Capt. Sean Fortier steers from the well-appointed wheelhouse.
Capt. Sean Fortier steers from the well-appointed wheelhouse.

The wheelhouse is almost a throwback with its custom wood paneling throughout, including the ceiling. The work takes a single carpenter almost two months to finish. The space is equipped with Simrad navigation electronics, including radar displays that hang from the ceiling, just above eye level. A third display shows the FLIR camera. Smaller displays indicating speed, weather and other information are built into the wood panels between the forward windows. 

Bisso Towboat has used JonRie winches since 2015. Capt. Joseph is equipped with a Series 240 escort unit wrapped with 500 feet of 3-inch Samson Saturn-12 line. Schuyler Cos. supplied the fendering to cushion impacts against the side of a ship. 

Fortier said the JonRie winch has been a nice addition to the fleet. The foot pedal has been particularly well received. It lets operators keep both hands on the sticks while running the winch. 

Before long, the loaded bulker was off the dock at Zen-Noh and well into the channel with help from Capt. Joseph, Alma S. and Cecilia B. Slatten. The 5.5-knot current helped push the bow around to face downriver for an outbound transit. 

The Bisso tugs hauled in their lines and headed back to Zen-Noh, where another ship waited to move into position at the terminal. The three tugs took their respective positions to help it along.