Donjon newbuild masters lake chop, canal shallows on maiden voyage

J. Arnold Witte exits Lock 17’s guillotine gate on the Erie Canal.
J. Arnold Witte exits Lock 17’s guillotine gate on the Erie Canal.
J. Arnold Witte exits Lock 17’s guillotine gate on the Erie Canal.

Tying up on the seawall in the Port of Oswego, N.Y., Capt. Charlie Riddick was pleased. The newbuild J. Arnold Witte — which he was delivering from Erie, Pa., traveling a portion of Lake Erie, transiting the Welland Canal and crossing Lake Ontario — had handled like a champ. The 78-by-26-foot tugboat negotiated 3- to 5-foot seas on the beam and stern with ease. 

“We were light on draft but stayed dry,” Riddick reported.  

Subsequent legs of the delivery took Donjon’s new tugboat through the Erie Canal, where late September rains had dumped silt and debris from countless feeder creeks, forcing the crew to travel slower than expected on that portion of the voyage from Donjon’s Erie shipyard to its saltwater base in Port Newark, N.J.

Riddick reported that with the boat’s 9-foot draft, he was often pushing through alluvium building up on the canal bed. Ultimately, he found that running only the center wheel of the triple-screw boat worked better than running all three wheels or only the outside ones.

Boksa Marine Design provided the design for the boat and handled the engineering work. Nick Boksa, president of the firm, described J. Arnold Witte as a hybrid design, a blend of features determined by near-coastal and inland river conditions. The large push knees are similar to those on inland river boats.  

“She’s designed to be a workhorse,” Boksa said. “There’s nothing novel about the design. (It) is based on our analysis of Donjon’s existing vessels, although with improvements.”  

The boat can be ballasted and the wheelhouse lowered to get the air draft down from 17 feet 11.5 inches to 9 feet. Since the wheelhouse is expected to be in the raised position 90 percent of the time, Boksa reinforced it with guide rails that reduce swaying in strong winds. 

“We did this for operator comfort,” Boksa said. “We needed a stable wheelhouse when it was in the up position.” 

Riddick confirmed that this goal had been met.  As he put it, “The person at the helm in that wheelhouse wants to feel only movement with the hull, not independent sway.”

J. Arnold Witte took longer than expected to build. One factor was Covid-19. Donjon Shipbuilding & Repair (DSR) has a distinct focus and division of labor in winter in contrast with the rest of the year. Winter, mostly defined as the time the Soo Locks are closed, sees most of the Great Lakes fleet crowding into the region’s shipyards and harbors for repairs, upgrades and modifications. DSR adds 150 to 200 temporary workers to its 300-person workforce to complete these projects, but in 2020, Covid-19 meant that very few temporary workers came up to Erie. Work on J. Arnold Witte, therefore, was postponed while the full-time crew focused on servicing the overwintering boats.

J. Arnold Witte is rated at just over 2,400 horsepower. The propulsion chain consists of three Tier 3 Mitsubishi S6R2-Y3MPTAW engines linked to ZF 3350 transmissions, which spin three four-blade stainless-steel propellers. Each wheel is 66 inches in diameter with a 52-inch pitch. Electrical power (65 kW) is provided by two John Deere 4045TFM85 engines spinning Kohler 65EOZCJ generators.

Donjon Marine made some decisions based on regulatory requirements when finalizing the design of the new boat, said Capt. William Sullivan, manager of regulatory compliance and vessel repair. Sullivan said Donjon chose to install three 800-hp Tier 3 engines instead of two Tier 4, 1,200-hp engines. The EPA requires marine engines over 800 hp to meet Tier 4 emissions standards.

“We did not think the technology was evolved enough for installation of Tier 4 engines, with their related emission-control systems, in such a small towing vessel,” he said.

The delivery through the Erie Canal anticipated some of the boat’s future areas of operation, including the tidal creeks in and around New York City. According to Sullivan, J. Arnold Witte is based in Port Newark to support Donjon’s shallow water and inshore/river services. This includes in-house dredging, heavy-lift, construction and salvage work, along with contract work where the company transports various bulk commodities.

DSR is a 44-acre facility that provides more than 200,000 square feet of production space, including fully enclosed fabrication and assembly buildings and 4,000 linear feet of pier area. It is one of only two dry docks on the Great Lakes capable of handling 1,000-foot self-unloading bulk carriers. The dry dock measuring 1,250 feet by 120 feet by 22 feet (depth over sill) is used to build, repair, convert and repower ships. 

Last summer, DSR handled over two months of underwater hull repairs on USS Cod, a World War II submarine that has spent the past 62 years as a lakeside tourist attraction in Cleveland. The submarine’s 10 torpedo tubes were refurbished with ballast tank plating.

At the same time J. Arnold Witte was passing through via the Erie Canal on its delivery voyage, two new 250-by-54-foot barges, Witte 3301 and Witte 3302, made their way from DSR to Port Newark via the St. Lawrence Seaway and around Nova Scotia. J. Arnold Witte did not move them because they were too broad to fit through Erie Canal locks. 

Donjon Marine boats have long operated with a certified safety management system (SMS) under the ISM Code, so the transition to Subchapter M was an easy one. The company chose the American Bureau of Shipping as its third-party organization (TPO), and to ensure compliance, Donjon performed a gap analysis and drafted a comparison matrix to update its SMS accordingly. It also invested in new software to simplify the management of fleet safety and compliance, maintenance, personnel, purchasing and inventory.

Donjon Marine operates 11 tugs, of which nine currently have certificates of inspection (COIs). The remaining two are scheduled to be certified under Subchapter M prior to the U.S. Coast Guard deadline in July 2022. 

“As Donjon crews have become more familiar with using the Helm Operations software, we have expanded the capabilities of the overall system to simplify compliance with the ever-changing regulatory landscape,” Sullivan said. 

The biggest challenge regarding certification, he added, has been making sure the process continued during the pandemic. “Donjon has done its best to isolate our mariners to keep them safe while still surveying/auditing the fleet,” he said.

A few days after arriving in New York Harbor, J. Arnold Witte was doing what it was built for, moving muddy scows and huge crane barges and dredges around the port.