The Great Lakes Towing Company marks another delivery and eyes an electric future

Minnesota assists the U.S.-flagged bulk carrier Sam Laud down the narrow and winding Cuyahoga River near downtown Cleveland.
Minnesota assists the U.S.-flagged bulk carrier Sam Laud down the narrow and winding Cuyahoga River near downtown Cleveland.
Minnesota assists the U.S.-flagged bulk carrier Sam Laud down the narrow and winding Cuyahoga River near downtown Cleveland.

Minnesota | The Great Lakes Towing Company, Cleveland, Ohio

The Great Lakes Towing Company’s multiyear fleet renewal program took another step forward in late 2023 with delivery of the 64-foot Minnesota.

The 2,000-hp tugboat is the eighth delivery in the 10-boat Cleveland class that went under construction in 2017. Each tug is built using the Damen Stan Tug 1907 Ice platform, which has proven itself in the Great Lakes and in ports around the world. 

Minnesota features the same hull as its predecessors but is the first to be equipped with Cummins QSK38 main engines. These mains replace MTU engines that occupied a slightly smaller footprint, requiring modest changes to the engine space. 

“They are dialed in to the type of work we face in Cleveland or Chicago or Detroit,” Jeff Hubach, assistant fleet captain for Great Lakes Towing, said of Minnesota and its sister tugs. “We have a lot of very narrow places to work. The Cuyahoga River gets really narrow in certain points and having a vessel that is 64 feet in length but still packs 2,000 horsepower is the perfect combination.”

Minnesota and its sister tugs in the Cleveland class typically tow ships using a soft line connected to its aft H-bitt.
Minnesota and its sister tugs in the Cleveland class typically tow ships using a soft line connected to its aft H-bitt.

The Towing Company, as it’s long been known across the Great Lakes, dates to 1899 when the effects of the Second Industrial Revolution were taking hold across the United States. For generations, it ran a fleet of single-screw “G” tugs powered by steam engines that were later replaced with World War II-era diesels. That once-prodigious fleet of G tugs now numbers around 20.

The remaining G tugs generally operate in lower-volume ports, such as Duluth, Milwaukee or Buffalo. The eight Cleveland-class tugboats, meanwhile, operate in the larger ports of South Chicago, Detroit, Toledo and Cleveland. It’s not clear where the final two tugboats in the Cleveland class, expected in 2024 and 2025, will work.   

Great Lakes Towing is already planning a new tugboat series to continue fleet renewal efforts. Company President Joe Starck expects to transition to all-electric propulsion for the next new series, which also will use the Damen 1907 Ice hull. He envisions a battery-electric propulsion system supplemented by generators that supply hotel loads and emergency power. 

“We are working on the design now, but we are finding that the battery technology is still evolving quickly. In terms of battery requirements, we think the Damen 1907 is a good size for electric propulsion,” Starck said in an interview this spring. 

“We expect everything else would basically be the same. The same nozzles, shafting, propellers, rudders, etc., and same bollard pull,” he continued. 

Great Lakes Towing is working with Canal Marine & Industrial, located nearby in Ontario, Canada, on the electric propulsion package for the upcoming series. The two companies previously partnered for the electrical systems on the diesel-electric hybrid tugs Michigan and Pennsylvania, which featured a FlexaDrive system from Logan Clutch. Corvus Energy would provide the lithium-ion battery package for the new tugboat series. 

The project is currently in the engineering stage, and efforts are underway to ensure the propulsion system has the necessary power and endurance. While most of the company’s ship-assist work happens within relatively compact ports, emergency tows on the more distant Lakes or transits to neighboring ports require a flexible propulsion package. 

“We’re getting into engineering now and hopefully will have everything ready to go within 18 months,” Starck said.

Keeping the same Damen hull for the next series has numerous benefits. For one, it continues with the ongoing standardization of the fleet — a model that served the company well for generations. It also recognizes how crews at Great Lakes Shipyard have mastered construction over the last seven years. 

“Not only have we become more efficient at building these hulls, but that learning curve has paid back dividends,” Starck said. “If we can keep building the same hull and only change the internal foundations, framing or bulkhead locations … we foresee continued efficiencies during the steel phase. Our team knows what they are doing. They have been working together since we started building these in 2017.”

Although the company expects to pursue electric propulsion, it also is exploring putting engines that meet EPA Tier 4 emissions standards into the compact Damen tugs. The size of the selective catalytic reduction (SCR) units necessary to meet Tier 4 standards makes that application much more challenging. Some newer Tier 4 engine designs are more compact and might fit in the Damen 1907 hull, Starck said. 

Keeping the Damen hull design for the new series acknowledges another reality: The tugs have proven themselves time and again over the last seven years. Hubach said the Cleveland-class tugs can nearly match the performance of a z-drive tugboat, despite having a conventional powertrain that includes propellers and nozzles. 

“If you needed to turn in a really tight space with minimal overhead clearance and stern clearance, one of these Damen tugs can pretty much spin on a dime in place,” said Hubach, who graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point and later ran z-drive tugs for a decade in Philadelphia. 

Captains also have gotten used to the new tugs after some initial reluctance. One benefit of the G tugs was their simplicity. On most vessels, captains stood in the sparse wheelhouse and operated with a tiller to control the tug. The G tugs were older, longer and slower to respond, but they got the job done and captains were familiar with their quirks.  

The Cleveland-class tugs began winning converts soon after they arrived in port. They are at least 15 feet shorter than most of the company’s older tugs, offer between 800 and 1,000 more horsepower, and are far more maneuverable than the single-screw G tugs.

“If you interview every captain we have now, they are going to say they prefer these tugs 10 times out of 10,” Hubach said. “As far as day-to-day harbor work goes, the captains would agree … the new twin-screw is without a doubt better for what we do.”

Minnesota is the first tug in the Cleveland class with Cummins main engines.
Minnesota is the first tug in the Cleveland class with Cummins main engines.

While all eight tugs in the series are sister vessels, each is a little different in its own way. The Cummins QSK38 main engines represent the most significant change from Indiana, which was delivered in late 2022, but not the only one. Minnesota has two John Deere generators, while Indiana used Kohler gensets — a change driven by the unsettled supply chain over the last couple years, according to Jon Leivo, the company’s vice president of engineering.

Accommodating the Cummins engines, which are roughly a foot longer than the MTU engines, necessitated modest reengineering of the space. Differences in engine speeds required tweaks to the Twin Disc gear ratio. But the Cummins mains also came with unexpected benefits, such as quicker installation. 

“Certain things were easier with the new equipment. For instance, the Cummins control panel and Cummins display panels in the helm were much simpler to install and just much simpler to deal with,” Leivo said. 

Minnesota, like its seven predecessors, features a split-level interior that maximizes its small footprint. Upon entering from the aft deck, you can walk up to the wheelhouse or down to a small galley and lounge with a full head. These tugs are used primarily as dayboats but have berthing for four people in the bow. The engine space is aft of the galley. 

The wheelhouse offers much-improved visibility compared to the G tugs, as well as a table to sit at during downtime. The tugs are equipped with modern navigation and communications equipment from Furuno and Icom. 

The Cleveland-class tugs typically tow off the stern, with a soft line from the ship connected to a towing bitt on the aft deck. There are no winches, but each tug has a DMT Marine electric capstan. Schuyler Cos. supplied the soft-loop fendering around the bow that provides added cushion against a ship. 

For now, Minnesota remains in Cleveland for a brief breaking-in period. As of early April, it had already performed a handful of ship-assist jobs, including assisting an articulated tug-barge down the winding Cuyahoga River and a dead-ship tow at an Erie, Pa., shipyard. 

“It was really nice to have it out there,” Hubach said. “For a dead-ship move, having a twin-screw tug — and especially a new twin-screw — makes the job a little smoother.”