ATB Sound Reliance: Articulate success

We took this combination bow-on into 25-foot seas with 14-second intervals outside of San Francisco,” said Capt. Tom Lenfestey of Marine Transport’s articulated tug-barge (ATB) unit Sound Reliance. “It rode really well, but what surprised us the most was how little water there was on deck.”

Sound Reliance enters First Narrows in Vancouver, British Columbia. The 126-foot, 9-inch boat pushes a 500-foot-long,155,000-barrel barge. The two vessels have a crew of eight.

As with the rest of the eight-person crew on Sound Reliance, Lenfestey is a big advocate of the ATB technology. “This is the way of the future,” he said. “Before this, when we pushed, we had heavy 2 1/4-inch wires to the winch, which limited our rudder power and the sea conditions that we could handle.”

Sound Reliance is the second of four ATBs (all of the tugs include Reliance in their names) that Marine Transport Corp., a Crowley company, has introduced over the past two years. The boat is 126 feet 9 inches long with a hefty 42-foot beam and a 22-foot molded depth. The 155,000-barrel barge, 550-2, is 500 by 74 feet with a 40-foot molded depth. With the tug in the 40-foot barge notch, the total unit is 587 feet.

That’s the length of a small coastal tanker like those common in Europe, but it is not a ship, Lenfestey explained. The significantly smaller crew allowed by regulations on a tug is the single-most striking difference. Sound Reliance operates with a crew of eight: captain, mate, second mate, engineer, cook-deck hand, a utility person and two AB tankermen-deck hands.

All of the crew noted a more subtle difference. Compared with the culture on a ship, Lenfestey said, “A tug’s crew is more of a family-type group. You don’t have trouble with constant crew change. You know what a guy can do, not just what he or his rank says he can do.”

There is very low turnover on these boats, and the two crews tend to stay as a unit, doing their regular 30 days on and off with the whole crew changing as a unit. AB tankerman Daniel Monjarres lives in New Orleans now, but he first came to the United States as Panama’s representative to a martial arts competition. He has spent time on tankers out of various ports, including nine years in the Persian Gulf. “This is very different from working on tankers,” he said. “Here the chief mate oversees, but the AB tankerman takes more responsibility in setting up the load and discharge system. If needed, the port captain will come to give assistance.”

As did most of the rest of the crew, Monjarres took the ship on its maiden voyage from the Halter shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss., in August of 2002. Before that, the two crews had extensive training at the shipyard in operation of the sophisticated barge equipment, including the inert gas system. In addition, all the crews attended dedicated inert gas and diesel engine classes to familiarize themselves with the operation of the equipment and machinery on the barge.

Capt. Tom Lenfestey is impressed with the way his ATB handles. The tug-barge combination is easier to control in rough seas and has a cruising speed of 12.5 to 13.5 knots.

On May 4, the tug and barge were alongside the city dock at Anacortes, Wash., with the inert gas system running. The barge’s 12 tanks were empty, and the system was generating inert gas that was then pumped into the cargo tanks to displace the air there until the oxygen levels were down to 5 percent, low enough not to support combustion. Once this level was achieved, the seals on all the hatches would be checked and a report made. When the system is inert, cargo can be pumped on and off until a cargo change requires that the holds be degassed. Unlike larger ships, the barge doesn’t have built-in cargo-hold washers. Portable units are used instead.

Sound Reliance had been moored to the city dock for several days, awaiting a cargo of gasoline from the nearby Cherry Point refinery. The whiteboard in the mess showed dinner that night to be Portuguese stew, courtesy of Azorian native and cook Danny Camara. He originally took the job to get sea time on an under-300-ton vessel to upgrade his master’s papers. However, he took a fancy to the comfort of the ATB, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to go back to conventional line towing.

In addition to dinner, the whiteboard showed the boat’s tentative schedule. They would load 25,000 barrels of gasoline at Cherry Point for Vancouver, British Columbia; after discharging that on May 8, they would load 25,000 barrels of a gasoline additive, in Vancouver, then return to Cherry Point for another 125,000 barrels of gasoline. The board showed the ATB in Los Angeles on May 14 and 15, where some cargo would be discharged and other cargo loaded before the boat would leave with a full cargo for the Gulf Coast via the Panama. The ETA for the canal was May 29 and the Gulf Coast on June 5. With change being the only constant, the board is erasable.

AB/tankerman Daniel Monjarres signals winch operator while mooring the tug and barge.

At 0100 on May 5, to make way for another vessel, Sound Reliance and barge 550-2 prepared to leave the city dock for anchorage. A Puget Sound pilot came aboard for the shift, and the Crowley Harbor-class tug Chief put a line up on the bow to assist the ATB off the dock. The deck crew retrieved the Spectra mooring lines with the aid of the hydraulic line winches. The bright yellow lines have a woven outer coat to resist wear and a spectra inner core for strength. As strong as wire, they are light and easily handled. For extra protection, they are wrapped in Velcro-fixed chafing gear at the fair leads. There are a lot of nice details on this unit.

Even with a pilot aboard, Lenfestey kept control of the single-joystick steering and the combined clutch and throttle controls. In the raised pilothouse, some 87 steps above the engine room, the sound of the big Caterpillar 3612 engines was subdued. Tachometers on the console showed the engines at 780 rpm and the shafts at 136 rpm, but Lenfestey said, “I’ve got my hands on the throttle, so I know what the engines are doing.”

After making a short run to the anchorage, the crew on the forecastle head were directed to ready the anchor for “six shots on deck.” When the integrated radar, GPS and vector chart display showed the unit to be in position, the pilot directed, “Put her on the bottom,” and the crew ran out the chain.

The pin and helmet on the starboard bow of Sound Reliance engage with the teeth of the Intercon connection.

Lenfestey recounted the story of a ship anchoring off the featureless Texas coast in the days before such technology. Asked what he was using for a range marker to assure against dragging anchor, the mate pointed to a power pole and a horse just visible through the binoculars. Questioned about his use of a horse as a mark, the mate replied, “but it is just standing there eating.”

It was just after 0200, and the bridge was left to 2nd Mate Bobby Boone, who brings the knowledge gleaned in 15 years in the Navy, followed by four onboard tugs, to plot the course from the anchorage to the Cherry Point refinery to which Sound Reliance would go in the morning. It was only 26 miles, but it would involve seven turn points. Although a pilot would be onboard, and navigation would be through islands in daylight, Boone plotted the course on the electronic chart, storing it in an electronic file alongside other courses that the tug has run in its first year. Each course was marked with Boone’s initials or those of his opposite in the boat’s alternate crew. Once the course was plotted on the electronic chart, Boone transposed the lines to conventional paper charts on the big chart table that took up the center area of the pilothouse.

With another Puget Sound pilot onboard, the anchor was up at 0735 on May 5. The track on the plotter left a straight line away from the crescent formed by the vessel swinging at anchor. At 75 percent power on the 12-foot open propellers, the unit made an easy 10 knots through the water. It was a beautiful spring morning among the islands of Puget Sound, and the crew, who had suffered days of rain, nodded agreement to Floridian Lenfestey, when he said, “My grade-three teacher said that I would never amount to anything looking out the window all the time. Now I make a good living doing exactly that.”

As the ATB approached the dock at Cherry Point, the green-hulled tank barge Baltimore pulled away with an assist from the big Garth Foss. The encounter was an interesting juxtaposition of technologies. The 542-by-95-foot barge with its tug is one of seven integrated tug-barge (ITB) units built 20 years ago. This type of vessel has a catamaran-type tug hull locked onto a tongue extending out the back of the barge. While there are reportedly six of these vessels still working, ITBs are no longer being built.

The pilothouse, 87 steps above the engine room, towers over the stern deck.

By 1130, 1st Mate Al Costner of Georgia, with advice from the captain and pilot, had brought Sound Reliance and its barge alongside the pier. With the lines made fast, the mate and AB-tankerman Marc Tomuschat worked with AB-tankerman Monjarres to get the manifold hooked up and the gasoline ready to flow aboard at 10,000 barrels an hour. Lenfestey activated the pilothouse controls to retract the 50-inch-diameter Intercon pins that lock the boat in place when traveling. Each pin has a helmet shaped with teeth to fit into corresponding slots in a ladder-like set of hardened cast steel that has been welded into the aft part of the port and starboard wings of the barge notch. It is a simple process to retract the pins so that the barge can increase its draft as it takes on cargo.

Five hours later, the pins were ready to be re-engaged. With a slight sea moving the boat around in the notch, engineer Jeremy Able cautioned that it could take a few tries to get both port and starboard pins in equal notches. From the deck level, he directed Lenfestey in the pilothouse on when to extend the rams. Both went in smoothly, locking the helmets in the appropriate teeth, on the first attempt, to the satisfaction of all. Minor adjustments set the tug in the notch with barely two inches of clearance from the D-ring fendering. Shortly after, with the lines cast off and a tug assisting on the port bow, the unit was worked off the face of the dock.

While it wasn’t necessary on this maneuver, Lenfestey explained that the hard connect provided by the 50-inch pins allows the 4,640 hp of each engine to be applied ahead on the starboard side and astern on the port side to spin the unit.

These massive Intercon pins are the central feature of the ATB unit. Their working parts are housed in a space on the main deck level just ahead of the starboard-side galley and port-side accommodation rooms. Each pin is supported by a heavy set of framing around a bearing. The pins are retracted and extended by a revolving worm gear. The pins themselves are automatically lubricated by copious amounts of food-grade oil similar to that used to lubricate food-processing equipment.

Mate Al Costner at the helm. The boat has combined throttle and clutch controls.

When the ATB is traveling, particularly in wave conditions, engineer Able makes periodic temperature checks of the bearings with a hand-held thermometer. If the pins are generating more heat at the top or bottom of the bearing, he makes slight adjustments to the tug’s ballast to allow the pins to take the load evenly.

As Sound Reliance cleared the dock area northbound to Vancouver, with no time wasted letting out towlines or making up with facing wires, the engines were moved up to their 900-rpm cruising range. Able reported that although the big engines burn 8,400 gallons when running 24 hours per day, the 12.5- to 13.5-knot cruising speed achieved with the ATB configuration makes this an efficient vessel. The Intercon manufacturers claim savings of up to 35 percent for their ATBs over conventional towing or even the rigidly fixed pusher units. The ability of the tug to pitch in the notch allows it to maintain propeller and steering efficiency in any sea direction and condition. The tug can stay in the notch safely — pushing — while other units are towing or weather-bound.

By 2230, Sound Reliance was clear of Cherry Point with a Puget Sound and a B.C. coast pilot aboard. The U.S. pilot would hand off to the Canadian pilot when the vessel crossed the 49th parallel. He would then ride the boat to Vancouver and take a car back south.

As the unit rode into the moon path and a very slight ground swell, it looked from the wheelhouse window very much like a ship’s foredeck stretching out ahead, except for the slight rise of the bow in relation to the wheelhouse. If this were a ship, it would be bending. This ability to pitch in the notch is what makes the system so effective.

Lenfestey pointed out the importance of having some cargo or ballast in the barge. On one trip, they were obliged to leave the terminal in Los Angeles without cargo and with reduced ballast. Northbound to San Francisco, they encountered 12-foot seas. The barge was riding up over the swells creating an angle between the tug and barge that he estimates at around 30° or more.

“We were looking straight ahead out of the wheelhouse at the stern of the barge,” he said. “Then water shot up between the two and over the top of the wheelhouse. Imagine running a small tug at 4 knots into a concrete wall, and that was how each wave felt.”

They survived the discomfort and now make sure to take on full ballast, rather than running reduced amounts, if there is any likelihood of encountering significant seas. At the same time, Lenfestey was quick to point out that in larger seas with shorter intervals that he has encountered in the Gulf of Mexico, the ATB has been extremely comfortable. “Broadside or slightly on the bow, you roll with the barge and get a nice slow roll,” he said. “On one trip, we were three days out of Pascagoula bound for Panama, when I noticed a coffee cup two-thirds full and left on deck out of the wind. In spite of some rough weather we had been through, it was still sitting upright.”

Chief Engineer Jeremy Abel stands between the two 4,640-hp Caterpillar 3612 engines. The vessel burns about 8,400 gallons of fuel per day, but its relatively high speed makes it about 30percent more fuel-efficient than conventional tug-barge configurations.

Like his crew, Lenfestey is a big fan of ATB technology and the safety margins it provides in the event of a disaster such as a fire. “The raw safety of the system is that you have two vessels operating in concert at sea,” he said. “You can come out of the notch, and this is like a lifeboat with a refrigerator. We can then tow the barge by its stern quarter until help arrives to pick up the emergency towing gear on the barge’s bow, or we can move around and pick it up ourselves when the weather moderates.”

Both the stern quarter and the bow are rigged with emergency towing gear. A messenger line is made up from the tug to the stern quarter of the barge when they are at sea. A heavy towing H-bitt is mounted aft on the tug for emergency use.

Sound Reliance made good time on the trip up to Vancouver, where it went to anchor in English Bay to await a turn at the refinery dock. Unlike the other ships around it, with their crews of 20 to 30 people, the small crew on the ATB was not costing the charterer so much during the wait time. With about 50 ATBs operating in North America, this technology is making its presence felt and is being picked up by some smaller vessels, as the economics and safety become understood more clearly.

By Professional Mariner Staff