Boom in barge building continues

These are great years to be in the barge building industry, although it’s anyone’s guess what will happen after the OPA 90 deadline year of 2015.

For now, most of the major shipyards building coastwise and inland barges have comfortable backlogs with the promise of plenty more work in the next few years.

There are still nine years remaining until the final deadline imposed by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90), which requires that only double-hulled vessels be allowed to carry petroleum products in domestic waters. Between half and 75 percent of the U.S.-flag ocean tank barge fleet is currently double-hulled, depending on the company, according to industry reports. Although some companies might want to go right to the 2015 deadline with their single-hull barges, market demand for double-hull tonnage and the simultaneous market prejudice against single-hull tonnage dictate that most barge operators are now working hard to get their fleets into 100 percent compliance as soon as possible.

Name a tug and barge company and you’ll find new barges in the works. Surveys of U.S. shipyards show barges — mostly double-hull tank barges — to be the second largest category of new-builds under construction. That is second only to the building of small patrol boats, typically inspired by funding from the Department of Homeland Security.

The market aversion to single-hull tonnage has compelled many companies into making hefty investments in new double-hull oil barges. And since the majority of coastwise operators are still several years away from reaching 100 percent compliance with OPA 90 requirements, the heavy pace of new construction seems likely to continue.

Take a look at Bay Shipbuilding in the relatively obscure location of Sturgeon Bay, Wis. Under construction or in the planning stages at Bay Shipbuilding are new double-hull tank barges for Vane Brothers, Harley Marine and Moran Towing, plus a new cement barge for Lafarge North America.

A thousand miles to the south, Bollinger Shipyards has contracts for new barges for Bouchard Corp., K-Sea Transportation, Moran and Horizon Maritime. Other Gulf Coast yards are building a steady series of barges for large operators like Crowley Maritime, Maritrans, Penn Maritime, Hornbeck Offshore Services, Reinauer Transportation and others. And on the West Coast, barge builders Gunderson Marine and Zidell Marine are always busy with new projects, currently including the continuing series of 80,000-barrel Bay Class oil barges for Sause Brothers Ocean Towing.

Ordering new barges by the dozen may be commonplace in the inland world where barges are identical and smaller, but it is unusual for a coastwise operator to be quite as busy building as Vane Brothers of Baltimore. This family-owned company, which has its origins in local bunkering and stevedoring, is currently engaged in a building project covering about five years and involving 22 barges and eight tugs.

“This is such a large building program, but we are actually compelled to be building most of these vessels at the request of our main customers,” said Jim Demske, project manager for the building program.

Vane Brothers is midway through the construction of fourteen 50,000-barrel barges being constructed by Jeffboat, six 30,000-barrel barges being constructed by Trinity Marine and two 135,000-barrel barges being constructed by Bay Shipbuilding. In addition, the company is building eight tugs of roughly 4,200 hp at the Thomasee shipyard in Houma, La. Only recently, according to Demske, have the folks at Vane Brothers realized they may also have to build some smaller 3,000 hp tugs to handle some of those new 30,000-barrel barges. But that’s for the future.

New York-based K-Sea Transportation is another company with plenty of barge action taking place, having spent the last few years building a series of new tank barges with ATB coupler systems while retrofitting a half dozen of its largest tugs, with most of the work taking place at Bollinger shipyards. Now, having dealt with the larger end of its fleet, K-Sea is addressing the other end with construction of four 28,000-barrel barges to also be fitted with the newest small-barge JAK coupler system provided by Acomarin.

“We are looking at the OPA 90 replacement issues in the middle and smaller end of our fleet,” said Rick Falcinelli, vice president of operations.

The four new 28,000-barrel barges for K-Sea, to be deployed in the New York area, would be manned barges, and only two of the company’s tugs — Houma and Davis Sea, both around 2,000 hp — will be fitted with matching coupler systems.

“These are going to be manned barges, unlike our larger units,” said Falcinelli. “This gets us away from the one tug-one barge relationship and allows more flexibility. Because they are manned, they are more interchangeable with tugs, the tankermen are always there and you’ve got continuity of systems on the barge. Meanwhile the tugs can switch from one barge to another and they can be used for other assignments around New York.”

K-Sea, with operations on three coasts and in Canada, currently operates 61 tank barges using 41 tugboats.

Another East Coast company, Moran Towing Corp., has been building new double-hull oil barges and recently converted one of its single-hull barges to a double-hull design. Although its tank barge fleet is not the largest, Moran reports it will be 100 percent double hull by the end of this year, well ahead of most of its competitors. Maritrans Operating Partners, while engaged in a series of double-hulling projects, recently ordered two new ATB barges from Bender Shipbuilding. West Coast operator Crowley Maritime has six large ATBs under construction with the Halter Marine shipyard.
On the West Coast, both Crowley Maritime and Sause Brothers are building new double-hull barges, although roughly two of the Sause barges could probably fit into each of the Crowley units and they are likely intended for different market uses. Sause Brothers is more than midway through a six-barge building campaign complete with tugs re-powered and built new, and all of its tugs and barges are wire units with NautiCAN’s performance-enhancing hydralift skegs on all of the barges. Crowley just took delivery of the first of its five newly articulated tug-barge units (see coverage elsewhere in this issue), with five more still in various stages of construction. Crowley and Sause are replacing older, single-hull towed barges.

The big emphasis on tank barge construction, however, is taking place among East Coast operators who deliver cargoes of gasoline, diesel, heating oil and jet fuel to the major ports from Delaware to eastern Maine. These tug and barge operators fulfill about half of the demand for such products in the Northeast, the other half coming in mostly on foreign-flag tankers from refineries in Canada, the Virgin Islands, South America and others.

Tank vessel capacity in the Northeast is said to be in relative balance, even though most operators are building new double-hull barges.

“The danger for this industry is if there is too much replacement that takes place,” said Brent Dibner, president of Dibner Maritime Associates and a consultant to the marine industry. “If there is too much replacement we could be in a situation where there could be an oversupply of large equipment and it will soften the market and leave the charterers with a comfortable surplus that they can use to negotiate lower and tougher rates.”

Thus far, however, industry observers cautiously estimate that the overall fleet numbers are not growing, even as the single-hull replacement shuffle continues.


It’s all good news for those in the barge industry, but the boom in barge construction could come to a quick halt when the last single-hull barge is sold to a foreign operator.

By Professional Mariner Staff