Compactness, power make this the handiest tug in Puerto Rico


In late April 2012, Capt. Neftali Padilla and a crew arrived at the Great Lakes Shipyard (GLS) in Cleveland, Ohio. It was his second trip to Cleveland, this time to deliver a new tugboat called Handy-Three to Puerto Rico Towing & Barge Co. (PRT) located in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

His first delivery from Ohio for PRT had been the 1942 Triton, a 135-foot former Navy oceangoing tug then about to transition from working on the Great Lakes back to salt water. Padilla recalls his first impression of Handy-Three: “She looked kind of small.” She was. The boat’s overall length is a mere 74 feet, and he had to sail the tug 3,800 miles, more than half of that on the Atlantic Ocean.

Capt. Jose Luis Villafane, mate for the spring 2012 delivery, recalls that he wondered about the Cummins QSK-50 engines, more compact than the EMDs and Caterpillars he was used to. “They looked small. I couldn’t imagine how powerful they could be,” he recalled.

Honcho at the ship’s bow, with Handy-Three astern.

But this size and power were exactly what Great Lakes Shipyard Chairman Ron Rasmus imagined as a niche with promise: fuel-efficient tugboats with sturdy ice-class hulls and adequate power for most jobs. Handy-Three is GLS’s third such vessel.

Today, Padilla and Villafane report that between May and June 2012 they became believers in Handy-Three as the vessel performed superbly while carrying them from the cold fresh water of Lake Erie to the tropical homeport in Puerto Rico. “She’s a very stable platform,” said Padilla.

In fact, while using words like “awesome” and “amazing,” he took out his smartphone to show a visitor a video he shot from the wheelhouse of Handy-Three off Cape Hatteras. “We headed out of Norfolk, where we had weathered the worst of Tropical Storm Alberto. See how smooth she rides in 10- to 13-foot seas.”

Villafane, who currently works in San Juan Harbor on Handy-Three, recalls the delivery voyage as the most memorable so far. “It’s God’s country from the Thousand Islands to Nova Scotia, beautiful,” he said. “We saw snow on mountains north of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec. A curious lockmaster at the Eisenhower Locks (in Massena, N.Y.) wanted a ride along on Handy-Three,” he remembers.

Puerto Rico Towing port engineer Ibrahim Colon in Handy-Three’s engine room. The tug is powered by a pair of Cummins QSK-50, 1,600-hp engines.

“Capt. Padilla pushed the throttle forward … and we were all surprised by the speed,” said Villafane. It was one of several demonstrations the crew gave for curious parties and potential GLS customers at different waypoints in the trip.

Padilla has worked for PRT for 16 years, all of those as a captain. Before that, he worked in his family’s business, South Puerto Rico Towing, starting as a deck hand. In fact, because he started as a minor, his father had to accompany him to the U.S. Coast Guard station to swear the required Merchant Mariner’s document oath. Recently, Padilla directed the towing operation off San Juan of the 246-foot oceangoing tugboat Global Destiny, ex-Rotterdam, which had run out of fuel.

Villafane is also a second-generation mariner. His father retired from Crowley Maritime, a company that now provides Handy-Three with its biggest jobs. The tug assists with the huge Crowley barges that shuttle between San Juan and U.S. mainland ports of Jacksonville, Fla., and Pennsauken, N.J. Villafane, whose first maritime job was decking on the Miami ferry to Fisher Island, previously worked for Hornbeck Offshore.

The stern of Handy-Three, including its JonRie Series 500 towing winch, while the tug is at port. The versatile boat can do ocean towing and ship assist.

About Handy-Three, Villafane said, “The name of the tug says it all. She’s handy. You can put her anywhere. She’s a reliable boat made for tight places, like between the Crowley barges and the dock. And she rides the seas well, second most comfortable PRT vessel outside the harbor after the huge Triton.”

Handy-Three is designed for ship assist harbor work, but has sometimes done ocean towing, currently the assignment of Handy-One, now renamed Don Raul, which operates out of St. Croix. For these longer trips outside, Padilla says Handy-Three could be more spacious. “Crew comfort is important to think about,” he said. But his assessment is positive. Padilla praises Handy-Three’s maneuverability. “The small hull, powerful engine and props set well apart … she handles amazing.”

The Puerto Rico Towing team, from left, Capt. Juan Velez Jr., Capt. Neftali Padilla, dispatcher Victor Claudio, deck hands Sixto Franco and Reynaldo Ilarraza, and port engineer Ibrahim Colon.

San Juan is an important container transshipment port in the Caribbean. PRT, an affiliate of the Great Lakes Group, moved into San Juan in 1997 when Crowley discontinued harbor assist work there. “We saw this as an opportunity,” said Joel Koslen, president of PRT. The Puerto Rico Ports Authority reported 3,844 vessel calls in San Juan for 2012. Besides harbor assist work, PRT does towing services in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and other locations within the Caribbean, as well as the U.S. mainland. And recently, according to Koslen, PRT has been chosen as the successful bidder by the Puerto Rico Ports Authority to renovate and operate the dry dock for vessel maintenance and repair, which is located at piers 15 and 16.

San Juan is a popular port of call for cruise ships. According to World Port Source, in 2012 a total of 459 trips used San Juan, which can accommodate eight cruise ships at once. Although cruise ships generally dock without the use of a tugboat, “if winds are greater than 30 knots, we do assist them,” said Padilla. “Otherwise, about 75 percent of our work is assisting cargo vessels.”

Right now, Handy-Three is the newest of four boats operated by PRT. The other three are Z-One, Honcho, and Triton, whose lengths are 88, 97, and 135 feet, respectively. “She’s the busiest boat in the harbor,” Villafane said of Handy-Three, “and good with the Horizon and Sea Star ships. She’s been a blessing.”

By Professional Mariner Staff