E.N. Bisso is latest to add z-drive tugs to the mix in New Orleans

Josephine Anne is a 4,000-hp z-drive tug with Caterpilar power and Rolls-Royce z-drives. She has a measured bollard pull of 55 tons and 12-knot free-running speed. She is the first of several new tugs being added to the fleet of E.N. Bisso & Son of New Orleans.
Brian Gauvin photos

Inexorably, one boat at a time, the Port of New Orleans is making the conversion to z-drive propulsion technology within its tugboat fleet. Each of the three major tug companies operating on the lower Mississippi now has at least one tug with azimuthing stern drive propulsion, and a fourth company, recently acquired, will likely be introducing a z-drive tug of its own within a year or two.

The newest such tug to come into this tradition-minded neighborhood is the 96-foot Josephine Anne, introduced by E.N. Bisso & Son, a century-old New Orleans-based company that had resisted z-drive technology until it could no longer tune out the requests of pilots and ship operators in the region. Other local companies operating z-drive tugs include Bisso Towboat and Crescent Towing, while the River Parishes Co., recently acquired by Moran Towing, will soon be upgrading its fleet, according to Moran.

Josephine Anne is a 4,000-hp, Caterpillar-powered tractor-style tug with a measured 55 tons of bollard pull and a light cruising speed of 12 knots. She is one of about 15 tugs in the fleet of this family-owned company based at mile 102 on the river, roughly centered in the busy commercial district of New Orleans. And in a couple of years she will be joined by two additional z-drive tugs, the major parts of which are already on order, according to Walter Kristiansen, E.N. Bisso’s president.

A couple of years? That’s correct. The lead time on ordering identical Rolls-Royce Aquamaster z-drives and new Cat diesels is one to two years, according to Bill Summers, vice president of operations. Eastern Shipbuilding has already scheduled delivery of the next Bisso tug for some time towards the end of 2010, with the next to follow in April 2011.

It was just a few years ago, in 1999, when E.N. Bisso introduced what seemed to be its own answer to the so-called tractor-tug craze. The company had Bollinger Shipyards construct a twin-screw tug with nozzles and flanking rudders, along with a modern-style pilothouse, that was intended to be as comfortable and effective at nudging ships around in the river as towing a dead ship offshore. That 4,000-hp tug, with the same 50-ton bollard pull, did turn out to be a star performer on the river, but it was inevitable that this company would eventually have to go with z-drive tractor tugs in order to stay competitive.

Ship-assist tugs on this section of the Mississippi typically operate in fast-moving brown water that is often loaded with debris. Since most ships dock at piers running parallel to the river current, there is no question that z-drive propulsion, which can exert thrust in any direction, is a great help to tugs attempting to hold position at a 90-degree angle to the side of a ship. For many other tugboat functions — a push here and a pull there — a conventional twin-screw tug may do the job just as well. Thus it seems unlikely that old-line river operators such as these will be engaged in wholesale conversion of their fleets to z-drive tugs.

“We are never going to have a fleet of 15 or so azimuthing stern drive tugs,” said E.N. Bisso’s Kristiansen. “There are plenty of ships here that just need a hold-in or a simple assist out of a berth, and they don’t need a z-drive. I have struggled with understanding exactly what we are gaining here on the lower river. When we are escorting fast-moving ships here in the river, if there is a problem, it doesn’t matter what the tug is, the ship is likely to end up stuck in the mud on either the left bank or the right bank unless there is very fast action by the pilot with the ship’s anchors.”

When tractor-style tugs were first being introduced in American ports, there was an assumption that the debris-laden waters of the lower Mississippi would be too destructive to z-drive propeller units. This was presumably part of the reason, a decade ago, that Kristiansen and his colleagues at E.N. Bisso held back on ordering a tractor tug in favor of the conventional props and nozzles of Vera Bisso. However the successful deployment of z-drive tugs by both Bisso Towboat and Crescent Towing demonstrated that z-drive units were capable of standing up to just about anything the big river could bring down upon them. Today, it seems, it’s hard to be competitive in the business without boasting rights to at least one z-drive tug, and that’s true in New Orleans as well as any other big-name port.

The engine room equipment aboard Josephine Anne includes a 5,000-gpm Nijhuis fire pump, powered by a Caterpillar engine, with an FFS monitor on the bridge deck.

As of spring 2008, E.N. Bisso had three of its conventional tugs up for sale, including two single-screw boats and a 4,000-hp twin-screw tug, JA Bisso. For offshore towing assignments and conventional tug assignments up and down the river, the company still had a solid core of high-horsepower twin-screw tugs, all built in the 1990s and set up for offshore towing as well as in-port work, including Jackie B, Dee White and Captain Bud Bisso, according to Kristiansen.

Kristiansen said he is also quick to remind his customers that the company’s second-newest tug, Vera Bisso, is also fully capable of offshore towing assignments.

“We know that we are never going to be greatly focused on offshore towing, but we have always played a significant role in that segment, and we do a good job for our customers and for plenty of others who might need assistance anywhere in the Gulf of Mexico or beyond. It’s one more important factor that sets us apart from our competitors,” he added.

Offshore towing aside, there is still plenty of work for tugboats along the 240 miles of river — from the Gulf to Baton Rouge — serviced by these New Orleans-based companies.

Last year a reported 5,250 ships arrived at destinations along the lower river, according to the New Orleans Board of Trade. That kind of traffic ranks the region as among the busiest shipping destinations in the country.

An estimated 75 percent of those arriving ships were either dry-bulk freighters or tankers, with the bulkers having a slight edge, according to port reports. Approximately 1,850 tankers arrived at refineries on the lower river in the last fiscal year, about 175 more than in the prior year. That is a trend that reflects increased capacity at many oil company refineries in the region. “This is the kind of growth that is great for our business,” said Kristiansen. “These are all big ships that definitely need tugboats. And the increase in tanker arrivals has occurred even as more crude oil is coming into Louisiana by pipeline.”

By contrast, Kristiansen noted that 114 cruise ships called at the Port of New Orleans in the past fiscal year, and his company only got one tug assist job from all those ships — that one being to support a cruise ship arriving with a malfunctioning bow thruster.

For its first tractor-style tugboat, Kristiansen and his colleagues made inquiries with a number of existing operators of similar tugs. They kept hearing good reports about the 96-foot Jensen Maritime design, which Eastern Shipbuilding in Florida has built more than a dozen of for both McAllister Towing and Seabulk Towing. Indeed, the newest examples of that design are presently under construction at Eastern for McAllister. Josephine Anne is the 14th boat to be built from that Jensen design in less than a decade, according to the shipyard.

Engineer Todd Rabalais checks the main electrical panel aboard Josephine Anne. The z-drive tug has an electric hawser winch on its bow supplied by Markey Machinery of Seattle.

After just a few months of operation of Josephine Anne, the company did not hesitate to order the exact same engine and z-drive package for the next E.N. Bisso tug. The Tier-II compliant, electronically controlled engines are rated at 2,000 hp at 1,600 rpm. Propulsion power comes from a pair of Rolls-Royce z-drive units with four-blade 92-inch propellers in nozzles and the complete Rolls package of controls, steering and autopilot. A pair of John Deere diesel generators provides auxiliary electrical power, while a Caterpillar 3412D engine powers the Nijhuis fire pump. Not being involved with LNG terminal work, the new Bisso tug has 5,000-gpm firefighting capacity with a single, forward-mounted FFS monitor.

To power those five diesel engines, the new tug has tankage for 30,000 gallons of diesel fuel, in addition to 14,000 gallons of ballast water and 6,000 gallons of potable water.

Although the overall tug is a standard Eastern-McAllister tractor tug, the Bisso folks naturally had their list of modifications. Many changes involved the use of stainless steel on various parts around the vessel that normally rack up many hours of rust-busting and painting by crewmembers. And for the next tug, the company plans to make more changes — most minor in scope — to further improve crew comfort.

In normal operations, Josephine Anne utilizes four crewmembers. The tug’s two rotating captains are Louis Solano and Scott Tassin, while the two rotating engineers are Todd Rabalais and Blaine Valois. Josephine Anne is named for Josephine Anne Bisso Moore, granddaughter of Capt. Edwin N. Bisso who established the current company during World War II.

Old Captain Edwin Bisso would probably have a hard time believing the volume of traffic on the lower river these days and the amount of competition between the major tugboat companies. But those who are following in his footsteps are confident that business growth in the port will continue, and they are making investments in new equipment to ensure that they obtain and keep their share of it.

“I’m not really worried about economic conditions right now,” said Kristiansen. “Whatever might happen to the economy there is still going to be a need for oil, which covers the majority of our customers, and with the softening of the U.S. dollar, I figure that American grain products will be seen as being all the more attractive. I really don’t see many of our ships — the tankers, the dry bulkers and even the general cargo ships — I really don’t see them going away in the near future.”

By Professional Mariner Staff