Escort tugboats pull double duty opening the icy St. Lawrence


It was March, the fourth month in a row that temperatures averaged below freezing in Quebec City. The brackish waters of the St. Lawrence River lay mostly covered in brash ice. Upended slabs had refrozen, surrounding areas of open water in clumps 6 to 10 feet thick. Although the St. Lawrence Seaway closes for at least three months each year, the river remains open year-round as far west as Montreal, almost 1,000 miles from the Atlantic Ocean.

To keep commerce moving, the ice needs to be kept at bay. Helping to make that happen are the tugboats Ocean Taiga and Ocean Tundra, delivered to the Ocean Group fleet in 2016 and 2014, respectively. The sister vessels partner with the Canadian Coast Guard to assist their icebreakers when winter conditions are severe, said Gordon Bain, president of the Quebec City-based provider of marine services.

Bain said the icemaker in the river is Lake St. Pierre, a shallow widening in the freshwater section roughly halfway between Quebec City and Montreal, a place where the shipping channel is narrow. Ice coming downriver usually stays in Quebec City for about six tide cycles, but with an east wind it can stay longer and build. “Then we’re in trouble until the wind shifts,” he said. “We need the big boats to break out of the basin and manage the ice around the terminals.”

An ice buildup had occurred the week before, and now the assignment was to clear a passage for the smaller tugs that are used to exchange pilots in winter. Smaller in this case would be Ocean Ross Gaudreault, which at 94 by 37 feet is outsized by Ocean Taiga and Ocean Tundra, both 118 by 43 feet. Bain told a story of a smaller tug that wind- and tide-driven ice had raised enough to prompt the main engines to overheat because the cooling water intakes were drawing in only air. Only after the tide and wind shifted and the vessel was lowered could the crew safely start the engines again.

The St. Lawrence is not considered salt water for another 100 miles downriver beyond Isle-aux-Coudres, the island where Ocean Group operates its Ocean Industries shipyard. Ocean Taiga and Ocean Tundra, billed as the most powerful tugs in eastern Canada, were both built there. In addition to new construction, Ocean Industries also repairs vessels for Ocean Group and other fleets.

Sister tug Ocean Tundra idles in a pocket of ice-free water near Quebec City. During severe cold snaps, slabs can refreeze up to 10 feet thick.

Ocean Taiga was stable and quiet on this March day, not the ride one would expect looking out the spacious wheelhouse with its 360-degree view of a mostly ice-covered river. The tug moved through the ice without much noise or vibration, crushing the chunks even more finely when moving astern than when forward. The power is provided by twin Caterpillar MaK 9 M 25 C diesels generating 8,160 hp, connected to Rolls-Royce US 305 z-drives with 118-inch stainless-steel controllable-pitch propellers. Smaller boats can then follow in that path.

The ice at Quebec City notwithstanding, Robert Allan Ltd. designed Ocean Taiga and Ocean Tundra — both TundRA 3600 series tugs rated Ice Class 1AS FS — with the Canadian Arctic in mind. It is more than 1,000 miles due north from Quebec City to Baffin Island, where winter temperatures average at least 30 degrees colder. Still another 600 miles farther north, significant iron ore deposits owned jointly by ArcelorMittal and Iron Ore Holdings have only begun to be mined. Initially, many observers assumed Ocean Taiga and Ocean Tundra were headed there to escort ore carriers departing for Europe, as ships have done seasonally since August 2015. Ocean Group, however, did not get the bid.

Ocean Taiga and Ocean Tundra are not dedicated icebreakers; instead, their hulls strike a balance between the demands of icebreaking and escort work. The design was perfected in Robert Allan’s TundRA 3500 series, slightly smaller boats operating in the Russian Arctic on the southern coast of Sakhalin Island.

Taiga and Tundra are exceptional escort vessels, Bain said. “There’s nothing better in eastern North America on the market. (They) have an escort steering force up to 122 tons (and are) self-rendering, adjustable to what the ship can take. With that amount of force, you have to be careful or you’ll pull the stern off the ship,” he said.

Forward, that capability is provided by a 200-hp Markey DESDF-48 Class III hawser winch. Markey worked with Ocean Group to customize the winch and its housing to shield it from snow and cold. Completing the set is a 125-hp TES-40UL electric single-drum towing winch, enclosed in a weather-protected compartment facing astern.

Ocean Taiga Capt. Denis Blanchet, left, watches as Capt. Andre Pelletier demonstrates the capabilities of the icebreaking tug. Both Taiga and Ocean Tundra were designed for Arctic duty and are rated Ice Class 1AS FS.

Vessels on the St. Lawrence have to negotiate many twists and strong currents, and the narrow channel is bordered by clay and sand. And, as is true in other ports, ships calling on Quebec City and Montreal are larger than in the past. “If a ship runs aground but not on rocks, it’s a big advantage to have over 100 tons of bollard pull to tow her off and redirect her into the channel, rather than having to unload her, which makes the costs just skyrocket,” Bain said.

Taiga and Tundra, classified FiFi-1, also act as firefighting vessels for the Port of Quebec. Each boat is equipped with three FFS monitors with a combined capability of delivering more than 21,000 gallons per minute. The MaK diesels each drive an FFS fire pump. “We do annual joint training with the municipal land-based firefighting units,” Bain said.

Both tugs were built with the expectation that they would escort bulk carriers in the Canadian Arctic. To handle work where there is generally no port infrastructure, Ocean Group — which operates the largest fleet of marine equipment in eastern Canada and values its innovations — designed docks that can be set up or taken down in five days. These structures are built to withstand the extreme conditions and meet the stringent environmental standards in the region.

When the first bulk carrier left the Baffinland Iron Mine for Europe in 2015, however, the escort work was provided by Svitzer Canada, the wholly owned subsidiary of A.P. Moller-Maersk Group. Bain said it’s still hard for Ocean Group to accept that it didn’t get the bid, but for now the company’s goal is to charter Ocean Taiga and Ocean Tundra for appropriate jobs. He also said he might consider selling one of the large tugboats if the right offer is tendered.


Ocean Taiga’s wheelhouse offers an expansive view of the St. Lawrence River as the tug moves stern-wise through the ice.


Weather-driven features built into Ocean Taiga include a heated enclosure that protects the Markey forward hawser winch from cold and ice.


Ocean Taiga’s twin Caterpillar MaK 9 M 25 C diesels generate 8,160 hp, power that is delivered by a pair of Rolls-Royce z-drives with 118-inch propellers.


After a morning on the river, Ocean Tundra maneuvers at the Ocean Group dock in Quebec City with company tug Andre H. in the background.


By Professional Mariner Staff