Expanding tug fleet on the Delaware: Sonie, Wilmington Tug Inc.

Sonie is the newest tug to join the expanding fleet of Wilmington Tug Inc. on the Delaware River. (Gregory Walsh)

New tug by new tug, Wilmington Tug Inc. has slowly been building itself into the company with the sexiest fleet of tugboats for ship-assist work on the Delaware River.

With the launch of its latest new tug, the 4,800-hp Sonie, Wilmington is presently operating a fleet of six tugs, all but one of them being z-drive tractor tugs and three of those being greater than 3,000 hp. Meanwhile, another new Wilmington tug, also 4,800 hp, is expected to join the fleet late this year or early 2008.

By comparison, Wilmington’s two competitors on the river, Moran Towing Corp. and McAllister Transportation, each have one z-drive tractor based in Philadelphia along with several conventional tugs.

Wilmington Tug Inc. reports that it is happy with the short but powerful Ramparts 2500 series of tugs designed by Robert Allan Ltd. of Vancouver, B.C. Wilmington’s next tractor tug, presently under construction, will be its third 80-foot vessel of that design. These tugs all generate 60 to 65 tons of bollard pull, according to design specifications. The company also operates three smaller z-drive vessels, ranging from 1,400 to 3,200 hp.

Main engines are 16-cylinder Detroit Diesels. (Gregory Walsh)

Sonie, delivered in mid-2007 from Maine’s Washburn & Doughty shipyard, carries a 32-foot beam and 14-foot draft with raised forecastle design, relatively small deckhouses and heavy fendering all around. Sonie, like all of Wilmington’s tractors, is Detroit Diesel powered. It has Rolls-Royce azimuthing drive units with John Deere auxiliary generators. Although these new tugs are well equipped, they do not carry the firefighting machinery needed for FiFi-1 status, nor would they be applicable for LNG work on the Delaware River, should such opportunities develop in the near future.

“When the time comes, we will certainly be there offering our services and equipment for expected LNG tankers, but I think that any tugs involved with those ships will need to be built new and specifically for that purpose,” said Chris Rowland, treasurer of Wilmington Tug and son of company president Hickman Rowland.

The new Ramparts 2500 tugs are constructed with a forward-mounted “escort” keel, although the keels rarely come into play in normal ship-assist work on the Delaware, and there is little to no call for “indirect” modes of towing, according to Rowland. “The keel is a standard part of the design, and we do want to be ready for any progressive towing techniques that might be requested by a ship’s pilot, captain or by a client in general,” said Rowland.

The 4,800-hp tug is a Robert Allan design built by Washburn & Doughty of Maine. (Gregory Walsh)

Once up and running at the company’s home port of Wilmington, Del., Sonie was dispatched to join its sister ship, Capt. Harry, at Wilmington’s new northern base on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.

“The way it is now, our two largest tugs are based at the northern end of our range,” said Rowland. “Having two bases puts us within 10 miles of all the oil refineries in the region,” he added. “It works well for us and allows us to be more responsive to the needs of our customers.

Local port officials describe the Delaware River and Delaware Bay as the 7th busiest port in the United States, with close to 3,000 inbound ships passing Cape Henlopen at the mouth of the bay every year. Because of traffic generated by six refineries on the river, the maritime system is also described as the second busiest oil port in the nation, second only to Houston. A total of 861 inbound tankers were reported on the Delaware in 2006, according to the Marine Exchange for the Delaware River and Bay.

The capstan and fairlead are among the equipment on the bow of new Wilmington tug, Sonie. (Gregory Walsh)

Wilmington Tug reports that it handles more than 700 ships a year, including more than half of the crude oil tankers coming into the river. Those tankers call at any of half a dozen refineries spread out over a 30-mile stretch of river extending from south of Wilmington to Philadelphia. The company now has its two newest and most powerful tugs based in Philadelphia, close to the Sunoco refinery, which plays host to arriving Sunoco VLCC tankers. The remainder of Wilmington’s fleet is based in the port of Wilmington, where it is the dominant tug company. Wilmington Tug also reports that more than half of its total revenue comes from providing ship-assist work to crude oil tankers, product tankers and barges that lighter the big tankers on the lower Delaware. The largest of those tankers are 1,100 feet in length with beams of about 230 feet. These ships carry up to two million barrels of crude into Delaware Bay, with a draft of 55 feet. After lightering off part of their cargo at the deep-draft anchorage, they proceed upriver, typically escorted part of the way by several tugs.

While Moran and McAllister also handle their share of tanker traffic, those companies also handle the bulk of regular shipping traffic calling elsewhere in the Philadelphia area.

New tug Sonie is equipped to handle the largest tankers entering the Delaware River but it is not set up for LNG work, if and when such a need arises on the Delaware. (Gregory Walsh)

Wilmington’s new tug, Sonie, is very similar to its predecessor, Capt. Harry. One primary difference is in the engine room. The new tug has 16-cylinder MTU Detroit Diesel engines, whereas Capt. Harry had 12-cylinder Detroits for main engine power.

Another primary difference between Sonie and Capt. Harry is the choice of auxiliary power generators. The newest has John Deere gen. sets, while the former has Cummins 125-kW generators.

Delivery of Sonie was delayed by a month or two after the tug suffered damage to a z-drive unit while being towed between shipyards in Maine.


By Professional Mariner Staff