Heritage Marine rejuvenates Gulf tugs for service at Great Lakes port

1 Towing

When Michael Ojard founded Heritage Marine in the Great Lakes port of Duluth/Superior in 2007, his ancestral heritage furnished him with the name. Hailing from Knife River, a few miles north of Duluth, successive generations of Ojards took to their commercial fishing boats and tugs, succumbing to the DNA of their Norwegian homeland.

“So many of them were tug men and sailors who spent their entire lives on the water, both deck and black gang,” Ojard said. “I always wanted a tugboat. I grew up on one.” That was the tug Edna G, built in 1896. Now on the National Historic Register, Ojard’s former home away from home is a museum in Two Harbors, Minn. Ojard took a circuitous route to get to owning his first tug, a route that included owning an auto body shop and a transmission shop, and building hot-rod cars.

“I bought our first tug, the old Forney, in ’07 and renamed it the Edward H. after my dad,” Ojard said. He found the tug in Manitowoc, Wis., and, as a freshwater boat, the hull of the 86-by-23-footer was in good shape, as was the original eight-cylinder direct-drive Enterprise engine. “The Enterprise had gobs of torque and we had lots of parts for it,” he said.

Ojard is no stranger to a cutting and welding torch, and that’s a good thing when it comes to the Heritage Marine fleet, currently numbering four conventional tugboats, all of which came with challenges. His son Patrick is an engineer and part owner of the company. “He’s the best wrench around, and with my background in welding and fabrication we can make things work,” said Ojard. 

Heritage Marine founder Michael Ojard is at the helm of the tugboat Helen H. at the Port of Duluth/Superior.

Good engine or no, Ojard decided that Edward H. needed to be modernized. Out came the direct-drive Enterprise and in went an EMD 12-567 supercharged main with a Reintjes WAV 2.94:1 gear. “We did all the fabrication, all the welding and pipefitting,” he said. “We put in all new hydraulics.” Other upgrades include additional steel throughout the hull for icebreaking. “Between the new computer controls and the clutch assembly, the tug can go from making 200 (degree) turns ahead to 200 astern in less than three seconds.”

Edward H. is outfitted with three generators, a welding machine, cutting torches, a full galley, comfortable quarters and modern electronics. “The Edward H. is a hot rod,” said Ojard. “She is small with a shallow draft and responds quickly and is able to get into the small slips.”

In 2009, Ojard acquired the 103-foot Ares from Seabulk Towing’s operations in Port Arthur, Texas. He renamed the tug Nels J. after his great-grandfather. Before beginning the journey north, Ojard put the tug, built in 1957, in dry dock in New Orleans and reinforced the hull with 1.5 inches of steel on the bow to increase its icebreaking capability.

Once home in Duluth, out came the torches and tools. Nels J. was fitted with a bow thruster and given a complete exterior overhaul. When the dust settled, the 16-645-E2 EMD locomotive engine and Falk MK4 4:1 ratio gear with a 110-inch stainless propeller delivered 2,200 hp. At the time Nels J. was the most powerful tug in the Duluth/Superior harbor.

Helen H. deckineer Brandon Willenarck tosses a line as the 95-foot tug is about to be moored at Connors Point in Superior, Wis.

The third tug to join the fleet was the 95-foot W. Douglas Masterson from Bay Houston Towing of Galveston, Texas. The tug, built in 1967 by Bludworth Shipyard of Corpus Christi, was renamed Helen H. after Patrick Ojard’s wife. Again, the engine, an EMD 16-645 with a Western 3:1 ratio reduction gear, was coaxed up from 1,700 hp to 2,000 hp. The electronics and safety equipment were brought up to modern standards.

On a tour of Helen H., deckineer Brandon Willenarck explained the tug’s icebreaking attributes: “She is a great icebreaking tug because the shape of the hull causes the bow to porpoise out of the water and walk up on the ice and use its weight to break it. We take runs at ice up to 3 feet (thick). Two years ago we were at the shipyard breaking out the 850-foot laker Roger Blough, and we were busting chunks of built-up ice that were 4 to 5 feet thick.”

Willenarck gave up the pizza delivery life for all the grease and diesel he can handle at Heritage Marine. There is only some sea time between him and his 500-ton license and he gets high praise for his acumen as an engineer and his work ethic.

In 2014, Ojard acquired the 90-by-30-foot tug Horace from Harbor Docking and Towing of Lake Charles, La., He renamed it Nancy J. after his wife. It is the company’s first twin-screw tug, and Ojard is optimistic that the tug’s power and maneuverability herald a bright future for Heritage Marine in the twin harbors.

Heritage Marine’s Pixie Lindberg conducts routine monitoring of the electrical system while underway aboard Helen H.

Nancy J.’s power is generated by two EMD 16-TI-149 turbo mains with Twin Disc 540 gears at a 6:1 ratio. At 3,500 hp, Nancy J. is by far the most powerful tugboat in the harbor. The maneuverability, a real feature in a port with no ASD tugs, is provided by four rudders, two of them flanking. “Her power and maneuverability allow us to push sideways on a ship,” said Ojard. “I’m still learning how to operate her with all the rudders and power.”

In the summer of 2015, a visiting laker was a rare sighting. “We haven’t had a call in three weeks, and there isn’t much on the horizon till the fall,” said Ojard in June. “Natural gas is kicking coal’s butt and the coal ships are looking for any cargo they can get.” And the low price of grain is cutting into shipments and the usual summer work. “But since we don’t have payments we will be fine. And there is always the upcoming winter with ice.” So it was time to do maintenance and upgrades in preparation for winter — harvest time for Heritage Marine.

The crew at Heritage Marine ebbs and flows as the need arises. Many, like his son Patrick and son-in-law John, work elsewhere when the tugs are tied up for long periods. But there is a core crew that takes care of business on a daily basis. At lunch at the Anchor Bar & Grill, a legendary sailors’ waterfront landmark, they gathered for hand-built hamburgers. Seated around the table were Ojard, Willenarck, Bob Hom and Pixie Lindberg.

Lindberg spends the larger portion of her life monitoring, cleaning and tinkering with tug machinery, and, according to the group, never tires of work. “Pix mans the engine room and about everything else. Pix is not replaceable, period!” said Ojard. “And Brandon will have his (500-ton) ticket before too long. He is the type of farm kid that is able to do anything, very honest and trustworthy. He and Pixie are a pair of bookends.”

The twin-screw Nancy J. formerly operated out of Lake Charles, La., before Heritage Marine acquired the 3,500-hp vessel. 

Ojard continued, in jest, that Hom was hired for comic relief. Hom was director of operations at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center for 33 years. He grew up on the water entertaining a fantasy of working on a tugboat someday. His private boat was moored next to Edward H. when Ojard and his son Patrick were exchanging the direct-drive Enterprise engine for the EMD clutch system. “I was so impressed with what they were doing that I started helping them,” said Hom. “One thing led to another and by the time that I was 59 years old, I had got my license and I was doing it. I have a 100-ton plus a 200-ton mate’s license and I should have my 200-ton and master of towing soon. I’m living the dream.”

The talk drifted to Odyssean-like trips north with the three tugs from Texas. “All three were a chore getting up the Mississippi and Illinois rivers with barge tows,” said Ojard. The 19.5-foot air draft under the Lemont railroad bridge presented the most anxiety. Everything had to be cut from the top of the wheelhouses and the tugs flooded to get them low enough to clear the bridge. “And we prayed for rain,” said Ojard. “Rain events on the Illinois means they open the locks and drop the level in the channel. The boat gets very tender when you put that much water in a tug. Then you have to weld everything back on.”

The Heritage Marine fleet is a perpetual work in progress, especially with Subchapter M looming. “This is an ongoing process and we put all our profits back into the tugs. We are debt-free and always plan to be,” said Ojard. 

Gathering around Edward H. are, front row, Lindberg, 7-year-old Edward  Ojard, engineer Patrick Ojard and, standing, Willenarck, helmsman Bob Hom and owner Michael Ojard.

One of his goals is eliminating visual smoke. To that end, the crew have equipped Edward H. and Nels J. with overdriven superchargers and low-smoke, medium-flow injectors, and have set the timing ahead by two degrees. “And the two-valve Detroit Diesel generators are being replaced by cleaner engines,” said Ojard. “What we’re trying to do is build a quality business that can out-power the competition, that will have better equipment and provide better service.”

Starting up a smaller tugboat company in a Great Lakes port is a chancy business at the best of times. And the Great Lakes Towing Group, a monolithic company by comparison, has the lion’s share of the ship-assist contracts on the U.S. side of the Lakes. Taking them on is no mean task.

“We’ve really tried to put together four really good hulls with good power to look to the future,” said Ojard. “They’re all inspected vessels. If it’s not for me then it’s to pass it all on to my family if they choose to stick with the business.”

A Great Lakes Towing representative once called Ojard and said, “What if we bought you out?” Ojard replied: “You don’t understand. We’re having too much fun.”

By Professional Mariner Staff