New fuel barge runs safely and cleanly

Top, the tugboat Lela Joy moves a bunker barge alongside San Amerigo with an assist from Lucy Franco. Lela Joy was recently refitted with cleaner-burning Tier 2 engines. Above, Capt. Ben Lussier at the helm of Lela Joy.

Tankerman Kurt Zaverson spat into the open round of a hatch on the tank barge. His eyes followed the arc into the dark void until it landed on the shiny black surface of the oil several feet below. Ever so slightly it moved with the surface of the oil to affirm that the cargo was moving slowly through the barge’s pumping system and up the big flexible hose and through the bolted flange on a pipe coming from the deep-sea ship’s deck. It has long been the practice of tankermen to run this simple little check, and after 23 years on the job it was an automatic reaction for Zaverson.

But the barge on which Zaverson was working this hot July day and the system in which it operates is as modern and contemporary in all its components as technology and software allow.

Zaverson, a shore-based tankerman with Olympic Tug & Barge, a subsidiary of Harley Marine Services, was on board the bunkering barge Nathan Schmidt because it was new on the job. The barge had been christened on July 28, 2009, just a day earlier. Meeting or exceeding all of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requirements, the 31,500-barrel double-hulled tank barge Nathan Schmidt affirmed the company’s commitment to quality, safety and the environment.

Nathan Schmidt was the fourth in this series of ABS X A1 certified oil tank barges to be delivered to Harley Marine. Designed by Elliott Bay Design Group in Seattle, they were all built on the Columbia River in Portland, Ore., by the crew at U.S. Barge who are currently building a heated 83,000-barrel barge.

The 31-series barges don’t require heating coils, as the great bulk of their work is to transport oil from an oil company’s shoreside tanks to the ships that have ordered the bunkers. Harley Marine does not take ownership of the oil, but simply transports and delivers it.

Typically the heavy bunkers will be loaded to one or more of the barge’s nine tanks at 130° to 160° and the aim is to get it onto the ship at about 120° degrees. This was not a problem with temperatures ranging above 100° in July, but maintaining temperature can require prompt deliveries in winter. As most ships will take less than 10,000 barrels, it is possible (if the orders line up well) to take bunkers for two or even three ships onto the barge at once.

Tankerman Kurt Zaverson opens a valve to allow the bunkers to flow to the ship.

It is the practice at Harley Marine’s Olympic Tug & Barge to assign a single tug to a bunkering barge. In this manner, the crews of the tug, which are also consistent through their rotation, take ownership of the barge and will note any need for maintenance. The 1970-built tug Lela Joy is assigned to Nathan Schmidt. In keeping with Harley’s environmental policy, Lela Joy was given an extensive refit at Diversified Marine in Portland, Ore. This included changing out the old two-cycle main engines for Cummins QSK38 mains to bring the aging tug in line with the U.S. EPA’s Tier 2 standards for newly built vessels.

The 2,400-hp tug and the 241-by-64.5-foot barge make a good pair. With Lela Joy made up on the shoulder of the barge, she moved the barge stern-first across Seattle’s Elliott Bay. The pair entered the lower reaches of the Duwamish River, where the deep-sea ship San Amerigo was moored alongside a pier as container cranes worked her cargo. The agent for San Amerigo, a regular caller at the port, had ordered 5,000 barrels, or 800 tons, of heavy oil to be delivered from the shoreside facility of ConocoPhillips.

The fuel had been safely loaded aboard the barge sometime earlier in the day, but now it was up to Ben Lussier, Lela Joy’s captain, to bring the barge gently alongside the ship for the delivery. He explained that the Duwamish River current can, at this point, combine with an ebb tide to push a barge at 2 or 3 knots directly onto the side of the pier and the ship.

The job was made somewhat easier by the presence of the Harley Marine tug Lucy Franco as assist boat. With lines up fore and aft on the barge, the two tugs made smooth work of it, and with a mate up on the barge calling out the closure distances, they soon had the barge nestled and secured to the ship. With the barge secure, the two tugs moved out into midchannel to allow a contractor to secure an oil boom around the barge. With the boom in place, the tugs could move back to the barge.

The bunker barge Nathan Schmidt, with the tug Lela Joy alongside, in Elliott Bay.

Each tug in Harley’s Olympic fleet carries a tankerman. Often the tankerman is a mate, but in this case it was deck hand Tim Dougherty. On this job with the new barge, Dougherty had both help and an audience for his tasks. In addition to Zaverson, who had come to check out the new barge, Olympic General Manager Sven Christensen and Quality, Safety & Environmental Protection Director Dione Lee stood on the scorching hot barge deck. Dougherty is used to working in rain, snow and heat, so an audience didn’t faze him as he climbed up the pilot ladder for a pre-ops conference with the ship’s chief engineer. He would personally inspect the connection and complete a declaration of inspection form “so that everybody knows what is happening,†he explained.

With all the safety issues reviewed, he returned to the barge and using the barge’s 1-ton hose crane, he lifted the heavy 6-inch bunkering hose. Bright yellow nylon slings cradled the hose as the flange at its end was raised over the ship’s rail and put in line with the ship’s flange so that the ship’s crew could begin bolting them together. The operation took 20 minutes or so. Then the ship’s crew indicated that the barge could start pumping.

Working together Dougherty and Zaverson started the barge pump and opened the valve to the bunker hose. Slowly, to assure that there were no leaks, the pressure on the big hose was brought up to 40 pounds per square inch so that it was pumping at 350 metric tonnes per hour. At that rate, it would take a little under two and a half hours to move the 800 tons of fuel oil to the ship. During that time the tankermen remained vigilant for any sign of trouble, as did two of the ship’s crew on their end. On the ship they were also taking samples of the fuel to pass on to their agent for independent assessment. Similarly, samples were taken on board the barge so that there was no danger of confusion in the rare event of any impurities.

Lee used some of this time to walk the barge to check that all was in place both for the safety of the environment and of the crews. She noted a few shards of glass on the forward deck and asked that they be cleaned up. Definitely an exception to the usually clear deck, they were the remains of a champagne bottle from the previous day’s christening of the new barge.

That event was similar to most such celebrations of new vessels, with representatives of suppliers and customers present. CEO Corey Yraguen and a good contingent of his crew from U.S. Barge in Portland got a round of applause for their work. But the remarkable exception to the norm was the recognition given to Nathan Schmidt, the young man for whom the barge is named. Schmidt is a survivor of cystic fibrosis who recently graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in marine biology and is on his way to South Africa to study great white sharks.

Top, Capt. Bryan Adams in the wheelhouse of Lucy Franco. Above, Dione Lee, Olympic Tug & Barge’s safety & environmental protection director, aboard the barge Nathan Schmidt.

Harley Marine owner Harley Franco has been a supporter and fund raiser for cystic fibrosis research for 25 years. Rather than naming the barge to flatter a customer or relative, he used the commissioning as one more opportunity to support his major charity. The 83,000-barrel barge that he currently has under construction at U.S. Barge will be named Sixty-Five Roses — how youngsters with cystic fibrosis often pronounce the name of their affliction.

Lee explained the importance of the company’s recent accreditation as an ISO 14001-certified company. Harley Marine Services had already achieved ISO 9000 certification when it added ISO 14001. The first assures a comprehensive and consistent management system, while the second assures comprehensive and consistent environmental protection. The two are integrated in the sense that documentation required under ISO 9001 is done electronically under ISO 14001 to reduce paper consumption.

Much of the oil spill prevention is already mandated by the EPA as well as Washington state legislation, but the ISO certifications make sure that the systems are integrated and understood by all those whose role requires such knowledge. Responsibilities are clearly outlined, from the boat crews bringing ashore recyclables in clear plastic bags for ready identification to specialized training for tankermen as “person in charge†on the barge.

The company has only a few single-skin barges left in its fleet of tank barges. They receive little use and will be retired well before the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 deadline of 2015. Barges like Nathan Schmidt have become the industry standard over the past decade, resulting in a dramatic reduction of spills. While moving oil on water over long distances is always a threat to the environment, the pumping of oil from one vessel to another is even more risky. Olympic Tug’s Christensen grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, and much of his life has been shaped by the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. He explained the process for bunkering:

“Most time we get a 24- to 48-hour lead time for a job. The agents call in the order to ConocoPhillips dispatch office in Houston. Amounts ordered can vary widely. An Alaskan cruise ship will typically take 6,500 to 7,000 barrels for the round trip, as they have extensive power requirements over and above propulsion. The larger container ships, with 30,000-barrel fuel tanks, can make the round trip to Asia without fueling, but buy their fuel depending on the market price, which will often vary between Asia and North America. If it is relatively low in Seattle, they will fill their tanks, but if it is high, they will only take the amount required to get back across the ocean.â€

More fuel can mean less cargo. This is especially true of the tramp grain ships that do not follow scheduled routes, but work on the spot market both for their charters and their fuel.

Some ships require special viscosities of fuel. These can be mixed in one of Olympic Tug’s heated barges.

“We have a couple of barges that can blend two products to create a specific viscosity,†explained Christensen. “We can also heat the black oil in order to hold it on the barge for an extended period of time.â€

As do all of those involved in the business, Christensen follows the price of fuel in the ports around the Pacific rim to see if he can predict demand in Seattle and the other Pacific Coast ports where he has bunkering services. At the same time, he explained that neither Harley Marine nor Olympic Tug & Barge ever takes ownership of the oil. Their sole purpose is to transport it from a land-based tank to the ship’s tanks without spilling a drop.

The addition of the ISO 14001 certification and the new barge Nathan Schmidt helps make that happen on a daily basis. •

By Professional Mariner Staff