New Orleans optimistic about recovery, as marine operators deploy new tugboats

The maritime community in New Orleans is feeling a wave of optimism, even though the recession did finally catch up with the Crescent City. The lag was due in part to all of the re-supply and jobs created by the recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Then again, there is nothing like the inspiration of a Super Bowl win to invigorate a city striving to finally re-establish itself.

Strange as it may seem, “holding steady,” as expressed by Chris Bonura, of the Port of New Orleans, is in itself optimistic for this year. The port has experienced roughly half of the decline being reported by other ports in the nation, but recession aside, New Orleans is continuing its long-term plan to upgrade its riverside facilities.

Container vessel ready to sail at Napoleon Avenue terminal in New Orleans. (Brian Gauvin photo)

Following the completion of Phase I of the Napoleon Avenue Container Terminal, Phase II is underway. A South Korean company is midway through a $26 million contract for construction of two multi-purpose gantry cranes for the terminal, with delivery expected before the end of this year. A total of six gantry cranes will operate at the terminal when installation of the two new cranes is complete. In addition the port is seeking funding from the Louisiana legislature for additional marshalling yards and other improvements, according to Bonura.

(Brandon Durar photo)

In the private sector, a pair of huge, barge-mounted stevedoring cranes, appropriately named Ability and Attitude, were christened for Associated Terminals on the waterfront in April. These cranes are used for transloading cargoes from large ships to river barges.

New Orleans is primarily a break bulk port, with the bulk of petrochemical products and grain passing through the ports of Plaquemines, St. Bernard, South Louisiana and Baton Rouge, all straddling the swift and muddy current of the lower Mississippi River. Tugboats based in New Orleans provide ship-assist service at all those ports and more.

In 2009, the Port of New Orleans handled 5.9 million tons of general cargo, which is on par with 2008 figures, according to Bonura.

Three of the four New Orleans-based tugboat companies, working the 235 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River to the bridge at Baton Rouge, are building ASD tugs this year.

Crescent Towing is located downstream from Algiers Point at the big bend in the Mississippi that defines New Orleans as the Crescent City. Seventeen of the company’s 25 tugboats and 175 of its 275 employees are in New Orleans.

Although business is slow, the company, mindful of the ebb and flow of the global economy, is moving ahead with its building program. Crescent took delivery of the 92-foot Lisa Cooper this past spring from C&G Boat Works in Mobile, Ala.

The ASD tug Capt. Jimmy T. Moran is the first tractor-style tug for Moran Towing in New Orleans. She was delivered in 2009 by C&G Boat Works. (Mike Posey photo)

Crescent Towing has two more ASD tugs in the works at C&G. The new tug will be working in Mobile.

Lisa Cooper has a single drum JonRie InterTech escort winch on the foredeck and a JonRie towing winch on the stern.

In the engine room are two GE 6L 250 in-line diesels rated at 2,678 hp, driving Rolls-Royce 255 z-drives. “The six-cylinder engines were chosen because of their fuel economy and for the ability to adapt them to tier III and tier IV in the future,” said Andrew Cooper, Crescent Towing’s senior vice president.

Eight miles upriver from Crescent Towing, near Audubon Park, is the E.N. Bisso & Son dock. Riding on the success of its first ASD tug, Josephine Anne, the company is building two more.

Beverly B and Elizabeth B, named for the daughter and grandaughter of Edwin Bisso, are expected to join the company’s fleet of 17 tugs later this year.

The tugs are designed by Jensen Maritime Consultants, a Seattle firm that has combined with Eastern Shipbuilding, in Panama City, Fla., on several of the 98-foot z-drives for Eastern, and for both Seabulk Towing and McAllister Towing.

“At the moment we are replacing some of our single screw, 2,000-hp boats with 4,000-hp z-drives, said Walter Kristiansen, president of E.N. Bisso & Son. “Now, if a customer requires a 5,000 or 6,000-hp boat in the future, well, then we’d build one.”

Electronically controlled Caterpillar 3516-C Series II main engines turning Rolls-Royce Aquamaster MK1 z-drives will power both vessels. A Caterpillar 3412-D engine powers the Nijhuis fire pump, which puts out 5,000 gpm of water through the FFS monitor.

Kristiansen reports that the bulk of E. N. Bisso’s clients are tankers, and tankers calling on the lower Mississippi have remained strong through the recession, as have the dry bulkers.

“The river has done very well considering,” said Kristiansen, citing a decline of 10 percent in arrivals, half the figure being bandied about in most U.S. ports.

However, Kristiansen portends an employee shortage problem when the economy recovers. “People have forgotten that two years ago there was a shortage of personnel in our industry.

Without degrading quality and skill levels, he emphasizes that the industry has to find new ways of enticing people to choose marine careers and also to shorten the time it takes to advance.

“Do you know how many hours it takes for a person to get his Masters of Towing Vessels license,” Kristiansen asks, then answering, “11,520 hours, or 1,440 days exclusive of training time.”

Citing a report on the time and training required to achieve a license for various modes of transportation, he points out a few comparisons: 1,500 hours of flight training and experience to obtain an Airline Transport Pilot license; zero hours for a Commercial Motor Vehicle driver’s license for trucks and buses, although you must pass a written and a driving test.

“Our biggest asset remains our employees and we had zero lay-offs this past year. Our people are crucial for our future.”

A stone’s throw from E.N. Bisso’s dock is the headquarters of Bisso Towboat, scheduled for another ASD from Main Iron Works in Houma, La, within the next year. Scott Slatten, company president, reports that equipment delays have held up the lineup of new-builds ahead of his.

“We should have her mid to late 2011,” said Slatten. The new tug will be a carbon copy of the last new boat from Main Iron Works, Michael S. The company maintains a fleet of 11 tugs and employs 100 people.

“Ship traffic is down about 9 percent, but our business is about the same,” said Slatten. “We have two grain elevators that we work for and they’ve been really busy. Our tanker business has dropped off a bit, but our grain business, coal business and dry-bulk business has been holding steady or actually increasing over the past three months.”

Not a container chaser, Slatten sees no reason to actively pursue a sector in the shipping business he feels will elude New Orleans because of its location. He also is skeptical on the subject of containers on barges. “It’s just too expensive and time consuming to run the ships up and down the river. We’ll never be a container port like Houston or Long Beach.”

However, Slatten is not skeptical on the economic recovery, expecting to see companies begin to invest the capital and expand to where increases in shipping will result by the end of the year.

The New Orleans Board of Trade reported that 1,179 foreign ships called at New Orleans in the first three months this year. That compares to 1,297 last year, according to the report.

“There are a lot of people in this country who are in a lot worse shape than we are; ports that saw 20 to 25 percent drop in traffic. We’ve seen a 9 percent drop in traffic. That’s not catastrophic. So I’m optimistic,” said Slatten.

“Our employees seem satisfied and our turnover is next to nil. That’s always a good sign. Happy employees make good tugboat companies and that’s the way we want to keep it.”

(Another New Orleans tugboat company, Moran Towing, introduced a new tugboat in 2009, which is covered along with other Moran developments in the next story.)

By Professional Mariner Staff