New player in Boston: Leo, Constellation Maritime

Marc Villa and his son, Rick Villa, at helm, are two of many people working to develop the new East Coast base for Foss Maritime in Boston. (Brian Gauvin)

There are now two Boston tugboat companies with modern tractor-style equipment poised for business on opposite sides of the Fore River, where before there was really just one.

Boston’s traditional tugboat company, Boston Towing & Transportation, has had to make room this year for an expanded, refinanced and revitalized competitor — Constellation Martitime, acquired by Foss Maritime of Seattle in 2006.

Boston Towing, with 13 tugs including two LNG-capable, z-drive tractor tugs, still has the majority of ship-assist work in this mid-sized port — estimated to be at least 75 percent market share — but Constellation, backed by an aggressive parent company eager to build itself as a national brand, is sure to be coming on strong in the near future.

Out at the end of Pier 1 in Charlestown, near the autoport at the end of Terminal Street, just north of the Charlestown Navy Yard, it’s beginning to look like a Foss Maritime satellite yard with half a dozen green and white tugs tied up around a couple of work barges, one of which houses a maintenance facility and offices. What’s left of the old Constellation fleet — tied up around the corner — is totally eclipsed by the newer and more powerful green and white Foss tugs. While a couple of new Foss tractor-style tugs get the headlines these days, a handful of very capable twin-screw tugs are also there to do the heavy hauling.

Most of them are being renamed after stellar constellations, except the newest and most powerful — the 5,080-hp z-drive tractor, Leo, which arrived in Boston in mid-March already bearing a constellation name. Leo and another Foss tractor, the 3,000-hp cycloidal-drive tug America (just renamed Orion), were both towed around from the West Coast as dead ships, arriving with a disfiguring coating of ice at the tail end of winter.

While Leo, being a short and powerful Robert Allan design, becomes the lead tug in Boston for Constellation; the 25-year-old America is not to be overlooked. This 87-foot tug may be lacking in horsepower by some standards, but it is highly maneuverable with its forward-mounted Voith Schneider propulsion units, which could count for a lot in Boston where horsepower is not necessarily the name of the game anyway. It is usually the second tug out on most Constellation ship-docking jobs.

The newest and most powerful tractor tug in Boston is Leo. (Brian Gauvin)

Across the river in East Boston, Boston Towing & Transportation includes a pair of 92-foot, 4,400-hp z-drive tractors in its fleet — these vessels being semi-dedicated to handling the 50 or so LNG tankers that arrive at Boston’s inner harbor every year. Boston Towing is a wholly owned subsidiary of New York-based Reinauer Transportation. Until this year, Boston Towing was the primary ship-assist firm in Boston. It still is, of course, but now a newly energized competitor is right across the river.

Foss, a unit of Marine Resources Group Inc., Seattle, reported in mid-2006 that it had agreed to acquire the equipment assets and trade names of Constellation Tug Co., which would soon change its name to Constellation Maritime Co. Constellation has been operating in Boston with four conventional tugs and three barges. Under different ownership it was previously operating as Bay State Towing.

Engineer Bill Muise shows off Leos Caterpillar engines. (Brian Gauvin)

The most recent leadership of Constellation is continuing to manage the company in its first year as a subsidiary of Foss. Marc Villa, a partner at Constellation, has been named president of the new company, while other partners at Constellation — Conti Coluntino, Jeff Nichols and Bob Manning — are continuing in management positions.

“We have a foothold here in Boston that we intend to develop as best we can,” said Villa. “And we will continue the growth of our construction and barge business as well.” Villa estimates that Constellation may have as much as 75 percent market share in local construction and barge projects.

Both Boston Towing and Constellation Maritime have conventional tugs available for regional barge work and marine construction projects. As of this spring, Constellation also had a 2,400-hp, twin-screw tug, Tucana, chartered out to Wilmington Tug Inc. in Wilmington, Del.

Lo-Rez vibration isolators are installed under all engine mounts. (Brian Gauvin)

Just because Boston is now home to four modern tractor tugs, there is still no assurance that this historic New England port will be expanding as a shipping destination any time soon. The port plays host to about 2,000 ship calls in a typical year, including car carriers, dry bulk freighters, tankers, tugs and barges, and those conspicuous LNG tankers. Also calling at Boston are about 80 cruise ships a year, but these do not often require tug assistance.

As of this spring, the tugs Leo and America were spending more time plugged into shore power or out on training exercises than they were pushing ships around, but that could change.

“Yes, it is something of a daunting effort to let everyone know that we are here with these great new tugs,” said Villa. “But you must remember that Foss is an internationally known company with an excellent reputation for service and equipment. This may be seen as the other coast for Foss, but the company is already well known by many of the players who have ships calling here,” he added. “Everyone can see what we’ve got here now, and we are doing our best to get that word spread around.”

For now, Leo, by virtue of its age and power, becomes the top tug in Boston. It is actually the sixth in a series of high-horsepower tractor tugs originally designed for West Coast ship-assist service. Its sister ships are all working for Foss in Los Angeles/Long Beach, San Francisco or Hawaii.

New tugs in Boston: America, left, and Leo. (Brian Gauvin)

These Caterpillar-powered vessels have more than 5,000 hp crammed into a relatively short but stocky hull. With a 34-foot beam and a 40-foot skeg running from amidships to the bow, the tug can exert more than 65 tons of forward bollard pull. Its small pilothouse is set well back, and decks are generally wide open except for fore and aft Markey winches and line-guiding staples welded to each end. The tug’s profile is also dominated by massive Schuyler Rubber fendering on bow and stern, plus 11 large aircraft tires chained to each side.

The tug’s forward hawser winch is electric powered with a level-winder and full render-recovery features. The winch includes a line-tension indicator in the wheelhouse along with the full pilothouse controls. Since Leo and its predecessors are designed for harbor work with a two-man crew, the tug carries only 10,000 gallons of diesel fuel, and its entire supply of potable water is stored in a transparent 500-gallon tank located about amidships in the engine room.

While there is plenty of training going on around the Constellation docks, the two primary Leo skippers are Rick Villa (Marc Villa’s son) and Chris Makay.
Marc Villa, who has been in and out of the marine business over the years, reports he also holds a 1,600-ton Coast Guard license. He said he enjoys getting out on the occasional tug job, and he has been getting up to speed on operating tractor tugs, but he recognizes that is not his job.

Villa said he is spending much of his time now helping to fulfill the expectations of Marine Resources Group, and also helping them to take a further look around for opportunities on the East Coast. “I think we are on the verge of some fairly rapid growth in this region,” he said.

By Professional Mariner Staff