Puerto Rico towing company augments its fleet with conversions of older tugs

The newest tractor-style tugboat about to appear on the south coast of Puerto Rico is a former World War II Navy tug recently reduced in size and converted to z-drive propulsion by local entrepreneur Pedro F. Rivera, founder of American Tugs Inc., based in Yabucoa.

Rivera, who has already brought back to life half a dozen former U.S. inland river towboats and workboats, was putting the finishing touches on his latest conversion at a shipyard in Alton, Ill., in mid-June. The tug, now with twin azimuthing z-drive propellers, was due to make its inaugural voyage to Puerto Rico, by way of New Orleans, in mid-summer.

Rivera calls it his own entrepreneurial form of recycling.

The newly-named convert, Alejandro, is what is left of the former U.S. Navy tug Allegheny (ATA-179) built in 1944 towards the end of World War II. After initial deployment in the South Pacific, the tug served in the Navy for almost 25 years before undergoing conversions for alternate uses. For close to a decade, it was a training vessel for the Great Lakes Maritime Academy. Allegheny was originally a diesel-electric, single-screw vessel with overall length of 143 feet and displacement of 835 tons. Today the vessel is considerably lighter, having lost about 30 feet of hull and carrying a much lighter complement of equipment, machinery and crew.

The tug, originally much more ship-like in appearance, was constructed for the Navy at Levingston Shipbuilding Co., which is, itself, a story of historic entrepreneurial success. The Orange, Texas, shipyard was established by Irish immigrant Samuel Levingston in the 1850s. Many decades later it evolved into the Far East Levingston Shipbuilding (FELS) now a part of the international maritime group Keppel FELS, based in Singapore.

Work on Alejandro's renovation and conversion was done at American Boat Inc. in Alton and at National Maintenance & Repair, in Hartford, Ill. Rivera has also made use of his own employees working on this and other vessels at the shipyard.

Rivera, a former manager for Crowley Maritime in San Juan, got started with his own business in the early 1990s. At first he competed against his former employer and others in San Juan, and then he relocated to the south coast of Puerto Rico. Rivera already has one other z-drive vessel in his fleet of nine tugs plus a 250-foot deck barge. That tug, Marilyn R., is a former Mississippi River workboat converted to offshore towing capability and upgraded with z-drives at the same Illinois shipyard in 2004. Rivera acquired that former Navy tug in 2006 when it was in disrepair and near-abandonment in Puerto Rico. Soon after, one of his tugs was dispatched to tow it to Illinois for an extended refurbishment project.

Alejandro, in its current configuration, will be the sixth z-drive tug operating in Puerto Rico, although other tugs have come and gone from previous charters and assignments. In addition to these two American Tug tractors, the others are Hector P., operated by South Puerto Rico Towing; Don Alfredo, operated by Harbor Bunkering in San Juan; Z-One operated by Great Lakes Towing's Puerto Rico Towing & Barge Co., and at least one z-drive tug typically kept in San Juan by McAllister Towing and Transportation.

Alejandro, newly outfitted with twin EMD 16-645 diesels and Schottel z-drives, can turn in a reported 3,900 hp with bollard pull in excess of 55 tons, according to Rivera. The blue-hulled tug has a robust appearance with high bulwarks, raised fo'c's'le deck, elevated pilothouse and plenty of deck gear on both ends to handle a variety of assignments. The tug also has substantial firefighting capability, with a Skum monitor above the pilothouse, as befitting a tug that will frequently be assisting LNG tankers into the berths at nearby Guayanilla.

Kelly Sprague of Design Associates Inc., in New Orleans, was project engineer for the conversion. He said approximately 30 feet was cut from the stern, with a new flat bottom, sloping down at about a 19° angle extended forward and down to meet the original keel. A small skeg was attached to that flat bottom section, with z-drives installed just aft of the skeg. While most of the rest of the hull was left untouched, all of the machinery spaces were gutted and much of the tankage was refurbished or altered. The current tugboat retains its original round-bilge configuration forward of amidships.

Rivera said the tug, with both z-drive and offshore capability, will fulfill a variety of local, coastwise and offshore opportunities within its operating area. He said total costs of the project for Alejandro will be close to $3 million.

"I think that is a pretty good price," he said, "especially if you compare it to the costs of some tugs being built today in the range of $10 million or more."

Significant clients and assignments of American Tugs consist of assisting barges in and out of the Shell refinery at the southeastern Puerto Rican town of Yabucoa, assisting LNG tankers in and out of the gas-fired power plant in Guayanilla Bay, and assisting ships and tugs at several other coal or oil fired power plants on the south coast. At the LNG facility, which has been operating since 2000, American Tugs operates in partnership with South Puerto Rico Towing, which operates the ASD tractor Hector P., and Svitzer Americas, the international towage company supplying logistical and technical support for marine operations. Guayanilla, towards the western end of the south coast, is Puerto Rico's second busiest port, after San Juan.

Aside from his LNG work in Guayanilla, Rivera said his tugs mostly operate towards the eastern end of the island, with little competition since most of the harbors have fairly low maritime volume. His tugs, he said, are engaged in a variety of coastwise and offshore assignments, while his 250-foot deck barge, Thor III, is employed transporting up to 5,000 tons of construction equipment, building supplies, scrap steel and other heavy items around the Caribbean.

Rivera reported that he had to use another tug in his fleet as collateral to finance the purchase of ASD drives for Alejandro. That tug, on paper at least, had little intrinsic value at the start of the project, other than its historic significance.

Rivera anticipates that Alejandro will be a versatile vessel for terminal operations and a capable towing vessel and salvage tug. It has ASD maneuverability and a heavy windlass on the bow with two anchors, plus hawser winch, towing winch, capstan and towing bar across the stern. The tug also has 5,300-gpm firefighting capability, with a Nijhuis fire pump directly powered by a 16V-92 Detroit Diesel engine and the Skum monitor aloft. Also in the engine room are a pair of 8V-71 Detroit Diesel generators producing 100 kW each of auxiliary power.

On deck, Alejandro retains some original Almon Johnson equipment, including the dual-drum anchor windlass and the aft capstan, both now repowered to hydraulic. Just aft of the anchor windlass forward is a JonRie InterTech hawser winch with 350,000 pounds of braking power and 450 feet of 7-inch circumference braided line. The aft towing winch has been converted to a hydraulic package by JonRie InterTech. A 100-hp electric motor drives a pump to supply central hydraulic power.

Navigation gear aboard the reconfigured tug includes Furuno NavNet radar, JRC AIS and heading sensor, Standard Horizon VHF radios, Simrad autopilot and electrical control panels provided by Bass Products.

Rivera, 52, owns American Tugs Inc. together with his wife Marilin Hernandez, who helps operate the office. He said he is proud to have two sons working with him, including his eldest, Pedro F. Rivera Jr., a graduate of Texas Maritime Academy, and his youngest, Alejandro Rivera, assisting with day-to-day operations. The youngest son is the namesake for the newest tug.

By Professional Mariner Staff