Shipyard finds its niche in truckable pushboats and smaller workboats

From the veranda backing the Marine Inland Fabricators (MIF) offices in Panama City, Fla., four boats gleaming with a fresh coat of paint fronted the view of Fannin Bayou. In February, things could be worse in a Gulf Coast shipyard than having four boats ready for delivery.

The boats were truckable workboats, the company's mainstay vessel. Another hull of assembled frames was sitting upside down on blocks. Business looked to be good despite the recession.

In 2009, MIF owner Rudy Sistrunk landed what he describes as his "dream contract." General Electric had ordered 17 truckable workboats to work on its Hudson River cleanup program.

Rudy Sistrunk, the owner of Marine Inland Fabricators in Panama City, Fla., has an efficient operation turning out 25-foot, 600-hp truckable workboats like this one. (Brian Gauvin photo)

"We started in January and delivered the last boat on May the fourth," said Sistrunk.

During the GE contract, MIF employed 45 people in the yard, up from 20. Since the project ended, the yard has employed 25 people. While the company builds sectional barges and has built larger pushboats, 95 percent of its business is building truckable workboats. And 95 percent of that 95 percent are 25-foot, 600-hp boats with deck winches and push knees for moving barges.

That repetition, with its inherent efficiency, is a key to the company’s success. But regulations play a part as well. Keeping the workboats at less than 26 feet in length allows the vessels to operate without a Coast Guard licensed captain. Most truckable workboats stay under that length. The legal width limit for highway trailers in most states is 8 feet 6 inches. Depending on state regulations, a 16-foot-wide boat requires one or two escorts to trailer.

The clients — primarily shipyards and construction contractors building bridges, levees, dredge work and such — like the cost and the size. "When they finish a job, they can just put them on a trailer and head for the next job,” explained Sistrunk.

MIF's standard boat is a 25.3-by-14-by-5-foot vessel called a Clydesdale. The boat is powered by two John Deere 6081 Tier 2 mains, each rated at 300 hp with Twin Disc MG-5075, 2.88:1 ratio gears turning 36-by-20-inch four-blade propellers. On deck are two 5-ton winches. The fuel capacity is 350 gallons, but Sistrunk said MIF has put in tanks that hold up to 900 gallons. The boat weighs approximately 35,000 pounds.

"We do special models that are longer and wider,” said Sistrunk. "The 25-foot also comes in a 12-foot-wide version called the Stallion, and a 10-foot-wide one called the Mustang." A fire detection system and general fire alarm are standard on all the boats. Options include a CO2 fire suppression system, air conditioning and an insulated wheelhouse.

David Latape at the controls of Mr. Junius, a 60-foot triple-screw pushboat operated by Boh Bros. The company is working on the construction of the twin-span Interstate 10 bridge across Lake Pontchartrain near New Orleans. The original bridge was badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. (Brian Gauvin photo)

Thirteen of the boats built for the GE project are standard Clydesdales, but with a maximum draft of 4 feet. The other four vessels have twin John Deere 6068 M3 Tier 2 diesels rated at 201 hp each. All 17 boats have telescoping pilothouses to clear the bridges on the upper Hudson.

For the GE project the boats are being used as barge tenders, moving mud barges loaded with contaminated bottom mud near two GE plants north of Albany, N.Y. This is a typical working application for the small truckable boats, their shallow draft allowing them to move the barges close to the shore.

Sistrunk kept the company name when he bought the boatyard in 2005 from Stewart Sumpton. MIF was already established as a builder of truckable workboats, but Sistrunk had extensive experience in building larger workboats, first at Trinity Marine and then as vice president of operations at Eastern Shipbuilding, in Panama City, Fla. for 10 years. It wasn’t long before an opportunity to display that experience came his way as a result of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The Interstate 10 Twin Span Bridge across Lake Pontchartrain, between New Orleans East and Slidell, La., was torn apart by the tempest. The bridge, built in 1965 with two lanes on each span, consisted of 430 65-foot concrete segments spanning almost five miles. Sixty of those segments were destroyed and 350 of them were misaligned.

A large portion of a contract to build a new Twin Span Bridge was awarded to Boh Bros. Construction. The new bridge, now nearing completion, is substantially stronger, higher and has three lanes on each span. To build it, the company needed two barge tenders with enough power and maneuverability to work in strong winds and among thousands of pilings driven into shallow water.

Mr. Junius and its sister vessel Mr. Stewart were specifically built by Marine Inland Fabricators for the Lake Pontchartrain bridge project. Their triple screws give them great maneuverability for working around pilings. And their three 400-hp John Deere diesels give them the power needed to handle strong currents and stiff winds. (Brian Gauvin photo)

Boh Bros. had used two truckable boats built by MIF on previous bridge construction projects in the Southeast. The company's superintendent of equipment, Gary Button, approached Sistrunk about building two larger workboats specifically for the new bridge project. The result was Mr. Junius and Mr. Stewart; both 60-by-26-by-8 foot triple-screw pushboats. The power train consists of three 400-hp John Deere, Tier 2 diesels, Twin Disc 5114, 4.85:1 gears and 54-by-34-inch four-bladed propellers.

"They are very maneuverable in and around all the pilings we have out there," said Button. "They're very good at running a barge in close quarters."

Button went on to explain that the boats handled the strong current that flows toward Lake Borgne and the Gulf of Mexico when the north winds push the water out of the lake in the winter.

Those characteristics sit well with Capt. Shane Strouse, who was a captain on the boats before advancing to an office position in the company's marine sector.

"They really handle well," said Strouse. "They're excellent boats. With the triple screw, if you lose one engine, you still have two engines to keep going safely and you can get out of the way."

The triple-screw configuration also allowed for smaller propellers and hence a shallower draft, ideal for working in a lake with an average depth of 12 to 14 feet.

Once the bridge is finished, the boats will be put to work on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects building levee walls and pumping stations that Boh Bros. is working on in and around New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

To date, MIF has constructed four larger pushboats, the two 1,200-hp boats for Boh Bros., a 1,000-hp twin-screw boat for Daigle Marine Towing, of Belle Chase, La., and a 2,000-hp twin-screw for South Coast Maritime, of Brownsville, Texas. "Sixty feet is about all we can handle here, but we'll build any size in between."

This small vessel was built to propel a ferry barge across Bull Shoal Lake in Arkansas. Note the latch mechanism on the bow that hooks to the barge amidships, allowing the boat to pivot at the end of each run, eliminating the need to turn the barge around for the trip back. (Photo courtesy Marine Inland Fabricators)

Variety, being what it is, seeps into even the most stringent of cookie-cutter operations. One of the boats ready for delivery in the yard has two 6-71 Detroit Diesels for power, engines that shed no tears when it comes to emissions. The venerable 6-71s, once the mainstay engine in the U.S. marine industry, have been exiled by the Environmental Protection Agency's march on emissions, to the storybook of American marine engineers. This one is destined for Nigeria.

Two other boats that were sitting in the yard also deviate from the MIF mold. They are 30-by-12 foot truckable boats that will replace the old Peel Ferry boats at Bull Shoals Lake in the Ozark region of northern Arkansas. Purchased by the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department, the Peel Ferry transports vehicles and passengers traveling scenic Highway 125.

It is a popular drive and ferry experience for those touring the Ozarks or visiting nearby Branson, Mo. The 12-minute run saves the locals a 50-mile drive around the lake, and the run is so popular that the department reports a 100 percent rider capacity.

The operation involves boats hooked up to car-carrying barges.

Even though the boats that propel the car barges are 30 feet long, they are truckable. Since they require a licensed captain to operate them as a passenger ferry, the 26-foot rule is not a concern. Each single-screw boat is powered by a 300-hp John Deere 6081 diesel.

The boats they are replacing are 180 hp. "They just go back and forth so they don't need much for power or to maneuver with," said Sistrunk. The department is keeping the existing barges for the time being, even though they could use more capacity to handle all of the traffic.

"They upgraded the horsepower to 300 on the new boats because they are planning to build bigger barges in the future,” said Sistrunk.

The Peel Ferry barges have an appendage mounted midships that locks into a latching device mounted on the boats' bows. The boats also have a latching device on the port and starboard quarters that accepts a pin on the barge. At either end of the run, the boat unhooks the barge pins, swivels 180° on its bow latch and then locks back onto the barge for the return run across Bull Shoals Lake. The barge is never turned.

The ferry design has spawned a bit of a run for MIF. Sistrunk has just signed a contract to build a new ferry and sectional barge for Nigeria. Named City of Lagos, the ferry is identical to the Peel Ferry vessels, except that it will churn on an 8V-71 Detroit Diesel.

MIF also has a 32-by-14-by-5-foot dredge tender under construction that will be operated by the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Reclamation in conjunction with a dredge that will be operating in the Colorado River in Arizona.

According to Sistrunk, the key to success is to continue providing quality work and service within the company's capacity: building truckable workboats under 26 feet and pushboats up to 60 feet.

By Professional Mariner Staff