Tug operators on the lower Mississippi continue to update their fleets

Above, the E.N. Bisso & Son tugboat Josephine Anne moves past the office towers of downtown New Orleans. E.N. Bisso is one of four towing companies that work the lower Mississippi

On a crisp, clear, December morning aboard E.N. Bisso & Son’s tug Vera Bisso, Bill Summers, the company’s vice president of operations, recalled catching his first ship at the Napoleon Avenue Terminal in New Orleans when he was a merchant marine cadet in 1972.

“Ships were moored three deep," Summers said. Farther downriver is a seven-mile stretch of mostly abandoned riverfront structures stretching to the Crescent City’s Riverwalk.

Three and one-half years ago, Katrina recovery was weighing heavily on everyone in New Orleans. Today the city’s worries about the economy are shared by people around the country. However, all four towing companies that operate on the 235 miles of river stretching from Eads’ jetties at the mouth of the Mississippi River, to Port Allen, above the bridge at Baton Rouge, show optimism by continuing their fleet upgrades.

“There is a slight slowdown (in containers) but the tanker and bulk markets are holding pretty steady," said Summers, who speculates that containers will come back because of the expansion of the Panama Canal, scheduled for completion in 2014, and increased use of the Suez Canal. “The West Coast ports are bottled up and there is a shift from Japan to China and India for consumer goods." Summers explained that the shift motivates shipping companies to use the Suez Canal, a shorter route to the Gulf of Mexico.

Chris Bonura, communications manager for the Port of New Orleans, said that cargos were at pre-Katrina levels one year after the storm. “We are predominantly a break-bulk port, but we’re seeing more and more containers. We are injecting a billion dollars worth of improvements, from state funds and public/private partnerships," he said. “One-half is going to container facilities, phase 2 and 3 at Napoleon Avenue Terminal."

The four companies, E.N. Bisso & Son, Bisso Towboat, Crescent Towing and Moran Towing Corp. (formerly River Parishes Co.), work five ports: Plaquemines, St. Bernard, New Orleans, South Louisiana and Baton Rouge. In addition to the container and break-bulk facilities that dominate the Port of New Orleans, the river is lined with tank farms, chemical plants, and terminals handling steel, coal, gravel and cement, among other commodities.

The Bisso Towboat z-drive tug Cecilia B. Slatten moves a ship across the Mississippi from the general anchorage area to a mooring above Chalmette Slip.

“I’m cautiously optimistic about the economy," said Walter Kristiansen, president and CEO of E.N. Bisso & Son. “It is not my intention to lay anyone off. We have good talent, and we don’t want to lose them. And I have no intention of eating our assets. We will continue to do the quality maintenance and repairs. We have to first work more efficiently and second control our expenses, make sure that all of the paint is used in a pail."

E.N. Bisso took delivery of its first azimuth stern drive (ASD) tug, Josephine Anne, from Eastern Shipbuilding, of Panama City, Fla., last year. The company now has a fleet of 13 tugs in New Orleans, two in Baton Rouge and another two with Gulfport Towing in Mississippi, a company E.N. Bisso acquired in 2007. In 2010, Eastern will deliver two more of the Jensen designed tractor tugs, completing the company’s 14-year rebuilding program.

Kristiansen explained that it is his indirect customers — the pilots, shipping agents — and the crews who are driving the company to z-drives.

Capt. Sean Fortier in the wheelhouse of Cecilia B. Slatten.

“I have not been a big fan of ASDs and tractors in the past," he said. “What are you gaining? You give up the horsepower to bollard pull (ratio)." For example, Kristiansen compared the 4,000-hp conventional tug Vera Bisso with a 70-ton certified bollard pull to the 4,000-hp Josephine Anne with 55 tons of bollard pull.

“But I go with what the crews tell me and they say they are highly maneuverable and highly efficient on the job. So, yes, I’m on board for z-drives." The company has 138 employees, its biggest asset according to Kristiansen. “The boats are just pieces of steel and don’t do anything without good people operating them."

Regarding the U.S. Coast Guard’s plans to require inspections of towing vessels, Kristiansen is also cautiously optimistic. “Low performing operators will be forced to comply or cease doing business. However, the potential also exists for the regulations to do great harm to the industry, including safety performance, if they impose unjustly harsh, severe or impractical requirements."

 Capt. Ed North, master of the E.N. Bisso & Son tugboat Vera Bisso, during the tow of a dry dock.

On another brilliant morning, Crescent Towing Capt. Terry Murley idled the 104-foot, 5,200-hp Point Clear in front of the Nashville Avenue Terminal. She is the company’s first ASD, delivered in 1999 from Thoma-Sea Boat Builders, of Houma, La.

Sitting beside Point Clear was the 4,500-hp, twin-screw tug New Orleans, waiting for the tug Louisiana to finish a job.

Crescent Towing operates 25 tugs, 17 in New Orleans, three in Mobile, Ala., and five in Savannah, Ga. The company employs 275 people, 185 of them in New Orleans. “While newly constructed modern tugs keep Crescent competitive on the equipment front, it’s our people who really make the difference in overall quality service and customer satisfaction," said Crescent Senior Vice President Andrew Cooper.

Josephine Anne on its way to help Vera Bisso with the tow.

“Obviously in today’s world and with ships getting larger, any new-build would have to be a z-drive tractor tug," Cooper said. Crescent has a series of ASDs under construction at C&G Shipyard in Mobile, the first two scheduled for delivery this year.

“The future is hard to predict of course, but it seems that the Mississippi River stays on a pretty good level with regards to types of cargo coming into the ports. Predominantly, we see bulk/general cargo ships mostly loading grain outbound from the Midwest."

Cooper sees growth in Mobile resulting from the building of the Mobile Container Terminal and the new ThyssenKrupp steel mill. Savannah, primarily a container and LNG port, is heavily dependent on consumer spending, and therefore the growth seen in recent years has slowed down in a depressed, consumer based economy.

However, “we have seen larger ships calling in all our ports compared to years past, and this is probably all related to the shipping market," said Cooper. “The shipping market has been very good until just recently, and we are now seeing a shift to actual owners taking their tonnage back from operators/time charters. This is because the market has been declining, and operators are not able to continue paying high charter rates • when the market for that ship has dropped significantly."

Cooper endorses the proposed towing vessel inspection regulations. “This is a very important issue and one we have been preparing for many years. I am sure it will have an effect on our industry, but only in a positive way. This will force tug operators to abide by the rules the Coast Guard has established and will create a safer working environment."

Moran Towing took delivery in December of the 5,100-hp, 86-foot, Jimmy T. Moran, built at C&G Shipyard. It is Moran’s first ASD in their New Orleans fleet of eight tugs and 55 employees.

“We have not felt a dramatic impact as of yet, but will undoubtedly feel the effects of this economic downturn in the time to come," said a spokesman for Moran. “We welcome the upcoming changes that are going to be proposed by the USCG. We are currently working towards ISM certifications, which have already been completed in our oil, offshore, East Coast and Texas operations. Our goal has always been to go above and beyond what is required, which keeps us ahead of the game."

On a beautifully clear afternoon, Capt. Mike Hilton was at the wheel of Bisso Towboat’s Cecilia B. Slatten. He had a line on the 394-foot general cargo vessel Onego Traveller, moving her from the New Orleans general anchorage to the Arabi mooring pilings just above Chalmette Slip in St. Bernard Port. Hilton explained, “This is a unique tractor-tug job, head-down (ship bow facing downriver), and the tug is providing the steering and power (for the ship). “It’s a small ship and my biggest problem is not to overpower her."

The 100-foot, 4,300-hp Cecilia B. Slatten, Bisso Towboat’s first ASD tug, was delivered in 1999 from Main Iron Works, of Houma, La. followed by Alma S. in 2006, bumping the company fleet to 11 tugs.

Bisso has another z-drive under construction and a fourth on order. “These tugs will be almost exact carbon copies of our previous z-drives," said Scott Slatten, company president. “We find (them) to be the perfect size for working ships on the river. With current speeds that sometimes reach 5 to 6 knots, we like the extra stability that a 38-foot width offers and do not want to build a tug narrower than that."

The pilots are “growing ever more sure and adept at utilizing ASDs and we are seeing them commonly used in ways that you could never safely use a conventional tug," added Slatten.

“The Port of New Orleans will never be on a par, container-shipping wise, with a Houston or an LA/Long Beach," said Slatten, citing low population, transport travel time, river or land, as the major reasons. Slatten considers the expanses of undeveloped land lining the river below New Orleans as ripe for U.S. and foreign companies to develop manufacturing plants, agricultural export terminals and petroleum tank farms.

“The liquid and dry-bulk markets are where we should focus our efforts, especially with the widening of the Panama Canal, and we should merge all the ports on the lower river into one mega-port and focus all our efforts on improving and marketing the entire lower Mississippi River region as opposed to each little port district."

Outspoken concerning current safety regulations, licensing and the proposed towing vessel inspections, Slatten supports a safety management system that is ISM certified by the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS). Bisso Towboat has adopted the system, claiming that it far exceeds anything found in American Waterways Operators’ (AWO) Responsible Carrier Program (RCP). He hopes the U.S Coast Guard will require all towing companies to achieve that standard of compliance, at a minimum.

Right, Capt. Terry Murley in the wheelhouse of Point Clear.

“The existing USCG regulations for licensing, specifically for the ship-assist industry, are too confusing, onerous and time consuming and do not increase safety by one iota. Based upon our tugs working a schedule of seven on, seven off, and the USCG delays in processing applications, it will take an entry level deck hand approximately seven years to get his master of towing vessel license. You can get your commercial airline pilot’s license in less time than that•. We know within one or two years of hiring whether or not one of our entry-level deck hands has the talent, skills and moxie to be a towing vessel master."

Slatten contends that within four years an applicant with talent is ready to be a master, but will remain an apprentice mate, at that pay level.

“Something needs to be done to expedite the process," he said.

Although well intended, Slatten sees the new Coast Guard licensing regulations as a mess in the making. “With our aging mariners, the new mariners are just not coming up through the ranks as they used to, and the shortages are getting worse every year," he said. “We welcome a towing vessel inspection program and hope that the finished product is more than just window dressing or lip service to safety issues. AWO’s RCP, in its present form, is not the answer. While the RCP is a good step in the right direction and does address some of the safety issues, it is not the panacea to the ills in our industry. There are too many ways to manipulate the RCP auditors, who are paid by the audited company, to successfully pass your audit. I think this fact was evident during the DRD Towing collision inquiry (Mel Oliver incident, PM #118) where it was testified that the owner of the towing company put pressure on the owner of the auditing firm to have his auditor back off of his inspections. And even with the failed audit, AWO did not suspend or revoke their membership until after the collision on the river.

Crescent Towing’s 5,200-hp Point Clear, delivered in 1999, was the company’s first azimuthing stern drive tug.

“You need to have an independent, USCG and/or ABS certified, third-party auditor to ensure compliance with the regulations. And if you fail your audit, you will have a minimal amount of time to correct the deficiencies. If not, the USCG will seize your vessels until compliance is reached.

“Unfortunately, the powerful lobbyists in Washington, D.C., will probably twist enough USCG arms to where we end up with an inspection program that makes everyone feel good, but does not do much to make the waterways safer." •

Foss introduces world’s first hybrid tug

Foss Maritime’s new hybrid tug has begun doing ship-assist work in Long Beach and Los Angeles. The z-drive tug meets strict air emission standards in southern California.

Green is not just skin deep on the Foss Maritime tug Carolyn Dorothy, the first hybrid tug in the world. The new Foss assist tug joined the Long Beach and Los Angeles fleet following a ceremony on Jan. 23.

The unveiling was the culmination of a collaborative process involving Foss Maritime, the Canadian naval architect Robert Allan, the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles and the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Both ports contributed money to help defray the cost of development.

The tug was built at Foss’ Rainier, Ore., shipyard. Aspin Kemp & Associates and its affiliate XeroPoint designed the hybrid management system, essentially the brain that controls the use and routing of energy for storing and expending power. The system employs both diesel fueled z-drive propulsion from two Cummins QSK50 Tier 2 mains and a bank of 126 rechargeable batteries. The mains deliver the muscle when the tug is assisting a ship, and the batteries kick in for standby and slow running.

“Our aim now is to keep focused on the environmental challenges," said David Hill, vice president harbor services for Foss. “Today the impact on the environment has crept in more and more and we have to take the right steps to have the least impact, primarily in fuel consumption and reducing emissions, not only in Long Beach/Los Angeles, but throughout the whole fleet."

The Green Assist Hybrid Tug meets those expectations by significantly reducing emissions — by 44 percent for particulate matter and nitrogen oxide and 20 to 30 percent for CO2 and sulfur dioxide. The vessel exceeds the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Tier 2 emissions requirement for marine propulsion, and the design was awarded the EPA’s Clean Air Excellence Award for Clean Air Technology in 2008. Carolyn Dorothy runs more quietly when on battery power, uses less fuel and has lower maintenance costs.

Carolyn Dorothy is the 10th in the Dolphin class of tug used primarily in southern California.

The tugs are designed for close-in harbor work. “Depending on the market, we will build more in the future," said Hill. “We have plans to take the standard Dolphin tugs in the fleet and retrofit them to our hybrid design."

By Professional Mariner Staff