Vane Brothers expanding in oil transportation business

Vane Brothers of Baltimore can no longer be described as a small, Baltimore-based bunkering company with scattered coastal barge operations. From now on it appears that Vane Brothers will be a multi-level oil transportation company with operations up and down the East Coast and into the Gulf Coast. But yes, they are still based in Baltimore where the century-old company has it origins.

It was only a decade or two ago that fourth generation president Duff Hughes began to expand this family-owned company beyond strictly local bunkering operations in Baltimore. He moved into larger barges with a fleet of coastwise towing vessels and fuel transportation operations in Philadelphia, Norfolk and elsewhere. In 2002, Hughes was trying to figure out how to replace as many as 15 single-hull oil barges that were due to be phased out before 2015. At the time, with a 14-boat tug fleet, Hughes said he would concentrate on barges and had no plans to build additional tugboats.

Today, however, things have changed. Vane Brothers is in the midst of a multi-year building program involving eight large tugs and more than 20 double-hull oil barges ranging from 30,000 barrels to 140,000 barrels. A steady stream of new barges and tugs is being delivered from Jeffboat in Indiana, Trinity Marine in Nashville and Thomasee Shipyard in Louisiana.

The latest in a series of 4,200 hp tugs, Wicomico, was delivered in early 2006. The tug’s first assignment, after breaking free from the brown water of its Louisiana birthplace, was to pick up a pair of new oil barges delivered by Trinity Marine to Port Arthur, Texas, and tow them ‘home’ to Baltimore. Another near-identical tug, Chesapeake, was delivered this spring, and more new barges are showing up all the time.

For the most part, the new tugs are Caterpillar-powered, 100-footers originally designed by Frank Basile of Houma, La. “These boats are working out to be a pretty good fit for us,” said Jim Demske, the company’s port captain who has been managing new vessel construction. “They are just the right combination of size and power, and we’re sticking with the Cat power with Reintjes gears and the Intercon double-drum towing winch for all the boats,” he added.

Most of the new tugs will be matched up with the series of new 55,000-barrel barges being built by Jeffboat. Demske said he and others at Vane Brothers believe that barges of that size are below the threshold of design requiring articulated coupler systems.

“I would say the threshold is about 100,000 barrels,” he said. “Larger than that and you should be looking at some kind of pin system. But these tugs are very powerful for a 50,000-barrel barge that measures 362 feet in length. They are heavy boats and they can pretty much manhandle any one of these barges.”

The new 4,200 hp tugs are mostly being fitted with an Intercon 8200 series winch package that is chain driven, John Deere diesel as the prime mover and hydraulic brakes. While one winch drum is loaded with 2-inch wire, the other has 1 ¾-inch wire with two different types of soft line laid on top of it.

Wicomico recently departed the Sabine River, headed for Baltimore with the two new barges in tandem tow, one behind the other, with wires fully deployed from both winch drums.


Vane Brothers does not shy away from the use of articulated coupler systems, however. Among the many barges the company has under construction is a pair of 145,000-barrel tank barges being built at Bay Shipbuilding in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. These 480-foot heated product barges, the first of which is slated for delivery at the end of this year, are fitted with Intercon’s coupler system and a new application that allows the tug to remain connected to the barge even as the barge changes draft during loading and unloading.

These new flush-deck, manned oil barges are nearly three times the size of any vessel in the Vane Brothers fleet, according to Hughes. Much of the new tonnage at Vane Brothers is under contract to Sun Oil Company (SUNOCO), the company reports.

Wicomico, like her sisters, is built with CNF type-37 nozzles around each propeller and high-performance rudders, according to her designer. The tug also has Kobelt electronic controls that ensure almost immediate response. The Kobelt controls include a synchronization mode that enables the operator to synchronize engines with one control, thus seeking maximum fuel efficiency on longer runs. The tugs, designed for towing and notch-pushing their respective barges, achieve a maximum free running speed of better than 12 knots.


In addition to the towing winch, the aft deck of each tug is fitted with deck sheaves for pushing wires and a full-width towing bar with roller sheaves. An aft control station offers a clear view of the entire deck.

Unique to these Vane Brothers tugs is the use of Lapeyre Stairs leading up to the elevated pilothouse, which has a 45-foot height of eye. These stairways, with alternating treads instead of full-width steps, are intended to make access to the wheelhouse easier and safer, according to Demske.


“I’ve been going with the Lapeyre Stairs on all of these tugs, although we found we had to modify them into two stages for ease of crew use,” Demske said.

By Professional Mariner Staff