With a history of innovation, AmNav is ready for the future

Capt. Marc Fankhauser in the pilothouse of the AmNav tug Revolution. (Photos by Alan Haig-Brown)

It would be an understatement to call the San Francisco Bay ship docking market highly competitive. As vessel and crew costs escalate, the several fleets that crowd the market fight for share. Among the most forceful of these is AmNav Maritime Services.

Upstart schoolteacher Bob Whipple and his wife Barbara started the company in 1976. The couple first bought a 65-foot 450-hp YTL (U.S. Navy small harbor tug), and when it proved underpowered, he replaced the engine with one rated 1,250 hp.
Skeptics said it was overpowered, but when it proved successful in the already power-conscious docking business, the Whipples bought their second boat, an 850-hp 85-foot former Navy tug. They replaced that boat’s engine with a 20-cylinder 4,000-hp EMD locomotive engine. Again, waterfront skeptics shook their heads.
In spite of their business success, the company was still viewed as a bit eccentric in the already eccentric world of San Francisco tug companies. To celebrate that distinction, the crews played the Indiana Jones theme over loudspeakers as they went alongside the ships that they were to dock.
When I spoke with Bob Whipple back in 1994, he maintained that his best “acquisition” was his manager, Milt Merritt. “Milt came to us 10 years ago when we had only the Bobbie Jo, one tug built in 1901 and one underpowered 1,500 hp diesel-electric tug called the Benecia,” said Bob.
“Milt is also the one that talked me into re-powering the boats with EMD engines.”
So it was no surprise that, when the company was sold a few years back, the new owners asked Milt to stay on. Marine Resources Group Inc., which also owns Foss Maritime Co., Hawaii Tug & Barge, Young Brothers Ltd. and others, now owns AmNav.
The intervening years have seen the company expand into the ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach while maintaining a strong presence in the often-fractious San Francisco market. Time has also shown the success of small high-horsepower tugs in ship-assist work. The technology has moved ahead to a point where azimuthing-stern-drive (ASD) vessels with a pair of z-drives set aft are now the norm in most ports. With relatively deep pockets, the new owners have added two z-drives to the fleet and are in the process of taking delivery on two more. But always competitive, AmNav offers agents and ship owners an edge by having one conventional tug team with one z-drive when docking the big new containerships.
Revolution appoaches a containership on San Francisco Bay just north of the Bay Bridge.
Since most containerships have 2,000- or 3,000-hp bow thrusters, this combination can be quite effective. To further maintain the competitive edge, AmNav crews its vessels on a “call out” basis that gives crews a minimum four hours for each call out.
At 0400 on Sunday May 13, the three-man crew of AmNav’s Dolphin class ASD tug Revolution came aboard to start up the engines and join the 90-foot conventional tug Patriot in docking the Cypriot-registered 814-foot containership Independence, which, not to confuse the issue, shares its name with another of the AmNav tugs.
Patriot, one of three in her class, has the classic good looks and fine lines that her designers, Nickum and Spaulding, were noted for. In keeping with past practice, AmNav upped her power from 3,000 hp to 4,200 hp.
Aboard Revolution, Mate Dylan Epperson checked the deck lines and equipment, while engineer Van Nguyen started the boat’s pair of Cat 3512 engines. These each deliver 2,540 hp to give the stubby 78-by-34-foot tug a remarkable 5,080 hp.
This is a power-to-length ratio that would have seemed impossible in a tug 20 years ago when AmNav was setting tongues wagging in the Bay Area. Yet these dimensions and horsepower are proving highly successful on the Robert Allan Ltd.-designed Dolphin-class tugs, of which there are now several in operation with Foss and other ship-docking companies.
The advantage of this class of boats was amply illustrated when Capt. Marc Fankhauser took us out past the container cranes lining the Oakland piers to meet Independence inbound under the Bay Bridge with a San Francisco bar pilot at the conn. Fankhauser sat tall in the compact wheelhouse with its horseshoe-shaped console set tight to the windows on three sides. The wheelhouse is as compact as the boat. It has become commonplace to comment on the remarkable visibility from a modern docking tug’s wheelhouse. On Revolution the frameless windows held in place by a flexible rubberized compound give new validity to the note. The Markey hawser winch forward is complemented by a small deck winch aft that is used for making up to barges.
The 78-foot tug is powered by two Cat 3512 engines producing a total of 5,080 horsepower.
The fully loaded containership loomed out of the darkness on the south side of the Bay Bridge. The pilot had been in touch with Fankhauser since he passed Blossom Rock out by Alcatraz at 0440. He now gave directions to the tugs to put a line up to the transom on the starboard side of the centerline. Patriot, under the command of Capt. Shane Smith, was directed to the ship’s starboard bow.
“Revolution, straight back aft please,” came word from the pilot as the ship began to enter the narrow channel of Oakland’s central port.
With ships already under the container cranes lining the channel, Fankhauser explained that by pulling back on the hawser, he is able to slow the ship from its “dead slow” 7 or 8 knots to just 5 knots. Not only is it dangerous to attempt to maneuver a big ship at the higher speeds, the ship’s suction could also pull other ships off their moorings.
Minutes later, as the ship came up on her berth, the pilot asked, “Revolution, shift to push easy on the starboard quarter.”
The ship’s big propeller churned the shallow waters as it bit its way astern bringing the ship to a virtual standstill. The pilot then went through the usual requests to Patriot on the bow and Revolution on the stern for “half toward” and “full toward.” Then he requested “Revolution 45° aft” as he aligned the ship’s bridge with the appropriate markings on the pier to facilitate mooring in line with the container cranes.
This was a relatively small ship of about 4,000 TEU, Fankhauser explained, so it had a “friendly” counter. It was low enough so that he could work a fairly short line both to stop the ship by backing down on the transom but also swing about to push on the stern quarter without the threat of damaging his wheel house or being sucked into the prop wash.
As the two tugs held the ship up against the pier in the breaking light of 0530, another advantage of the short lengths of the tugs became apparent. The 8,000 teu 1096-foot containership CMA CGM Vivaldi with a 140-foot beam was being escorted up the narrow channel of the middle harbor. Both tugs were 90° to the hull of their ship, but there was still ample room for the second vessel to clear their sterns.
Ten minutes later, when the pilots released the tugs, the crew headed back to their Oakland base. They spoke with obvious pride in the vessel and its abilities. Immaculately maintained by the crew, the tug is spotless and looks as though it had just come out of the shipyard. The crew includes some remarkable experience and takes pride in engineer Nguyen’s account of piloting a refugee fishing boat from Vietnam across the mouth of the Gulf of Thailand to Malaysia when he was only 16 years old.
As they steamed up the channel to their base near the east end of the Bay Bridge, they slowed for the dredge working there to take the channel down to 55 feet in order to accommodate the big 10,000 teu containerships that are currently building. Other than adding two more of these Dolphin class boats, the management at AmNav won’t have to do anything to be ready to handle the largest of containerships. They and their crews already have the right stuff.
By Professional Mariner Staff