Setting the Record Straight: U.S. Tugboat Industry Delivers Innovation

Designed by Jensen, First Tier IV, SCR Tugboat in America is Christened
Designed by Jensen, First Tier IV, SCR Tugboat in America is Christened in 2017

Published Jan 21, 2019 4:43 PM by Johan Sperling

The recent article in The Maritime Executive “Winds of Change” warrants blowback in the form of fact checking and historical accuracy that are missing in the story.

First, the article states: “Tugboat operations in the U.S. haven’t changed much in decades. Long-established companies – often family-owned – see little reason to change in a sector that, by and large, works effectively and provides vital links in America’s complex supply chain … the industry’s traditional ‘business-as-usual’ philosophy may be ready for a shake-up. Expansion of the Panama Canal and the ‘cascading’ of larger box ships across the Pacific from Asia to the U.S. West Coast are two other factors driving the need for more powerful tugs.”

In reality, the U.S. operators have been continuously replacing and improving their fleets. While the author alludes to a wave of newbuild projects around the world – where mature tugboat operations had not previously functioned – the fact is the U.S. industry has already developed its fleets and facilities, and it continues to adapt to the needs of shipping companies while serving diverse locations. And in the U.S., that progress comes without the benefit of incentives provided by some foreign nations.

As a family-owned, Jones Act tugboat operator since 1906 – as well as a proven tugboat designer and innovator – Crowley’s companies and U.S. operators have firsthand experience that refutes these misguided assumptions. Examples include the company’s recent innovations that prove the U.S. tugboat sector’s ability to aggressively change and meet the needs of larger box ships:

Crowley and Foss Maritime led the development of tugs with cycloidal propellers that were considered among the most advanced vessels of their kind in the world. Crowley’s Response Class tractor tugs featured two CAT 3608 engines and met the high-speed escort requirements of tankers operating in Puget Sound. With a direct bollard pull of 150,000 pounds, the Response Class is to this day one of the most powerful, sophisticated tugboat designs around.

In 2008, Crowley christened the first tugboat of the Valor Class, designed by Seattle-based subsidiary Jensen Maritime, and that vessel continues to lead the industry in innovation. This design includes thrusters that rotate 360 degrees under the craft, allowing unique and agile maneuvering, high continuous brake horsepower and bollard pull and an extended skeg design. This combination of features makes it ideal for large ship-assist work, and the tugs continue to be powerful resources in the industry. This month, Jensen Maritime announced that it completed the detailed design for up to 10 Tier IV tractor tugs for Foss Maritime based on the Valor tugboat design. Once built, these will be deployed along the U.S. West Coast to support large box ships.

In 2013, Crowley completed an industry-leading, newbuild program for high-horsepower Ocean Class tugboats offering all the latest, modern capabilities. They also featured twin screws with controllable pitch propellers, in nozzles and high-lift rudders, and were outfitted for long-range ocean towing, firefighting and general-purpose towing. As offshore towing vessels, these tugs were – and still are – unique and set the industry standard for technology, rising above the technical capabilities of the tugs reported in the article.

In 2017 for Harley Marine, Jensen also designed the first tractor tugboat (Earl W. Redd) to enter service in compliance with the EPA’s Tier IV environmental standards by use of a Selective Catalytic Reduction system. Jensen also designed a new high-performance tractor tug for Vessel Chartering that featured some of the first Tier IV engines meeting higher federal air emissions standards for U.S. tugboats. The engines’ power also allows them to assist future large, 18,000 TEU container ships coming to West Coast ports of call.

Also, in 2017, Jensen designed the tugboats Arkansas, Mardi Gras and South Carolina for Crescent Towing. The tugs’ high-horsepower and deep-draft are ideally suited for safety, long-term serviceability and the ever-increasing size, tonnage and draft of the ships. Read more details here.

Legally speaking, the “Winds of Change” significantly misfired in this section: “There are, however, built-in constraints. The 98-year-old Jones Act is one of them. Speaking on condition of anonymity, foreign tugboat designers and builders admit that partnering with U.S. yards to comply with Jones Act requirements can double the price of a new tugboat and extend its construction by many months.”

Consider these 2013 comments by Tom Allegretti, president of The American Waterways Operators: “Over the last two decades, the U.S. tank barge industry has transformed and renewed its fleet, building state-of-the-art double-hull barges and larger, more powerful tugboats and towboats to propel them… Underpinned by the Jones Act, which provides the level playing field and the certainty that enables companies to make these multi-billion dollar investments, the domestic maritime industry continues to demonstrate that it can, and will, adapt and grow to meet America’s transportation needs.”

Not only does the Jones Act enable America’s thriving tugboat industry, it definitively makes it safer. As one example, Crowley invested in navigational assessment training specifically for its Jones Act mariners to ensure that they are the most prepared and highest trained in the industry. Other U.S. companies, such as Bouchard Transportation, have similarly invested in U.S. mariners. In Bouchard’s case, they helped to establish a tug-and-barge simulation center for SUNY Maritime cadets to learn the skills to operate today’s modern tugs and barges.

Finally, this statement in the article was little more than hot air for anyone who knows the adaptability of the domestic industry: “Another feature of the U.S. tugboat sector is a reluctance to be seen as a pioneer of new technology – in case it doesn’t work.”

In fact, the U.S. industry has long set the standard in championing large and small-scale innovations and adaptations to meet shipping demands.

Crowley developed and implemented “best available technology” response and prevention tugboats in Prince William Sound, Alaska. In addition to tanker escort in some of the harshest climates in the world, these tugs were designed for ship handling, firefighting, and emergency and spill response. In recent years, they were featured on the Science Channel and the Weather Channel for their world-renowned abilities of keeping tankers safe in challenging environments.

As well, in 2010, Crowley embarked on a $5.4 million repower and upgrade project for four company tugs. Doing so reduced the vessels’ particulate matter emissions by 3.24 tons annually and mono-nitrogen oxides by 109.52 tons per year, and it allowed the company to meet the San Pedro Bay Ports Clean Air Action Plan standards three years before it was required.

Additionally, Crowley worked with Samson Rope to develop line handling and soft-shackle solutions for a synthetic line and develop applications aboard tugs – a U.S. partnership that helped to develop safer and more efficient technology for all.

If that’s not enough, then take a look at the success stories at other U.S. provides, such as Foss Maritime, which has developed hybrid tug technology and worked with Puget Sound Rope to develop its own line of modern synthetic products.

The U.S. tugboat market is a thriving, world class, and agile marine sector, and Crowley and industry colleagues always have innovated and have always been industry leaders in tug design, technology and operations. May the winds blow ever in your favor.

Johan Sperling is Vice President, Marine Services at Crowley Maritime Corporation.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.