Covid-19 took its toll on barge traffic that regularly plies inland rivers, but barge traffic seems to be returning to pre-Covid demand and revenue levels.

Supporting that resurgence are towboats under construction at various shipyards or, in some cases, already delivered.

Steiner Shipyard, Bayou La Batre, Ala., delivered a 76'x35'x10'8" inland river towboat to Florida Marine Transporters (FMT), Mandeville, La., in December 2023. The steel-hulled Kristy Dutsch was designed by Sterling Marine, Fairhope, Ala., and is the fifth boat in a six-boat series.

Shipyard foreman Kevin Oliver said that having worked closely with FMT on the first four vessels, all the bugs had been worked out during previous builds. “This boat was fairly straightforward,” he said.

Main propulsion comes from two Caterpillar 32B diesel engines, producing 2,000 hp each. The mains connect to twin 76"x68", 4-bladed Sound propellers through Twin Disc MG-540 marine gears. Ship’s service power comes from two 99-kW John Deere-powered gensets. Tankage includes 30,000 gals. of fuel; 10,000 gals. water; 800 gals. lube oil; and 800 gals. gear oil. The towboat is U.S. Coast Guard-certified Subchapter M, and features a Furuno electronics suite.

The steel-hulled Kristy Dutsch was designed by Sterling Marine, Fairhope, Ala., and is the fifth boat in a six-boat series being built at Steiner Shipyard, Bayou La Batre, Ala. Doug Stewart photo.


The inland industry is not being left behind as other parts of marine manufacturing move toward a greener future. That’s part of the reason for a number of new towboat designs. Foremost among these will be the first fully electric, truckable push tug. Elliott Bay Design Group (EBDG) incorporated an electrical propulsion system into Miller Marine’s proven 26’ truckable push tug design. Miller Marine is building the push tug at its Deltaville, Va., shipyard.

The push tug consists of two sections, a shoebox-looking hull and a customizable superstructure with an enclosed steering station. Both sections can be loaded separately on a single flatbed trailer and trucked to wherever the towboat is needed, without any special permitting, and assembled once the destination is reached. A 300 kW (400-hp) rating is provided by two permanent magnet (PM) motors.

That won’t be the only new towboat turning green. American Commercial Barge Line (ACBL), Jefferson, Ind., is launching the Hydrogen One, the world’s first methanol-fueled towboat, later this year. It’s designed by EBDG to operate at standard speeds for 550 miles before needing to be refueled, all the while contributing a 40% reduction in greenhouse gases.

“We are excited to see how far we can get this boat into this industry,” said Maritime Partners’ analyst Jack Nash. Maritime Partners will own the new towboat and charter it to ACBL.

Towboats are not normally seen by the general public as purveyors of cutting-edge technology, but vessels like the above might help change that impression.

Meanwhile, a more traditional propulsion design but with a strong nod to the environment went into the Michael J. Kennelly, an 82’x34’ towboat that Steiner Construction in Bayou La Batre, Ala., delivered to ACBL in October 2023. The Michael J. Kennelly’s propulsion package marks the debut of the Mitsubishi S12R Tier 4 main engine — not one but two — each producing 1,260 hp. The Tier 4 engines meet nitrogen oxide emission standards and “represent the strictest of EPA emission requirements for marine diesel engines and will significantly reduce emissions,” said ACBL’s CEO Mike Ellis.

Another first for the Michael J. Kennelly is that it’s the only Tier 4 towboat with a retractable pilothouse. With the wheelhouse raised there’s an air draft of 41'2". Lower the wheelhouse and the air draft drops to 17'7".

A fleet-wide move toward the use of lower-carbon fuels was made by John W. Stone Distributors, Gretna, La., in July when it started converting 11 tug/towboats, 47 inland barges, and three offshore tanker units to Renewable Diesel 99 (RD99). RD99 has a very low carbon footprint as it is made from 100% sustainably sourced renewable materials, such as soybean oil and canola oil, and is a drop-in replacement for petroleum-based diesel fuel. Renewable diesel is chemically identical to petroleum yet has the potential for greenhouse gas emission reduction of 75% compared to conventional fuels.

Besides dealing with its own fleet, Stone has committed to two RD99 storage tanks, a 100,000-bbl. tank in Port Fourchon, La., and an 85,000-bbl. tank in New Orleans.

The first Tier-4 towboat commissioned by a government agency is the Freedom, a 103’x34’x10’9” towboat. Shane Carman/TVA photo

Even government agencies are bringing their vessels into the cleaner air movement. 

The Tier 4 towboat M/V Jackie Lee Anderson towboat was delivered April 11, 2023 to be the new Olmsted Locks and Dam workboat for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Louisville District.

 The 82’x36’x11’ vessel, built by Thoma-Sea Marine Constructors LLC, La., is a 2,000-hp Z-drive powered by two Caterpillar C32 V-12 engines with Tier 4 emissions control, each rated 1333 BHP at 800 rpm.

Christened April 27, 2023, the Jackie Lee Anderson is classed by the American Bureau of Shipping, also known as ABS, as a Class A1 with a Maltese Cross for use as a government towing vessel in towboat river service.

On June 29, 2023 the Freedom, a 103'x34'x10'9" towboat built by Vessel Repair, Port Arthur, Texas, and designed by Sterling Marine, Fairhope, Ala., was delivered for the Tennessee Valley Authority. The TVA is responsible for power generation in the Tennessee Valley and the Freedom is working to support public power generation.

Workboat’s latest Construction Survey shows 43 towboats under contract, under construction, or delivered. That’s six fewer than the year before and 19 fewer than the 2020-2021 survey. In all three surveys, a majority of the towboats were being built at Marine Inland Fabricators, Panama City, Fla., all of which are 25' truckable rowboats. Wheelhouse Electronics, Paradis, La., supplied the electronics suite.

Michael Crowley is a long-time Maine-based correspondent for WorkBoat Magazine, specializing in stories related to new vessel contruction and new gear, such as electronics, deck equipment and diesel engines.

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