When I ask members of the maritime industry to help me out with a story for the magazine and/or website, I do so humbly. I want to tell the story fairly and accurately. The best way to do that is to get information from people in the industry who are experts on whatever topic the story involves.

I am very aware that whether by email or phone or in person (pre-pandemic) or Zoom, participants spend valuable time answering my questions. Because of space restrictions, I can't always use all of the information given to me during these interviews.

For our tugboat cover story in the March 2021 issue, I sent out a series of questions to six naval architect/marine engineering firms. Two got back to me — Robert Allan Ltd. and Crowley. The answers were very well thought out and, in Crowley’s case, involved several of its personnel. As it turned out, I was not able to use all of the quotes in the March story. So here are the answers — in full — from our participants, with my sincere thanks.

WorkBoat: What does the future hold for tugs — autonomous vessel applications, full battery power, more hybrid fuel operations, etc.?

Mike Fitzpatrick, President and CEO, Robert Allan Ltd.: Our expectation is that in the coming years owners will further embrace green technologies to reduce environmental effects both above and below the waterline. Today’s newbuilds implement the latest exhaust emissions controls. Additionally, underwater radiated noise is also gaining higher importance to owners and ports reducing the impact the tugs have on surrounding marine environment. Items such as hybrid propulsion systems or the use of large capacity energy storage batteries provide the opportunity to reduce the environmental footprint of the newest generation of tugs and we are not only working with owners on new designs implementing these features, but also seeing them move forward with the actual construction.

Our hope is that the next few years will see the implementation of the first remotely operated tugs and are continuing development of our RAmora series of designs and furthering discussions with owners and regulators. Given the unique configurations of each port, ship and environmental conditions we fully expect there to always be some level of human involvement in tug operations, even if 10+ years from now that means the masters are performing docking maneuvers from the relative comfort and safety of a remote console at the port facility.

Paul Manzi, Vice President, Ship Assist and Escort, Crowley Shipping: The future for tugs is brighter than ever with an ever-increasing focus on carbon reduction and sustainability. It is a segment of the maritime industry that is ripe with opportunity to apply alternate energy sources to supply power, whether it is electric supplied by batteries charged by shoreside utility company sources or dedicated micro-grids powered by fuel cells or hydrogen (tailored to meet each location’s specific needs), LNG as direct fuel, or in hybrid configurations or bio-fuels. The smaller localized systems give great opportunity to provide a lower carbon footprint.  

Efficiency and safety will also improve. With the application of autonomous technology, there is an opportunity to manage operating costs more closely and provide a safer operation. This can be achieved through use of cameras and sensors aiding in navigation; shoreside monitoring of engine performance and power supply; and improving dispatching efficiency through the use of artificial intelligence to predict movement patterns.

Cole Van Gundy, director, commercial operations, Crowley Engineering Services: “We are seeing a number of requests for vessels that utilize existing technologies while having the flexibility to adapt for alternative fuels. We have a number of concepts under development that utilize alternative fuels and hybrid technologies to meet customer requirements. Some level of automation will be included within many of our new vessel designs to augment the operators’ abilities.”

WB: How have harbor tugs been holding up as far as assisting bigger cargo ships?

Fitzpatrick: Customers have indeed been asking for higher power, more compact tugs to handle the large, new +20,000 TEU container ships entering service and the U.S. ports undertaking major dredging projects. Five to 10 years ago, 70- to 80-ton tugs were thought of as very high power but increasingly have become the norm for many new tugs. As more tugs are performing indirect escort towing maneuvers to safely handle these larger ships at increased transit speeds thankfully more of them are also being built to the latest escort towing safety standards which Robert Allan Ltd. has led the development of in cooperation with classification societies.

As a result some of the older or non-escort capable tugs are being repositioned to different roles such as handling smaller ships or coastal towing. We believe this has lead to a lower number of 30 to 50-ton BP tugs being built the last few years as existing, reassigned tugs can often be used instead of requiring fleet renewal of this market segment. Each port and operation is different though so we believe we’ll always see some continued building within this lower power segment be that due to draft constraints, adopting advanced propulsion configurations or the ability of owners to use even more compact tugs than previously available.

Porter Sesnon, General Manager, Ship Assist and Harbor Escort Services, Crowley Shipping: Harbor tugs of 20 years ago were certainly designed to handle smaller container ships but have managed to handle the larger containerships rather well. However, depending on the local harbor safety guidelines, an additional tug may now be required to assist these massive container ships to berth.  About 10-15 years ago, the standard job would require two tugs in. Nowadays, it is more likely three tugs in, given the mismatch of bollard pull of the tugs and DWT of these ships.

WB: Do you expect container ships and other cargo carriers to get even bigger? Then what, bigger tugs or more tugs? The Mississippi River, for example, is being dredged to 50' at the mouth of the river south of New Orleans to handle the bigger ships.

Fitzpatrick: With the latest round of port infrastructure investment already underway the maximum size of container ships visiting North American ports may potentially plateau, but it wasn’t so long ago that the sizes of the new Panama locks were thought of as the ‘new standard.’ Today’s new container ships have seen a rapid increase in size greater than the Neo-Panamax locks can handle and with interest in U.S. oil exports from projects in Texas there may also be an increased frequency of VLCCs loading in the U.S. In both these cases tugs with increased bollard pull and increased escort steering and braking forces are being requested by the pilots to enable the ships to safely enter and leave the ports.

For the Mississippi specifically, we have seen increased investment by companies like E.N. Bisso & Son in higher powered modern tugs capable of handling ships in the otherwise challenging river currents.

Sesnon: I don’t think you will see the tremendous leaps in TEU capacity over the next decade as compared with the large growth in capacity in the prior decade (2010-’20) due to the physical and logistical limitations in U.S. ports.  

You will likely see more powerful tugs in a smaller and smaller package. It is unlikely that we will see more tugs in the markets given cost and rate pressures and oversupply of tugs currently in the market.

WB: What demands — real or otherwise — are owners/operators putting on tug designers?

Fitzpatrick: Currently we are seeing increased market pressures to deliver high power tugs at very cost competitive purchase prices. As a result, we are working with our clients to optimize both existing and new designs to increase the functionality and towing and escort performance of more compact high-power tugs while decreasing the build cost through construction efficiencies. It is critically important though that throughout this we still maintain the high safety standards that our designs are renowned for.

Secondly, as the focus on green technologies continues to increase, we have been developing new designs where environmental impact is a strong consideration. As the technology continues to advance and owners become more willing to invest in carbon neutrality, items such as alternative fuels that were not technically well proven or economically viable are becoming more feasible in new vessels.

Van Gundy: “Many owners and operators seek designs that meet increasing customer demands for efficiencies and crew comfort. Many of these requirements drive up design and build costs, but they also have potential to substantially lower the operational and environmental costs. It is important that owners and operators look at the entire lifecycle and environmental costs of their vessels when considering new designs.”

WB: How does ever changing technology affect the life expectancy of today's tugs?

Fitzpatrick: In some ways the technological advances could be viewed as shortening the economic life expectancy, but, in reality, we are having many conversations with owners about the operating costs of the new tugs 10-15 years after construction which didn’t previously occur. Considering these longer timeframes and higher maintenance costs is enabling some owners to justify the increased investment in items like hybrid propulsion and battery power that can then reduce the operating costs over the long term.

In parallel we are still seeing many older tugs rebuilding or repowering for the third or even fourth time with today’s latest engines providing the operators fuel savings and reducing emissions to the environment. This is a testament to tugs robust construction and we never expect tugs to become disposable.

WB: What measures do you take to protect your clients' information against cyberattacks?

Fitzpatrick: Robert Allan Ltd. utilizes a continually monitored and robust IT system to address the global rise in cyberattacks. The benefits of some of the additional features we have implemented over the last few years though now also allow for almost instantaneous data retrieval from simultaneous offsite storage on the cloud which helps guard against some of the more conventional threats such as fire, flooding or earthquakes. 

Ken Hocke has been the senior editor of WorkBoat since 1999. He was the associate editor of WorkBoat from 1997 to 1999. Prior to that, he was the editor of the Daily Shipping Guide, a transportation daily in New Orleans. He has written for other publications including The Times-Picayune. He graduated from Louisiana State University with an arts and sciences degree, with a concentration in English, in 1978.