American ports have been spending big to prepare for the Panama Canal widening, and oncoming fleets of post-Panamax containerships. As that trade grows, more money could be landing in shipyards, to build a new generation of tugboats.

Jensen Maritime recently unveiled its design for a 100’x40’, 6,770 hp tug that will combine the nimble performance of harbor tugs with oceangoing capabilities, and the power to assist the new ships.

The Jensen designers in Seattle say “escort capability was enhanced to provide support for assisting large, 18,000 TEU containerships due to an increased future demand in West Coast ports of call.” Now under construction by JT Marine, Vancouver, Wash., the vessel is planned for delivery in the second quarter of 2017 to Vessel Chartering LLC, a wholly owned division of San Francisco-based Baydelta Navigation Ltd.

On the East Coast, I talked to Bruce Washburn, executive vice president of Washburn & Doughty Associates, Inc, the yard in East Boothbay, Maine, that has a well-deserved reputation for its 93’ harbor tugs. He can foresee growing needs for more horsepower and perhaps bigger tugs.

Those bigger ships already have clients looking for more horsepower, Washburn said. Soon the industry could be “pushing up on the upper level of a typical docking tug,” he added.

That is because the more powerful tugs, say 6,000 to 6,500 hp, represent a kind of threshold; above that, Z-drives and other components must get bigger exponentially.

That will just be following in the giant steps of port agencies and private sector partners, who have been estimated to be spending $9 billion annually to accommodate the post-Panamax fleet.

The preparations include dredging, new waterside and landside connections, and true meg-projects – like the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s $1.3 billion Bayonne Bridge Navigational Clearance Project, lifting the span over the Kill Van Kull between Bayonne and Staten Island by 64’ allowing 215’ air draft for the new ships.

Other ports are upping their game. PortMiami claimed success early this year, reporting a 20% surge in container traffic in January 2016 and crediting $1 billion in investment. Miami is advertising its expanded towing and harbor ship services too, with Z-drive tugs of Moran Towing Corporation and Seabulk Towing.

It will be interesting to watch as tugboat operators, designers and builders conjure up the next-generation tug fleet.

Contributing Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been an editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for over 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.