Monday, December 7, 2009

Special Feature: Small Tug for a Big Job

By: Hugh Ware (As seen in the December issue of Pacific Maritime Magazine) Photo: Philips Publishing Group File Photo

There is an amazing collection of tug smarts that reside just north of the US/Canada border in British Columbia. An example is the hydrogen-electric hybrid tug that Mark Mulligan’s Capilano Maritime Design Ltd is developing with Seaspan International Ltd., DC Maritime Technologies Inc. and Ballard Power Systems (see Pacific Maritime Magazine, August 2009). Another set of tug smarts resides in the brain of Vancouver-based, innovative tug-designer A.G. “Al” McIlwain, whose simple but cleverly innovative tugs are popular in both British Columbia and New Zealand and Australia. And don’t forget Vancouver’s Robert Allan Ltd., possibly the world’s leading tug designer, and Ladysmith’s Ron Burchett, the knowledgeable and creative maker of radio-controlled model tugs.

While it may look like a toy, the latest concept tug out of British Columbia is the brainchild of Burchett and Robert Allan. They call it the BRAtt (Burchett Robert Allan training tug), and it’s no toy; it is a real, commercial-grade tug but at a quarter-scale version of a Robert Allan Ltd. -designed tug.

At just under the 26-foot length that requires a license to operate, road-truckable and with 8,000+ pounds of bollard pull, this little vessel has the heft and grunt to perform useful work such as dead-tug movement, barge assist, yarding, or acting as a line or boom boat. But, in spite of its obvious usefulness as a general-purpose workboat, the BRAtt is primarily designed to be a tool for training new Z-drive tug operators.

So why a dedicated training tug? The answer is simple: there is a need. Many tugs are being built worldwide, most use stern-mounted azimuthing drives and operators must be found for these new additions to tug fleets, as many tug skippers are approaching retirement.

What is the best way to train operators required for all these new ASDs? On-the-job training is the traditional method. By and large, it has worked but it may take years before an all-round competence is achieved. Training can be a hit-and-miss procedure—intermittent lessons as opportunities become available. Results are highly variable and utterly dependent on the patience and teaching abilities of whoever does the training. Hang around the wheelhouse long enough and maybe a deckhand or mate can learn to drive an ASD safely to the full potential of the tug but can he, and his employer, afford to wait that long?

Radio-controlled models hold promise as training tools, but here the operator is not part of the tug. He can only control a remote object floating in a pond and the tug moves and reacts unnaturally fast. And a pond is just a small pond. Driving a radio-controlled tug is fun and it can teach useful lessons. It’s a good starting point, but the training is not particularly realistic. Burchett knows this all too well. Although he has presented papers at international conferences advocating the use of RC models for training tug masters, now he advocates the BRAtt as the next step in the training regime.

Another training method, computer simulation, varies tremendously in cost and quality. At one end are the inexpensive PC-based computer “games” such as ShipSim™ that, in the words of one reviewer, enable an operator to do some “ship-handling with the benefit of a reset button.” Such games provide remarkable recreations of many harbors and multiple ship types, control of what is happening and different views of the action. But everything happens on a computer monitor or TV screen and control of the simulated vessel is largely a function of agile fingers and thumbs.

At the other extreme are the elaborate simulators that cost millions. Extremely realistic, some simulators have well-equipped “bridges” with 360° views and may even replicate the pitch and roll of a ship well enough to make some people seasick. Again, simulators can provide a useful introduction to ship handling and can be excellent for developing strategies for handling large ships in confined harbours, but can a simulation duplicate the thump and vibration of a tug coming alongside another vessel in the wash from its bow?

A real tug is undoubtedly the ideal training tool. Training will be utterly realistic but it will also be costly in operating and personnel costs and lost opportunities for revenue-creating work. The consequences of operating errors in full scale can also be huge. On the other hand, a BRAtt is a real tug with much of the heft and feel of a much-larger brother (dimensions are 25’ 7” length overall, 11’ 10”beam and 4’ 9” draft) and it is far cheaper to acquire (about US$750,000 with a full training suite to record operator actions and tug reactions for operator training feedback) and relatively inexpensive to operate.

Best of all, a BRAtt is thoroughly equipped and performs realistically in all ASD modes including indirect towing and escort operations. On the bow are a staple and a hydraulic hawser winch with 165 feet of braided polyester line and hydraulic braking, and there is a cruciform towing post aft. The wheelhouse has a full suite of electronics including AIS and radar and below deck is a pair of John Deere or Cummins engines providing up to a total of 400 hp to time-tested, British Columbia-built Olympic azimuthing drives under the tug’s stern. (Schottel also makes azimuthing drives in this lower-horsepower range.) And, as mentioned above, the bollard pull is a very useful 8,000+ pounds.

Can you see and try a BRAtt right now? No, it is still in the concept stage but the design is essentially finalized and production engineering is underway. Perhaps surprisingly to some, construction will be all-aluminum (as has become the custom for most workboats built in British Columbia) and BRAtts will be built by Adrenalin Marine Ltd. , which (conveniently for international customers) has plants in both Vancouver, BC and in Ferndale, WA. Burchett and Allan have active enquiries from several fleet owners who will have to find sizable numbers of trained ASD operators in the near future. International operator training facilities have expressed interest in using the BRAtt as a step between the simulator and full size tug training as they pursue this growing market for operator training.

The basic BRAtt, of course, lends itself to further design variations or to the exploration of environment-friendly power sources at lower costs than with a full-scale tug. A hybrid BRAtt using lithium-ion batteries and hydrogen-fuel cells are being actively developed. The presently available 150 kW Ballard fuel cells are an excellent fit for the BRAtt .

The time may come when many tug fleets will have to have a BRAtt at the end of the company dock, ready to do what it does best—teaching ASD operators.