Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ocean and Coastal Towing

By Jim Shaw

The ocean and coastal towing sector has been witnessing an expansion in work for the offshore petroleum industry on the West Coast and along the Gulf of Mexico. This is requiring larger barges that can offer stronger deck load capacities as well as higher horsepower tugs with extended towing ranges. Tows of obsolete oil field structures and old ships have also been increasing as more rigs and related marine items are retired in the Gulf of Mexico and the Maritime Administration (MarAd) continues to clean out its reserve fleet anchorages. Almost gone, however, is the ocean towing of petroleum barges, which has largely been turned over to articulated tug/barge (ATB) combinations, with the world’s largest ATB unit now being readied for operation by Crowley Maritime. The trend toward pushing rather than pulling is also beginning to show up in the dry bulk sector, where several dry bulk barges have been converted for ATB work and new bulk ATB barges ordered. Further ATB conversions may be in the offering if short-sea routes can be successfully established as alternatives to over-the-road haulage. Several Pacific Coast-based towing companies, including Crowley and Foss, have also been moving farther afield in the international market. And while towing usually escapes the public eye, the move of the US Missile Defense Agency’s Sea-Based X-Band Radar vessel SBX-1 into Puget Sound from Hawaii earlier this year demonstrated to the public what the sector can accomplish (see Pacific Maritime Magazine, August 2011).

High-Security Tow
The movement of the attention-catching SBX-1 was accomplished under very high security standards during its positioning from Pearl Harbor to the Vigor Shipyard on Seattle’s Elliott Bay for a $27 million overhaul. Meeting the 389-foot by 276-foot floating structure some 50 miles outside the Strait of Juan de Fuca was the 8,200-HP Foss tug Lindsey Foss, which escorted the structure to Port Angeles where the 6,610-HP tug Pacific Star joined in the escort, later to be accompanied by the tugs Henry Foss and Wedell Foss.

Foss Pacific Northwest Operations Manager, Jim Van Wormer, reported that the job was performed under security restrictions as stringent as those for Air Force One, the President’s Boeing 747, and that he and Foss Capt. Dave Corrie flew to Hawaii to ride with the marine pilot taking the SBX-1 to sea on its departure from Pearl. This allowed the two men to observed the 50,000-ton displacement vessel’s handling characteristics and helped them plan the structure’s move into and through Puget Sound.

“The thing I’m proud of is that when we presented the transit plan to the Coast Guard, Missile Defense Agency, the pilots and all the stakeholders, everybody was on board from the beginning,” said Van Wormer. “We all worked closely on this as a group to make it happen.”

The SBX-1, which draws 32 feet of water lightship and stands about 250 feet high, is expected to be in Seattle for several more weeks.

New Foss Atlantic Division
Although most of Foss’ towing operations still take place in the Pacific, the acquisition of Boston, Massachusetts-based Constellation Maritime has seen a growing amount of work on the Atlantic. Constellation, which has been adopting Foss management systems, safety practices and operations procedures since coming under Foss control in 2006, also took on the Foss logo and Foss colors this year to become part of Foss’ new Foss Atlantic Division, a division that also incorporates the earlier acquired Gulf Caribe Maritime of Mobile, Alabama.

While the former Constellation fleet does about 40 percent of the ship assist work in Boston harbor its strongest line of business has become project work, mainly long-distance towing. This has seen it complete fourteen tows totaling more than 50,000 miles from Maine and South Carolina to Port Arthur, Texas over the past few months carrying oil refinery modules.

Another tow saw the 2,400-HP tug Volans move the barge Chem Caribe from Brewer, Maine to an oil refinery in New Jersey with a cargo of oil refinery modules on board. At the same time, the 3,000-HP Leslie Foss accomplished a similar move between Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Quebec, Canada using barge 343. On the horizon is a possible ocean towing project involving 130 windmills to be installed offshore between Cape Cod and Nantucket Island.

Wind Energy Barging
The wind energy sector has also been generating business for Foss on the West Coast, and the market is continuing to pick up. Earlier this year 40 windmills were moved by barge from Vancouver, Washington to West Sacramento, California for installation at a power-generating farm located at Rio Vista, California. Advanced Tower Systems (ATS), a joint venture between Germany’s MECAL Hurks Group BV and Juwi Holding AG, contracted Foss to move the mills, which required four coastal trips.

To ensure safe transport the structures were broken down into component pieces ranging in size from 70 to 90 feet long and between 89,000 pounds and 145,000 pounds in weight. Foss organized the tows in such a manner that 30 pieces could be carried per voyage utilizing the barge Weeks 2702, which measures 340 feet by 78 feet. The first tow was handled by the 3,000-HP Sidney Foss while the final three tows were accomplished by the 4,000-HP Justine Foss. Loading and discharge operations took about two days in each port.

At Vancouver, which is anticipating a dramatic increase in its wind energy business this year, the port’s two Liebherr mobile harbor cranes were employed in tandem to lift the heavier and more awkward pieces.

Old structures and ship are also generating business for the towing industry. The continual disposal of obsolete ships in the MarAd-managed reserve fleet has seen several tows along the East and West Coast this year, including that of the former American President Lines freighter President Tyler, which was moved out of the Suisun Bay fleet for a trip through Panama. On the East Coast, the partially-built Navy oilers Benjamin Isherwood and Henry Eckford were also sent for scrap, with all three ships towed to Brownsville, Texas.

At the same time, the growing number of oil rigs and other related equipment being retired in the Gulf of Mexico has been generating tows. One of these was the 5,400-ton semi-submersible oil-drilling rig Hercules 78, which was moved from Pascagoula, Mississippi to Brownsville by Foss Maritime’s 8,200-HP Corbin Foss in May of this year. The platform was bound for the breaking yards of Esco Marine, which has also been busy with several of the MarAd ships.

According to Foss director of Global Towing and Transportation, Leiv Lea, the seven-day rig tow could be a precursor of things to come. “There are many obsolete rigs in the Gulf of Mexico,” observed Lea, “and the scrapping companies feel these will become a larger part of their business, which could translate to more of these rig tows
for Foss.”

Upriver Push
Not an ocean tow, nor even a coastal tow, but a substantial cargo-moving project never the less has been the pushing of barge loads of oversized oil production modules up the Columbia and Snake rivers from Vancouver, Washington to Lewiston, Idaho. Foss started moving the Korean-built modules late last year using its barges 286-3 and Sitka, handled by the river-based tugs PJ Brix and Betsy L. Three tandem tows and one single-barge tow were completed before the upper Columbia/Snake System was closed for a three-month period of lock maintenance over the winter months. During this time, Foss accomplished major overhauls on the two tugs as well as the two barges. This saw the Z-drive unit of the PJ Brix pulled for maintenance while Betsy L’s engines were reconditioned. At the same time, the two barges underwent preservation work and had their ballasting systems checked. New mounting and lashing gear was also installed.

The towing operation was resumed in April and the project is expected to be completed toward the end of this month. From Lewiston the modules are to be moved overland to the $8 billion Kearl Oil Sands project located near Fort McMurray, Alberta using Self Propelled Module Transporters (SPMTs) provided by heavy equipment specialist Mammoet. However the highly intricate move faces pressure from local environmental groups because they feel the oversized route being established for the modules may become a permanent corridor.

Northbound Tows
In the far north, Crowley Maritime has again been active in Alaska after employing two of its high deck strength barges, 455-3 and Marty J, to move oil modules to Point Oliktok last year. That tow saw the 7,500-HP tugs Warrior and Commander move the loaded barges from Houma, Louisiana to the Bering Sea via the Panama Canal, a journey of more than 8,000 miles. The modules were destined for the Nikaitchuq oil field, being developed by Eni, and will be used to produce the first oil from the North Slope that will not be processed by facilities owned by BP or Conoco Philips.

A second two-barge tow, employing the barges 455-8 and 455-7 towed by the 7,200-HP tugs Gladiator and Guardsman, delivered a DOYON drill rig to Prudhoe Bay to support BP’s North Slope drilling operations. The rig had been loaded at Vancouver, Washington in component pieces, with Barge 455-7 used to carry eight pieces while 455-8 transported four pieces.

This year’s season saw another Alaska-bound tow made by Crowley from Vancouver with two modular Arctic Alaskan Drilling Units (AADU), each weighing approximately 5,000 tons, loaded aboard barges 455-4 and 455-5 for the 3,063 mile trip north. The tow was accomplished in 18 days using a 7,200-HP Crowley tug at the head of each barge.

The 455 series barges, built with 25-foot side shells, are becoming highly popular within the petroleum and construction sectors and three of the units have found employment with Heerema’s North Rankin Project in Asia and Australia. Crowley plans to build up to 13 of the high-capacity barges by 2013.

Southbound Tow
Crowley’s AADU oil rig tow north passed another rig being moved south. This was Shell’s circular-shaped drilling rig Kulluk, being moved from Dutch Harbor to Seattle for upgrading work. A difficult structure to move, Kulluk provided work for a number of tugs during its mobilization out of Dutch Harbor’s Captain’s Bay as well as upon its arrival in Puget Sound. Shell’s purpose-built Arctic oil spill response vessel, Nanuq, was a main feature of the long-distance tow but also lending assistance were Western Towboat’s 5,000 horsepower Ocean Titan and 4,200 horsepower Ocean Ranger, Harley Maritime’s 4,300 horsepower Gyrfalcon and Dunlap’s 4,300 horsepower James Dunlap.

The 1983-built Kulluk, which had been idle for a number of years, will receive maintenance and a number of technical upgrades at Seattle’s Vigor shipyard before being towed back north to Dutch Harbor later this year. According to Shell, the rig has been chosen as a primary drilling unit for the company’s 2012 Beaufort Sea Plan of Exploration once all upgrading work is completed.

New Crowley Tugs
To further enhance its ocean towing and offshore support capabilities, Crowley is having four 10,880HP Ocean Class tugs built by Bollinger Marine Fabricators at Amelia, Louisiana, with the first 15-knot vessel due to come on line by early next year. These next generation 1,600-gt towing tugs are being equipped with twin-screw, controllable-pitch propellers fit in nozzles and high lift rudders to give increased performance and better fuel economy. The boats will also incorporate dynamic positioning technology to allow accurate positioning and heading using a centralized manual control.

Crowley had originally planned to build all four with DP-1 technology but has since decided to upgrade the third and fourth units to DP-2. In addition, the Caterpillar-supplied main engines and generators for all four tugs will be EPA Tier II compliant and will have the ability to be upgraded to meet future environmental standards. For towing, the vessels will have Intercon DW75 hydraulic towing winches with a minimum holding power of 350 short tons.

The first two tugs, Ocean Wave and Ocean Wind, will measure 146 feet by 44 feet and will be equipped with DP-1 technology while the second two boats, Ocean Sun and Ocean Sky, will be ten feet longer and equipped with DP-2 technology.