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Steady as she goes...

By BCShippingNews 12 December 2018
BCSN's 2018 B.C. tug industry update

This B.C. tug industry update is much like past updates in that it highlights common themes and consistent observations on the state of the industry as we close out the year. At the same time, each company representative interviewed provided unique and insightful comments worth their weight in gold when it comes to understanding the issues facing the industry today.

In taking this snapshot of tug companies in British Columbia, readers will quickly realize the common challenges of finding skilled crew and a continual focus on fleet maintenance and safety. For the most part, 2018 kept tug companies operating at a steady pace. While some were hopeful that delayed projects like the Massey crossing would get underway and others noted the stretched capacity of the Port of Vancouver, there was unanimous agreement that the current level of activity would continue through 2019.

Here’s how the tug industry fared in 2018…

Amix Group

Amix Group continues to enjoy a steady pace of barging primarily forest products, wood chips and logs. According to Tony Marra, Director of Sales, the company saw an uptick over last year’s activity, especially with wood chips. “From what we’re hearing from our customers, there doesn’t seem to be any slowdown expected on the fibre side,” Marra said. “We had a terrible fire season in the Interior — albeit not as bad as the previous year — which makes for tight supply but continued demand for forest products is keeping us busy.”

The other side of Amix’ work — salvage — continues to keep the team busy. Some examples of projects this past year include the raising of the George H. Ledcor and a ship anchor that had sunk in Nanaimo’s harbour. “Sometimes that work continues on to additional activities for the deconstruction side,” said Marra. “Amix has a long history in recycling and the handling of hazardous materials as well as remediation. We’re always in the process of pulling a tug or barge to shore and dismantling them in our yard and turning them into recycled metal.”

Marra is also seeing more activity in the transload sector. “Years ago, you would see much more break bulk being moved but containerization is taking up more and more terminal property,” he said. “We find ourselves doing a lot more vessel discharge and transload-to-truck projects using our crane capabilities.”

Fleet-wise, Amix added additional capacity in 2017 by bringing the Sea Warrior back into service, adding the Arctic Taglu to the tow fleet and installing another Manitowoc 4600 crane to accommodate for the increase in projects reported in last year’s update. This year, the strategy is focused on maintenance. “We added one new barge this year and continue with ongoing renovation and maintenance to keep things fresh,” said Marra, adding that more and more, technology is playing a role in operations. “We’ve definitely been trying to leverage technology in areas like maintenance management and crew scheduling.”

Regarding crew, Marra reported that yes, he too is challenged in finding skilled workers for both land and marine operations and is always keeping an eye out for talent. “We continue to invest in our people and continue to grow our mariner fleet numbers, all the way from masters to deckhands.”

Island Tug and Barge Ltd., a subsidiary of Tidewater Canada Inc.

With the recent launch of the Island Raider, Captain Ferdi van de Kuijlen, Vice President of Operations, couldn’t be more pleased with its performance. “We had our first official revenue from the tug on November 6, following sea trials and extensive training for our operators,” he said. “The crew are very happy with the Z-drives and the maneuverability of the ATB unit which was one of the reasons we decided to go with Z-drives. The vessel is also a bit faster and there’s increased safety for the crew having eliminated the Jacob’s ladder and using a gangway instead to get on and off the barge.”

Designed by Robert Allan Ltd. and sporting two 1600 mm, four-bladed in-nozzle Rolls Royce US105 FP azimuthing thrusters along with twin Cummins KTA 38M 634 KW engines for its main propulsion, the Raider is the first of two new tugs to be added to ITB’s existing fleet. Its sister vessel, the Island Regent, is currently being constructed at Nichols Bros Boatbuilders and should be ready for launch by the end of March 2019. Van de Kuijlen was quick to note that their recent launch of the Raider was an internal event for crew and personnel and that, once the Regent is ready, a celebration for industry stakeholders will be held, giving everyone an opportunity to tour both vessels.

The Raider has been paired with the ITB Resolution, a double-hulled oil tank barge recently modified by Seaspan’s Vancouver Drydock. The ITB Reliant — a sister barge of the Resolution — will be undergoing the same modifications at Nichols with a completion date in January to pair up with the Regent later in 2019.

In addition to the new vessels, van de Kuijlen reported that this past year was a busy one at ITB for drydocking and is looking forward to having the full fleet available for the coming year. “We have been very busy and don’t anticipate that changing next year,” he said, “The new vessels will be added to the fleet rather than used as replacements to take advantage of any potential new opportunities for expansion.”

Van de Kuijlen also reported that 2018 activity kept up a consistent pace and is forecasting a similar level of activity for 2019. “The transportation sector is very busy and doesn’t look like it will be slowing down anytime soon.”

As with other reports from tug operators, recruitment continues to be an issue industry wide. “At ITB, we have a training program in-house and try to promote from within whenever possible. Our seagoing crew provide great engagement to ensure we hire and train first-class employees. Because of lack of certifications, we have recently hired some licensed mates from the outside,” van de Kuijlen said, adding that the industry presents a great opportunity for young people but that “we need to do a better job promoting the marine industry — there are a lot of people who don’t realize the opportunities that are here in B.C.”

Reacting to the Transportation Safety Board’s recently released Watchlist report, van de Kuijlen said that, given ITB’s involvement in the oil industry, they’ve had very high safety standards in place for quite some time. “For smaller operators though, it would be good to have some kind of safety management system in place to ensure consistency and proper documentation of procedures,” he said and noted the Council of Marine Carriers has been active for a number of years in promoting voluntary SMS programs quite successfully.

When asked about fatigue management, another concern highlighted by the TSB, van de Kuijlen agreed that it was an important issue for the marine industry. “We take a proactive approach to crew management and continually monitor and engage with the crew to identify voyages that require attention from a scheduling or crew compliment perspective,” he said.

Jones Marine Group Ltd.

Reporting for Jones Marine Group, Daryl Jones said that 2018 saw a strong demand for forest products, translating into a solid year of utilization for Jones’ fleet of nine. “Our new build tractor tug, David J, has been well received by the pilots,” he said. “We have a second tractor (Judy J) due to begin construction in March 2019 at Sylte Shipyard.”

Jones also noted the industry-wide challenge of finding qualified people. “With the LNG Canada project in Kitimat moving forward, I do not foresee this situation getting any better in the future,” he added.

Looking forward, while Jones sees some uncertainties, they are not ones that would create a significant down turn for the customers they serve.

North Arm Transportation

Providing an update for North Arm Transportation (NAT), Mathew Stradiotti and Les Johnston reported on a consistent and “fairly busy” year, adding a caveat for late summer being affected by the fire season. “We support a number of coastal forestry contractors, including helicopter operators. A number of the contractors had to stop operating due to fire danger for part of the summer and the helicopter operators were deployed to fight fires,” said Stradiotti. Johnston added that, hearing from his contacts within the forestry industry, work is expected to ramp up into the winter.

Fleet-wise, NAT has continued with its regular vessel maintenance program. The North Arm Wrestler and North Arm Wave both underwent refits in the past year and the North Arm Prowler is scheduled for refit in January.

NAT has seen a general increase in activity on the mid-coast and in the Kitimat area as well as Vancouver. “Rio Tinto T2 project has been twinning their existing 65-year-old tunnel which supplies water for hydro generaton and we have been helping their contractors with freight support and now they’re ready to start tunnelling. Between that and the start of the LNG Canada project, cement shipments have increased and should be consistent into 2019,” said Johnston, adding that the main contractor for the LNG Canada project, Fluor, will be taking over the LNG Canada site in March 2019 and activity will start to unfold from there.

While being “cautiously optimistic” on their involvement with the LNG Canada project, Johnston further noted their regular core business of delivering fuel and freight into the mid coast and north coast has been consistent as has the short sea shipping route it runs for DP World between Vancouver and Nanaimo.

Recruitment continues to be an issue, not just for NAT but for many companies. “Everyone I talk to — in the marine industry and elsewhere — is having a difficult time finding good people” said Stradiotti. “We’re fortunate to have a good group of people at NAT but we’re always looking for more.”

Both Stradiotti and Johnston were pleased to see the latest Transportation Safety Board Watchlist recommendations on fatigue and mandatory safety systems for the marine industry. “We have a management system based in the IMO International Safety Management Code that addresses safety, crew scheduling as well as care for the environment,” said Stradiotti. “We have external auditors including Lloyds Register that come in to validate our work so we’re familiar with a formal focus on safety. If applied consistently across the industry, regulation would level the playing field in terms of competition.”  In response to the Nathan E. Stewart grounding, Stradiotti notes an increase in preventative measures such as wheelhouse alarms are being adopted. “Overall, as long as any regulations are well thought through, we feel it will be positive for the industry.”

SAAM SMIT Towage Canada

The big news for SAAM SMIT Towage Canada is the imminent delivery of two new vessels from Hong Kong’s Cheoy Lee Shipyards and a third coming this spring from Turkey’s Uzmar Shipyards. All three tugs are designed by Robert Allan Ltd. The SST Orca and SST Grizzly, scheduled to arrive in late November are RAstar 3200 tugs with the third, as yet unnamed tug, a RAstar 3200W (a bit wider than the regular 3200 series). The third tug will be put into service in Prince Rupert roughly by the middle of March.

According to Captain Mark Bingham, Vice President of Operations, that will bring the total fleet size to 25 and a total investment since 2014 of nearly $100 million which includes the SST Salish and SST Capilano built by ABD Boats (designed by A.G. McIlwain) in North Vancouver in 2016/2017. While both are harbour tugs — 22 metres in length 68 tonnes of bollard pull —the three new tugs are escort tugs and significantly larger — 32 metres in length with 84 tonnes of bollard pull.

“The Capilano and Salish are great harbour tugs and well-liked by Pilots, while these new escort tugs demonstrate our commitment to serving deep-sea vessels calling B.C. ports and projects that may come online over the next few years, particularly in the oil and gas sectors,” Bingham said, adding that the energy resource majors expect very high standards across their entire supply chain. “Robert Allan Ltd. designs are recognized around the world and Cheoy Lee and Uzmar have built over 100 Robert Allan Ltd. tugs so their experience and reputation together are well known for very high quality.”

Bingham considered ship activity levels in 2018 as “flat” but did note they were seeing bigger ships, “and therefore, tugs need to get bigger. Our investment in the larger tugs is in recognition of the changing market.” He went on to say that, as the ships are getting larger, there is an increased focus on safety, tug packages and geographic limiting factors, such as the Lions Gate bridge. “Expectations are growing from shippers and shipping companies that terminals and harbours will be able handle these larger ships. From a tug operator perspective, it’s all about how we do that it in a safe way.” The acquisitions will add versatility to the SST fleet for the future.

With a continual effort to ensure high safety standards and a reduced environmental impact, SST has been very supportive of initiatives such as ECHO and efforts to improve the environment for the Southern Resident Killer Whales. “As a tug boat operator we don’t reach the same speeds as the larger ships but we still keep a close eye on it to be ready to participate at any time. It’s a part of our culture at SST — we want to do whatever we can to reduce our environmental impact and at the same time continue to increase our standard in safety.”

Samson Tugboats

With traffic on the Fraser River up over 2017 due to new container business and steady volumes in other cargoes such as RoRo, steel, logs and grain, Gordon Yahn with Samson Tugboats noted that the increased traffic and demand on terminals is resulting in berth conflicts. “We see a need for greater collaboration between terminals, agents, pilots, tugs and Marine Traffic and Communication Services,” he said, citing an interesting example of user collaboration within the group of agents representing RoRo vessels calling in the river. “They have worked closely together for years, sharing a working online scheduling system and keeping an open dialogue amongst each other.” 

Yahn is also finding a challenge in recruiting crew, especially for peak times but “we have a long-term vision of where we want to be and are grooming some new people with the right attitudes and skill sets,” he said. “We are fortunate to be able to attract good people to our organization.  The towboat industry on the West Coast is a small, close-knit community.  We treat our crew very well and word of this spreads amongst the folks in our industry.”

Seaspan Marine

With Bart Reynolds as the subject of this month’s Industry Insight article (page 14), readers will find much more detail on Seaspan Marine’s activities over the past year as well as some keen observations and commentary on the industry in general. Suffice to write for this article that things are going well at Seaspan. Activity is “pretty steady” throughout the diverse number of businesses — ship docking and escort, the chip and hog fuel business; log-barging; and general towing of rail cars and construction aggregates for the cement industry. “Combined, we’re kept quite busy,” said Reynolds and he does not see that changing in the foreseeable future.

Tymac Launch and Tug

Steve Hnatko, Vice President and General Manager for Tymac, has been pleased with the level of activity throughout the port this past year, noting that business has been steady.

While Tymac continues to maintain a solid fleet of pilot vessels and tugs on the water, they recently expanded their land operations, now offering waste management services to multiple cruise ships and vessels calling Victoria, Prince Rupert and other locations around the coast. “At our customers request we have expanded our waste management operations across British Columbia and in particular in response to Victoria’s growing cruise market,” Hnatko said, adding that “the cruise market is an important one for us, especially as we continue to support our long standing partnerships with the lines in the industry.”

Vancouver is estimating 290 ship calls for 2019 and roughly another six per cent increase in 2020; Victoria, with roughly 265 ship calls next year, is also proving promising for the marine tourism industry. “It’s nice to see that marine tourism is still a growing market for British Columbians — so many companies benefit from this sector, from the hospitality industry to logistics and service suppliers and maritime repair outfits.”

In terms of forecasting for next year, Hnatko expects a similar level of activity. “We don’t see any signs of a slowdown,” he said, noting that “as port volumes continue to increase, a couple more anchorages would be nice.”

When asked if he was having any issues finding skilled crew, Hnatko expressed a challenge in finding young Masters. “As an industry, we need to start bringing in younger people to replace those who will be retiring,” he said. “We can see the next five years or so being especially challenging in this regard and hope that the strategies that we have put in place will continue to attract new, young talent.”

Like other tug companies interviewed for this update, Hnatko was in full support of the Transportation Safety Board’s recommendation to make safety management systems mandatory. “I think that’s a great idea. It would really help to provide a standard across the industry as well as with industry-wide reporting to determine whether our experiences are unique or common across the industry. Sharing best practices and identifying systemic issues would be very helpful for everyone, as would establishing a baseline to determine future improvements and identifying industry wide shortfalls.”