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Tug Technology & Business

Tug Technology & Business

2017: A year of tug advancements

Thu 21 Dec 2017 by Martyn Wingrove

2017: A year of tug advancements

Editor Martyn Wingrove reviews the main technology and issues that affected the global tug sector in 2017

It has been an exceptional year for innovations in tug technology and operations that in some cases will only come to fruition in 2018. The sector has been boosted by demand for higher power tugs to assist the giant-sized container ships that have entered service or been ordered for delivery over the rest of this decade.

In reaction to these trends, designers have been innovative in their approach, testing different concepts and providing owners with varying levels of operating performance. There has also been a drive by the tug sector to adopt a growing tide of environmental regulations and concerns, resulting in an increase in the number of tugs operating on gas fuel or using hybrid propulsion systems.

There have been challenges though for tug operators, such as uncertain futures for unused units in their fleets and falling revenues in competitive markets, most notably in salvage.

Below are the top five trends that I consider are impacting the tug sector for the better or for worse. Please feel free to contact me at if you agree or disagree. I look forward to your feedback.


Race for higher power

With the delivery of container ships with capacities up to 22,000 TEU comes responsibility for manoeuvring them effectively and safely in terminals. The same goes for the growing requirements for escorting and handling liquefied natural gas (LNG) carriers at the rising number of import and export terminals.

In reaction to these demands, tug operators have ordered more powerful tugs that can deliver bollard pulls of up to 90 tonnes, and in a few cases beyond 100 tonnes. Shipyards that build tugs on a speculative basis, with the expectation they can be sold on, have worked with naval architects, most notably Robert Allan, on semi-standard tugs with higher bollard pulls. They have been building them in the 60 to 70 tonnes bracket on speculation for several years, but in 2017 there were tugs achieving 80 tonnes bollard pull.

Tugs were built to order with higher bollard pulls for specific owner requirements, some at more than 100 tonnes. However, at least half of the tugs that entered service in 2017 were built on a speculative basis.

In 2018, we will see shipyards building a few of these speculative newbuildings with bollard pulls of more than 80 tonnes, and perhaps up to 90 tonnes as they recognise the changing power trend. Engine manufacturers will also need to recognise this.

Innovative designs

2017 will be known as the year for innovative tug designs and technology, when naval architects took conceptual ideas for alternative towage operations and thruster configuration and made them reality.

The prime example I have in mind is Multraship Towage and Salvage’s Multratug 32 harbour tug, the first commercial Carrousel Rave tug. This combines Voith propulsion in an inline configuration with a Robert Allan-designed low-drag hull and a carrousel towing system developed by Novatug.

Multratug 32 was pictured undergoing sea testing in the North Sea during December and is expected to enter service in early January. Novatug managing director Julian Oggel discussed tug design innovations at our inaugural Asian Tug Technology & Salvage Conference in Singapore in September.

In the latest issue of Tug Technology & Business, Robert Allan president and chief executive Mike Fitzpatrick explained that Multratug 32, as a Carrousel Rave tug design, was ideal for harbour and canal towage.

LNG versus hybrid

Other innovations around tug design and construction came from owners turning to alternative fuels and energy storage devices. This was highlighted by Tug Technology & Business when it awarded its Tug of the Year honour to three LNG-fuelled escort tugs that were built in Spain for Østensjø Rederi.

Dux, Pax and Audax have been operating at Statoil’s production terminal at Melkøya, near Hammerfest, Norway since their naming ceremony in August. They were designed to operate in extreme weather and sea conditions within the Arctic Circle in temperatures down to -20˚C. They were built by Astilleros Gondán in Spain, classed by Bureau Veritas and designed by Robert Allan as RAstar 4000-DF class tugs.

Tug owners have also been opting for hybrid propulsion systems for newbuildings. These incorporate diesel-electric engines and battery packs, which can be combined to provide enough power during towage operations. But, during general harbour operations and idle periods tugs can be powered just by the batteries.

Hybrid propulsion technology can include electric drives, DC hubs and permanent magnet motors to drive highly efficient thrusters. Hybrid propulsion needs to be integrated with the tug design, which was one of the reasons why Wärtsilä launched a new portfolio of hybrid propulsion tug designs at our Tug Technology and Salvage Conference in Singapore in September.

Wärtsilä produced three designs of hybrid tug with bollard pulls of 50 tonnes and 75 tonnes including one for escort operations. Others are following with tugs designed specifically with hybrid propulsion in mind.

Salvage revenues slump

All this investment needs to be paid for by tug owners in the newbuilding cost and eventually by charterers. However, competition is keeping a lid on profitability in tug operations, especially in salvage.

International Salvage Union (ISU) president Charo Coll highlighted the issue of decreasing profits in salvage at an event in December. She explained that there has been a slump in income ISU members have achieved from emergency response and wreck removal work from US$717M in 2015 to US$380M in 2016. There is no information available on 2017 income, which may not be published until mid-2018.

Mrs Coll blamed the decline in the use of Lloyd’s Open Form (LOF) for salvage project contracts for this sharp drop in income. An LOF enables salvors to rapidly react to casualties and be paid at the end of the project, based on value of the salvaged assets.

There have been calls this year for amendments to LOF in favour of insurance companies and shipowners. However, Mrs Coll said the effect of amendments might cap the salved values or recalculate financial awards based on tariff rates.

No let-up in tug accidents

Shipping needs salvors, and so does the towage industry, as a number of accidents this year involving tugs and pilot vessels have demonstrated. The most recent incident occurred on 26 November this year when fuel barge Zidell Marine 277 broke away while being pushed by tugboat Jake Shearer in Queen Charlotte Sound close to Bella Bella, in British Columbia, Canada.

The incident happened in deteriorating weather conditions, which hindered recovery operations by the Canadian Coast Guard and commercial tug Gulf Cajun. The area around Bella Bella is hazardous to articulated tug and barge units, as a year before the Jake Shearer incident, Kirby Corp tug Nathan E Stewart grounded and sank on a reef near Bella Bella.

It was not the only accident to happen to a tug in North America. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Signet Maritime’s 1999-built tug Signet Enterprise sank in the port of Corpus Christi. There were regular reports on of tugs sinking in the Mississippi.

Accidents were not just confined to North America. The most recent incident in Europe was the loss of two seafarers when a Finnpilot Pilotage boat sank in the Gulf of Finland in early December.

All these accidents demonstrated that safety is still a key issue to be resolved by the towage and pilotage sectors. It is one that we hope is overcome in 2018.


Tug design, construction and system technology has evolved dramatically in 2017 as demand for more powerful and better performing tugs drives innovation. But the industry needs to keep in mind safety and stability issues and consider ways to improve profitability, while shipping needs to recognise the importance of tugs in responding to emergencies and providing essential ship handling, escort and towage services.

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