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2017 May 15

Panama Canal needs fleet of more powerful tugs

There has been a cautious start to new tug ordering, but potential for more contracts to come for operations in Panama.

Tug newbuilding ordering has slowed this year as many owners remain cautious about investment after the frenzy in contracts in 2016. For those that have ordered new tugs, the emphasis has been on increasing power within their fleets. Several ports and key transit infrastructure, such as the Panama Canal, do not have the towing power for the world’s biggest ships, which bodes well for future orders.

A plethora of container ships are due to be delivered this year in excess of 18,000 teu. Recently, the world’s largest box ships at some 20,600 teu were commissioned. The cascading of container ships on different routes is also producing problems as relatively smaller teu vessels are not able to enter unfamiliar ports due to deeper draft and lack of tug power.

The initial success of the newly introduced lock systems in the Panama Canal has faced setbacks after a promising start. More vessels were transiting with wider beams and higher capacity, while newbuildings aimed at Panama Canal transits and dubbed Neo Panamax units have faced a major problem through lack of appropriate towage power and attendant safety problems. Not everything is the fault of the Panama Canal Authority since Neo Panamax designs have limited manoeuvrability.

This, combined with increased size, places the most powerful tugs in a risky and complicated process. The problems are most prevalent in the third set of locks designed for bigger ships. Larger container ships rerouted from Asia for a shorter passage are denied maximum teu due to necessary restrictions up to 9,500 teu. Thus, more tugs and crew training are urgently required.

The new third set of locks are operating at only half capacity which is unsatisfactory after a US$9.4 billion investment. Only six Neo Panamax transits a day are being accomplished instead of 12. Entry into the locks requires tight manoeuvrability amid variation in strong currents. The Panama Canal fleet is huge with 46 owned vessels but only 33 are operational. Some of these are approaching the end of their useful lives. In 2016, the Panama Canal Authority received the last of a 14-vessel newbuilding programme of 70-tonne tractor tugs built in Spain, but many more are needed.

Eight tugs were purchased from China but are not fully used due to being described as poor performers. In a recent move some tugs have been hired from the Venezuelan state energy company. This marks the first time the Panama Canal Authority has engaged an overseas company to run operations rather than its own employees.

Experts estimate that 70 to 90 more tugs, with higher power ratings, are required to serve the third set of locks. The lack of training for canal operators, which is normally a two-and-a-half year process, and poor knowledge of the English language are problems associated with hired overseas tugs. The estimate of 70 to 90 extra tugs does seem a high complement, and in practice I think fewer would be needed. However, should even half of this number reach fruition then some shipbuilders will gain substantial business.

A start has been made with Panama-based Meyer’s Group towage company ordering two powerful tugs of at least 80-tonne bollard pull capacity. They will be the biggest in the Panama Canal fleet. Due to the urgency of the situation on the canal Meyer’s Group approached Damen Shipyards and signed for two azimuthing stern drive ASD 2913 design tugs.

The contract fully exploits Damen’s successful policy of hulls ex-stock, yielding early deliveries in May and August 2017. Both contracting parties are more than confident the duo will meet the rigorous demands of the canal and marks the first time Damen expertise has been employed.

With the onus on more power the prospects look good for traditional tug builders. Like Damen Shipyards, although on a smaller scale, two Turkish yards cashed in on speculative construction for own operation or resale overseas. Sanmar goes from strength-to-strength especially with its Robert Allen-licensed designs. In March, the builder reached a milestone with delivery of Svitzer Chirripo and Svitzer Hermod tugs. They represent the first two in a six-ship series of Robert Allan RAstar 2800 escort tug designs under Svitzer’s Silver Bullet fleet replenishment programme which demands more powerful units.

Turkey’s Uzmar is also profiting from speculative construction of harbour tugs. The builder enjoys a long-standing relationship with Venezuela’s International Offshore Engineering and Development Co and recently delivered two 60-tonne bollard pull, 25m long tugs to them, which will work at Venezuela’s major oil terminals. The Turkish builder has 10 more of this design on order and some of these are also likely to find their way to Venezuela. Uzmar also holds orders for four similar units. All 16 units are for builder’s account and delivery throughout 2018.

Singapore yard group Triyards Holdings Limited allocated an order for seven tugs to its Saigon, Vietnam shipyard but no other details were released at this stage. Damen Shipyards scored more success with new orders. Its Song Cam complex in Vietnam will build six 85-tonnes bollard pull Rotortugs of ART 85-32W-class designed by Robert Allan for operations at Port Hedland, Australia. Two will deliver in October 2018 and four in 2019 to Pilbara Marine, a subsidiary of Fortescue Metals.

Damen Shipyards Hardinxveld will build two special purpose tugs for dredging specialist De Boer. Both tugs will operate under a 10-year contract with Grand Port Maritime de Gyane and serve Cayenne and Kourou ports in French Guyana. Secondary operations will include dredging maintenance operations in both ports. The larger tug known as the WID 2915 is configured for a variety of roles including dredging while the smaller ASD 2310 shallow draft tug will be employed in bed levelling from special equipment on board and carry out survey duties. Deliveries are set for February 2018 and November 2017 respectively.

Source: www.tugtechnologyandbusiness.com; Barry Luthwaite

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