Workboat Sector Mirrors Industry Trends
The workboat market is a dynamic one, with much attention paid to technological improvements in the areas of propulsion and electronics. Vessels in this category are not only constructed for a specific function — with the newbuild market driven by task-specific design but contain the latest in technical equipment and high-power, high-efficiency propulsion systems, minimizing the requirements for maximum operation and manueverability. Possibly the hardest working vessel afloat, the workboat has always been the beneficiary of technological advances aimed at making it ever better at its job — providing higher power coupled with better fuel economy, increased seaworthiness, longer maintenance intervals, and compliance with higher environmental standards.
Added to these factors is the effect legislation and regulations, including OPA 90 and MARPOL, have on workboats — a category including tug escort and ship assist vessels, patrol boats, and oil spill response vessels. These changing laws — combined with significant technological improvements, have catapulted workboat designs forward. A segment of the industry sometimes overlooked, workboats are as vital to the balance of trade and commerce as containerships, as evidenced by their adaptability, functionality, and comparatively lowcost production figures.
One trend in the workboat sector is the movement towards higher power propulsion. A reason for this increase in power, as seen in tugboat applications, is the growth in the size of towable vessels. Bigger ships are effecting positive advancements in tug capability. "We are focusing on Z-drive tugs, rather than standard screw-prop tugs," said J im Cole, director of business development and design at Elliott Bay Design Group, Seattle, Wash. "The primary thrust is that boats have gotten more powerful due to engines with higher output." The use of high capability synthetic line is another technological advancement in the tug design area. "Now it is possible to get up to 400,000 pounds breaking strength in a line handled by crew people," he added.
A relatively new trend in workboat propulsion is the incorporation of waterjets. Pilot boats seem destined to play the testbed role for applications of this technology in the workboat sector, due to their need for increased speed and efficiency in transit. According to Captain Ward Pearce, chief port pilot for Worldport LA, the three most important characteristics of a pilot boat are speed, efficiency, and seaworthiness. Ultimately, a pilot boat "has to be designed to operate in all weather for the port intended. The boat has to be designed to be seaworthy in the worst predictable conditions," said Capt.
Pearce. Logically, the speed increase offered by waterjet technology will add to ease of service, extending the overall performance by effecting a positive change in the level of seaworthiness.
Expressing support for another trend in the workboat sector, J a ck Hochadel, vice chairman of Willard Marine, predicted that construction of workboats will revert back to use of composite materials for hulls. "I think that's more accepted, and a bigger factor than it used to be because of better maintenance, as well as better thermal and acoustical properties." Mr. Cole also pointed out that improved fendering systems are being introduced to further reduce maintenance costs by preventing damage to customers' ships.
In terms of predicting market trends in the workboat sector, the technology being made available could significantly alter newbuild production. Undoubtedly, the inclusion of recent innovations in workboat newbuilds — namely, advanced electronic charting, cleaner burning engines with failsafe mechanisms, and higher wattage lighting for patrol crafts will contribute to the increased demand for workboats being demonstrated in the current market. Overall, owners have to decide between contracting newbuildings, and benefiting from technological enhancements, or being content with older, yet less expensive vessels. According to Mr. Cole, some owners prefer the latter strategy: "Some will not take big risks, but will accept equipment that is less than what is best (for a desired function)." However, if owners have specific ideas about what they need, said Mr. Hochadel, "or want some of the new technology, they'll have to have a new vessel built." As succintly put by Capt. Ward, "When it gets to the point where costs of maintenance get too expensive ... you buy a new boat." Another potential boost to workboat production is the increased concerns experienced by owners over compliance with environmental regulations. "Obviously, it will have the effect of creating new aspects to the workboat market," said Mr. Hochadel. Workboats not only perform oil spill response duties, but due to their high manzeuverability, provide key ship assist and escort services to tankers and bulk carriers. With stricter regulations and correspondingly high fines associated with the illegal discharge of pollutants into the water, owners will undoubtedly place more emphasis on obtaining workboat contracts. "Workboats will be more heavily relied upon. You are going to need much better equipment to handle tankers and bulk carriers," stated Mr. Cole, who added that in the U.S., concern about spill prevention "brought tractor tugs into prominence." He continued, saying: "Oil companies and tanker owners like them (workboats) in case of anything going wrong with the tankers." This statement sums up the indispensability of workboat applications, made apparent by their capacity for performing a variety of functions, as well as by the relatively low cost associated with building new vessels equipped with the latest technological offerings. Workboats not only absorb innovations readily, but provide the rest of the fleets with services that contribute to the overall smoothness of shipping operations.