Wonder no more about "that big tug down at Rowe Square" that arrived in port late last year.
Designed by Robert Allan Ltd. of Vancouver, B.C., Derecktor Shipyards at Bridgeport, Conn., built that all-steel, approximately 128-by-44-by-18-foot tug named Independence.
"The tug is owned by Boston Towing & Transportation; the crews are also employed by them," explained Timothy White, the port director for Neptune GDF Suez, which maintains an office at 6 Rowe Square. "We (Neptune GDF Suez) charter the tug," he added. Neptune GDF Suez is a subsidiary of GDF Suez.
Neptune GDF Suez operates one of the offshore LNG terminals in Massachusetts Bay, where LNG tankers can offload their natural gas cargoes. Several Cape Ann fishermen already crew on other Boston Towing & Transportation tugs as well as on those of its parent company, Reinauer Companies of Staten Island in New York City.
"For the deep water port, the tug Independence is the primary tug," said White, adding that the tug Justice, which is smaller in length and beam but has similar horsepower and bollard pull, will fill in for the Independence.
A pair of four-man teams, each having a captain, mate, engineer and an able-bodied seaman typically crew Independence with alternating shifts of two weeks on and two weeks off.
"Independence leaves port pretty much every day. Usually she's out on site offshore," the port director explained.
The Independence's many roles for Neptune GDF Suez provide "safety and security responsibilities, a communication conduit to the maritime community and logistical support for (tanker) personnel and equipment," White said. Neptune GDF Suez has also offered Independence's firefighting capability to the city of Gloucester should a waterfront fire ever occur.
Several local fishermen have already experienced the super tug's security role —- making sure unofficial vessels stay out of its terminal's 500-meter safety zone.
"Independence is an innovative, well-designed tug," said Derecktor co-owner Paul Derecktor. Kathy Kennedy from Derecktor's marketing division, adds, "The tug, meant for the critical job of assisting LNG tankers, incorporates a number of features never before combined in a U.S.-built tug.
"This is the first tug in the continental U.S. specifically designed for offshore LNG terminals," adds Carol Churchill, communication manager for GDF Suez in Boston.
"The hull shape has been optimized to be easily driven, frugal on fuel and to provide excellent sea-keeping. The hull ... includes sponsons that flare out just below deck level, thus allowing the tug to be built with a narrower hull," said Kennedy.
According to online literature, "sponsons are projections from the sides of watercraft. They extend a hull dimension at or below the waterline and serve to increase flotation or add lift when underway."
Designer Robert Allan said the tug's design is practical.
"We've found that the incorporation of sponsons can make a tug more efficient and comfortable and safer," he said.
One of Independence's captains, 47-year-old Skip Lee of Harwich, who holds a 1,600-ton Oceans License, attests to the tug's sea-kindliness after being out on her recently in 15-foot-high waves.
"She was very comfortable," he said. "She doesn't try to throw you off of your feet. She handles well in the weather, and she's predictable. She's also a dry boat."
Lee said he views Independence as "more of an offshore support vessel (OSV) with an Asmith Stern Drive (ASD)," than a tug.
The amid-ship's positioning of the wheelhouse and its underlying crew's quarters and galley further make the vessel sea-kindly to its operators.
The wheelhouse, complete with 31 windows for circle visibility, sits 35 feet above the water. The windows are heated along with other critical parts of the vessel's exterior, including the deck, to prevent the frozen states of water from building up on them.
The captain runs Independence from a central command center in the wheelhouse where, amidst overhead electronics staring at him, he sits between a pair of special three-in-one controllable pitch (CP) combo levers that shift, throttle and steer.
Operating the vessel "... is a two-hand operation. It takes some getting used to. You are using one (propulsion system) against the other all the time. You can get the vessel to go sideways with this system," Lee explained.
The vessel's main propulsion system is a story itself.
Two 16-cylinder turbo-charged diesels, which each produce up to 2,700 horsepower and are each directly connected to a Rolls Royce controllable pitch propeller Z-drive via a carbon fiber drive shaft, allow Independence 360-degree maneuverability, speeds up to 141âÑ2 knots, and an approximately 74 standard ton bollard pull.
The two drives "also have reverse," said Lee. "They'll give you up to 30 percent in reverse."
"The propellers are bigger than me, and I'm 6-foot-2," said White.
"This propulsion package provides great efficiency and increased vessel speeds along with tremendous power," Kennedy explained.
To save fuel while the big diesels are idling, computers "will shut down one bank of cylinders (eight cylinders) in each engine so the diesels will run on only eight cylinders and use much less fuel," said chief engineer Gabriel Raciti of Plymouth.
In addition, two John Deere gensets fulfill the tug's electrical needs, while five fuel tanks, volumed out at 64,000 gallons, keep the engines from going thirsty.
The engine room machinery is hooked up to "... over 4,000 alarm conditions that will shut an engine down before damage can be done," Raciti explained.
The tug's aft deck is equipped with two pieces of impressive hydraulic machinery that help the vessel perform its many roles. One is the Jon-rie main towing winch that holds over 2,000 feet of 21âÑ4-inch diameter cable.
The other is the Effer deck crane that can extend 25 feet outward, and can also lift up to 15 tons. The Independence often offloads supplies in 20-foot-high containers to tankers. Both the towing winch and the deck crane can be operated on deck or from the wheelhouse.
Independence is also well-equipped to fight fire if that day ever comes.
"She is equipped with FiFi Class One fire pumps producing a 425-foot water cannon range at 10,500 gallons per minute," explained Kennedy.
The vessel's wheelhouse area is also fitted with a deluge system.
"This sprays a fine mist that protects the crew and allows them to get in close to fight a fire," said Raciti.
"It's a pleasure to run this vessel," said Capt. Lee.
He's also concluded after several months on the job that "Independence is very well thought-out, and she's a very capable boat."
"I'm amazed at the whole boat," Raciti added. "I'm not over it yet."
Gloucester lobsterman Peter K. Prybot writes regularly for the Time on the fishing industry, the waterfront and other local issues.