Monday, 13 July 2020 | 23:33
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Malta’s towage services: past, present and future

Monday, 13 August 2018 | 00:00

The use of tugboats to assist vessels in and out of our harbours can be traced back to the mid-19th century when steam-propelled tugs were used greatly by the Admiralty, primarily to assist Royal Navy warships in Grand Harbour and the Naval Dockyard. With the passage of time such tugs were also deployed to assist merchant shipping.

Fast-forward to closer times, single screw conventional tug designs, featuring more limited manoeuverability than what we are used to today, was introduced in our ports. As time progressed, tugboats evolved in line with changes taking place in shipping itself particularly to keep up with the technological advancement of ocean-going vessels that became ever bigger.

With the advent of tankers and very large container vessels, twin screw and omni-directional tugboats were introduced in our ports, which were soon to be followed by the more sophisticated Azimuth screw propelled tugs endowed with better hydrodynamic hull design and a more powerful bollard pull. Azimuth Stern Drive tugs enhanced the practice of towing over the bow, providing a safer environment, particularly when acting as stern tugs at speed.

Over this space of time our ports witnessed not only the modernistion of the local tug fleet, but also changes in terms of its manning dynamics as crews on board vessels were gradually scaled down from a complement of eight to just three members in the light of new safety standards brought about by increased automation.

Along this change continuum, the industry also went through ownership swings with ownership and operation responsibilities, shifting from private interest to a public or State-owned status and then back again to a private ownership.

Service rendering emphasis changed almost completely to commercial towage service users whereas the relative commercial importance between our two principal harbours has today undergone a paradigm shift with the Marsaxlokk harbour. This is predominantly due to the change in the nature of cargo and freight. Clearly, it is for this reason that the need for towage at Grand Harbour abated over the past years, not to mention also that assistance to ships undergoing repairs at the yards has also somewhat contracted.

Today, Tug Malta represents and is the legacy of all the above. It is a privatisation success story that has witnessed the transformation of the company into one with enhanced capabilities to meet increased demands with greater levels of efficiency and safety standards.

The use of tugboats to assist vessels in and out of our harbours can be traced to the mid-19th century, when the Admiralty greatly used steam-propelled tugs, primarily to assist Royal Navy warships

Its association with the nearly century-old Rimorchiatori Riuniti S.p.a –Italy’s leading group in the maritime and, more specifically, in the towage sector – continues to offer operational synergies and investment support directly to the company and the industry at large.

The recent investment undertaking in three new tugs in the space of three years takes the sector to a new league measureable by the diversely configured and younger age profile of the fleet; the aggregate bollard capacity and state-of-the-art technology deployed; the recruitment of additional STCW qualified and experienced personnel; improved prompt response capacity at the harbour stations and so on.

With the forthcoming delivery of the second unit, currently under construction, to be followed in a space of a year by the third vessel, the current towage service will be taken to the next level of operational excellence as the ability of the service provider to cater for the callings of the world’s largest container ships and the fast turnaround nowadays warranted by terminals busily located in congested ports, will be further augmented. Today it is increasingly recognised that port and terminal operations have become more integrated with their tug operations being further interconnected with ship arrivals and departures along with quayside operations.

Clearly in the last 50 years towage service in Malta has made improvements, in leaps and bounds, in the provision of essential services to the Maltese ports and the economy as a whole.

But where is it heading? The mission for Tug Malta is to continue on its performance lineage, that is, serving the industry in the best possible manner aiming for competitive, safe and efficient port turnaround in all the relevant ports and terminals. To this end investment in fleet replacement and expansion shall be made, the specifications of vessels with capabilities to provide a safety standby emergency and environmental response anywhere will be unmatched and investment in crew knowledge base will be broadened further.

But as the evolution continues we may have to brace ourselves for some revolution, which will become more and more a reality in the future. Although a subject of discussion – for another occasion – local ship-handling towing operations may well one day be dominated by a fleet with hybrid, LNG or eco-friendly technologies or with three-man crewing giving way to unmanned operations.

Who knows? One cannot just say ‘certainly not under my watch’. The extent of consolidation going on in the shipping industry in pursuit of growth, the mergers and acquisitions taking place within the container liner business and in other industry segments, the embrace of new environmental regulations, the critical shortage of marine personnel in the industry, emerging technologies and other factors certainly give us plenty to think about. From a long-term perspective all of these matters will have a dramatic effect on the global towing industry, including at some point or other locally.

Meanwhile looking to the future, it is important that all industry players continue to work in close collaboration.
Source: Times of Malta

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