Tugs pull their weight and more at fast-growing B.C. port

Oct 9, 2013

Submitted by the Prince Rupert Port Authority

Image courtesy of the Prince Rupert Port Authority.

Image courtesy of the Prince Rupert Port Authority.

Over the last century, tugboats have played a vital role in generating growth for British Columbia’s economy, as they pull more than their weight through the many inlets, channels, and waterways of Canada’s west coast. The powerful vessels are also a critical component in the safe-operating practices and procedures of a world-class port, as they assist large commercial vessels and help keep harbours free from debris.

Prince Rupert has benefitted from the work of tugboats and their skippers for its entire history. As far back as the 1920s, there were dedicated towing vessels built from local old-growth wood on our waterfront shipyards, including the historic C.R.C. built in 1929 by legendary tow-boater captain Charlie Curry. The booming forestry industry along B.C.’s coast provided untold tonnes of tow work and led to the construction of many powerful tugs to support the industry. Rivtow Marine arrived in Prince Rupert in the late 1950s, providing towing services for the Skeena-Cellulose pulp mill on Watson Island. With the purchase of well-known tug company Armour Salvage and Towing in 1970, Rivtow began to provide harbour towage services to the ocean-going vessels that visited the Watson Island pulp mill and Prince Rupert grain elevator. Rivtow also started a scheduled freight and fuel barge service to the Queen Charlotte Islands and other North Coast communities. Over 30 years, Rivtow acquired numerous other towing and marine companies both in Prince Rupert and throughout British Columbia, becoming one of the largest towboat companies on British Columbia’s west coast by the late 1970s.

Captain Mike Stevenson began his career with tug company Northern Salvage and Towing, which was purchased by Rivtow in 1965. As a tug captain and later manager, captain Stevenson has witnessed firsthand the development of much of what we know today as the Port of Prince Rupert. During this period there have been both ups and downs. Now the manager of SMIT Marine Canada’s Northern B.C. harbour towage operations, captain Stevenson spends the majority of his time in their waterfront offices instead of the wheelhouse of a tug. Taking a short break from the administrative work that keeps him so busy, captain Stevenson smiles when asked to reflect on his decades of experience working in the B.C. North Coast marine industry.

“I always loved the challenging jobs where you’re moving around to different locations and doing different types of work all the time. This industry provides amazing opportunities and experiences that few others ever get, particularly on B.C.’s North Coast, and it remains the training ground for individuals looking to further their seafaring careers,” said Stevenson. “With the majority of work SMIT does now, our tug captains in Prince Rupert have many days and nights of routine ship docking. But as we all know, that can change in a flash and things become quite challenging.”

In the year 2000, SMIT International purchased Rivtow Marine and the company name was later changed to SMIT Marine Canada Inc. In 2010, SMIT Marine Canada sold their barging fleet and today SMIT focuses solely on their core business of harbour towage, docking, and undocking deep sea vessels visiting B.C. coastal ports. Like other port partners and stakeholders, SMIT receives daily updates of pending arrivals, departures, and other vessel activity in Prince Rupert through the Prince Rupert Port Authority and ship’s agents, and are contracted to provide harbour towage service.

The scheduling system for SMIT’s harbour towage is based on call-outs, meaning tug crews are lined up once a job is booked through a shipping line or agent. The working hours of a tugboat crew vary greatly day to day, due to the round-the-clock nature of the shipping business and the various factors that can cause delays. SMIT Marine Canada has a fleet of 21 tugboats working in its group of companies, seven of which are stationed in Prince Rupert. Due to the diversity of the vessels assisted in the Port of Prince Rupert, a large diversity of tugs is required relative to the still low volumes of vessels visiting Prince Rupert. Locally, SMIT owns and operates two 1800hp conventional tugs, one line boat, and four tractor tugs, two of which are large ASD 65 metric ton bollard pull vessels. The Prince Rupert operation currently employs 22 people between their administrative office, maintenance shop, and vessel operators, most of whom were born and raised on the North Coast.

With the construction of Pinnacle Renewable Energy’s new wood pellet export terminal, SMIT’s current offices and moorage will be moving southward in 2013 to the site previously occupied by J.S. McMillan Fisheries Ltd. As for the future, SMIT and other local port-related businesses should have their work cut out for them, as the demand for experienced marine service providers intensifies with increased terminal capacities and new developments. In the meantime, SMIT is working hard on a structured process of continuous improvement, including care for the environment as members of the international Green Marine program.

“When port business grows in Prince Rupert, and it appears that it’s going to, eventually we might see competition in our line of business and we need to be ready to adapt accordingly,” says Stevenson. “Obviously we would like to see one of the proposed new terminals operating in the near future, since it potentially means more business for the likes of our company and many others in Prince Rupert.”