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Vinik answers call, clears hurdles with seasoned offshore fleet

Aug 4, 2020 01:16 PM
Vinik Marine tugboats led by Vinik No. 6 guide the cargo ship SS Cape Avinof (AK-5013) past the Brooklyn Bridge at the start of a tow to the James River Reserve Fleet last fall.

Courtesy Vinik Marine

Vinik Marine tugboats led by Vinik No. 6 guide the cargo ship SS Cape Avinof (AK-5013) past the Brooklyn Bridge at the start of a tow to the James River Reserve Fleet last fall.

Daunting is a good word to describe the process of getting some older tugboats into compliance with Subchapter M, said Capt. Mike Vinik, a 2003 SUNY Maritime graduate and owner of Vinik Marine, a New Jersey-based towing company founded in 2005. He then brought up the case of his largest current tugboat, Vinik No. 6, which is 50 years old.

“It’s always been in the oil service and therefore has had all sorts of upgrades over the years, has always been inspected, and it’s insured to the max,” he said.

Vinik No. 6 is massive. Its registered dimensions are 141 feet by 35 feet, with a draft of 18.7 feet. The vessel is powered by twin EMD 16-645E5 diesels generating 5,700 horsepower running through Falk gears turning fixed-pitch propellers. It has a double-drum Intercon towing winch fitted with 2,000 feet of 2.25-inch main wire and 2,000 feet of 2.5-inch secondary cable. The tug was built in 1970 by Southern Shipbuilding as Robert Alario for Nolty J. Theriot Offshore Inc. of Golden Meadow, La. In 1992, it was sold to Morania, then in turn to Penn Maritime and Kirby, all petroleum transporting companies. Vinik Marine acquired the vessel in 2018.

Vinik No. 6 has SS Cape Avinof on a short wire with Liz Vinik standing by as the mothballed freighter enters Upper New York Bay.

Courtesy Vinik Marine

Last fall, Vinik No. 6 was used to tow two U.S. Maritime Administration (MarAd) cargo ships — SS Cape Avinof (AK-5013) and SS Cape Ann (AK-5009) — from GMD Shipyard in Brooklyn, N.Y., back to the James River Reserve Fleet in Virginia. “We could do the tow in 24 hours, but to get high water in GMD to depart and high water in the James River, as well as daylight for both, we took two full days and ran slower than usual,” Vinik said.

He waited almost a week for calmer weather offshore for the second tow involving SS Cape Ann, and that complicated arrangements as they approached the James River. “Delays cause complications. Intracoastal Marine of Chesapeake, Va., had a pilot available, but no longer the tug, which had moved to the next job. A costly last-minute replacement would assist us up to the reserve fleet, but not into the anchorage due to depth concerns,” Vinik explained.  

Martin Walker, superintendent of the James River Reserve Fleet, later wrote that he was concerned about the crew of Vinik No. 6 anchoring the dead ship without an assist, but “when the tow arrived, it was obvious the boat and captain were up to the challenge. It was a demonstration of some fine boat handling, and the best I’ve seen in a long while. Kudos to you and your crew.”

The size and horsepower of Vinik No. 6 are positive factors in getting salvage work, which Vinik Marine sometimes locates through the Resolve Marine Group, which usually doesn’t have a boat in the New York area. A call might involve towing a dead ship into port from 1,000 miles at sea.

 

Capt. Mike Vinik poses with Rhino the mastiff, an integral 140-pound crewmember at the New Jersey-based company.

 

 With Vinik No. 6 at the bow, Nicholas Vinik at the stern and Liz Vinik portside, SS Cape Avinof eases into the East River.

Will Van Dorp photo

 

Courtesy Vinik Marine

Salvage towing jobs often come up with no notice. “The client obviously wants us to be at the scene as soon as we can,” said Vinik, a volunteer firefighter. “Running this business is similar to operating a volunteer fire department: I get a call, then I call my crew to see who’s available for this job. We proceed to shop for groceries and take on fuel for more than the amount I expected we would need for the trip. Towing at capacity, Vinik No. 6 can burn 7,000 gallons per day. Crewing up, getting grub and fuel, and starting up the tug can take four hours or less. Then we make the best course to the job.”

Having tugboats of varying sizes is part of a business strategy for Vinik. Smaller tugs like the 55-foot Agnes and 63-foot Nicholas Vinik are ideal for assisting larger tug and barge units around the docks along the Arthur Kill, only a few miles from the Vinik base in Keasbey, N.J. There are six tugs in the company fleet.

“Most of our consistent work has been with our smaller tugs,” Vinik said. “A few oil terminals, especially at the southern end of the Arthur Kill, have smaller inside berths not designed for today’s larger double-hulled barges. We get calls to assist these units into and out of those tight berths.” Agnes’ size and lower air draft also make it just right for work along the Harlem River, with its low bridges.

Daunting is also a good word to describe the process of maintaining and building a marine business after the implementation of Subchapter M. Currently, Vinik docks his fleet along the Raritan River in Keasbey, N.J., a few miles west of the southwesternmost tip of New York City. This is where repairs and upgrades are made since the site has the one essential feature for a tugboat yard, staged on several spudded barges: deepwater access.

Vinik tugboats escort SS Cape Avinof past Lower Manhattan after leaving GMD Shipyard in Brooklyn. Salvage work for the company can involve towing a dead ship into port from 1,000 miles at sea.

Courtesy Vinik Marine

“We do all our own work there, but it’s tough with no running water, no electricity or garbage pickup,” Vinik said. “Gentrification has made ‘working waterfront’ hard to find. You can build parks and condos anywhere in the state, but a tugboat company must have waterfront property. Space is cheaper in central New Jersey, but without deepwater access, it’s not suitable for a tugboat company.”  

Last fall, Vinik used a Travelift in Tottenville, N.Y., to haul out Agnes, which was due for an overhaul, and place it onto a barge. After the tug was supported and secured, crews returned it to Vinik’s base in Keasbey and did all the rehab work there on an improvised dry dock. In a month and a half, Vinik’s employees replaced the boat’s gearbox, cutlass bearing, shafts, propellers, zincs and fenders. They sandblasted and then applied four coats of paint. Once Agnes was done, attention was turned to work needed on Nicholas Vinik.

The dearth of working waterfront in Greater New York is a challenge for all marine companies trying to keep a toehold along the deep water. Gentrification is one threat. Another is the plethora of bridges that impede traffic, many of them operated by the railroads.

The 51-foot Agnes heads for 40 days of dry-dock work after being loaded onto a barge. Vinik’s smaller tugs are well suited for work along tight berths on the Arthur Kill.

Will Van Dorp photo

“The Passaic River is dead, and the Hackensack is slowly dying. Having to wait for trains to clear so that bridges can open obstructs marine traffic,” Vinik said.

Looking to the future, particularly with the impending construction of offshore wind farms in the New York Bight, finding shoreside staging for the construction and assembly of wind farm components also will be a challenge.

“A lot of questions (concerning) dock infrastructure and upland come to mind,” Vinik said. “Where is the 40 to 140 acres of waterfront and upland needed to do pre-assembly of wind farm components? Who will the builders be? What boat types will be required?”

But that is still down the road. For now, Vinik faces the challenges at hand and focuses on running and promoting his business. 

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