As Italy is gripped by Covid-19 outbreaks and lockdowns, tug owners continue to deliver port towage solutions
European tug owners have overcome the rising business and financial challenges of continuing towage services during the coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic.
Italy was an epicentre for Covid-19 infections in Europe during April 2020. And its tug operators were challenged to maintain coastal and harbour towage services and provide salvage coverage for maritime emergencies.
Business was impacted by a huge slump in ferry and cruise ship manoeuvring demand as these services were scaled back during March and April. There were also crewing and technical challenges to overcome.
One of the leading Italian tug owners tells Tug Technology & Business about its experience and solutions for overcoming these challenges.
Cafimar Group managing director Gian Paolo Russo explains how Italian owners still need to be ready to meet towage challenges despite the impact of Covid-19, which has brought daily life to a standstill and impacted port operations.
“Tug owners still need to be ready to handle ships and provide emergency towage when called upon,” Mr Russo comments.
“As with everybody, we are forced to face this very difficult time and we are doing our utmost for our organisation to give the best possible response to the daily challenges.”
As Italy went into a long lockdown, general activities slowed, but public services continued. “Our port towage activity, being a public service, cannot stop,” says Mr Russo. “Generally, tug activities in Italy have remained steady and satisfactory. From the first Italian Government alert, we adopted procedures to keep our staff safe,” he continues.
Shipping traffic into Italian ports has dropped dramatically, especially ferry and cruise ships berthing at the port of Civitavecchia, near Rome. Cafimar operates a tug fleet in Civitavecchia, including 2019 newbuilding, Sea Rock.
Italian offshore and oceangoing towage activities have also slowed with maritime construction projects either put on hold or delayed.
Cafimar was providing tugs and a barge to support deepsea transportation and construction of an LNG regasification facility in western Italy. It supplied flat top barge Vega 25 to Dutch company Mammoet to transport steel modules for the regasification centre.
“These modules were being transported from the Adriatic Sea to the Tyrrhenian Sea,” says Mr Russo. “Now there is a stop to these, but these voyages will keep us busy for several months once resumed.”
Cafimar also operates tugs supporting oil terminal operations outside of Italy, with a tug in Libya and another in Iraq. In September 2019, Cafimar started providing two tugs to support oil terminal operations in Saudi Arabia “and we are in talks for a third one,” says Mr Russo.
“On the activities abroad, we are working regularly even if we face problems with difficult solutions,” he says.
Cafimar has faced challenges with crew changes due to travel and port restrictions, but it has found solutions. “For the time being, we are still able to handle this situation, but it is a real concern,” says Mr Russo.
These challenges could be eased in Italy as the country slowly removes lockdown restrictions, but other nations are either introducing their own, or maintaining tight restrictions as Q2 2020 progresses.
“The period ahead will bring a lot of uncertainty and we will face new challenges that are difficult to predict at this stage,” says Mr Russo.
“We can only be prepared to put the maximum effort to give the best possible performance in what will be required now and into the future,” he concludes.
Rimorchiatori Riuniti invested in its tug activities in Italy during Q1 2020 with the addition of a new tug and a contract extension in the Middle East.
Sanmar Shipyards delivered Z-drive tractor tug Italia to Rimorchiatori Riuniti in February 2020. This escort and emergency response tug was deployed to provide towage services in Genoa, Italy.
Italia was built from an adapted Robert Allan TRAktor 2500-SX design and is class-rated to conduct ship escorting and manoeuvring in rough seas, at terminals and in harbours.
This 323-gt tug has fire-fighting systems to FiFi1 class, bollard pull of 70.2 tonnes and free running speed ahead of 12.4 knots. It has a pair of Caterpillar 3516C diesel engines driving two Kongsberg US 255 P30 fixed pitch azimuthing drives. Italia has a raised deck for operating in rough weather and the lower accommodation space remains above the waterline.
In April 2020, Rimorchiatori Riuniti’s subsidiary Finarge secured a contract extension from Naghi Marine to operate an azimuth stern drive (ASD) tug in Saudi Arabia. Its 2018-built tug, with 75 tonnes of bollard pull, has been working in the port of Juzan since September 2019. Naghi extended the contract for two years firm and holds extension options.
Fratelli Neri is also investing in a new tug. It ordered Romito from Damen Shipyards and secured finance to cover shipbuilder payments from Crédit Agricole Italia.
Watson Farley & Williams says it advised Crédit Agricole on a loan facility to Fratelli Neri to finance the tug’s construction. This new tug will join Neri’s fleet of more than 40 vessels, including harbour, LNG and oil terminal tugs, salvage, coastal and deepsea towage tugs.
Divestments and acquisitions
However, at least one Italian owner is considering divesting its towage business in market consolidation. The Onorato family informed investors in April it was ready to leave the tugboat business, represented by subsidiary Moby. “We are in negotiations with an operator for a potential divestment relating to the tug division as part of the approval of the group’s restructuring plan,” the family said in a statement to the Luxembourg stock exchange. Proceeds from any divestment will repay existing creditors.
In 2019, Moby purchased Damen-built ASD tug Vincenzino O for its operations in Sardinia.
Italian owners are also investing in tug operations in Greece.
“We entered the Greek market for port towage last year, in a joint venture with two other Italian tug operators, says Cafimar’s Mr Russo. Cafimar is an investor in Greek-Euro Towage Maritime Co (GMC) along with Rimorchiatori Mediterranei and Neri.
“Now we are negotiating to buy one of the main Greek operators to consolidate that market,” Mr Russo adds. In 2019 GMC, advised by Watson Farley & Williams, signed a letter of intent to purchase 80% of port towage and offshore support company Zouros.
This group is one of Greece’s principal harbour towage service providers with operations in Piraeus and Thessaloniki and a fleet of 14 vessels, including oceangoing and harbour tugs, launch vessels and anchor handlers.
Vicente Boluda: overcome coronavirus tsunami by rowing together
Boluda Corporación Marítima reacted quickly to the coronavirus outbreak in countries it operates, including its home nation Spain. It ensured all staff were working from home and crew on its tugs and tankers were operating safely, following health security measures.
This group, with operations on five continents, had to swiftly adapt to critical and exceptional situations, says Boluda president Vicente Boluda.
“We had to adapt to continue as a strong and solid multinational, capable of maintaining services at the highest level,” says Mr Boluda. “We are a strategic service and our diverse activities are intrinsic within these sectors. We make an essential contribution towards ensuring there are no shortages in supplying goods.”
Boluda provides freight transport and logistics, bunkers transport and supply, and vessel towage. It foresaw and acted before restrictions and lockdowns were imposed in countries across the world.
“Days before the state of alert was declared, practically all our office employees in the five continents where we provide services had begun working from home,” says Mr Boluda.
“Likewise, all tug, ship and tanker crews are following the strictest health security measures recommended by the Ministry of Health to avoid new infections.”
He thinks the group will weather the situation by keeping its staff and crews safe. “Our current priority is the company’s personnel,” says Mr Boluda, “and thanks to their efforts we are trying to mitigate the impact of this crisis playing out in such an adverse environment.”
He acknowledges the effort made by seafarers in each of the group’s divisions. “I am aware of the personal sacrifice they are making during these difficult times.”
Mr Boluda expects the whole group and Spanish maritime sector will overcome the ongoing and future challenges.
“Together we will overcome this tsunami by all rowing in the same direction, coming together, each one in their own role, because we all need each other in these crucial moments,” says Mr Boluda. “I am sure we will emerge stronger out of this grave situation, because we are all going to pull together to make that recovery.”
Fairplay expands into Spanish towage market
Fairplay Towage has opened operations in the Canary Islands, Spain, to provide towage, ship manoeuvring and berthing support services in the ports of Las Palmas, Arinaga and Salinetas.
These services are handled by its Spanish partner Odiel Towage.
“Our fleet currently consists of four modern tugs under the Spanish flag, manned by Spanish seafarers under a local Spanish contract,” says Fairplay Towage managing director Walter Collet. “Our tugs have already performed the first assistance in the port of Las Palmas.”
He says Fairplay offers “competitive packages for harbour towage” in the ports. “For the first time, clients have a choice.”
This could be a platform for further growth in the country as part of Fairplay’s international expansion plans. “We are of course monitoring the developments on the Spanish mainland,” says Mr Collet.
It was tough for Fairplay to secure the licence to operate harbour tugs in the ports.
“The preparation and the necessary documentation of our application under Spanish rules was quite challenging,” says Mr Collet. “The conditions to be met are considerably higher compared to other jurisdictions in Europe.”
DynaRep Shipping Consultants assisted Fairplay Towage with this expansion into the Canary Islands. It also helps Portugs Portugal, which was founded in January 2020 after taking over harbour towage operations of Svitzer Portugal, with 15 tugs in the ports of Lisbon, Sines and Setubal.