Latest Md.-made tug is bound for Baltimore's harbor

The shipbuilding future of Maryland is 90 feet long and smells of Spanish cedar and fresh paint.

Tied to the dock, with tradesmen swarming on deck and below, the Hunting Creek bobs gently on the Wicomico River. Within weeks, the tugboat with the gleaming white superstructure, distinctive green stripe and black "V" for Vane Brothers Co. on its smokestacks will be delivered to Baltimore to begin its working career.

The Hunting Creek and its five identical sister vessels, each worth more than $5 million, are the first ocean-going tugs built in Maryland in nearly a half-century. And in late December, workers at Chesapeake Shipbuilding Corp. in Salisbury laid the keel for a seventh tug, meaning welders, electricians and pipe fitters can count on another year of work.

"Chesapeake is a gem in our own backyard," says Duff Hughes, president of Vane Brothers, the Baltimore-based marine transportation business. "The fact that we could keep work in Maryland, keep jobs in Maryland and manage it close by all worked in our favor."

Intrigued by the success of the Vane Brothers-Chesapeake Shipbuilding collaboration, other tugboat operators have visited Salisbury with an eye toward fleet expansion.

"The economy isn't doing well right now, but I think when this is over, we will be in the tugboat business as long as we want to be," says Tony Severn, Chesapeake's shipyard boss.

Time was, the Baltimore waterfront was filled with shipbuilders: American Electric Welding, Bethlehem Steel, Maryland Dry Dock, Wills-Spedden.

"We built all kinds of vessels," says Helen Delich Bentley, a Maryland port commissioner and former congresswoman and maritime reporter. "It shouldn't be a dying art here, but jobs have gone overseas and to the south."

Maritime historians believe Maryland's last oceangoing tug — Big Bill — was built in the 1960s by Wiley Manufacturing Co. of Port Deposit, which closed in 1982.

Now, many tugboats are built along the Gulf Coast to service the booming petroleum industry. Vane Brothers, which moves oil and gas barges along the Eastern Seaboard from New York to Norfolk, Va., had 15 tugs built along the Gulf during a recent updating of its fleet.

But Capt. Jim Demske, a tugboat skipper for Vane who oversaw the projects in Louisiana, wanted something closer to home. He knew about Chesapeake Shipbuilding but wasn't sure a company with a rich portfolio of small cruise ships and ferryboats would want to expand to tugs.

Chesapeake, it turns out, was looking for a suitor.

"We did an analysis of the tug market several years ago and, geographically, there's a gap between Jacksonville, Fla., and New Hampshire. We just had to find a way to get into the market, and Vane Brothers was it," Severn says. "We took a leap of faith, but so did they."

Frank Basile, an 86-year-old tugboat master architect with more than 100 vessels to his credit, drafted the blueprints. All six tugs share the same layout, making it easier for crew members to switch from boat to boat.

Inside, the galleys are finished in oak, each crewman's bunk has been fitted with a flat-screen TV, and the upper and lower pilothouses are paneled in Spanish cedar and loaded with the latest electronics.

"They're on board for two weeks at a time," Hughes says of the sailors. "Having a good work environment helps us with recruitment and retention of crews. Jim knows the business, and we gave him license to do things right."

Demske says he will take the Hunting Creek out for sea trials soon "to see what needs to be done and get the little rattles taken care of."

Then the tug will be outfitted, right down to the linen on the bunks, before making the 13-hour run up the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore. "She'll only be in port a day or two before she pushes off to work," Demske says.

The first tug, the Sassafras, went into service in November 2008. Next came the Elk River, Charles Burton (named for Hughes' youngest son), Quantico Creek and Oyster Creek. With the exception of the Burton, the tugs are named for Maryland waterways, following in the tradition of some of the company's earlier vessels.

That makes the Vane Brothers tugs floating billboards for the port of Baltimore and its maritime industry, says Bentley, for whom Baltimore's port is named.

"We're always trying to sell the port of Baltimore — we are here, we are working — and what Vane Brothers is doing is just that," she says.

The tugboat work has allowed the shipyard to expand its workforce to more than 100 employees and reduce layoffs between projects. Last month, Hughes surprised the shipyard workers at their holiday party with the announcement of the seventh tug.

"The fact that we have a rhythm and the fact that they have the construction process down to a T made it an easy decision," Hughes says. "And we hope we will be building No. 8, 9 and 10 there."

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