Fri | Jan 15, 2021

Tugboats: The little giants of shipping

Published:Tuesday | September 22, 2020 | 12:09 AM
A typical Damen harbour tug.
A typical Damen harbour tug.
Marine pilot Roy ‘Roxy’ Fuller.
Marine pilot Roy ‘Roxy’ Fuller.
Marine pilot Norbert Bradshaw.
Marine pilot Norbert Bradshaw.

In the tale of the Little Engine That Could, a tiny train with a powerful engine overcomes a seemingly impossible task in pulling a larger train over a high mountain.

Similarly, in the shipping industry, a dedicated team of ‘little engines’, or tugboats, carry out the awesome task of manoeuvring vessels in ports by assisting in turning and stopping vessels which might otherwise be difficult or impossible to move. Put simply, if you tried running in waist-deep water, you would soon tire from the water’s resistance. The tug is built to overcome much of that stress by using its ‘pushing’ and ‘pulling’ capabilities. Their role in Jamaica’s shipping industry is nothing short of essential.

Generally, when one thinks of shipping, the idea of a huge luxury cruise or cargo vessel readily comes to mind. But rarely do we consider how these wonders of the sea navigate our harbours and ports laden with oil, bauxite, produce, and other vital supplies.

According to marine pilots Roy ‘Roxy’ Fuller and Norbert Bradshaw, “To allow for smooth harbour traffic and enable small to very large tonnage ships to safely dock and undock at wharfs, tugboats are organised by requests from the master or pilot to the agent, which is relayed to the ship’s agent who, in turn, makes contact with the tugboat company.”

Currently, the port of Kingston has two tugs stationed. In the other ports around the island where traffic is much lower on the outports, these ‘giants’ ply their trade by travelling from port to port.

For a tugboat captain, learning the ins and outs of managing tugs is both challenging and rewarding. There are certain ports in Jamaica, for example, Port Kaiser, that the weather conditions are unpredictable, where the captain has to test the power of the tugboat in applying his skills to make a successful manoeuvre. An average tugboat has a massive amount of horsepower.

Historically, in Jamaica in the early 1960s, tugboats were mainly owned by overseas interests, with smaller, locally owned boats converted and used as tugs. However, as the ships calling in the port of Kingston became greater, the need for assistance from tugs increased accordingly. By 1980, the Port Authority of Jamaica (PAJ) purchased the first two locally owned tugs. At present, the PAJ has contracted two tugs from the Canadian company Ocean to meet the needs of larger ships in Kingston. In the other ports, or outports, Portside Towing Limited, a local-owned company which started operations in 1992, now operates eight tugs around the island.


As part of an overall push to develop port communities, collaboration between the Government of Jamaica, the Port Authority, and other marine interests has resulted in port expansions, including the historic port of Falmouth, and new developments for the shipping industry.

While speaking on the improvements taking place in the sector, pilots Fuller and Bradshaw stressed the impact on tugboats, noting that “if you bring bigger and deeper ships into our ports, the use of the tugboats becomes more necessary than before”.

Considerations must also be given to the depth of water, suitable anchorages and weather monitoring, as tugboats reduce weather-related downtime, which would create added expense for the ship owner or charterer.

Watching the mechanical wonders of a tugboat first-hand, coupled with a flair for mechanical engineering, makes tugboating an attractive option for young scholars who are seeking a less traditional career path.

The marine pilots shared a few words of encouragement for young persons who have an interest in becoming a tugboat pilot or crew member. “Tugboat crews are trained as normal seamen or officers at the Caribbean Maritime University or other certified institutions. The nuances of the job are highly specialised and are learnt on the job.”

All operators must be certified by the Maritime Authority of Jamaica.