A new truckable tugboat collaboration between Tacoma-based aluminum commercial boatbuilder Silverback Marine and Seattle-based naval design firm Elliott Bay Design Group (EBDG) appears poised to disrupt the small tugboat niche.
The 25′ 10-7/8″ overall length, trailer-able design has standard 500 horsepower, 12,500 pounds of bollard pull and a still water range of 60 nautical miles pushing about 10,000 pounds at 4.1 knots.
The truckable tug is also compatible with electric, hybrid and outboard propulsion systems.
“It’s been an exciting journey and we’re happy to have connected with Elliott Bay Design,” Silverback Marine founder and owner Ian Gracey said.
Silverback’s shipyard at the Port of Tacoma gives Gracey a front row seat to the working port where he sees tugs coming and going all day, every day.
“We were sick of seeing the only tugboats that are truckable being these glorified shoeboxes,” he commented.
To Gracey, the current truckable tugboat is hardly a tugboat at all, rather a flat, square barge with a lot of horsepower and a tower on top. To him, tugboats since the 1900s are like the ones featured in popular culture and kids’ books as endearing workboats with graceful lines.
“We kind of thought, how do we make a real tug that still avoids Subchapter M (vessel regulations), looks cool and you can go fast without the fast plowing under—which will happen on a lot of those shoebox-style vessels,” Gracey explained.
Inspired to be the change in small tugs he wanted to see, he challenged the Silverback team to come up with a rough look of what a real truckable tugboat would be. They sent it over to EBDG.
“They took it from there and knocked it out of the park,” he said.
“This particular concept started as Silverback’s brainchild,” recounted John Reeves, director of business development for EBDG. “They had a preliminary model developed and we added a little engineering to it, fleshed out the propulsion. I have some amazing designers who were able to turn this preliminary concept into realistic images to show folks what the boat looks like out of the water.”
The truckable tug, unofficially dubbed the River Ox, was born.
Reeves explained that the opportunity is rich for clients to tailor the truckable tugboat to their needs and applications. “Any vessel out there requires tailoring to operations, location, service,” Reeves said. “There are lots of tradeoffs with power and speed and weights and those kinds of things. It’s at a sweet spot here where it’s developed enough to really give people an idea of what the thing can do. Now we can take it to the next step and really deliver to folks a vessel that meets their needs.”
Gracey highlighted the advantages of the new tug’s diminutive size. Maintenance for the owner-operator is much more affordable, whether it be bottom inspections or zinc replacements.
“It could be that it makes more sense for a yard to have two tugs like this instead of one bigger one, which can give you much more versatility in tight quarters as well,” he said.
From Gracey’s perspective, these truckable tugs are an excellent early adopter for new technologies like alternative fuels and autonomous systems.
“It’s interesting in the era we’re in. We’re seeing a lot more alternative fuel sources used and a lot more autonomy,” he remarked. “Like that first electric Crowley tug being made, the tugboat scene is getting a lot of attention in that area.”
“Aside from the commitment and cost, from an operating profile perspective, one of the difficulties of the alternative fuels and electrification are the space and weight requirements for these new systems,” Reeves said. “If you got a larger vessel and you want to change over to alternative fuel, you either need to carry more fuel or reduce your operating profile.”
“These tugs already have a really short profile—they are not going long distances,” he continued. “They can come back to the pier every night or every day so you can use a shore-charging station, for example. It really helps you accommodate the design considerations of alternative fuel or electrification.”
But compact power and versatility are just the beginning of the pitch, for the design is small enough to avoid Subchapter M, translating to cost savings for owner-operators.
“There is Coast Guard regulation called Subchapter M which essentially requires a big investment on the front of a small port operator or a waterfront construction company,” Gracey explained.
“By and large, particularly the smaller tugs have been unregulated in recent history,” Reeves said. Over the years the Coast Guard and wider maritime industry realized there needed to be a more standardization and safety included in the design, configuration and arrangements of tugboats.
“Subchapter M came into being to highlight those things that are truly safety issues: fuel system requirements, navigation requirements, things like that,” Reeves said. “Subchapter M itself is a good thing in that it takes vessels to a new level of safety. From an operator’s perspective, those things all come with additional cost and if you don’t need it—a vessel that big or complicated—then a truckable tug that provides what you need, but doesn’t have all those additional requirements on it are more cost effective. And smaller vessels have less of a safety risk from that perspective.”
Yet another innovative move by Silverback/EBDG is that they’ve opted for a non-exclusive building route with the design. This means that while they are happy to build their truckable tug design for a client, they also offer a ready-to-build package for those who want to build the tug themselves.
“One of the most unique features about this project is that we agreed that if anybody wanted to build this boat, we were okay with that,” Gracey said. “We are a small shipyard, and we know we can’t keep up with demand for all of America’s needs for tugboats. It’s presenting an awesome opportunity for even our competitors or larger boat building firms. We can supply a turn-key package from Elliott Bay Design directly to them, which
“A lot of these smaller yards will build their own equipment assets, it’s kind of unique,” Gracey continued. “I don’t know if it’s a first time in the industry, but it’s novel enough where people have thought, ‘wow, that’s cool.’ We’re willing to have that attitude if anyone is building one and building it right. We want to see lots of these all over the place.”
Iconic Workboat for Hard Times
The design is partly a response to material and labor scarcity.
“Everything is getting more expensive and less is more right now,” Gracey said. “With one captain and a deckhand aboard, the truckable tug is ready to run. With the amount of bollard pull this thing has, you can do a lot.”
“Materials are increasingly more expensive,” Reeves noted. “Crewing is getting harder and harder to come by. Operators out there are having a hard time staffing their captains and mates for their vessels. Any opportunity to reduce both of those is a good thing from an operator perspective.”
For Gracey, the buzz from smaller yards has been palpable.
“There are so many small companies that want to look as cool as Foss, but they can’t,” he said. “For a small operator to have a vessel that looks good and has beautiful lines, something you’d be proud to have your logo on the side of, that’s a huge decision maker for a client. If I’m going to drop a bunch of money on a boat, is it something I’m going to be proud of, or is it (a) function-over-form kind of thing?”
“Obviously, there are performance limitations,” Reeves said. “You aren’t going to take this thing and put it on an ocean long-haul route. It won’t be pushing 30 barges up the river. It’s got a niche. I think the cool thing that Ian and Silverback identified is that there is this need for a vessel like this that’s not a shoebox.”
“It’s for the operator that wants a solid reliable vessel to invest in,” he continued. “If you’re going to invest in something, particularly in alternative fuels or what have you with a higher capital cost, you want it to last a while.”
A Power Duo
Silverback Marine is a relatively young company that’s been in Tacoma for about a year.
“I wanted to bring a more yacht-like purchasing experience to small workboats,” Gracey said. “Our niche are workboats between 20 to 50 feet, a lot smaller than most of our competitors. But we like to have that tailored experience so the client can talk to a real naval architect and see renderings of what it’s going to look like. We’re trying to give people with little boats that big shipyard experience where you’re taken care of the whole way through.”
At this time, the truckable tugboat concept is ready for market and its first customer. “I think the idea is cool enough that the first build will be funded by an actual client,” Gracey said. “That’s obviously the dream, but sometimes when something is new enough, you need to build confidence and you build a spec vessel. We’ve done that before. But if it’s good enough and you do your pitch right, you usually get one.”
Once a customer signs on the dotted line, Silverback can take about six to eight months to build the tugboat from the time the keel is laid.
“Assuming we don’t have any more supply chain hiccups,” Gracey chuckled.
Norris Comer is a Seattle-based writer and author. His debut memoir, Salmon in the Seine: Alaskan Memories of Life, Death, & Everything In-Between is now available wherever books are sold. You can find him on Substack, Instagram and at norriscomer.com.