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Workboats – Past, Present and Future

When we think about workboats, we might remember passenger ferries we have taken, pilot boats we may have seen looking down from a bridge while in traffic, taking harbor pilots to or from a boat they will temporarily command or maybe a dinner boat we’ve been on as guests. We may have a picture in mind of a specific style boat beyond what we usually expect to see there are some unusual looking boats out there doing some very interesting work. The designs of the boats follow the needs they fill so they look different from what we might expect.
Mitsubishi Shipbuilding has an anticipated market for its Roboship – it will work in the fuel industry. To lower its horsepower needs the ship will use a hybrid system. The twin skeg design of the ship will lower the horsepower requirements by another 20%. The ship will use a combination of generators and large capacity lithium batteries. The generators will switch back and forth between biofuel, synthetic fuel, liquefied natural gas, hydrogen and ammonium. Designed to be used as a fuel carrier, it can be remotely controlled. Its docking and undocking operations are easier, reducing the heavy lifting for the crew. In Japan, the shipping industry is working with an aging population and work saving features could keep employees on the job longer.

When we see the bright, white enclosed dinner boats gliding out of Freeport canals we may wonder – is it a wedding, a birthday, a graduation or an anniversary? The dinner boats today all look very similar –seating for at least 100 people, a bar and room for the staff to prepare and serve food.
When Matthew Rhys first saw the old 38 foot Wheeler Playmate for sale in California on eBay in 2017, he envisioned buying it, relocating it to Brooklyn and restoring it for use as a dinner boat to make short trips from Brooklyn or New Jersey probably for about six people offering them a jazz age experience with old gramophone records and food including oysters on his restored Moveable Feast.
Things don’t always turn out the way you planned. After the friend who surveyed the boat and was on board to do the restoration got sick, the boat was transported to Brooklyn and the people Rhys interviewed about restoring the boat were not the competent shipwrights that his sick friend was. They suggested he work on it himself. Although he is currently a working actor, he managed to do some of the work himself but luckily, he found a captain who was able to pitch in and do a lot of the restoration. Captain Kelli Farwell owned her own boat and used it as a dinner boat until it sank in an accident. Moveable Feast is one of only four remaining documented 38 foot Wheeler Playmates left in the world. Moveable Feast may look very different than today’s dinner boats, but its future is as a workboat.
The liftboat with its long legs extended upward is not something you see in your travels unless your travels take you offshore where the oil rigs and the wind farms are located. Designed by two brothers and first built in 1955, liftboats are self-propelled, self-elevating boats with a large deck area that provides space for materials and supplies to be delivered to offshore work sites. The vessel sails to the work area with the legs upright and to provide stability when it reaches its site, lowers the legs to the ocean floor. The use of cranes to move supplies and providing a landing pad for helicopters requires maximum stability.
The capsizing last year of a liftboat off the coast of Louisiana happened in an unusual weather event called a “wake low.” What’s that, you might be wondering. This wake low emerged from a low pressure system that resulted from a line of thunderstorms over land that moved out to the bay and produced 80 to 90 mph winds and waves of 7 to 9 feet. The liftboat operator apparently ignored several weather service advisories calling for all onboard boats in the area to put on their life jackets and for any boats that could, to head for shore. The liftboat lowered one leg and was trying to turn into the wind when it swamped and sank. Liftboats were not designed for rough sea conditions and strong winds.
Another boat used in the wind farm business is the crew transport vessel. Built to carry technicians and materials from shore to the offshore wind farm site, they also provide overnight accommodation for longer assignments. The next design from Blount Boats will have space set aside for the batteries that will move the boats with hybrid power. Their starting power plants will be four heavy duty diesels.
Blount Boats first crew transfer vessel, Atlantic Pioneer, was built for use at the Block Island Wind Farm and came about through Blount’s collaboration with Norwegian engineers and the American Bureau of Shipping.
Now run by the daughter of the founder, Blount Boats has been in operation since Luther Blount started the shipbuilding business in 1949. He worked there until he died at 90. With an MBA from Columbia and a background of intervals of work at the shipyard, daughter Marcie as president is part of an executive team of three sisters who are now handling a multi-million dollar business.
For a few years, Blount has deliberately pursued contracts for crew transfer catamarans by attending and exhibiting at every wind farm conference. Blount recognized the need for a purpose-built vessel at a time when others spoke of adding on to ferry designs to create wind farm vessels. Marcie Blount modestly says Blount was in the right place at the right time but Blount was everywhere and did the networking to make it all happen. If you were teaching an MBA class Blount Boats could be used as a classic example of how to get it right the first time.
Another wind farm vessel, the Seawind, is an offshore wind farm maintenance vessel that was launched as a “mother ship” by an Anglo-Dutch company. Europe’s early start with wind farms means they have used up most of the easy to reach close sites and will now be looking to move further out in the water with their turbines. The Seawind is 185 feet long and will have onboard a bakery, doctor and dentist offices, library and single berth cabins for 200 engineers. The engineers work on the turbines, going out in small workboats. There will be room for a large helicopter to take off and land, ferrying crew changes. Future wind farms will all be further from shore, increasing the need for mother ships.
The Weedo Workboat is a small cleanup boat that can harvest weeds from shore and underwater locations. These little harvesters are small enough to get into tight spaces to cut up big branched weeds but stable enough to do it without capsizing. They don’t need to have a paved surface like a ramp to enter the water and will just go into the water and start harvesting weeds to a depth of five feet.
Years ago, if you put a list of workboats together, you’d find research boats, dive support, ferries, oil rigs and support boats, patrol boats, pilot boats, fireboats, tugs, barges and oil spill response boats. Today the shipbuilders are looking to the wind farms for business. They are finding that purpose-built boats are what the customers need and will seed repeat business. Now that the Europeans are looking at wind farm locations more distant from shore, they are also discovering their newer locations are more productive – it’s windier out there. As a country that has lagged behind European wind farmers, this will give us a chance to learn from their mistakes.
Maybe the most interesting part of all the stress on wind farming is what will we do with all the power it generates? The grid is in bad shape, the renewal of the grid will come after the infrastructure people interview all the stakeholders to identify the needs and you get the feeling the cart is coming before the horse.