Repowering and Niche Marketing at Westar

Monday, July 09, 2001
Fireworks exploded over the Bay Bridge and thousands of people crowding the waterfront near the new ballpark gasped in admiration. Some of the best seats for the spectacle are along the north side of Pier 50, home of Westar Marine Services where owner's and employees share a barbecue in honor of the annual display sponsored by a local radio station. But the folks at Westar are more than passive observers, the tugs that are managing the fireworks barges are contracted from Westar.

This annual fireworks event sums up Westar Marine Services' role on San Francisco Bay. They are the company that takes on all of the niche jobs that others with their large investments in big horsepower and Z-drives can't afford to be doing.

Founded in 1976 by the late "Buzz" Heffron the company is now owned by Buzz's daughter Wendy Morrow and Mary McMillan who was the original firm's book keeper and office manager. Both women are active in the daily operations of the company and currently serve as vice-president and president, respectively. In a continuation of the family nature of the company both husband's work for Westar. When he is not busy barbecuing for company picnics, Mary's husband Bill Sherfy is the company's port captain.

The marine area inside the Golden Gate Bridge amounts to an inland sea extending from the Port of Redwood City in the South Bay, 20 miles north to Oakland and the Bay Bridge, then another 25 miles north through the Richmond San Rafael Bridge and across San Pablo Bay to the Carquniez Strait. From that point it is over 50 miles up through Suisun Bay and up the San Joaquin River to Stockton or nearly 60 miles up the Sacramento River to Sacramento. According to the San Francisco Bar Pilots, excluding the rivers, "The San Francisco, San Pablo and Suisun Bays. From the Gulf of the Farallones to the Sacramento Delta, these waters include nine bridges, twenty ports, two hundred miles of shipping lanes — and countless hidden dangers."

The diversity of the company's fleet of nine tugs and five water taxis, defines their success in serving a wide range of niche markets over this large geographical area. The largest of their tugs, Orion, does some ship assist work and handles the company's tank barge that lighters molasses, carried as back haul freight by Hawaiian ships, from Oakland up river to Stockland. Built for service in the canals south of Chicago, the 3,000 hp, 100-ft. (30.4 m) twin-screw tug Orion has a telescoping wheelhouse that works well when pushing light barges.

Another large model bow tug, Sagittarian, is equipped with a towing winch, while a third large boat, Solana, has push knees. A large winch has been installed on the foredeck of the Solana to set anchors for the construction industry. Westar has six tugs in the 1,000 hp and under class: Bearcat, Betty L, Warrior, Kitsap, Wildcat and Mudcat. They also have five water taxis ranging from 26 to 49 passengers.

When Buzz Heffron started the company in the 1970s, he did so to meet a need for delivery of large orders of ship's stores and paint to vessels at anchor in the Bay. Tending to the needs of visiting ships remains an important part of the company's business. In its warehouse at Pier 50, just south of the new Pacific Bell baseball park, they receive miscellaneous supplies ordered by agents for their ships. These are consolidated into plywood totes and labeled with the vessel names. When the ship arrives in port, smaller orders are run out on one of the water taxis, while larger orders are taken out to the ships on one of the company's two crane equipped barges. These can also pick up garbage for disposal ashore. A separate company maintains a lube oil barge at the Westar pier and contracts with Westar for towing services to the ships.

Since the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the authorities in San Francisco Bay have introduced stringent tug escort requirements for petroleum product vessels. This has led to the advent of fierce competition among companies with Z-drive and cycloidal drive tugs. But smaller tankers and tank barges, while requiring escort, don't require the most expensive technology and rates. This has left another comfortable niche for the entrepreneurs at Westar. They have contracts with barging companies like Sause Brothers as well as some smaller tankers.

Westar has always maintained a central position in the Bay area construction industry. With the extensive seismic upgrades to the Bay Area bridges, this work has grown. With their tugs they handle construction company barges, with their own barges they transport materials to the site and with their water taxis they move personnel to work the work site and ashore after their shift.

When the State of California, long a leader in reducing air-pollution, announced the Carl Moyer Program to reduce Nox emissions, Westar Marine Services decided to get on board. The program was supported by an appropriation of $50 million dollars for the 2000/2001 fiscal year. A significant portion of this amount was allotted for Carl Moyer Program incentive grants, as a means to reduce emissions from heavy-duty engines.

These grants cover the incremental cost of cleaner on-road, off-road, marine, locomotive and stationary agricultural pump engines, as well as forklifts and airport ground support equipment. Beginning in summer 1999, grants became available through participating air pollution control and air quality management districts grants. "Heavy-duty engines are a significant source of smog-forming pollutants," says a State of California press release, adding that, " In addition, the fine particulate matter exhaust from heavy-duty diesel engines is a toxic air contaminant. The incentive program focuses on reducing emissions of smog-forming oxides of nitrogen (NOx), but will also reduce particulate emissions. In recognition of his work in the air quality field and his efforts in bringing about this program, the incentive program is named after the late Dr. Carl Moyer."

Westar's boats have been purchased over years from a variety of sources to meet diverse needs. As a result, they have had a variety of different manufacturer's main engines. Westar has tried three different manufacturers’ IMO compliant engines in their repowers under the Carl Moyer program. This has included three boats with Cummins engines. In June of this year the company repowered a fourth boat with Cummins engines and have engines on order for a fifth boat. The company initially found success with the Cummins model N14. These six-cylinder 14-liter 855 cu. in. displacement engines can be set-up with continuous duty ratings of 360, 400 or 440 hp, depending on the owners' demands and planned fuel consumption. Westar has taken all of the N14s at the 360 hp rating. Wildcat, repowered in 1999 with a pair of N14s, was also lengthened by five feet and had a pair of Kort nozzles added to increase its bollard pull still further. Mudcat, a former LCM with a shallow 4.2-ft. (1.2 m) draft that allows the vessel to work in many of the Bay's shallow areas, was repowered with a pair of N14s in 2000. The 65-ft. (19.8 m), 49-passenger steel crew boat Ms. Katie, named for a much loved company cat, was repowered with N14 that have the same 360 hp rating as the two-cycle engines that were taken out, but they are considerably lighter. With gear, the old engines weighed about 4,500 lbs. each, while the new engines with gear weigh about 3,000 lbs.

Fuel consumption with the new engines has been reduced by 20 to 25 percent while giving the boat a top speed of 17 knots, some three knots faster than previously. In each case, as the people at Westar repower their boats they carry out other upgrades such as the new wheelhouse, lengthening and nozzles on the Wildcat. Among other upgrades on the Ms. Katie was the conversion from mechanical controls to electronic Mathers control units. The majority of design work is done in-house by naval architect and Westar general manager Richard Smith.

The Cummins repowers have proven so successful that the company has installed in the Solana a pair of Cummins KTA38 M0 engines rated for 850 hp or a combined 1,700 hp at 1,800 rpm. The engines turn into ZF BW461 gears with 5.63:1 ratios. This gives this big 65 x 24-ft. (19.8 x 7.3 m) boat a new lease on life and will give the Bay Area construction industry an important tool for anchor handling. Also slated for a Cummins repower this June is Sagittarian. This 79 x 25-ft. (24 x 7.6 m) model bow tug will get a pair of V-12 2300 cu. in. displacement Cummins KTA 38 M2 engines, each generating 1,200 hp each at 1,800 rpm.

The success of the Cummins repowers to date and the support offered by Tom O'Connor and the people at Cummins West in San Leandro is prompting plans for further repowers. With the higher horsepower boats carrying KTA38s in their hulls and the smaller boats packing N14s, the company is looking to their mid range boats. Plans call for installation of Cummins QSK19 M's in the 69 x 23-ft. (21 x 7 m) model bow tug Bearcat and the 60 x 23-ft. (18.2 x 7 m) push boat Betty L. At 660 hp each, these engines will give the boats 1,320 hp and many more years of working life.

A recent report by the Carl Moyer program says that "Over 80 percent of first and second year engine project funds (about $38 million) have been committed to specific projects. Of these funds 50 percent paid for alternative fuel projects (610 engines), 26 percent paid for agricultural irrigation pump projects (947 engines), 16 percent paid for marine vessel projects (95 engines), four percent paid for forklift projects (105 motors), and four percent paid for both on- and off-road diesel-to-diesel repower projects (108 engines)."

Mary McMillan and Wendy Morrow were in the process of a fleet upgrade before the State of California Carl Moyer program but are now getting some real help from the state. At the same time they are investing a good bit of their own money to maintain their position in niche marketing of marine services in the Bay Area. While enjoying a barbecue and fireworks with her crews, Mary McMillan explains that the company's success comes from a "family-like" work environment. She adds, "We offer so many services from ship's stores delivery to tank barge escort and construction assistance, that when one area is slow the other hopefully picks up. So we try to balance the cyclical nature of the typical marine businesses." C

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