Tower of strength

URS provides harbour towage throughout Antwerp, Zeebrugge, and the combined regions of Ghent, Flushing and Terneuzen. The company’s history dates back more than 140 years to 1870 when its ancestor Remorquage à Hélice was established by Captain Henri Gerling in the port of Antwerp as one of the first propeller-driven tugboat operators. In 1928 this firm formed a union with Letzer Towage Cy to form URS. Following initial interests by SMIT at the beginning of the 2000s, the Dutch maritime services company acquired total ownership of URS in 2008 before it was itself bought by dredging company Boskalis in 2010.

Today, the company continues to focus on harbour towage services with a fleet of 31 tugs. Peter Vierstraete, managing director of URS, talks with Shipping & Marine about the recent completion of its tug-building programme: “We began working with the Spanish yard Armon in the early 1990s to renew our harbour fleet. It was for a series of 18 harbour tugs ranging in strength from 43 tonnes bollard pull at the start, up to our latest tugs the Union Hawk and Union Eagle that both have 86 tonnes bollard pull. They were delivered last year. In parallel, we renewed our oceangoing fleet with the same yard with a series of four identical 86 tonne bollard pull anchor handlers. These are named the Union Warrior, Union Boxer, Union Fighter and Union Wrestler.”

These four anchor handlers make up the newest part of URS’ oceangoing fleet, which operates under the name SMIT Transport Belgium, alongside the 2003-built Union Manta. This large anchor handler, which has 220-tonne bollard pull, spent the first six years of its life serving in the Gulf of Mexico before moving this year to Angolan waters. In addition to these five vessels is a further three older anchor handlers as well as a single dive support vessel, Union Beaver. It is with this collection of oceangoing ships that URS has become a notable member of the Royal Belgian Shipowners’ Association (RBSA). Peter is chairman of the organisation, which is an association that aims to highlight, discuss and lobby for its members the issues at the heart of national and international maritime legislation.

This small but diverse fleet has given URS, as part of SMIT, the opportunity to become experts in harbour and ocean towage, dive support, salvaging, and maritime contracting thereby earning it a first class reputation. Its fleet is evenly distributed across the three regions including 11 tugs at Antwerp, seven at Zeebrugge, and 12 at Ghent, Flushing and Terneuzen. The company has more than a century of history on the River Scheldt – on which sit all three regions – and perpetuates this wealth of understanding and experience with a strong in-house training programme that brings new and existing employees up to the highest level of competence. This is supported with a strong safety, health environment and quality (SHEQ) policy that guarantees clients of URS’ standards.

“I think this level of technical professionalism is something that we have keenly developed,” Peter adds. We are not a very big player in the offshore division but considering our size we are quite well known. This has been further bolstered by the fact we are very much involved with local businesses. We have been growing together with the port and its residents, giving us a great long-term relationship with many of our clients.”

As a community-minded company URS is also heavily involved with environmental issues and how they are tied into daily maritime operation. As part of the in-house training, for example, all its crews are trained to help minimise the actual and potential impact of oil spills, chemical leaks and other dangerous pollutants in marine environments. Union Beaver has also been specially equipped for spill response scenarios including dispersant spray systems, two LORI skimming units that use brushes to collect floating pollutants, and four tanks with 300 cubic metres total capacity for storing the recovered material.

As part of the RBSA, Peter and URS are involved with environmental policy making: “One very hot item being discussed by the association at the moment is upcoming legislation on exhaust gases, which will affect all shipowners and operators including URS. As a national organisation and part of the international community, we are very concerned with what the IMO will do next and how European legislation is going to change. The RBSA is looking for a reasonable decision-making process that will end up making a level playing field worldwide because that is how we believe the shipping industry can develop.”

Business for URS has, in recent times, followed much the same trend as the rest of the industry; heavily impacted by the recession with a slow but steady growth over the last 18 months. The market is not back on its pre-crisis trajectory yet but continual growth means Peter remains cautiously optimistic: ”We have invested in the fleet over the last ten to 15 years so now we are coming into a period of consolidation; our fleet is up to standard and older vessels will continue to be sold, albeit at a lower pace than during the last decade. Because the market still hasn’t completely recovered it is important that we are careful with our finances. Two or three years of consolidation are the best thing we can do.”

He goes on to conclude that, despite the turbulent changes that are part of the maritime industry, he has faith in URS’s ability to continue as an important figure in the region: “The world is changing so fast that by far the biggest challenge of a company today is how to react to all the changes. For example, with changing environmental regulations, we have to start thinking very strongly about alternative energy sources. I think LNG will become very interesting in the coming years though of course we still have a large dependency on traditional oil and gas. These are interesting challenges for shipowners. As URS, and as part of SMIT Towage North West Europe, we feel well positioned to respond to the changing operational environment.”

Recently received the last in a long line of newbuild tugs
More than 100 years of operation in Antwerp
Key member of the local maritime sector