Steady Hands

Turkey’s thriving tugboat industry demonstrates remarkable resilience

Image courtesy Sanmar

Published Jan 10, 2024 7:24 PM by Chad Fuhrmann

(Article originally published in Nov/Dec 2023 edition.)


Amid the persistent political, social and security challenges across the neighboring regions of Ukraine, Israel and elsewhere, Turkey’s (Türkiye’s) shipbuilding industry stands as a beacon of optimism and achievement. The nation’s maritime industry is not only thriving but stands as a leader in the production of exceptional tugboats and vessels that buoy the regional economy and bolster the global maritime sector.

Türkiye's strategic location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, with access to key waterways like the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, has positioned it as a vital hub for maritime trade for centuries. Its significant and long-term investment in its maritime infrastructure, including modern shipyards equipped with state-of-the-art technology, has enabled the country to attract international clients and partners. And, of course, the region’s reputation for a skilled and experienced workforce further contributes to the production of high-quality, world-class vessels.

This unique combination of location, infrastructure and talent results in an industry that produces a diverse portfolio of products and services in response to a wide variety of maritime needs. It’s a continuously expanding industry – an expansion that doesn’t waver even in the face of regional instability. Türkiye and its shipyards are poised to leverage their unique position in a global industry.

Turnkey Vessels

Located on the Bosporus in the heart of Istanbul, Med Marine is one such example. Specializing in the manufacture of tugboats, mooring boats and pilot boats, Med Marine tailors each vessel to meet the specific requirements of its customers.

According to Sales Director Melis Üçüncü, the company’s distinctive strength lies in delivering turnkey vessels efficiently and on schedule, leveraging its talented workforce and staying at the forefront of technological advances in the industry. With over a quarter century of experience, Med Marine takes pride in its unparalleled production capacity and dedication to continuously growing and adapting its production processes.

“We consistently strive to evolve and improve, ensuring that our clients benefit from the latest developments in maritime technology,” states Üçüncü.

Med Marine's commitment to excellence and customer satisfaction defines Türkiye’s unique position in the industry as a reliable and preferred choice for those seeking high-quality, custom-built vessels. With its extensive coastline, Türkiye’s maritime sector is operating in what Üçüncü refers to as the country’s “natural habitat.”

The necessity of maritime operations, coupled with Türkiye's geographic advantage, compels continuous evolution. Med Marine and others thrive in this environment by prioritizing the integration of cutting-edge technology. Adapting to the latest trends ensures the delivery of high-quality vessels and showcases a historical commitment to excellence.

Universal Asset

Tugboats are uniquely universal, even in the global maritime industry.

Maneuvering massive ships in bustling harbors or offshore structures and barges through intricate offshore fields and river turns, these ubiquitous assets serve as the backbone of the maritime sector. As a result, tugboats have to remain faithful and resolute in their missions regardless of a geopolitical landscape that may be fraught with tension and upheaval.

This steadfastness of duty is reflected in the history of tugs and their evolution alongside maritime transport itself. In the two centuries since the first tugboat, the Charlotte Dundas, shepherded large ships and unpowered barges between ports along Scotland’s Forth & Clyde Canal, tugboats have adapted and evolved with the industry.

Incorporating more powerful engines and advanced electronics, today’s tugs serve as the real-life application of new and developing designs and capabilities often well before their integration on larger vessels. These areas are a key focus for shipbuilders striving to improve efficiency and safety across a myriad of maritime activities.

Green Tech

Looking ahead, Türkiye's shipbuilding industry is an emerging player in an industry marked by innovation and sustainability. The demand for tugboats and vessels tailored to meet evolving environmental standards and advanced technologies has spurred innovation in companies like Sanmar Shipyards, prompting them to explore cutting-edge technologies and eco-friendly practices.

“We try to be in the center of future technologies,” states Ali Gürün, Sanmar’s Chairman, “Not only our research and development team but each and every engineer in the company.”

At the forefront of these efforts are Sanmar’s strides in the fields of autonomy, renewable energy, IoT and virtual reality. In 2017, the yard delivered the world’s first remotely operated tug to Svitzer, the first methanol dual-fueled option for Kotug Canada, and electric “Tugs of the Future” for SAAM Towage’s Canadian fleet. Digital twins and VR technology are used in Sanmar’s design department in order to 3D-model all tugs under production.

Green tech means the company is building LNG-powered tugs alongside battery and methanol options.

Vancouver, Canada-based Robert Allan Ltd. works with shipyards globally, including partnering with Sanmar and a number of clients in Türkiye with a focus in alternative fuels and electrification. “We are focused on integrating new technologies into commercially viable vessels,” says Jim Hyslop, Director of Project Development.

One of the dominant trends that Hyslop sees in the tug sector is the push towards de-carbonization. Sanmar’s revolutionary LNG-powered tugs and the world’s first methanol dual-fuel tugs (not to mention a series of battery-electric tugs) are just the beginning.

“Our shipyard clients have evolved and adapted over many years of challenging conditions demonstrating a long-developed ability to adapt to new challenges,” Hyslop explains. “All of our major Turkish shipyard clients are also vessel operators in Türkiye, and their understanding of the challenges faced by vessel owners is reflected in the vessels they build for the international market.”

The effort extends beyond tugboats to the shipyard itself. Sanmar is installing solar panels in its facilities and, according to Gürün, will be the first shipyard in Türkiye’s tug-building and operating industry to publish an ESG report: “We have invested in and introduced ESG principles throughout our business.”

To this end, the company is leveraging IoT technology to assist in tracking ESG implementation across its operations, utilizing everything from sensors to safety wearables to monitor equipment usage and operational efficiency.

These endeavors reflect parallel efforts by other stakeholders in the region. Med Marine’s Üçüncü touts her company’s strength in delivering turnkey vessels that are at the forefront of technological advances in the industry: “In the current landscape of the tug and barge sector, prominent themes revolve around innovative propulsion technologies with a particular emphasis on battery-electric and dual-fuel tugs. Med Marine stands out by actively prioritizing these trends.”

The company has recently introduced its VoltRA series of tugs, showcasing a commitment to environmentally friendly solutions. The VoltRA series, featuring tugs ranging from 21 to 30 meters in length, aligns with Med Marine's vision for a sustainable maritime future.

By investing in and promoting eco-friendly technologies, Turkish shipyards are demonstrating a solid dedication to advancing the industry's sustainability and aligning with an evolving maritime sector rooted deeply in the needs of a global client base. They stay in tune with clients, suppliers, government entities and agencies through in-depth surveys and communications analyzing how stakeholders view shipbuilders and where they believe the industry’s priorities should lie.

The results are then aligned with the shipyards’ own internal goals prioritizing ESG, innovation, and digital transformation.

Facing Down an Earthquake

Early in 2023, a series of severe earthquakes pounded the region with an accompanying death toll exceeding 50,000.

A disaster of such magnitude could understandably shatter a region’s mettle. But Türkiye's people – and its maritime industry – remained undeterred. Says Sanmar’s Ali Gürün, “The earthquake had an incredible impact on us physically and psychologically, but we long ago developed our reflexes and solutions to make our way even in the most challenging environment.”

This resolve is echoed by Med Marine’s Melis Üçüncü. She states resolutely that “despite facing challenges such as regional conflicts, global inflation and local natural disasters, Turkish tug builders persist at the forefront of the industry’s evolution, consistently delivering world-class vessels.”

Following the devastating natural disaster, Robert Allan reached out to its Turkish clients to ask how it could best help. Hyslop says the response was to simply ask that the company help them deliver their vessels on time and maintain employment as the country took steps to rebuild.

The success of Türkiye's maritime industry lies in its bold innovations and tenacious determination. Its shipyards stand resilient, navigating challenges with technical prowess, adaptability and a commitment to sustainability. The production of tugboats, emblematic of the industry's unwavering dependability, showcases Türkiye's resourcefulness in meeting the diverse needs of the maritime sector.

Into the Future

As the industry sails into a future defined by technological advances and environmental consciousness, Türkiye remains at the helm, steering the course toward a more sustainable and interconnected global maritime landscape. 

Chad Fuhrmann is a frequent contributor to the magazine.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.