Yachts that run on natural gas?

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Trinity’s LNG technology, developed for work vessels, could take boating to a new level of green

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John Dane III has a foot in two camps, one in building superyachts, the other in building workboats, which has enabled him to offer his luxury yacht clients liquefied natural gas power developed for the workboat side of his business.

“Some of the technology we have in yachts comes out of the commercial and oil field business,” says Dane, president and CEO of Trinity Yachts LLC and Trinity Offshore LLC, which share yards in Gulfport, Miss., and New Orleans. “It comes out of the commercial side and trickles into the yachts.”

Dynamic positioning, a computer-controlled system that automatically keeps a vessel’s position and heading, has been in use in the oil fields for 25 years, he says. Now many yachts have it.

On Oct. 6, Harvey Gulf International Marine, a New Orleans offshore supply and towing company, awarded Trinity Offshore a contract to build two, and possibly three, 302-foot offshore supply vessels powered by LNG. The $55 million supply boats will become the first U.S.-flagged commercial vessels running on LNG.

The LNG power plants, supplied by the Finnish company Wartsila, cost about 10 percent more than conventional diesel power, but according to a paper delivered at the 2010 meeting of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers in Bellevue, Wash., LNG is much cleaner than diesel fuel. It reduces nitrogen oxide emissions by 80 percent, eliminates sulfur oxide, cuts carbon dioxide 20 percent and produces no particulates. The paper, by G.W. Van Tassel, president of LNG shipper Argent Marine Operations, says LNG also enjoys a 40 percent price advantage over diesel.

The major disadvantage of LNG at this point is its availability at the dock. “The world is awash in LNG,” says W. Philip Nuss, Trinity’s vice president for engineering. The United States has plentiful supplies of it — more than 2 trillion cubic feet. “The problem is, you can’t find places everywhere to pull in and fuel up.”

Trinity now has the technology and expertise to build LNG-powered superyachts, installing LNG engines, diesel-electric drives, steerable z-pellers (they rotate on a vertical axis to assist in directional control) and firefighting systems, says Trinity Yachts vice president Billy Smith III. “We can offer this now to yachtsmen who really want to be green,” he says.

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The yacht must be at least 180 feet long and ride on a displacement hull to accommodate the long, cylindrical LNG fuel tanks. Smith says the LNG-powered supply boats will be the most environmentally friendly craft of their size on the Gulf of Mexico, but is there demand for the technology in the pleasure boat industry? Maybe not much today, Dane says, but for the owner who wants to be on the cutting edge of green, this is it.

“We’ve had someone call and ask about it,” Smith says. “But, yes, it takes money (10 percent more than diesel power) and space.”

Dane says LNG makes a lot of sense to commercial vessel operators, who must meet stringent Tier 3 emission standards in the North American Emission Control Area come 2016.

The pioneering Wartsila engines are dual LNG- and diesel-powered plants with electric drives. Dane says the oil rigs these vessels service will have to meet emission standards that include all of their support vessels, so when the boats are working in support of the rig they will operate on LNG; at other times, they can burn diesel.

If the rig’s support boats produce a smaller carbon footprint, if they’re clean, it helps the rig meet the “green” standard, Dane says.

Besides offshore supply vessels, Trinity Offshore has been building tugboats and barges at the Gulfport yard since 2010. Trinity bought the Gulfport shipyard from military shipbuilder VT Halter in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina damaged Trinity’s New Orleans yard. Dane says the purchase came with a five-year no-compete clause — no military or commercial construction in Gulfport. Now Trinity can build military and commercial craft, as well as yachts, in Gulfport while also continuing to build both at its New Orleans yard.

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“We’ve returned to our roots,” Dane says. Or at least to his roots.

Dane started as a shipbuilder, going to work as a program manager for Halter Marine Group in 1974. He started his own commercial shipyard, Moss Point Marine Yard, in 1987 and went on to become president of Trinity Marine Group, Moss Point’s successor; Halter Marine Group; and Fried Goldman Halter — all commercial yards. He retired from shipbuilding in 2000, buying Trinity Yachts — Halter’s pleasure boat subsidiary — from the commercial builder with Smith and Felix Sabates Jr., a Trinity client. Since the no-compete clause expired, “the phone has been ringing off the hook,” Dane says. “I used to run the largest commercial shipyard in the country. People are happy to see us come back.”

And he is happy that they are happy.

“With the slowdown in the yacht business, half our work now is commercial or military [high-speed patrol boats],” he says.

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue.

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