DISCOVER Magazine #7

ISA Towage. The benefits of being an owner skipper

Published in category: Harbour & Terminal

Damen Shipyards Group is well-known for selling tugs all over the world and to many of the largest companies in the towage and support services sector. Yet as a family-owned business itself it has always taken particular pleasure in working with smaller owner/operator businesses, whatever their size. They don’t come much smaller than ISA Towage in the Netherlands, which operates a single Damen Shoalbuster 3209.

Willem-Harm Mastenbroek
ISA Towage B.V.

ISA Towage B.V. was founded in 2006 by Willem-Harm Mastenbroek. He grew up in a family where the parents owned and operated two coastal cargo vessels and so it was perfectly natural that after training as a mariner he should join the family business. By the age of 22 he was already skipper of one of the ships, however his interests lay outside of cargo and in 2001 with some sadness he left the family business to pursue his love of tugs and towage.

From cargo to towage

Willem-Harm joined Herman Sr. B.V., a small company operating two tugs and owned by Jack van Dodewaard. As the only employee aside from Jack with a Master unlimited license, his arrival was of great benefit to the company, allowing both vessels to go offshore at the same time and so expanding the range of projects that they could take on.

Willem-Harm worked alongside Jack van Dodewaard for four years, gaining invaluable experience in the management and operation of tugs. At the end of this period at Herman Sr. B.V., Willem-Harm moved on to another towage company, which was then operating two boats in the Caspian Sea. When the owner, Marinus Hubregtse, decided to retire, Willem-Harm was ready to follow in his father’s footsteps and start his own business. However, he had hoped to purchase Marinus Hubregtse’s tug at this point, but their Turkish charterers had first option and so the opportunity was lost. Instead Marinus offered to help finance Willem-Harm’s purchase of his own tug.

And so ISA Towage B.V. was formed in Wijk bij Duurstede and the first tugboat to bear the name ISA was built at Shipyard Gebr. Kooiman in Zwijndrecht and began operations in 2007. At last at the helm of his own ship, Willem-Harm, together with a five-man crew, undertook towage and other assistance projects right across Europe, in locations as varied as St. Petersburg and the Caspian Sea as well as in the North Sea, supporting projects including wind turbine installations, the construction of artificial islands and dredging.

Going it alone

After ten years of successful operations, Marinus Hubregtse decided that Willem-Harm was ready to go it alone and so the ISA was sold to allow Marinus to recover his investment.

This left Willem-Harm with a contract to be fulfilled but no vessel. It was at this point in 2016 that Jos van Woerkum at Damen Shipyards Hardinxveld, whom he had first met several years previously, showed him a new Damen multi-role Shoalbuster 2709 that was in stock at the yard and available for rapid delivery. Willem-Harm was impressed by the vessel’s quality and versatility and so, with the support of Damen Customer Finance, the deal was signed and the second ISA began work. This was exchanged just six months later in July 2017 for a larger Shoalbuster 3209, once again called ISA, in a swap that benefited all three of the parties involved. In the case of ISA Towage, this means the ability to take on a wider range of contracts.

Damen ISA

When asked if his ambitions include growing the company and adding more vessels, Willem-Harm is quite clear that he is happy with his current position. “It’s not my dream to have a fleet. I might add one extra boat, a smaller one, but when you have a single boat you can keep everything in hand, you know the crew personally. I have seen it with other companies; the mentality changes as they grow bigger. And I don’t want to be stuck in an office.”

On the subject of competing in a crowded industry, he admits that it is “difficult to stand out these days, with pricing being the deciding factor most of the time. I do take special care with my maintenance and ensure that the paint work is in good shape and the vessel clean and tidy. Where I do have an advantage is that, as an owner who is almost always on his vessel, I can talk directly to the clients and immediately adapt to their wishes without having to check with an office hierarchy. That makes the process smoother for the client and being able to offer that extra level of service does give us an advantage.”

Looking ahead, Willem-Harm does not expect big changes in towage, but he is optimistic about his prospects. “We are already seeing more activity and opportunities,” he says. “Offshore wind is busy, and there is renewed investment in the expansion and dredging of ports in many countries, so it is looking positive.”

And with the flexibility that comes from being an owner/operator plus the capability of a multi-role Damen Shoalbuster 3209, he should be better-placed than most to take advantage of the better times he sees ahead.

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