Aboard the Ocean Pierre-Julien tugboat, we leave Section 57 of the port, where Ocean’s harbour towing division, Océan Remorquage Montreal, is headquartered.

The Océan Remorquage Montréal fleet is housed in Section 57 of the Port of Montreal.

The MSC Sena is a 200-metre long container ship.

Our mission: help the MSC Sena cast off, in other words leave the berth where it is docked. The 200-metre long by 32-metre wide container ship belonging to Italian marine carrier MSC is getting ready to sail from the Port of Montreal, loaded with 12,000 tonnes of cargo, to the Port of Sines in Portugal.

At the helm of the tug, Captain Maurice Harvey is the most experienced of the team, with 26 years of piloting in Montreal to his credit. A few hours earlier, the Océean Remorquage dispatcher, Luc Hétu, received a service request that he forwarded to him.

"If I had to do over, I'd do the same thing. Working at sea is freedom!"
said Captain Maurice Harvey, the most veteran at Océan
Remorquage Montréal.

The crew amounts to three people: the captain, aided by Marie-France Lacombe, mariner mechanic, small buildings, and Jeremy Grant, apprentice. The manoeuvre they are about to make is routine, and the conditions are ideal: sunny, clear, light wind, calm river and excellent visibility. A piece of cake! “What makes conditions tougher is mainly the wind. Especially for berthing,” explained the captain.

David et Goliath

The tugboat and the container ship:
David et Goliath

We gently approach the bow, i.e. the front of the MSC Sena. Another tug is already positioned on the left side of the ship toward the back. It will take the concerted efforts of two tugs to perform the manoeuvre: first, get the ship away from the berth. Then, rotate it 180 degrees to get it heading east, where it will go down the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean.

Here we are a few metres away from the ship, which seen from below, is colossal in our field of vision.



Two seamen appear on the deck of the MSC Sena. They hoist the cable that Jeremy sends them from the Ocean Pierre-Julien. Got it! The giant is attached to the little tug. The longshoremen who stayed on the dock cast off its moorings. The Ocean Pierre-Julien can begin its job.

The captain turns on the powerful 4,000 BHP rear engine. Right away the water churns and swirls between the two vessels. The second tug, the Ocean Intrepid located at the stern of the MSC Sena, does the same. Together, they pull the huge vessel. The cables are stretched to the limit, to the point of vibrating. “The one thing you do not want to do right now is stand on the first bridge, where the cable reeler is,” explained Jeremy Grant. “The cable can actually break, snap and seriously injure any unfortunate person in its way. It’s important to know the risks of the trade and protect ourselves from them,” he continued.

For the duration of the operation, the captain of the tug is in constant communication with the St. Lawrence pilot who, aboard the container ship, directs the manoeuvres and gives the orders: what direction to take and how much power to give the tug engine.

The ship is now far enough away from the dock that it can start the manoeuver to turn around. The Ocean Pierre-Julien changes its pulling angle.

As for the Ocean Intrepid, its nose will stay snug against the container ship to push it. Forward traction and a thrust to the back will make the vessel rotate 180 degrees. The tugs are equipped with a type of bumper lined with huge tires to avoid friction, breakage and scratches when touching the metal sides of other vessels.


About 15 minutes is enough to turn around the MSC Sena. That’s it! Its bow is pointing in the right direction, seaward!

The crew of the MSC Sena unhooks the cable that connects it to the tug. Jeremy, aboard the Ocean Pierre-Julien, retrieves it.

Mission accomplished! The MSC Sena moves away. The colossus no longer needs anything smaller than itself to continue its route to the channel of the St. Lawrence River. The overseas voyage is underway!

A short time later, at 6:00 PM, the Ocean Pierre-Julien will help the Federal Katsura, operated by Fednav, put out to sea, loaded with grain. Then at 7:00 PM, it will help a huge oil tanker dock, a manoeuvre that will require the assistance of three tugboats.






Marie-France Lacombe, mariner and small building mechanic.

The mariner's role

Marie-France Lacombe has worked for eight years as a mariner at Océan Remorquage Montréal, and two years ago, became a small building mechanic. In this capacity, she is responsible for maintaining the engine room, located in the hold of the ship (the Ocean Pierre-Julien, seen here). On the bridge, she is in charge of moorings. This is a second career for this former horticulturist who loves working outdoors. Aboard the tug, the work schedule is three consecutive days of availability, aboard ship, followed by five days off. Some days, the crew may have to work 18-hour shifts depending on what clients need.

The role of tugs at the Port

Tugboats are small but extremely robust. They have powerful engines and a very solid frame. “They’re the tractors of the sea,” said Philippe Filion, Director of Public Affairs at Ocean Group. The Ocean Pierre-Julien has a 4,000 BHP engine, but the strongest tugs have 8,000 BHP engines. They are equipped to clear a path through the thick ice that blankets the St. Lawrence in Quebec during winter months. “When a ship arrives in winter, ice has to be pushed aside to allow it to dock. We haven’t had ice like we had this year for a good 20 years!” said Captain Harvey. Tugs are also equipped with powerful water cannons, ready to intervene if ever a fire breaks out aboard ship or close to the water’s edge.

Tugs also provide ship refuelling services and support services to ships in difficulty. Smaller tugs taxi St. Lawrence pilots to and from vessels taking the river channel. 

Ocean Group has 33 tugs. Five are at the Port of Montreal. The rest of the fleet is stationed in various ports in Quebec, Ontario and Newfoundland-Labrador. A new tug is under construction at its shipyard in Isle-aux-Coudres. Tugs may be named after family members of the owner, Gordon Bain, or people who work at Ocean, such as Executive Vice-President – Special Projects, Pierre-Julien. “Mr. Bain likes to honour the people he loves and respects,” said Philippe Filion.

In addition to tugboats and shipbuilding, Ocean Group leases specialized equipment to dredge the riverbed and remove sediment. It also owns several barges that are mainly used for fireworks on the river, and on projects such as Champlain Bridge. In total, the Group employs 750 people in four Canadian provinces of Canada. Of them, 90% are in Quebec and 34 in Montreal. 

Committed to the environment

Ocean Group is electrifying its berths in Montreal, as it did in Quebec City. As a result, tugs that are docked but on call, in other words ready to leave at a moment’s notice, can now connect to the hydroelectric system instead of using diesel fuel for heating, lighting and other accommodation needs on board. The project is both ecological and economic. Hydroelectricity costs less and does not pollute as much as diesel in terms of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. “Our thinking is to twin our own development with sustainable development,” said Philippe Filion.


Furthermore, all the tugs are certified by Green Marine, a voluntary sustainable development program adopted by North America’s shipping industry.

It is worthwhile to build tugs to be more environmentally friendly, because they will be in the port landscape for a very long time. Ports simply cannot do without these hardy little workers