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Catching up on a new tugboat and port plans with Port Tampa Bay chairman Steve Swindal

Port Tampa Bay chairman Steve Swindal owns Marine Towing.
Port Tampa Bay chairman Steve Swindal owns Marine Towing.
Published Jun. 11, 2014

When he's not busy handling his duties as chairman of Port Tampa Bay, Steve Swindal is building his Marine Towing business, whose tugboats help guide big ships in and out of the port.

The fourth tugboat in his fleet will be dedicated today. With a $9.5 million price tag, Patriot is one of the few tugboats in the country with open-ocean firefighting capabilities, spraying nearly 12,000 gallons per minute at a distance of 400 feet.

Swindal became majority owner of the 38-employee Marine Towing in 2007 after buying out the stake held by George Steinbrenner and family (Swindal is Steinbrenner's former son-in-law.) Born and raised in Tampa, Swindal, who turns 60 next month, chatted with Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday. Here is an edited version of the conversation.

Patriot has all the bells and whistles of a powerful, modern tug, plus the ability to spray a lot of water.

It's a huge amount, capable of filling a swimming pool in a few minutes. That's good for the port and any sort of potential problem in the bay. We're working with the (Hillsborough) county's fire rescue when needed. But this tug and its 5,000 horsepower is built for docking and undocking big ships, like the other tugs.

Does this additional tugboat reflect new growth for Marine Towing and Port Tampa Bay?

It does, but it is more about keeping our fleet modern. These tugs are capable of handling any size ship we can get into the port, given port limitations of depth of the channel and height (ships must be low enough to pass under the Sunshine Skyway bridge). Fortunately, Tampa's got a steady flow of business in petroleum products and phosphate. And the port is trying to develop more of its container ship business.

How long do tugboats last?

When I first got here, the Steinbrenners had a tug built in 1896. But now there's a demand for high-powered and maneuverable tugboats to keep really big ships out of trouble. The days of 50-year-old low-horsepower tugs are over. Modern tugs last 15 to 20 years.

The tasks of tugboats in Tampa's port are especially demanding, right?

Our port is a long way up the bay. It's not like Port of Miami or Port Everglades. Our tugs will meet incoming ships about a mile south of Davis Islands. A port pilot will typically have two tugs, for the bow and stern, to guide a ship into port.

Last July you became chairman of the Tampa Port Authority, taking over for William A. "Hoe" Brown. You've had a busy year.

Sometimes I have to recuse myself on issues, but I think it helps to have someone on the board with maritime knowledge.

Is Tampa going to benefit from the expanded Panama Canal and its bigger ships?

It will have an indirect effect on Tampa. Some of those Panamax ships will not get here because of their size. But some may stop in Jamaica, and smaller ships may then proceed here.

And the state is supporting the purchase of bigger gantry cranes for the port?

Yes, once the cranes are installed, the port can unload much bigger container ships. That will open the door for more ships to call on Tampa. They should be operational by late 2015 or 2016.

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As port chairman, you are closely involved in the fate of the Channelside retail complex now caught up in a legal fight. What can you tell us?

I am constrained (from talking much) by that litigation. Hopefully we can resolve this in the next month or so. It's public knowledge that there is an auction of the retail property scheduled for July 2. We all hope we will end up with a wonderful operator that will take over and make Channelside the destination point it once was.

You've worked with Port CEO Paul Anderson. How's that working out?

Great. Paul is full of energy, enthusiasm and optimism. He is working hard to help diversify the port, reaching out, for example, to bring autos by ship into the port. The port is different from a lot of businesses in that you have to deal with a lot of global factors beyond our control. It's a huge effort.

Your term as chairman is about over. Do you want another term?

Being chairman is more intensive than I had anticipated, but I enjoy it and like getting involved. It's not my call who will chair the port. Every year the board elects new officers. I am happy to re-up if asked.


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