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Emergency Towing: What Do You Do? – Part I

Okay, so you’re underway at sea in crappy weather on you’re fancy new ATB (or not-so-new ATB) and the worst has happened: the pins have broken off/melted/spontaneously retracted/etc. and you’re getting slammed around hard in the barge’s notch as you struggle to remain in control of the situation. This is not a drill: you’re “going on the hawser” whether you like it or not, right now, even if no one on the crew has ever done it, including the captain.

Yes, you read that right. Being the captain of an ATB “towing vessel” these days doesn’t necessarily mean that the individual has any real practical experience with traditional hawser towing. As time passes and ATB-experience-only crews continue to proliferate and expand there will be a growing number of these vessels were few if any of the crew have ever actually towed anything, ever. Eventually almost all ATB’s will be this way. How could it be otherwise when mariners can start out their career on ATB’s and advance while never working on anything but ATB’s? Also, with the ATB increasingly becoming the preferred means of petroleum transportation, opportunities within a given company to get any cross-training in conventional towing operations range from nonexistent to marginal and rapidly decreasing. You can see right where this trend leads: directly to a point where you have a majority of towing vessel deck officers on near coastal routes that never learned how to tow. It’s nobody’s fault, it just simply is.

Just as important is the acknowledgement of an uncomfortable fact: all skills have a shelf life, and if you don’t use them you gradually lose them. So even if the entire crew had significant experience with conventional towing in the past, and specifically with hawser towing, at some indeterminate point their skills will have atrophied to the point where real competence will be, at best, questionable. It’s probably safe to say that in most cases when an individual has gone a full license-renewal cycle (5 years) without having engaged in any conventional towing activities, genuine and current proficiency is long gone. Just like muscle memory, there is skill memory, and those unused skills can eventually be regained after a period of putting them back to use again. But it is foolish and dangerous to think that someone can just jump right back into the saddle without missing a beat and have anything more than a fraction of their former skill level. What kind of knife is the most dangerous? A dull one, and it’s the same way with practical skills in safety-sensitive jobs.

No doubt that is a hard pill to swallow ego-wise for many of the highly-experienced, old-school captains and mates of the “tugasaurus” generation that is aging and shrinking all the while, but it is nonetheless an essential truth. If a reasonable level of safety is to be maintained, not to mention professional standards, then this fact must be faced up to and accommodated. No one should be released unsupervised back into the world of conventional towing without first having had enough time and opportunity to regain and re-hone the skills needed to do it safely.

As originally conceived, the emergency-barge-control/recovery regulations (contained in 33 CFR § 155.230) that emerged in the aftermath of the completely-avoidable Scandia/North Cape fiasco in 1996 (click here and scroll down for the 1998 NTSB report) called for an annual live drill for recovering or arresting a loose barge. The Coast Guard was out in front of the issue and got it right: you must prove, not assume, that your system works and that your personnel know how to use it. But unfortunately the way they were originally conceived is not how they ended up. The industry complained loudly and in the end even that relatively-modest but eminently reasonable requirement was gutted from the final rule because it was deemed as impractical, dangerous or overly-disruptive to operations. Better to just hope it somehow all works out in the end, I guess. So instead you can just sit in the galley for a crew safety meeting and discuss what everyone would do during a “table-top” drill. Will it actually work? No one can say for sure because it never has to be tested and definitively proven (or disproven) as both practical and effective. It was short-sighted for the industry to take that stance back then and it’s unwise to leave it that way now, especially since the ongoing generational change in the wheelhouse means that fewer and fewer mariners are left that have the experience and ability to successfully perform this critical function. So it goes…

And don’t scoff at the idea of a pin-system failure occurring. The reality is that anything we humans build, from space shuttles to bridges to blowout preventers, can be expected to fail, often in spectacular fashion, at some point. When it happens everyone behaves as if it was some huge, unforeseeable surprise, but in reality it’s just plain inevitable. There have already been several pin-system failures and malfunctions. Do you have a viable back-up plan for this eventuality? Will you and you’re crew be truly ready (or at least as ready as you realistically can be) if and when the pins fail or malfunction on your boat? So far none of the failures have resulted in a major spill or loss-of-life tragedy, but riding on luck is not a good plan.

Anyway, in the interests of stoking debate, spreading ideas, and improving industry standards and best-practices, an example of an emergency towing system on a large ATB is presented for your consideration.

The tug hawser’s eye pre-rigged on the tow bitt…

…and through the stern staple…

…before being led to the port-side bulwarks and…

…forward and up to the boat deck…

…and up to the barge’s stern, neatly lashed down all along the way and ready to be deployed.

This is the end of the barge’s hawser. Presumably, the crew connects the two hawsers together with a properly-secured towing shackle prior to heading out to sea.

The barge’s hawser continues forward where it’s connected to the wire portion of the towing assembly…

…at the port quarter.

From what can be seen of it, the emergency towing assembly they have generally seems okay from a distance. But there was one glaring shortcoming visible immediately: no chafing gear for the soft-line hawser on the “tug” where it goes through the staple and over the stern. It surely wouldn’t last very long without substantial protection, and it would be very unlikely that you’d have the time or ability to put it on in mid-emergency unless it was slick calm or nearly so. Since one of the main advantages of ATB’s is that they can and do routinely sail in conditions that would leave a conventional tug weather-bound, the likelihood of it being calm enough is low. Better get Chafe-Pro or Web-Tec now!

And please keep in mind that, while this post is aimed primarily at ATB operations, these regulations include all tank barges operating on the territorial sea (from the baseline out to 12 NM) and in certain inland waters: the Great Lakes, Long Island Sound, the Strait of Juan De Fuca, and part of Puget Sound (Admiralty Inlet north of Marrowstone Point). Inexplicably missing, for whatever reason, are the bays Chesapeake and Delaware, whose geography, weather and heavy tank barge traffic present many of the very same risks as those previously designated inland waters listed above.

Reader opinions, ideas, recommendations, observations, criticisms and so on are always welcome. In particular, photos of the various systems in use presently or in the past are especially valuable for spreading potentially better ways of preparing for this emergency and in helping to eliminate the worst-practices. The goal is to improve upon the industry’s best-practices and promote them, not to stagnate until the next spill forces potentially abrupt changes on us.

To that end, medium-resolution jpeg photo files are what we need to illustrate with. E-mail your photos with captions or a detailed story to and we’ll be happy to post them.

#Scandia #EmergencyTowing #ATB #ArticulatedTugampBarge #EmergencyControlSystemsForTankBarges #NorthCape #TankBarge

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