A recent post about the 26-foot break point for towing vessel licenses and the legal definition of assistance towing drew some interest from, you guessed it, the assistance towing industry. As it happens, the industry (represented at least in part by C-PORT) wants to expand the definition of assistance towing and also to legally engage in other activities having nothing at all to do with assistance towing. They’re represented on TSAC and are at the TSAC meetings being held today and tomorrow at the National Maritime Center in West Virginia trying to make their case.
It’s debatable whether the assistance towing sector really even belongs in TSAC, given the fact that we towing industry mariners are still so under-represented and marginalized on that important committee. Regardless, the members of the MTVA still have a clear professional interest in seeing that the federal training and certification standards for boat operators of assistance towing vessels are substantially improved upon. We have to share the waterways with them and the better trained and qualified they are the safer it will be for everyone. Since the 1980’s the only towing-specific qualification required of captains with licenses of 200GRT or less to engage in what was initially referred to as “commercial assistance towing” was to take and pass a short module of multiple-guess questions from the Coast Guard. This got you the commercial assistance towing endorsement on your license. If you had any license over 200 GRT it was presumed that you already knew what you were doing (perhaps by osmosis or something) and you didn’t have to take the short test or get the endorsement. In either case there was, and still is, no requirement for practical experience, no need to prove that you can actually safely tow another vessel (often with passengers), and zero oversight by anyone. In short, it’s not a great system for promoting safety and professionalism.
As for whether assistance towers should be allowed to legally expand into broader towing activities, that remains an open question. Certainly not unless they are willing to have a comprehensive, enforceable and, last but not least, enforced set of professional standards for both licensing and operations. History has proven again and again that voluntary standards, no matter how well done and how good the original intentions, never succeed in bringing the shoddy operators into line. In actual practice they simply provide political cover for the marginal or shoddy operators to continue on as before under a veneer of respectability. Those operators that really want to improve will use them as they should be used, but it’s sort of like preaching to the choir. Rules with real teeth are needed and, most importantly, those teeth must be used from time to time to keep the game reasonably honest. That is something that we don’t often see until after a bad accident, if ever, and it applies across the board to all maritime industry sectors.
Then there is the completely unregulated less-than-26-foot part of the marine towing industry. Composed of boats like this…..
…..designed and built specifically for regulation-beating and, for the most part, they move small-ish deck and hopper barges and engage in marine construction work. These operators navigate in and around us as well and it would certainly be good to see them have at least some minimal standard of knowledge and competency. Do they really need to have full-on towing licenses? That would probably be overkill in many cases. But right now they don’t even have to know the Navigation Rules of the Road as they ply the waters with us and everyone else. Since you can’t move so much as a Honda Civic past the end of your driveway without having to pass a written exam and a road test this clearly should be remedied somehow. Then there is the fact that, like many mariners (including towing vessel officers), they have little or no knowledge of (and no formal training in) stability. This leads to dangerous practices proliferating and needless casualties like this one. The cold, hard fact is that stability knowledge is a big weak point and we need to improve on it. Establishing training standards, appropriate to the operations of the different groups, would be beneficial to all.
So, in general, we feel that it’s good that C-PORT is trying to clean up the sector’s act, even if they do have ulterior motives, but for now the MTVA will wait and see exactly what they’re going to propose before we decide to officially support or oppose it, in whole or in part. If and when the Coast Guard initiates the rule-making process to change the regulations we will certainly be commenting on it, for whatever “participating” in that process might be worth.
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