We value all comments that we receive, and one of the comments on the “Death on the River Clyde” post of October 5th is worthy of further discussion: “Personally, I think that the cause of the accident was the restricted visibility which caused the disorentation of the skipper. In England the normal practise for a conventional screw bow tug is to tow over the stern.” While this observation is technically correct, I believe there’s a failure to grasp the bigger picture. No detailed source information was given, but the spelling of the word practise tells me that our commenter likely comes from the British Isles. I’ve never worked there, but I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night! Okay, enough bad Yank jokes.
I have (refer to joke above) witnessed, on numerous occasions, the bow tug-in-front method used by our colleagues across the pond. In Belfast, Swansea, Cardiff, Southampton, Kings Lynn, and Aberdeen I’ve personally observed it being done, often in exceptionally tight spaces, and with great skill. It is more-or-less the same way as we do it in Boston’s Chelsea Creek. It works and, at slow speeds, it’s quite safe. But what happened on the River Clyde was another matter altogether.
It may well be that it is considered the normal practice in England. And Wales, Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Bonnie Scotland too. And maybe even in some of the other former British colonies as well. But that doesn’t make it the best practice. As another commenter remarked, “Glad to see someone else has noticed the blind spot in the otherwise excellent accident report – that there is no proposal to prevent further accidents! The headline issues, like winch release and closing doors will help reduce the severity of future accidents, but don’t address the root cause – as you point out, the tugs could not keep on-station in thick fog. Releasing the towline helps the tug, but abandons its charge at its time of greatest need.” Well said.
In the case of the Flying Phantom several things went wrong: the engine room door was pinned open, the emergency release on the tow winch failed to release rapidly enough while under tension, and yes, the master became disoriented in the fog. Any one of the three by itself, or even two out of three, would probably not have been fatal. All three together and that was it for them. Having the tug in front is inherently dangerous and, in my opinion, unnecessarily so. If the tug wasn’t where it was then it simply wouldn’t have happened. The tug could have assisted the ship just fine from alongside either side of the bow. Or, if there was some especially compelling reason why the tug just had to be in front, which no one has so far explained satisfactorily, then they should have waited for better visibility. Since fog is a regular visitor on the Clyde it would seem logical to adjust the technique to the prevalent conditions, so as to maintain both a reasonable level of safety and keep the ships moving in all but the worst of conditions. Fighting nature is usually a losing proposition…..
But the most important point is that we shouldn’t keep doing things a certain way just because “that’s the way it’s done.” These accident investigations and reports solve nothing if we just shrug and go back to business as usual, treating the bad outcome as just an inevitable cost of doing business. Sometimes, despite the best of intentions and efforts, shit happens. That has always been true, and always will be. But this was one instance where it didn’t have to be.
As for our members and colleagues here in America, I’d strongly advise everyone to think long and hard if a pilot wants you out in front of the ship with a line up while the ship is running under power. And at six knots? No thanks…..